Nav Bar

Navigation Bar for While Away photo crystalnavbar2_zpsc1fecd8f.png Image Map

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Paradise in Panama

Despite the beautiful surroundings, amazing people, and fun times we had in Bocas, we felt like there was something missing. Since we left Saramandaia, we had little purpose in our trip other than floating and having fun. And even though it sounds crazy to say so, that gets tiresome. We needed to do something, and settle in one place long enough to do it. We found a promising workaway opportunity on the Pacific side of Panama and agreed to five weeks of work-stay there at Punta Duarte Gardens Inn.

The jungle, the beach, the Pacific as seen from the house
The view from one of the balcony of one of the rooms in the B&B
Located near Torio, Panama - a place that even our Panamanian friends thought was made up because they had never heard of it - Punta Duarte is about as remote an area as you could find. Transportation there wasn’t easy. We took a bus from Panama City to Santiago with no information on how to get to our final destination, other than we had to catch an onward bus from there. After a brief call from a pay phone to our host, and some garbled conversation with the locals at the bus stop, we found the bus to Torio. It was more van than bus in reality, and wooden stools were pulled from under the seats for passengers who boarded after the seats were full. After two hours down roads that had 30 meter strips of missing pavement every kilometre or so, we arrived in Torio. Our host, Gaby, picked us up from the bakery there - the only establishment in the whole town - and immediately apologised, saying that her home was so remote. It was another 30 minutes drive from the middle-of-nowhere, Panama before we reached the inn. I can’t deny that more than a few flashes of dread went through my mind. If the accommodations and work were as unsuitable as at The Monkey Farm, we were in trouble. There would be no hotels in town to escape to, nor friends coming to visit.

But any worries we had were immediately squashed as the property came into site that first evening. Located at the point of a peninsula jutting out into the Pacific, the massive inn was a beautiful, modern mansion-turned-B&B. We were welcomed in the living room, whose floor was tiled in stone. The ceilings raised 30ft above us with an upper balcony hosting the library, and was decorated with South East Asian art. Next we were shown the kitchen, which would become my playground for the next 5 weeks. A six-burner, stainless-steel gas range was flanked by huge black granite countertops, and the whole kitchen was stocked with top-of-the-line equipment. We were immediately put to work making salads for the guests’ dinner, but somehow chopping vegetables and putting together gourmet salads in a class kitchen like this didn't seem like work.

Looking down into the living room
The library upstairs
The kitchen, my playground
An example of some of the art that decorated the living room, and the cats
The first night I decided to sleep in a hammock outside on the terrace. I woke to an alarm clock of tropical bird song. As I rubbed the sleep from my eyes I found what the darkness from the night before had been hiding: a stone-tile terrace which swept the length of the house adorned with two heavy wooden tables long enough to seat ten people each, white hammocks the size of twin beds swung between the columns supporting the upper floor, and stairs from the terrace led down to a 25 meter lap pool. Beyond the pool the Pacific Ocean expanded forever into the horizon, the view unimpeded for 180 degrees.

As the sun began to poke above the palm fronds, it dawned on me that I was going to live in a mansion in a tropical beach paradise. For five weeks. For free. This notion was a recurring one throughout our stay at Punta Duarte, as I was constantly reminded that I had found a slice of paradise.

The stretch of terrace along the front of the house
My bed the first evening, and the view out the front door
Yeah, this just about sums it all up right here

Friday, October 17, 2014

Michael Annan Needs a Sponsor

Those who know me best will tell you that, despite being a loving and caring person, I’m not easily moved, emotionally. That’s why this post may come as a surprise to many, and hopefully it adds weight to what I’m saying.

When I told my friends and family last year that I’d be going to Ghana, most responded with, “Ghana!? You know that’s in Africa, right? You know - Malaria, Ebola, poverty, starvation, war, genocide - that Africa?” Most Americans will think you are crazy for traveling to Africa. And sometimes I think I’m crazy for coming here. Why did I go there, anyway? Well, initially I thought I went to volunteer with an organisation called Anansi Education, to meet a few students that Crystal and I have sponsored through Anansi, and to bring to life a part of the world that is so far removed from most of our minds that it’s easy to feel as if what’s happening there isn’t real, but fantasy.

