Editor Note: The author is an avid traveler and adventurer. This piece is the first story in a series about her and her travel group’s adventures during a two-week visit to Panama.
It’s our first day in Panama City and we are being followed. Despite our stalker, the pace is causal. We gawk at the wooden balconies, crumbling edifices, and vibrant archways of Casco Viejo, the Old Quarter. These sloped streets once witnessed Henry Morgan the Welsh pirate and privateer, sack the city and set it ablaze in 1673. Two centuries and seven decades later, the Seagram Company cleansed his reputation and rebranded him as their Good Time Guy, labeling their sugar cane spirit in his honor. Many a bleary-eyed fraternity photo resides on the Internet mimicking the iconic leg-up, amber bottle in hand. I don’t believe it’s an oversight that I see no Henry Morgan paraphernalia, trinkets or statues here in Panama.
I stumble, failing to dodge riprap and a pothole. Casco Viejo is under a massive restoration, the facing of ancient stone covered in construction tape and new concrete. The architecture duplicitous both French and Spanish, old and new, expose wooden supports. Their brittle masonry stand defiant astride Antillean style hotels and townhomes whose cheerful pastel hues can only be described as confection inspired: key lime pie, cotton candy, lemon meringue, and strawberry chiffon. Power lines dangle like party streamers and connect the disparate buildings from one side of the street to the other, voltaic bridges between the wealthy and the impoverished. Grocery and mercantile shops sell their wares from rickety carts or within ground floor apartments.
It’s 10:30 in the morning, still early for Panama. The streets are empty, except our stalker, a cinnamon colored dog. She’s tailed us since Rod brought her the remains of his arroz con huevos from breakfast. We nickname her Bonita and further shorten it to Bonnie. I wonder if she belongs to any of the people who live in the street level efficiencies. The small residential flats have no doors just exposed sockets into the lives of their tenants. All of them have televisions, some have a couch, and others have second floor balconies, sagging from the weight of laundry lines, bicycles, barbecues, and patio furniture. The sour stench of garbage rises from the alleys even though the streets are surprisingly free of litter, at least here.
I’ve already consumed two freshly muddled grape mojitos and am now sweating. If this morning is any indication of the drinking schedule, I’m doomed. My colossal purse contributes to the hyperhidrosis. It’s far too big for my body, but large enough to hold my English to Spanish dictionary, guidebooks (The Moon and The Lonely Planet), camera, passport, wallet, hairbrush, make-up bag, sunscreen, ponytail holders, first aid kit (complete with antacids and antibiotics), Moleskine notebooks (both empty), and twenty gratis pens proffered as marketing swag. I need a bottle of water and one of the antacids. I contemplate gobbling a packet now, even though I’ll look like a rabid dog. I dismiss the idea, fearful that I might scare Bonnie – or worse, it’ll make me appear ‘unpretty.’ I’ll feel this way a lot over the next ten days. I travel with a caravan of men. Seven in total including my husband, the only straight guy among them. My male travel companions are beautiful. You could easily imagine any one of them within the folds of a cheesy fireman calendar, should any of them actually fight fires. My husband Tom owns a home inspection business. He’s arm and arm with Rod, a marketing manager for a technology company. Rod’s partner Scott walks with me. Scott is the real reason we’re all here. It was his turn to pick the trip. Our travel adventures have two rules: 1.) The country must be a place no one has been before and 2.) It can only include those places that have not recently beheaded any of their tourists. Scott, a colonel in the military, is a decade shy of retirement. But the promise of white sand beaches, Bloody Mary Monday mornings and poolside siestas compel preparation. When the day comes, their move vetted, they can just go. Every stop along our ten-day sojourn will come with the question,
“Could I live here?”
I dive into a backstreet to take a photo and Scott guides me around a pile of excrement. I stretch onto my toes so I can peek into the window of a decrepit building. Scott holds a snap of shrubbery away from my head. My torso pushed through the window. I turn my head and see that the building is a fossil, just the old façade, a gutted body, the roof and ceiling absent.
“Whatcha looking at?” Ron perks his head in behind mine, his accent direct from Winnipeg. While on my tiptoes and in high heels, we are of equal height.
“A turkey buzzard I think and a furry dead thing.” I nod my head toward the buzzard. It stands atop an unidentifiable black pelt and snaps its head back to jerk free a wet whip of flesh, animating the legs of the dead thing.
“Oh ew,” Ron says with a chuckle.
Ron has been a nurse for over 22 years, on the delivery end of colostomy bags, bedpans, and catheters. So I’m surprised that carrion wrinkles his nose.
