Tuesday, August 23, 2011

New Panama Travel Writing Taken to a New Level

Backpackers in Panama are catching on to a new kind of travel writing that is much more than a series of travel stories in Panama. The Lost and Found appears to be a series of stories about sex, betrayal and mysteries on the backpacker circuit in Panama but each story has been written by authors that know each other and their relationships -- their story -- spiraled into nightmare. The editor weaved their stories, blogs and diary entries into something that flows like a novel. Be warned -- this is no chicken soup for the traveler's soul. It is a wicked broth that will take you to the dark corners of the human soul. (No travel writing has been this graphic and edgy.)

The editor uses the following logline to describe the book:

In the land of cheap rum and tempting lolitas the maps of right and wrong are redrawn. Acting out their lucid dreams with a group of stunning Latinas in Panama seemed like a good idea but as the dreams grow more twisted Matt and his friends spiral into sex magic, betrayal and violence.

But what is truly remarkable is the ending. It is not just the page turning fury leading to the end -- it is that the end involves you in a kind of live action treasure hunt in Panama City, Boquete and the eponymous eco hostel in the could forest on the way to Bocas del Toro. In each location you walk in the characters footsteps. I was running down the backstreets of Casco Viejo in Panama City past surprised backpackers following every detail of their Lonely Planet book wondering what the hell I was doing. In Boquete I found new esoteric meaning in gardens I had visited multiple (boring) times. There is no way to describe the experience other than to say it is like taking a book you loved and multiplying it tenfold by living it. Or taking a backpacking trek in Panama and turning into an adventure that will leave your head spinning. For those not in Panama there are virtual tours of the location made by the author's themselves but I have done both… there is nothing like chasing down leads and playing detective in exotic locals like Panama.

The author has given permission to post the first part of the book. It follows here. But remember; if you are squeamish do not read the next post. The book jolts the reader between edgy humor, graphic sex and dark violence in the turn of a page. The book is available for the Kindle, Kobo, iPad, PC (PDF) and Nook for free to readers of this blog HERE.


Special thanks to the families of the authors who let me use some creative license while using the blogs, letters and diary entries to weave their stories into one. To you, the reader, know that although these were once written as complete short stories, because the authors knew each other, the stories refer to events and people that require you to read the stories in order.

Get Out If You Can!

By Dr. Michael Anderson

My hotel concierge warned me not to look for her. She was in what he described as a somewhat sordid area of Panama City. I did my best to take his advice. But I couldn’t get my needs satisfied through traditional means. I was desperate. I was told I could find her in Chinatown.

The actual street is called Salsipuedes. Seventeenth Century maps of Old Panama show that this street bore the same name then as it does now. But it is not so much a name as a warning: Salsipuedes literally means Get Out If You Can. And ‘street’ is a bit of a misnomer… Salsipuedes is more of a labyrinth of contradiction. There are wooden kiosks selling almost everything - from hand woven textiles and cheap leather to electronics and decades old romance novels. National Geographic magazines from the 50’s sit beside porn from the 80’s. It was on Salsipuedes, I was certain, that I would find her – the Voodoo priestess of former dictator/CIA informant turned drug kingpin, General Manuel Noriega.

It is easy to miss the dark and narrow opening of the street. You are likely to continue along Avenida Central to Parque Santa Ana, one of Panama’s more colorful areas and overlooked attractions. Here you can see Kuna Indians in their colorful traditional dress feeding squadrons of hungry pigeons as diablos rojos roar by. If you have a seat near the gazebo facing the landmark Café Coca-Cola you will see old rail tracks that lead down to the colonial white-washed neighborhood of Casco Viejo. But if you hang a right by mistake, you enter the real area of danger -- the poverty stricken, violent neighborhood of Chorillo. But past the dangerous barrio, only a few hundred meters further and over a barbed wired fence, there is a pleasant green neighborhood that looks like small town America. In fact, until very recently, it was American territory - the Panama Canal Zone.

The U.S. invasion of Panama was less of an invasion than an expensive manhunt with heavy firepower. Bullet holes scar the dark, ominous high-rises of Chorillo -- vestiges from when the US came to look for Noriega at the Comandancia, his fortified headquarters. But he was already on the run.

