Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Day 212: Lost in a Lonely Planet

Day 212 was our first full day in Panama and one full of things that I'd never done before.

Maribeth and I woke up early and enjoyed the hotel's free breakfast, excited to get out and see the city. We made the decision the day before that we'd head first to the Panama Canal.

I know that the canal is important and has changed the way we are able to do business with other countries, but if I'm being 100 percent honest, I really didn't understand how a canal works. I had to see it in person.

While at breakfast we ran into our friends from Day 211, Roy and Luis, in the lobby. Roy was checking out of the hotel, likely suffering from a raging hangover, ready to leave the night before behind him. Luis asked us what we were up to and we told him. He, having a free morning, offered to take us, in his own car, to Miraflores Locks.

His offer was sweet, if indeed he was the nice man he appeared to be. But what if he was not that man, but instead a crazy psycho Panamanian ready to prey on unassuming American girls?

Maribeth and I went back to our breakfast table and discussed Luis' offer, and realized we were united on how we felt. This was a very nice gesture, and quite possibly the best opportunity we'd ever have to see the country from a local's perspective. But as kind as Luis had been so far, getting into a car with a complete stranger in a foreign country was not a smart idea.

My dad, aware of my adventurous nature and free spirited attitude, is always nervous when I travel. And I assumed, as most daughters would, that his concern is for my safety. But based on our conversation, I'm not 100 percent sure that's all he's worried about.

"Stephanie," he'll say in an uncharacteristically serious voice, "Please don't force me to go on one of these morning shows crying asking for you to return safely. I just don't think I could handle it."

We had this conversation before my cross-country Phish adventure and we had it again before I left for Panama. I'm assuming he meant to say, "If anything ever happened to you, my beloved daughter, I would live in despair for the rest of my life," but clearly he has no desire to ever appear on the Today show either.

I couldn't help but think about my dad while making this decision. I think he would've definitely vetoed Maribeth and me catching a ride with Luis. Luis has a daughter our age, I pointed out to Maribeth, so he would have to understand our reluctance to go anywhere with a complete stranger. We'd have to decline and catch a cab.

Luckily when he returned, Luis told us he'd forgotten he had a meeting that he had to go to and wouldn't be able to take us to Miraflores after all. Problem solved, we were on our own.

We arrived at Miraflores, which is several miles outside of city, but a mere $8 cab ride. We paid our admission and the ticket seller advised us to go upstairs to the balcony so we could watch a boat come through the canal.

As I said before, I had to see the canal in action in order to understand how it really worked. I still don't think I'm able to explain it to someone else, or write about it, but I will try and risk making myself sound like an enormous idiot. The canal is made up of several different locks. Locks are a device that helps raise and lower boats to allow them to pass through the canal. How they do this, I have no idea, but I know it has something to do with raising and lowering the water.

It sounds lame, and a weird thing for a 29-year old to spend her time doing on vacation, but I was actually fascinated by watching the boats travel through the canal. I was also fascinated by a guy with a group of American tourists wearing a shirt that said, "Been there, done that."

The shirt was like the canal. I don't completely understand it, yet I feel compelled to tell you about it.

There is a museum of sorts at Miraflores highlighting the history of the canal and explaining how it was built. There was even a video (in English, thankfully) offered every half hour. Reading and hearing about the construction of the canal was truly fascinating—it was a process that took years, and employed people from all over the world. I found it mind-blowing that such a sophisticated system could’ve been built with such relatively primitive resources.

After spending the morning at the canal, Maribeth and I consulted her Lonely Planet Panama book for what to do.

I absolutely love travel books and since traveling to Europe in 1999 and treating the Let's Go Europe book like the Bible, I wanted to be a travel writer. The books scout the best restaurants and places to stay and are always full of useful, and not always obvious information.

Because of the book, we decided that we would head next to Casco Viejo, a must-see area of Panama City, and a perfect place for us to have lunch. We asked a cab driver, driving a 1996 Nissan Pathfinder that reminded me of my own car that I laid to rest in 2009, to take us there.

