Friday, November 20, 2015

Adventures in Panama City

Leaving David, we put in some decent miles and ended up sleeping behind the police station of a small town. That night, we looked at the rest of the map and realized we could either dramatically draw out the next few days before catching a flight on November 23rd, or we could make a huge push for Panama City and try to find something fun to do. Opting for the latter, I decided to make the push official and see if I could pull off a century ride (100 miles). Believe it or not, Kai and Jon were not as convinced 100 miles in Panamanian humidity was a good idea, so the next morning I took off alone.

For something to do, I kept a log of every time I stopped that day (which can be found at the end of this post). To summarize the day, I made my goal but it may have been the most difficult physical activity I've ever done. Between the heat, weighted bike, the mountainous climbing and descending the first 50 miles, the fact my bike was skipping half of its gears, and having to find food along the way, I can safely say it wasn't easy. Would I do it again in Central America? Probably not. Am I glad I did it once? Sure I guess it's cool to say I did.

One of the weirdest parts of the day was the very end. All I wanted to do was find a hotel and pass out, but the town I was in was so small they didn't have a restaurant let alone a hotel. I found a policeman who said I could camp in a community center which was essentially an over-sized cement pavilion, so I gladly accepted and collapsed by the wall. About a minute, later I sprung to my feet because I realized the floor was crawling with fire ants. Imagine a concentrated nettles sting and that's what was all over my feet. A bit defeated, I set up the tent for bug protection, crawled inside, and proceeded to eat dinner and pass out from exhaustion inside. A few hours later I was woken up by a flashlight and two policeman had me get out of the tent for questioning. Never in my life have I wanted to know Spanish more than when I was so exhausted and unable to efficiently explain myself. Apparently the cop that gave me permission forgot to mention my existence to his partners, and they figured I was some sort of homeless squatter. Not too far off honestly.

The next morning I willed my legs back to life, and met Kai and Jon at our agreed meeting place in Penomone. We searched high and low for a cheap hotel, but all of the options were well out of our price range. Looking at the rain clouds building we weren't thrilled to leave, but were about to try and camp when we stumbled on the fire station. After they sarcastically told us we couldn't stay there (which is tough to pick up on with horrible Spanish by the way) they showed us to a private, air conditioned room they use for meetings and gave us a tour of the bathroom and kitchen. To top it off, the firechief came and talked with us in English and apparently had studied in Cedar Rapids. Can't get a lot closer to home.

Finally cold at night since we could control the air temperature, we were in heaven. The firechief was kind enough to call ahead to San Carlos and let them know we were coming, so we had another free place to stay awaiting us. We arrived early and were a little sad to see the station was much more modest, but we could camp outside and it put us in striking distance of Panama City the next day. In addition, we were able to get on the internet and set up our activity for the next week that would be both fun and educational.

To all my Spanish teachers in the past who I never believed when they promised someday I would want to know this stuff, I can honestly say they were finally right. As proof, all three of us PAID for a week of Spanish lessons to soak in as much as possible with classes and a homestay. Shout out to Ileri Spanish School! The only catch was we had to arrive by 4 pm to get into our homes. Five flats the next day, crazy traffic while navigating the bridge over the Panama canal and a very not bike-friendly city, and a bunch of rain tried to slow us down, but we still managed to make it to our destination with the help of the 24 eggs Kai cooked us for breakfast.

By the time we arrived, it was all out pouring. A car pulled up to have us follow it to the school, and it took everything we had to keep up with its quick pace. The roads had so much rain that at times we were riding through multiple inches and we could feel the resistance from the flow of the newly formed rivers. Soaked to the bone, we took our gear and headed to our respective host families. When I got dropped off, the school owner left me with the line, "You want to practice Spanish? Practice now." After she pulled away, I stepped into a quaint little house where my host mom gave me a little tour. Thrilled to sleep in a bed and have my own room, I was a simple guest but my host mom is so adorable it would be tough not to like it here. She is more of a host grandma who speaks slowly, clearly, always says hello and asks how I'm doing, but is very willing to let me rest. Perfect.

The rest of the week, the three of us would meet at the school for 4 hours of morning lessons with our teacher Luisa. It has been super helpful to review past tense, phrases, learn new words, and have someone assign homework, but the most helpful part of all is having someone around that can constantly correct our mistakes and flawlessly ask questions. Our Spanish definitely has plenty more room for improvement, but even after just a few days we have much more in our arsenal of communication.

While in Panama City, we've also taken in some of the sights. One afternoon, we went to the Miraflores locks on the Panama Canal and paid to go to the museum. It was incredibly clean, clear, and well put together and we even got to see a giant ship pass through. Full of fun facts like how captains have to surrender control to a "canal capitan" and the locks are 8 stories deep, we left feeling educated and fulfilled to have seen something we had been learning about since grade school.

