Saturday, May 4, 2013

Soft Landings

So there I stood, smiling, at a Y intersection backed up with buses and taxis, cars and trucks.  It must have seemed odd to some of them because I got two private car ride offers, and two taxi drivers rolled down their windows just to chat, never trying to solicit a fare.  I was waiting for my couchsurfing host, Adriana, to show up at the Albrook Terminal bus station.

I had come into town a day early to try to set up a ride on a sailboat through the Panama Canal, working as a line handler.  Even on the 26´ boat that I would be crossing on, they were required to have 4 line handlers to secure the lines rapidly for the boat within the locks.  The evening prior I had emailed Adriana on short notice to see whether I could add a night to my 2-night stay at her family´s place; however, she already had a couchsurfing guest, so she had arranged for me to stay at a hostel.

After dropping my bags at the hostel, my host took me for a brief tour of the neighborhood before heading out for dinner to the causeway.  One of the more famous tourist attractions of Panama City, the Amador Causeway had been built to link the city to 4 islands located near the mouth of the canal.  It now houses several marinas full of boats waiting to transit the canals, an unfinished bio-diversity museum designed by Frank Gehry, and multitudinous shops and restaurants to support the marinas and tourists.
Frank Gehry´s Museum of Biodiversity
After some excellent conversation, margaritas, and ceviche, I was dropped off at the hostel with my host´s encouragement to explore Casco Viejo the following day.  I assured her that I would, and I did, but I was not prepared for the beauty of old town Panama.  The original Panama City was built in 1519, but ordered burnt to the ground by its own governor in 1673 so that it couldn´t be taken over by the dreaded pirate Henry Morgan.  Casco Viejo was the next iteration of Panama City, built on a small peninsula so that it was more defensible.

It reminds me of the French Quarter of New Orleans, and was granted world heritage site status by Unesco in 1998 due to its representation of architectural styles, particularly French and Early American.  I spent 6 hours walking around, taking photos, exploring back streets, and building interiors.  There is currently an exposition of artists in public places throughout Casco Viejo (murals, sculptures, graffiti) that made the old town even more appealing.  The area is in an intense transition;  construction is happening everywhere as the second wave of investment since the US vacated the canal zone in 1999 hits full stride.  One of the guys on the streets of Casco Viejo who tried to hustle me yesterday to allow him to be my tour guide made an estimate that within 3 years the entire area will have been renovated.  I´d say that his guess is about as good as any.  An Australian from Perth who was staying at the hostel was in town to buy property in Casco Viejo in the $500K to $1 million range as an investment.  His estimate was that the investment would triple in 5 years.

Regardless of the financial aspects of investing in Casco Viejo, it is simply one of the most beautiful aspects of a city steeped in a rich, historical past and an emerging future.

Colectivos, Buses, and Hustlers

The taxis and their drivers are all waiting to intercept the Puerto Jimenez water taxi passengers before they can get to the bus stop just 40 meters away.  In Costa Rica, both the standard taxis and the colectivos (the small vans and buses in which one can travel more cheaply due to cost of the ride being split between more passengers) are painted red so that potential passengers can see them easily and so that fake taxis can be avoided.  Not wanting to miss the bus, I was quickly walking past the colectivo driver when he shouted out:        ``Frontera!``

``¿Por cuanto?`

``Forty dolares.``

I resumed my pace.

``Bueno, 5000 colones.``  (Which is the equivalent of $10)

I slowed down and repeated his offer as a question. ``5000 colones?`` He assured me that I had heard him correctly, so I handed him my heavy backpack.  He opened his trunk hatch with a screwdriver, slammed it shut 3 times, and began calling ``Frontera!`` to the most recent passengers to debark the boat.  No one joined us, so we sped away toward the border leaving the others waiting at the bus stop.

