Bridging the Gap
After taking a day off in Quepos, I had a major kick to do if I wanted to make it to my flight on time in Panama City. 700 km in five days. That's already hard enough, but I believed I should make the last day short, so I could take care of packing up Valeria and arranging a ride to the airport. With a maximum of 100 km allotted for the last day, that means 600 km in four days. 150 km/day for four days straight. Yeesh!
The hostel had free toast and jam for breakfast. I devoured an amount that was probably more than half a loaf of bread, plus a whole jar of jam. I busted my hump down the highway.
Costa Rica's roads remained good, and though there were rolling hills, I was able to maintain a strong pace over them. Noticeably, people were reacting differently when they saw me. It was probably the flag! When people saw it, they wanted to know where I was from and where I was riding. Not one person guessed Texas. As of day one with the flag, I got three guesses for Chile, two for Puerto Rico, and one for Cuba.
As I headed up a hill in the middle of the day, someone whistled at me. I normally ignore that (it happens all the time here). When they whistled again, I turned around to look. Someone had wandered out from the restaurant and was now standing in the highway, waving at me to come back over. They truly wanted my attention! Maybe they wanted to buy me lunch at the restaurant? Worth a try, anyway. I started back and only seconds later recognized the guy: one of my Spanish cabin-mates at the hostel!
The Spaniards had met up with their Costa Rican friends and they were all having lunch together. The Costa Ricans apparently knew a few things about biking, as they asked specific, intelligent questions about Valeria as they looked her over. They were heading to a different part of the coast together, far out of my way, or I would've asked if I could stay with them.
Somehow, I still hadn't dipped Valeria's wheels in the Pacific. I saw a public beach and took the opportunity, meeting a couple more Spanish travelers in the process. There sure are a lot of Spaniards in Central America!
It was early afternoon and I still had about 70 km to go when a truck pulled over in front of me. It had a mountain bike on a rack. A father and son got out and asked me about my ride. They were both named David. The son spoke good English.
"We want to do what you’re doing someday, so you're like a hero to us!"
As it turned out, they were going to visit their brother/uncle in the same town where I was trying to go. First, they were stopping at a cousin's place to pick up a trailer for their truck. I met them there, where we picked a whole tub full of rambutans, and ate dozens more. David Sr.'s father had cultivated several different breeds of rambutans, some of them new and unique, and now their family grows some on their land and sells them on the side. All colors: bright red, wine red, purple, bright yellow, pink, and red with yellow tips. ALL of them were tasty! They gave me a bagful to take with me.
We went farther up the road to Rio Claro, only 35 km from the Panama border. David Sr.'s brother whipped up some tasty pasta and we talked some more about riding. These guys have some serious mountain bikes, better than the one I have at home, and with better components than Valeria! We talked even more about touring, where they might want to go and how to prepare. I of course told them about WarmShowers. Now maybe another touring cyclist will get their hospitality!
After a significant breakfast of rice, beans, and eggs, we went to the border together. The Davids wanted to make sure I got through OK. I hadn't had much trouble before, only issues with paying the fees, but company is a good thing. It might have been good that they came, because the Panamanian officials were more strict than I’d previously dealt with, though professional. Unlike everywhere else, they were concerned with when I was leaving and wanted proof that I had a plane ticket (I was able to show the email receipt on my phone). If David Jr. hadn't been there to translate, it might have been difficult.
Right away, the road turned from highway to freeway. The pavement was just as good, only now there were two lanes in each direction and a nice, big shoulder. I can get used to this.
At one point, I asked a fruit stand for directions (of course, mostly seeing if I wind up with fruit).
"How many kilometers to David?" I asked (name of city, no relation to my host).
They looked at each other. None of them looked like they knew. "How many kilometers to that bridge?"
"One more time?" I wanted to make sure I understood the question.
"How many kilometers from here to that bridge?"
I looked at the overpass she was pointing at. It wasn’t close by, but it was in plain view. "I don't know exactly. Maybe it is one?"
