Monday, March 29, 2010

My Heart Belongs to Seattle

For pretty much as long as I can remember I have wanted to visit Seattle. And when I say I have always wanted to visit Seattle, what I actually mean is I have always wanted to live in Seattle.

It is hard for me to put a finger on what it is about Seattle's reputation that attracts me. In stereotype terms Seattle is known for coffee, rainy, sunless days, the grunge movement, the Space Needle and a mountain rarely seen through the clouds.

But for some reason I have just known it would be a city I would fall in love with. And that feeling has nothing to do with Sleepless in Seattle.

As a sidenote, that feeling also has nothing to do with my lingering bitterness over a roadtrip my brothers and their friends took to Seattle in my car a number of years ago during which in a fit of spite they tossed one of my mix tapes (I said it was a number of years ago) out the window. They try to justify their destruction of property/littering act as being a) hilarious and b) prompted by how terrible the Spin Doctors are. I think both of their defenses suck since all they did was stomp on my college memories when they ditched my tape.

So when the opportunity arose for me to fly to Seattle for work, I jumped on it and sort of manipulated my purpose for going to fall on a Friday so I could easily stay for the weekend to explore. Because the worst thing about traveling for work is going to a cool city and only seeing the airport, the hotel and whatever courtroom or conference room that is hosting the trip's purpose. And that Friday was last week which meant I flew out there on Thursday afternoon and returned to New York late last night. Which gives me enough time to unpack my suitcase tonight and repack for another work trip to San Diego tomorrow. But that is another story.

Since I didn't have time to actually plan anything for my maiden Seattle voyage, I asked my facebook friends for tips and advice on what to do, see and eat. And people couldn't say enough good things about the place which only elevated my anticipation to the point where I worried that it was going to be overhyped and I might be disappointed.

Let me put it out there right now that I was not disappointed. In fact, all weekend I kept thinking "I want to move here" interrupted by "I wish I lived here" followed by "I wonder if I can figure out a way to live here" and finished off with a "I wonder when would be a good time to make my move to Seattle?"

Needless to say I pretty much instantly fell in love with the city. And not just because it put on a good show for me with a sunny blue sky, mild temperatures, great finds at the Nordstrom Rack, introducing me to some fun guys to spend my Saturday with and amazingly delicious fish. I also just loved the city's vibe. The westerness of it. The big city but not too big feel. The friendliness that doesn't cross the line into creepy (sorry, but I'm looking at you Orange County). The water. And just the overall . . . vibe. Every city has one and I think it either grabs you or it doesn't. Seattle totally grabbed me.
I spent Friday in an office trying not to be too distracted by this view.
Sure, the clouds were low and it looked like rain but it sure beats the other buildings and tiny piece of gray sky I'm looking at out my office window today. Besides, my normal office is situated so that my back is to the window and this one was cruel in its configuration of facing me directly out the long window.

My biggest mistake with this trip was to book my weekend time (the time I was paying for) in a separate hotel than the one my firm booked. I should have splurged because this hotel was amazing and I could have stayed in that room all weekend and been in heaven. But I didn't want to pay $200 a night for it. And I regret that decision! Why? Because I went from a room with a giant flat screen that greeted me with a welcome message, a deluxe king size bed with loads of pillows and fancy switches to open and close the shades on the windows surrounding the deep tub in the bathroom to . . . a cramped little overpriced room with a worn spot on the headboard (gross!) and a worn down feel. Not to mention the elevator. Consider this my public service advisement, if you ever decide to stay at the Executive Hotel in Seattle, you should realize what you are getting into.

As I was checking in the woman being helped next to me made a big production about not having a room near the elevator. In my head I thought she was being ridiculously picky. That was before I got to my room that was three rooms away from the elevator and all I could hear throughout my stay was the whirring of the elevator going up and down. Oh, wait, did I say that was all I could hear? I'm sorry, that was just when I was not listening to people in adjacent rooms having conversations that sounded as if they were sitting in my bathroom. Also, it felt kind of dingy. The place is supposedly a 3 star boutique. But going from the 1000 Seattle four star to this place felt like I was suddenly backpacking around Europe again and this was the $40 bargain room. I paid $90. I could have stayed at the Hotel Monaco across the street for $110 or the W for $120 a block away. Both are very nice hotels and were supposedly comparable. I say, only in location. And don't think I'm being snobby or overly picky. I'm just saying it is all about expectations and mine were just a bit higher, maybe unjustifiably so, but they were higher nonetheless.

And that is the only thing I did not enjoy about my trip. Well, that and the fact that I was naseous for the bulk of Friday to the point that I barely managed to eat lunch and skipped dinner in favor of some Pepto, a Sprite and a granola bar from Walgreens.
But back to the good parts.