But real life for you and me is the true fantasy. Things that you and me take for granted - owning a car, going to school, getting take out, seeing a concert, having television or a computer or xbox, food in the refrigerator - these are things that most children here can only dream about. Real life here is a single mother raising four kids in a house with no electricity and no bathroom, with everyone sharing a single room no bigger than some of our closets, the only income coming from a small plot of land that she farms herself. Real life is a young girl who just finished junior high whose only caretaker is her demented father who tried to drown her sister. Real life is not knowing where the next meal is coming from or having your life threatened by an illness that, although terrible, would have a fairly routine prognosis back home. It’s easy to forget that there are people living in these conditions, and that children grow up with this as the norm. Children who are just like children back home - who play games, have wild imaginations, laugh and cry, love their moms and dads, have dreams for their future - are sentenced to a life of poverty and need and will never have a chance to fulfil their dreams simply because of where they were born.

Volunteering for Anansi, I’ve been blessed to see the difference it can make for a child, family, and community to just send one kid to high school. High school graduates in these communities are like celebrities: they are role models for children and the adults beam with pride at their accomplishments. The give strength and belief to people who have so many reasons to have none.

High school is expensive. Tuition and room and board costs more than the average family makes in a year. It immediately rules out more than 90% of students. Students who dream of being doctors, nurses, teachers, or engineers just never have a chance because it’s impossible for them to get anything beyond a junior high education.

Anansi is one of many organisations that is helping though. Every year Anansi processes dozens of applications for students applying for high school scholarships. This year, they’ve received over 100 applications. But with only 18 new scholarships available, the selection process has been gruelling and heart-breaking.

I had the pleasure of meeting several of these applicants, one of whom is an especially bright and exceptional student. His name is Michael and he dreams of becoming a doctor. He studied for his exams by candle light because his home doesn’t have electricity, yet he still managed top scores. I was so impressed by Michael and his family. At 14 years old, Michael is the man of the house, having lost his father years ago. His quiet confidence immediately assured me he will take advantage of any opportunity he’s given. Unlike many of the families we visited, whose demeanour - understandably - seemed desperate and defeated, Michael and his mother were nothing but grateful and excited that we came to visit. Despite not having their own bathroom - the area they use to bathe is shared amongst the neighbours - they were as gracious and dignified in welcoming us to their home as any host we’ve ever had. Michael’s mother provides for him and his four siblings by farming a small plot of land near the village, and sometimes they receive modest donations from their church. Without a scholarship from Anansi, there is no chance of paying for high school. Unfortunately, as deserving as Michael and his family are of receiving this scholarship, and as gifted and promising as he is, he was not deemed to be in great enough need and will not receive one of the coveted 18 sponsors available this year.

Michael (in the solid yellow shirt) and his family

Me with Michael and his mom
There is only one solution for this: Michael needs a sponsor. It’s not like me to use this blog to promote things like this. It’s also not like me to be impressed and moved so immediately. But there is no question for me that, despite my initial reasons for coming here, finding a sponsor for Michael has always been my purpose. I just didn’t realize it until I met him.

Becoming a sponsor through Anansi is a financial commitment. It costs $800 per year, and you must commit for all three years of the student’s high school education. But it’s guaranteed that every penny goes directly to funding the student. You won’t be paying for a massive organization’s overhead costs, or putting money in the pockets of the people running them. Your money goes straight to the school to pay for your student’s tuition, room and board, and books.

