Saturday, March 29, 2008

Panama City

Made it here to Panama. Had to argue a bit with the ticket agent in the airport so as not to check my bag backpack is borderline size to have to check...but I got away with carrying it on. Good thing because the ticket I bought would have sent my luggage to Colombia. What happened was I bought a ticket to Cartagena connecting through Panama City. The cheapest direct one-way was $700 or so, but I could buy tickets to Miami or Cartagena connecting in Panama City for $400 or so. At first it did not make much sense to me that it would cost twice as much to fly half the distance...but then I realized I was looking at it from the wrong angle. Airlines that dominate a niche market as COPA Airlines does in Panama City can charge what they want since other carriers are at a competitive disadvantage to fly there...but if COPA wants to compete in Colombia or Miami they have to have competitive prices...and you end up with seemingly senseless pricing schemes.

Had to pay $5 at immigration for a Tourist Card. Cannot stand little nickel and dime garbage like that but I am sure it makes since in someone's world...although seems strange that a country with tax-free zones, legalized gambling and prostitution, and liberal banking laws would have such a petty fee like that. Anyway, the lady I sat next to on the plane ended up giving me a ride into town despite the fact that we had to ride 4 people in the back of a 5 series BMW...the 18 year-old daughter rode on the aunt's lap. Really nice family. As for my initial impressions of the's clear there is much more American influence here than down in South America. Wider roads, highways, fast-food joints, bigger cars, more franchised establishments rather than mom and pop stores...almost like being back home. Being on the Caribbean, Panama has quite a lot of racial diversity. The people seem much louder as well. The area of town I am in is somewhat seedy but seems safe enough.

Took one of the local buses down to the ¨Casco Viejo¨ which is the old part of town. The local buses are school buses...makes me wonder where they came from...perhaps left by our military on their way out...? Incidentally, Panama City also has the biggest bus station I´ve seen...I´d say about 300 meters long...more like an airport terminal...but then with a country this size you really don´t need to fly much so the buses get a lot of use, just like everywhere else in Latin America. Oh, and I should mention that each bus has its own custom paint job. The Panamanians take their vehicles seriously.

Anyway, you can ride around quite a while for a quarter. The old section of town reminded me in many ways of Cartagena. Very poor...but some beautiful old architecture and an interesting memorial documenting the history of efforts to build the canal before its eventual success when the US took over the operation abandoned by the French.


Had a nice little earthquake this morning here in Lima. Felt like someone was shaking the bed. Lasted probably 10-15 seconds...most of that time I spent looking for my shorts so I could open the door and stand in the doorway. Not sure yet what the magnitude was but I´m guessing not much as I didn´t see much in the news about it, although did see that apparently there was one earlier during the night that I did not feel at all.

The photo is the Panama City skyline.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Bus reflections

The bus ride back to Lima took 18 hours but was reasonably comfortable, though I´ll never understand why the bus company feels compelled to put on a movie at high volume at 7 am.

Not much up there between Mancora and Lima. Peru basically has 3 climate-terrains...desert on the coast, jungle in the East, and Andes in between. The desert coast is definitely desert...makes southern California look like a rain forest. I had wondered before why the Incans settled in the craggy Andes rather than on the I know why.

Definitely been struggling a bit with the language since I got back to the Spanish-speaking world, and I was only gone a couple weeks. Being sick did not help; my mind felt very slow during that time. I come to realize consistency is key. It´s tough for me to turn the Spanish on and off like a switch, but once I get it going for a little while I tend to do pretty well.

Done quite a lot of traveling alone in the past year. It certainly has its advantages...the biggest one being that you meet more people along the way from all over the world and the local area. And having all that time to yourself does help you get to know yourself...recognize how you´re feeling inside at a particular time and deal with it. On the other hand, I think all that time alone has made me a little selfish that I´m spending a lot of time with someone else I´m starting to realize that I´m very accustomed to doing things my way and don´t have much/enough patience for others´ needs/desires. I´ll have to make some adjustments.


