Into South America: Week 6

imageMy apologies for the delay of this posting, but I have been offline for the last week or so. This will be the final weekly post as my South American journey draws to a close, and I make my way back to Canada. Kind of cool that it is also my 100th.

When I last left off, I had spent my first night singing with an excellent band at Smiley’s in Pedasi, Panama. With time running short, I felt I had to keep moving and cram as much as I could into my final days. Although rewarding, moving and packing up day in and day out is very tiring, and I was feeling worn out. Another surf beach beckoned–Venao Beach–but I just did not have it in me. In the end, I decided to stay put for another day and night in Pedasi. And that allowed me to discover this sleepy little beach town.

imagePedasi is not actually on the beach, but several are within a few kilometres of the small town of about 2,000 people. I rented a bicycle on Wednesday and headed North-East through the rain to Ariel Beach. I was reminded that I was in the tropics on the way as I biked past a 5-foot snake that, luckily for me, had been previously run over. Ariel beach was deserted, except for a few fishermen cleaning their morning catch. I then biked South along the sand to El Toro beach, even more deserted and unremarkable. Definitely no surf here. Then back to the road, and another 20 minutes of mountain biking to an out of the way beach called La Garita. Spectacular and completely deserted.image

I spent the rest of the day resting and recharging. I returned to Smiley’s for lunch. It is great little restaurant owned by an American, and attracts many expats who have made Pedasi their home. Really great food, and laid back atmosphere, but there was something gnawing at me. It felt very strange to be in the unfamiliar surroundings of Panama, yet surrounded by non-local people like me. I have felt this expat aversion many times before. I haven’t quite figured out what bothers me so much about it. I decided not to return for dinner, and instead found a small, quaint place called Bienvenudush, run by a very friendly Israeli woman. Little touches of love and caring were evident everywhere, and it felt safe here. After six weeks on the road, I had not had a salad. I just couldn’t trust the preparation of them. But she prepared a beautiful, fresh, and very interesting salad for me along with a yogurt based dip that was bursting with flavour and freshness. At $20 it was the most I had spent on a meal in six weeks, but worth every penny. I had not realized until then how desperately my body was craving fresh veggies, and my stomach felt more settled that it had felt in a very long time.

Pedasi was a very special place, with a comfortable, chill flow. Care and attention to detail were everywhere–the people, the food, and the way of life–and I really enjoyed spending time in this bubble of “normal” life for a short while. I met an older Italian man at the hostel, and for the first time since the beginning of the trip, I was able to easily understand his Spanish. His pronunciation was exquisite, his speech slow and easy to follow, and it felt really good not to be struggling to follow the language.

The next morning I packed up, grabbed some snacks for the road from a local Canadian-owned bakery, and began my trek to Panama City, just catching the collectivo before it pulled out. I jumped on the bus, out of breath and discombobulated, and all the locals on the packed bus seemed to get a kick out of this, and watching a 6′ 3″ gringo try to maneuver his way into the cramped space! Open, vulnerable, and not guarded…people universally seem to respond to this. It was a much different vibe compared to the bus ride to Pedasi only a few days before.

I then transferred to a bigger, but still very cramped 5-hour ride from Las Tablas to Panama City. When I finally arrived, the bus terminal looked less threatening this time around. I checked into Hotel Milan in the city centre area of El Congrejo. It was without question the nicest accommodation I have had in the past six weeks. More than the $15-35 I have been used to, but still very reasonable at $65 in downtown Panama City. Right off the bat, I felt really good in this city. Odd because I don’t really like big city life.image

And it felt really good to be back to “civilization” as I know it. I have been living very modestly (and happily), so it was surprising how much I enjoyed having some of my creature comforts back, things I usually just take for granted: toilets that flush everything, ice, good and safe food and water, salads, wine, hot water, a nice towel, AC, reliable wi-fi, clean streets, decent drivers, and the list goes on. I had adjusted to a different lifestyle, and didn’t realize how much I missed some of these comforts. But people are still crazy about using their car horns here, as they have been throughout South America. It is so unnerving, and continues to rattle me.

