Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What to Pack for Panama

To start, lay down all the clothes and money that you think you need. Take half the clothes and twice the money.

Bring your adult clothes to Panama, you want to experience some of the city’s legendary nightlife and shorts and flip flops scream gringo and the cool clubs won’t let you in. Flip flops are great for the shower though. Photo copy and laminate your passport because you need ID at all times in Panama but your passport is much safer left at your hotel. Oh, and bring a jacket; the coolest place in Panama is a cloud forest eco resort called The Lost and Found, in the Fortuna Forest Reserve and it gets cold up there. Foot powder has often been my favorite companion but you can buy that here. Most things you can pick up here. Which leads to this important question: Should you bring your significant other, pick one up here or travel solo?

Travel with the opposite sex?

The pre-trip poll of polls says…

50% Yes… 50% No

Traveling and women are a lot alike. You will have a terrible time if you think what you do or say can have any influence. You have to just flow.

Let me take you on the ride that is Panama and Maria. Both girls can provide extreme pleasure or can be a pain in the butt. These are the picks and pans of Panama with my girl:

1) Panama City -- Cayucos’s on Causeway – Maria and I traveled out to along a causeway built with the debris from the Panama Canal, to a series of islands with great clubs and restaurants. The problem is that unless you want to go to the subway there, they are expensive. So we found Cayuco’s on the last island a few restaurants down from the Bennegan’s. Here beer and traditional Panamanian bar grub will get you full and drunk for less than $10 each. We had Sangria, fried plantanes and watched the sun set in the Pacific to my left and massive luxury yachts with the Panama City skyline to my right.

Beginning of trip Poll of polls: 60% Bring your significant other. 40% Hmmm I wonder how I would have done at the cool all night clubs on Calle Uruguay solo?

2) The Lost and Found: We found this amazing cloud forest hostel, took a guided tour of an organic coffee farm, went horseback riding and still made it in time to share a bottle of wine and watch the sun set over a sleeping volcano.

Mid trip poll of polls: 80% Wine and volcano sunsets go well with the opposite sex. 20%

Maria passed out after we drank too much wine and couldn’t hike to waterfalls the next day.
But this was only after 3 days in Panama… we had a month to go.

I forgot to mention a few things about my girlfriend. We knew each three weeks before we started traveling and we decided what better way to get to know each other than to travel together. Travel is life on speed with opportunities and conflicts that in real life only happen in slow motion. Why not find out sooner than later?

I found out that my girlfriend is insane. She unapologetically sucks up life. She pees by the side of the road in full view of traffic. She accepts foot rubs from horny strangers with fetishes. She jumps from sail boats just because the water looked nice. Her motto is: Strangers have the best candy. She smokes weed in front of Panamanian cops. She hops the kiosk counter to demonstrate how to make real fried plantains. She searches deserted beaches for quiet locations to be naked. She came overland from Columbia by herself. She adopts strays. She is a stray that accepts adoption.

The day when we were exploring Bocas town we hadn’t even noticed the entrance to the Wreck Deck bar and we had walked past the street several times that day. But after a few drinks at Mondu Taitu, we followed the crowd to a spot where they were selling the mystery meat on a stick and now the gates nightclub opened up to garden paths that led to pool tables and a dance floor covered by a big bamboo rancho. The dance floor was packed with half locals and half backpackers and surfers dancing to 80’s music.

AT the back was a series of wooden decks overlooking the ocean one of which surrounded a sunken ship. Maria took my hand led me to sit around the square deck and we dangled our feet in the water. Fish attracted by underwater lights illuminating the sunken boat checked out our feet to see if they were edible.

Maria was having a Seco con vaca, a kind of 70 proof distilled Panamanian sugarcane she mixed with milk – what the locals use for a cheap drunk. People were already jumping in and it was like a big pool party with rum flowing freely.

I saw an older couple sitting beside some empty chairs behind us and so I decided to try to steer Maria there instead of the two surfer dudes talking about the phat waves while ogling Maria. The couple was in their 40’s, pasty white from Utah but not Mormon at least. They were talking about 80’s T.V. and for some reason between the three of us we couldn’t remember the theme song for Family Ties. What the hell is it… it stuck in my head and for some reason I couldn’t even concentrate on talking until I remembered this stupid song.

This geeky pop culture conversation isolated Maria and I could see her survey the energy around us looking for an opportunity to join others who might provide more fun. She began ogling the ogling surfer dudes. I liked the bar but I did not like the ratio.