Please contact Anansi Education if you wish to help. If you’d like, you can email me or Crystal, or leave a message here, and we can help get you all the information you need and get you in touch with the people at Anansi. The difference for you could be bringing coffee and lunch from home for a few months. But the difference will be life-changing for Michael and his family, as well as for future generations of his family and his community.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The three lies of Bocas del Toro

They say there are three lies of Bocas del Toro:
  1. “I’m not drinking today”
  2. “I’m leaving tomorrow”
  3. “I love you”
In Bocas those first two lies are hard to avoid. With a constant in-flux of backpackers looking for action and party-hearty locals promoting the venue of the day, it’s damn near impossible to avoid a handful of drinks by noon, especially when a beer rarely sets you back more than a dollar. And the party inevitably leads to a hang over, and who can bring themselves to leave an island paradise when the only way out of your miserable state is another $1 beer. It’s a vicious cycle.

We arrived in Bocas Town by boat - the only other option is by plane - after a 40 minute ride from the mainland at about 6 am. 

view while boarding the boat from the mainland to Bocas
We saw our hostel, Aqua Lounge, beckoning to us with its bright green exterior, just a short island hop away from Bocas proper. 

When we entered the hostel acid jazz thumped as a long-haired, goatee’d pirate-hippy poured himself shots and set up the bar (it was 7am). The whole hostel was built on top of the turquoise of the Caribbean, and the massive patio outside had three swimming holes cut into it, one of which boasted a trampoline and three swings as entry points. 

deck swings for water jumping
deck trampoline for water jumping
relaxing before our buddies arrived
We killed time, feeling old and tired and barely able to get ourselves up for a beer and a game of Scabble, as we waited for our friends Jake and Tyler to arrive. When they did arrive, with our soon to be new friend, Reese, the energy immediately lifted. We gathered ourselves and took on night one at Iguana’s. It was a great night, arriving to the bar via water taxi and dancing salsa with the locals, although Tyler did have an unfortunate run in with a suspect islander that ended in a scar on Tyler’s chin and a great story.

water taxis--these things were ALL over the place
The next day was beach day. There are many to choose from near Bocas. Because we got a late start and were on a slightly smaller budget, we went to Reg Frog which is a bit closer to Bocas Town and costs less for the water taxi. Tyler complained at the state of Red Frog as we zipped across the shimmering ocean highway, telling us how much it sucks and how much better Zapatia is. When we landed at Red Frog, we questioned Tyler’s assessment because the white sand, palms, and bath warm ocean water was literally the image of island paradise. If this was the shit beach, the good one must have been heaven. We got an early start to our party on beach day with rum and coke, poured straight into our mouths for extra class. 

Fortunately for us, the venue for the evening was our hostel so we had an easy time continuing into the night. That night the outside patio was packed to the railings with Ticos, Argentinians, Yanks, Brits, Panamanians, Dutch, French, Venezuelans, Columbians, and more, and eventually they all began spilling into the water. We made friends with the lovely Jose and Yene from Panama City, whom I met up with them a few days later when we returned to PC and had a nice evening at my favourite Central American brewery, La Rana Dorada. The night at Aqua Lounge was an incredible party and an insanely fun night, only slightly dampened by the casualty suffered when I went swimming with my clothes on and forgot to remove my phone from my back pocket.

Tyler and Jake making mouth cocktails. Not as gross as it sounds
Tyler, Jake, Justin, and Reese
Justin and Crystal on hideous Red Frog Beach

The next day was The Worst Hangover Ever (we still talk about it that way, four months later)! It was the most beautiful, sunny day of our stay in Bocas, and we literally could not enter the sunlight due to the severity of our headaches. We hid in the shade on a hammock the entire day, and barely spoke to anyone until the evening came around and we could stomach a few drinks (yes, that kind) to bring us back to life a little bit. Hair of the dog that bit you, right?! As far as hangover days go, it could have been much worse. For instance Jake and Tyler and Reese had to leave at 4:30am - basically when the party ended - and Jake fell victim to the corrupt border officials between Panama and Costa Rica. So we didn’t have the worst of it. I’d say it was a miserable but worthy write off of a day.

bocas del toro, panama
View from Aqua Lounge 
The night after hangover day was our last party day in Bocas. We did some pre funking at the hostel with Remi, our English mate who preceded our almost exact entry into Brazil and gave us a few good pointers for our upcoming Amazon cruise and and arrival in Menaus, the Hermanas Ticas, Sylvia and Paula, who I talked football with a bit and am currently congratulating on Costa Rica’s performance in the World Cup, and Sebastian and Francisco, the most charming and sweet Argentinians ever. That night we ended up at Iguana’s again where the most excitement of the night was when Neil dropped his wallet in the water and stripped to his knickers, handed his shorts to Crystal, and dove in after it. Good thing the water is so clear. It was the perfect evening to bid farewell to Bocas. 