But there is something else here. It is a big city, but it does not feel big. It feels relaxed, spacious, cosmopolitan, and friendly. I also really like the way it looks, and the thought that has gone into how it looks at night. It is known as a “beta” world city, an interesting term I have never heard of before. A world city can be designated into alpha, beta, and gamma, based on decreasing impact, importance, and influence on global finance and trade.

I wandered around this neighbourhood and quickly spotted a perfect place to settle in and watch Panama go by. Farley’s Piano Bar. Wonderful staff who made me feel very comfortable. Although they didn’t quite seem to know what they were doing, they were open to suggestion, and eager. I was then approached by a very interesting older American/Panamanian couple who chatted with me about the virtues of Panama City, what to do, and suggestions for dinner. With so many seemingly excellent food choices, I was excited to have a nice meal. I walked into a very cool looking place, most definitely underdressed, and enjoyed an equally cool reception from the very well-dressed staff. I have been wearing the same 2 or 3 outfits for weeks, none of which are dressy. But I didn’t care. I may not have looked like I belong, but I felt like I did. I had a beautifully prepared piece of fish and veggies. No rice or potatoes or chicken…what a relief! And I appreciated how well the wait staff practiced their craft.

Then back to Farley’s for a night cap. I noticed an interesting looking guy who had been there earlier and he recognized me. Bill from New York, who was sitting with Luis the Panamanian. Bill approached me, learned I was from Canada, then went to alert a friend of his at another bar who is also Canadian…Jean Galipeau from Montreal, and he came over to say hi. In fact, I have been stopped several times in the first few hours by people who seemed genuinely interested. And that does not usually happen. I am usually happy to just fly under the radar. I had not tried to actively connect with anyone, but it all seemed to be coming to me. Is it the people? Or is it my own energy that is attracting them? Not sure which, but I can definitely feel a shift.

On Friday I spent the day cruising around the city, getting the lay of the land. I visited the Panama Canal, a wondrous feat of engineering. More than 20,000 built this 100 years ago, many of whom died during its construction. I was lucky enough to watch a ship go through the series of locks while I was there….dropping 18 feet in 8 minutes, with only about 24 inches clearance on either side. Very impressive to see this live. Check out this clip of a cruise ship moving through it.

imageOn Saturday, I toured the city again on one of those hop on hop off buses. They were supposed to come by every hour, but this one was an hour late. I spent the wait time feeling fairly relaxed, and befriending yet another policeman (as has become my custom on this trip). One of the other waiting passengers, an older man, asked me in Spanish why I was so calm. Although I didn’t feel particularly calm, I felt that there was nothing I could do, so I suppose I let the frustration go. “You need to fight,” he said. “But fight who, I answered?” Here is a clip on the bus.

With Conrad in the old town.

With Conrad in the old town.

I made my to Casco Viejo, the old town, established hundreds of years ago about 8 km west of where the city used to be before Captain Henry Morgan (yes the guy on the rum bottle) burned the whole city to the ground. Like the rest of Panama City, what I have seen anyway, the old town was laid back and relaxed, in its own little world. As I was having a beer, an older dude came and sat down with me, Conrad. He spoke English, and was extremely sharp, articulate, and well versed. He talked to me about all kinds of things, including what to pay for things, where to find the best mojito in town, politics, Canadians, Panamanians, Americans, Quebecers, what constitutes a gringo, the fact that locals don’t wear shorts, etc. I think he was a walking tour guide, but he didn’t ask me for anything. And I was happy to give him something. He was 78 years old, but I swear he didn’t look a day over 60. A very cool and unexpected little interaction.

Old and new, in harmony.

Old and new, in harmony.

There is a relaxed, comfortable, and laid back feeling in the old town, where I wandered around, sang with a street musician, enjoyed the best mojito I have ever had, and tried to soak in the history. And the fact that you can see skyscrapers in the distance makes for a very interesting juxtaposition of old and new.

