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A Not-So-Nice Touch

The old town in Panama was the original town and from its remnants, it must have been stunning. But as the city grew and built out, the old town was abandoned and became a slum. These days it's being fixed up, but the side streets are still ragged and dirty. I started down a street today and an old black guy shook his head and said, "No, no," and put both his hands on his throat like he was being strangled. So I reversed course. It's like the city is under siege, cops on every corner, tough guys, a menacing presence. One cop slapping his baton in the palm of his hand, another with his hand on his pistol. Today an armored truck drove up to one of the big markets. Two armed guys got out to pick up the money while a third stood outside the truck, looking in all directions and holding a wicked-looking shotgun at the ready.

A Nice Touch

I asked a lady in a store today if she had a battery for my travel alarm clock. She said, "Ah no, pa-pá." When Chilón and I had dinner at a busy diner in San José after the soccer game a few weeks back, the waitress brought him his dinner, and said, "Aquí, mi amor." He thought it was so great, that she would say "my love." People touch you, like on the arm when you ask directions. It's warm and friendly.

Vegetable Market in Panama City

Busses operate like jitneys. People hail them to get picked up.
Yesterday morning I had breakfast at the Cafe Coca Cola, French toast and cafe au lait (and sneakily poured a shot of mescal from a half-pint of same purchased for $1.40, into the coffee, heh-heh). Bkfst was $2.
In any major city south of (and including) LA, I head for the mercado. Yesterday I explained to a cabbie that I wanted to go to the biggest mercado (there are generally a number of them). First we went to a meat market, where there was more poultry, beef, goat, pork, and who knows, than I've ever seen. Next we went to the vegetable market and it was spectacular. More wholesale than retail, mountains of fruit and vegetables. In the outdoor area there were flatbed trucks converted into booths with mounds of bananas, coconuts, plantains, pineapples. A stand with 2-300 papayas. Watermelons cut open to show sparkling pink insides, huge piles of potatoes and dozens of other root vegetables, tons of tomatoes. A beatup black Toyota 4x4 with an 8-foot-high pile of bananas, A room inside with nothing but parsley and cilantro, smelled like parsley incense.Little restaurants serving the freshest of food, and packed with people. I got a glass of fresh-squeezed ice-cold cane sugar juice for 25 cents, it was green and So good. I can't bring myself to shoot photos at real places like this. I just don't want to engender that vibe, so I turn on the camera in my head.

Last night after dinner I got an ice cream cone (2 scoops, 50 cents) and sat on a park bench for about half an hour, opposite this diner run by a Chinese family, watching people walk by. The weather is balmy and perfect, and there's usually a nice breeze from the Pacific, I imagine it can be hot and steamy, but I've hit it right.

Another Photo From This Morning

Casita in the Jungle by Colorado Chris

I'm going back and picking out a few photos from past weeks, so the blog won't be linear time-wise. I have a really lot of good pix!

Super Steve/Super Bamboo

Back to the jungle (linear this is not): Super Steve and his wife (a Tica architect), have designed and built a bunch of fascinating, meticulously-crafted bamboo structures in the seaside jungle. Here's what Steve told me about the bamboo he uses, imported from Columbia:
• It's cut with machetes in the 1/2-waning moon — when the moon is on the opposite side of the earth, and it is drawing the sugars and starches out of the canes and into the roots. This is a 3-day window once a month.
• It's cut between midnight and 4 AM.
• It's left standing in the grove 30-90 days so moisture wicks out slowly; then it's air dried in the sun.
• If it's getting exported (like to Costa Rica, it's immersed in a borate and boric acid solution (natural bug killer).
I have a bunch of photos of these wonderfully-constructed (and designed!) structures.

Tuesday Morning in Panama City

It's dirty, dangerous, and difficult, but it's also exotic, exciting, and soulful. I love the place, and the people. We are all Americanos, verdad?


The Zonas Rojas (Red Zones) of Panama City

About 3-4 times I've started to follow my I-am-a-camera instincts into the lesser-travelled streets and each time I've been warned of the danger. The red zones are where there are no police, and many many robberies. Panama City has a even more sinister edge than San José, Costa Rica, it's like the back side of its charm. The cops are like SWAT team guys, there are cops on mountain bikes that are chingon.

Panamanians are wonderful. Speaking what Spanish I can opens doors, and leads to conversations. The young backpackers are great ambassadors, they make their own way on the cheap, and blend in. Each time I step out of the hotel, I have this feeling of joy and adventure, it's that kind of a city. I said to a streetside tailor, who sewed two buttons on my shirt for $1 this morning, that P.C. was, like San Francisco, a city with soul. Con alma…

I booked this room (with good wi-fi!) for 2 nights, this morning I extended it another two days. Total hotel bill for 4 days: $60.

