I have not been here a month and I have already lodged three places, which will surprise nobody who has been keeping even glancing tabs on my rather chaotic and peripatetic adult life.
The first was, of course, the strange, corporate apartment Owe graciously allowed me to share when he was here, around the corner from the Veneto hotel, in a neighborhood full of blocky, nondescript apartment buildings, uniformly gray and streaked from the repeated abuses of tropical sun and torrential rains. The view from the picture window was of a massively ugly building across the street that had businesses on the first two floors, including an intimidatingly gym-ratty gym. Above the second floor, for no discernible reason, stretched a massive square of brushed steel, so from the majority of the living area, that was all that was visible through the window.
It was not what I expected Panama to look like.
When Owe left to continue his adventures I bundled all of my things up again and flagged down a cab and went around the corner to Hostal Urraca– a charming one storey building painted with reassuringly bright colors, and a gorgeous, lush garden in the front. Seriously, check those pictures out. Beautiful. The view from the garden was of a Korean church, which looked like all Korean churches I’ve ever seen, squat and ugly. That street was revelatory: besides the Korean church there was a yeshiva, a Jewish learning center, and a synagogue. Panama’s Jewish quarter?
I’d booked a room there from Hotels.com, thinking it was a hotel, but as the name suggested it was a hostel, and not really worth the fifty bucks for a tiny room for the night. For fifty bucks I want, nay, I demand little bottles of shampoo, a minibar that I will never touch, an iron, a tv, and a goddamned ensuite bathroom. I was also somewhat disappointed that despite the gorgeous patio and garden, no one congregated outside. Feeling rather lost and raw, and frightened and overwhelmed at being in Panama all by myself, (I forgot how keenly lonely the first year abroad can be) I wanted to sooth my nerves with chit-chat, but few people came out to congregate and enjoy the cool of the evening and those that did were uncommunicative, even cold. Those who know me know that I’m pretty difficult to NOT talk to. One has to make a deliberate effort to escape my conversational charms.
I went to bed feeling sad.
The next afternoon I packed my things AGAIN and, feeling heavy with the certainty that nothing will ever be easy again, I wrestled my suitcases through Urraca Park to a main road with lots of taxis. The first taxi driver puzzled over the directions and then looked at me with a faintly apologetic smile which I’ve learned to mean “I have no fucking clue where that is, but something deeply rooted and unexamined in my cultural identity is absolutely preventing me from telling you that I have no idea.” So I backed up and asked the next cabbie, who nodded.
This marked my first successful cab interraction, by the way. There is a massive gringo tax for cabs, and there are no meters, which means the cabbies can dictate how much the ride will cost. In theory to get anywhere within the city shouldn’t be more than five bucks. In practice, us gringos will be charged ten, fifteen dollars for short rides. So before you get in, you have to firmly tell them how much you’re going to pay them. If they refuse, another cab will come along.
I firmly said “three,” which was still probably a ripoff, and he agreed. He knew exactly where it was and took a short way. He helped me get my bags out of the car. It felt like a miracle.
The courtyard was busy- the exterior was being painted by a nice fella with a huge beard and a shirt from Austin Texas, and a few teenage boys. A lanky fella with glasses and a British accent saw me struggling with my bags and insisted on grabbing one for me and getting one of the other fellas to haul the other and for the first time in many days it seemed things might be easy after all.
I checked in and was shown to a bunk and set about exploring. The neighborhood- so close to where I had been staying, yet I’d never found it- is so much more like what I imagined Panama would look like. Our street is quiet, and lined with colonial style houses painted bright colors. It ends at a busy street with squat businesses lining it- laundrettes, cheap empanada joints, hair dressers. The sidewalks are dotted with make-shift businesses- food carts, shoe shine joints comprised of ratty office chairs and a box, manicurists who sit on overturned buckets, a barber who operates out of what appears to be a storage pod.
And so I came to Mamallena Hostel. After exploring the neighborhood and buying some groceries I came back feeling much lighter. I chit-chatted the afternoon away, and spent the evening drinking rather too much boxed wine with Austin and a girl from Colorado. And those who know me will be surprised to hear that I find myself very content, for the moment, in a hostel full of genuine certified backpackers, with their relentlessly ugly, practical sandals, their back breaking packs, their well-worn Lonely Planets and detailed knowledge of other hostels in other countries.
I surprise myself by how comfortable I am here.
But more on the people I’m sharing space with tomorrow.