With Manuel, at Farley's Piano bar.

With Manuel, at Farley’s Piano bar.

I returned to my little piano bar, and Manuel offered me 3 for 1 happy hour, and asked the chef to prepare an off-the-menu langoustine dish that was out of this world. Over the three days I was in Panama City, he made a very special and constant effort to make me feel at home, which I am very grateful for. It was the first place I stumbled into just after arriving in Panama City, and I felt at home here right away.

And with that, my solo journey was quickly drawing to a close as I prepared for a flight to Florida, and then onto Toronto and back to Ottawa. So far, the return to “normal” is very strange and jarring, and I’m not quite sure where I belong: the cold, the snow, the humanity, the language, Christmas, the complete abundance of everything, and the familiar. I need some time to reflect on the past 2 months, and digest everything I have been fortunate enough to experience, and figure out how to incorporate what I have learned into everyday life. I will post a final wrap up of the this expansive adventure sometime before the end of the year.

Thank you for your interest, encouragement, and support over the past 7 weeks or so. You have given me purpose–a reason to track and focus my thoughts–and I am very grateful for that.

Jonathanimage

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Into South America: Week 2

Spectacular views from Isla de Plata

Spectacular views from Isla de Plata

 

Although my updates generally paint a rosy picture, and for the most part it is, there are challenging times on the road. I struggle with anxiety, loneliness, and fear. The unknown can be a very difficult place to be. And although I talk a lot about tolerance and acceptance, that doesn’t mean that I always am. Probably the most difficult for me is being around people who are inconsiderate to others. I fucking hate that. Like the four girls staying at Balsa who got up early and stayed up late. Nothing inherently wrong with that but they talk and yell and laugh loudly together all the time, like they are the only ones here, completely oblivious that there may be other people around who are sleeping, or just want peace and quiet. Or the dog owners who let their animals crap on the beach. I realize these are not big problems in the overall scheme of things, but I do feel strongly here, and everywhere, that being considerate of others would solve many problems. The bigger goal, I know, is learning to suspend judgement. But it’s hard. Having said that, I did make an effort to understand why they were this way, sitting in the dining area on several occasions…watching, listening. I think by nature most Latin Americans are loud and expressive. And there is a certain life and joy in that. By the end it still bugged me, but not as much I suppose. I didn’t really make much of an effort to connect with them, but I tried to understand a little more.

And perhaps that is something about travel that I appreciate most. Outside of my usual element, and surrounded by strange and new things and people, forces me to become more patient, tolerant, and accepting. Maybe not always by much, but incrementally more. And that is a good thing.

With Julie who runs Balsa Surf Camp with her husband Rasti.

With Julie who runs Balsa Surf Camp with her husband Rasti.

When I updated last week, I had just arrived at Balsa Surf Camp in Montanita, located a few minutes from the party town at the North end of the beach. I cannot recommend it enough…this is magical place…and I have rarely felt this. It’s worth a little background here. Balsa is owned by Julie, a teacher from France, and Rasti, an Ecuadorian. They are both probably early thirties. Julie came to teach French in Ecuador in 2004 and met Rasti. They got married and decided to open a hostel. They bought the land and spent the next year and half in 2008/2009 building it with about 15 locals. The hostel (although it is much more than that) is beautiful in every sense of the word. Care and attention to detail is evident everywhere. Beautiful, intricate wood and stone work. Quiet music. Hammocks to relax. Good food. Environmentally and socially conscious. Rasti makes his own balsa wood surf boards, and creates wonders with all types of wood. Together, they have created a peaceful, relaxed, client-focused sanctuary. For $25 a night I had my own little cabin. It is a very special place, and a I will never forget it. I had planned to stay a couple of nights and ended up staying a week.

imageI really did not do much of anything for most of the week: swimming, surfing, body surfing, boogie boarding, walking, thinking, and sleeping. It was a restorative week. Fighting a cold (at the equator, go figure), ongoing intestinal issues and adjustments (I mistakenly took a stool softener instead of Imodium…THAT was fun!), and nursing a few minor surf injuries. I used this quiet time to try to mend. But I found it really tough at times to allow myself to just be. One minute I think I am in a perfect beach groove, the next I think I should bugger off and be doing something. But I have no timetable, no agenda, no place I have to be. Quiet time forces you to be alone with your thoughts, and that can be unsettling. And also rewarding.