"David is 50 kilometers from here," she answered with total confidence.
So now people are refusing to say "I don't know" when they don't even know how far a kilometer is.
David had warned me that after David (again, name of town, no relation), there would be a hill that lasts 40 km. Nothing terribly steep, but that's how long I'd be going uphill. He prefaced this with "I don't want to be rude or mean, but..."
That illustrates a cultural difference: where I'm from, it's polite to warn people about bad news, or to say "I don't know" when you don't know. If you're unsure, round up, make it sound more difficult. Here, it's rude to tell the truth if it's unpleasant, and it's more polite to lie if you think that's what they want to hear. Understanding this difference helps, but I'm still sick of it. So David, thank you for your honesty!
After riding the length of Panama, I have no idea what he was talking about. A 40 km hill never happened. Even looking on the map, I couldn't see how it was possible. The highway stayed in the vicinity of the coast, and often came close to it. There wasn't room for a 40 km hill if we keep dropping back to sea level! Panama was hilly, but David's description was off. Maybe he meant 40 km of hills?
My first day in Panama, it managed to rain on seven different occasions between 2:00 and 6:00 PM. Just when you dry out again, guess whaaat...? Chafing became a problem, again.
Western Panama is rural and sparsely inhabited. Around 5:00 PM, I started thinking of looking for a place to stay, and realized that I hadn't seen much of anything in hours. At the same time, both sides of the highway were constantly fenced off, so stealth camping wasn't an option either. I happened across a small town around 6:00 PM and spied what looked like a hotel. I couldn't tell if it was open or not. Might be my only chance though. I stopped in front of it and a 14-year-old boy immediately came out and approached me, like he didn't want me to take another step.
"The hotel is open?"
"Yes, it is open." Then he spoke another paragraph in about three seconds.
"You work in the hotel?"
"No," a paragraph in 2.8 seconds.
"So, you don't work here? What are you doing here?"
"Yes, I work here." A paragraph in 3.3 seconds.
"How much does a room cost?"
Two paragraphs, 4.4 seconds. Not one word was a number, that I could tell.
"You say many words, but no numbers. How much does a room cost?"
"25 dollars." That's better.
"Do you have WiFi? Internet?"
"No, we don't have it."
"Is there an office? Do I go there?"
Another paragraph, 1.8 seconds. This was starting to sound like the auto hotel in Nicaragua, the place that doesn’t want you to know what the room looks like before paying, and after three hours, wants you to pay twice as much money. A hotel shouldn’t be so complicated. And having a 14-year-old practically guarding the front gate sounded dodgy.
"First, I am going to the store to buy food."
He tried to stop me by flying through another paragraph in another 2.3 seconds. Yeah, that's not helping.
Only about 1 km later, I found a fire station. Bingo.
"Do you know where is a place to sleep?"
"Do you have a tent?"
"Yes, and a sleeping bag."
He walked over to the office and talked to a guy I assumed was the chief. After five seconds, he walked back.
"You can stay here. Come."
Behind the fire station was a small pavilion, populated by a few broken appliances. A covered area where I could sleep! It even had a light and an outlet!
"Thank you! Everything I need!" He took me back over to the station and showed me where the shower was. Niiiice.
After showering, changing into shorts, and rolling out my sleeping pad (no need for a tent if I'm covered), I walked back over to the station.
"Is it OK if I use your kitchen?" They shrugged and waved me in. I heated up the last of my oatmeal in the microwave. It was pathetic, maybe four spoonfuls. About when I was done, a couple firefighters walked in. I didn't understand everything they said, but managed to get the message that I could join them for dinner. Pork and yucca, a starchy root plant that's very similar to potatoes. I can dig it.
Had a breakfast of...yucca, and headed out after thanking the firefighters.
"We help cyclists all the time. It is the only place for many kilometers. A house here, a house there, and nothing."
