JP left on Monday, June 14th.  We had a great time and her visit helped me to slow down and see more things.  I was on a pretty “ride all day” schedule prior.  JP and I changed our plans and hit David for one night following Boquete instead of only hitting Panama City on the way out.  She took an eight hour bus ride from David to Panama the following day as I rode the route.  The bus apparently felt very long being the only English speaker on the bus and, in striking juxtaposition to airline flights that seem to only show bubblegum films no doubt to keep flight anxiety and “fears of terrorism” down, the films were fairly violent — shoot ’em ups shown in Spanish.

The ride down was somewhat boring although the highways are generally as good or better than back home.  Arriving in Panama City, however, during rush hour on Friday was terrible.  At least in the down town corridors — which is exactly were I needed to be.  I would say that it was the worst traffic I have been in to date on this trip.  It took me something like 60 minutes to find the hostel in bumper-to-bumper traffic.  Now somewhat familiar with the maze that is Panama City, I know the trip through the city should have been much shorter.  It would have been long enough just getter there but, of course, the GPS didn’t account for one way streets.  In Panama City you sometimes have to go many city blocks to recover by finding the return one way street corridor — which often does not run parallel to the one you made the mistake on.  30+ degrees in humidity in stop and go.  Let’s just say my riding gear (and, of course, I) smell ripe.

The Hostel Mamallena in Panama City, while nowhere near as charming as the Boquete location, fits the bill and has AC which is very necessary.  With JP’s departure, I find myself in dorms (shared accommodations).   The last night I stayed in a dorm was in Guatemala City.  Like that time, the first night in the dorm provoked anxiety.  Its a strange sensation to sleep amongst strangers.  In the end, it isn’t so bad.  I just have to change my organization and storage systems and rely much more on lockers to store my “valuables”.

JP and I spent several days touring around.  We saw two old sections of Panama.  The first was Casco Viejo.  It is the original “downtown” of what is modern day Panama City.  As the city spread, the wealthy and elite moved out and the colonial area became ghetto-ized slums and decrepit.  Areas of it are now gentrified and would be considered fairly high-end.  It is a work in progress and partially collapsed colonial buildings are being converted into restaurants and hotels.  It probably is a good era to capture the sites.  In several years it will likely be somewhat shee-shee and will have lost some of it rough-edged charm.  As you move to the exterior of the core of Casco Viejo, the non-gentrified areas become apparent.  Relative safety diminishes and walking a night is definitely considered a no-no.  Even within the gentrified parts, it is consider “cabs only” at night.  It is interesting to note how my perceptions have changed over time during this trip.  I am pretty sure I would have felt hesitant in these areas several months ago — just based on travels in Cuba and how I felt about certain areas in the ciudad Trinidad.  Have been in some real shit hole areas on this trip —  the periphery of Casco Viejo seemed average — but touring around on a giant motorcycle (by local standards) the risks are probably diminish somewhat compared to roaming around on foot.

So it was basically a foot tour of the area sussing out highlights via the Lonely Planet guide and eventually dodging rain (surprise, surprise).  Having a pizza and beer lunch, and later boutique ice cream, we later discovered that one of Noriega’s reported hangouts is now being converted to a high end hotel.

The following day we hit Panama Viejo.  It turns out that, in reading, I had confused Panama Viejo and Casco Viejo.  Panama was the original enfortment founded by Henry Morgan.  Not too much of it remains now except for various walls, wells, and other structures.  What is now Panama Viejo, being the original “Panama City”, was abandoned and scuttled and moved to the present day Panama City, including the facade of a church.  While not absolutely fantastic, quite interesting and understated by Lonely Planet.

In addition, we also hit Panama Canal by way of the Miraflores Visitor center.  There are apparently other more imaginative ways to view the locks but due to time restrictions we paid our five bucks to use the observation deck.  We arrived late enough so that we not able to see a ship’s full passage but we did see the exit of one and the entrance of another — so really enough to piece it together.  It was pretty darn interesting.  Little trucks on rails on either side of the ship are used guide the ship via lines.  I believe some 3/4 of a million ships have passed through the canals over the years.  The going rate is variable but often fractions of a million.  I believe the most expensive passage was close to a million US dollars.  The cheapest was under a buck paid by I Frenchman, I believe, who swam the canal many years ago.

