Restive, and Unrest in Panama

By February 10, 2012(mis)Adventure, Latin America

Considering the recent political unrest here in Panama, I thought it pertinent to jump ahead in my travels and get everyone caught up on the current situation. Posts detailing Tayrona as well as the spectacular sailing trip from Cartagena to San Blas will soon be posted. For now, bear with me and my verbosity as I attempt to figure out just what the hell I’m supposed to be doing…

I arrive in Portbelo, Panama after five days at sea and immediately upon hitting solid ground realize I am hopelessly lost between land legs and sea legs, but possessing a full set of neither. Once on shore we are immediately taken to Captain Jack’s hostel and treated to a free beer and a much needed shower. Captain Jack’s is like a portal to America, where you order a beer in Spanish and are answered in English. All around me American chatter fills my ears and after five days on a boat bouncing between the drawls of British English, the thick rolling purrrrrrrrs of Basque Spanish, Polish, German, French, and everything in between, it is a strange sensation.

Aurelie and Sebastian, myself, Aitiver and Jose, and Charlie all decide to depart for Panama as soon as possible, and not waste a night in the tiny seaside town of Portobelo. After waiting some time for our passports, we head into town to catch a chicken bus halfway to Colon, then hop off in hopes of catching a bus on its way to Panama City without having to waste an hour backtracking to Colon and back. It is a relatively simple process through which I am glad to be tagging along with a large group of Spanish speakers. When we finally get on the large, air-conditioned bus they accept our money gladly ($1.30 for the 90 minute ride) though had no proper seats to offer in exchange, and we take to squatting in the aisle while some Nick Cage film, that was surely terrible even before it was dubbed, played to everyone’s amusement.

While my original plan was to spend only a few hours in Panama City before picking up the midnight bus to David, those plans quickly change. As soon as we enter Casco Viejo, the old city, we are informed that there are no beds tonight. The road to David had been closed since the day our sailboat departed from Cartagena. The sole road leading north in Panama, the Pan-American highway had been shut down for six days by a group of protesters, and travelers of every variety are stuck in the city indefinitely. Another friendly American voice relays this information at the second hostel we try, and I am struck again by the prevalence of American English around here. Apparently tales of the great migration of retirees to the cheap tropical real estate of Panama are no fable. They’re as ubiquitous as the music that wafts round corners and swells the air in this strange city. And as inescapable as the myriad foul odors that permeate it just the same.

panama city skyline

doesn’t look too shabby

We finally get a quick tip to head to the man with the juice stand just outside the main square. He has a couple of hostels, we are told, and should be able to sort something out. When the six of us arrive, sweat finding any means of escaping from backs drenched beneath our packs, we are beyond glad to follow the cheerful mustachioed man to the promised land. Inside of Victor’s world, a wall means 60% of a wall, a door means a piece of plywood, and a ceiling means vacation property for the cockroaches. But it’s $7.50 a night, he’s got exactly six beds available, and the place has free wi-fi, and even a rooftop overlooking the mudflats to boot. Not one of us thinks twice but to agree.

After a night of recuperating, the bed still swaying like a drunken hammock each time I close my eyes, I wake ready to make my plan to head north. Every hope of this is quickly dashed. After some research we learn that the protesters blocking the highway are the Ngäbe Bugle Indians, and that they are protesting to protect their land from recently passed mining legislation; legislation that directly violates the promises that were made to these people when they held the same protest a year before. When the police finally take the road back by force, and we hear reports that is it open, we believe everything is coming to a close. But instead it is only coming to a head.

panama city protests

“martinelli asesino!”

A man is killed from a gunshot wound to the leg, though police statements to the media insist they are not carrying lethal weapons. Suddenly the civil unrest lashes far beyond the Ngäbe road block. Protesters swarm the streets of the capital city, chanting and vandalizing buildings with the mantra “Martinelli Asesino,” calling their president a murderer. And while the grand stone of these ancient colonial buildings is defaced, the police do nothing but keep the peace, likely for fear of further backlash. The president cuts off cellular communication in Chiriqui, the northern province where the outcry began trying to halt communication, but lies to his people claiming it was sabotaged and only further deepens the anger of the people who have now graduated from protest to riot. In San Felix, just south of the original road block, they burn the police station to the ground. They take their uniforms and wear them as they overrun the streets. Police officers, overtaken, run to find refuge in the houses of innocent citizens. Where the highway has been opened by force, they continue to hurl rocks through the windows of passing cars.

It has been now ten days since the Ngäbe Bugle first blocked the only road north. Faced with the prospect of being stuck in Panama City (known to some expats as Panama Shitty), a city whose charms are quickly overwhelmed by its shortcomings, and I know I have to get out of here. While I have neglected to traverse into the vast metropolis of the world’s arguably most important shipping port, I am stuck surviving on chips, cheap pasta, and rice in an effort to save money while I continue to waste time. As a traveler you always only seem to have one or the other, and if you have neither, well, then you’re usually fucked.

3 nights in grand teton national park

panama shitty, you call that a beach?

After four nights in Panama Shitty I finally give in and book a flight to Bocas Del Toro, an archipelago nestled near the Costa Rican border, and supposedly the most beautiful place in Panama. The $120 flight means I have no room left in my budget for anything. It’s $30 a day for the next month and I will go home as broke as I’ve been since Wanaka. The day after I book my flight I learn that roads to Bocas are closed. No food or water or fuel is coming through. The border to Costa Rica is closed. I have spent $120 to trap myself in paradise when I have neither the time nor the money to do so. And finally Central America breaks me. Whatever skin I had believed to be toughened, whatever traveler’s salt I fancied myself to have, was a lie. I wanted none of this now. I want a beach, I want my boyfriend, I want things to be easy and feel ever guiltier for wishing that this incredible opportunity was somehow even more incredible. I sink even deeper as I loathe myself for feeling this way, but can do nothing to control it.

But the words of a man who understands me calms my soul. I will fly to Bocas and hope that the roads to Costa Rica are open. I will stop worrying over things I can’t control, things that haven’t yet happened as if I had forgotten everything I learned about myself in the last few years. I will stop crying over trifles and wishing for Central America to be some effortless beach holiday. Traveling is not easy, it never was, but compared to Southeast Asia every journey here seems an epic struggle, and adding the constraint of time that existed not for me on my last trip makes it all the more frustrating. I wipe the tears from my eyes, pack up my backpack and taxi to the airport intent on making the best of whatever situation awaits me in Bocas. I have not the same excitement I should be feeling, but I am resigned to positivity nonetheless.

panama city bird's eye view

good riddance

I have now been in Bocas for two days. Unbeknownst to me, in the hours I was waiting for my flight, an agreement was reached to protect the lands whose defense claimed the lives of two men. The roads are open. The border is open, and travelers mill about the backpacker town with the same ease I thought was lost to me just a day before. As soon as I arrive here, I am secretly ashamed for each modicum of worry and doubt that plagued my days in Panama City. I know I could stay in this beach town for months, and the last regret left swimming inside me is that I have but four days to spend in the effortless laze of this spectacular place.


  • Jay says:

    This is great. My favorites: “As a traveler you always only seem to have one [money] or the other [time], and if you have neither, well, then you’re usually fucked.” And, “finally Central America breaks me. Whatever skin I had believed to be toughened, whatever traveler’s salt I fancied myself to have, was a lie.” Everybody feels this after traveling, especially when on the cheap, for long enough. It is part of what makes travel. One of the most memorable days of 2.5 years of travel was the day I felt that India could no longer “break me”

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