Our adventures officially began in Panama City. We set out from the hostel with exactly no plans, expectations or ideas. If you have time I find this is a great way to set out from somewhere, though you must be prepared to be surprised.
Or sometimes not surprised. It can be hit or miss.
It was our first day and we were excited. I suggested we walk to the old city and get a feel for Panama, which in this case turned out to mean a feel for the heat. By two blocks we were already dripping in sweat and showcasing how fresh from Canada we were. Our bodies were doing everything to cool off, though in Jesse’s case his body just immediately gave up and became one big sunburn.
We eventually found the old city and began wandering its hot streets in search of history. We saw a giant statue of a rooster and ate some chicken and beans. Our guidebook led us to the ruins of a church which held a flat arch made of bricks, which is exactly as interesting as I thought it would be. A hot wind blew in from the mud flats that surround the old city during the day – Panama city is theoretically next to water though it seemed to disappear when we were there, leaving a desert of mud and deserted boats.
Once we had reached our limit of sun saturation we took a cab ride back, which continued our streak of the friendliest cab drivers on the planet. Our fellow spoke English and once he found out we were from Canada he grew quite excited.
“Canada! Best weed in the world man.” He turned back to us to confirm, his taxi swerving violently. “Yeah? Best weed in the world!” We all hastily agreed and he nodded, turning back to the road, wrenching the steering wheel to avoid a bus that looked like it was from Mad Max. “Man I tell you guys, I have a friend who is – you know uh…” He searched for the word. “Handicapped! He’s handicapped and he travels and gets weed from everywhere! But that Canada stuff… Wow. It’s the best! It makes you see shit and stuff!”
We laugh and Jesse leaned forward. “I hope you weren’t driving when you took it!”
“Haha! Oh yeah I drive everywhere with that weed!” He laughed happily and we nervously chucked along.
Jesse leaned forward again, trying to segwey the conversation. “Hey, your English is pretty good.”
“Of course it’s good!” The cab driver threw his hands in the air, completely unconcerned about the million other cars around us. “I lived in New York for two years!”
“Two years?” Jesse asked, taking the role of conversationalist.
“Two years! How do you think my English is so good? But I tell ya man, that place is cold! So cold! I know why you came down here now!” He swerved the taxi into another lane, narrowly missing another bus. “When I was in New York I was never warm! Each day I wear two socks with thermals underneath, three pants and some thermals, three shirts and some thermals, even my ears are covered all the time!” He clearly loved thermals. Suddenly he tugged his ears with both hands, causing his taxi to cut off another, equally expressive driver. “My ears were so cold man! They almost froze off! You know what man you gotta see this.” With a jolt he started digging in his pocket, while all of us held our breath in anticipation of our incoming death. He pulled out his wallet and presented his drivers license. “Look at that! Can you believe it??” His face was smiling up at us. “I’m white!” We looked between his picture and face, maybe there was a slight change of shade. “I’m whiter than you! I took this the day I got back to Panama.” He shook his head, still in disbelief. “But man I tell you, Panama City is better than New York. Muy Better! I came back and I’m so happy now. Every day!” He screeched to a halt in front of our hostel. “Hey man you take my card. If you ever need anything call me.” This is something that happens quite often in these sorts of places, and usually they mean it. It is presented in such a way that you feel like you could go to their house for dinner or sleep on their couch and they would be thrilled. We could use more of this in Canada I think.
When Jayme heard this blog during the editing she insisted I tell more about the cab driver digging for his license. “You need something more!! Say he reached into his pocket with fervour! Like something crazy had happened! Like… like suddenly he remembered that he had missed his grandmothers 100th birthday!!” So yeah, now you know how excited he was.
Our next task was to pick up the fourth member of our group, Marissa. She had found a much cheaper flight but had been required to sleep in Toronto, so we had agreed to meet her at the airport on her arrival.
However when we found out how expensive the cab to the airport was we decided to meet her near our hostel instead. This is the mark of a true friend I think.
Our cab had dropped us off at the large mall just minutes from our hostel and thus we presumed Marissa’s would as well. Jayme had sent her detailed instructions of where to go and we arrived early to make sure she was met with open arms (albeit a little bit after the airport). We waited and waited and two hours later were still waiting. Jayme and Jesse were getting a bit nervous and half an hour later we were all rehearsing in our heads how we would tell Marissa’s mom that she was lost forever.
“Maybe one of us should go to the Hostel just to make sure she isn’t there.” Jayme suggested. I happily volunteered, mostly to get away from the pouting teenage waitresses whom I personally saddened when I only wanted one beer.
As soon as I walk into the hostel I’m of course met by Marissa patiently sitting on a couch, waiting nice and quiet for us to arrive. “Marissa!” I exclaimed. “Why didn’t you text us and tell us you’re here!?”
“I texted Jayme and Jesse and -oh.” She looked down at her phone. “I just got your text.” Ain’t that just the way.
And with that we were all united and our Panama tour could officially begin. Considering we were with Jayme and Marissa this means that we were off to find live music.
There is something wonderful and strange about seeing live music with a group of people you’ve just met. You become united in an experience during which you maybe say ten words to each other – yet it is still intimate and intense. As we had walked out of the hostel we had attracted a few others – an american girl and a finnish fellow – and though I still know almost nothing about them it feels like we have experienced something incredible together.
