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Panama Adventure

By River Huston

July 1, 2009

Since I found out I was HIV positive, my whole life went into high gear. I had things to do before the final goodbye. Eighteen years passed without a vacation. I work seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day on the books, articles, shows, lectures, art and all the details to keep it running. When I am not in the office, I am on the road.

Since it seems I am destined to live longer than I anticipated, I recently thought it was time for a formal vacation. I have always wanted to go to Panama and used accumulated credit card points and frequent flyer miles to go with my husband on an expedition.

It did not start off well.

The flight is delayed, OK that happens, like, all the time. But after a few hours it gets old. Finally the plane is ready, the crew is here and we board.

My husband and I are seated together in the emergency exit row for the five-hour, non-stop flight from Newark to Panama City, so we will have some degree of comfort. I am in the middle seat, my husband on the aisle.

I am excited to be traveling with my honey. It's a treat. I travel all the time but always alone. And coach with my baby is better than first class alone. As we settle into our seats, a very large man makes his way down the isle sideways and struggling. I am not good at guessing weight, but I would say in the 350 range. I have a bad feeling.

It takes much effort for him to settle into the seat next to me. He surmises the only way this is going to work is if he raises the arm rest to take advantage of one-third of my seat. I am too stunned to say anything.

Once his seating is accomplished, he gives us a beatific smile and continues what would be a five-hour monologue. I have to pray to have my resentments lifted as I twist myself away from his bulk.

As the steward bought over an extender for his seat belt, I keep thinking that they made me check my bags because it did not fit in the aluminum cage that gages bag size. They should have one of those for people. I have nothing against larger people, I have been there, but they need to buy two seats. For everyone's well being!

We get off the plane in Panama City at midnight. I took my husband's advice and we are playing things loose. No real plan except for the first night hotel and a rental car.

I made the reservations on Priceline. Priceline is good for this country. I strongly recommend skipping it for any third world countries. I picked this particular hotel because it has a 24-hour shuttle near the airport and since we are heading out to country in the morning, it seems perfect and Priceline gave us a great deal.

There are no hotel phones in the airport and I try my cell phone, no service. I had checked with AT&T before I left and they said I had international service for Panama, guess not. For the first time in about 10 years, I use a payphone. Weird that we can forget how these things work. Once I get someone from the hotel on the phone, I realize that I don't know Spanish as well as I thought. I can speak it with a flourish, but that's a mistake because then people respond in Spanish and I can't understand a fricking word.

Through a mix of Spanish and English we sort that out and she says they will be there in 10 minutes. Fifteen minutes later, no shuttle. Another call. This time with the help of a bi-lingual cab driver, who assures us they are coming.

By now my husband is getting a little aggravated. He says why don't I just go pick up the rental car now. I delay that because I don't want to deal with changing all the paperwork.

Fifteen minutes later, no shuttle. Ok, hello Thrifty. I go inside, they say fine. We start the paperwork and 10 minutes later, after in informing me the $17 a day rate does not include the $30 mandatory insurance even though my Platinum American Express card has car insurance. They also never heard of the promotion that gives us a free GPS. So for $72 a day we can have a mini four wheel drive SUV and GPS. I am disturbed but OK let's get on with it. He swipes my American Express card and it's denied.

What! Apparently when you leave the country you need to inform your credit card company. Back outside, still no shuttle. I am rearranging my money, passport and credit cards for safety when I notice that I don't have my driver's license. I go back to the Thrifty counter and ask if they still have it. I had given it to them along with all the other necessary items to rent a car. Blank faces and even less English. Did they really just steal my card? Did I possibly drop it? Who knows, it's gone. It is now 1:20 AM.

We are both crabby. Why did I think I needed a vacation? I would like to get on a plane and go home. Finally we give up on the shuttle and take $15 dollar taxi from our helpful cab driver to the hotel, which is less than 3 minutes down the road. We go in and I ask about the shuttle and they say it stops at 10 PM. No amount of Spanish or English can tell me why they said they were coming instead of this amended news. Hmmm I start to wonder about that helpful cab driver. OK, let it go. I hand her my Priceline printout of our prepaid reservations.

For the next hour I watch her check in three guests who have come in after us. I have remained patient. I have asked her a couple of times what was going on and she would shrug, look at the reservation page I handed her, type something into the computer and check someone else in. 2:20 AM. I ask what is going on. She shrugs again and says Priceline never pays them, they can't take these reservations.