Uncle Sam’s boys continued their search at his officer’s club, beach home and luxury houses. Each place they destroyed when they discovered he was not there. Panama has left them in ruins as a kind of way to flip him the bird. The officers’ club in Casco Viejo, however, was temporarily used as a location for a party hosted by a Bond villain in the movie Quantum of Solace.

At one of his luxury homes they found some peculiar items. According to U.S. military reports, Noriega left behind porn, a portrait of Hitler, an assortment of books, beads, stones, cocaine, a Rosicrucian portrait of Jesus, plaster statues, dried food "offerings" and an altar made by his Brazilian Voodoo priestess. They also found a freezer full of voodoo candles. Each bundle of candles was wrapped in a piece of paper with one of his enemy’s names on it. His enemies included Dick Cheney, then the US Secretary of Defense, and the President, George Bush Sr., with whom Noriega was connected through the C.I.A (Noriega was a paid informant when Bush was the Director of the C.I.A.) If the candles were meant to somehow bring these adversaries down, they failed, as most of these politicians or their sons made great comebacks. Many of Noriega’s items can still be purchased today, a short distance from his headquarters -- in that esoteric maze of ‘Salsipuedes’.

Noriega left behind his voodoo and his voodoo priestess in his time of trouble and literally turned to the Church. He had been hiding at the Vatican Embassy when American G.I.s set up across the street where Multi Centro, a huge Colombian owned shopping mall, now sits. The Americans didn’t fire guns at the Embassy of the Holy See but rather blasted Guns and Roses´. Noriega eventually had enough of Welcome to the Jungle, and surrendered.

With Noriega behind bars in Florida, the Americans had no interest in his Brazilian "mama," or priestess. But I had to find her.

My desperation came three days after island hopping in Bocas Del Toro. An excruciating rash had turned up on my calves and ankles. I went to three pharmacies. Usually, even if they don’t know what you have, the pharmacists sell you some kind of mysterious drug. One pharmacist swore that my rash was actually the result of insect bites, but still, none of the pharmacists offered any kind of remedy. After a week, I was starting to lose my mind. A friend suggested that I go to ‘Salsipuedes,’ so I left my watch at home, took only a copy of my passport, mustered up some courage, and ventured into the crowded alleyway.

Before I arrived at La Tienda Esoterica, I could smell the incense drifting down the street. Inside my eyes took time to adjust to the darkness, but they finally wrapped around angelic statues of The Virgin Mary sitting next to dark clay skulls. Penthouse magazines next to Good Housekeeping.

I understood that Salsipuedes is not a large scale voodoo shop. There isn’t any one dogma unifying things – there is as much Catholic as there is Santería. And the list doesn’t end there: experts say that many of Noriega’s possessions were not Voodoo or Santería, but a product of Mexican black folk art called Brujería – Witchcraft.

And then I saw her. Her black face remained hidden among the hundreds of smoke-stained, angry-faced idols. Only its size announced that it was human. The lines around her eyes and deep jowls told me she was old enough to be Noriega’s priestess. I imagined on my way over that I might ask about the former general but now I dared not. Like many of the Afro-Antilleans in Panama, the woman spoke English. I told her I had a rash, and without telling her more she asked me to lift up my pant legs. Her eyes widened at the sight and she gasped. “Do you have money?” she asked. I showed her.

“I have just what you need,” she said with a thick Caribbean accent. Without expression she forcefully took my arm and pulled me into a dusty, damp side room filled with oils and dried herbs. She transformed from ominous sentinel of occult idols to eager servant. She stepped onto a ladder and started pulling things frantically from high off the shelf. Soon, she was crushing seeds and plants in a ceramic bowl, using a crucible. I sat in silence as she boiled tea, added the leaves to the tincture, and mixed in various other oils.

When her elixir was finished, she had me place my feet in a large metal bowl. Then she lit a bundle of wild grass and blew the sweet smelling smoke at my ankles, feet and legs. She got down on her hands and knees, prostrated herself in front of me and began chanting in a language I couldn’t recognize. I closed my eyes. I respected the seriousness by which the shaman did her work. She massaged the natural medicine everywhere below my knees- even through my toes. It brought instant relief.