At night, I would often lie in a hammock and read or write…no TV, no distractions. I slept really well. But there were mosquitoes…not the malaria kind, but still hungry. And they are much more sophisticated here. You can’t hear them buzzing around you, and you can’t feel them biting you. Smart little bastards.

And not one minute of sun for the entire week, with the exception of a day trip I took on Monday. Gray and kind of rainy, heavy, and humid the whole time. The upside? I saved a fortune in sun screen! It was actually a very good time to be there because it is low season, and not too many people. That changes significantly come December where prices go up, it’s hard to get a room, or even a meal without waiting.

With Oscar, my surf instructor.

With Oscar, my surf instructor.

The atmosphere is tolerant and laid back, and Montanita is one of the top surfing destinations in the world. The first few days I did some surf “research” and found a cool dude, Oscar, from Costa Rica. He did not push me, suggesting I wait until conditions are optimal to surf. Which I really need. By Thursday things were looking good, so out I went with very little success. Surfing is the toughest sport I have ever tried, using all kinds of muscles I don’t normally use. Out again on Friday, and this time I got up. Not gracefully or for long, but up nonetheless. I had planned to do about an hour a day, but after hurting my back on the second day, that would be it for me for surfing. I was content to body surf and boogie board for my remaining days, and caught some really great waves.

Toward the end of each day I would wander down the beach to a really cool beachside patio called Dharma Beach Hotel, watching the waves and surfers. Man, the good ones are so graceful, and make it look so easy. I think Dharma is owned by a famous DJ. Everytime I walked in off the beach, they had this chill house music thumping softly in the background…nice funky, low key groove. The servers are friendly. They burn incense, serve nice food. And they make a great 2 for 1 Mojito!

With my Argentinian friends Santiago, Lucas, and Gonzalo.

With my Argentinian friends Santiago, Lucas, and Gonzalo.

It was here on Thursday I think that I met three very cool surfer dudes from Argentina…Lucas, Santiago, and Gonzalo. Very bright, funny, engaging, and real. I really connected right away with two in particular…Santiago and Lucas. We talked politics, education, the environment, sports hooligans, problems in our respective countries, love, and life. We would meet towards the end of each day on the hotel beach patio. They are 30 something guys who go on surf trip every year together. I have a strong feeling we will remain in touch.

Santiago said something interesting about the ocean: “I am not afraid of the waves, but I respect them.” That is absolutely how you have to approach surfing, and the ocean in general. And for me the message was even more relevant. After hurting my back on the second surf day, and my elbow boogie boarding, and sitting on top of a few very big waves and looking down, I am sure that was the ocean’s way of warning me to be careful. Although the waves in Montanita are great for all levels of surfers, it is still the ocean, and Mother Nature is always in charge. I hear you, ocean, and I am listening.

I also learned something about riptides as well. When waves crash and the water travels up the shore, that water eventually travels back to the sea. When there is a break in a sandbar for example, that water can get funnelled together, creating a strong, narrow current back to the sea. The beach patrol told me that rip current can be particularly strong when the tide is receding, which makes sense.

Monday was my final full day, so I decided to do some sightseeing. I took a tour to Isla de Plata (silver island), so named because of the colour of the bird poo when it rains looks silver. After a 45-minute drive North to Puerto Lopez, we took an hour or so boat to the island which is about 37 km. away. There was about 16 of us in the boat, mostly Dutch. Maybe it was me or them, or the situation, but I hardly connected with anyone until the end of the day. The boat stopped about midway, and a few humpback wales pulled up alongside the boat to say hi! Beautiful, majestic creatures, and we were so lucky to see them.

imageAs we anchored near the island, several massive sea turtles surrounded the boat…so curious they were! The island, a protected national park of about eight square km, is desolate. There is absolutely nothing there. I felt like Tom Hanks in Castaway. Oh…and finally the sun came out for awhile. After a week of gray, it felt so nice on my skin. But even with partial sun and lots of protection, I almost burned.