Despite my unhappy tummy and because of my fairly unpleasant room, I pushed myself out the door to wander around the downtown area Friday night. I purposely avoided Pike's Place Market out of fear that anything smelling of fish would push my stomach over the edge and turned to shopping instead. Have I ever told you how I think Nordstrom is the best department store? And how it is pretty much the only one not in New York City? Well, there it is. And even better? Nordstrom Rack. I found myself walking out of there with two new pairs of shoes, a new trench coat, a pashmina, a couple of shirts and an assortment of jewelry. That is quite a feat of shopping for me in good conditions but when feeling bloated and pukey - huge success.
Saturday was when my I love Seattle attitude really rooted itself into my core. I was out of the hotel by around 930 am outfitted for my scheduled 45 minute run. At this point in my Ragnar training every Saturday adds 5 more minutes to my long run and this 45 minute run was a landmark because previously, I had never run for that long. I walked the handful of blocks straight down (I had no idea Seattle was so hilly!) to the waterfront and ran towards Myrtle Edwards Park. It was cool when I started out but as I ran it felt like the perfect temperature once I removed my light jacket. The first 10-20 minutes felt easier than usual. I was seeing new things and completely fascinated by the city's skyline, the water, the shops I passed, all the people out running and walking dogs and cycling. And before I knew it, I was at my halfway point and I felt good. I turned to run back and the time flew. This never happens to me. I am constantly consulting my watch and checking my pace on my ipod to convince myself to keep going. But Seattle made running better and before I knew it I was standing next to the Aquarium stretching having completed 4.28 miles! Plus, I now had some ideas of where I wanted to wander once I showered and got dressed. Win, win!

(view of the skyline from my run although I took the photo later in the day)

I walked back to my hotel through Pike's Place Market and was instantly over stimulated. I wanted to buy flowers and produce and fresh fish and funky jewelry. What I ended up buying was a vegan maple cinnamon roll and a large water. It was perfect without being overly sweet.

Back at the hotel I had to attend to some work emails and clean up and then I was off once again. I didn't really have a destination or a plan in mind. I just wanted to get to know the city more as a pedestrian. One of my favorite things to do in New York is to pick a neighborhood and just wander. Each neighborhood has its own flavor and I wanted to get to know downtown Seattle's. I returned to Pike's Place and saw the guys throwing fish and looked around for somewhere to eat. I was ready for fresh fish - chowder or fish and chips, something street food-ish. Nothing at the market was grabbing me and unlike my first visit earlier, the crowds were overwhelming. So I descended a number of stairs back down to the waterfront where I had seen a lot of restaurants. I settled on the Crab Pot where I enjoyed smoked halibut and huge potato wedges on the pier as I read my book in the sun.

I spent the early afternoon getting a closer look at the Seattle Art Museum's sculpture garden I had spotted on my morning run.

In this next one you can see Myrtle Edwards Park down near the water.
I sat down near this last sculpture to read and just watch the people and water and happenings for a while but mostly to rest. That 4+ mile run combined with opting to wear the cute new shoes was resulting in weary body and blisters. I also killed time until my next activity with a call to my Northwest loving brother who used to live in Portland but now resides on the east coast. I knew he would appreciate my enthusiasm for the city and I had to tease him about seeing The Old Spaghetti Factory - he and our other brother worked at the one in SLC for years.
My big afternoon tourist event was to take a boat tour. The "cruise" started aboard a bus crowded with families vacationing with small children and extended family and I felt a bit out of place. I didn't really want to be a tourist in this city, I wanted to belong to it and for it to belong to me. But I also wanted to see it and this was a good way. We boarded the boat in Lake Union and saw the houseboat neighborhoods floating on the lake and the tour guide pointed out the famous Sleepless in Seattle house. The sun was not as warm as it had been on land and was playing hide and seek behind clouds so it was kind of chilly. I passed the time by listening to our entertaining tour guide crack jokes no one seemed to appreciate but me and eavesdropping on three guys seated near me. They had accents I could not place and one was pretty cute but I couldn't figure out a way to insert myself into their conversation gracefully so I just listened to factoids about the various neighborhoods and boats we passed and fell a bit more in love with Seattle. I especially enjoyed the part where we went through the Hiram Chittenden (aka the Government) Locks, it was fasinating to see how it worked. Especially since they function similar to the Panama Canal which I had just seen earlier in the month.

When we were off the lake and in the sound the tour guide took a break and I decided it was time to warm up with some hot chocolate and some indoor time down below. Besides, the three guys I had been watching as entertainment had gone into the covered portion of the top deck or the front of the boat. I went down the back stairs and was surprised to see them ordering drinks at the concession stand. One of them immediately offered to buy me a drink. And just like that I was one of them.

Their unidentifiable accents? South African. I do not know why that accent is so hard for me to recognize in the abstract. It isn't for lack of exposure. I have a couple of people I deal with for work down there so I should at least be able to place it but I always mistakenly believe the speakers are Dutch or German speaking English. They were in town for a conference for their very large tech company employer. In addition to buying me a drink they offered me some of the curry chocolate bar they had purchased from concessions that was . . . interesting. I actually liked it and the others found it too weird.

The rest of the cruise back to Elliott Bay was vastly enhanced by my new companions as we joked around and got to know one another. Two of the guys were married but lucky for me the cute one was single! And the most entertaining.

As the ship pulled into the dock they began discussing dinner options and the cute one put his vote in for . . . The Spaghetti Factory! I quickly dissuaded them of an apparent long time desire to try this "Italian" restaurant that one of them had been eyeing since a previous trip! I personally found this hilarious given all the stories I have endured of my brothers' years of serving there. A brief description of the place made them change their minds.