Just like Lonely Planet said, to get to Casco Viejo, we'd have to drive through some pretty rough parts of Panama City. The area that surrounds it is poverty-stricken and to put it mildly, rather seedy.

When the seedy parts began to disperse, it became very obvious very quickly when we had arrived at our destination. Casco Viejo sits right on the water and boasts some of the most beautiful panoramic views of Panama City. I loved the area immediately, as it reminded me of the French Quarter in New Orleans. Later I read that there is a reason for that—Casco Viejo is where the French who came to Panama to build the canal settled in 1881.

There was a quaint little lunch place that we read about called Manolo Caracol and we asked the cab driver to take us right there. According to Lonely Planet, there are no menus at the restaurant. Patrons pay $15 and are served several courses of whatever the cook feels like making that day. I loved the idea of an authentic Panamanian meal.

We had no trouble finding the place, and immediately felt relief of air conditioning when we walked in. We sat down at one of the oversized tables and after a while, a waitress came over to take our drink order. Maribeth and I verified that the meal would be 15 dollars.

"No, no, veinticinco dolares," she said.

"Veinticinco? 25?," I said, sure that if I repeated it in Spanish and also English, then she would change her mind.

She did not.

We said, "No, no," and picked up the book and showed her where it said, "$15."

The waitress shook her head, as if she couldn't understand our broken Spanish, ignored what we were showing her in the book and said, again, that it would cost $25 to eat there.

She walked away and Maribeth and I considered the following:

Is $25 a lot/too much to spend on lunch? Yes.

Was it a possibility that they were jacking up the price because we were two lost American girls who weren't very savvy in Spanish? Absolutely.

Would I have dealt with the answers to the first two questions for a chance to stay seated and eat a good Panamanian meal? Hell yes.

I wanted to stay, for many reasons. The food on other people's plates looked good. And I was hot. And I was tired. And I wanted some relief from the sun. And I dreaded the inevitable wandering around that would follow if we left. I'm really fun to travel with. I promise.

Maribeth was highly turned off by the $25 price tag and I couldn't blame her, especially since we'd already decided to go to dinner later that night. But I was starving (did I mention that already?) and I would've paid whatever. I do this a lot in foreign countries: I wait until I am starving and grumpy to find a place and will usually just sit down wherever is open and pay whatever they ask.

We left the restaurant and turned left, hopeful that one of the books other suggestions was nearby and equally as authentic. We stopped in front of a place called, "The Tequila Bar," a cheesy place that normally I wouldn't be caught dead in. An Australian couple sitting outside the restaurant could obviously tell that we looked lost, so they asked us if we were looking for a place to eat. We told them we were. They motioned in the direction we were walking and said, "There's nothing up that way."

Maribeth looked at the book, then she and I looked at each other, I shrugged my shoulders like a brat who didn't get her way, and we sat down next to the couple. My affinity for eating shitty meals in foreign countries lives on, and Maribeth and I ate nachos and ceviche and drank Balboas at "The Tequila Bar."

I cursed Lonely Planet for steering us wrong on Manolo Carocol and leaving us with no other choice than to eat at this tourist trap.

Regardless of how terrible the food was, I felt better after taking a break. After lunch, we redeemed ourselves with mango and berry sorbets at another quaint establishment, Grandclement. This vacation was off to a roaring start with me eating and drinking nearly everything I could get a hold of.

We took our sorbets to go, and walked slowly through Casco Viejo on brick paved roads next to majestic churches under French-style balconies. I felt so happy to be there and so far away from my regular life. We walked towards a park by the water, stopping to take pictures and eavesdrop on a tour guide leading senior citizens through the park. It was a beautiful day, and the views were amazing. Part of me wished we were staying in Casco Viejo, minus the ghetto we had to pass through to get there.

After a few hours of wandering, we popped into a church to take a rest and enjoy a few quiet moments of Zen before catching a cab back to the hotel where we rested up for dinner that night.