Some people call Isla de Plata a mini version of the Galapagos. It is home to many species of lizards, birds, sea lions, and other animals. But the island is probably best known for a very particular type of bird…wait for it…the booby! This next segment will reveal my sometimes infantile sense of humour, so I apologize in advance.

imageWithout question, the funniest and most memorable part of the day was the search for the boobys. I appeared to be the only one on the tour to find this funny. Maybe it was my sense of humour, or maybe because I was the only English speaking person there (yes of course it must have been that). Anyway, the guide, in all seriousness, kept saying (in English, with a very distinctive Spanish accent) things like: “now we will find some boobys.” OMG…it was freakin’ PRICELESS! We saw more boobys than I have ever seen before, certainly in one day. We saw big boobys, small boobys, single boobys, and even a really nice pair of boobys! No wonder so many men visit this island! I never really got over the hilarity of it all, but the birds themselves are pretty cool–inquisitive and unafraid. And they are real posers as well. Hope you enjoy some of these very up close and personal photos of boobys.

A pair of boobys.

A pair of boobys.

It has been a wonderful stay here, and it was very hard to leave magic of Balsa, but now I feel ready to move on. So Tuesday I was on an early morning bus to Guayaquil where I met up again with Mark the Irishman. Guayaquil is big, dirty, and not particularly safe from what I have heard, so the least amount of time I can spend here, the better. He and I walked around the central area for awhile, and then headed North-East, through the Andes mountains (avenue of the volcanoes) about four hours to Riobamba. It is at about 9,000 feet altitude and is, or at least I thought it was, home to the famous Devil’s Nose train which through an impressive engineering feat, is able to drop/climb 500 metres in a relatively short distance. Anyway, the train actually leaves about 100 km. south of Riobamba, back where we had just come from, so no train ride for me…this time. Nice town, but not a particularly memorable night at the hostel.

Running out of gas in the Andes mountain? Not when Mark has a spare tank!

Running out of gas in the Andes mountain? Not when Mark has a spare tank!

My final thoughts of the week concern the whole issue of connecting, which I suppose I am more aware of in these unfamiliar surroundings: sometimes you connect with a person, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes right away. Other times it may take awhile. But when I travel, I somehow feel that I must try to connect with everybody, which is particularly hard for an introvert like me. But I realize that I can’t always connect with everybody, and I need to learn to be OK with that, while not forgetting the importance of trying. All the people I have met and enjoyed so far happened because I pushed myself to make an effort, even though it was not always comfortable. Connecting and finding the flow in a new place or situation often takes time. And I must remember to be patient with myself.

The journey continues…til next week.

Jonathanimage

Into South America

“The pilgrim is a poetic traveler, one who believes that there is poetry on the road, at the heart of everything.” ~Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage

Hello friends,

Yes it has been a long while. I just haven’t really felt like writing much. Until now.

I am just beginning a two-month journey to South and Central America: likely Ecuador, Panama, and Costa Rica. Alone, into the unknown.

Why? There are a few reasons.

Firstly, because I can. And I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity.

Secondly, because I have read about these places and how it is possible to live quite well on relatively little money. But it is one thing to read about it, and quite another to live it.

And finally, and most importantly, because there is something about venturing into the unknown that brings out some of my very best human qualities. I learned this, or perhaps was reminded of this, during my volunteer journey to Africa two years ago, and Nicaragua the year before that. When I am out of my comfort zone, in unfamiliar territory, it forces me to dig deep and open my mind and soul to new ways of being and experiencing the world. It somehow gets my “MoJo” working at a heightened level.

So off I go. I appreciate your interest, and will update you weekly on my journey.

First stop, Ecuador.

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