Got sick the second day in Mancora. Hard to pinpoint the cause...but generally I would say the cause was Peru. I was moderately sick with a stomachache and the attendant digestional/excretory issues last time I entered Peru, and this time was similar except I had it coming out of both ends instead of one. But after a couple of days I felt fairly decent and now nearly a week later I´m 100%. Of the 7 countries I´ve visited in South America Peru is the only one to give me problems.

Mancora is very much known for surfing and I can surf a little bit now after learning in Ecuador 6 months ago. But given that it was Holy Week (big vacation time for people down here) the water was pretty crowded with surfers. Since I don´t have much control I just kind of paddled around out there rather than get in others´ way trying to catch a wave. Good practice anyway though...helped me get the feel a bit, which is good because I´m planning on doing some surfing in Central America in the next few weeks. Sun feels hotter and my skin certainly seems to burn a bit easier this close to the equator.

As for the town´s pretty undeveloped. Apparently, it used to belong to the Ecuadorians not too long ago but was ceded to Peru after a conflict. That last such conflict only ended in ´95. The strong take from the weak and on down the chain....Chile - Peru-Ecuador. At any rate, I would have thought more modern-style hotels and infrastructure would exist for what seems to be such a well-known vacation spot. You find yourself looking at the sandy beach with the fairly warm water and nice waves and good weather and wondering why there is not more development. I went for a run on the beach toward the north and was stopped by a police officer warning me not to go any further because robberies occur up further. I did it anyway as it was the middle of the day and I simply could not conceive of being robbed on a beach in the middle of the day...but anyway, what surprised me was that it was completely devoid of development of any kind. But given the lack of infrastucture (the highway is the only paved road and it is not exactly high speed, electricity can be spotty and the water...) dodgy land titles (I´m betting you wouldn´t want to just buy a piece of land and let it sit without watching it or building on it, i.e. guarding it), difficulties in arriving from the north (see my entry on crossing the border) and distance from the major population center in the south (see next entry), as well as all the other macro issues involving the Peruvian economy in general, I suppose it´s not surprising that investment really hasn´t taken off yet.

Did not see many North Americans or Europeans about...mostly just Peruvians and Ecuadorians. I tend to want to, well I would not say that I want to avoid my own kind these days...but I enjoy not seeing other Westerners...not sure why....

Monday, March 17, 2008

In retrospect

First mistake - getting off the moto before we got to the bridge. I should have demanded that he drop me off at the bridge rather than in the middle of a chaotic situation.

Second mistake - talking to the money changers. I don´t know why I do things I know not to do...talking to them only invited other scam artists to approach me. Should have just moved purposefully toward the border.

Third mistake - letting my guard down after the first encounter. I let a seemingly friendly person beguile me after dealing with the stressful situation regarding the money changers.

Fourth mistake - not keeping my eye on the money during the exchange...failed to heed the advice that old cab driver gave me back in Cartagena.

Fifth mistake - not hearing (or having them go off) the warning bells when the guy agreed to accept a barter-type payment (sunglasses) rather than the cash that was owed.

Sixth mistake - not tearing up the fake bill and throwing it away. Should not have let someone else try to pass it along.

Oh well, he got me good...good on him.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Border Crossing

Although I don´t have a tourbook with me for Ecuador or Peru (my plans change too fast for my prepartion) I managed to do a bit of research on the border crossing down at Huaquillas. Some internet sites I read called it the most dangerous border crossing in South America...full of thieves. Dangerous...certainly could be I would say as it´s very disorganized and crowded. And walking through a crowd in the heat with your gear by yourself can get a little hairy.