With hugs and kisses and utter contradiction for the third lie of Bocas, we packed up the next day to return to Panama City to retrieve our passports, fresh with Brazilian VISAs, and prepare for the next stage of our journey.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Panama Canal

Traversing the Panama Canal was a big bucket list item for me, so I was really excited. I had visions of Theodore Roosevelt consulting on a dig site, moustached engineers conferring with one another as they looked over blueprints, and (now) antique machines removing dirt by the ton to make way for the ships of the future.

Centennial Bridge, 1/2 way up the canal
Obviously all of my ideas were rooted a bit in the past, but seriously, I wanted to see this WONDER that was made before modern technology. I mean, this thing changed the way the world could trade and import. Super exciting, dudes!

The start of the journey (or: Justin's toupee)
So, we got picked up in the city by a tour bus and two hours later (we rode the bus to the middle of the canal and floated back through to the city) we were headed down one of the man made wonders of the world. It was really incredible, seeing huge cargo ships right up against us in the Pedro Miguel Locks that filled completely (with almost 27 million gallons of water, mind you) in just 8 minutes--that's less time than it takes to fill an average bathtub.
This ship was massive compared to our teeny little tour boat 
Up close (within 40 feet) Notice the sailors in the windows 1/2 way down the hull
Being from Seattle, we were familiar with the idea of locks, but these dwarfed those in Ballard by a mile. The second set, a series of two, were called the Miraflores Locks. They were built one after the other to raise passing ships the final height (86 meters) to the level of the ocean (or raise them, depending on which direction they were headed).
Double Doors of Pedro Miguel Locks open after we've been lowered

Going through to man made Gatun Lake
The canal took more than 45,000 people to build and ten years to complete, after the US took over the abandoned French construction in 1904. They are currently working on expanding it and constantly have to re-dig the canal floor, as erosion and rain cause it to fill back in with dirt and silt a considerable amount every year.

There are two bridges along the latter half of the canal, the Centennial and The Bridge to the Americas. We got about 1002 pictures of the Centennial Bridge because our camera was about to die.

Centennial Bridge, Panama Canal
Centennial Bridge

Centennial Bridge, Panama Canal

Centennial Bridge, Panama Canal

Centennial Bridge, Panama Canal
We finally got a moment at the front of the boat, had to get our fill of photos. :) 
Bridge of the Americas, Panama Canal
Bridge of the Americas, Panama Canal

We also came across the crazy building below several times in our site seeing. As it happens, it was designed by Frank Gehry, the same man who designed the Experience Music project in Seattle (could you tell?). 

It's actually a biodiversity museum that has been under construction for over ten years and is millions of dollars over budget. They assured us it would "be open next month." Apparently thats been their promise for awhile...


Above you can see the incredible views of the city as we came round the last bend in the canal. I love the difference in perspective between the two photos.

Interestingly, only certified canal captains can drive boats through the canal. Because of this, every ship must allow a canal captain to board before entering the canal. Obviously, at the end of the trip, the captain must then disembark. Below is the captain rescue crew coming up to our tour boat to collect their employee.

Apparently, being a canal captain is one of the rarest, highly technical jobs in the world. These folks must know how to pilot everything from a small dingy (not likely to pay to cross the canal, but you never know) to top secret sub marines--and in order to pass, you must give up your vessel to the canal employee. 

