Panama! Part 1
Well, the world didn’t implode. It didn’t even hiccup. It was just another day in Paradise the day I walked onto Isla Bastimentos and delivered a big ol’ hug to the Other Lauren Ziemski.
Our hug, our meeting… it was all very normal, really. In fact, the whole trip had an air of total banality to it. It was, as they say, soooo Panama. Our plane almost crash-landed in Changuinola. No biggie. One day the whole island lost power. Whatevs. Whole sections of menus were unavailable at most of the eateries on the island. Meh. This is just how it IS on Bastimentos.
The story of how OLZ and I found each other is much more full of plot twists and turns than our actual meeting (though, an almost-plane-crash makes for a good plot twist, no? I’ll tell you that story, and the story of how we found each other in the first place, in another post.)
In mid-December, Burdy and I packed up the house, put our winter coats in one giant suitcase (for our subsequent trip to the East Coast to visit our families) and our bathing suits in another suitcase, and we flew to Panama City. And when we got to the Panama City airport, we sat and watched the rain come down. We watched the rain come down in sheets from behind the airport’s four glass walls like a pair of disconsolate orangutans in a oversized aquarium. We sat some more. And we watched the rain come down some more. We couldn’t believe our luck: we’d planned this trip specifically to get out of the rain, and here we were with front row seats to the Rain Show. So, we did what every North American does while he waits. We ate. We had a very mediocre hamburger in the food court and I was handed three very long tubes of packaged sugar with my mocha, which came out of a machine in a single brown stream under the spigot marked MOKA. We were the only non-Panamanians in there. About twenty young people moved around the room, decorating the columns and sweeping the floors. They were masters at making garland out of ribbon and golden twine and oversized Christmas balls. They moved with urgency, but without frantic-ness. It was amazing. North Americans look like meth-heads in comparison to the pace at which the Panamanians move. After having prepared the house for our absence for two weeks, and packing up for two different climates, I was looking forward to a whole week of moving at non-meth-head pace. So be it if I had to take my relaxation with a side of tropical storm.
We had to take a half hour taxi ride from the Panama City airport to the airport that would get us to the islands. The one we were driving to, it turns out, was a former US military base. It never fails to incense me when we travel to learn how much of the goddamned earth is either formerly or currently occupied by our armed forces. I remember the very first time we flew to the island of Oahu and I was like “why can’t we drive our rental car through the lush green middle of this place?” Know why? Because the whole damned island is one giant army base. Arguably the prettiest part, too.
I came to know this bit about the former-airbase-turned-local-airport because of a passenger in our taxi. Here’s a little travel tip for you: when the cab drivers come up to you in the airport in Panama and aggressively ask you where you are going, do not mistake their assertiveness for hostility. They honestly want to drive you somewhere. You can haggle just a *little* bit with them, but do yourself a favor and don’t haggle too much. It’s not a haggling culture, and suggesting they drive you half an hour away for less than twenty dollars is insulting. By comparison, it costs us SEVENTY dollars to get to OUR airport by cab, which is the same half an hour away. Twenty bucks is a STEAL in any country.
It did NOT occur as a steal to a young lady who got in the cab with us. Travel tip #2: split fare and share public transportation with other travelers if you can. It always makes for good stories. Plus, packing as many people as would fit into any given car was kind of the norm there. This young lady had just flown in from Rome where, according to her, the modus operandi of cab drivers in that country is to try to weasel every last cent out of foreigners. Thing was, though, after permanently living there for ten years, she wasn’t actually a foreigner anymore, but she still looked that way (read: she had an afro). So, the Italians were constantly trying to take her for all she was worth.
Her hackles were understandably raised. Mine were too. The last foreign country we’d been to was Thailand where the average cab ride (no matter the distance, it seemed) was about $3. This $20 cab ride, given the rural setting and general shoutiness of the drivers, was more first world, price-wise, than I was expecting. For shame, Lolo. For shame.
Anywho, this feisty young thing and I got to chatting about our travel experiences and I found myself really taking a shine to her. Even as she was doing battle with the brittle-bodied expat next to her. It was the expat who told us about the army base, and it was the expat who told us in an aggrieved tone that we should just pay the cabbie what he was asking. I can’t explain it, but there is something that rubs me SO WRONG about clearly privileged retirees stating they LIVE in other countries, like it’s so wrong to guess from their polyester active pants and matching tribal themed button down shirt that they clearly haven’t lived here ALL their lives. She answered our questions about where she was from with all the indignant outrage of a Mrs. Thurston Howell III: “In the mountains, of course” (dahhling). Saying something like, “Oh, I moved here a few years ago” would have been more accurate than claiming she was Panamanian. And then we found out she was from Boquette, a place in northern Panama that hosts multitudes of mostly white European and North American ex-pats. I had to cover my face with my jacket to keep my eyes from rolling right on out of my head.
So as not to repeat my experience in Thailand, I thought I would bone up on my knowledge about the place before I got there. In between flights, I read the brief write-up OLZ has on her website about what to expect when you arrive on Isla Bastimentos. And it’s a good thing I DID, too. Otherwise, the very thin man in ragged clothing running down the beach towards us and gesturing at our luggage would have been a little… um… how do I say this delicately? Unnerving?