Well, let me back up. Immigration on the Ecuador side of the border is a couple miles from the border itself, on the outskirts of the town of Huaquillas. I waited in a line of about 30 people for roughly 45 minutes before I got my stamp and was ready to move on. A kid had given me a bit of advice and waited for me so I allowed him to drive me on his motorbike into town. He was supposed to drop me off in front of the bridge that goes over the river marking the international boundary. Instead he dropped me off in front of some money changers. I´m well aware of the fact that a lot of these guys are scammers and that lots of fake money floats about...but I decided to check them out anyway. They offered me a reasonable rate for my $20 (not too high, not too low) so I had a look at the 50 sol note they wanted to give me. I have to say it looked pretty good from all angles. Now, I´ve seen videos in banks on how to recognize fake money so I had some idea on how to tell if it was fake or not. The holographs seemed to be there and the money did not tear easily as paper money is apt to do. The money down here is made of some kind of fabric much like ours. Anyway, the money seemed real to me, but I really didn´t like those guys so I didn´t change with them although I was receiving plenty of pressure to do so. I know that you don´t really have to have local money many can use I reckoned I´d just wait till I found a machine.

So I was feeling pretty good about myself after having avoided what I thought was a I walked away from those guys I was approached by another crook...we conversed about things and he told me I was probably right to not fool around with those guys. He offered to take me the rest of the way across the border and over to the Peruvian immigration located a mile or so from the boundary (much like the Ecuadorean side). Things went well with him, for $8 he took me across the bridge, through Peruvian Immigration and over to the nearest town called Tumbes, roughly 20 minutes away. $8 is not a great price for that service but I was tired and wanted to get going and not worry about saving a couple bucks.

So we got to the end of the road and he dropped me off in front of a van that was heading down to my destination of Mancora. As he stopped a bunch of guys start jabbering at me and trying to grab my bag to throw it in their van so I´d go with them. So as I´m fighting them off, I gave him a $20 for the $8 trip since I only had a $5 and a bunch of 20´s in my pocket. He returned my $20 saying he didn´t have change for a $ I argued a bit with him and eventually agreed to give him my $5 and my sunglasses (purchased in Lima 2 months ago for $3). This seemed fair to me so I went over to a different van service, offered to pay and was refused payment in dollars. Thus, I went off to the more ´official´ money changers who then informed me my $20 was fake. Upon was. The bill looked genuine...but what you have to go by is feel I´ve learned. The counterfeits are not going to be printed on fabric like the real ones...they´ll be made of paper and someone of experience can tell. The guy who called it out as fake took all of a millisecond to denounce it as fake. Anyway, what must have happened was my good friend the driver must have somehow switched it when I gave it so him during all the commotion. And so I was tricked and played for a fool. Taken for a $20. Honestly, I think I´d rather lose 1K in the stock market than lose $20 to a scam artist...but you can´t let these things get to you. I reckon I´m luckily this is the first time I´ve been scammed down here. With all the forewarning I got from my tourbook I should have known better, but then hindsight is always 20/20.

As far as the scams and thievings go...I´ve been very preoccupied with guarding my gear and pockets from pick-pockets since I first came to this continent 7 months ago. I generally don´t allow people to get too close to me as a safety measure. But what I think is more common, based on things I´ve seen, heard about, and been a part of, is trickery. Distractions play a big part in somehow parting you from what is yours...sometimes willingly. They also like to get you when you´re vulnerable with all of your gear with you. Between watching your bag, trying to figure out the conversation in Spanish, and dealing with people speaking to you from every direction it can get easy to lose focus on the $$, and that´s how they got me.

Oh well, as far as my new fake $20 goes...I´d thought briefly about passing it on to some other poor bastard. I have no doubt I could get away with it in the States as people don´t really check and just aren´t as aware of it. As I recounted the story to a young woman while I waited for the van, I ended up just giving it to her, as by that point I just wanted to forget the whole thing, and furthermore wanted no part in being a thief like the rest by trying to pass it on. She sympathized with me quite a bit, calling those guys shameless thieves...but then she goes and puts the bill in her purse. When I asked her 5 minutes later what she was going to do with it she tried to tell me that she´d given it to a different lady that had just left, which I know did not happen...she planned on using it herself at some point. Talk about shameless!

