Bocas del Toro
I flew from from Lima to Panama City, Panama, landing at about 17:30, and walked around for about a half-hour with a sign reading “Share a Taxi to Albrook, / Compartir un Taxi a Albrook.” I didn’t find someone to share a taxi but did find a shared van into the city, which took an extra hour with all the stops but got me to the Terminal de Transporte Albrook for $12 versus $30+ in a private taxi. I managed to book travel to Bocas del Toro, although because all the direct buses were sold out I’d have to connect in the city of David at 03:30, then catch a smaller bus to Almirante.
After a long overnight journey I arrived in Almirante, on the northeast coast of Panama on the Caribbean Sea. I’d made friends with Evan Forbes, an American who’d been living in Panama City for over three years. He’d helped me figure out the connection through David and find a water taxi that would take us on the 45 minute ride to Bocas del Toro. Turns out Evan has written one travel book and is working on his second, and he shared some good thoughts and advice on the book-writing process.
He also taught me a very Panamanian, very slang phrase, “¿que sopá?,” which basically means “que pasa,” translated literally “what is passing” or basically “what’s happening.” He told me I’d get street cred using it, and sure enough without exception all Panamanians started cracking up when I casually asked them. Go-to phrase if you make it to Panama.
Bocas del Toro is a little tropical island tourist town where people go to snorkel, dive, chill on the beach and party. Lot of North Americans, Panamanians, Jamaicans and other travelers. I stayed in a really nice little hostel for four nights, doing most of those activities, as well as writing, working out, chilling and reflecting on my last two weeks in another country. I even met a group of eight bros from San Francisco and northern CA, celebrating the Giants World Series Championship over a few bowls of loudmouth soup. Definitely worth a trip to Bocas.
I pulled out early in the morning of the fifth day, catching the water taxi back to Almirante, then a direct 10-hour, very hot bus ride back to Panama City. I hoped often during the trip that this would be my last long bus ride for a long, long time.
I arrived back in the big beautiful city and caught a taxi to the Coral Suites Hotel, where my mom and Grandma Kay were waiting for me, thrilled. I hadn’t seen my grandma since the secret undercover trip back to California in March, and my mom since Vietnam in May. Needless to say it was great to see them, and to be with family again.
We stayed together in Panama for five days, during which I learned a lot about my family ancestry. Unbeknownst to me, my great grandfather Robinson had not actually worked on the construction of the Panama Canal. After its completion he worked in various jobs related to vessels transiting the canal, including the operation of the “mules,” small train cars that pull large vessels by cable through the locks. However, I learned that two of my great great grandfathers, Fred Robinson and George Fitzgerald, both worked on the actual construction of the canal during the early years of the 20th century.
We did a tour of the canal by vessel, transiting the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks and reaching Gamboa before disembarking and returning to Panama City by bus. We also went to the Museo de Canal de Panama, interesting but all in Spanish and thus difficult to capture everything. Finally though, at the Miraflores Visitor Center and museum on the canal itself, we really learned and experienced what an incredible engineering feat the canal truly was.
The history of the canal is absolutely fascinating, a project that faced enormous engineering complexities and environmental challenges, having been abandoned by the French after two decades of work, resumed by the USA, and finally completed in 1914 after 40,000 – 60,000 workers died in the process – mostly from yellow fever and malaria. Far ahead of its time, even today the operation of the canal is a marvel of human ingenuity, and is perhaps the most important geographical feature in the world in terms of global shipping.
It’s absolutely worth learning about the history of the Panama Canal, and a “cannot miss” if you ever go to Panama.
The Panama Canal
Another day we did a road trip out of the city, crossing the canal into Arraijan in search of the house where my grandmother grew up until age six. “Cross the canal, go about seven miles, look for a driveway that crosses over a ditch and goes straight uphill,” were essentially the directions we had.
After four hours and with grandma ready to give up in disappointment, we found it. The house was in poor condition unfortunately, but the man living there was kind enough to let us walk around the property and take some pictures. It was a life experience to see where my family had lived for decades, starting almost 100 years ago, and for my grandma is was very special. We recorded more precise directions for next time.
We had a fabulous time in Panama, enjoying a lot of local food, wandering through the historic old city, or “Casco Antiguo,” and walking through the beautiful rainforests of Parque Metropolitano.
I said goodbye to mom and grandma as they left early on a Saturday morning, with one last day and night on my own before my return to the United States. That morning I went back to the Parque for some more hiking and beautiful views of the city, caught in a rainstorm and riding back in a taxi through rivers flowing where streets used to be.
This is It, Really
My last night in another country, I sat in my hotel room and reflected. I couldn’t say to myself that I’d never thought the day would come; I knew that it would, but it had always seemed so distant, so unreal that it was almost fictional.
You see, while I was in it, I enjoyed it. I loved it. It changed and shaped me along the way, and it was the experience of a lifetime. But the truth is, I am a home person. I love being at home, seeing my friends, spending time with my family; watching American sports, working on my house, jumping in my pool; playing sports and cooking in my kitchen and making coffee in the morning and having epic football parties at the crib. Getting in my car and driving up the mountain for a perfect powder day. Turning in for the night in my own room, in my own bed.