Good guys. I might try firefighters again sometime. A shame I gave up after the first few in Latin America said no. Same for churches.
As I went farther into Panama, less rain, more hills, and worse and worse pavement. I mean bad. Panama is in a comfortable second place behind Guatemala for worst roads on record (If we count states separately, Texas is in third!). But to Panama's credit, there was a lot of construction. That’s not what made the roads bad; they were already bad. But they're working on them. Give them a few years and they'll be better. Of course, if you ask a local, they'll tell you it'll be done in a month.
At one point, I stopped and asked a group of construction workers when the roads might be better. They're working on the highway, so I figured they would know.
"After five kilometers," said one. Everyone chimed in agreement.
"And the roads are better?"
"Yes. After 20 kilometers," said the same one. Everyone chimed in agreement.
So I shouldn't believe either number. The road improved after the next major city, 40 km away.
Parts of Panama are hilly, and parts are flatter. Parts have a huge highway with a perfectly paved shoulder, parts have one crappy lane each way and no shoulder at all. And this is all on the same highway! One constant: trucks. Lots of them. More than I've seen consistently anywhere else. Maybe it has something to do with all the shipping at the canal?
David in Costa Rica had told me that Panama is more "American" than most Central American countries. After a couple days, I still wasn't sure what he meant by that, but as I got closer to Panama City, I understood. In the more populated areas, it starts to resemble the United States. Not necessarily in prosperity or affluence, but a certain look. Stores have brightly colored signs and big parking lots. Shopping centers exist.
When I went into a grocery store and saw rows and rows of selection, I gotta admit, it was a comforting feeling. If I weren't about to pack up everything for a flight, I would've stocked up like a nuclear war was starting. I may not see this again. I settled for a big bag of granola and a big bag of peanuts and raisins, the closest thing they had to trail mix. I was sorely tempted by more nuts, more dried fruit, instant potatoes, instant rice, peanut butter...but I stopped myself.
On my second-to-last night in Panama, I found a hotel ran by Canadians. It was a nice place, but cost more than usual for the area. I would've looked for somewhere cheaper, but this was my last night on my own in North America, why the hell not? Enjoyed the place and had a local beer.
With only 80 km to go to Panama City, I was glad I'd finish early in the day. Another Texas 4,000 alumnus had told me that her parents live in Panama City and would be glad to host me. They had contacted me ahead of time and even got a box for Valeria and arranged for a ride to the airport the next morning! What life savers! If not for that, making it to the airport and getting Valeria onto the plane would've been a nightmare, maybe even enough to miss my flight.
I had a fairly short day into Panama City and crossed the canal on a busy bridge. I was expecting an emotional reaction similar to the one I had in South Padre Island, but that didn't happen. Maybe because I was expecting it. Nevertheless, as I crossed the bridge, it was cool to think that I'd essentially wrapped up an entire continent, the longest way possible.
Lorena picked me up from a shopping center, took me to her house, and made me lunch, all on her lunch break! She spoke a little English, but it was probably worse than my Spanish, so we stuck to Spanish most of the time, and she was good about using short, easy-to-understand sentences. At one point, I asked her what her job is.
“Lawyer of defense, for people?”
“No, I am for corruption.”
“YES!” She laughed, “”Yes, clearly, against corruption! I work for Panama.”
She had to go back to work, so I had the house to myself for the afternoon. Took a shower and caught up in my journal. That night, Lorena and Luis took me out to see Panama City, and I gotta say, it’s a cool town. A culturally mixed city, people from all over the world. For the first time in weeks, I saw Asian people, and even a black guy! Parts of the city are old, either Spanish colonial or even pre-European, and other parts of the city are very modern and international, creating a dynamic vibe. I found myself wishing I had more time to spend there.
Oh, and the place that they took me for dinner? A Greek place! The garlic shrimp I got was one of the very best things I've eaten this entire time. WOW...
A feel-good ending to my first continent. Made me feel like family. North America, it's been real. I'll be back one day.