April and Kevin in Kuna Yala, the northeast coast of Panamá

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Kristin's Visitor View

Our friend Kristin went to college with April and has lived near us in Baltimore for several years. She, along with Kori, came down over New Years, just after Linda and Tabassum visited. After Kori left, Kristin then took a short trip to Kuna Yala (accompanied by April "for her Spanish help" - I think it was a boondoggle for April to get some more snorkeling), and then spent two more weeks of traveling around Panama on her own. Her last day in Panama was the night April's folks arrived, and we caught up with her again that day. Here are her impressions of her trip, which, while more free-form, I've tried to group with our questions.

Q1: How was Panama what you expected?

In a way Panama was what I expected but at the same time I tried to keep an open mind. I did have an (apparently good) idea of what to expect, mostly from blog info and from talking with April throughout their time here. I also had been to Peru a few years ago and Panama City reminds me of Lima, Peru. Hot, sprawling and congested, but still with plenty of historical places to see as long as you are willing to sweat while you adventure out.

(The famous flat arch in Casco Antiguo; having stood for hundreds of years, it was deemed a sign that Panama was safe enough from earthquakes to build a canal there)

(Another perhaps not so historical place; worth sweating for?)

Q2: How was it different than what you expected?

I was surprised to learn that water is safe to drink in all of Panama. I really didn´t expect that.

(The water is safe, but sometimes you have to be careful of what your friends tell you to take a bite of. Butt-in comment from April- hey, that is a marañón, the fruit that grows just below a cashew nut. It was a perfectly edible fruit kindly donated for our tasting pleasure by ouir bus driver who had een planning on eating it, this was not a trick taste testing. April tried it as well, just after taking this photo despite seeing Kristin´s reaction.)

Q3: What struck you about the USA when you returned home?

What struck me about the US is that no one says hello to you. In Panama, you say Buenas dias, or some variation to many people all day long. Then you ask how they are, then you say what you need to say. They like the greetings. They look you in the eye. Most of that does not happen here. That will take some getting used to. That's a basic level of humanity I think is lacking here.

But, I do have to say, that when the customs people said "Welcome home", that was nice. Even if I would be shortly facing glassy Baltimore ice, while still itching bug bites and wearing sandals.

Q4: What was your best moment in Panama?

For question 4 I will divide up my answer, since I was in Panama for 4 weeks, 2 with April and Kevin and 2 without them.

Panama With April and Kevin
I really enjoyed the evenings of cooking, playing cards and talking as these are some of the things I've missed the most while they have been gone.

(Cooking shrimp) (Cleaning lobster)

(Salted fish) (Making maracuya, or passion fruit, juice)

I really enjoyed seeing how the people in their community respond to them when they would see them. It's obvious that they have developed real friendships with many people on the isla.

(Kevin and April and several kids in front of the tienda, after English class)

One of the funniest things was on one bus (I don't remember where we were going) it got so crowded, that Kori and I were on one side and April and Kevin on the other and there were so many people in the aisle that I could not even see them anymore. I did get a glimpse at one point and both of them had babies on their laps (whoever is sitting on these buses gets to hold a baby if one needs to be held). I would have liked a photo of that one, but there was no space to get it. (I was on only one other bus that was more crowded, that was on my last day on the way to the canal. I don't think I had space to turn around and even try to count heads. The lady sitting next to me said it was Mal servicio - bad service.)

(Not sure how this didn't rate as Kristin's funniest bus moment - check the rearview mirror)

Other highlights:

  • seeing Kuna Yala with April for a few days. That was an adventure just getting there! It's exactly what you think of when you think of a Carribean Island.

  • April's cooking on the island, I swear she could pull a rabbit out of a hat. She always has some plan going on in that cabeza of hers...

  • Being able to have April and Kevin ask anyone pretty much any question we had. We were much more able to get to know random Panamainians with their conversations. Something someone couldn't do if you can't communicate in the language. People, once you started talking with them were very open and sharing. Witnessing this also made me try it a few times later on my own. I couldn't find out as much information, but I could get some. And usually, it would turn into a random English/Spanish lesson. They seemed as nervous about their English as I was about my Spanish. It was nice when we both made an effort.

Panama Alone
Spending more time in the country was nice. Traveling alone was fine, as I could meet up with other random travelers and find out information about the next place. Plus, I had gotten a crash course from A & K about culture tips.

On my last day in Boquete, I went on one of those tree-top zip line trips. It was about 15 lines, up around 6000 feet. It was a chilly morning and I had on all my layers (2) so I thought I would freeze the whole time. But, then I realized how much work it was, so I was fine. I had gone with another traveler I had met and then we met another family traveling from the US. We all had a good time. In the afternoon, I ended up going with this family to some nearby hot springs. They had a rental car, so it was easy to get there (something I wouldn't have seen otherwise). It was a little too hot out to be sitting in hot springs for long, so we ended up relaxing in the river for most of our time, with a few dips in the hot water.

I ended the day by eating at a place they recommended and a type of food I didn't think I would be eating in Panama: Mediterean. Homemade hummus, pita, and falafeal. And just when I was thinking about the cheesecake... they all walked in to have dessert. After, they dropped me off at my hotel. It was a great combination day of working hard, meeting new people and eating good food.

Here's a picture of a meal I had in Cerra Punta. It was freezing there!

* soup w/ zapallo (I recognized this from w/ you guys)
* strawberry shake (the book said you had to have strawberries here, so I did!)
* very good roasted chicken w/ rice and beans. I still love beans.
* a decent salad, and
* lunch time reading.

Q5: What did you find most interesting or most notice about Kevin and April's life in Panama?

As far as your day to day lives, I wasn´t too surprised since your blog is so accurate! Although, reading about a composting toilet and seeing one in action are two different things... :-)

I more understand the process to get things done there (although, I´m sure not even close to completely understanding it). Things seem to be done is small doses. A step here, a step there, maybe several days apart. A little information shared in this conversation or that. From April and Kevin´s point of view, with an end goal or plan in mind the whole time. The planning and patience involved is very high. The satisfaction of accomplishment maybe takes longer to realize.

But the thing I noticed about A & K's lives was the amount of planning everything takes. EVERYTHING. Everything is a lot more work. Many times it would seem a more basic life, without as many complications, but it isn't less work; it's more. April is very organized and has things down, but to get to this point I'm sure it took a lot of trial and error.

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