I didn't want to be invite myself along but I was enjoying their company and really, I wanted to be invited along. I stuck near them as we disembarked and lingered slightly (but not awkwardly!) until one asked if I wanted to join them for their yet to be determined dinner destination. I quickly agreed pointing out my backup plan was a solo dinner with my book. No one really had any ideas so I offered the one dinner suggestion I received on facebook - a place called Etta's near Pike's Place. I didn't know exactly where it was but I had googled it earlier in the day so I knew the general area. As we hiked up the stairs toward Pike's Place I fell into stride with the cute one and conversation flowed easily. We stopped a few times for "tourist moments" such as watching the fire department ships shooting water fountains in arcs on the bay and admire the sun shining on the water.

We found the restaurant with little trouble and despite being told initially of a 30 minute wait, we were seated fairly readily. Before selecting a seat in the booth I slipped away to the restroom curious to see how they would configure themselves when I got back. Since two of them are married it shouldn't be surprising that the empty seat was next to the cute guy but it still made me feel like there might be some mutual interest there.

Dinner was great - the food, the conversation, everything. It was one of those meals where there isn't enough time for everyone to talk and stories flowed easily into one another and everyone is surprised when the bill arrives because it seems like we just sat down. One of the topics that kept us all entertained was adventure travel and stories of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro overlapped with sky diving spilled into scuba diving and, of course, my own tales of Panama with a dab of Iceland and river rafting. Our dinner was so entertaining that we outlasted the bridal party seated at an adjacent table! Their party had about 15 or so people and were seated after us and left before we got around to paying the check!

Out on the sidewalk post dinner I was not ready to say goodbye and lucky for me, neither were they and one suggested we find a spot for drinks. More wandering and talking until we found a pub that was happily near my hotel. Here the conversation turned to more weighty topics like the recent health care reform bill and race relations in South Africa as compared to the U.S. and the "Sliding Doors" phenomenon of missed chances or missed catastrophes. It was fascinating. But not all deep and philosophical. One of the guys posed an innocent seeming question that dragged into a recurring topic: "Do you consider yourself a better than average driver?"

I learned a lot about my new friends and though I revealed some of myself, I was listening more than talking. As the night grew later our numbers dwindled until it was just me and the cute one. I was tired but didn't want to admit it. Eventually he walked me to my hotel, both of us quiet for the first time all evening. I teased him a bit about his sudden silence and was grateful that he was willing to walk me back to my hotel. I wondered why he was sticking around by himself if he wasn't going to bother kissing me. But just as I was ready to believe I had misread the situation, he said goodnight and pulled me closer for a kiss. A really good kiss.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Santa Catalina aka Surf Camp

Shortly after I returned from Panama a co-worker who had previously visited asked me a question to which I nodded a polite agreement despite the fact I did not agree with her when she asked. But now? Upon further reflection I have to whole heartedly agree that yes, time does find a way of stretching out in Panama. At no point during my trip did I have that vacation feeling of "WAIT! I just got here! Slow down!" Except that last day when I was just not ready to wake up at 4 am and fly back to normal life. Nor did I ever look forward to a day ending. I just wasn't counting - I was relishing every moment as it came to me. I wish I could learn how to live that way in my normal life.

Of course, there are a lot of things about Panama I wish I could incorporate into my every day normal life - such as papaya dream smoothies and a hammock and a beach right outside my door:

Yes, that is definitely what is missing from my life. Also missing? This:

That's right, free roaming cattle, strolling along my beach looking all peaceful and serene in the morning light.

That is until the cowboy show up to round them up and one makes a break for it and charges STRAIGHT at me and I panic and the cow panics and the cowboy wishes the dumb tourist would just stay away from his cows!

But you should realize this post is not about cows on the beach. Not even about cows having sex on the beach (which, uh, I accidentally saw and possibly even videoed but I really don't think anyone needs to see or hear anything more about that).

The whole purpose of staying in Santa Catalina, after all, was to learn how to surf. Or, from our guide Jaime's perspective, something to keep the girls occupied while he ran around getting everything ready for us to spend six days on a deserted island. And if you are going to try and learn how to surf why not go for it in a place my guide book calls "the best surfing spot in Panama", "internationally famous surf break" and the "perfect point break". When I read that before I left I got a little nervous. Who wants to be the loser beginner at the mecca of surfing in Central America? Luckily, Santa Catalina thought beginners like me and created a perfect little playa just for newbies with smaller waves and no hot shots.

Unless you count our instructor. Just a little word of advice to anyone out there considering teaching any other human being anything from the rudimentary beginnings - DO NOT BE AN ASS to your students.

But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself. Perhaps this little clip will give you a hint at where I'm coming from:

Except, that was an exaggerated parody. This story I'm about to tell is not.

Mike, our surf instructor, is basically a dude. A Canadian dude who is ethnically Southern Californian. Tall, bleach blond and pretty confident all women worship him. They don't and we didn't. We found him obnoxious and we were irritated with him for days.

Let's explore why, shall we?

It all started well enough. After a leisurely breakfast during which Denise amused us by running back to her room for her jug of maple syrup (real Canadians don't travel abroad with their own stash!) for the pancakes, we wandered out to the beach to meet Mike and our surfboards. They were giant and heavy and I suddenly had this fluttery feeling in my stomach that made me wonder what I was getting myself into. Why did I think I could surf? Was I really going to strap myself to this giant thing and let the ocean fling me about? There was no doubt I would be making a fool of myself in short order.

