Panamá: Santa Catalina
Where, oh where to go... Ah! I remembered that a British boat captain at Frank's had given me a beach rundown amidst cocktails. I scratched my brain trying to remember - was it Santa Catalina seemed that would be the one to fit my bill, a lowkey surfer's beach area with at least minimal nightlife? Scritcha, scratcha....
Such a descriptions often went a long way with me: I generally disliked the populated areas, but still found a modicum of social atmosphere necessary. Yes, I was a social creature after all under a sometimes-unsocial cloak. Or is that called a malcontent? In any event, fellow out-of-the-way travelers fit my bill best, though no guarantee. I mused on developing a test for prospective acquaintances that could be administered in two minutes or less.
In the meantime I headed to Santa Catalina, something which turned out to be a bit of chore. Getting off of Boca Brava was the easy part - a shuttle boat for $2 could be called up at any moment. That got me back to Boca Chica, all of five minutes away - progress! Okay...now what?
Bumbling around, I eventually found someone with a taxi (a pickup truck) willing to head at least back to Horconcitos. I'd pay about $10 to get all the way to the PanAmerican Highway, downright happy to do anything to put myself in motion by then. We picked up and deposited various indigenous farmers, each waiting along points of the road.
For each of the these hopefuls the driver negotiated in few words, holding fingers for the necessary number of dollars/balboas. The farmers apparently didn't speak much Spanish nor have much money - most negotiations seemed in the realm of a dollar, and it wasn't given that they even had that much.
Fine enough, we inexorably moved toward the highway. Finally reaching the junction, I asked the driver how best to continue east toward PC, or at least Santiago. He suggested something akin to bus hitching, where you waved to any bus looking like it was going in the right direction. That sounded hopeful, like people did it all of the time - sure! In the meantime, he drove off some yards away, pulling under a minimally shady tree where he could catch a nap. There he would doze while waiting for customers to wake him and pay his way back to Horconcitos.
Jealous, I stumbled with my pack over to a large billboard - I hoped to catch a sliver of shade under the noonday sun myself. Nevertheless, I was enthusiastic that only a short amount of bus flagging would get me on my way. My vacation time was dwindling, too, so I had grandiose plans to be on the beach that afternoon.
Okay, then. Okay, then. Okay, then. I waited. A little boy and his grandfather joined me, eventually. They waited, too. I waited. We waited. There was waiting. A little girl I could barely make out in the crumbling bus shelter waited, too. She had been waiting when I arrived. There was more waiting. We all stared into space, intermittantly at each other, careful not to inspect too long less a glance would be met. Waiting.
Randomly a car would hurriedly approach from across the highway, only to cross over and head down to Horconcitos at a relaxed speed. They'd peer out of their windows at us hopeless waiters. Finally a first David-PC express bus passed by after a half hour or more, then another an equal time after that. Still waiting - our waving (well, only I waved) went ignored. Still another bus whizzed by. My dreams of beach frolic for the day faded from view under the ever-beating sun.
This casual bus-waving was getting me nowhere, even if I was getting a scientific sampling of the 4x4 vehicles Panamanians drove on the big highway. SUVs and trucks with extend-a-cabs were popular in a country with many dirt roads, I noted. Whatever. I gave up - the sun was still hot! Screw scientific endeavors! Finally I decided on a different approach - I'd take a local bus!
I had seen a few of these overloaded buses stop by my dusty crossroad by then, and eventually one of them seemed like it was heading reasonably my way. Getting onboard, I surprisingly found a PeaceCorps worker likewise in the purgatory of standing in the aisle - both of us towered above the others in the crowded bus, almost entirely comprised of indigenous people in the region's traditional dress. From my compatriot I learned a little more about Santa Catalina and how to get there. This would work, after all.
His plan consisted of first getting off at another junction, an otherwise nondescript spot made up of a gas station, restaurant, and minimart combo. There, some of the David-PC buses stopped if they had a spare seat to make up some fare. Why there, and not at the equally popular crossroads I had just been at?
THAT was answered with one important detail: a tiny office also resided at the station, one with a phone to contact the main bus offices. The drivers got a head's up to pull over on the one hand, and on the other we got to bask in the beauty of an industrial site with access to Cheetohs soda pop. Fair enough. Unfortunately, I would lose another hour plus there, finally finding deliverance in the second bus that would stop with a spare seat. I was sure that the adjacent gravel pit I had played to thoroughly enjoyed my renditions of classic latin tunes in the meantime.
Soon we were moving on, to... Santiago! I had made it to... another junction. This busier restaurant/gas stop was one I had stopped at before - when I was headed to David two weeks prior! Many moons, many moons ago... Unfortunately, this junction also wasn't the right one to head on to Santa Catalina - I needed to get to the main bus terminal instead. This meant another taxi, but at least only a handful of minutes.
At the main terminal I was a bit overawed by the humanity. One could barely make the place out for the hordes of people massed around and through it. What da rush, ev'body? After a couple of circlings of the building, I eventually surmised that almost everyone there was headed for PC on a first come first go basis. Ah.