Finally, I pay in cash for a room at very different rate than Priceline. I am upset, but try not to be a jerk. I have seen people freak over these kind of moments and I just don't want to be that person.

We check into our dingy $150 room that was $65 on Priceline and now actually is $215. I am trying not to freak because I had planned this on a tight budget. I hate budgets, but our financial ebb and flow has been tricky lately. My husband is staying cool and comforts me with lots of hugs. I am glad he is there.

The next morning, 7 AM, I call American Express, collect. That endeavor takes an hour by the time I buy a phone card and try to make it work with the operator and my limited comprehension of rapid fire Spanish.

They assure me all is well. After an odd breakfast of fruit and some unidentified stew and tator tots, we take the allusive shuttle back to the Thrifty counter at the airport. We are ready to put all the pain behind us. There is a new person at the counter. I do inquire about my license to no avail. Fortunately my husband has his. We go through the paperwork. Swipe. Denied.

What?

Back outside to the pay phone with American Express. It does not help that it is a swampy 90 degrees and there is an unending arrival and departure of loud and toxic diesel buses right next to the phone. Forty-five minutes later I am finally talking to the right person and we are suddenly disconnected. I pray. If I were still drinking, this would be ugly, but I ask the powers that be to keep me from pulling the handset off the phone and smashing it over my head.

I start again.

Forty five more minutes later I am told that American Express has put a cap on my Platinum charge card. Apparently, I owe so much on my business card they thought it best for my fiscal well being to not allow me to use my charge card anymore.

I try not to yell. In a stern voice I state, "I am in third world country with little cash and they need to give me access."

They ask how much.

I wanted to say -- "this is supposed to be unlimited, bitch," but I refrain. I ask for $500. I feel about 14 and like I am negotiating with my mother to use the car.

She lets me know that would not do because Thrifty was swiping my card and keying in a $1,000 for deposit. I go back to counter and talk him down to only swiping for the amount that we will be paying. After a little haggling, we work it out. I figure I will find an ATM later and continue the trip using cash.

It is now 1 PM. We get in the car with our trusty GPS. I ask my husband to drive as I decompress. All we have to do is get through Panama City and we are off to the beach to help us forget the freezing weather in Pennsylvania. We have a very basic rental car map and the GPS. We should be fine. Not!

The GPS decides, "Nah, this is too much" and just gives us erroneous directions. Apparently, it can't cope with Panama City insanity. We realize this after it takes us down a dirt road to some rural golf course.

We try to decipher the map. Two hours later, many near misses with Monday midday work traffic, scooters, motorcycles, pedestrians, unmarked roads, bumper to bumper traffic and a plethora of these commuter buses that we later find out are called "Rojo Diablo" for their insensitive street manners.

We are both about to cry. OK, I am about to cry and have already eaten all my snacks.

Good thing my husband had combat training and he gets us through. We cheer as we cross the Intercontinental American bridge over what we think is the Panama Canal (We don't care what it is since at this point we are out of the city) We breathe a sigh of relief as we cruise down a sparsely trafficked paved two-lane highway to our destination.

The GPS indicates our destination is now only minutes away. I want to throw the thing away but try reprogramming it and it kicks in just fine. With only one wrong turn we drive for the next four hours to a town called Pedasi on the pacific coast.

Our overlarge friend on the incoming flight informed us it was the best kept secret in Panama along with other useful information like how to find underage hookers in Colombia.

The landscape is stunning. My husband, who is enthralled with rainforest and jungle, keeps saying, "You can drop me here with a machete and I'll be fine."

Not so much for me. I have to pee but I am not saying anything because I am too afraid to stop. I am a little anxious. I am not sure what I was thinking when I agreed to this destination. We are now in the rural part of Panama with no tourists in sight.

People stare as we pass through one small town after another. No smiles at all. We do not blend. We look obviously American and being aware of our graceless presence in the world for the last eight years, (Actually the last eight decades or so,) I am not comfortable stopping.

I go through the guide book and pick out a hotel outside of Pedasi on the beach that sound intriguing. I punch it into the GPS and it directs us about 10 kilometers off the main highway down a dirt road. We cross a metal bridges that make very suspicious noises as we pass by now in the pitch black night.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing in sight. We are now hungry, tired and maybe slightly cranky but trying to be cordial.

The headlights pick up a sign in the distance, could it be? Yes! Posada Los Destiladores! We pull down a long unlit drive. Our crankiness has found our cracks. "Should we find a phone and call first?" I ask.