Luckily, like Paul Rudd's surfer instructor character in the clip above, Mike had our first (um, only?) lesson on the beach, far from the waves. He lectured us on rip tides and other obligatory safety lessons and then had us each draw a surf board in the sand. Mine was all kinds of uneven and after he chuckled over it, he showed us the whole "pop up" thing. Which I should mention I was informed of about 6 years ago in Costa Rica when I first attempted to surf. But at that point a friend simply said - here's a board, paddle out and pop up. I did neither and ultimately exchanged the surf board for a boogie board and figured surfing wasn't going to be my thing.

I reinterpreted Mike's directions into my own language of 3 simple steps: 1) start in a low cobra (yoga term) on your stomach; 2) push up to an updog (more yoga terminology); 3) pop up to a short stance modified warrior two (again with the yoga terms). I think Mike thought I was hokey for giving his steps yoga names but it helped me remember. He was even more bemused later in the water when I inserted a kneeling step between steps two and three. At any rate, we practiced this little pop up thing a few times and then hauled our boards into the water.

I immediately discovered the part I hate the most is getting myself and that big heavy board out to the point where a wave might come and let me hitch a ride. You see, in all the movies surfers just run with their boards out into the surf, toss it in the water and paddle out to the waves with pretty much no effort.

For me? That is where I expended most of my effort. I tried the whole paddle out thing but turns out I have absolutely no idea how to paddle and actually move. Mike did give me a few pointers about how to dive into a wave with my head turned sideways and pushing the nose of my board down but I no sooner recovered from one wave in that position than I had to push my nose down and hold my breath for the next one. There was no time to paddle between waves. So I stood up and hauled that board out like a dog on a leash. A wild dog that was constantly dragging me backwards. In between waves I was running in the soft sand try to get as far as possible before the next wave blocked my way. To be absolutely honest, I think this was the hardest part of surfing for me. I was ridiculous.

Of course, then there is the whole timing issue of when to get on the board and which way to face so you can see the waves coming but be facing the right way to actually attempt to catch the wave. I wasn't very good at that part either.

Once out there and in position Mike graced us with his presence long enough to shove us out on a few waves (sometimes shoving the front of the board straight into the water!) for an hour or so. I soon learned another thing I wasn't very good at - paddling when the wave was coming. I would paddle and paddle and paddle and water would fly everywhere and the wave would roll right under me and break in front because I hadn't moved at all. It was almost as if I was pushing myself backwards instead of forward.

But. BUT!

When I actually managed to drag that big, heavy board out into the surf and I got up on my board, facing the right direction in time and I somehow paddled hard enough to catch a wave . . . well, that is the part I was actually good at! I managed to stand up right from the start and I often - yes OFTEN! - rode the wave all the way in standing up and occasionally I was even steady enough to play around with steering! And that part was SO AMAZING! I hate inundating you with excessive capitalization and exclamation marks but I had no expectation that I would be able to stand up so easily given my prior Costa Rican surfing failure.

That first morning was so exciting that I mostly managed to ignore Mike's comments. Mostly. My favorite? When he commented on how all three of us kept veering off to the left for some reason and wow, he never seemed to have that problem. For me, this kind of summed up Mike's teaching style. I mean, if I was taking golf lessons and I was shanking the ball and the golf pro simply scratched his head and told me he didn't have that problem I would have said I sure as hell hope not since I'm the beginner and you're the pro and I'm paying you to teach me how to get better. But for some reason, when this is our only option and we didn't exactly pick it, we just shrugged him off and let him wander away when he got bored with us.

Against our better judgment, the next day we even tried to introduce Mike to a couple of Dutch guys who were looking for surf instruction and Mike shrugged them off. Dude was really working hard to grow his business. When the Dutch guys remarked on how maybe they met him at some place or another, Mike responded "I'm lots of places" in that I'm too cool for school dude talk and that was that.

But that did not stop us from throwing ourselves - quite literally - into the ocean over and over in an attempt to get better at surfing with almost no guidance from Mike. And by the end of just one day, I was completely exhausted and looked like I had just been beat up:

Those are just a few of my battle wounds. My brilliant idea to add a kneeling step resulted in black and blue knees. My arms and hips took a beating as well but Shannon won the worst bruise prize with a nasty bruise that spread from her hip half-way across her stomach.

Bruises combined with sore, tired never before used in quite this way muscles made heading back out on day two that much harder. But I absolutely loved, loved it. By the end of day two I was catching very few waves and even when I managed to stand up, I couldn't stay there because every muscle in my body was weak and trembling, but I was so very happy. The longer we were out there the harder the waves seemed to break until I felt like I was just getting beat up over and over again. Not ready to give up completely, Shannon and I decided to try just one board between the two of us as the other took photos and played cheerleader yelling encouraging words to the other.

When we no longer had the ability to even think about trying one more time, we decided it was time to make the long walk back up the beach. But with two GIANT surf boards and feeling very fatigued, bruised and battered, we decided two trips were in order with a little team work to carry the boards back. Before we made it back to the cabanas a tall boy in surf shorts jogged out to us and took the board the rest of the way in and then ran back out on the beach to retrieve the second board. As it turned out, he and his fellow Dutch travel companion were staying in the same purple cabana and shared our front porch.