3) The Wreck Deck:

End of trip poll of polls:

40% Travel with your significant other to learn if she is insane or not. 60% I hate the ratio of backpacker dudes to girls and them hitting on my girlfriend and her liking it. And hmmm some of the Panamanian girls are pretty hot.

I attempted to rescue the night. To stop her from wandering I tell the couple that Maria traveled overland to Panama through the Darien. This is course was the intro to let Maria tell her shit story.

She always takes the bait on this one and tells the story to anyone who will listen – she came across a village of Woonan Indians in the Darien gap and was invited to stay. She asked where the toilette was and they pointed to a kind of a platform on stilts (only this time when she tells the story it is a tower) She climbed up and squatted in the open on top of this tower. As she peered down between her legs at the ground below she noticed that there was not much in the way of shit piled up below. She was beginning to think this had been some kind of ploy until shortly after her deposits hit the jungle floor there came a rumbling and movement in the banana leaves. Then suddenly two wild boars charged out of the jungle, quickly devoured her feces then disappeared just as quickly.

Like many of her stories I am not sure how much of this one is true but everyone eats her shit up. She is beautiful and animated even when she is squatting to mime herself taking a dump. Although predictable I was happy to engage her into a circle with a male/female ratio where I would get equal attention… this is important when you travel and shirtless surfer dudes outnumber girls. Every 15 minutes or so a boat would pull up to the deck to take people to a neighboring island for a full moon party. The couple was going and we all hopped on a boat together.

We were early for the party – the moon hadn’t yet risen. The tourist couple was sour that it was dark and the party hadn’t even gotten going. They wanted to wake up early the next day for a full itinerary of sightseeing. I didn’t care. It gave me a chance to get Maria alone on a walk along the beach. Low tide stretched the beach out more than 50 meters and we walked in water only a few inches deep to an exposed part of what is usually the bottom of the ocean. We lied there looking up at the stars. We were silent.

Then we notice dark things flying over us. At first I thought they were bats. Bats often come out in Panama at night and flash so quickly near you that your eyes never quite catch them. But these could not be bats so far out. They were fish. And they were jumping over us as we lay looking up at the stars. We just laid there counting flying fish. Then like magic it became brighter. The full moon was rising.

“How many times have you seen the full moon rise?” Maria whispered to me.
“I don’t know…” I didn’t know.

“Right now there are people working at jobs they hate. When they die, even if they are old, they will realize that they have not had many times to see the moon rise like this.”
Sometimes I thought Maria was immature and I lament our age difference. But then she says things like this and I think she is wise. I mean I can’t even remember the theme song for Family Ties. How many important moments in my childhood, moments so important they shaped who I am, that I will only remember a few more times in my life? How many more times will I lie on the ocean floor and see the full moon rise?

Maria surprised me and reached for my hand and I knew this was one of those travel moments… life moments… a moment that tourists miss because their itineraries are filled with sightseeing.

Tourists often don’t know where they have been. Travelers don’t know where the hell they are going. I brought Maria here to Panama to get a lock on what we were to each other. We were travelers.

Women and travel you can’t control. When you travel – when you are in another country you either accept the differences and embrace them, or you become miserable and frustrated and you quit. Today I know--and accept--that one hour might mean two and that a simple meal in Panama with friends can turn into dancing all night around a beach fire. Or a three month backpacking trip can turn into lifelong friendship.

End of trip final poll of polls – 50/50

Monday, July 6, 2009

Save and travel even in an economic Shit-Storm

So I asked my dad near the end of the first semester to loan me a bit of money so I could eat something other than ramen noodles and I get a lecture on financial responsibility. Hmmm I am the last child of six and my older brothers used to call me After-thought. I remind him that had he “planned” everything he would have planned his kid might ask for money at the end of his first semester in college. He said the lack of planning was mom’s fault and anyway who was I to complain about my conception.

So I reluctantly made friends with ramen noodles.

Funny thing though… I took his advice and the next year, on only loan and scholarship money and a bit of creativity I managed to spend 35% less and use it for a vacation in Central America. I will tell you how you can do it too.

The Conventional Wisdom

These are the no brainers that you just have to get up and do if you can.
1) If you have debts consolidate them and negotiate for the lowest interest rates possible. Interest rates are at an all time low now.