Miguel was pleasant but taciturn until we picked up other passengers, whom he called ``Mami and Papi``.  ``¡Hola, Mami!  ¿Pa`donde vas? Cierra la puerta bien dura, Mami. ¡Ay que bonita la vida!``

The colectivos and taxis communicate with passengers and other drivers by honking short bursts to announce their presence and availability.  The prospective passengers respond with a barely perceptible nod or finger movement to accept, a head-shake or look-away to decline. The taxi swerves over and stops abruptly, loads on the passenger, and continues down the road, alternately gobbling then jettisoning its human cargo.

Finally Miguel and I arrive at the border.  As I`m counting out the fare, a guy sticks an emigration paper for exiting Costa Rica into my hand, grabs my backpack, and beckons me to follow him to the window.  I fill out the form, get my passport stamped, then head to the Panamanian side to complete a similar procedure.  On the way there, he starts to run his first scam.  He stops me, says I have to have a plane ticket out of Panama to show at the Panamanian immigration window, but since I don´t have one, I can get a bus ticket at a nearby window for $21, no refunds, that will suffice.  I tell him that I´ll take my chances, and head to the Panamanian side, with him running alongside.  Once again, they stamp the passport, and I´m back in Panama.  My hustler takes me to two different bus stations, and at the second one, the colectivo is already loaded and on the way out the door, so they grab my bag and throw it in the back while I toss my hustler a $2 tip instead of his $20 request, and jump on.

I change from the colectivo to the Panama Express in the town of David, enjoying the luxury of air-conditioning, drop-down TV screens, and new, faux-velour recliner seats, leaning back for the 8 hour ride to  Panama City.  My assigned seat is in the back of the bus because once again, the bus was on the way out when I walked up.  The ride is a comfortably fast 8 hours.  In Panama City,  I leave the crowded, bustling station on foot, walking over to a nearby gas station where I stand on the corner, smiling, waiting for my couchsurfing host to pick me up for the final chapter of the trip.

On the Road

I wanted to make sure that I caught the 6 AM  water taxi out of Puerto Jimenez on Thursday morning because Panama City was minimally 12 hours away, assuming that all connections were short and smooth.  My backpack seemed lighter every day, and it was a short walk from my hotel to the town pier, but as I approached, I noticed that the pier was already crowded with passengers and well-wishers waiting to see them off.  With no way to tell how many of each there were, I grew a bit anxious that my journey across the Golfo Dulce might be delayed for more than 4 1/2 hours until the next taxi´s departure.  My anxiety increased when a short, stocky man with a family of five pushed his way through to about mid-queue.

This, then, was one of those opportunities that Pema Chodron writes of.  He, the man with the family, was one of the Juans who pushes my buttons, so that I cry out in my mind about injustice, or I get angry and respond in a way that I regret, or I get sullen and stuff my odious feelings toward the Juans that push their way to the front of the world, disregarding everyone else´s well-being.  Ms. Chodron tells us that this taxi line    incident was creating a mirror for me to examine an aspect of myself that I have rejected long ago, a chance to make peace, an opportunity to be grateful to everyone, beginning with myself.

As soon as this realization formed, my self-talk changed.  I looked him up and down, thinking: ``He is protecting his family.  He is a good provider.  He has a sick child, or values the importance of education and wants to get his kids to school on time in Golfito, or is taking them for a family outing that has been promised for a while``. Other story lines came to mind, focusing on the positive aspects of the Juan who had unknowingly been pushing my butttons.  Because the buttons were definitely mine.  The buttons were on MY shirt, MY coat, MY skin, MY psyche.  I became grateful to Juan for the opportunity to take one small step to disconnect the button from the buzzer.  Shortly afterwards, I stepped onto the boat.

The water taxi driver was an accommodating man, so very few people were left on the dock.  I needn´t have worried.  Some 15-20 people got on after me.  In certain places along the boat, 3 people sat in seats designed for 2.  Several people stood in the center aisle.  One woman sat up front on the prow.  The taxi seemed overloaded.  I began to worry that with the Golfo running as choppy as it was that day, that there was indeed a chance for a serious accident.