I lost track of time… I started to doze but she woke me with the sharp chime of a small cymbal. I put my shoes and socks on. She gave me a bottle of what she had created and told me to rub it on my legs four times a day and leave it on. “Must not wash!”

Despite the street name’s warning, I escaped Salsipuedes without incident and returned home cautiously optimistic. Three days later my legs were silky smooth. The medicine woman succeeded where the pharmacists failed. A few weeks later, when I ran into my friend that recommended that I go to Salsipuedes, I thanked her.

“I’m glad the oil helped with the bites,” she said.

“Bites? No, not bites. That’s what the pharmacist thought too, but this was some kind of mysterious rash.”

“What? No, no, no. You were bitten by chitras, sand flies. They hang out on tropical islands and get you when your legs are under the shade of the table. They are so small you never see them… they’re sometimes called no-see-ums. You don’t feel them for a few days, but if they get you badly, they burrow under the skin, pop out later and bite again. There is no way to get rid of them except coconut oil… it drowns them when they pop out.”

“But the shaman cast out the evil… she put a lot more in than just coconut oil - I saw her…”

“Oh. Hmm. How much did you pay for the shamanic healing?”

“Oh. Ahhhhh. Twenty dollars or something like. Something like that…. Sixty-two ninety-five!”

O.K. I must confess- I am not so naïve. I am what many consider a kind of voodoo priest, one of the few remaining Jungian psychoanalysts. My real fault is one I make often in Panama – I forget to negotiate the price first. But, in the end, I paid to experience a dying art that maybe should live on: the combination of faith and medicine. Shamans play a significant role in societies because of their ability to elicit hope using both religion and medicine.

And so, for me ‘Get out if you can,’ has taken a new meaning. Every time I return to Salsipuedes, I see something new. I can’t seem to ever really get out, I guess. Maybe that is the real meaning behind the street’s name.

Perhaps Noriega’s flight from the American military manhunt was telling… when on the run he left the paraphernalia from the black arts behind, ran into the Embassy of the Holy-See and surrendered. The flight to Christ continued. In the Metropolitan Correctional Center of Dade County, Florida, Manuel Noriega has surrendered again – this time he surrendered his soul to Jesus Christ. He has been baptized as a born again Christian. He is still awaiting a hearing in France to decide what will happen to his living mortal coil. Perhaps his conversion is in earnest. But if not, Get Out If You Can, Manuel. And if you do, I will see you on Salsipuedes. Please introduce me to your Voodoo priestess.

What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate

By Steve Banks

I can’t tell you about banana republics like Panama… about the joy of little freedoms… about cigars, Cuban – go ahead light them in public. About discos, on Calle Uruguay – open ‘til the sun starts shining. About beer tunnels, my favorite – models ask you how many they can open for you before you drive off. About hookers, Colombian – 18 years old (más o menos) that you willingly ignore are pros until your buddy tells you the taxi money home was enough keep them in blow for a month. About Christmas, just another excuse for a party – where pasty white skin like mine is actually checked out by women hotter than the girls that threw beer in my face at college. Fucking enjoy them, because these freedoms come from a lack of due process… enjoy them, because whether you do or not one day this lack of due process will come sneaking up behind you and bite you in the ass. Remembering these freedoms can keep you from losing your shit in a Panamanian jail. I know.

Maybe I should begin at the beginning. If you want to know the truth, it has a lot to do with Paul. Paul Newman.

Anna Nicole Smith, Oh My God! Is the surge working? Mortgage meltdown, arctic meltdown, how is your iPhone? Did you hear Angelina has new babies? This was the dorky banter I participated in, which made me a big fat dork. I paid my mortgage, I was going to vote for Obama, and I never cheated on my wife. Then Paul Newman died.

When I first heard, “What we have here is a failure to communicate,” in the Guns and Roses song, I ran down to the Blockbuster and got all Paul’s movies. Cool Hand Luke from the aforementioned song was my favorite. He got the shit kicked out of him in jail and when no human could take more, and all he had to do was lay down, he got up to get the shit kicked out of him again. I never understood the movie or why he did that but for some reason I loved to see him get the shit kicked out of him. Like, fuck you, hit me again.

