Thursday, January 8, 2009

Homeward bound

When traveling to a new place, you look at the map and it's a great mystery. It is filled with foreign sounding place names, and borders with unknown countries. Then slowly, once you're there, the map comes to life. The strange sounding pronunciations become familiar. The distance from one location to another grows or shrinks depending on the quality of the road and the geography in between. Vague impressions of a culture are clarified or dispelled, replaced with something more intimate.

It's crossed our minds to keep on going. The mysterious map of South America is only a boat ride away. Just like it was hard to imagine what it would be like to be traveling before we left, it's now hard to imagine being home.

But Portland, Oregon draws us back to our lives-- to our house, friends, family, garden, work and the Pacific Northwest woods. We're so lucky to have such a great place to come back to. Even if it's raining.

Things we'll miss about Central America

The Buses (painted, with boat horns, bus callers, bus vendors)
Rice and beans for breakfast
Having to speak Spanish
Chikyblak
Furniture that swings
Coke with real sugar
Fresh tortillas
Monkeys
Being off the map
The old men
Tropical fruit
People who like to repeat Lucas' name
Fishing for dinner
Heat
Chaos
New currencies
Latino radio
Casada
People from Holland
Moon like a smile
Dollar beer in a bottle
Learning people's stories
Unregulated modes of transport
Being out of touch with the world
Help from random strangers
Not knowing what we're in for
Spending so much time together

Comarca de Kuna

Our small wooden boat reeled in the five foot swells, slamming down time after time as we motored against the wind. We were soaked through -- cold to the bone, eyes stinging from the salt water, and only one hour into the trip. Maybe we were hunting some gargantuan beast of the depths -- but if we were, the two Israeli girls screaming behind us were going to be of no help; maybe we were sole survivors from a sinking ship, in which case those same girls were going overboard the minute we needed to start rationing water. I looked over at Jina as she continued to bail water. What a way to finish the honeymoon.

The Kuna are an indigenous people, living on several hundred small islands on the Northeast coast of Panama. They settled there only about four hundred years ago, but have completely staved off any colonization or westernization since then, maintaining their own government and regional control separate yet part of Panama as a whole. Theirs is a matriarchal society; when a girl comes of age, she receives her real name in a great ceremony (until then she is known only by a nickname). Then, when she marries, her hair is cut short and wears the traditional septum ring and face painting. And while the men have, on the whole, assumed western-style clothes, the women still wear traditional "monas" and complex beadwork along their arms and legs.

With only a handful of days left of our honeymoon, we decided to visit the Kuna, not only to learn more about this unique culture, but also to enjoy their pristine paradise islands and relax on the beach. A river-fjording jeep trip and a harrowing boat ride later, and we arrived cold and wet at Pelican Island, our home for the next four days. And while the weather careened wildly from sudden squalls to tropical sun, the pace of being stuck on an island the size of four tennis courts suited us just fine. We lounged in the hammock, went snorkeling, read books, and became wonderfully bored. The same stormy weather we faced on the way out had stymied any supply boat from setting out from the mainland, so while water was running out, we still enjoyed our meals of rice and whatever the cook could find. Jina, channeling her Madagascar days, caught a good-sized fish and found two spiny lobsters, which fed everyone on the island.

After a much more pleasant trip home, we're now back in Panama City, refreshed and a little sunburnt.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Panama! (a la Van Halen)

A good rule of thumb for us--eat where the old men are eating. Subtle changes in the various proportions of beans, rice, eggs and plantain have marked our passage through Central America. Gone now are the beans for breakfast, and the thin tortillas ubiquitous in Guatemala have slowly morphed into thick fried cornmeal cakes. Meat and empanadas take center stage in Panama and reminds me that we're closer now to South America than North America. This is in many ways the end of the road. The jungle closes over the Pan-American highway, and all travel to Columbia goes around, by air and by sea.


After two 7 hour bus trips with New Year's and the border in between, we've landed in Panama City. Specifically to the Casco Viejo neighborhood. I've never seen anything like this place. When the original city (Panama Viejo) was sacked by the pirate John Morgan, Panama city was rebuilt at Casco Viejo in 1694. The city was fortified with a wall and is surrounded on three sides by water. When the Panama Canal was started in 1904 all the city existed in Casco Viejo, and then expanded from there. Casco Viejo was somewhat abandoned and then bombed in 1989 by the US. This is all to say that the town now is a Mad-max like world of derelict 300 year old buildings. Trees grow out of the old wall and ruins. And what seems like a ruin may actually be occupied. A few of the buildings are restored and the contrast is striking.

A couple in El Salvador who were sailing down the coast told us that every boat going through the Panama Canal needs 4 people to handle the lines and keep the boat steady through the locks. We learned that you can volunteer to 'line-handle' by putting your name on the message board at the old Balboa Yacht Club in Panama City. A pipe dream, maybe, but we tossed our names into the hat. Regardless of what comes through, we're headed to the indigenous owned San Blas islands for our final days of our trip.

Washing machines are heavy

Nothing curbs the consumer urge more than having to carry all your belongings on your back.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Feliz Año Nuevo!

Happy new year from Panamá!