Monday, 12 March 2007

Flaps in species sauce with Irish creamy vodka

Well, it’s been over a week since I returned from the bliss of 90-degree heat in Panama. The warmth is a very dim and distant memory I have to say. I was hoping spring would be in the air by the time I got back to New York, and it was briefly, but then yesterday we had snow. Snow!!!! Pah!!

It was a lovely trip, although I wasn't so sure of Panama City at first. I think I was expecting a sort of small scale Buenos Aires. My 2004 trip to Argentina had given me high expectations of European style cities a hop, skip and a jump away in Central or South America, but it's not even remotely close to being as beautiful as BA, but it does have its own charm; you just have to look a bit harder for it.

Unfortunately we found that the most charming bits were also some of the dodgiest bits for tourists, so you've got to keep your eyes peeled, although being street savvy Manhattan girls about town we had no problems. It also helps there are tourist police everywhere. They run after you if you check out an unmanned building in the potentially dodgy bits to make sure you’re safe from muggers, or worse. Initially it’s disconcerting to find the police dashing across the street to follow you into a building that appears to be open to the public. It makes you worry you’ve inadvertently wandered onto private property and are about to be arrested for trespassing, but they’re just making sure you are safe and I’m actually making it sound much worse than it was in terms of street crime, because it didn’t feel especially threatening. They’ve done a lot to renovate the historic areas of the city, which are beautiful, but the brief walk between two restored bits can be through fairly run down areas and you stand out like a sore thumb as a tourist - there aren't too many tourists in Panama – so the locals often watch you walk from one end of the street to the other. It bothered me a little bit, especially as there's a big divide between the haves and the have-nots, which seemed much more obvious in Panama than in Buenos Aires, where I felt more at ease, but I’d definitely recommend a visit, and given they seem to be renovating a lot of the city in a bid to attract more tourism it would be very interesting to revisit in about 5years to see how things have changed.

Ash and I arrived around mid morning on Thursday, after taking the 5am flight from New York. 5am!!!! What in God’s name possessed someone to schedule a flight at 5am I’ll never know. We met at the airport at the ungodly hour of 2:30am. Ash had sensibly taken a nap, but I was wayyyyy too busy and excited about both my holiday and loading songs onto my new iPod to have done anything so mundane as sleep - well, you know what I am like when I fly over to London. I managed to outdo my previous record of 39 sleepless hours, by staying up for 41 hours, so busy was I loading tunes onto my pod.

It was lucky I was in such good spirits as during the flight I found myself in the pesky middle seat next to an enormous bloke with space invader tendencies. Honestly people, I sometimes feel like carrying pins to defend my space. Just because I can fit my whole body and my arms inside my seat does not give other people the right to try and encroach. I encounter similar people on the subway, you know the ones who obviously never played that game when they were kids of fitting the blocks into the corresponding shaped hole, because if they had they would probably realise that an arse the size of a small house is not going to fit in a seat space suitable only for the likes of Kate Moss. The number of times I get sat on when traveling on the subway is no laughing matter and I still have nightmares about being suffocated after one particularly obese woman squashed herself into the seat next to me and her rolls of flab overlapped me like an eiderdown, I kid you not. It’s no wonder I walk. Anyway I am off topic...

Melissa was already at the hotel when we arrived, having flown in the night before as she managed to get a deal on her air miles. Must say the room was a bit of a disappointment after the deluxe and very modern suite we’d shared for about 10shillings each in Buenos Aires. I was expecting a bit more from “Panama’s Favorite Business Hotel”.

The room was fine in general, but a lick of paint would not have gone amiss, but it was okay as a base as long as you were able to ignore the smell of damp coming from the air conditioner. I was also quite disappointed by the size of the much lauded swimming pool which had been heavily featured on their website. There really are some amazingly creative photographers out there is all I can say. I had imagined myself swimming laps before breakfast each morning, but when I arrived I discovered it was about the size of a postage stamp and looked as if it hadn’t had a thorough cleaning any time recently.

On initial inspection of the accommodation I found there was something distinctly reminiscent of the Els Bells hotel from the movie “Carry On Abroad”, but thankfully all the construction was completed. I would suggest though, that if any of you are planning a trip to Panama, you look into staying at the Bristol hotel, which was across the street from where we stayed; a gorgeous boutique hotel which supposedly provides all their guests with a private butler who will even do your packing for you!!!! Life of Riley over the road!!! I can attest they do a lovely glass of champers at their bar too, although I will say in defense of our unassuming lodgings that they served the best French toast I have ever tasted.