That explained the snake line wending its way throughout the joint, anyway. What I needed, instead, was the local bus to Sona. There I would again need to transfer, finally directly to Santa Catalina. That took a little asking around to determine... followed by some asking around again to make sure I got it right. This was a looooong day.
Then I was off. In my first stroke of good travel fortune for the day, the Sona bus was just about to depart - I jumped on board as almost the sole aisle-stander. Whatever: motion! An hour plus of travel at speeds fast enough to render the windows useful (air!) was refreshing; once again I was on a local's bus with many passengers in local dress - Central Panamá was a heavily indigenous area. Arriving in Sona I immediately found others bargaining for a taxi to Santa Catalina; off we soon went at breakneck speed - this was more like it!
It seemed like my luck had changed further for the better upon finding these five other people to split the bill, a family with a cheap hotel overlooking the water in Santa Catalina. Hey... but... HAH - a wrinkle! Not in the drive, though: THAT went as hoped, night falling just as we reached SC.
It was upon pulling up to my co-riders' house that things went awry, when we immediately ascertained that all of the rooms had been rented. The same was true of the neighboring places. Meanwhile it had become pitch black out in an area without street lights. Here I went again.
Obviously spotting opportunity, now the taxi driver took the moment to inform me that I would be paying half of the ride's bill of $15 or so. This was a new and surprising detail I immediately protested - when did we make THAT agreement? In mid-argument, however, I motion for him to stop in the middle of a field to also stop an oncoming car to ask about lodging (this was a sparsely-populated area - this wasn't a questionable move.) We both got out of the car to continue our yammering.
Now with a witness (the oncoming car had stopped), I made a visible plea to one and all that I felt I was unfairly been singled out for a form of robbery. This shamed my driver somewhat, while simultaneously making a sympathizer of the other driver. Finally I paid up a portion of my bill - I'd be heading off with the other driver to his nearby lodging. Hey, the gambit worked!
Once again my luck had changed, and how. Miguel was the caretaker for a breezy, stilted house with two guest bedrooms - I'd be getting one for all of $10. This certainly fit in with my plans! Some of Miguel's relatives were in the other room, too, but we immediately made a friendly acquaintance and I was happy to drop my pack and finally sleep. I could hear the roar of the ocean; a sea breeze cut the air beautifully. Day... done!
The following morning fully apprised me of my good luck. I had stumbled upon some wealthy American's getaway cabin on a cliff above the sea. Tidepools and beaches arrayed themselves below me, and I could see surfers on the distant breaks in both directions. I had sun, I had shade, I had breeze. This called for some tunes!
Soon I went to "work" to set up some sort of vacation routine, one apparently consisting of walking the various shoreline areas interspersed with trumpet. Reading and shooting the breeze with anyone interesting with earshot rounded it out. Consistency, that was what I was all about!
The first thing I found out was that Santa Catalina was indeed a surfer's beach, with breaks pronounced and regular. Surfers bobbing in them attested to that claim, regardless of my observation. It also meant, as a consequence, that it really wasn't a swimmer's paradise. The tide varied greatly, revealing massive volcanic tidepools to explore, but this also left options rather low for paddling about. No matter, I thought - it still could be done. No rain would fall on my parade, damn it!
I spent a large portion of one day walking the tidal pools, for example. Although I didn't see the expected aquatic life trapped in the holes and channels of the rock, I still enjoyed the journey in trying. There were some coves with beach to escape the sun for reading; I was content enough.
The view changed a good deal constantly, especially as I rounded the couple of heads into the sea. I could spy out islands both close up and far away. Plus, there were always some surfers to watch catching their five seconds of glory before biting it hard. That was entertainment - and free.
At one point I finally chanced on "downtown" Santa Catalina, a handful of isolated and closed storefronts with dogs and horses ambling around. That excitement was too much for me, so with plenty of day ahead I went on to further explore the rest of the beach. No one was really out and about there, either, spare a solitary old woman making her way slowly across before disappearing into the palm bush to nowhere.
I stood there with an undoubtedly vacant look before a girl went riding by on a horse, bathing me in a curious smile of idle curiosity. All of this seemed to play like a random foreign movie sequence without sound, oddly quiet. Still, when I crossed a stream trammelling the beach near its end, I realized that there really wasn't much more to see - I had seen it all, whatever it was.
Having accomplished this (necessary!) lay-of-the-land survey, I now felt free to spend the next couple of days doing approximately nothing. Beach swims, books, trumpet, a bite of fish - sounded good. So good, in fact, that I lost my room. A Canadian couple had come by Miguel's in my absence one day and, finding the same goodness I had, requested the entire building for approximately a month. Wh-hey?
Being a caretaker with his master's best interests at heart, Miguel had no choice but to agree. Soon his relatives made ready to move into his shack on one end of the property; he humbly asked me if it was okay that he had done this. Sigh - bummer. Still, I wasn't in much of a mood to argue since he was both very nice and had arranged a room next door in the sleepy Surfer's Paradise.