 Are you beginning to catch a theme here?  Part of the reason that I`m writing this blog is to expose my inner workings to the people who are reading this, most of whom I assume are people whom I know and love.  One of my major quests on this journey to Central America is to reveal myself to you.

The other major quest is to make these small steps of self-forgiveness. I have been such a stress puppy all of my life, and my reactions under pressure are usually events that I regret later.  They are the ugly deeds that I want to hold to the mirror and forgive myself for so that I can move on.

So the taxi is overloaded, the gulf is choppy, and after getting up to full speed, the boat begins bouncing and side-slipping.  What are my options?  What can I control?  Can I call out: ``Turn the boat around!  Put me on the dock!  I`ll wait for the next one!``?  Good luck with that one.  Can I magically transform myself into a basilisk lizard and walk on water?  Oh, wait, I forgot.  They can only do that for about 10 meters before they have to start swimming.  So what can I do?  What can I control?  Only the limits of my awareness and appreciation.  I can expand my vision to the beauty of the gulf, the daylight on the water, the lush forests coming right down to water´s edge, the search for dolphins, the appreciation of conversation and laughter around me, the appreciation of life jackets above me.

Time is transformed.  No longer are the seconds like hours.  This is not to say that time disappears completely.  But it slips away and hides for much of the trip, finding some convenient hammock in the back to snooze in until it is needed.  We pass the point which protects Golfito´s bay from the winds and waves driven in from the Pacific, and the waters calm.

Minutes later, I step up to the dock and the beginning of the rest of my journey.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Delfines Dulces

I splurged.  After my bioluminescent journey, I wanted to spend more time on the water today, and I especially wanted to snorkel and see dolphins, so I bought my way onto a boat tour of the gulf.  The boat is owned and captained by John, the guy who owns Cabinas Jimenez where I'm staying.  It turned out to be money well-spent, worth every penny of the $60 cost, and more, considering the marvels I saw.

We left at 8:30 this morning on a receding tide.  There were 9 of us:  John, Sam (his Hawaiian sidekick/dolphin spotter), Oso (his bow-riding, dolphin-spotting dog), me, and a group of 4 brothers and the girlfriend of one of the brothers.  They were an interesting family:  all four in their mid-to-late 20's, slim, good-looking professionals (doctor, lawyer, jazz musician, Sierra Club director).  It was great company for a four-hour journey.

The Golfo Dulce is approximately 35 miles long by 10 miles wide, and is fed by many clear local rivers, hence the name, "The Sweet Gulf".  We sped first around a small cape and back into a mangrove lagoon before the tide was completely out, spotting a couple of what I believe to be bare-throated tiger herons.  After exiting the lagoon, we spent the next half-hour to 45 min. cruising around the gulf to various places that were known to have dolphins, 9 pairs of eyes constantly searching the water for signs of the dark, arcing fins.  John was amazingly patient with his explanations of all of our non-dolphin exclamatory sightings:  floating trees, limbs, brush, coconuts, sardines balled together to escape predators, jack tuna.

Finally, he took us to a small, older coral reef off the opposite coast which hosts a large national park.  There he busted out the plane boards, an unforgettable experience that I had completely misassumed would be something like wakeboarding.  Instead it was to snorkeling what bicycling is to walking....just a slightly faster way of seeing the same thing without as much work.  The plane board was similar to a large, varathaned cutting board with handholds cut near the top and the bottom and a 30' rope attached at the top end. We jumped into the water with a mask on, grabbed the plane board with both hands and John idled us along about 3-5 miles per hour.  When ready, I angled the nose of the board downward, and it took me underwater among the tropical fish and coral.  When I wanted a breath, I angled it back up to the top, gulped some air, and immediately angled back down again.  I was able to angle to the side to explore, angle more steeply to go deeper (12' was the deepest that I went), and level off underwater at whatever depth that I wanted, including going up and over any coral extrusions I wanted to avoid.  Too soon, my turn was over and each of the others jumped in for the experience.