After arriving, having not eaten for at least 5minutes, we soon set out to find somewhere good for lunch and decided on an authentic Panamanian spot that didn’t seem too far from the hotel, although in reality it was probably about 2miles away. It was lovely and sunny though, so we didn’t mind the walk one bit after having departed New York in sub 30degree temperatures – brass monkeys brrrrrrr – and it was heavenly to stretch our legs after the flight. However we discovered fairly quickly that Panamanians don’t seem to walk anywhere and that walking appears to be viewed as a quaint past time, inviting many a honk from cab drivers who continually roam the streets in packs seeking a fare, tourists being particularly prized prey since some less than scrupulous cabbies sense an opportunity to hike their prices - after a couple of instances of being ripped off we soon learned to negotiate the cost before setting foot inside the car. Panamanians are also notoriously crazy drivers – worse than in Rome - and we soon learned that, when crossing the road, it was often best to run like hell.

Returning from lunch we decided to walk back to the hotel along the path running by the side of Panama Bay to catch the ocean breeze. To do this we had to cross 6 lanes of chaotic traffic. I think it would have been easier to cross the M62. There are no pedestrian crossings in Panama, but we grabbed the opportunity to dash across the first 3 lanes when the traffic stopped at the lights; only to find ourselves stuck on the central reservation inhaling petrol fumes. After about 5minutes of trying to cross to the ocean side a police van coming towards us started to slow down and we all groaned thinking we were going to be done for jay walking, but the driver didn’t stop, instead he pulled diagonally across the 3 lanes to stop all the traffic and waved us across the street. How cool is that? Can you imagine the NYPD doing that for tourists? I may well write to Mayor Bloomberg and suggest it to foster good will ha ha!!! Unfortunately after all the effort spent getting across the street our bliss at walking alongside the ocean was short lived since that side of the street didn’t smell so hot and we later found out that they pump raw sewage directly into the bay. Charming!!! Unfortunately there was no chance of crossing back easily so we had to suck it up and head towards the hotel. As we neared the Bella Vista area where the hotel was located we still hadn’t passed anywhere for pedestrians to cross the street – how do people get across? Teleportation? - and began to get a bit concerned we’d end up walking to Costa Rica. Fortunately we happened upon a bit of a fender bender with the police in attendance, so Ash just flashed her long legs and wiggled her fingers at the nice policeman to indicate we needed to get across and hey presto they once again stopped the traffic for us. Fabulous!!!

Friday was our first full day in Panama and, being smashingly well rested, we decided to get up early and take a cab the few miles out to “Parque Nationale Metropolitano” for a walk through the foliage. We had our first taste of being ripped off by a cab driver on the way there when the driver charged us $8 for a trip we later learned should have cost around $3. Bloody cheek!!!! Still I suppose in the scheme of things it was cheap and I like to think I was supporting the Panamanian economy, I just wish my hard earned cash had gone to someone more deserving.

Supposedly the park has some amazing wildlife, but I think we were there in the wrong season as the only thing we saw was a funny little lizard thing made a mad dash across a small pond on its back legs - bit like Billy Whiz from the Beano on water – and lots and lots of red ants. I was slightly concerned about getting bitten I must say, but I think they were more concerned about getting their picnic up to the top of the hill and enjoying the view out across Panama to be bothered with our pasty white legs.

After our walk we managed to hail a cab to take us out to Miraflores locks – one of the three locks along the 50mile stretch of the Panama Canal – where there is a visitor center with an exhibition on the building of the canal, a viewing platform to watch the ships going through the locks and a restaurant where we could grab lunch. Bloody amazing!!! I know, its just boats, but it was sooooooo cool to see these huge freight ships going through the locks. We saw one Italian ship going through with just 2 feet to spare either side of the lock. Apparently it’s the only canal in the world where the ship’s ‘driver’ (or whatever he/she is titled, I’m not nautical) has to relinquish control of the ship to employees of the Panama Canal Authority who steer it the full 50 miles of the canal and negotiate it through the three locks.

Its funny watching the ships go through as the guys working on board get pretty excited about it too, so while all the tourists in the observation deck are snapping photos of them, they are reciprocating by taking photos of the tourists. Ships pay a toll to go through the canal based on their weight, the average being around $35,000. The most expensive to toll to date is $142,000, paid by the Crown Princess Cruise ship, a few too many passengers hitting the midnight buffet by the sounds of it.

