Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Panama: a Modern World.

The last country on the list to check off, and we've had all the countries of Central America except El Salvador. And due to recent news of the unsettling unease going on there, I'm not specifically sorry I missed it.

The border moment was pretty funny: up till now, we've crossed each border with a stamp in our passport, all of the countries checking our carry ons as well as the luggage. Sometimes, we could tell what a country would be like merely by crossing it's borders. Costa Rica looked immediately wealthier and more organized, and Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua all had pretty much the same vibe.

Nothing could have prepared us, then, for when we got our exit stamp of Costa Rica, what we saw walking across.
"India", is what Anouk described it with. A flurry of colours and chaos, with people standing, coming and going. You not only haven't got a clue where they're coming from, where they're going or what they're doing, you also have no idea where you're supposed to be.

David was only an hour and a half away from the border, so not too much of a stretch. From there, we managed to easily find a local "chicken bus" to Boquete.
Those buses had been absolute no-go's up till now, because though cheap, they're asking for disaster to strike you. In Panama, though, it didn't only look and feel safe enough: you can't avoid them. They're everywhere, and there's very little other options.

The weather was just right, because of it's location. The village was cute, quiet, though maybe (slowly being transformed into) a little touristy. Not too tacky though, yet.

Because Boquete is known as the Napa Valley for coffee, that's exactly what we did in the pristine little natural mountain village: a Kotowa Coffee tour. Hans, a Dutchie, moved to Panama a rough twelve years ago, decided they wanted to do something different with their lives, and started giving tours around Boquete. Just around then, they met a few coffee farmers who asked if it was an idea to bring tourists there, and a new idea was born.

Hans taught us a lot. From the moment the seed is planted till the moment it's ripe to be picked. The history of the beans, and how many different species there really are as far as coffee plants go. How Columbia is number one, and surprisingly, Vietnam number two. Panama isn't even in the top ten.

The funny thing about him being a Dutchie was that I'd almost forgotten about the directness and humor we have. It becomes very apparent when you're in a different country, in a group that consists solely of a German couple and three Dutch people (Hans, Anouk and myself) that kept making me think " Those poor Germans!".

What was also surprising to me was how Hans expressedly told us it doesn't matter whatsoever where the coffee is from, when you walk into a specialty store. It's more important to know if your flavours are inclined to light, medium or dark roast. Or the American fourth option: French roast. (Don't ask about the origin of the name. The French don't know either.)

Apparently, there are two very important differences when coffee is concerned: there is Robusta (which is considered the crap of the crappiest of coffee), and Arabica (which is "nice", but again divided into 5 different "levels".) Nescafe, apparently, isn't even fully robusta, but lengthened with chemicals and other stuff so that Hans wouldn't even dignify it enough to call it coffee. That broke my heart.

We also had a tasting session, where we tried the different roasts of the same chocolatey coffee. The light roast was called the strongest, though none of us agreed with that. Hans explained that coffee has a body, like wine, and like wine has different "side tastes". Acidic, or "fruity", or nutty. The light roast had enough fruit and nut, so that the body was mild, justy "one of the ingredients". Just 30 seconds of a longer roast makes it medium, where the coffee already loses most of the fruitiness and had more obvious body. Dark roast was where even the nuttiness has been burned away, so that it's mainly body. I don't even want to know what the French roast would taste like. Water?

Afterwards we had a cup of another coffee, medium roast, but with some fruity flavour left. And then, we had a $8 cup of award winning Gesha coffee, something we thought didn't taste like coffee at all, but warmed up fruit punch. 


We decided to skip the night in David and go straight through to Panama City, officially making that our last long bus trip this holiday. We slept in the Financial District the first night we arrived, in a cosy enough hotel, and walked around to try and find some dinner and get familiar with the place.

Panama City, though, is definitely THE most modern city in Central America, at least of the ones we have visited. For one thing, they have a funny little card which works almost the same as our little OV chip card, where we buy it, charge it, use it in buses and trains instead of buying tickets everywhere.

For another, the skyline. It is absolutely amazing! It might as well have been any skyline in the States, and that wasn't just Anouk and myself talking, but also people who have visited, for instance, Miami and New York. We basically spent the first full day exploring, and from then on have been to see the scyscrapers every evening.

For a third: their toilet paper can be thrown where it belongs, after use: the toilet. It took me days to get into the habit of throwing the toilet paper in the bin next to it throughout Central America, because their toilets can't handle it, start regurgitating and become blocked. Now, it took me a good two or three days to undo the habit and get back into a normal routine: I kept looking for the bin!

Of course, a visit to Panama City wouldn't be complete without visiting the Panama Canal, just outside the city. We took a while to understand the bus station, the first day we arrived there it mainly seemed very tourist-unfriendly. But we arrived in time to see the grand vessels go through the locks. They'd advised us to go there between 9 and 11 am, or after 3 pm, because those were the time any ships of real size passed through. Well, you couldn't not agree with that: the boats passing were HUGE!

There was a commentator who, besides explaining what was happening in front of our noses, also filled our brains with funfacts that were bound to go into one ear and out the other. For instance, the fact that one man thought of swimming through the canal, and how it took him 23 hours to get through the three locks. And how, for his size and weight, he had to pay the smallest amount of money ever paid to the Panama Canal: 28 cents.

And how there are two main rules to passing through the canal with your ship: 1. You have to have at least one certified P. Canal captain on board. 2. You have to pay (in cash) two to four days before you pass the actual canal.
By the sheer number of boats we have seen waiting around the entrance, and given they only let 6 to 10 of those pass, a day, I don't think the 2-4 day rule is much of a problem. Most of them are stuck there for at least a week anyway.

We also saw a presentation with the history and how the Canal was built in numbers, and went inside the museum (that they happened to be renovating, so we couldn't see all of it). I hadn't given it much thought, nor researched it that much, so I was personally pretty impressed by the weights, sizes and amount of people and years it took to finish the project. They're now already almost done adding two more (bigger) locks to the three now existing.

We also went to the zoo, mainly to keep in the tradition I've had to visit one at least once every trip. Sadly, it was even less populated or visited than the one in Riga, Latvia. I'm thinking we as a super small country are doing something right that big countries are completely missing. If I had a rainforest as my backyard, I wouldn't make my zoo a well kempt garden with two cats (jaguars) and some monkeys. I'd make sure it was the most impressive sight you've ever seen.


Again and again we've been telling each other how we wouldn't have wanted to miss out on Panama, though. Most of our classmates doing anywhere near a similar trip as we have have been stopping in Costa Rica. And I personally think that's a shame.
Though not at all regretting having missed El Salvador, Panama is really on the must-visit list. Especially if you like coffee, scry scrapers and modern technology with your fried rice and beans.

Now, sadly, is the end of our trip. In a few minutes we'll try catching a taxi to the main terminal: Albrook bus station. From there, we take a metro bus to Tocumen, the international airport. I'll try thanking the Subway that was kind enough by offering some wifi in those dire hours of need, almost six weeks ago ( by buying a brownie or something).

Then, it's off to internetless Cuba, and within 24 hours there, a flight to Schiphol, Amsterdam.
See you on the other side!

The Gypsy

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