2) If you have credit cards hide them. Don’t let anything plastic distract you. Even many student discount cards lead you into thinking you are getting the best deals. Better than using cards is to write down what you need first, from the grocery store to weekend fun. Then don’t let anything, from air miles to a discount on something you don’t need, distract you.

3) If you have excess cash (savings or student loan money you don’t need at the moment) then:

a) Estimate your living expenses. (You can use www.mvelopes.com)
b) Deposit your living expense money into the highest interest bearing account with no penalties for low balances.
c) Purchase a 90-day CD with your excess money.
d) Repeat each quarter and watch your money grow.
e) Save

I know, I know – if you had excess cash for a CD you would not be reading this and consolidating debt doesn’t mean you magically have enough for a vacation – the quickest way to a vacation unfortunately is using credit. But I had no excess cash. I saved and still went out and did things. Here’s how:

Make a Budget to get you to your goal and then set monthly and weekly targets to save:

1) Pre-buy

For food this means buy bulk. It may sound crazy but pre-buy your ramen noodles, Mac and Cheese and peanut butter as well. But don’t wait until you’ve gone over budget to eat them. Mix them in with the healthy food like whole grain rice and fresh veggies which are always cheap. Never go out to eat after the bars. When you are drunk Mac and Cheese is as good as pizza. Pre-buy the Tupperware too so you can take leftovers for lunch and while you are comparing prices make a note of where to buy those other necessities you want fresh like coffee.

Coffee is one of the no brainers at the top of every list to save money and I saved a whopping $200 dollars in four months here. I bought a coffee maker that had the coffee ready for me in the morning and I limited my coffee to one a day. I kept a nice Caffeine buzz going with tea I bought in bulk and when everybody went to Starbucks I just asked them to get me hot water. You will need to get over the feeling of looking cheap. When I explained what I was saving for, my Starbucks friends respected me all the more and happily got me hot water for my tea. Saving for a cool goal is far different from being cheap.

2) Pre-buy busyness too.

If you don’t have access to a free gym like I did, then shop around. There is nothing worse than blowing your budget and then having nothing to do. One night I had $10 left in my weekly budget. My friends were all going out to dinner and then to see a band that had a $5 cover. So when they were buying pre-dinner cocktails I worked out in the gym. When they ordered appetizers I lay in the sauna and imagined I was on a beach and after dessert as they were forking over $50 each to cover the bill and tip I was showering at home with the stereo blasting Radiohead downloaded free and having a Meister Brau. (Exercise caution and discipline if you buy alcohol in bulk) O.K. lame you think but I made it to the best part of evening and still contributed to a pitcher of beer.

Courses are also good things to pre-buy to keep you away from expensive things. Want to go to Central or South America? Take Spanish or Salsa lessons. Me? I took a cooking course, which you’ll see later, paid for itself five times over while I was travelling.

If you already have an expensive hobby, substitute it. Or if you can’t, then match the amount you spend on your hobby with your savings. After all travel is going to be your new number one hobby right?

OK, Meister Brau? Tea? Cooking classes? You think I became soft – dare you say effeminate – to save money. For those I only offer you this photo of Isabella and Lynette from Panama.

3) Make technology your friend

Are you still not using Skype or VOIP for your long distance calls? Do you still pay for cable and internet when a search of ‘free tv online’ gets everything you want on demand? (If you want to watch on the TV screen ask around electronic stores for a ‘TV out’ of ‘S’ cable.) Do you still have old compact disks you don’t listen to that you can sell at the thrift shop or crap under your parent’s bed that you can sell on Craigslist or eBay? You download your music now, right? You have energy saving light bulbs right? Good. Just checking.

4) Bank your Free Money

Everything you earn that you didn’t budget for is free money and goes directly into the untouchable account. Five dollars for your birthday from Grandma, is five dollars from grandma to travel. And tell her that. She probably only gave you five bucks because she thinks you’ll spend it on booze. A raise? Same thing.

As a student I still found free money. Gone may be the days you can give blood for money (in most places) but I donated sperm once every three months for $50. I participated in a market research project three afternoons for $40 each just to drink beer and comment on beer commercials. (You didn’t know your two favorite hobbies could pay did you?) If your city has a university with a medical faculty then check out the poster boards and have a look at the business faculty for market research opportunities.

5) Form alliances

Networking tools are now endless. Blog your aspirations, use Facebook to form groups or if you are a student check out what clubs already exist through your student’s union or the international center. Also use Facebook to add friends from the country you want to travel to.