In the evening we ate at a lovely restaurant, Eurasia – unsurprisingly serving European-Asian fusion fare. It was a really pretty restaurant in a converted Spanish style house - well it looked Spanish to me, lots of twirly wrought iron – with amazing service, very unobtrusive, but friendly. The restaurant also had a policy of offering free dessert nicely arranged on a buffet; a format I imagine was designed to appeal to those diners visiting from cruise ships. You could go up as many times as you liked, but I managed to restrain myself to a v thin sliver of flourless chocolate cake. The maitre d’ told us not to worry about putting on weight as all the desserts were ‘made with sweet and low’. For some reason, I didn’t quite believe him.

On Saturday we headed out to Panama Viejo to see the ruins of the old city. Again, as soon as we set foot on the site we were disconcertingly pounced upon by a very keen, but very sweet, tourist policeman who tried to explain to us in a mixture of broken English, and Spanish where necessary, the history of the ruins. After taking way too many photos we walked the half-mile up to the museum to check out an exhibit on the history of Panama Viejo – all in Spanish however, but for $3 each it was worth it to look at the photos and the archeological finds. It was in the museum that Ash had a bit of an outburst after catching sight of herself reflected in the glass exhibition cases, “Omigod I look like a lesbian.”

Apparently she felt that the black socks Melissa had loaned her to wear with her black tank top and black shorts and black trainers made her look ‘like a total dyke’. This caused quite a few giggles between Melissa and I, which caused Ash to refer to us as ‘a pair of bitches’ - although I do feel that this was said with love on her part - for not letting her know she telling her she looked like a lesbian before she left the hotel. Pshhhhhhh!!! Excuse me missy, but there was a full-length mirror available for your use in the hotel room.

Personally I can’t really see why she thought that – the only thing that had run through my mind when she had put on her all black combo, was that it wasn’t necessarily a good outfit in 90F heat – doesn’t black attract the sun or something? Who knew its actually your socks that tell people all they need to know about your sexual preference?

She soon forgave us when we suggested going for lunch - all the walking and museum-ing had made up a bit peckish – and we decided to head over to Casco Viejo to check out a restaurant listed in the guide book as a great lunch spot. It sounded lovely, and the guide boasted great food and a lovely garden area to eat in. Armed with the address we hopped into a cab to give it a whirl. Could we find it? Could we ‘eck as like. The bloody street didn’t even exist, never mind the restaurant. The poor cabbie was driving around and around, asking policemen for directions, who just scratched their heads and looked puzzled. Unfortunately for our growling bellies the cabbie was none too keen to just drop us off in Casco Viejo, one of the aforementioned dodgy neighborhoods, so he continued to drive around and around. We finally just decided on another place that looked nice, and had to insist the driver let us out – he was still a bit reluctant, saying he was concerned for our safety, but it was a sunny yellow restaurant, which opened out onto a square, ‘Parque Bolivar’, where a whole group of touristy looking people were dining outside on tables, so despite cabbie’s concern we decided to risk it.

I’m not sure why our cabbie was so worried about letting us loose in Casco Viejo, because although certain parts of it had a reputation, the areas we were in seemed absolutely fine and there were plenty of tourists. Plus the guidebook and websites we’d looked at had all recommended the area during the day, advising only to be careful after dark and to take cabs at night. It was unbelievably pretty. All the buildings surrounding the square had been restored to their former glory and the park was full of lots of lush greenery, creating a very peaceful atmosphere, so a very nice lunch was had and all arguments about the sexuality of Ash’s borrowed socks were forgotten. The missing restaurant was just one of a loooonnnnnnnggggggg list of things that were incorrect in our guide book. We feel the need for a friendly word with the author, and given there’s a photo of him in the back of the book and he lives in NYC this may well become a reality (cracks knuckles!!!).

After lunch we looked around the square by the restaurant and then walked up to the next square to check out the Panama Canal Museum. Admittedly I was a bit nervous walking around Casco Viejo given the warnings in our guide book and the reluctance of our cabbie to let us out, especially as the street we walked up to connect us to the two squares was definitely a bit run down and we stood out like a sore thumb as tourists, but all was fine and we made it to the museum without incident.