“Are you photographing that?” he says incredulous, squinting his eyes to better see the buzzard’s lunch.
“I don’t believe I have a photograph of a turkey buzzard.” I say, as I snap another photo.
“Well now you’ll have one with a dead cat,” he says.
“Is that a cat? How can you tell?” I ask.
“The smell,” he says “cat pee.”
We make our way to the rolled red mansard roof of the Museo del Canal. For me, a trip to a museum doesn’t start an adventure. I hold speed records for museum and art gallery visits, including the Louvre, a place where it could easily take a year to see every piece in the building. I did it in an hour and a half. But the Panama Canal, one of the maritime marvels of the world and the site of our afternoon trip, deserves some preamble. The Canal Museum houses Panama City’s archive of photographs, documents, and memorabilia chronicling the construction of the Canal. I pull on the paned glass doors, but they don’t budge. Closed.
Our group of seasoned travelers all failed somehow to consider the fact that with the exception of the Canal’s Visitor’s Center, all government buildings will be closed today, New Year’s Eve.
A tug on the hem of my blouse draws my attention down toward a little girl in a black tank top and an unmarked cast on her left arm.
“Are you American?” she asks in perfect English.
I consider telling her I’m British, but I know my phony English accent will sound Indian. I make a mental note to solicit Ron for a maple leaf pin.
“Yes.” I say hesitant. I cringe at the possibility that she conceals a stash of rotten tomatoes.
I have reason to be concerned. At a pub in New Zealand, a friendly, “this was delicious” (a lie) after eating dry potato pie incited a monologue from a waitress about how American genetically modified foods were killing the oceans. During the Clinton era, a Tuscan mocked,
“You Americans are so prudish. Monika e Clinton? É normale,” he said shamelessly staring at my breasts, modest, as they are. This despite the fact that Tom sat trapped in a barber chair directly across from us, captive in a smock and at scissor point. In an Italian café in Frankfurt, a German diner leaned over to ask if I could translate the Italian menu. Upon learning of my citizenship, rather than thank me for my comestible interpretation, he proceeded to chastise Americans for their lack of taste.
“Didn’t you see the McDonalds up the street?” he said “why are you eating Italian when you could have a Big Mac?”
I don’t know why I find it difficult to defend my country when abroad, I harbor no apologist guilt about American culture, government, or epicurean diversity. A nationalist debate just feels too much like a childhood bout of “my dad can beat up your dad,” particularly since my dad is Captain America.
As it happens, the little girl just wants us to take her photograph. All seven men click off a dozen photos like a swarm of well-dressed paparazzi. She beams and four cherubic dimples materialize beside her smile. The girl poses, a slight turn to the left, eight times to meet each of our cameras. Then with her index finger she makes a pressing motion at an invisible button and says,
“Photo of you?”
This of course would mean surrendering our cameras to a total stranger, cherubic or not that just wasn’t going to happen. Instead, Brad buys her a snow cone from one of the bicycled ice cream vendors and I hand her all of the change in my purse, though its US currency. I think, something around ten Balboa, though for all I know, I just handed her enough money for a car. Tom dispenses the converted cash when I need it. I have enough trouble ferreting out needed items in my purse let alone two currencies in my wallet. But that means I have no idea of actual dollar equivalencies and if separated from the herd, the taxi had better accept a credit card.
The girl tags along with our crew for another ten minutes, then scampers off with a taller girl in a pixie haircut and a red and white polka dot jumper. Bonnie moves out of the way, but continues to lap at a puddle of brown water.
Rod bends to pet Bonita’s head. She stops drinking, water still drips from her muzzle, eyes closed, she angles her head to meet Rod’s fingers. He massages under her jaw and around her ears. I almost collapse from the weight of affection I suddenly feel for this dog. A rope-like scar of dark, glabrous skin circles her waist like a belt. Scott walks across the street to a convenience store to buy a bag of dog food and we take turns in an attempt to hand feed her. She won’t eat. The blissful caresses capture her whole attention. She ducks her head under every outstretched palm nudging to adjust the pressure. Then it occurs to me, this dog is feral. I retract my hand as if on fire and bring it to my nose. It is fetid. My wretched hand is dead to me. At the same time I embrace the rotten unknowable stench of my contaminated limb, time slows. I watch Rod lean down to Bonnie, love in his eyes, his intention clear.
“Nooooo!” I yell, the protest slow, baritone, and protracted like a stalled record player.
Rod plants a long kiss on Bonnie’s head.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” I bark. Too late.
Whatever hateful alien microbes lurk within the fur of this sweet dog, they now inhabit Rod’s lips. I stick my good hand into my purse to retrieve antibacterial wipes.