It turns out that Rene, Lauren and Ryan’s local helper dude, is really sweet. He’s tickled that he’s specifically mentioned by name on her website and that guests are told to look out for him as they approach the B&B. He’s as unreadable as thirteenth century poetry, but underneath that dispassionate demeanor, there’s a lot roiling around. Smart as a whip and very, very kind. I wish I had asked Rene more questions about himself, but to be very perfectly honest, between my shitty hearing and my slippery hold on the local dialect, I was afraid I was going to spend most of my time screeching WHAT? at him. On Isla Bastimentos, the locals (most of whom are descendants of Jamaican slaves brought to the island by the Spaniards) speak a patois of Guari Guari, Spanish, and English. I had JUST gotten back into the habit of drawling a long, slow, typical-of-Panama “Bueeeeeeenas” at everyone when suddenly it was no longer applicable. When the plane dropped us onto Bastimentos, I felt like I’d arrived on another planet. The locals were saying things to me, but my brain was doing some mental calisthenics to fit their square, choppy words into the delicate round holes for Spanish in my head. It wasn’t working. They were looking at me like I was dumb, and I was looking at them like they were from Mars. They tried again, using single syllables. Cholo? Dock? And finally it clicked. The language they were speaking WAS MY OWN.
I have a feeling that, had I spent a longer time there, my ears would have attuned to all the inflections and the nuances, but, in under a week, the best I could do was shrug my shoulders and make a face like I was trying to pass a gallstone whenever the conversation got any further than “Where yah goin’ to?”.
As usual, everyone was VERY patient with us- more patient than ANY North American would EVER be with anyone who didn’t know English. By comparison, when we got back to the states, the TSA impatiently waved the international arrivals through the turnstiles and screamed at us like we were a herd of recalcitrant barnyard animals. God bless you if your English language training didn’t include “Have your passports out! Let’s go, let’s GO! LET’S GO! NO STOPPING IN LINE!”. It felt like I was running a baton race through the airport, only the baton was my TWO HUGE suitcases and the TSA were the spectators but instead of handing out Dixie cups of Gatorade, they were calling us fatties.
On Bastimentos, though, everyone was kind and patient with us. Not in this overly hospitable way- it was more of an arms folded across the chest, exasperated sigh, I’ll wait till you collect your thoughts sort of way. The real way, I found, to get to anyone’s heart, was to compliment their food. Living on an island, resources are scarce, and sometimes just plain non-existent. When someone can pull together a meal with whatever’s left in the pantry, well… that meal deserves high praise, I think. The locals appreciate when you appreciate their efforts to make something out of nothing.
There is an unusual triumvirate of tension between three groups on the island: the Chinese who own the small convenience shops, the Panamanians who frequent them, and the white people who own some of the more posh establishments on the island. I witnessed some pretty intense disregard for common courtesy in the convenience shops and I had to work pretty hard to pull my judgement back. There was a history at play here that had absolutely nothing to do with my rules about polite society.
When we collapsed onto barstools at the Firefly, Lauren and Ryan’s B&B, we were sweaty from having dragged our ridiculous luggage over half the island, and exhausted from having been in airplanes and cabs for the last 24 hours. I was starting to feel like maybe we should have just gone to the south of Panama after all. We’d had a moment of sheer panic when, hours before, looking out at the rainclouds over the wing of the plane, Burdy and I each realized with horror that neither of us had packed raingear. The skies above the B&B were threatening to open up and hit us with rain again. I felt sick with regret.
Ryan greeted us warmly and gave us water, which we gulped down like people who’d just crossed the desert on our hands and knees. We waited for OLZ to come down to the bar while Ryan finished up with the breakfast dishes. Meanwhile, I tried to relax and take in the scenery. Yes, the skies were thick with clouds, but there were also palm trees all around us. There ocean was a few feet (yes, feet) away. We were drinking cool, clean water. We were wearing tank tops and shorts. In the distance, the rest of the Bocas Del Toro islands were mounded haphazardly along the horizon. The more I sat there, listening to the waves crash, the more excited I became. Something overtook my exhaustion. It was this feeling that we had, in fact, come to the right place. It was like I’d come home, in a way. OLZ and I obviously share a last name, so we’d deduced we must be related somewhere down the line. So this meant the person I was about to meet was not just the result of some flukey Internet search, but family. And that gave me the butterflies. It shook off that exhaustion and propped me right up in my chair.
There were no television crews to film OLZ and me when we hugged out there on that deck (somehow, I’d imagined there would be). But neither of us was wearing a bra. And that was my first sign that everything was going to be irie.
It was like we’d known each other for years. We fell into easy conversation. We laughed at the same things. We curled our lips in disgust over the same things. We just got right down to it. There was no break-in period.
Which, when you think about it, is kind of amazing, no? I mean, what are the chances that you click instantly with someone you’ve only stalked online? Amiright?