I believe the common notion of the area is that the canal system is very “industrial” looking.  I certainly had this belief not knowing much about the area.  While certainly the lock areas are fairly mechanical, other parts of the canal, at least from my viewing from a large bridge, are quite green and picturesque.  Much of the canal is enshrouded by green space and very beautiful.  Its not what I expected.

Actually, Panama is not really what I expected.  Of course it has all of the common aspects of Central American countries — sight, smells, character, troubles — but it seems that certain regions of Panama is becoming the “new Costa Rica”.  By this I mean that several decades ago Costa Rica became “cool” and there was an influx of Americans (and surely other foreigners) and their money.  The prices for land around areas such as Boquete have skyrocketed due to ownership by foreigners.  I suppose this is a double-edged sword.  As our coffee guide told us, it is providing welcome job opportunities but is making owning property, at least in these areas, out of reach to average Panamanians.  From my understanding there was some sort of scandal involving an ex-president or his wife (not sure if the woman was the wife, or actually the president) in that she was involved in trying to selling a large chunk of land on the Volcan Barru to the actor Sean Connery for the purposes of building some grand home estate or something to that effect.  From what I hear, the local people were pissed enough that she travels with body guards.

Saying good bye to JP was pretty hard.  Being in a fairly young relationship, spending three months apart might be considered a big undertaking.  I can say for sure that with her visit we have both been to and are going through multiple adjustment periods.  Adaptation to having a travel partner was not immediate, and while shortly very welcome, the time felt too short and I find myself solo again.  There are lots of people here but I don’t find myself in the middle of the herd.   The majority of my chatting has been with a nice fellow from Michigan who is riding a Kawasaki W650 (looks like a Bonneville) around.  We sort of bonded in that we find this hostel quite busy and a little loud.

The people are friendly enough but our experiences are quite different — most of the other guests being backpackers.  While a little judgmental, I felt that some of them were kind of little brats traveling on Daddy’s dime.  Perhaps based too much on my own experiences — but I certainly didn’t “have it together” enough at that young age to be able to afford to tell the travel tales from all over the world.  I believe in her book “Lois on the Loose” Lois Pryce shared similar sentiments regarding some of these kids — grow up — yes, Central American is not as cheap as your travels to “Indo” or Thailand.  Sorry my little friend, I don’t really believe you when you say you are “poor” and in dismay when your friends tell you that $10 won’t go far in your next day’s location.  Errr…even I know that — check your Lonely Planet 😉

Its not that I am having a bad day — its fine actually — the bad day was yesterday (I’ll get to that).  Its just that I have had more solo downtime to listen and observe.  As my pal from Michigan noted, this is by far, the busiest hostel either of us has been in.  So I hear more.  And avoid the temptation to get annoyed at things like repetitive statements about “we’re on a really tight budget” which has clearly become a badge of honour.

Haha.  There goes one of those buses.  I can’t see it but I can hear it.  The city buses in Central America and generally converted American (and perhaps Canadian) school buses.  I can hear the conversation in Detroit:  “sorry Ted, you are going to have to upgrade your fleet — they are simply too old to meet Michigan’s vehicle exhaust regulations.  But don’t worry…I have a buyer lined up for you.  And don’t worry about replacing the mufflers before sale…they’re going to put straight pipes on them anyways”.  Heh heh.  Yes.  The buses in Central America often tend to be brightly coloured.  In Guatemala they resembled typical indigenous blankets.  Other countries regions had their own colour patterns.  In Panama City, the tend to be tricked out with airbrushing — wizards, cartoon characters, bikini babes — and sport “farkles” like spoilers and shark fins.  Many have one, two — even four — straight pipes on the back as if they were for drag racing — they resembles some sort of drag car or “loud pipes save lives” [sic] American assembled V-Twin motorcycle.  They pretty funny actually.  I can’t help to think of Otto from the Simpsons when these things go by.