“For all that is decent and holy and for the sweet mother of baby Jesus!” I yelp and I’m not even Catholic.
I thrust the wipes in his face and proceed to cleanse the sepsis from my hand as well.
Confusion and wonder in Rod’s expression, he stares at me as though I just spoke in Aramaic.
“What?” he asks.
Church bells resonate in the main square. It’s noon.
The Old Panama Cathedral flanked by two mother-of-pearl studded towers astride The Hotel Central and the Canal Museum provide the anchors for the Old Quarter Plaza. Young military men, no more than 20 years old, wear green canvas uniforms and smoke in the square, each of them no more than twenty. The oppressive temperature, already 90 degrees, I consider buying them a bottle of water, but semi-automatic rifles hang like yoga bags over their shoulders.
A Panamanian woman in a traditional, white La Pollera dress stands in front of the cathedral. Tourists with video cameras gesture for permission to photograph her. The undulating layers of ruffle and embroidery fan like soft coral as she spins to face the orbiting lenses.
We retreat toward Panama Bay where the negative tide reveals a damp, sandy bottom, I think I smell sewage. All of the boats are aground, listing on their sides. Rope lines droop from cleats to buried anchors. Even the newer vessels with a shine of freshly varnished teak appear lonesome and abandoned. We find the litter, discarded remains of empty cigarette packs, soda bottles, old diapers, undecipherable refuse that I don’t even want to try to…is that human waste? I sidestep what appears to be partially digested food.
I later learn that the government sanitation workers were on strike during our visit. Locals constructed urban refuse piles along the sides of the highway, beside the fishing wharf, and at the foot of the hill winding to Casco Viejo. The rubbish mounds blossom into hills by the time we leave, several weeks before the end of the strike.
Stretched across the side of the pier is a Rubén Blades political banner for the San Felipe Community Board. Brad from West Hollywood and a public relations director of a private corporation, whips out his camera. His job requires the flexibility to fly across the world on a moment’s notice and to spend an inordinate number of hours fetching green M&Ms for spoiled celebrities. Peter Lawford handsome, every photo of Brad suggests he just came off the set of Mad Men. His 1950s style, even in a tee shirt seems classy and effortless. Brad, the Arts and Entertainment savant, informs me that Rubén Blades is a Panamanian actor and singer. But since he’s been in a number of American films, I should know him. I don’t. I later learn he also ran unsuccessfully for Panamanian President in the 90s.
We lose Ron and Noah. Then find them across the street in a flea market. Noah forages through all of the stands of jewelry and clothing. He owns an antique business and elbow deep in textiles and baubles his expression reminds me of a junkie who just mainlined heroin. Or rather, what I imagine a junkie who just mainlined heroin might look like. He tries on about ten straw Panamanian hats and finds one he likes. It’s beige not the typical white. A seagull will shit on it later today. Despite this, he’s adorable in his new chapeau, like a 1920s-era prohibition mobster. The youngest among us at 35, yet, he epitomizes the word dapper. Even in a hat that probably comes from China.
“Hey you wanna go into fisherman’s wharf?” Brad suggests. “Do you have your camera handy?”
I nod down to the Nikon dangling from my neck, my left hand cradles the lens.. My camera is always handy. By the end of the trip, that question will evolve to, “You got that right?” in reference to some photo-worthy event or experience.
I have been in dozens of fish markets. All of them make me nostalgic for the years spent with my dad commercial gill netting in Alaska. But markets differ, different sanitation, different refrigeration, and different fish. At Pikes Street in Seattle, the fish are firm, glossy, and nurtured, swaddled in lettuce leaves, and artfully displayed like little debutantes on chipped ice pillows, gleaming and glorious. I need only think of a Pike’s Street halibut cheek to feel the omega three fatty acids coax down my blood pressure.
This market, though, is encased in a transparent skin, a plastic so sun weary the enclosed seafood racks, butcher blocks, and vendor stands appear jaundiced. The fish flattened against their prehistoric bodies, listless in the heat, one on top of the other, all gelatinous goo and early decomposition. A fisherman shucks at the flesh of a red snapper, the scales fly off like cedar bark from a wood chipper onto patrons. Josh’s right arm is peppered with glittering pink and silver iridescent flakes. Throngs of people jostle, shove, elbow, and crowd their way through the narrow aisles between vendors. I pull my purse in tighter, one hand over the zipper.
Bonita canters up in front of me. Rather than squat like a girl, balanced over a toilet seat covered in fish scales, seawater and now urine, she lifts her leg on the shrimp vendor stand.
