Nine things I learned in Panama

My family and I just came back from 5 weeks in Panama. We’d been dreaming about this trip for a long long time and were finally financially able to do it. I have a flexible job with the freedom to work from anywhere so we up and finally did it. l should mention, we’re no strangers to travel as we frequently go on the road, but this is the longest we’ve been gone and we learned a lot.

Here are a few of my favorite lessons learned while on the road.

1. It’s possible to live on a lot less clothes than you think

We took about 5 sets of clothing per person. That works out to about 5 shirts, 3 shorts, 1 pair of pants, socks and what not. We usually had access to laundry facilities, but had we not, I would have washed clothes in the sink and purchased a rack to hang them for drying. The only trick was reminding people to not throw their pj’s in the laundry pile every day. E.ve.ry.Day.  Seriously.

We didn’t stop at clothing. We had very little stuff in general. We had the basics of food, entertainment, cooking utensils, school books, and so on. And we survived. In fact, it was quite liberating. Liberating in the sense that we had more time on our hands since we weren’t bogged down with taking care of our stuff.

2. My husband is a fantastic driver

We decided to rent a car amidst warnings that driving in Panama can be dangerous. We spent the first week at a friend’s house so, by the time we were on our own, Al had a good feel for the lay of the land and the rules of the road. I will admit I was a tad nervous. If you’ve only ever driven in the US, you just cannot comprehend the insanity. Essentially, there are some basic rules, but you have to quickly alternate between offensive and defensive driving that it positively boggles the mind. That we made it through with out a scratch on the car is a miracle. Well, there was a scratch. Probably from one of the super tight parking lots, but not a big deal.

3. Panama has the most amazing flowers

We had the very good fortune of staying on a flower farm. The word farm is misleading. Basically this place was a tropical paradise. There was a main house for the owners and our 2 bedroom apartment surrounded by lush rain forest and beautiful tropical flowers. In the morning the birds were always in full song, occasionally a monkey could be seen hopping through the trees, the night skies were amazing, and as if that weren’t enough, we had access to a beautiful pool. Oh, and did I mention the natural pool and waterfall? But I digress. The flowers, these are not your garden variety roses and daisies. A picture is worth a thousand yada yada, you know the drill.

4. Stay home during Carnaval, unless you want to sit in hours of traffic.

Carnaval in Panama is like Mardi Gras in New Orleans. I’ve never been to New Orleans during Mardi Gras, but I’ve seen it in movies, does that count? Carnaval in Panama is pretty nuts, though. Just in terms of movement, people leave the city in droves to go out to the beaches and the Interior (the outer provinces to the West) for the long weekend. There is only one highway to get from Panama City to the Western provinces and the traffic quickly turns insane. As of Friday at lunch, the drive that normally took us one hour took 3-5 hours depending (yeah, we made the mistake of doing it twice, listen, don’t judge, we had stuff to do). Basically, you either leave early and bring entertainment for the drive or you don’t leave your house. We made the mistake of leaving our house, not quite grasping the insanity and had to put up with stop and go parking lot style driving. Thank goodness for i Pads and other devices.

5. Fruit is cheap and tuna is not

Ever paid 1 dollar for a pineapple? Glorious. Nuff said. Also, this:

Pineapple truck

Now, let’s talk tuna. We eat a lot of tuna. I have a lot of mouths to feed and canned tuna is cheap. At least, it is in New Mexico where we can get it for well under a dollar. I about fell over when the cheapest can of junk tuna was about a dollar fifty.

6. Hot dogs are wrapped in plastic

You know? Like sausages? Only hot dogs. Not a big deal, but it makes it a bit harder to fry up a quick pan of hot dogs when you have to unnwrap every dog.

7. Patacones are easier to make than you think

Over the years, I’ve taught myself to make tamales and numerous other Panamanian dishes, but for some reason never tackled Patacones. Iris, the wife of my friend, Ariel, taught me to make them and if I do say so myself, l now make a mean patacon. Thank you, Iris! I especially learned to not be afraid of deep frying them and to not overestimate the maturity of the plantain. Hint: be sure to use really really green ones, this is not supposed to be a sweet treat. It’s crispy, salty, and so yum.

8. It can be fun to take risks
Ok, maybe not fun. But interesting for sure. For example, we went to this beautiful spot called Isla Colon, in the province of Bocas del Toro. We weren’t able to get a hotel in advance, but we went anyway figuring it’d be no trouble. It was a bit stressful and involved an hour walking around town with our bags looking for reasonable lodging. And we ended up with barely reasonable lodging, but it was a room, with a bed for each of us. In a hostel. With some pot smoke in the air. And a shared unisex bathroom. But it WAS interesting. And certainly not an experience we’ll soon forget. And it had a great view!

9. Sometimes it’s good to be unplugged
We stayed an hour out of Panama City for four of the five weeks on this flower farm I mentioned. Not only was it far from town, it was 20 minutes off the main highway. Needless to say, wifi was sketchy. l made arrangements to do my work from friend’s offices and coffee shops, but non-work wifi was limited. I know how much we are connected to wifi, but I was admittedly astonished and pleased actually with the time that was freed up as a result. I particularly enjoyed the time to just BE. And in these surrounding who could resist?

The crew

2 comments

  1. I admire your sense of adventure, especially doing so with the kids along. I can tell you are fun parents. I relate to the driving experience. I’ve been in countries where driving in a car reminds me of walking in crowds. Cars come from all directions and you simply randomly weave between them. The lack of traffic rules totally freaks Americans out, but I did not see any accidents, just chaos.

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