I was sad to leave Londres and its unexpected familiarity. In short order I had become a cousin or niece of sorts, and the path to Panama City awaited me within the fog of disparate information that is so pervasive in Central America.
I took the 5:30pm bus from Londres and arrived in Uvita just in time to miss the bus to the next leg of my journey.
When I travel alone, I take on a kind of wandering shuffle and I directed this to a nearby deli where I bought a nutty-sugar bar and asked about a place to stay. It was very dark and quiet, but for the bar nearby, and the bored woman behind the counter took pity on me and called friendly cab, gave him some directions, and sent me off to the house where she herself boarded.
The mother of the house awaited us at the gate, and after assuring me that $5 a night would be fine she led me into a large open playroom in which three of her daughters and a bunch of grandchildren were all gathered around a table cutting the birthday cake of the littlest one. They cut me a piece, and I listened contentedly to their bustle until I was shown my palm-laden upstairs bedroom.
In the morning I met the hostess and one of her granddaughters to go to the beach. The bay there is in the shape of a whale tail and seasonally is host to a number of migrating whales. As we walked along the beach we did not see any of the great, slippery mammals but we did enjoy watching the lighting spring from the distant storm clouds over the great green water and her rocky islands.
I stayed a little longer than they did, admiring the white, blue, and magenta shells and marveling at the great fireworks of tossed sand that covered the ground about each little crab hole. The temperature was perfect and the palm fronds rustled gaily in the light, sultry breeze.
Before too long though, I was back again packed around the table with my host family sipping coffee and eating abundantly and they sweetly wished me all sorts of good fortune as I hauled my pack to the taxi and made my way to the bus stop. The mother had heard that I was short on cash and refused to accept anything more than $5, but I was abashed that I could ever consider myself bad off in comparison with a rural Costa Rican, especially when I had been cared for so well, so I slipped what I could through the window of the room I had been in before I left behind the tiny ocean village.
The day thenceforth was a blur of green plants, rain, crowds of people, and sticky buses. I rode for four hours while the isles and seats around me filled and emptied of the colorful, overloaded locals, many of them peddling juice boxes or dried bananas. Then I hurried and waited at the various stamping stations of the border control and climbed in a nondescript van, destined for David, Costa Rica.
The visa and bus area are deceptively disgusting between Costa Rica and Panama, but I was soon mesmerized again by the lush green countryside, flecked with huts, little stores, and impossibile-to-identify bus stops.
I was a serious space-case by the time I got to David and after visiting an ATM and eating a surprising amount of mysterious-fruit -whose-name-I-do-not-remember-but-was-kind-of-like-pineapple bread, I climbed to the second level of a great bus destined for the capitol.
This timing was particularly stupid on my part, because 8 hours after 4pm means that one will arrive in the largest city in the country at midnight, at which point all taxis are rumored to be run by rapists and all streets to be filled with vandals.
I decided to stay the night in the bus station, ambitiously thinking that I had slept sufficiently on the bus. I spent several hours going waiting room to waiting room studying civil engineering material that I had thoughtfully saved on my laptop. I was alone on a bench when a security guard came and sat by me. We talked for some time about Panama, Costa Rica, and general chit-chat material. I did my best to tactfully guide the conversation away from things like girlfriends, international marriages, long distance relationships and fated love, but Justiliano was a pretty persistent. He explained to me that in five years of working in the bus station he had never had a conversation with a person. When he saw me that night, he was compelled to introduce himself and he assured me that he would wait to marry me for as long as I wanted, if I wanted to complete my civil engineering education.
While I appreciate romantic comedies as much as the next girl, I prefer a more passive role, and so I tried as graciously as I could to assure him that there were many, many, many other women in the world who would be a better target for his affection. I then hid downstairs to continue reading about gravity-fed water distribution systems, which I presently find considerably more functional than long distance romances.
At any rate, dawn broke around 5:30 and I watched the sun rise with a friendly Panamanian woman. I helped her to navigate her mobile internet and in return got to use it enough that I learned my professor had recommended Ciudad del Saber as the place where we would be staying. After a quick glance at the map, I took off in that direction. I arrived without incident, but alas, none of the five security guards that I found could direct me to an office, a receptionist, nay an internet café where I could learn or gain access to anything that would fortify my professor’s very vague instructions.
A kindly lady on a bicycle responded to my pathetic posture and obvious exhaustion and did her best to guide me in the right direction. Even with her help though, the Central American Communication Curse was too strong for us, and she instead fetched her car and took me to her home to rest.
She was a Spanish teacher with a darling accent when she spoke English, and an even more endearing way of caring for me and her recently injured husband. I brushed my teeth and tried to dismantle the grumpiness that had been embarrassingly strong when we first met as she puttered around the house fixing fruit salad and chiding her husband for walking on his stitches when the doctor very clearly told him to take it easy.
The husband was a greying, lean old man who had cut his foot on the back step and was begrudging his injury for preventing him his regular tennis playing. He had been a ship pilot in the Panama Canal every day for some 25 odd years and he could not be stopped for such trivialities.
It was impossible to deny, though, the ineffectiveness of his stitches and so we left for the downtown shortly after my arrival so that they could visit a doctor and I could see the oceanfront. It was lovely, and I was once again amazed at how familiar strangers can become and how lucky I can be as they hauled me around town, pointing out important landmarks and finally taking me to one of their favorite restaurants. As we ate eggplant, steamed vegetables, and pizza they described to me more of the quirks of Panama City and her colorful history, of the Europeans and the natives, of her students and her daughter, and his isolated life in the Americanized Canal Zone (a 5 mile wide stretch that surrounds the canal in which American engineering families enjoy a pocket of English-speaking Western civilization within and apart from the vital Spanish-speaking world outside).
They took me back to their home, and against my will I fell asleep for the next few hours. They woke me around seven just to make sure that I was still alive and I joined her in the kitchen for salad and leftover preparation. Another pleasant meal passed, and then I finally received notice from a girl on my design team that they were in the villas, scarcely a kilometer away. Surely enough, when we found the address of the dormitory where I was to stay, it was exactly the spot where she and I had met that morning.
Since then, all travel with the group has been a breeze, but I still find myself musing about that whole leg of my journey as a bit of a wonder.