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.


michele said...

can't wait to hear more!

autumn said...

So, if its okay, I'm just going to live through you. All right then.

Tiffany said...

Amazing! I loved reading about everybody. It indeed sounds like a great group for a reality show!

hovergirl said...

the lighting in those pictures makes me jealous of the sunshine already. what a good adventure. you deserved it!

Mary said...

So so cool. I liked your post below too about the bug bites. Not that I like that you have bug bites. But I thought you wrote about it very well.

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