That night we took a cab out to a recommended restaurant - Mi Ranchito – about halfway out along the Amador Causeway. The causeway is basically a long road that connects 3 small islands out in Panama Bay. The connecting road was built by the American military from rocks that had been dug up to make the Panama Canal. It’s very pleasant out there, but the restaurants are a bit bland and shopping center-ish, but it’s worth it for the amazing view looking back to Panama City – a bit like looking back on Manhattan from the Ikea bus out to Elizabeth. There’s a shopping center at the end of it that has lots of bars and restaurants where we had a lot of fun reading the Spanish to English translations on the menu. Ash and I were very perturbed to see the dish of “flaps in a species sauce” and had to explain the meaning of ‘flaps’ to a confused Melanie. Any Americans reading this please see me privately for an explanation of what the word ‘flaps’ is slang for in English, I won’t put it in print. Much of the food was prepared with a “refreshing and exclusive touch of chef” and there was “Irish Creamy vodka” with which to wash down your flaps (Oooh). Ahh it’s so very easy for us to scoff at their English given our command of the Spanish language (ahem).

We rounded off the evening at a great little dance bar – Bolero - hidden away behind the back of a restaurant close to the hotel where we merengued – no chance to practice my salsa moves unfortunately, it was all meringue in Panama - the night away with Stanley, a 54 year old American from Houston who’d grown up in Panama, who not only taught us to dance, but gave us some hot tips for good places to visit for the remainder of our stay.

Sunday morning we took a cab out to the Summit Botanical Gardens and Zoo. Not much to say about this place really. It was quite a small zoo and a bit rundown we all thought. Extremely smelly, but the big bamboo was impressive.

After having our fill of the zoo/garden we decided to try and take a cab to the Canopy Tower so that we could look out over the rainforest. The Canopy Tower was built in 1965 by the US Air Force to house powerful radar for the defense of the Panama Canal. By 1969, the site was jointly used by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to control air traffic in the area, and by the Panama Canal Commission (PCC) as a communications tower (guess who googled “Canopy Tower” for this info J). It’s since been turned into the “Canopy Tower Ecolodge and Observatory.” For a fee – can’t remember if it was $100 or $200, I just remember it was pricey - you can go in for the day and take a guided tour over the rainforest. We decided to investigate anyway, although had some trouble finding a cab to take us up there and ended up taking a rickety bus instead. Ohhhh the memory of that bus trip is still painfully etched on my behind. I don’t often wish for more padding on my bottom, but it would have been a definite advantage on that trip.

Unfortunately the driver didn’t stop at the Canopy Tower resort as asked – perhaps our Spanish was a bit lacking in this request – only realizing when we passed a huge sign for entrance to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort which we knew to be north of the Canopy Tower. We had to hotfoot it off the bus before we ended up in Colon – the free port in Panama that has a *very* dodgy reputation – and walked up to take a look at the Gamboa resort instead.

The resort was very nice, but a bit too sanitized for my taste, very bland and it really could have been located anywhere. Too many kids too and they charged $2 for a diet coke, so we weren’t overly impressed with that and decided we were happier with our teensy damp smelling room in the city. No, the resort was not very Panamanian, but if for trips with the family it’s probably ideal and was very easy to sneak into. Had we thought about it we could have easily brought our swimming cossies and enjoyed the facilities for free. We did, however, manage to book ourselves on a tour of the rainforest canopy which, although operated and owned by the resort, didn’t give 2 hoots whether you were actually guests, so we managed to book a tour of the rain forest for the bargain price of $35. Take that extortionately priced Canopy Tower.

The aerial tram over the Canopy was definitely one of the highlights of the trip, despite not seeing much wildlife, save for an Iguana which we suspect was a remote controlled, planted by the resort so as to avoid guest complaints - our fellow tram goers consisted of a few retired, high maintenance American tourist types who would no doubt lodge a complaint if they didn’t see enough wildlife. The trams held 5 people plus the guide, although we managed not to have to share and I think our tour guide, Indira, was quite relieved to be with people closer to her own age. It was all very peaceful and pleasant and Indira pointed out the flora and fauna on the way up to the summit of the hill we traveled over, as well as the lone Iguana perched on the top of a tree.

When we got to the top we disembarked the tram and walked up a high wooden structure that reminded me a lot of having to walk up to the top of the helter skelter as a kid, except there was a viewing platform with 360 views of the canal and the city instead of a slide. It was an amazing view and we had photos taken of the three of us up there, but I’m not including those as I look like ‘who-ate-all-the-pies’ plus I was having a *very* bad hair day.

On the way back down in the tram we again passed the Iguana, suspiciously in the exact same spot as before. When we commented on the coincidence of this the iguana suddenly raised its head, thus confirming our theory that it was probably a fake radio controlled Iguana.