And since I know you are wondering, no, Shannon and I did not coordinate our outfits. We just happen to have very similar taste and showed up in Panama with all of the same clothes - these rash guards being identical but for (luckily) the color.

We spent the better part of that evening engaged in our favorite Panama pass times: sitting around and talking.

When we weren't in the water, we were resting up, cleaning up or sitting around enjoying one another's company - often in the comfort of hammocks.

Sometimes we pretended to be real surfers who needed to practice their balance technique on the balance line:

Also? Eating.

While there aren't a lot of options for food in Santa Catalina, they were all delicious. We especially loved La Buena Vida - home of the papaya dream smoothie and this heavenly concoction:

Michelle, one of the owners not only made that brownie ice cream piece of heaven, she did all of the mosaic tiling that decorated the outdoor restaurant.

That last night in Santa Catalina before we set out for Coiba Island we waited and waited and waited for the boys to get back from their city errands before giving into the rumbling of our stomachs and set off for our only girls only dinner. It was also the only time we indulged in all getting cold bottled water. We were still a bit skeptical about Jaime's claim that Panamanian water was safe for our North American stomachs.

But that was the last of the bottled water. It was also the end of running water (even if it only came in one temperature - cold!). No more beds, roofs, restaurants, chairs and random Dutch boy neighbors to keep us entertained. After that night we were off for the real adventure to camp on and kayak around a notorious, uninhabited island in the Pacific for six days.

But before I go, I have to share one more thing I loved about Santa Catalina - and that is what it did to my hair:

That slight wave and fullness may seem like nothing but for my stubbornly, stick straight hair that is somehow immune to the buoyant effects of extreme humidity, this was huge! And I absolutely loved it. My hair felt full and I really, really wish New York's humidity would have the same effect because then I would maybe be able to overlook all the superfluous sweating New York summers cause.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Panama City to Santa Catalina

Stepping off the plane at 1030-ish at night in Panama City I quickly removed my fleece jacket as the heavy air warmed me all the way through after a chilly flight leaned up against the window. Shannon was close behind me and we had a hard time containing our excitement over a simple thing like humidity reaching out to greet us. We claimed our bags and made our way through customs with relative ease though the New Yorker in me griped a bit over the chaotic dual line that formed for our entry into Panama.

In the chaos of guides and drivers with signs, family members and friends greeting loved ones and a host of others just clamoring for the business of unprepared tourists, Shannon located our guide. We stood around in the heat for a while wondering what was happening while the airport shuttle guy from the hotel attempted to round up other passengers. As we waited on the curb anxious to see more than the airport Shannon and I stripped another layer of clothing off as the warming humidity became more oppressive and joined a conversation Jaime was having with two guys named Jose from Portugal. As it turned out they were going to our same hotel so we tossed all our gear in the trailer and piled into the oversized van and continued our chatter all the way to the hotel confusing the other van passengers into believing we were all one group. The Joses (in Portugal you actually pronounce it "Jo-Say") were ready to go out and party straight from the airport and while Shannon and I briefly considered it, we were both tired and knew we had lots of fun ahead of us so we passed. Then regretted it. Because one of the Joses had pretty amazing eyes. Oh, well.

Instead we dumped our stuff all over our hotel room in order to dig out pjs for the warmer climate and settled into our only air conditioned night until we returned to the same hotel at the end of the trip. Breakfast was early the next morning and we met the rest of our group. We also learned that the water in Panama is safe to drink. Of course we didn't actually believe this for ourselves for several days because it defied everything we knew about traveling in Central and South America.

While the haze of the morning was still vividly hanging in the air we loaded up Ian's truck to start the road trip part of our adventure.

Getting out of Panama City proved to be challenging. Shannon and Ian sat in the front and Denise, Jaime and I sat in the back on makeshift seating fashioned from a couple of thermarest mats while Buddy alternated between sitting on my or Jaime's laps or sometimes clawing at our legs when he tried to stand. I didn't care. I was in Panama. After landing ourselves in a run down colonial part of the city that has the potential to be stunning, Jaime started asking for directions out the window. People were friendly and at one point we ended up with a brief golf-cart police escort.

But the police only took us back to pretty much where we started and I never saw the fountain I swear they kept talking about so the confusion started all over again. Poor Ian was stressed, confused and frustrated so we asked a few more locals on the street. This time we found an overly helpful guy who turned out to be a taxi driver on his day off. Initially he hopped on the side of the truck and directed us from this precarious position, newspaper in hand.

Then he decided it was probably better if he just squished into the back seat with the three people and a dog already crammed together on the not really a seat, seat.

He kept his head out the window and gave shout outs to his friends and neighbors as he explained to us we were driving past his house. He may have taken us on a little joy ride detour (we'll never know) but he ultimately got us to the main road that led out of Panama City so we gave him a few dollars when we dropped him off and we were off.

We had a brief view of the Panama Canal as we drove over a bridge but nothing to really get excited about.

After a 5-6 hour drive that passed quickly as we got to know one another and as I proceeded to accidentally instigate a nearly heated political debate, we arrived in Santa Catalina. There was also a hot and sweaty stopping point in Santiago where the boys got out to get groceries and the girls remained in car to recover from the conversation. The boys returned with chips and salsa to tide us over for the remaining 90 minute drive.

Once in Santa Catalina we ate a late lunch at the first place we found that was open. While I can't say it was the best food I have ever eaten, I can say it was served at a very pink building.

Where we met this itty bitty little thing:

Before checking into our hotel we had our priorities straight and stopped for ice cream first. Oh, wow. How delicious is ice cream when it is very, very hot?

Then, while Jaime sorted out the hotel situation, we ran - literally ran - to the beach for our first dip in the Pacific Ocean. The sand was black and the water was warm and I was in love with Santa Catalina without reservation. And that was even before we learned that this is where we would be staying:

And before I saw the first of many stunning ocean sunsets:

We spent a good deal of time in the water that late afternoon and didn't get ourselves organized and cleaned up for dinner until fairly late. Our little cabanas were located right on the beach but was technically separated from the rest of Santa Catalina by a fresh water stream flowing out to the ocean. During low tide the stream was easily forded with a four wheel drive vehicle. During high tide, you were stuck as the road out was blocked by the ocean. The really high tide that blocked the road was generally while we were sleeping so it wasn't a problem but there were many visitors to the beach who weren't aware of this issue or ignored it or just plain drove the wrong kind of vehicle into sand. As a result, each night someone managed to get their car stranded on the beach. That first night we attempted to help one such driver but to no avail.

Before we arrived he had accelerated himself into entrenchment in the sand. We pushed a bit and then moved on to dinner. Our first dinner was pizza at a place called Jammer's after a failed attempt to eat at Vianca's (we sat at a table for 30 minutes or so before we gave up being acknowledged). The pizza was delicious although we struggled to adjust to the muggy, muggy air and found ourselves sweating - some more than others (ahem, the boys). When we returned to our cabanas, the tide was higher and the stranded car was gone.

There was one last bit of excitement left in the day as Shannon and I got ready for bed. We had the advantage of a ceiling fan to fight some of the heat but crawling under covers was unappealing. Even so I shook out the light sheet on the bed before crawling in only to be rewarded with the sight of a cockroach scampering further into my bed. Now. There are many creepy, crawly creatures I can tolerate. Spiders may startle me but I can deal with them. In Guatemala we even had a frog jumping past our sleeping bags that I scooped up and tossed out the window. But cockroaches really disgust me above all other icky things. So I freaked out a little. Jaime happened to be walking by and knocked on the door after hearing our screams (okay, probably just mine and not really screams, just slightly restrained shrieks). I pointed at my bed and the cockroach and he took care of it. And I thanked him and was embarrassed over my own girly-ness.

I pulled out my sleeping bag and layed it over top of the bed covers and tried to banish the creeping image that kept coming to mind that the concrete base on which my bed was secured was completely infested with cockroaches crawling all over each other like one might see in an Indiana Jones movie. Somehow I fell asleep anyway.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Panama: The Characters

Before I dive in to the (perhaps) lengthy recounting of my latest adventure, I think for this particular trip it will be helpful to have an introduction to the characters with whom I was traveling. And believe me, they (uh, including me) are all characters. Someone could have filmed us and had themselves a nice chunk of material to edit into a reality show. Except that most of us managed to remain polite and cordial most of the time. Mostly.

To start I should let you in on what my expectations were for the trip. Except, I'm not entirely sure what my expectations were other than pretty different from what actually unfolded. And that isn't a criticism or a negative in any way.

I've traveled in a variety of ways - on my own, with self-guided groups, with large, highly organized groups, with smaller organized groups, smaller not so organized groups, with friends, with acquaintances, with friends of friends and with complete strangers. Each has its advantages (and disadvantages but we won't go there). If I really had to lay out my expectations for this trip in hind-sight I would say I was expecting something akin to my river trips where the guides were experienced and knew all the ins and outs and had done this trip for others a hundred times and took care of all of the details starting with a safety talk and covering everything from bathroom orientation to the local flora and fauna and then prepping all the meals and entertaining the guests with travelogue stories. My expectations were possibly crossed with my experience with a guide in the Amazon last year.

But that isn't how things turned out.

They were much, much better. It felt more like a friend of a friend (with lots of experience and expertise) decided to plan an adventure and send out an open invitation and I was lucky enough to be included. And this is the crazy crew he ended up with:

Shannon is my connection to the trip. We had previously spent 4 days together last September on the Gates of Lodore river trip. She was one of the three other women on the trip with whom I bonded, but not necessarily individually. In truth, we knew each other as part of a positive group dynamic but I didn't really know what to expect one on one. Sometime in December Shannon sent out an email to all the ladies of the Lodore trip asking if anyone was interested in going to Panama. A year or so earlier she had gone on a sea kayak trip to Belize guided by Jaime (our guide). Jaime was organizing a Panama trip and she wanted to see if anyone else was interested. We all were. Except the dates and cost of the trip and all of those details only ended up lining up for Shannon and me. Aside from the emails about the Panama trip Shannon and I had probably only exchanged a total of 100 words between us via Facebook that could be boiled down to - "Lodore was so fun!!" "I miss the river!!" and "Wouldn't it be great to get everyone together again?" All involving far too many exclamation marks and none conveying anything of substance.