My husband, always the pragmatist, says, "Where the fuck are we going to find a phone?"

OK.

We pull up to this magnificent gate and there is a lit parking lot to the side. We get out of the car and are immediately rushed by two large boxers. The moment of fear disappears when they start licking my hand.

We follow them down a cobblestone path past some beautiful wood and stucco structures through an arch and onto a tile veranda. A barefoot man in shorts is leaning on the counter watches us enter.

I try a "Hola"

"Bonjour" he says.

Oh shit, I know even less French than Spanish.

I make the universal sign for eating.

He leads us into this magnificent dining room. You can hear the sound of the ocean and on the hand hewn beautiful wood table is a setting for two. It is the only setting in the room. He gestures for us to sit.

We shrug; he leaves and within minutes brings us wine and a bottle of sparkling water. Good thing our sobriety is intact. But even after all the trials of travel, this moment is so magical, a drink is irrelevant.

He leaves and we giggle at each other as we look around the room at all the handmade furniture and art. One magnificent course after another is served by a beautiful barefoot Spanish woman. The food is exquisite. We finish with baked pears, sorbet and café con leche.

Our only moment of concern is how the fuck are we going to pay for this. But I try and stay in the moment with the hope we will figure it out later.

After the meal we go back to the veranda and I gesture that we would like a place to sleep and how much would that be? He uses his finger on the wood counter to indicate $150.

I shrug and shake my head no.

He uses his finger again and he indicates $40.

I write back with my finger, creasing my unbotoxed brow, $140?

He shakes his head, $40 again with the finger on the counter.

We smile and nod. In French he asks our server to show us to the cabin. She leads us down another cobblestone path and we exchange pleasantries in each other perspective languages.

"Where from?"

"Pennsylvania, U.S."

"Donde eres?"

"Aqui."

The sounds of the waves marking eternal time are background to our short trek. We reach the cabin. She unlocks the door and we step into a fairyland of homemade furniture, windows and art. We are speechless.

When she leaves, we look at the bathroom with its painted concrete floor, rainfall-like copper shower head and handmade wall mirror. We cannot stop grinning.

We are exhausted. We undress and lie down under a fan on a Zen-like platform bed, roll into each others arms and are lulled to sleep by the sound of the ocean.

The next morning, we explore the beach just steps past the beautifully landscaped in ground pool surrounded by more hand made chairs. There are zigzag paths to other cabins and we spot what must be the $150 cabin perched on a bluff.

Later we would learn the more expensive cabins have air conditioning, hot water and are right on the beach. Ours suits us perfectly.

After our walk, we go to the veranda and are served a breakfast of fresh fruit, handmade cheese, fresh squeezed OJ and eggs from the local chickens. You cannot wipe the smiles from our face.

We spend the next few days exploring beaches and the back roads of Panama. Each night we return to our slice of fantasy. We glimpse only one other couple the whole time we are there.

We agree our future needs to be on the beach in Panama. It is the last thing on my list. You know that list you make after you are diagnosed with a terminal illness. I wrote the books, did the show, got the awards, married the man. Now it is time to live on the beach, paint, write and be.

Our drive back to Panama was easy by comparison. Sunday's traffic is a whole different beast in Panama City. We find a hotel and spend the night planning our future. How we can sell this, save here. We can have an artist retreat, he can make cabinets, and I can work three months out of the year in the states -- they have free health care in Panama!

At the airport, we return the car and breeze through security to wait for our on time flight. I am upgraded to first class and ask if they can upgrade my husband. They do. I am in row one and he is five. I ask the passenger next to me if he can change seat and it is definite no. The person next to my husband has no problem with this. My husband is annoyed that I'm making a fuss, but I really wanted to sit next to him.

I settle into my seat and he says. "So 30 hours sitting together is not enough?" I laugh.

He reads, I knit a scarf and all is well with the world. When the pilot gives his spiel over the loudspeaker and ends with the prerequisite, "Sit back relax and enjoy the flight," I know I will. It always feels like that suggestion is an insult when you are squashed in an economy coach seat, especially when it is next to 350-pound man.

We arrive at Newark Liberty Airport. We hope to breeze through customs, find our car and head home.

We are excited to see our dogs and chickens. I have totally gotten the concept of this thing called a vacation!

We are so energized about the possibilities of life. We get through customs and my husband is checking his messages while we wait for our luggage. He snaps his phone shut and looks up at me, "I just lost my job"

"Oh shit."

Living in a recession real time... To be continued...

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