After a quick snack of fresh melons, mangoes, pineapples, and granola bars, we all jumped in to snorkel on our own.  Parrot fish, angelfish, sturgeonfish, dorados, sergeant-majors, et al, glided, darted, and schooled for us until one by one we surfaced and climbed aboard John's boat.

The search for dolphins continued, but John looks for everything that he can find of interest, so we stopped along the coastline to observe a troop of capuchin monkeys, white-faced and curious.  He did a 180 for a caracara that landed nearby and kept making short excursions each time we approached, finally affording us several close-up photos.  But no dolphins.  We scoured all of the known spots along the opposite side and started heading back to Jimenez.  There were two high spotting chairs located on the front rails right and left.  I took one and Dan, one of the brothers, took the other.  We saw rays and sardines and tuna, but no dolphins.  We switched out so that Paul and Tim could take the chairs.  Then Nicole and Mark.  Then I returned with Dan.  He spotted them first.

 It was a small pod of 8-12 bottlenose dolphins.  When we came up on them, I thought that we were going to run over one.  He must have been curious because he slowed his pace so that the boat was overtaking him on his exact course, waited until he was right under the bow, slipped just slightly over to my side of the bow, and turned his head sideways just underwater so that he could look up at me sitting in that chair while effortlessly keeping pace.  Then they were all around us: surfacing, arcing, blowing, diving, slapping the water with their tails, sliding across beneath the boat, playing with an errant palmetto leaf.....just hanging out with us, letting us observe for a while, going under for a while, coming back up and playing.  All this within a mile and a half of the town pier where we had started.  John hung out there with them for 20-30 minutes, letting us get our fill, or so he thought.  Or not.  I'm sure that somewhere deep inside he realized that we could have stayed out there all day and night, beginning again the next morning, and never tired of it.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Timing Isn't Everything

Timing isn't everything, but it sure beats the alternative.  The rain is pounding the darkness into submission here in my little corner of Golfo Dulce.  But I lay snug in my room, typing away, content with la pura vida.

I snuck one of the kayaks out for an evening paddle, with the hope of catching some luminescence, some dolphins, some friends on a sailboat for a beer.

I paddled out into a calm, deep, reflective sunset, though dramatic with towering thunderheads and roseate colors.  I fell into an easy rhythm that took me quickly towards Annie and Cochi's sailboat, with an ice-cold six-pack hurried straight from the 96 Market to a drybag full of ice in the forward hatch of the nondescript (but free) fiberglass sea kayak that I was lashing to the stern of their 52 foot wooden ketch made in New Zealand in 1941 or '42.  There's loads of history in that boat, including some bits of service in WWII, but this evening we were content to talk dog-training over a couple of beers while we watched the sunset.

All too soon, it was time to bid farewell in order to get the kayak back without too much repercussion, so I crawled into the cockpit and started paddling.  Although the kayak was lighter by a six-pack, it seemed to take quite a bit longer coming back than going out.  I settled into it, though, enjoying the stars as they appeared, and watching the tiny bits of luminescence off the blade of my paddle.  Halfway home, I heard/felt a thump on the bottom of my boat, and something rose to the surface a few feet to my left and jumped.  Porpoises, I hoped!  And became vigilant about the water around me rather than looking more toward the stars like I had been doing before.  Suddenly the water began exploding with little fireballs of light. I had cruised into a school of flying fish just as the bio-luminescence was  strengthening, it seemed.  The fish became little torpedoes of light that would appear beside me to flash as they left the water and re-flash as they entered again.  They were on both sides of me, hitting the boat, hitting my paddle, flying through the air, appearing and reappearing.  That, combined with the magical puffballs of light emanating from each paddle stroke, created a cosmic light show that began to be accentuated by lightning in the thunderheads towering above me.