At any rate, I finally got to Mancora where I will spend the week. Seems very nice....

Back to Peru

Got the late bus out of Quito toward Peru. I figured when I only paid $10 for a 14-hour ride I would probably be the only foreigner on the bus...which turned out to be true. Prices can be cheaper here though since gas is apparently subsidized given that it costs a mere $1.50 a gallon and only about a buck for diesel. I tend to not be a big fan of government interference in market conditions, but I suppose subsidizing gas in poorer countries like Ecuador could have beneficial affects for the economy...though for richer countries with alternatives at their disposal I don´t agree with it in this day and age.

Anyway, wasn´t too bad of a trip. The buses in Ecuador tend to lock the bathroom and make stops every few hours to allow people some relief. I like this system better as I for some reason tend to end up sitting in the back by the bathroom and the traffic and smells can take a bit of the enjoyment out of the ride. Apparently, the have some executive style luxury buses here in Ecuador but I´ve yet to see one. So I managed to get very little sleep...something that may have been a factor in what happened later.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Back in Quito

Started my Latin American journeys here in August so it´s a bit of a homecoming. It was pretty cool to get off the plane, be the first one out since I didn´t check a bag, and then walk with a sense of purpose right through all the people trying to sell you to do this since I know the area obviously. I´m staying with the same mother and son that I stayed with before. They´re really cool and never tire of telling me how much they like having me here...I must just be a helluva

Anyway, I do have a bit more perspective now than I had before. Ecuador is definitely a poor country. Probably not as poor as Peru but poor. The other countries I´ve visited down here (Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Venezuela, and C0lombia) certainly had better infrastructure and less begging. But I have to say the people here and in Peru are very nice. Definitely my favorites would be the Colombians, Peruvians, and Ecuadorians. I´m still amazed at how nice Bogota was...definitely my favorite city I´ve seen down here so far. The kidnappings and security issues, or shall I say the perception of kidnappings and insecurity since these problems have largely been solved, must be costing Colombia billions in tourism because that is one beautiful country.

The other day I heard Chile described on NPR as a third-world country, which to me is absolutely ridiculous. Chile is a very clean, developed nation full of educated people. Anything but third-world. To me, when you can´t drink the water from the tap (Peru, Ecuador) and/or you have to throw your toilet paper in a receptacle rather than flush it (Peru, Ecuador oftentimes, and some places in Argentina) then you´re in a third-world country. Argentina is not 3rd-world either in my view...although the economy has had it´s problems.

Anyway, back to Quito...well, not doing much here other than tooling about. Went to the embassy to get more pages sown into my passport (a silly sense of achievement it is to completely fill a passport with stamps), but they inf0rmed me they only do that Monday-Thursday...I thought, ´damn, just because the embassy is in Latin America doesn´t mean we have to work (or not) like the locals....´ Wish I would´ve argued with them about it and not taken no for an answer but I tend to be less inclined to argue in Spanish. Oh well.

I´ll take the bus down to Peru Saturday night to meet up with a friend and do some surfing in Mancora.

You´ll see Mancora not too far over the border...the map is zoomable if you click on the lower right corner.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


Got myself down to Miami no problem on my standby ticket. Miami is a nice stopoff place on your way to Latin America - kind of ease yourself back into the language and culture...kind of like stopping in Hawaii on your way to Asia. Anyway, flying to Lima from Miami would prove to be a bit more difficult. Both flights were pretty full on my first day due to weight restrictions. I asked the ticket agents what the deal was with that and they acted like a lot of these people flying down to Peru were taking all sorts of stuff with them (refrigerators, farm animals, lol) so they couldn´t hold as many passengers. I was actually next in line to get on when the jet pulled back from the gate...but then the plane came back a minute later and dumped off 8 people. Ouch, gotta be rough to get your name called, get on the flight, have the plane leave the gate, and then return and kick you off.