Two things sucked that day. For one, Paul died. It wasn’t so much that he died as it was that he got old and then died. Eighty three … when did that happen? The second thing that sucked always sucked - my boss, the man who perpetually looks like he took a dump in his pants. Tom (my boss), if for some reason you are reading my blog – YOU SHIT YOUR PANTS DIDN’T YOU – EVERYDAY!

“So,” he said. “Paul Newman.”

Hmmm, maybe Mr. Poopy Pants is not such a douchebag after all, I thought.

“No, Steve. I don’t care one way or another that a Hollywood actor died. I mean Paul Newman is too bad. ‘Don’t tease me bro’’ is too bad, and all the Rihanna videos are too bad. And Facebook is really too bad. Too bad for you.”

He slowly pushed a piece of paper in front of me that I had signed a few months earlier. I thought it was companywide policy that everyone had signed about internet use. I never really read the thing.

“That was your second warning,” he said.

I know now why Biff stole the pen in Death of a Salesman. I left my boss’s office imagining the pen from his desk sticking out of his bleeding eye. I didn’t want to work there anymore. I didn’t want to work, to pay my mortgage or be a husband. Fuck it. I didn’t need to do the right thing anymore. Fuck it… I would leave and not vote for Obama.

They tried to get me to stay and finish a project I was already six months behind on. I had been working on my own project instead – a Facebook project called ‘Latina ‘Ginas’-- a competition to see which country could be best represented on three different Facebook profiles of me. In the end Panama won. Not because I had more hot girls added from Panama, but because of Estrella. A super-hot girl from the country’s third largest city, David, with whom I decided I had to study horizontal salsa. Also, my buddy Matt was teaching English in Panama City. Two weeks after I quit my job I left a note on the bed for the wife to not wait up for me. I was in Panama. More than she deserved.

They say that Panama City is like Miami, except that they speak English in Panama. This is not true. One night at the casino I tried to ask for a michelada, which is beer, lime and salt. I didn’t get the ‘lada’ part, so what I had actually asked for was micha, a very bad word for vagina. Like ‘cunt’. I asked for a cunt while I was playing Texas Hold’em. The best I got all night were rude looks and pair of deuces. The next day I was supposed to head to the San Blas islands with my buddy Matt but I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to see if the winner of the Facebook ‘Latina ‘Gina’ challenge was as hot as her profile picture.

I checked into Hostel Bambú, a cool little place with a pool and a one eyed dog aptly named Stinky. I was supposed to meet Estrella a few hours after checking in, so I proceeded to drink coffee and a distilled sugar cane alcohol called seco. One moment I was sitting around the pool while the owner of the hostel played Leonard Cohen on the guitar, and the next I was waking up in my underwear in a strange apartment. There was a note on the table in Spanish from some guy named Sergio. I had no idea what it said. I imagined he was some gay guy that found me face down in a puddle in front of a gay bar.

In my pocket was a piece of paper with a drawing of two stick people sitting on a bed with tape over their mouths. And a phone number. I called and to my delight it was Estrella, not Sergio, at the other end of the line. She said something about going to the bush.

Again I must emphasize that there really is more English in Miami. Language is an issue. A gringo I met here said he never took his girls to his apartment-- only to the bush. I thought this was okay for him, but I could be a bit classier.

So eventually, Estrella and I get into a taxi, and I am looking around to see which bush we are going to when we arrive at a push. ‘Push’ is actually an English word that American G.I.’s popularized when they ventured out of the Canal Zone with their girls to go to love motels. You drive into a little garage and push a button that closes the garage door. Then you push another button that opens the bedroom door. Lots of pushing, hence the name.

Panamanian men do not have their own house until they are fifty because they spend all their money on spoilers, fins, duel exhaust, etc. for their 1985 Lada, and when they finally do have their own pad they have already had numerous girlfriends on the side and illegitimate children. So when the Americans left, the push stayed. People often party in the push, and sometimes they die in some crazy car explosion. Often Colombian drug runners die in a push after stealing coke bound for Mexico. Live hard, have sex, die – the push is like the Disney circle of life, Panama Style.

Estrella and I took a taxi to a push called Beverly Hills. In our room I discovered even more buttons to push -- a vending machine of sex toys. After 25 minutes at Beverly Hills I fell in love with both Estrella and La Serpiente Mágica.