The fish stayed with me until I neared the pier where 2 guys were fishing with handlines while the girlfriend of one of them sidled for attention.  The luminescence receded as well at that point, and I was left only with lightning and stars.

"Jesus! Did you see that lizard?"

I realized that I haven't spoken about the most incredible creature that I've witnessed on my Central American tour.  It happened in Boquete, so this blog will be a bit out of sync time-wise with the trip, but the story is too amazing not to include.

At Suenos del Rio, my hostel in Boquete, the owner, Itza, contributed daily to a compost heap at the top of a 12-15 ft. boulder containment wall for the banks of the Rio Caldera.  She said that the government had taken about 6-8' of land from her in order to make the opposite bank extend farther into the river so that they could accommodate their own fairgrounds where they grow flowers and have daily tours.  So she is trying to gradually recapture that 6-8' of land by composting over the boulders.

From the first day I arrived, I began seeing the same two lizards munching papaya skins and melon skins and other delectables from the pile.  One of the lizards, whom I took to be the male, was larger and had an obvious crest.  The other, the female, was smaller and plainer, without a crest.  They took turns at the pile, and never gave each other any flak, so I assume that they were mates.

One day, as I was standing on the containment wall talking with Bruce, I noticed 3 other smaller, plainer lizards at just about the same time that the resident male noticed them.  In a flash, he took off after one of them. The smaller lizard ran toward the water and without hesitation continued running once he got there....running some 15-20' over the top of the water to a boulder mid-stream.  In the midst of my delighted shouts, it happened again.  The large male made a run at a different small lizard who ran to the water, hit the river and kept running.....upstream!

Apparently they are known as the Common Basilisk, but I find nothing common about them at all.  They are also known as the Jesus Lizard or Jesus Christ Lizard for their ability to walk on water.  Studies have found that they push forcefully downward with their feet, which every good kayaker or canoeist knows is a low brace, creating resistance to push against, thereby neutralizing the liquidity of the surface somewhat.  Then they push forward with the foot quickly through the air pocket they had just created, so there is less drag.  They achieve water speeds of 5.2 mph, just slightly slower than their land speed.  Smaller basilisks can run 10-20 meters on top of the water before dropping down to swim if they need to continue to evade their predator.  Larger ones can go 3-5 meters tops, so I assume that's why the larger one didn't pursue the smaller one once they got to the water.

This spectacle was the highlight of my day and a great reminder to practice my low brace when I get home.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Awkward Beauty

I have always been a champion of justice, wanting the underdog to win, to see Goliath slain, the bully humbled, even humiliated.  I relish the balance inherent in the scales of Libra, my sun sign.  However, as most of us do from time to time, I  turn a blind eye towards my own aberrant imbalances.

A volcano of vultures was swirling lazily overhead. (Yes, I know, the correct term is "kettle", but I like to stir the pot.)  Revulsion and boredom mixed together inside my head to cause me to look away, look for something interesting, some scarlet macaw, Cherrie's tanager, or spider monkey.  Then within the volcano glided a frigate.  I paused to compare its elegant dance to the awkward, stumbling jig of the vultures.  Somewhere inside, their jig became my own ungainly attempts at playing tennis, or surfing, or social grace.  I found forgiveness for them.  I found myself realizing that their flight was what had originally drawn my eyes upward to the sky, that their mundane nature actually invites other birds into their realm.  They are gentle giants of the air.  Soon swallows swarmed through the volcano, scooping unseen insects from the air in salacious glee.  And the scarlet macaws squawked past in pairs.

The vultures I saw were probably the ubiquitous black vulture of Costa Rica whose flight is not quite as side-to-side slipping as the turkey vulture.  Furthermore, the black vulture seems to be monogamously mated for life, both males and females taking turns caring for the hatchlings by sharing their regurgitations.  Meals are more often fresh kills than carrion, more often fruit and vegetables than weak and sickly animals ready to be taken.  They are the house cleaners of the jungles and roads of the Osa.