So my  bad day.  I should have been on a plane by now.  I have my passenger ticket purchased through Avianca.  Let me tell you that prices have gone up, up, up.  Even since Tyson and Ted did this trip three years ago it seems that some prices have pretty much doubled.  I was about to hand off my bike yesterday to Girag.  Girag is a common cargo operator for the region.  Another one is Copa Cargo but, having called them, they aren’t (or won’t) ship bikes at the moment.  It looks like I am stuck with the *$901* cargo flight from Panama City to Bogota.  Tyson and Ted paid a couple hundred bucks less than this for *two* bikes three years ago.  That said, barring issues  (and there really could be issues) — the bike and I should arrive in Bogota around the same time.  It is a little tricky though.  I can take an early flight or a late flight.  The late flight means I will not be able to address the bike that day — I will have to wait to the following day to deal with customs.  Since I lost a day to an error — I’ll get to that, I would really like to start customs procedures on Thursday as it will probably bleed into Friday and they are closed for the weekend.

So my error was this.  I have stamp in my passport for myself and the bike.  I also have a permission form for the bike.  Since I have been in Panama far longer than any other country on this trip, my documentation has been shuffled around a lot.  My insurance slip was provided to me in a little plastic bag/wallet.  This was a nice touch.  Given that one gets ushered out of the border quickly, and it rains a lot, and since you need your documentation handy, the bag was useful.  My “permisso” (vehicle permission) made it into the bag as well.  During the trip, I had moved around the bag a few times.  It was in my tank bag, and then spent some time coupled with my main wallet (as opposed to my dummy wallet).  And the bundle ended up in my $7 backpack, and the into the tank bag and back to the bag.  And then in a rain liner (garbage bag) in the  back pack.  So having head off to Girag with all documentation in tact, I “couldn’t find” the permisso.  I was freaking out a bit.  No permisso.  No insurance slip.  I would be in shit if I got pulled over.  There was talk of me going to the Aduana (customs) and pleading for a new temporary import slip (with risk of fine).

So I figure that it is best for me to head back to the hostel and and check my stuff.  I am not inclined to really *loose* things — like drop them on the street.  I can be sloppy in unleashing the contents of my pockets into the chaos of a larger bag or something to that effect, but real loss — except for a few items that fell off of my bike — is fairly rare.  So I supposedly scoured myself, my map case and my tank bag.  I was headed back and I ran out of gas.  This is the first time that I have ever run out of gas on a bike (if memory serves me).  This was a real piss off.  The cargo carrier asks that the fuel tank be fairly empty — I was told two litres.  The KLR has a 23 litre tank.  It hits reserver at about 18 litres meaning I have 5 litres to work with.  I hit reserve the last day I was on the bike with JP.  The remaining gas in the tank was used to purchase airline tickets and head up to the airport.  Even though I am carry two one litre MSR fuel bottles which would have been perfect for this job — I bypassed all gas stations figuring that I had enough gas.  So when I turned around deep inside the cargo terminal (different than the passenger terminal) I ran out of has literally in front of customs.  They don’t do checks at that office — actually gentleman who drove me to a not so close gas station to fill up the MSR bottles (I gifted him $15 in gas for my gratitude) stated that security was really lax.  In any respect, pushing a KLR around in the heat with full riding gear on, and no paperwork for the bike and no insurance made me a little nervous.

Having added my two litres and then more gas as I passed the gas station, I returned to the hostel.  A little furious that I couldn’t reach the airline and was due at the terminal in 12 hours or so, I finally managed to dig up a 1-800 number for the US and used Skype-out to call the call centre based in Colombia.  Finally!  I was able to speak with someone about postponing my flight.  The paperwork on the ticket listed absolutely zero means in which to do so and the Avianca web site was not useful either.  A Colombian “help me” web page saved the day.  Avianca was actually pretty easy to deal with and I simply have to call back to reschedule.  So!  I went through my backpack and found the dang permission — I was sooo mad at myself.  In the end, things will work out.  As it stands, I am departing for Bogota a day later than expected (which hopefully doesn’t stick me in the middle of the weekend) — but I did bypass the issue of having no gas on the Colombian side 😉