Jayme led the way, which meant that she was asking at each and every establishment if they had a rooftop patio. Normally this doesn’t get us to far, but it turns out that Panama City is the El Dorado of rooftop patios! Within minutes Jayme had found somewhere that was having ‘Jam Night’ on their roof. Her eyes lit up, these are her magic words. She asked the girl at the door what instruments were up there. The girl thought a moment, “Maybe a guitar. A piano. Um… Drums?” She was naming instruments as though she had only heard about them in myths. “You have your own instruments?” Jayme shook her head. “You can bring your own and play here if you have them.”
Jayme was hooked. We wandered a few more streets just in case we were missing some incredible event but the pull of Jam Night was too strong grand as such we found ourselves there a short time later.
The rooftop turned out to be an intimate little patio, lit by string lights and lined with sunken couch benches. A cozy bar lined one wall and a small stage had been made right in the center. There was room for maybe twenty people to sit comfortably. By some miracle of timing we managed to get a our own table only a foot or so away from the music, which is the most amazing place to be when the musicians are good.
Unfortunately the first jammers were… Not so good. They pounded away enthusiastically on their instruments, possibly trying to compensate for lack of melody with tremendous volume. I leant over to Jayme at one point and yelled loudly, hardly getting through the cacophany, “This sounds like our jam sessions!” She leaned back to me. “I actually think we’re better!” Which is saying a lot.
But then the first musicians died out and a new group of people took the stage. Each began to carefully unpack and set up instruments from out of their cases, qand as if by some secret signal the patio filled to the brim with people, until even the standing room was gone.
Afterwards we decided that this is where the professional musicians must come on their day off. It was a jazz style session, with each song lasting twenty minutes or so, but each jam changed as many times as there were people – though it never lost its intensity. Whomever fought for and conquered the mic got to lead for a bit, the others carrying him forward until someone else would burst in front and lead the charge and melody.
First the saxophonist would step up, announcing the feel and tune, while the every present bassist provided the powerful forward tones, the drums and piano the backup, then suddenly a trumpet would burst on stage, playing perfect harmony with the sax and the song would begin in full. Off to the side a tall man is setting up a violin and with a flourish he jumps in for the mic, flying up and down the strings like a falcon. Behind him a young man in a fedora waits, as patiently as if he is wanting to ask the microphone out to prom, and when the violin misses a beat he steps forward and leaning delicately, proceeds to spout free verse off the top of his head, his voice winding around the other instruments who have all just stepped back but haven’t stopped building. He is overtaken by a trombonist who gives the song a triumphant brass resonance, who is then relinquished by a flutist who knows the meaning got jazz.
To us the most exceptional musician was a young man who took the stage during one of the rare breaks. His instrument was the electric guitar and watching him play was to see someone in the throes of passion. His fingers danced up and down the fretboard, his eyes were clenched shut the entire time and his mind was with the music. We were all breathless watching him, his level of focus and love of music inspiring in us something rare and incredible.
Two hours later when the songs finally died we looked around at each other and it was as if we had survived something incredible together. On the walk home we tried to figure out why exactly the experience had been so intense.
We decided it was due to the values that were necessary to do what the musicians did. They were passionate, hard working (you must be to be that good), and in touch with emotional depth. They were sharing in the universal language called music – in that bar there were people from all over the world, some of who spoke languages I’m sure I’ve never heard of, yet for that evening we were all united in a common experience that transcended words.
The young guitarist kept coming up on the walk home. “Passion! It comes down to passion!” I said to my companions. “How often do you get to watch someone so passionate do what they love?? It is incredible! I wish everyone was so passionate!”
Jesse thought about this for a moment. “The inspiration is incredible because if you don’t have it, it makes you want to find it. If you do have it, it makes you want to work harder at it.” To me this is close to magic.
One short final adventure – which involves animals!
It was our last morning in Panama City and we were due to catch a bus in a few hours. We had heard about a national rainforest in the middle of the city and decided to go stroll around it. We were warned that it was hard to see the few animals there but we decided to risk it regardless.
Jesse was first to spot the monkeys, happily running around the trees. They were small, with fuzzy black faces and they spied down at us from the canopy. Jesse told us that he had always wanted to be a monkey, which didn’t surprise me one bit. Then a little while later we came across a family of Coatis! These are like little racoon cat things which run around with their tail high in the air like the rod of a bumper car. They looked at us suspiciously but it hardly discouraged their rooting around for bugs or whatever they eat.
As we were just about to leave were were heralded by a local fellow who was sitting nearby. Pointing up we saw what looked like a fuzzy lump hanging off a branch way up in the canopy. We all peered for a bit before someone realized we were looking at a sloth.
Yes a sloth! The popular animal of the moment! It hung above us in the tree, looking exactly like a hairy growth. This particular lump had a baby with it too, which also looked like a lump except it was slightly smaller. We watched in breathless amazement as it proceeded to vigorously scratch its armpit, continuously digging in there for the entire ten minutes we watched. The baby just hung there, presumably not at the age when it knows how to scratch itself yet, though not for lack of a great role model. When we had finally had enough excitement we wrenched ourselves away, even though the sloth had just moved its arm towards its butt area – I presume to settle in for a full day of butt scratching.
And with the sighting of a sloth we were content. What more could Panama City possibly offer us? We had taken the city for all it was worth and it was time to move on. And so we hopped on a bus and headed towards the moutains – next stop, Santa Fe.