There were pros and cons for both Estrella and La Serpiente Mágica, but the sex snake did not have replaceable batteries, so I decided to focus on Estrella. She, however, had Sergio. Does ‘novio’ mean gay buddy or boyfriend? Again my Spanish was an obstacle so I just chose it to mean the former. But one day after I called her and she spoke nothing but high speed Spanish and hung up, I decided to release my stress on a couple of Swedish backpackers back at the Bambú. I was helping them with their bags behind a locked door when Estrella decided to show up out of the blue and knock. Funny, my holy-shit-what-are-you-doing-here look was not enough to get her to leave. The girls in my room were topless from the pool, so I pushed Estrella out and locked the door. Estrella banged on the door shouting something about mothers, vaginas, sharp objects and juice in Spanish. I am not 100% about the juice part-- I am still learning. Just don’t order a ‘chucha’ if you want juice.

So Estrella took a break from tearfully pounding on the door to grab a knife from the kitchen. She tried to jimmy the door open, but fortunately the hostel owner heard all the talk of juice and whatnot, and because he thought she was trying to kill me, he called the cops. They threw her kicking and screaming into the back of the cop car and asked us to come along. Stupidly, we followed in a taxi. Well, during the drive I guess she convinced the cops that I was trying to rape her and she drew her knife in self-defense.

No due process. I was handcuffed and sat down next to ugly hookers in paint to my right and hairy hookers with dicks to my left -- both eyeing me like the last M&M at a party for fat kids. Their boozy sweat and cheap perfume could not overpower the stank that flew out of the holding cell and introduced itself to the back of my mouth.

The cop called my name. Finally he’s gonna let me take a piss, I thought. But when he took my belt and shoe laces I knew I was going into that holding cell.

No soy criminal,” I protested.

He muttered something in Spanish and pushed me into the holding cell.

As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw faces around me on the floor. They were all shirtless and sweaty and lying in about a quarter inch of what smelled like piss.

“He said I know you are not a criminal,” a dark figure in the cell said in English.


“The guard. What he said was that he knows you are not a criminal. If he thought you were guilty he would have beaten you already.”

I was hit with a sudden rush of fear. Her Facebook said she was nineteen. She looked nineteen. But it was hard to tell with these Latinas.

In jail I committed my first voluntary crime. Full time inmates in the cell above us used string to lower weed rolled with pages of the Bible. The weed was just to get you in the mood for the Oreos that came next. I made friends with the half inch of piss and sweat and the juvenile delinquents that were there for the night. In the morning I was handcuffed and taken down to the fiscalía, sort of the Panamanian version of the D.A’s office. I sat there until a man told me I could go home. Charges dropped, I guess. That’s due process.

I didn’t go back to the hostel. I didn’t call her. One day I stopped into an internet café and checked my Facebook. “I want seeing you,” was all she wrote. But she had written it twice each day for the ten days I hadn’t checked my Facebook.

A couple of days later I checked my Facebook again. There were two notifications.

One was a ‘friend request’ from my wife.

I clicked ‘IGNORE’.

The other was another message from Estrella. “I want seeing you at new,” it said.

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

What would he do if he could do it all over again? What would Cool Hand Luke do? Would he keep taking a beating? Maybe he took all those beatings and kept asking for more because he knew one day he would be eighty three…

Cool Hand Luke… if you are up there… give me a sign… What would you do?

The Trail of the Black Christ

By Mathew Hope

There’s this Panamanian windshield wiper finger wag I picked up that is actually pretty effective. It came in handy the night I had to venture into Cinco de Mayo and turn away transvestite prostitutes and street children that growled when I refused to buy their stickers. This is not my Panama. My Panama is the other way… it is in the money laundering banking district where I teach ESL in a tower by day and party in the discos below by night. Cinco de Mayo is the hot, greasy transportation throat of Panama City. The tourist police are the gag reflex that spits anyone with a camera and shorts out and onto the white-washed cobblestones of Casco Viejo. In Spanish I told the cops that I knew where I was going – to El Cristo Negro, The Pilgrimage of the Black Christ.

