Posted October 9, 2008 in Oxx Tales by Jim Markel
Picking up from my surfing safari in Jim’s Panama Adventure Part 1, the great thing about no specific itinerary is you’re rarely disappointed by the events of the day. Having no expectations you’re like a leaf on the wind; seemingly caught on a ride (pausing for a moment to check out the scene). As suddenly as you arrive you’re gone again without so much as goodbye. Sometimes this provides a few unexpected discoveries.
After getting my feet wet in Santa Catalina it was time to head south and take in the local Carnival in Pedasi.
After a last morning surf session we loaded the Rover with our assortment of Red Oxx bags and Boa Boards plus a cooler full of Pipa juice. The next leg of the journey took us through some beautiful but fairly empty country. As we wound our way through the hills I still kept comparing Panama to Montana. The common denominator was the lack of people and amazing scenery.
Kenny was naming trees and plants and pointing out tropical hardwoods in full flower. Meanwhile I rummaged in his tape collection which was trapped in some 80’s time capsule! Loverboy & Rolling Stones! Sat back as Kenny told me about his early days surfing in Panama.
Before long we were trading lies about who had the crappiest car. Crazy cross country trips with all the breakdowns and the pain and suffering of rolling junk. Now we were rolling with tinted windows, air conditioning and all wheel drive. Nice!
Carnival is Panama’s biggest holiday. More money is spent on Carnival than any other event. I had no idea what I’d stumbled into when I booked my ticket. Since my arrival Kenny had been working trying to find us accommodations. Luckily he secured us lodging with a local family in Pedasi. Practically every hotel room in the whole country was booked!
The region we headed to is considered to be the heart of the Carnival, where it all began. Each town likes to claim it has the best Carnival in the country. Food and music and elaborate floats. Water trucks spray the crowds as brass bands play a lively mix of Latin Jazz. Once the sun goes down the outdoor dance clubs get to rocking and the party goes till the rooster crows.
Making Shaved Ice
Dropping down out of the hills we start to see the first signs of civilization again. Time for a quick gas break and off to the beach. Just then the air conditioning and power steering dies. At the crossroads of Chitre we investigate under the hood. A thrown belt and munched tension pulley. Not exactly a catastrophic failure but we weren’t going anywhere.
Nothing like breaking down on the eve of a major holiday in the middle of nowhere.
I strolled over to the bus station to check out the local flavor. Folks were lined up for something that looked like ice cream. I eased myself in. The line was really moving and before I knew it was time to order. Trying to appear like I knew what I was ordering I pointed to something in the display case that looked like it might be tasty. Judging by the line there was little possibility that it was not going to be good. After handing over a whole quarter I stepped out into the sun to see how Kenny was getting along.
Initial news was not good; the only Land Rover dealer in Panama was fresh out of our parts. They had belts on hand so Kenny then rang up the Boa Surf house and sent Juan to put it on the next bus. The tension pulley was coming off a salvage vehicle. Now the hard part was tracking down that crucial part. Kenny remembered a friend who knew a mechanic who was an expert on Rovers. I left Kenny to his sleuthing.
I decided to investigate that bus terminal in hopes that someone was using our part as a doorstop or paperweight. Functionally obsolete is the term I would use to describe the state of the bus terminal in Chitre Panama. It may be run down but it was still doing a brisk trade.
Baby chicks for sale in the main hall and a hardware store fully stocked with the necessities of life, here on the edge existence in the modern world. At the end of station was a cafeteria with awesome smells emanating from the steadily swinging door.
Dinner located, I went to check on Kenny and our missing part. Fate and destination sometimes have a way of converging in the most fortuitous ways. Kenny’d been working miracles on the old cell phone; first he called his buddy in North Carolina who knew that mechanic. He then called the mechanic. Seems our mechanic was home in Chitre for Carnival. Before we knew it he was riding up on a bicycle! Not only did the bus terminal have the necessities of life it also was an excellent place to ship parts to.
What was diner was dishing up? As expected. Full-on local style: cheap, hot and lots of it. Next, some shelter. We hailed a taxi. The Hong Kong hotel was the last thing I expected to find in Chitre Panama. Any port in storm as they say. Snagged the last room. The décor was straight out of a 1960s Yakuza movie. Feng Shui with a twist. Disney motif around the pool. Well sort of…
while the colors of the creatures were correct there was something disturbing about how they were sculpted. Each one not quite the real thing. Some slight deformity was causing them to stare out at the world freakishly.
Our vehicle dead in the water we still had to get to Pedasi for Carnival (and some more surfing!). Kenny was able to link up with a surf crew going our direction. Stuffing five grown men and two boys and enough supplies for Carnival made for a tight fit. But we weren’t complaining, happy to be moving again our spirits were high.
Carnival in Pedasi is about getting friends and family together and having good old fashioned party in the street. My lack of planning ahead meant that I had to seek alternate lodgings. Instead of hotel living we stayed with a local family. Sharing in their holiday can be a real joy when able to glimpse into the life of another culture.
Stashing our bags we set out to explore and see what was going on. Already the influx of people had transformed this sleepy little village. The buzz before the big event was forming. Pedasi is the hometown of former president Mireya Moscoso. The town has good roads and infrastructure due in large part to her patronage.