Three groups that were the deciding factor for reaching my goals were:

a) My cooking class
b) My college International Center
c) The student’s union poker club

First these groups kept me out of the bars – some of the time at least. In my cooking class I met more girls than the bar, but in the poker club I could still have a few beers – store bought – not beers from $8 beer night in the bar. I also cooked a whole lot more than the previous year and saved a load on food.

Second, these groups actually helped me earn money. The poker club let me host tournaments. I fed them with roast garlic in oil and bread that was a huge hit and cost me next to nothing. In return to hosting and feeding I took a ten percent rake from the tournament which paid for my ante and I even won a few times.

I ended up hosting some kind of party every weekend. If it wasn’t poker it was a potluck with the cooking class. When the cooking class finished I invited some of the students from the International Center (who are always looking for new friends) for movie nights and cooking demonstrations. A Thai girl showed us who to make Tum Yum Kun and showed us pictures of the temples and her family in Thailand. After, the leftovers stayed at my place and made it into Tupperware for my lunches.

My Goal

I wanted to go to Costa Rica.

(Check kayak.com or bookingbuddy.com)
$ 475
Costa Rica Daily Average
(Use lonelyplanet.com to estimate)
50 (a day) x 30 days= $ 1500
$ 1970

Behind Budget

Two weeks to go and I was behind budget.

Savings over the previous year

(Bringing my own saved me $2.50 a day)
(Bought used books and resold them with class notes)
(Went out less, drank at parties I hosted and ok ok I smuggled booze into the bar with a zip-lock freezer bag)
Home Cooking


(Damn could only do it once every three months)
New Total

Short by $770

Here is what I did:

1) Asked Mom and Dad

I know, I know, how could I write about budgeting when I asked mom and dad had to come and bail me out?

I submitted to my dad my entire budget to show our organized and directed I was -- how I was not in the bars, how I spent more time studying and in the gym and that I would practice my Spanish in Costa Rica.

Good luck – didn’t work for me.

2) Birthday part and auction:

I invited EVERYONE to my birthday party, told the people in my cooking class I didn’t want gifts and to bring food I could sell. I made Hurricane punch with cheap booze (no one knew) and auctioned off my stuff.

Food and Booze
(Barely covered costs)
My used clothes for auction
Pre-sold two cartons of smokes and two bottles of liquor

The idea of pre-selling came up from one of my guests from the International Center. Smokes are way cheaper in Costa Rica and so is alcohol – take the money and bring stuff back for your friends. Then the girl from the English Center said, “Why go to Costa Rica when Panama is like a fraction of the price.”

Adjust your Goal

I gave up the idea of Costa Rica and did some research for Panama. Not only is the country cheaper all rough I found a flight form New York City for $260 and I had enough saved right there just by switching destinations. Like Magic. But that’s not all. Here’s how I came back with extra money.

Volunteering in Panama

Evenings of salsa dancers swaying in the glowing nightlife of a vibrant city, hot days on white sand beaches and cool nights by the fire in the cloud forest waiting for the wild animals of the jungle to appear – this is Panama…

Here is a run down on average costs:


A beer in the supermarket 50-55 cents
In a bar in the country around 50 cents
City bar normally $2, but can go to $3
A bottle of national rum(Ron Abuelo) around $6 in a supermarket
around $40-$50 in a nightclub
A bottle of national alcohol(Seco) less than $3 in a supermarket
around $40-$50 in a nightclub
Long distance busesTaxis Around $1.50 per hourWorks on a zone system, most places in the city will cost the same fare.Most fares should never cost more than $2, but be reasonable.$1.25 for one person 25 cents
Going out
Entry to clubs $5-$10 depending on the club
Basic meal $2-$5
Medium priced meal $5-$10
Expensive meal How much do you want to pay?

Cigarettes- Marlboro $1.75 in a supermarket

Volunteering was a super idea. The Aussie owner of one of the best hostels in Panama City, Mamallenas, let me put the skills I learned from my cooking class and I hosted family style dinners and charged. I found an amazing cloud forest eco-resort called The Lost and Found, where I did the same… hosted family dinners and volunteered to stay for free. I took care of a honey bear they rescued and did about a half days work in exchange for free accommodation. I couldn’t leave the place and in the two weeks there and between cooking and volunteering I spent next to nothing. I had enough for Scuba diving in the incredible coral in Bocas Del Toro.

When I landed tanned and relaxed in New York City I had $300 in my savings account. Next year? Monte Carlo!