Only this was not true. My buddy Steve and I were booked on a sailing trip that departed just past the pilgrimage site to the San Blas islands. Only he decided that it would be way cooler to ditch me at the last minute to chase a girl half his age that he friended on Facebook. Even worse, I was supposed to meet the boat captain in Portobello, and the line at the main bus terminal was out of control with swarming Christian pilgrims off to see this black wooden Jesus idol. It didn’t matter – in Cinco de Mayo I decided to catch a diablo rojo to take me to the coast solo.

A diablo rojo was once a shiny new school bus cast out of the Promised Land by the U.S. Federal Motor Vehicles Standards Commission and then retrofitted with duel chrome exhaust and wild graffiti. They roar and spit like demons – hence the name, Red Devil. I boarded my hell on wheels and came face to face to face with wide eyed Evangelicals expecting to join the pilgrimage. Aha, the bowels of Satan are filled with conservative Christians.

Her face appeared when I needed it most. In this sea of penitent alien eyes she locked onto me. The first thing anyone would say about her is how cute she looks- in her photos she wears a smiling mask of innocence that makes you feel guilty for admiring her beauty. But by the way she held my eyes without smiling I had a hunch she was not penitent. Without intimidating obviousness, she slid over just enough to invite me to sit. Her head was not buried in her cell phone, so I knew she wasn’t Panamanian, but I knew she wasn’t a gringa either. She was dark, olive skinned and beautiful. Plus, she had a backpack with baby blue flippers sticking out the back. When I sat next to her, she didn’t drop her gaze. She just silently chewed on the side of her thumbnail. Finally, as if she found what she was looking for in my petrified silence, she smiled slightly and held out her palm. There were two red pills.

Tómala,” she offered after she popped one of them into her mouth.

I smiled and of course refused. She buried the pill in her jeans pocket. The bus did not move for more than an hour, and during the time we were sitting there in virtual silence, an obedient looking schoolboy sandwiched me closer to her. Now we were ass to ass in silence. She broke a long period of window staring by spitting out in perfect English, ‘Holy fuck, when is this bus going to move!’

The pill was a valium you can buy at most pharmacies in Panama, and this one, I guess, was particularly strong. She told me you could bounce on a bus with no shocks and wake up feeling like you had a great eight hours of sleep.

If the Devil could be persuaded to write a bible, he would title it, You Only Live Once.

I popped the pill in my mouth. She offered me a swig of her water and I accepted. But the pill sat at the back right hand side of my mouth between my teeth and cheek. As far as I could tell she wasn’t watching to see if I swallowed. I could feel it dissolving in my mouth and was starting to taste the chemicals. But I managed to spit most of it out and onto the floor. Finally the bus started to move. Packed, sweaty pilgrims started to sing gospel songs.

To get to the San Blas islands, you have to take the boat from Portobello, not far from Panama City. But traffic was a nightmare of stale, stinking moments of gridlock followed by sudden, seizure-like fits of jerking and weaving. At times I wished I had trusted her and swallowed the pill. She was out cold before the bus hit the main highway -- her head resting, sometimes bouncing, on the lip of the open window. When we finally made it to the highway, even more people crammed onto the bus and every last bit of space was filled with one fluid mass of human flesh. The last of the oxygen was consumed. The singing stopped. The honking and roaring of engines in the traffic jam took over, and everyone was silent and devoid of expression again. They looked as though they were hoping elevator doors would open soon so they could become reanimated. But we held like this for hours. So long, in fact, that the old man in the seat in front of us who had to urinate took the matter into his own hands -- he had a plastic Pepsi bottle that he pissed into. Aside from me, this drew no attention.

Then the spindly old man held the bottle out the window and began dumping it out. It would have been fine if the bus hadn’t suddenly jerked forward causing the piss to spill down the man’s arm and through the window back at us.

The bus suddenly roared forward again, and although there was only a ten meter stretch in the road, the bus driver mashed the pedal down, and the piss splashed back right into the face of the Latina Lolita next to me. She was too stoned on valium to even feel it. I tapped on the pisser’s shoulder, and he made one feeble attempt to turn back, but the lack of space and his old joints wouldn’t permit turning and facing his mess.

I took her pack and did my best to use her flippers to shield her face. I have never been so attracted to a piss soaked girl.