I have lost my crew, all of them devoured by the crowd. In spite of the guidebook warnings, I have no sense of danger at any point on this trip. A woman in a fuchsia dress and flip-flops calls out to passersby. She holds up raw oysters, their shells quiver unbalanced on the wooden tray. A local gives her some money and takes a shell. He tips his head and sucks the briny flesh into his throat. Tom’s white tee shirt and leisure long hair sneak out of the crowd in the back of the market. When we all emerge into the sun, the outer pocket of Brad’s Jack Spade backpack gapes open, an empty maw, where his camera should be.
Bonnie weaves between legs as we walk back toward our hotel. Brad and Josh saunter along the sidewalk animated in conversation. Bonnie, purposeful, herds them toward the rest of the group. She trots up to Rod at the front of our covey and manages his pace while he and Scott debate the possibility of adoption.
“How hard do you suppose it is to adopt a dog here?” Rod says.
“I’m not sure. I doubt very much that we’d have to adopt. I imagine anyone could just grab a dog off the street and take it to the airport. The trouble would be customs. If you have to declare produce, I’m pretty sure a street dog would be frowned upon,” Scott says.
“Do you think there would be a quarantine period to bring her back with us to the states?” he says.
“At the very least,” I say, “then you have to consider how a feral dog, assuming she is feral, will react to quarantine. How stressful that would be.”
Rod’s from Texas, it’s a kill state. His Humane Society inspired advocacy is not atypical, even during a vacation. His Facebook and Twitter history, a series of adoption pleas for an aged sad-eyed Shih Tzu or a Rottweiler on death row. Each message in capital letters, a loud call to arms, though the hugging kind.
We have an hour before the taxi arrives to take us to the Canal. We each retire to our rooms to freshen up or nap. Rod and Scott linger with Bonnie, they give her a last love pat and head upstairs to their room.
I step onto the veranda of Tom and my third floor suite. The warm air sends the soft, cotton curtains aflutter. From this vantage, the roofs of the adjacent buildings reflect the variability of their construction. Some a patchwork of corrugated metal scrap, each a different color, age, and luster, pounded and hammered until seated into place. Others the traditional, Spanish tile in prim rows and bright glazes, they hold onto the edge of their neighbors like ceramic school children in red uniforms. The President’s Palace, the Palacio de las Garzas, literally the Heron’s Palace stands a block away but hides beneath a canopy of palm trees. Below me is the door to the hotel the unceremonious entrance leads into the courtyard. Beside the closed door, Bonnie sleeps in a ball.
“Tom!” I yell, “Hurry! Come here!”
Tom runs from the bathroom, his pants still unzipped, “What?! What’s wrong?”
“Look who’s waiting for Rod,” I say. Tom walks to the window and I point down to the dog.
“I’m gonna go tell him to go onto his veranda,” I walk toward the door.
“Wait!” Tom puts his hand on my arm. “What’s he going to do? We leave for Boquete tomorrow. You think he can just pack her up with us on the plane to David?”
He glances down at her and smiles, “She really is so sweet. But most street dogs are skittish. She probably has a home.”
Tom retreats back inside and lies down. The jetlag should lull me into a nap but I can’t sleep. Ron and Noah nap next door. If I visit Rod and Scott’s room, I will not doubt mention Bonnie so I wander up to Brad and Josh’s suite. The ceiling in their room slants toward the bed, beside the kitchenette a metal staircase spirals onto a rooftop terrace. When I arrive, they’re both on their phones. I sit down on their bed, I feel like a little kid waiting to be entertained. Brad glances at me and sets down his phone.
“You want to go with me to buy some wine and cigars for New Year’s tonight?” he asks.
“Yes, I want to do something. Did you see Bonnie downstairs?” I ask.
“You didn’t tell Rod and Scott, did you?”
“No,” I say.
“Good. I think they had a disagreement about bringing her home.”
“A disagreement? What do you mean?”
“You know, Scott’s very practical. How the hell would Rod get the dog home?” He grabs his wallet.
We wander outside. Bonnie flicks an ear and falls back asleep. We go to a little shop a block down from our hotel. No trinkets anywhere, just groceries and liquor. Again, no Captain Morgan cutouts, no parrot neon signs, nor signage that asks, “Got a little Captain in you?” But a variety of Panamanian rums jockey for space on crammed shelves. We pick up a couple bottles as well as limes, lemons, and four bottles of red wine. The entire bill set us back twenty Balboa, the same in U.S. dollars, the conversion as it turns out is equivalent.