A short drive from the village is Venao, the coolest beach in the area, which for a few days becomes the epicenter of surf culture in Panama. It was time to hit the water again. The long sweeping beach had more than enough room to accommodate the surf crowd. I took up a spot well out of the way and again worked on my paddling and timing.
The beach rats were hanging in their hammocks munching on scrambled eggs and tortillas. Warming my bones in the mid-morning sun I scarfed half a dozen eggs and some hot coffee.
Suddenly the hammocks were looking very appealing and downshifting another gear it was nap time.
After a siesta it was time to hit the beach again…literally. The object of the game is to catch waves only sometimes they catch you! On a decent wave I was stoked to be up doing my best not to wipe-out. The thing with beach breaks is that they break ON the beach and that’s where yours truly was unceremoniously tossed headfirst into the sand.
Once the world stopped spinning I evaluated the damage. A nasty road rash on the forehead and a chipped tooth weren’t enough to end my day. So once again I paddled out to wait for another set.
Each year at Carnival the local gossip is aired in public in the form of songs made up by the neighborhoods. In Pedasi it’s Calle Abajo vs. Calle Arriba in the north! This smack talking is all done in good sport but it also a commentary on local politics. The singers spend all year writing and practicing their songs for the big festival.
Standing there in the shade enjoying a Raspado (shaved ice), I was regaled with the tale of the government official who crashed in his helicopter and made off with a suitcase full of cash.
The next group of singers was telling the story of the mayor of a neighboring town who was having an extramarital rendezvous out behind the banana patch! They sing with a rhythm that reminds me of the sugar cane workers in Zambia coming in from the fields. A cadence that transcends cultures and takes its origins from the land itself.
Another major component of Carnival is the food and the traditional meal is Sancocho soup. Earlier that morning while collecting my surf trunks off the laundry line I visited with our host. I was drawn to the outdoor kitchen in the courtyard behind the house where they had two huge caldrons simmering over an open fire. Judging by the amount of vegetables and meat going into the pot they were going to have plenty to spare.
We crowded around the table. Our bowls brimming. A tall glass of Chicha Limon made an excellent complement to the smoky taste of the Sancocho.
As we sat and visited with the family they asked me what I did for work. I told them all about life in Montana and Red Oxx. It was just easier to show them. Soon we had a trade going for some new sandals! I had brought along a pile of Travel Trays for such an occasion. After lunch we set out to get the raw materials for my new footwear.
3 bucks worth of leather and we were ready for authentic Panama farmer sandals; hand-made to fit. Sitting on the porch with a cool offshore breeze blowing in we were kicking back and learning the fine art of making footwear the old fashioned way. Sporting our new kicks we made our way to the village square to check out the carnival nightlife. The night parade is a much more formal affair.
This is when the famous Carnival queens make their debut. Each girl raises their own money for the elaborate costumes that can cost into the thousands. Girls start from a young age training to be Carnival queens. For some, this is the highlight of their teenage years. They can be seen waving and dancing on floats parading through town.
All along the town square the vendors have set up food stands and local hand crafted merchandise. Where there’s smoke there’s fire. I always seem to be lured in by a cloud of aromatic smoke. They were cooking some yard bird with a very unique method. First they barbecue the breast and then set it aside until someone is ready to order. Then they place it on a red-hot griddle and chop it with a cleaver.
The smoke comes from a sauce that is then ladled onto the meat as it’s reheating. This infuses the chicken with the full moist flavor that leaves you wishing you had ordered an extra piece!
Next on the hit parade was stimulating the local economy. Baba House specializes in hand woven adornments made with bits of seashells and seeds that they find floating in the ocean. The proprietor known simply as Baba is a local entrepreneur with a great sense of creativity. I spent quite a while selecting just the right gifts for my friends and family back home. Trying to match each item with a particular individual was quite fun.
The next day we loaded the whole crew up and headed out to Desiladeros to check on the break there. Another strong point break with a wicked rip current just off the beach. Kenny and the boys had been surfing here for years undisturbed.
Recently the beach front property has been selling at an amazing rate. With Donald Trump building a new tower in Panama City and the French developing places like Panamabambu here at Desiladeros the whole scene is changing rapidly.
I have my retirement villa all picked out. I think I can get it for a song!
With carnival wrapping up we headed back to Santa Catalina for my last few days. Being in no particular hurry we took the scenic route and checked on the regions local artisans. While loading up we noticed a somewhat flat tire. After a quick inquiry we were directed two streets over and found a home-grown tire shop in the neighborhood.
This guy had two goats staked out in the front yard and charter bus in the middle of the public street getting a brake job. The goat to employee ratio was even. Only $2.50 we were on our way again. Rolled north in search of handcrafted furniture. Stopped at few shops and finally found what we were looking for.
The shops were all under these large sheds with the sides open out to the air. Huge woodworking machinery set up out of the direct sun but still out in the open air.
A varied assortment of chairs and tables all with hand carved finished details. The seats and backs are all made from one piece of leather. Very clever and efficient build technique that provides incredible durability with a distinctly Panamanian style. Arriving back in Catalina on my birthday it was time to relax for a few days before heading home.
After all the commotion of Carnival it was good to be back in the middle of nowhere again! I spent the next few days surfing and taking pictures and of course some serious hammock time.
Sometimes in the dead of winter as I’m freezing my tail off in Montana, I dream of sunny beaches and palm trees in a place called Panama.
Cheers, Jim Markel CEO
Jim’s retirement villa