Then the bus driver shouted a jaw dropping string of offensive words in Spanish at the traffic. He stopped the bus and pulled up the emergency brake in defeat. The bus reluctantly unloaded. When the kid to my right got up, I moved over slightly and the girl’s head flopped onto my lap, still completely unconscious. Her long black hair fell into my hands and I shivered at the sudden thought of running my hands through it. Her thin frame was light, but it was hard to juggle her and our bags off the bus.

That I had an unconscious girl draped over my shoulder fireman style should have attracted attention, had I not entered a carnival of the absurd. Every other pilgrim had a purple robe and they walked like tired automatons three steps forward, two steps back. The way was lit by candles and glow-in-the dark rosaries sold alongside the road. The closer we got to the church, the more people in the procession dropped to their hands and knees and crawled on the asphalt.

With a girl over my left shoulder, a pack on my right and another in my right hand, I couldn’t get far. Where was I going anyway? I was walking toward the church and never thought to think about the way to the boat taxi.

Then I saw it. The Black Christ, carried by men with shaved heads and purple robes, was slowly coming up behind us. They walked the same as the pilgrims, three steps forward and two steps back -- except they had rhythm. They were grooving. They were dancing. And beside them people praying. And beside them people singing. And beside them people crying.

I gave up my pixie cross to bear and sat down about thirty meters from the church, on a little patch of grass next to a table selling figurines of the Black Christ. What the hell were these people thinking? Why did they need redemption so bad? Were these the corrupt cops, drug lords and prostitutes crawling in front of me in a bizarre parade of atonement?

Legend says the Black Christ came to Portobello on a stopover in the 15th Century, on its way to Cartagena. By that time Portobello had already become a fortified port for the Spanish to load their plundered Incan gold onto ships protected by cannons from the likes of Henry Morgan and Sir Francis Drake. Henry Morgan sacked Panama City and Sir Francis Drake died while laying siege on the other coast. The ship carrying the Black Christ attempted to leave Panama five times, but each time the winds refused to carry the boat. Fearing the life sized black idol was a bad omen, the sailors pitched it overboard. It washed up onto shore and has been venerated ever since. The idol, they say, did not want to leave Panama.

It was like the Black Christ charged the air as it drew near. Singing and chanting gave way to wailing as the idol passed. People dripped burning candle wax onto their arms. The Black Christ was within feet of us when the sleeping beauty at my side suddenly sat up. She stood and slowly followed the crowd toward the church.

I decided to watch from where I sat. I had to. I couldn’t leave the bags. My seated vantage point prohibited me from spotting her in the crowd. I had no idea what to do except wait.

Then I saw her again. People parted to let her walk up the steps to the Church and toward the Black Christ, now at the entrance. One of the bald men that had carried the Christ put his hand out to stop her from entering the church. When she turned I could see her face, blood running from her forehead and hands. She stretched out her arms and fainted. I saw her collapse at the top of the stairs when suddenly I felt a sharp pain, like someone kneed me in the groin. Something happened to me. I can’t explain, except I imagine it had to be a panic attack. Everything grew black around the edges and the next thing I knew I was on the ground with people gathered around me.

I got to my feet and looked frantically for her. For some reason I drastically wanted to find her. But she was gone. I never learned her name. I didn’t get to say goodbye.

Paint it Black

By María Concepción

I can make you scared if you want me to

I’m not prepared but if I have to

I can make you scared, and you pay me to

If that’s the deal then here’s what I can do for you

You’re in the church

And more than a million works of art

Are whisked into the woods

When the pirates find the whole place dark

They think that God’s left the city for good

At the Church of San José in Casco Viejo, there is a gold altar that the faithful painted black when the English pirates came to Panamá El Viejo. They saw it and passed over it, thinking it useless. In Portobello there is Christ made Black carrying the sins of criminals. Tomorrow I will see.

So You Want to be an Expat in Panama?

By Steven Banks

My buddy Matt needs to pull out the stick he shoved up his own ass while teaching ESL to sheep in cubicles. He needs to rediscover what it really means to be an expat in Panama. On my trip to David I found an awesome hostel we could lease in the cloud forest called The Lost and Found. I am ready to be an expat.

So you want to be an expat like me? If your reasons are any of these two, then STAY HOME!