All in all, though the day was grey, the canal tour was a great experience that we'd recommend to anyone. You can certainly see it without taking the tour, but I'd really recommend going for the full shebang. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Panama City & Casco Viejo

Panama City, or what was supposed to be our first border run. Having skipped town for Nicaragua just one week before, however, technically speaking this trip was pointless. That aside, we were both really excited to take a bus down to Panama City with our good buddy Brad, a classmate of mine during my TEFL course back in Jan/Feb. 

We boarded the bus for a long 15 hour bus ride, made even longer by the 2 hour stop at the border (a much easier crossing this time). 

ready for a looonnnngg bus ride
When we finally arrived it was nearly 5am and we were slightly regretting having booked a place to stay that “night.” We all got a few hours sleep under our belts then met up at the main oceanside boardwalk along Avenida Balboa (Balboa Avenue) and walked several kilometeres into the old city, called Casco Viejo. 

Avenida Balboa Panoramic, Panama City
Avenida Balboa
Along our walk, we noticed the tide was so low that several boats were resting in the mud. Many of them looked completely abandoned. Later that evening as we walked back, however, we noticed something strange that could only have been caused by introduction of the Panama Canal. The change in tide, in only about four hours, was really intense. We'd never seen anything quite like it. I'm not sure I'd have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes.

The same boats: Top: our walk to Casco; Bottom: our walk back
Top: Boats rest in the mud; Bottom: four hours later, the same boats float!
Once there, we found that the buildings in Casco were colonial and the ruins were everywhere. I was in heaven, even saying to Justin at one point “THIS is why I wanted to travel.” The main part of the old city looks very European, with its narrow streets, terraces with flower boxes overhead, and cafes that spill onto the street. 

Casco Viejo ruins, Panama City
Ruins through a gate
dorr, casco viejo, panama city
Pretty doors in Casco Viejo (above and below)

flower boxes, casco viejo, panama city
Pretty Flower boxes along the terraces
Casco Viejo Church, Panama City
Above a doorway to a church 
Casco Viejo Church, Panama City
Jesus says "Rock on"
There was a square full of statues honoring the French, who made the original attempt at the Panama Canal, a street market, beautiful facades with renovations going on behind. 

Crystal in the French Square, commemorating those who made the initial Canal attempt
There were also churches and ruins that were in deplorable disrepare (the government could do a lot to intervene here) as well as shocking poverty behind many of the facades (children would leave their door open and we’d see that behind, there were dilapidated staircases, homes with no roofs, all hidden behind a pretty building face. 

church, casco viejo, panama city
Cathedral in disrepair (you can no longer enter)
church ruins the city isn't working to maintain
Overall, the area was touristy but lovely, with a bit of real, third-world life mixed in. The old city sits right up against the skyscrapers of the current Panama City, which is strikingly American. The contrast is notable. 

Panama City Skyline
Panama City from the market in Casco Viejo
Casco Viejo Skyline
Casco Viejo from Avenida Balboa
One of Justin’s favorite places in Central America was situated right where the old city joined the new. La Rana Dorada (The Golden Frog): a brewery!! The beer was delicious and a welcome treat after the colored water they pass for cervesa in Costa Rica and Panama. (Justin literally bought the t-shirt when we returned to Panama City a week later.)

La Rana Dorada Brewery, Panama City
Justin is ready 
La Rana Dorada Brewery, Panama City
Cheers to La Rana Dorada in Casco Viejo
After just one full night, Brad had to catch the long bus back home (to Costa Rica) and Justin and I set out on our own. We moved hotels to a local place to get a better price. We explored the beach front and old city a bit more, and were lucky enough to get to see the famous Golden Altar at Iglesia San Jose. We tried to see it with Brad, but the church is usually only open on Sundays. We went back just before Easter though and the church was open for Santa Semana (Holy Week--a huuuugggeee deal here). I mean, this alter is plated in GOLD! It was brilliant to see.

Golden Alter, Iglesia San Jose, Casco Viejo, Panama City
Golden Altar, Iglesia San Jose 
Golden Alter, Iglesia San Jose, Casco Viejo, Panama City
Ok, so I added a filter here (guilty) but its really not that big an exaggeration

And, just for fun, silliness along the way: