Sunday, July 15, 2012

Panama! In Brief

Hello everyone! I hope you all had wonderful 4th of July holiday weekends! I ended up heading to Panama for the 4th of July weekend (random, I know) with a few coworkers/friends... our firm gave us the Thursday and Friday after the 4th off, so we figured we might as well take advantage of the time off and travel in style...

Purvi, Amogh, Rahima and I used to work on the same team a few months ago. Since that time, a lot has changed and the four of us, sadly, are not on the same team any longer. But you better believe we still keep in touch! God bless the Internet- it's ability to keep people connected is such a Godsend in my mind. So, with Amogh in Boston, Rahima in New York and Purvi and myself in Chicago... we decided what better spot to reunite than... of all places, Panama? Sure, why not- just go with it.

And what a reunion it was! From hugfests to gossip galore to stalker cab drivers to police encounters to tour guides named Sharkie to... well, I am getting way ahead of myself. As such, I present to you... our 2012 Panama adventures- in a nutshell.

Day One: The Reunion

Day Two: The Panama Canal and a Run In with the "Policia"

Day Three: Adventures with Sharkie

Days Four and Five: The Adventure Wraps Up...

Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy!

Days Four and Five: The Adventure Wraps Up...

Day four started off with a trip back to that travel agency where we'd originally booked our Sanblas adventures. After that awful experience with Sharkie, we felt that it was necessary for the travel agency to hear about it. It was such a sad thing too, since we had absolutely fallen in love with the guy who had sold us on the trip. He was just the most jovial man ever and was SO EXCITED for our adventures... so to have to break this kind of news to him was just a total buzzkill to end all buzzkills. After hearing our perspective and empathizing with our situation (he seriously looked like he was on the verge of tears), the travel agency ended up refunding us our money for the trip to Gamboa that we'd booked for Day four.

Gamboa was supposed to be this area of rainforest-y goodness. So, instead of going through the travel agency, we ended up just taking another cab out to Gamboa for the day. Again, we had no idea what to expect.

After the forty-five minute drive, we ended up at this super luxury hotel, where we were apparently supposed to book our excursions. We ended up opting for a boat expedition that would allow us to see animals in the rain forest and crocs/alligators in the waters... how cool would that be, right?!

Well... it sounded a lot cooler than it actually was. I mean, at least the boat ride was relaxing, because the sights to be seen were not the most exciting.

Oh well. At least we are easily entertained, right? Right.

The rest of day four was actually relatively tame. We ended up just wandering around the city center area (right by our hotel) and partaking in some last minute shenanigans...

For some reason, we were exhausted after those tame adventures, so we came back to the hotel room, where Purvi (the "mom" of the group) read to us and we passed out. Don't we sound like we are really embracing our 20s? Sigh. Oh well.

For our last night out though, we had made reservations at this highly-recommended traditional Panamanian restaurant, complete with traditional Panamanian dancing and everything. How FUN, right?!?!

Welllll. It was fine enough, but again, not the most exciting thing ever. In fact, we got kind of annoyed when the traditional dancing started because the music was so loud and, quite frankly, very disruptive to... well, our chit chat! Sure, we'd had the entire TRIP to chit chat away, but we STILL had a LOT to say and quite frankly, darn traditional music during dinner was just getting in the way.

To be fair, we gave the traditional dancing a good half hour. It was at that point that Rahima and I just looked at Purvi and Amogh and were like "So... how much longer do you guys want to stay?" to which Purvi responds with "To be honest, we can leave anytime" to which Rahima and I just look at each other and look at Purvi and Amogh and immediately say "Now?".

Needless to say, it took just a few short minutes of staggered departures (we didn't want to seem RUDE after all) to peace the heck on outta there... and head, where else? Back to our hotel room. It was our last night in Panama- why bother going out, really? Haha.

After yet another earlier than usual (for 20-somethings on vacation) night, we awoke on Sunday with the heavy realization that it was our last day together. Sad day. It had been such a fun trip and it was already over! Amogh and Rahima's flight was first, so sad farewell hugs were given all around before they headed out.

Purvi and I had another few hours before we had to head to the airport, so we just wandered around the city center a bit more before coming back to our hotel to finish packing and head to the airport (five hours early, but whatever- airports are so FUN for people-watching, etc., right?! Right.). It was only as we headed down to our hotel lobby (to do some last-minute Internet checking before heading to the airport) that we noticed our dear pal, Eddie (remember? the cab driver from our trip to the Panama Canal?) just loitering right outside the hotel entrance. This would all be seemingly coincidental and relatively harmless except for the fact that, since that Panama Canal day, dear Eddie had CONSTANTLY been texting/calling Rahima (who had grabbed his number that first day to coordinate rides to/from the Canal) asking about when we needed to be picked up/where we needed to go/etc. Let's just say it had become a little creepy (and/or comical, but whatever)... but we'd already arranged a cab ride to the airport- we didn't want to have to deal with breaking the news to Eddie! So... Purvi and I did what any two self-respecting individuals in this same situation would do... we hid. As best we could. In the hotel lobby.

Seriously, it was like out of one of those creepy stalker movies. What a way to end the trip, right? Right.

All in all, I can safely say that this trip was SO MUCH FUN!!! While the sights were great and it was so interesting to see such a different country, the best part was, of course, the reunion itself! Till the next one...

Day Three: Adventures with Sharkie

Alright- so Day Three had us up at the crack of dawn because we'd ended up booking this tour that would take us to the island of Sanblas for some FUN in the SUN.

We should've known it was going to be a bad day when we awoke to nothing but clouds, clouds and more clouds. But we were with each other- how bad could a day actually be?

Enter: Sharkie. Sharkie turned out to be our driver/"tour guide" for the day. He was going to drive us two hours to this pier where we would take a boat to several different islands to see how the natives lived and to just enjoy some fun, relaxing beach time.

It all started out just fine and dandy. Sharkie's English was spot-on so it was much easier to make conversation with him than with some of the other cab drivers. And he was very... shall we say, chatty? At first, all was merry- he seemed entertaining enough. Two hours later... I can safely say our opinion of Sharkie took a significant 180. During the two hour drive to the pier, we quickly learned Sharkie's views on all KINDS of issues that are totally inappropriate to be bringing up with tourists (i.e. politics, religion, etc.).

Now here's the thing- I respect other people's opinions and insights to an extent; so long as you can support your statements, I'm happy enough, even if I don't agree with you. With Sharkie, though... well, I mean, let's just be honest- his views were just plain wrong. Within the two-hour drive, he managed to piss off all four of us (and we aren't exactly the hardest things to get along with!)... not only were his views so extreme that they were a little scary, he was so ADAMANT about his views that he would be making eye contact with Purvi (poor thing was sitting shotgun for that drive) for extended periods of time, trying to make his point VERY well-known, rather than keeping his eyes on the road. Considering we had to take all these super windy, hilly roads (since we were going through the mountains) the midst of torrential downpours... well, we can safely say that it was NOT the most pleasant of experiences.

Sigh. Once we reached the pier, the rain was still steadily falling and NONE of us was in the mood to board this boat to head across the water to the islands we were supposed to explore. We. Were. MAD!

Enter Allen.

Oh, dear Allen. He was the saving grace of our trip. Unfortunately, we were stuck with Sharkie for the rest of the day, but dear Allen greeted us at the pier and stuck with us as our "main" tour guide for the remainder of the trip. Allen turned out to only be the most adorable little man ever, who has grown up on the native islands his whole life, so his insight/perspective were so interesting to hear.

But first, we had to make it to the island. God, talk about a nightmare. After boarding this rickety little boat, we ended up on this island that was on the verge of flooding because of how much it had been raining that day. The four of us were reaching new levels of filth/drenched-ness, since we were all wearing flip flops and having to trudge through some flooded dirt pathways (I shudder to think what our feet were encountering) to get to the main part of the village.

Despite all that, I couldn't help but be amazed by this island (Kuna Ayla, I believe). I mean, the colors, the huts, the people, the SIMPLICITY. Visiting this community was seriously one of my favorite parts of this trip. It was such an educational experience... for instance, did you know that on this island, women are considered the leaders and don't do any of the community-style cooking?? Now that's my kinda island!!

Do you like how we didn't even bother to take off our life vests while traipsing about the island? Sigh, oh well.

After exploring Kuna Ayla for a bit, the skies had started to clear up so, by the time we started heading to the second island of Sanblas, we were in much better spirits (I mean, as good of spirits as we could be, considering Sharkie was STILL with us and would NOT stop TALKING). So, off to Sanblas we went!

There, we were greeted with island-y bliss. Beaches, palm trees, clear waters... you really couldn't lose.

Sigh. Inspite of the super rocky start, the day turned out to be a LOT of fun- in case you couldn't tell from the pictures. Our two-hour journey back to Panama City was relatively uneventful, given that most of us just fell asleep in the car (or pretended to fall asleep, so Sharkie wouldn't try to start talking to us). Once back at the hotel, we had big plans to get all dolled up to go out to dinner and then salsa dancing- it was Friday night after all!

Wellll... we DID end up going out to dinner at Tantalo's (the same place we'd been to the first night with the amazing rooftop bar)...

But after dinner, we were just ready to have (yet another) cozy night in. So in lieu of salsa dancing, we decided to head back to the hotel, get into our pajamas, and play a game that Rahima had brought (Cards Against Humanity) along.

Again, we were in bed and asleep by about midnight... are you noticing a trend here?

Day Two - The Panama Canal and A Run In with the "Policia"

Day two was the day that I was looking forward to the most of this trip... why's that? Day two, after all, was the day that we were going to be visiting...

The Panama Canal!

I mean, can you imagine?? Being able to see something in person that has played such a significant role in US history... lkdsjfls! Oh, I couldn't WAIT. Seriously, I just KNEW it was going to be the BEST THING EVER. Aside from the Canal, well, we didn't really have much of a plan for the day, so it was going to be interesting to see how we were going to be able to occupy our time...

No need to worry about that just yet though! We had the Panama Canal to explore! Bright and early on Thursday, we got ready and headed off for our first "touristy" excursion of the trip. I was so excited, I could barely sit still on the 45 minute cab ride. As we headed out of the hotel, we figured we would just do what we did yesterday and loiter around, waiting for a cab to arrive (surprisingly, cabs were pretty easy to come by in our location). We didn't even have to wait five minutes before a cab showed up... and that's where we were introduced to Eddie, who remained in our lives for the duration of the trip.

Okay, so upon initial impression, Eddie was just this adorable little Panamanian cab driver- so eager to share his pearls of wisdom with the Spanish speakers of our group. Although we had initially agreed to have him drop us off and pick us up at the Panama Canal, we ended up keeping him all day long. Yes, he was just that adorable (or so we thought).

Things were looking good for the day- we had our personal chauffeur all ready and set... and we were off to the Panama Canal!! What more could we want?!?!

Here we go!

After we made it through security and the "main building" (which houses a museum), we finally made it to one of the greater marvels of our time...

Okay. So let's take a step back here... THIS. WAS IT?

There had to be more... maybe the pictures would paint a more telling picture than what I was actually seeing?

Yeah, no. I can safely say that the Panama Canal is ONE. GIANT. BUZZKILL. There is absolutely no need for people to go out of their way to see this thing... it was not only boring, but UGLY! I mean, have we ever heard of crystal blue water or ANYTHING of the sort? Come ON, people!

Sigh. Talk about devastation. Thankfully, I'm a big museum person, so I figured I'd at least get to absorb some of the history of the Panama Canal in the little museum that's housed right next to the Canal...

So much for paying attention. We got a little distracted, what can we say? In any event, the museum turned out to be just fine and dandy... again, nothing to really write home about, but it was at least better than the Canal itself (doesn't take much, really). How fun is this picture?

Well, after that total buzzkill of an experience, our boy Eddie was ready and waiting to take us back to the hotel. However, after hearing how disappointed we were with the Panama Canal, he recommended that we try to hit up Metropolitan Park- just to enjoy some more pretty views and nature-y delightfulness. Sure, it was a little warm (read: HOT) since it was late morning, but what can we say? We had no plan, so why turn down this opportunity?

On our way to the park, Eddie drove us down the "Causeway", which is this super scenic highway that people can ride bikes and go for walks along.

Ah, dear Eddie- ready and waiting...

After several stops along the causeway to take some pictures (this is what happens when you travel with three photographers), we finally ended up heading over to Metropolitan Park.

So, note to self- if ever you are planning to do an impromptu hike, come prepared with at least SOME of the basics... because hiking in dresses and flip flops certainly proved to be... shall we say, interesting?

The park turned out to be GOR-GEOUS though! Hiking is my absolute favorite outdoor activity so I was in such a happy place.Sweaty, sure, but happy all the same.

By the end of the hike (aka: when we were coming downhill), flip flops began to take its toll on dear Rahima. The girl who ironically has the greatest balance out of all of us skidded twice- considering she has a bad ankle as it is, we were NOT going to be taking any chances. Human crutches, it is...

Teamwork and all that, if you will.

After such an eventful morning/early afternoon, we ended up heading back to the hotel area to decompress, grab some lunch and... get ready for our evening. We'd been recommended to have dinner at Alberto's- a nice little Italian restaurant right along the Causeway, with some pretty legit white sangria. Twist our arms, really.

After resting up for just a bit, we started getting ready for our night out... so this is wherein my fatal flaw lies. If you know me at all, you know that I could not care less about hair, makeup, "getting ready" to go out, etc... I don't know- something was lost on me at birth, I guess. But, well, when you're with three other girls, who actually enjoy getting all dolled up (they clean up very nicely, I have to say!)... well, when in Rome and all that. I'd actually brought a couple of dresses along so I was able to pick out what I was going to wear pretty quickly. But it was as these other girls started whipping out their makeup that I just kind of looked around blankly.

I never wear makeup (except for like some powder). I just never understand the point and quite frankly, the effort that it takes to put this stuff on... the thought just exhausts me. So when Rahima (who does her eyes every single day... I know, RIGHT?!) asked if she could "do my eyes", I figured, yet again... when in Rome and all that.

And I have to say- holy mother. It's amazing what a little makeup can do to people! At the risk of sounding completely narcissistic... I loved my eyes! I couldn't stop staring at them! I couldn't believe how quickly Rahima was able to "transform" my FACE, by doing my eyes!

But I digress (can you tell how excited I was about this revelation though??). Soon enough, we were all ready to head out to Alberto's.

Unfortunately, Eddie wasn't ready and waiting when we were ready to leave the hotel so we ended up going with the first cab driver we found... sure he looked like he was about 12 years old, but whatever- a cab driver's a cab driver's a cab driver, right?

WRONG. I guess some cab drivers need to learn how to abide by the law... turns out our 12 year old cab driver actually didn't have a taxi license and was quickly found out/pulled over during a random police traffic check...

Well, that was a fun little half hour diversion from our originally planned activities... oh well, once we had snagged another cab, we were able to enjoy our evening...

You know, the usual.

And, when all was said and done, we were still in bed by like midnight. So much for going out (which we really were originally intending to do!)...

Day One: The Reunion

Day One involved actually getting to Panama and actually finding the people that were flying in from New York. Trust me, given how little planning had been involved with this trip (all we really had booked at this point was our hotel), these two activities were going to be feats in and of themselves.