1. I hate what’s happening in: America, Canada, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Barbados.

Granted there is probably nothing terrible happening in Barbados, but the point is that if you disagree with the current political or economic situation in your home country, you probably don’t have a good reason to leave. You cannot escape the effects of American politics nor its shit-storm up and down economy. Internet access is available from Rio Douche, Panama, to Werthefucktenango, Guatemala. Unfortunately, so are CNN and even Fox News.

2. I hate my job, my girlfriend/boyfriend, my drinking problem, black presidents, and / or the fact that I’m a giant douchebag.

The problem is that a douchebag in Panama smells much the same as a douchebag back home (unless you are French). If you don’t fit in where you live now, you won’t fit in here either. You’ll be the raving lunatic that everyone calls “Gringo Loco.” Trust me. I am still trying to shrug this off. Your drinking problem? Booze is considerably cheaper here.

Ok, so maybe neither of those applies to you, or you’re willing to overlook them, or that last line made up your mind to come to the land of cheap booze, or you have delusions of being a pirate, or you just want to see some funky Latina ‘gina. Read on.

I wanna be an expat and I’m willing to overlook the following in order to get to the funky Latina ‘ginas.

• Crazy ass drivers. Anyone outside of USA/Canada is a crazy ass driver who uses the car horn like my 5 year old nephew honks his wee wee, and some of these drivers are honking their wee wees and their horns at the same time. The car horn is used to communicate any of the following, not in any particular order and sometimes all at the same time: you’re a hot chick, you’re in my way, I’m coming through the middle of your car, do you need a ride, my taxi is empty, my taxi is full, you’re not moving, you are moving, how are you, fuck you, you’re a fat chick, you’re a fat chick but if you get in my car I’ll sympathy hump you.

• Crazy ass Latina ‘ginas. If you have blue eyes, they’re easier to pick up here than taking money from the cup of a one eyed legless beggar. I know-- I bought colored contacts. But I also got me a jealous lunatic that is harder to shake than a pubic hair stuck to a bar of Ivory soap.

• The combined smell of piss and campfire. This has apparently been bottled and is one hell of a hot seller, especially for public transport.

• Lazy bastards. There is a reason bribery is popular in developing countries. If you ever try to wade through ridiculous bureaucracy, then you will wish that bribery was popular in the good ol’ USA. But corruption is not only part and parcel of bureaucracy, it happens on all levels. Corruption is a general air of undeserved entitlement, and in Panama you sorta feel like you’re living in a country full of Kevin Federlines. As one Panamanian told me while we were looking out at the canal, his ancestors worked so hard on the canal that he was born tired. You will run into this manaña attitude everywhere, and I mean everywhere.

• Personal space. It no longer exists. I cannot explain this thoroughly enough. Whether it’s the stank-ass armpit shoved in your face on the bus, or the stank-ass ass shoved in your face on the bus, something stank-ass will be shoved in your face… every day.

• Cops and the disappearance of your “rights.” Whereas in Britain cops will say “Stop, stop, dammit, or I will have to say stop again,” here they point an AK-47 at your head while you cash a check. If you call a cop and they can’t find someone to arrest, they will arrest you. And while, “Hey, I got rights, and I’ll upchuck on your shoes if I wanna,” might gain you a pity smile and a hardy chuckle, and possibly even a phone call in the USA, here it will probably gain you a pistol whippin’ and laughter from the other 10 dudes loosening their belts in your 4ft by 4ft cell. I speak from experience: Although I wasn’t pistol whipped, I spent a night in a holding cell with a half an inch of piss on the floor because I was around when someone thought cops actually did their jobs here.

Still ready to come? Sell all of your worldly possessions, which probably won’t net you as much as it would in a bright shiny economy, but remember that you won’t need much because you won’t be spending much. After all, loss of personal hygiene, cup ‘o noodles, and sleeping on the beach doesn’t cost that much and you will be rich with experiences and confident because you are a pioneer who will return home one day and write a best seller filled with spiritual insights about your fellow man and with stories about a girl with hairy armpits that dumped you when you no longer had cash for 50 cent beers and had to sell your hemp necklaces and hardened Playdoh “water-pipes” to unsuspecting tourists. Wait! What are all of these other trust fund hippies doing selling their “jewelry” (crap) on your street in paradise?

Still want to come? Good… I haven’t regretted a single day.