Later that night, we were fortunate enough to get a different taste of Panamanian culture. By some stroke of luck, Panama was hosting Costa Rica for a world cup qualifying soccer game. Although it was raining, we decided it would be worth getting wet for. Finding a taxi was surprisingly difficult, standing in the rain for half an hour before someone would give us a ride. Finally at the stadium, we put our trust in a stranger and bought tickets outside the gate. Glad they ended up being real, we were about to find a place to stand when we passed the beer stand. Unable to believe our eyes, a 32 oz beer was only $2. In reality it's a bit less beer than that because they add a scoop of ice to chill it, but still. Indulging in a few each, we were ready to withstand the rain and have ourselves a game.

The teams were well matched and it was scoreless at half. In the second half, Costa Rica put in two quick goals and we got to witness the wonderful world of fans taunting one another between stadium levels. It wasn't until Panama put in a goal of their own that the stadium really came alive. The chanting became constant, beers were thrown which showered us more than the unrelenting rain, and everyone was intent on watching the field. The final score ended up being 2-1 but it was absolutely incredible to experience such passionate fans.

Not returning to our homes until after midnight, it was tough to get back up for class and sit through 4 hours of Spanish. Kai and Jon decided to take a nap as soon as it was over, but since I live much further away I decided to go for a walk before returning to my home and going to bed early. On the map, I saw a hike in a nearby park called "Metropolitan Natural Park." Although I had to walk on the shoulder of the highway for half a mile, the park itself was amazing. Super dense jungle tropics, a gorgeous lookout of the Panama skyline, and a bunch of signs explaining the biodiversity of the place kept me occupied. When I reached the lookout, I noticed more rain clouds in the distance so I put my raincoat on over my backpack and scurried down the hill.

By the time I was back at the road, it was pouring out. Rounding a corner, I came across a parked cop car. The policeman began to yell something at me but between the rain, traffic, distance, and Spanish I couldn't make it out. He was clearly worried about something and very focused on me so I walked toward the median. As I got closer, I noticed something in his hand. When his partner came out as well, I noticed they both had their guns drawn. Staying calm, one of them came up behind me, frisked me in the street, took off my raincoat and searched my backpack. The policeman never said a word, but I went into my full speech about being American, biking for six months with my two friends and so on. Clearly disappointed with my backpack, they both said nothing but waved me off and went back to intently watching the road. On my half mile highway stretch, I suddenly became aware of the sirens all around, counted 5 more cop cars, a fire truck, and two more cops on motorcycles. Happy to finally return home, I flipped on the news and scoured the internet until I figured out what was going on. Apparently, five men had robbed a bank and made a getaway on the same highway I was walking on. Talk about crazy timing.

With my adrenaline rush for the month complete, I was happy to spend the rest of my night at home with a glass of wine, a few cookies, and watching the Simpsons in Spanish on tv. When I told my host family about the incident (in very broken Spanish) they couldn't beieve it and were absolutely captivated. Glad to have a story to tell, I hope there is nothing else even remotely similar for the rest of the trip.

Ben's Century Ride Schedule:

4:15 am - awake and starting breakfast of oats with pancake mix
5:30 am - breakfast done and eaten
5:45 am - roll out with a bike light, 75 F outside
6 am - Lights put away, panamerican wilderpoop
6:45 am - flat tire, 11 miles
7:15 am - 13 miles, headphones malfunctioning
8 am - 20 miles, ate half of a very green banana that bounced out of a truck
8:45 am - 28 miles, refilled water and headphones malfunctioned again
9:30 am - 33 miles, 85 F, 1 Liter of apple juice and 1 package of Quaker mixed fruit cookies
10:25 am - 43 miles, 94 F in sun, sunscreen stop
11 am - 50 miles, 91 F in shade, raisen brand snack
11:55 am - 54 miles, river shower and refilled one bottle
12:15 pm - 55 miles, 2 snickers, 20 oz gatorade, 2 L orange juice
12:45 pm - 61 miles, tried to buy 4 bananas, given 5 and two oranges
1:40 pm - 66 miles, decided to only ride when clouds over the sun
2:20 pm - small area of rain, temperature drop from 100 F to 75 F
2:45 pm - 75 miles, ate a melted butterfinger and banana
4 pm - 88 miles, took break, riding finally flat and much easier
4:50 pm - 96 miles, ate snickers and brushed teeth to remove all sugar grit from the day
5:15 pm - 100 miles, immense jubilation
5:30 pm - ate dinner of an entire loaf of bread, bag of chips, two beers, a package of meat and five slices of cheese



  1. Even my adrenaline got pumping for the cops drawing their guns on you! But still sounds like one hell of an adventure! Buena Suerte!

  2. Duke University
    Duke University Duke University is a private research university located in Durham, North Carolina,