Barbecue Beef and Coconut Milk in the Street and a Log Cabin Made of Earth and Wood

I got hungry after a few hours of shooting pix, but each restaurant I found had buffet style, which means the food has been sitting all day with heat under it. No thanks! On the central avenida, I spotted a trio of ladies barbecuing thin slices of beef and serving them with fried plantains, so I got a plate — $2, They insisted I sit in their only chair. A guy selling cups of cold coconut milk was next to them, and he handed me a cup. Boy, was it good! 60 cents. (In Panama, currency is US dollars.) I ate the beef with my fingers and one of the ladies, black and from the Dominican Republic, sat on a box and talked to me. She was greatly amused when I told her that Central Americans and South Americans were Americanos just like US citizens. What about Canadians, she said, and I said they were Norte Americanos, just like us USA people. Big smile

Tonight I had a great dinner at the Coca-Cola Cafe: broiled Corvina (sea bass), fries as they're meant to be, a plate of watermelon chunks, a cup of excellent cafe au lait, and a simple rice pudding that was pure genius, with hints of cinnamon and rum. Total bill: $5. There were about 50 people in the restaurant, about 3/4 local. A bunch of 20-year-old trekkers, an old black guy with a battered Panama hat and a rumpled purple suit and white shirt sitting picturesquely by the door. A huge black guy came in, the 290 lb variety. 3 old straight locals (yikes, my age!), a creole-looking family, the mother (probably grandmother) sitting regally at head of table; surfer dude in flip-flops getting take-out; 60-ish looking woman with t-shirt saying "Bebe" in sequins. Like in Costa Rica, the women wear tight clothes, regardless of their weight, comfortable with their curvy and often ample bodies. Pleasant hum of voices, no one loud, everyone cool. Not a "tourist" in sight. Wonderful place.

I met an English ex-pat on the street today, a witty guy, said he'd been all over the world, and this — Panama City — was it for him, hands-down.

Overheard at a cafe in Costa Rica a few days ago: "I was a lawyer until a few months ago. Now I'm a backpacker."

I've been surprised by the level of Spanish skills of English speakers in both Costa Rica and Panama, The gringos and Germans in the jungle were all pretty fluent, and the trekkers seem to be multi-lingual. Way different from Mexico, or from the typical insulated package-trip tourist trip. I was pretty shy in Spanish until some years ago when I met an American named Pancho in Mulegé, Baja California (I suspect he was on the run from the law), and he said, don't fall back into English. Just throw Spanish words out there. Stay in Spanish. Don't worry if you don't get tenses or endings right, keep at it and you'll improve, plus people love it when you make the attempt.

I'm writing this while sitting on my bed with a nice breeze from the fan and open window. From the courtyard below, Chuck Berry singing Johnny Be Good. Hey a little lizard just ran up my wall.

Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans,
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens,
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood,
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B Good,
Who never ever learned to read or write so well,
But he could play the guitar just like ringin a bell…

Panama City/The Old City: Casco Viejo

Oh the wonders of the web. I found a backpackers/trekkers hotel in the old part of Panama City two days ago, the Hospedaje Casco Viejo, and the website was so together I decided to go for it. A single room $15 per night; bathroom down the hall. Turned out to be great. Clean, bare room, ceiling fan much nicer than air conditioning, breeze blowing through tall open windows, nice people here, good vibes.

I got into PC at noon, a $3 cab ride to the hotel, which we eventually found, rested a while and then set out once again in a strange city. Lord, is this place exotic. I've only explored a small part of it, but it's richly textured in people and buildings and music. There's an undercurrent of fear because of so many street robberies. I started shooting pictures as soon as I walked out the door. Later this afternoon, I started to walk down a narrow street off Avenida Central and a local guy said, no, don't go down there; there are areas of the city that police don't patrol, so, yes, there's danger here, but like Phnom Penh, the city has a great heart beating along with layers of history and danger.

Houseboat on the Kentucky River: The Moron Brothers

Two brothers float down a river in a homemade shack, catch catfish, tell bad jokes, and play good blugrass music. This is SO good! (Link sent me by Kevin Kelly.)

"There's somethin' about the smell of coffee perkin',
and coal-oil lamps a-burnin',
Just reminds me of when I was a kid.
I could come down here and turn the radio on, and light coal-oil lanterns, and build a fire in the stove,
And listen to the Grand Ol Opery on Saturday night.
Man, I'm tellin' you, makes me feel like I was a kid again…"

Posted from Panama City…