Indira informed us that Iguana tastes a lot like chicken and you can find it in a few restaurants, but it’s very expensive - why not save your money and just eat chicken in that case? I mentioned that Ash and I wouldn’t eat it as we didn’t eat meat. Indira looked very shocked that we would deny ourselves in this way and exclaimed, “So you only eat bush????” She soooo had the wrong idea about vegetarians, unless of course Ash had on those socks again.

On Monday we took a ferry out to Isla Taboga – a small island known for its beaches and puffins and recommended to us by Merengue Man, Stanley. It’s just a 35minute ferry ride from Panama City. After finally finding the right location for the ferry departure – a further instance of guidebook inaccuracies (you really would think they’d more thoroughly check their authors) – we bought our tickets to the island and went to board the ferry, experiencing a true sitcom moment when Ash said ‘oh the ferry looks quite nice’ only for us to walk beyond the mid sized, well-maintained sparkly white boat to a much smaller rickety looking vessel tucked in behind it.

The website for transportation to Isla Taboga described the ferry “The fusillade appearance is accentuated by comfortable recliner seats, and you feel like you're inside a Boeing 727” and I really really really wish I had a picture to show you the interior of the ‘ferry’, because the description above could have only been written by someone who had never set foot on a Boeing 727 or another other form of aircraft come to think of it. It was falling apart!!!! The seats were all broken, life jackets were strewn haphazardly, there was water on the floor and quite frankly I feared for my life, but since so many others were happily boarding without a care in the world I felt as if I would have been a total namby pamby to refuse, so I swallowed my concerns and hoped for the best. I don’t think I actually said a Hail Mary, but I was close.

As you’ve probably gathered by the fact that I am writing this after my trip, we made it there - and back - from Isla Tobago, “Island of Flowers”. The tourist information says “Come to Isla Taboga where there are no cars, no consumer price tags, no push and shove, just peace and place to call home”. Yes, that’s right, it’s very pretty, but people, it’s borrrringggggggggggg. I think we managed to stay there 6 hours and 3 of those were spent eating. We went straight for breakfast on arrival, walked about for a bit, sat on the beach for about an hour, walked up to the Hotel Vereda Tropical (Gorgeous) for lunch at their restaurant, where we sat on the veranda overlooking the bay, then hurried down for the ferry back to Panama, where we ended up waiting almost an hour on the pier as we’d copied down the return time from the wrong timetable. Doh!!!

After disembarking from the ferry – see how comfortable I am using travel type terms like disembark? I really could get a job on Holiday 2007 for the BBC. As Kim and Linda know all too well from our Rome trip, I have already perfected the art of packing, following tips from the late, great Jill Dando, from whom I learned to stuff my knickers into my shoes. That would be a recommendation to stuff your *spare* knickers into your *spare* shoes and not a recommendation related to any items you might actually be wearing. Oh I’m getting some quite disconcerting mental images of people walking around the airport a good 2 inches taller due to lingerie heel boosts. I will also add that you should put aforementioned knickers into plastic bags before stuffing them in your shoes, even if your feet smell sweetly of the Body Shop’s peppermint foot lotion as mine most certainly do, because your so-called ‘friends’ (Kimberly), jealous of your packing skills, will spread malicious rumors about how your underwear must smell of feet. Phew, I bet Mile’s broken into a sweat with all this gusset chat. Anyway, we disembarked and decided to take a cab over for a repeat visit to the Amador Causeway to see it in the daytime and have a few cheeky ones at the shopping center in the process. Walking back towards the city along the causeway we were mobbed by joggers and cyclists taking their evening constitutional. Quite the covert fitness freaks these Panamanians.

Wednesday was our last day in Panama – flight was at 7pm - and since we had to check out of the hotel around 3pm we didn’t stray too far, deciding to pay a visit to the nearest shopping center and see what trinkets were on offer. Nothing much notably Panamanian I have to say. Even the famed Panama hats were made in Ecuador. Honestly, they are not even trying. I did buy some *very* cute pink Puma Impulse Cat sandals, which “cleverly cross a ballet flat with a slingback sneaker. “ Ash didn’t like them, but they have since been featured in the NY Times Style section, and have apparently ”flown off shelves across the city” after being in stores just a week. Ladies and gentlemen I think we *all* know who the style maven of this particular trip was and which one of us was the “woman in comfortable shoes” if you know what I mean ;-)