So even from the beginning, it was always a countdown. A journey, a challenge, a mission that had to be fulfilled and completed and accomplished; and a countdown until I reached the end and would return to my home. Over the last months and weeks and days I anticipated.
On Sunday, December 16, 2012, at 11:20 I touched down in Miami, Florida, United States of America. I surveyed the horizon as my aircraft descended, the sun glimmering through silver lined partly cloudy skies.
I stepped onto the jetway and felt the slightly humid but pleasantly cool Miami air, and breathed it in, refreshed.
Excitement was promptly dampened when, after 30 minutes in the immigration line, I learned that, apparently, I am a person of interest with the United States Customs and Border Patrol.
I approached the customs counter.
“What do you do for a living?” asked the seemingly disinterested fellow.
“Ahhh… …I’m a writer.” I hoped I wouldn’t have to explain.
“So, you don’t have a job.”
“Right down that way, through the corridor.”
Hand slaps head. The next customs officer at the corridor directs me down the right path, which ended up being the “full interview” line. 10 minutes passed waiting in line.
The same officer who directed me to the corridor eventually came back for our little chat.
“So, how did you end up in Panama?”
I explained that I had just returned from an 11-month trip around the world.
“Who paid for your tickets, and for everything?”
“Got any weed?” as he casually searched through my pack.
After a moderately thorough search and no small bit of questioning, he finally told me I could pack up my things now scattered across the table.
“Have a good day.”
“Thank you for protecting our borders.”
I was slightly irked by the delay and hoped I wouldn’t miss my ride at this point, but I wasn’t upset. I know the importance and challenges in protecting US borders, and half expected the occurrence. It was kind of funny after all this.
After some time I finally caught up with Kennan Derek Torgerson outside of the airport and got into his car, stoked. We drove to his house, where we watched American football and drank beer, smoked a prime rib and ate it. I caught up with Kennan and his wife Katie, and their dogs, and sat and almost didn’t realize I was in my home country.
The next day Kennan let me borrow his car so I wouldn’t be stuck at the house all day. You mean you’re going to let me behind the wheel? Of a car?? Haha. I hadn’t driven a car since Australia, and that was on the wrong side of the road. No reported incidents.
On the second evening we went to dinner with AJ Brown, a Sigma Nu from BRADLEY University (not BRADFORD, as I’d mistakenly reported earlier, inexplicably). We talked about the journey and the past year and enjoyed good company.
Despite being back in the United States, my journey was not yet over.
After two nights in Miami I flew to Charlottesville, VA, where I was greeted by former colleagues, fraternity brothers and great friends Josh Green and Nathaniel Clarkson. From there we made the hour drive to Lexington, VA, just in time for the annual Sigma Nu Headquarters Fraternal Staff vs. Kappa Alpha Order Fraternal Staff Lexington Bowl flag football game. We couldn’t quite pull off the victory, raining on my homecoming parade. I’d say that’s ok, but it’s really not. Time to start training for next year.
Later, at Frank’s pizza, sitting with a dozen former colleagues and friends, it was a strange feeling. The first thing I noticed distinctly was that everyone around me was speaking English. Despite my assurances that I wouldn’t experience “reverse culture shock,” I have to admit that first day back with all my friends in a familiar and comfortable environment, was, somehow, unfamiliar. But that didn’t last long. How could it? For the past seven years Lexington was my second home, where I lived and worked and grew for months each year.
I spent four days at my home away from home, with my dear friends and brothers, even having dinner, drinking egg nog and watching the all-time classic Christmas Vacation with the Dobry family. I was greeted and welcomed back with a warm and heartfelt reception. I beamed, and basked in the feeling. Lexington will always be a special place for me.
On Saturday, December 22, I made the journey by committee – thanks to Alex Taylor, Brian Laubscher, and finally Nathaniel Harvey Clarkson – to Washington DC, my nation’s capital, where I would stay with ‘ole Harv and his gf for the night, and where I sit at this moment. We went and saw the White House, had dinner and chatted over a few oat sodas. I’m really here, now.
Today, December 23, 2012, at 31 years and six days of age, I fly back to California, and end my journey around the world.
Departing from Washington Dulles at 08:34, I’m scheduled to land at the San Francisco International Airport at 11:45. You can read about my plans after that right here.
Trusted reader, you’ve followed me to the end of my adventure. For that I thank you with all sincerity; it’s meant a great deal to have you with me.
You may ask now, what did it all mean? Well…there is a lot to think about, and write about. But now I need to prepare for my flight, and sleep some. So you’ll have to wait for my first post of the New Year, where I’ll spend time reflecting further, reviewing, recapping and looking back at the year that was.
In the meantime, I hope you read this as I fly high above the United States of America, perhaps with a clear view, looking down onto this beautiful country of mine from 35,000 feet, on the final journey back to my beloved homeland of California; it’s golden hills, and mountains; valleys, forests, lakes and rivers; and the coasts of the Pacific Ocean, and San Francisco, the City of Champions, and Fresno, my home that I love.
I hope you’ve enjoyed, and perhaps been inspired – and maybe even thought about a journey of your own.
I’ve got a lot of love. Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays, to you and yours.
And that was how it all went down.