It was already after midnight when I found out I´d missed the last flight to Lima...I was hoping some of the other standby passengers with family in the area would offer me their place, but no such luck. That kind of hospitality is hard to find in the States, although not at all uncommon in other places I´ve been. So I decided to spend the night at the airport and save myself some money. Saving myself some money is going to a determining factor in many decisions I´m going to make over the next few months...10 months without a paycheck and I´m starting to feel a bit of a squeeze. Anyway, luckily I´ve spent some time at MIA before so I was familiar with a quiet place with some benches (3rd floor, Concourse J for anyone who is curious). that might serve my purpose...certainly didn´t want to try to sleep in the ´anti-sleep chairs´ they have at airports and I refuse to sleep on the floor even if it is carpeted.

I probably managed to scratch together an hour or two of sleep throughout the night as I turned over every 20 minutes or so when my arm and shoulder began to throb after falling asleep (the arm and shoulder that is...not me). Rough night, but it´s amazing how even one hour is so much better than no sleep at all. At one point, I was woken when a man mopping floor tapped my bench. I felt like a vagrant, but then when you´re sleeping in a public place with all of your possessions by your side I reckon you are a vagrant.

Ended up spending 25 hours at the airport before I finally got a flight so it was a full day at the airport. Ended up deciding to bail on Lima as the flights were looking pretty now I´m here in Quito. Other than the many phone conversations I had with friends and family probably the best feeling of the day was when I shaved. I managed to drag the shaving out into a 15 minute affair, which gave me a real sense of achievement when I realized I was that much closer to leaving.

Monday, March 10, 2008


Colorado is certainly a bit different from where I've been traveling recently. Came out here to do some skiing for a few days on my way back to down south. Luckily, the plane tickets I'm using afford me the opportunity throw some variation into the trip.

So, hadn't skiied in 8 years until last Thursday. Last time was in Utah, which turned out to be a very memorable and fun experience, much better than anything I ever skiied back east. Colorado turned out to be very similar. Started out skiing in Aspen. Aspen, incidentally, is a very nice little town but very expensive as you might expect. So Thursday I skiied at Buttermilk Ski Resort there in Aspen. Buttermilk is where the hold the Winter X-Games every year. Buttermilk has plenty of beginner terrain so that was great for me as I was pretty unsure of myself starting out, but I managed to get it going after awhile and finished the day without battering myself too badly.

Friday my friend Jill and I went up to Snowmass (a nearby resort). Snowmass is pretty huge with a ton of runs and something like 3000 acres in the ski area. Most of that terrain I of course never got to see since my skills are so rudimentary. Anyway, Jill is a snowboarder and she thankfully decided to teach me. I never really liked skiing all that much because me knees always felt so vulnerable to twisting, so I was happy to take on snowboarding, which seemed to me to be a little safer on the knees, albeit more dangerous for the wrists.

My first hour snowboarding (if you would call what I was doing snowboarding) was pretty rough. I couldn't really even stand up or walk with one foot latched-in, much less get down the mountain. The way you have to contort your body to drag the snowboard around on level-ground really took some getting used to. But after awhile and some help and advice I did ok. Even managed to get off the ski-lift every time without least not falling in the immediate vicinity of the unload area, although I´m pretty sure I caused an old man to fall by cutting in front of him. By the end of the first day I was linking my turns fairly well, meaning I could turn the board either direction continuously as I came down the hill. Had some rough spills, including one where I hit the back of my head and probably would've knocked myself out but for my helmet...I was still feeling that one a couple days later.

Second day snowboarding was a little better...I probably only fell 30 times as opposed to 100 the first day, and I was falling forward rather than backward normally. My final day on the slopes here I decided to move back to skis since I was going with my cousin Jim who had skis I could use. After one really uncomfortable trip down the mountain on skis I decided I had to go back to snowboarding. My body just could not get used to the skis after the snowboard. I doubt I'll ski again. After three days snowboarding I would say I'm competent, although still prone to accidents at any moment. A little more rest between sessions would've probably been a big help as my body was really hurting all over after the first day and the subsequent days didn't help ease the pain any....