My second and third signs that everything was going to be awesome were that OLZ likes to cook and eat as much as I do. And she has a KILLER sense for good food. I can’t overstate how good her cooking is. It is SO well done. We ate and drank like kings. She also has a keen design sense, so the whole place is decked out in world-travel inspired prints and patterns. The Firefly just sings with comfort and style. And, of course, she is as funny and accommodating as the best local restaurant owner you’ve ever met. She’s old world charm in a Tupac t-shirt with the sleeves cut off.
Through a non-stop series of Q&A (in which Lauren graciously indulged us), we found out that she and Ryan pretty much did most of the designing and revamping themselves. Now. Before y’all start looking her up and sending her emails to ask her how she did it, and you start to think that doing what she’s doing is categorically dreamy and that maybe you can do it too, let me say one word to you: shipping container.
To the left, to the left, everything you own in a box to da lef’. That’s pretty much what LZ and Ryan had to do: stick everything they owned, plus anything and everything they could POSSIBLY think of needing, in a shipping container. And then get that container not just from the west coast of the US to Panama, but to the islands off the coast of Panama. And then unload that container over a coconut shell-and-rock-and-driftwood-strewn path. In the blistering heat. Everything. Refrigerators. A washing machine. Pallets of toilet paper. Their clothes. Building supplies. Tools. In a place where stuff rusts the second you set it down because of all the moisture in the air.
For the first few days, I saw this rugged get-‘er-done attitude as a mirror to my own personal philosophy about hard work and determination. Hadn’t I also started a business from the ground up? It seemed the both of us were born with the art of the hustle in us. Maybe it was a Ziemski thing, and maybe it was transferrable. I considered that maybe- just maybe– it would be possible for me and Lauren to trade places for a while so she could go take a break and visit her friends in L.A. and I could get out from underneath Seattle’s suicide grey skies and make a few dinners and change a few sheets. But after a week of mosquito bites and wearing clothes that never quite dried, I was sort of feeling like maybe I was, in fact, NOT cut out to be an island-based entrepreneur in a second world country. I’m probably more suited to the desert, where the things that bite are bigger than your fist and can therefore be beaten back with a rowboat oar. I have a thing for adobe, too. Anywho. I haven’t given up the dream of doing something like OLZ and Ryan, of course, but I am WAY more informed now about what it takes to do this sort of thing. Not that I ever really had any illusions about it being easy, but the specifics… the bugs, the power outages, the rain, the Soviet era government red tape, the long hauls over uneven ground, the unreliable help, the very reliable help, the slow, un-business-like pace at which an island and its people and its commodities move… all this was broken down for us in gruesome detail by Lauren and Ryan and they will be the first to tell you: it takes a fearless set of hands and hearts to make a place like the Firefly a reality.
If I could sum those two up in one word, it would be this: fearless. I learned SO much about how much you actually CAN overcome if you are dedicated to your dreams. It sounds so cliche- but it’s that tenacity, that forward motion in the face of calamity that separates owners of B&Bs on tropical islands from the rest of us. I’ve spent a good amount of time being afraid of the what-ifs in my life (Hey! Thanks, Anxiety!). Lauren and Ryan taught me, in just under a week, that you can be uncertain of EVERYTHING, and you can move forward anyway. This is emerging as a stronger and stronger theme for me in my life this year. More on that later.
SO, what else? Well, it rained for four days straight. Which is not a problem when you’re in Paradise. Because rainy Paradise is still Paradise. Here’s what was not idyllic: rain on a hot tin roof. Literally. Do you know what that sounds like? Let me tell you: it sounds like World War III. Now, I’ve had some issues with noise on my roof before. We have these crows here in Seattle that sound like they might weigh 180 pounds each, that’s how much noise they make. Some days they peck the roof. Other times they just stomp around up there. And other days they scream at each other like they’re filming a remake of Rocky.
Anywho. Noise. On the roof. Very bothersome to me. A theme in my life, if you will. And then, it was all around me on Bastimentos and it was deafening. The waves were crashing up against the rocks, and the rain was coming down, and it was so loud, I couldn’t hear Burdy snoring next to me. Talk about finding your Bizarro World silver lining at 3 am.
And then there was the night the coconut fell on the roof. Lauren and Ryan have some beautiful coconut palms on their property and some of them are situated such that when the coconuts are ready to drop, they drop down onto the corrugated roof. Which sounds like a medicine ball being dropped onto the hood of a car from sixty feet up.
Now, imagine that you are a Highly Sensitive Person who startles easily.
And imagine that you hear this coconut falling on the roof in the middle of the night.
And imagine you wake up from hearing this explosive noise in the pitch black.
And you can’t remember where you are.
And you can’t hear your partner snoring next to you, or anything else for that matter.
And that you’re pretty sure that noise you just heard was gunshot because that is what makes the most sense to you, given your upbringing and your active imagination.
I’ll let you take a moment so your adrenal glands can finish imploding.
But, hey! We were on vacation!! And I wasn’t gonna let my crappy brain chemistry get the best of me. So after a night of restless sleep, we had pineapple smoothies and veggie omelettes and coffee and all was right with the world. Forward motion.
That’s how they DO in Panama, y’all.
So, for the next few days, that’s how I did as well.