Two little boys outside one of the efficiencies play in a stream of water. The taller boy in a faded red shirt and matched crimson Converse sneakers sprays water from a hose at his naked little brother in a faux hawk. The faux hawk screams and splashes through the water his face all teeth. Three women slouch in lawn chairs on a nearby sidewalk. They watch the boys and laugh. One knits what appears to be the arm of a sweater with bright blue yarn, another checks her cell phone.
We stop at a smoke stand on the way back and grab our cigars, a lighter and make our way back to the hotel.
The van for the Canal tour waits impatient beside the front entry. Ron, Noah, Tom, Rod and Scott sit just inside. They wave for us to get in. Brad texts Josh to hurry down and we pile into the van with our groceries. Once seated, I glance outside the windows toward the hotel, no Bonnie.
The Panama Canal is not what I expected. I’m not entirely clear what that expectation was, but this wasn’t it. The Canal spans 50 miles and three decades of labor from the onset of the French effort to American management. Designed to accommodate the massive bellies of cruise ships and ferries, their beams bloat above dainty heart-shaped hulls. The Panamax, the term given to reflect the size constraints of the v-shaped hulls is no more than 110 feet. To stand above these ships as they proceed through three separate locks, freed from the Pacific side of the world to make their way toward the Atlantic, inspires awe. Or I imagine it would, had we seen ships go through the Canal. We missed them.
In the absence of ships, the canal and her locks appear…puny. I could chuck a rock across the lock without much effort and hit the whitewashed, cottage-style building on the opposite shore. At the Miraflores Visitor Center on the east side of the lock, we hike the infinite steps from the museum to the observation deck, now above the 110-foot expanse. I stand at the railing and try to imagine what a ship would look like there. I fear I lack the creative imagination to mentally manufacture a craft large enough to inspire the appreciation I know the engineering warrants. I’m underwhelmed. As I survey the expressions of the bright-eyed visitors taking in their first view of the Canal locks, I see that I’m not alone in this sentiment. I can almost hear the collective, “Is this it?”
It’s 8 o’clock and the impatient New Year’s celebrations in Panama City spill into the streets, a series of pre-parties. The fireworks crack overhead and vibrant sparkles of magnesium pyrotechnic stars shoot across the skyline over the bay. A fine toxic dust of sulfur creeps into the alleys. The metallic apocalyptic cloud reeks of science fiction dystopian novels. I strain to hear the siren of a fire truck or an ambulance. It never comes.
Nightclubs we missed that morning shine confused purple strobe lights into the streets, the neon scatters in the smoke, an opaque wall of light. Laughter, the clatter of ice in cocktail glasses, and the base treble of techno music reverberate off the buildings. It feels electric, the energy anticipatory. The adult version of Christmas Eve, an opportunity to make one last regrettable decision before resolutions and fresh-starts cloister bad behavior. Stockings don’t hang from fireplaces, they lay crumpled in scandalous heaps against baseboards and bed stands.
We dine at La Puerta de Tierra, a Venezuelan-owned steakhouse. That’s one thing about Panama: a panoply of dining experiences. Unless you stick to food carts, it’s difficult to find exclusively Panamanian cuisine. The number of ex-pats from Europe, South and Latin America converge in the city. Panamanian flavors coalesce with Italian, Venezuelan, Cuban, Spanish and French recipes.
We have no fewer than five waiters serving us. We order from the prix fix menu, forced to shout over the chaos outside and the other restaurant patrons. A parade of dishes process, carried high over head, one after another: a chicory salad with passion fruit and grape tomatoes; ceviche in a bath of mango juice with delicate sprigs of cilantro; flank steak with a port wine reduction; fried plantains and tiny roasted potatoes marinate in mushroom mousse. Every dish a study in complementary colors, the fare piled into fragile architectural towers on sturdy, porcelain plates dotted with garnishes. Sorbet palate cleansers scour the tang of aromas from our tongues. The table is a symphony of appreciation, wine glasses clink together, “to your health,”
“to good friends,”
After a week in Boquete, we return to Casco Viejo and there are no dogs anywhere, this includes Bonnie. But she stays with Rod. The night before our return to the states, illness seeps from Rods peeked pallor, his pores a sheen of sweat. I trouble shoot with my first aid arsenal, trying everything I have.
Charcoal tablets? No.
His symptoms persist, stubborn and unresponsive to all efforts. After a battery of blood and urine tests, his American doctors identify a parasite. Rod contracted an amoeba. On the evening of his last doctor’s visit, he sends me a text.
“And that is why I don’t kiss girls.”
Bio: Heide Island is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Pacific University. She lives with her husband and two dogs in Portland, Oregon.