Purvi and I were flying together since we both live in Chicago and were able to get on the same direct flight to Panama City. Amogh and Rahima were flying down together from New York. We were just going to meet them at our hotel, since our flights were only a couple of hours off from each other.

As Purvi and I were trying to figure out carpooling situations to the airport, we quickly started realizing just how different our travel styles are. Although our flight was only at 9 AM, I wanted to make sure we allowed ample time for traffic, security lines, etc. So, I proposed we leave our apartments at 6:00 AM... well, just in CASE! We were flying international after all- who knows what we could expect? Purvi, however, was all set to just head to the airport around 7:30 AM or so... when she shared THAT with me, I just stared blankly at her and was like "Okay, well I guess I can just meet you at the airport then."

I mean, 7:30?!?! It was 4th of July! How can anyone be sure that we weren't going to hit traffic or encounter some unexpected lines at the airport, given the holiday?

In any event, we ended up leaving around 6:30 AM... and got to the airport with plenty of time to spare. Thank goodness- I'm a freak about being on time for things... early is more preferable. After hitting no traffic and no security lines (well, what?! Better safe than sorry!), we ended up being ready and set for our flight with a couple of hours to spare before boarding began.

So I overestimated the amount of time all of this would take. Sue me. No fret though- thanks to Purvi's status, we were able to make ourselves nice and at home in the airport lounge!

You better believe we stocked up! We had a couple of hours to spare!

Finally, though, the time came to board our flight... although there were a few fairly disheveled characters sitting around us, it turned out to be a fairly uneventful flight overall. Once we landed in Panama (!), we grabbed a cab from the airport cab stand and began our trip to Panama City... the reunion was imminent!!

Upon our arrival at the Toscana Inn (seriously one of the nicest little hotels ever), we headed up to our hotel room and were IMMEDIATELY accosted by... Rahima and Amogh!!! It has been quite some time since the four of us have been together (when we used to work together everyday) so you can only imagine the hug attacks, squeals, giggles and CHATTER that the Toscana Inn was immediately subject to.

It was seriously one of the happiest of reunions. The next couple of hours just involved some SERIOUS catching up (we couldn't stop talking and laughing... and sharing way too much information!) in our hotel room...

Before we finally decided we might as well begin exploring the city a bit. Keep in mind, we had no plan and/or idea of what to expect from Panama City. Good luck us, I guess.

Thankfully, the receptionists at the Toscana Inn are the most accommodating things ever (we became total BFFs by the end of the trip), and had some suggestions of things to do for our first night. So... off we went to Casco Antigua (aka "Old Town"). It was absolutely beautiful there... we quickly found out that the colors of Panama are so vibrant and the city has such a unique "character" to it... we had so much fun just wandering the streets...

 Stumbling upon a market...

Doing some shopping...

After going a little crazy at the hat stand (can you tell?), we ended up finding this restaurant that came recommended by one of our cab drivers - Diabolicos.

Here... well, we ended up just sitting around and catching up for another couple of hours. Can you tell this was going to be a general theme of this trip?

After dinner, we decided to head to this rooftop bar that came recommended to us by... well, by this random Panamanian guy that we'd run into on the street just prior to dinner. (It's not as shady as it sounds- trust me.) I mean, sure he works there, so he was all about selling it to us but... well, what can we say? He was nice and clearly a good salesperson. For four girls with no real plan... we were sold!

And we had absolutely NO regrets. This place was le-git. It was pretty posh when you enter the first floor restaurant, but you take that elevator up to the 4th floor rooftop bar and... you are in for a TREAT. It had the most spectacular views of the Panama City skyline- such an impressive start to our first night in Panama City. And let's be honest, the drinks at this place were DI-VINE. I couldn't believe how tasty and delicious they were! Mojitos all around!

All in all, I can safely say that Day One of our trip was one sweet success... we ended up heading back to the hotel and being in bed by like 11 PM (this is my kinda vacation!), but in all fairness, we HAD agreed we'd go out the next night... I mean, our trip was just beginning!