To make matters more complicated, a few weeks prior to our trip I received a very mysterious email from the one male guest on our Lodore trip. He urged me to call him because he had information he had to share with me about Shannon before I went on this trip. Uh, weird, right? So I called the guy and he proceeded to tell me some wild story about how he stayed with her for a week and she was "abusive" toward him. I tried to downplay it all but he then tried to tell me she didn't even want to go to Panama. Now I was a little worried. On the one hand, I could brush this strange call off as the disappointed ranting (though he wasn't actually ranting) of a boy with a hopeless crush but what if . . . . I chose to ignore it and chalked it up to there being some strange romantic intrigue that wasn't returned and the boy walked away crushed. Which I later discovered is exactly what happened. Boy showed up for a visit with expectations. Feelings were not mutual. Girl reacted by being extremely cold and distant due to surprise advances. Boy overreacts because he is a bit socially awkward.

All my worries about Shannon not wanting to go melted away when I spoke with her a week before our trip (I decided against asking about the strange call). She was just as excited as I was and we had an easy flow to our conversation on the phone. Something I find difficult to fake or even create with someone you don't normally talk to. And my qualms were absolutely wiped out when we saw each other for the first time in the Atlanta airport and we greeted each other like long lost best friends with a giant hug and non-stop chatter. And seriously, that chatter rarely quieted between us during waking hours (you can go ahead and feel bad for the others but I'm pretty sure they found us entertaining). We are kindred spirits Shannon and me. We are both talkers, which we already knew about each other for our previous adventure. We also, apparently, have similar to nearly identical taste in apparel. At least in adventure sport apparel. Which is pretty humorous, especially since we both have brown hair, have similar body types and are separated in height by less than two inches. We even discovered that we both have a propensity to sing random tidbits of song whenever the mood strikes. Which it often did. Only she has a voice people actually want to hear. Upon meeting the rest of the group, the others were pretty shocked we had previously only spent a total of 4 days together.

And the best thing I can say about Shannon is that at the end of 12 days of almost 24/7 constant contact wherein we shared hotel rooms/bathrooms/a tent/meals/a kayak and even a surf board (because two became too cumbersome), I realized I was not sick of her. In fact, there was never a time in the whole trip when I craved solitude and alone time. I actually had to consciously force myself to break away from the group to journal. Before we parted ways at the end of our trip in the Atlanta airport once again, I told her that me not getting sick of her was a huge compliment and hopefully we can plan more adventures together.

Oh, Denise. Where do I start? Denise is a 50-year old thoracic surgeon from Montreal. She is only five feet tall and does not believe she needs a bra (ahem, she does). While French is her primary language she also speaks English, Spanish and Italian although her accent is so unique it was difficult to determine which of these was her primary language. She proved to be one of our most eccentric characters with her onomatopoeia manner of describing things such as "psst psst" for bug spray and the crazy items she chose to pack with her. For example, in the photo above she is modeling her plastic wine glass (the stem screws off) which she brought to enjoy the 3 bags of wine she brought (to share though she only brought one glass). She entertained us right from the start by explaining how she had purchased one of those strange contraptions someone (I'm guessing a man) thought women might want to help them pee in the woods. Something like this, I'm guessing though I never saw hers. She told us that she experimented with using it at home and it was a good thing because apparently she managed to use it backwards or inside out or something at first. When asked toward the end of our camping days she confessed she had abandoned it in favor of the natural squatting or peeing in the ocean method because honestly, who wants to carry around some urine soaked contraption with them? Weird. That is one thing I think squatting trumps.

She also told us about how she practiced setting up her tent and other equipment at home - much to her cat's delight or consternation, I forget which. She spoke often of her cat and it seems many of her habits were formed to please or appease the cat. Such as learning to remain very still in bed so as not to wake the cat.

I suspect she is a pretty brilliant surgeon and was definitely forging a path into surgery when very few women occupied the field. I do not know much about medicine but Shannon does (she's a doctor too) and she had a lot of respect for Denise professionally. Denise came to the group through our guide Jaime who she met on an expedition in Belize - a different one from Shannon's. She is an experienced kayaker and keeps one in her apartment on the Saint Laurence River and one at a lake somewhere in Canada. She often fell into the zen of paddling so deeply that she put multiple football fields between herself and the rest of the group requiring Jaime to let out a few piercing whistles and and some fast paddling to chase her down.

Hmmm, where do I even begin with Ian? Ian also met Jaime on a prior trip in Belize but was a bit more personally acquainted with him after Jaime visited him in Wyoming and joined him for part of his epic drive through Central America. You see Ian started his adventure the day after Christmas when he got in his truck with his dog in LA and started driving south. He picked Jaime up in Belize and had some crazy adventures that soured him on much of Central America - Honduras especially and police specifically. From the bits and pieces of grumbling we picked up from him he was rear-ended in El Salvador and extorted by crooked cops and border patrol inspectors repeatedly. He also blamed his grouchiness on his decision to quit smoking pretty much the day he met us. While the nicotine depravation surely aggrevated his surly nature, most of it seemed pretty innate. He just trends far too much toward bitter negativity than I prefer to contend with when I leave a city and profession that heaps bitter negativity on its occupants at every turn.