Before that happened, however, I had a final night in the Breeze House (as I termed it), meeting this dastardly Canadian couple in the morning. Turned out that they were great music lovers, and were travelling heavily with a hell of a sound system. The man had even won an Oscar for his sound work in some movie or two. Both were involved in the film industry, name-dropping both casually and repeatedly as seemed necessary in that line of work.
I didn't mind, though - they had a love of latin music, and that spoke volumes. This meant that we right away had something to chew the fat over. And listen to. In the course of a lengthy conversation I was treated to breakfast, then a succession of cocktails, too. "It's always afternoon somewhere" we repeated out loud at 10a.m. The trumpet was handy, so I took no time in riffing away to the pile of great Cuban tunes that soon cascaded out of the speakers. There was no slug to the face this time, even.
That took up a good part of that day, the rest of it only turning into more cocktails at the neighboring hostel I transferred to. Only a few travelers were there: one guy was from Hood River, a part-time fisherman of the Great Salt Lake and accomplished windsurfer. Hey, I thought, anyone who could do windsurfer flips was more than accomplished for that sport in my book. As for the GSL fishing, apparently there were some critters down there that made for great feed for bigger critters, if not fertilizer. I'd never know, though.
The other two people formed an unusual couple, with the woman being a former Olympic windsurfer for Israel. She had recently taken up kiteboarding to go along with her coaching of Israel's national team. She was reserved and shy, contrasting greatly with her travel partner, an insufferable and opinioned American from California (as opposed to me - I'm from Washington!) Now I greatly enjoy conversation with knowledgeable people, which he was, but when the tone was an ending, contemptuous sneer (as it was) - I just wanted to flee.
We didn't hit it off at all, as I had a habit of questioning people about things that they do that I myself have taken an interest in. Depriving him of complete dominance on any topic was son unacceptable, so there was indeed the rub. I wondered how many friends he had been making in his nine-months-and-counting cruise down the Pacific coast for surfing - in short order I wanted to kill him. His Israeli friend, perhaps unsurprisingly, seemed more weary and beaten by him than enamored. Indeed, he had a car to get to all of the beaches.
Ah, the people you meet on the road! Actually, I always found these types of know-it-alls interesting, if only chiefly due to them providing a criticism of myself over the years. At the very least, in suffering in my turn, I figured to try and see what in them I saw in myself. Purge, purge, purge - I would hopefully do away with whatever similar trait I might have.
Besides, as I simultaneously thought about gouging their eyes out, I could treat it as receiving free lessons in humility and self-improvement. Assuming a kinder analysis, perhaps, it could make me feel just that much better when they were (one would hope) so much worse. Then again, perhaps I complimented myself too readily.
In any case, these three were my companions by default, and I certainly enjoyed the Hood River guy's company in talking about travel and Pacific Northwest life. There was always that shaky line between having company to eat and drink with or being alone, and these three stayed for the most part on the right side of it as far as I was concerned.
A steady supply of beer and a hammock on a cliff - swinging in an offshore breeze - might have had something to do with it, too. It was pretty hard to get all out of whack when you're pleasantly numb, well-fed and warm. Santa Catalina served a mean plate of pleasant.
But enough of that! The trip was approaching its inevitable end, and the time had come to leave Santa Catalina and make tracks for PC. This was a straightforward affair fortunately, as travel to/from a capital city always was in Latin America. All roads led to the capital. So it was that a bus soon took me from Santa Catalina to Sona, then on to PC. I grabbed a cab in PC to return to my old hostel, La City, in no time.
In my absence, a strike had occurred in PC that had turned violent - my cab ride turned out to be rather roundabout. True, I had heard something - but seeing it up close was something else. Still, after getting a tour (by necessity) of broken glass and rocks in the street on the main, sea-facing, Balboa Avenue - I was back. This trip was ending too soon, yes, but... there it was.
J from Belgium was still around - surprise - but the hostel was otherwise empty. Apparently the two biking women from the start of my trip had left not so long before - I had only missed them by a couple of days and a week, respectively. Outside of a little catching up with J, though, there really wasn't too much to do with the place being so dead.
Perhaps this was a good thing: I was going to have to get up extra early to catch my flight. The violence in the strike had now seen a striker and an officer shot dead, so the protests were now going to pick up. All asked said the road to the airport would certainly be blocked. Crap.
In the morning, my taxi had to take a number of detours to make our way to the airport as expected. Traffic was redirected, and heavy, at 6a.m. How very un-Latin America-like, I thought. Couldn't all of this have waited until after the siesta, like normal?
This was a rather cavalier attitude with two dead, I supposed, but there was a business-as-usual aspect in this for the experienced Latin America traveler, which I was by this time. I wouldn't be solving the strike, but not neither would I try to make it worse in any sense, either. This one was beyond me completely.
In the end I made my flight, not eager to return to the cold of Seattle. Indeed, perhaps I should have never left that fair, yet sweaty country conjoing two continents: March and April would prove to be the coldest on record in Seattle. Welcome back! Time to go again.
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