Besides the Lonely Planet lunch failure, we opted to try again and consult the book for help in making our dinner plans. Like I had done all along, I deflected the decision to Maribeth because that’s what I do and because it was her birthday week and naturally she should decide where we should eat. She should decide everything. I’m not sure forcing her to make nearly every decision was her idea of a good birthday present, but since I hate making plans, I tried to make her think I was doing her a favor. I would help, but the ultimate decision was hers.

Over the ten days we were in Panama, we would be staying and eating dinner in Panama City just three nights, so we wanted to choose wisely. Maribeth and I both love a good meal. So we did what any laid back, spontaneous traveler would do: we cross-referenced Lonely Planet’s recommendations with travel websites and the restaurant’s website before making our final decision.

I told my friend Lauren, who showed me this system of the cross reference when we traveled together in Asia, that she would be proud. I knew her system worked because we didn’t eat a single bad meal for three weeks.

After mostly glowing recommendations from both Lonely Planet Panama and several websites, we chose, for our first real dinner in Panama, The Greenhouse.

We hopped in a cab, gave the driver the address in the Lonely Planet book. The place was not very far from our hotel, but not knowing the area well, we didn’t want to take any chances walking by ourselves.

The cab driver pulled up to the building at the address we gave him and there was no sign of The Greenhouse anywhere. There wasn’t any sign of life at all, to be honest. The cab driver turned around, looking confused, and asked us for the name of the place again.

“The Greenhouse,” I said, and then, in a vain attempt to use my Spanish, I followed with, “El Casa de verde.”

He nodded in understanding and we drove by again, just to verify the address.

Again, nothing.

Ugh...this book did it again! We tried to figure out how it could have screwed us up twice in a row? We cursed Lonely Planet.

“Check the publishing date,” I suggested to Maribeth

She thumbed through, squinting her eyes to read the print.

“2007,” she said.

“Well, damn, no wonder! That book is three years old,” I laughed.

We’d have to take everything Lonely Planet said from then on with a grain of salt. A three-year old grain of salt. We stopped cursing the book, and instead cursed Barnes and Noble for selling it to us.

After several loops around several blocks and asking several passersby, we arrived at the Greenhouse. We were relieved, but also a little bummed, and perhaps a little concerned, that besides the staff, we were the only two people there. It was Tuesday night, so I kind of understood, but we were ready to live it up like the people in the pictures on the website.

So much for living la vida loca. And clearly the guy that could potentially be "the one," the man by the water, wasn’t going to be here either.

We ordered a pitcher of Sangria and both ordered a corvina, a white fish, and fried plantains for dinner. The food was delicious (seriously, it may have been our best meal on vacation) and though we only had our plates and each other to look at, we had fun.

After dinner we went to the Istmo Brewhouse right down the street from our hotel to officially ring in Maribeth's 30th birthday. When the clock struck midnight, I took Maribeth's picture and sent it to our friends and titled it, "MB's officially a Puma." Not quite old enough to achieve cougar status, but definitely on her way.

Then I listened to her reflect on her 30 years of existence with a lot of weird statements, most of which she forbade me to share with the blog audience.

Among those that are shareable include:

"I need to change my behavior now that I'm 30." Maybe you should. But you probably won't.

"I feel like I have certain responsibilities now that I'm 30." Actually you've had those responsibilities for years now. But it's good you’re starting to pay attention.

Vacation was underway, complete with random thoughts by Maribeth.


  1. Did Phish get tagged cause you ate fish?

  2. Nah, Phish got tagged because my dad gave me the same lecture pre-Panama that he gave me pre-Phish last fall. And I'm gearing up for four nights of Phish right this very minute.

  3. you never cease to amaze me... blogging away about your international trips and looking perfectly fabulous in yellow.

  4. Was just about to ask if you were headed to your local Phish shows - glad you get to. I got shut out of the shows at the Greek in Berkeley, CA but have been downloading like a champ. Have fun!


  5. canals/locks fascinate me too. if you ever get to Duluth, MN, near the aerial lift bridge is a museum (free) that has a 'hands-on' display of how locks work. it's probably for kids, but i've spent more than my fair share of time on it, til it made sense. no locks in duluth to see in person, but a way cool display!