And yet, I didn't dislike him or wish him away or anything. In fact it kind of turned into a form of entertainment for Shannon and me to soften him up.

One of the best things Ian brought to the table was this guy - his dog Buddy. Before we even met Buddy we received a couple of lectures on how we were not to touch him as he is known to bite people and does not like strangers and on and on. Ian was pretty lucky that the three women who joined the road trip were open to being shoved into a small truck with a supposedly unfriendly dog sitting on their laps. Despite all warnings to the contrary Buddy warmed up to me immediately and sat on my lap the bulk of the 6 odd hour drive to Santa Catalina. He even licked me a couple of times which Ian claimed was something reserved only for the people he knows and loves. Once given a chance Buddy warmed to Shannon very quickly too but then, we are both dog people. She had two of her own waiting at home. Denise never really got over her nervousness with Buddy and Buddy remained cautious around her as well. He probably knew she prefers cats.

The first night on the island, as soon as it was dark, Buddy was snuggling up to Shannon and me alternately requesting ear scratches and full body rub downs. By the end of the week Buddy was rolled over on his back begging me to scratch his tummy - the most vulnerable and submissive position of a dog.

I'm not saying Ian's warnings were unfounded. I think Buddy and Ian have similar caustic, prickly personalities to start but eventually drop the defenses once they are comfortable.

Which brings me to the organizer of it all - our fearless leader Jaime. A native of New Zealand with an endearing Kiwi accent and the laid-back attitude of a nomad. While Jaime and Ian had done some scouting and made some arrangements in Santa Catalina in advance of our arrival, he had never been to our ultimate kayak destination of Coiba Island either. This was his scouting expedition and we were his guinea pigs. His very talkative, ecclectic group of guinea pigs. And he put together an amazing, amazing trip for us. He was discovering everything right along side us and while he was definitely the leader and worked very hard to make things run smoothly, he also just felt like one of us.

Jaime taught me how to paddle more efficiently without killing my muscles, helped me overcome my fear of spotting reef sharks, led me to swimming with barricuda, baked a chocolate cake on a deserted island, made killer spaghetti, fish, curry and pancakes (again, on a deserted island) and happily spent one evening sitting on the beach under the stars singing bits and pieces of songs with Shannon and me. Oh, he also played Tom Petty on the guitar.

Next up - Santa Catalina. Where I learned to surf. Seriously, I did. And it was awesome and yes, I want to do it again. Soon.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

a preliminary update

  • Yes, just 2 days ago I was lying in that hammock overlooking the ocean
  • It was hot and humid with lots of mosquitos
  • I loved it anyway
  • I got home in the early evening last night and I'm back at work today
  • I have a lot of work to do but I don't mind too terribly since I only have a 2 day work week
  • I'm coping by cranking up my space heater under my desk and eating chocolate I bought in Panama City my last night there
  • It was really difficult to find chocolate in the grocery store that wasn't from the States or Europe. I found that strange.
  • I always like bringing local treats home from places I visit to ease my way back into my regular life
  • I also like buying a coffee table book and maybe a pretty magnet for my fridge as mementos
  • Unfortunately Tocumen Airport thinks their visitors are only interested in duty-free liquor, perfume and expensive ties, I couldn't find a single souvenir shop in the entire airport
  • And not just because I arrived at 530 am - there just weren't souvenir shops anywhere to be found, opened or closed
  • I had to get up at 4 am yesterday to check out of my hotel at 445 am to catch the free shuttle to the airport at 5 am
  • The hotel advised us this was the best option
  • I was skeptical but did it anyway not wanting to chance anything
  • Of course we arrived at the airport extremely early - our flight was at 820 am
  • The $25 taxi ride (split with my travel buddy) would have been worth the extra hour of sleep
  • Especially since we didn't get to bed until after 130 am
  • Last night I fell asleep on my couch after eating Thai delivery around 8 pm
  • I woke up at 10 and went to bed without showering even though my last shower was more than 24 hours earlier
  • The concept of "clean" can be very relative - I was not sweaty and I didn't have any bug spray or sunscreen on so I didn't feel dirty
  • Besides, I shaved my legs for the first time in over a week during that last shower in Panama City - I felt clean
  • Despite my prolific use of bug spray I came home with tons of bug bites
  • Many of them were really flared up this morning for some reason
  • The red welts kind of destroy the look of my tan
  • Not that anyone can tell since I'm all covered up in long sleeves and long pants
  • But I was told on the elevator this morning that I look tanned and relaxed
  • And I feel it too
  • I have many, many stories to share about my exciting Panamanian adventures
  • And lots of photos too
  • Except last night my laptop refused to download them and I was too tired to figure out the problem
  • As a hint of things to come I will tell you I have stories of snorkeling with barricuda, surfing, monkeys, sharks, an abandoned prison, moon rises and sunsets and a what it's like to live on a deserted island for 6 days - just to name a few
  • And by the way, this will be my last post hidden behind the iron curtain of password protected private blogging
  • Yes, this means I did not get the job I was chasing but I'm not disappointed
  • At this point I'm just happy to have it all decided
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