Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Hemingway Experience: The Final Days, and What I Learned

NOTE: I apologise for the massive delay in the update. Between getting things ready to pack up to leave, and hitting the ground running back home, it's been on the back burner for a while. This is a long post, but it's the rest of my stay in Panama.

Sunday, not a lot happened. Let's ignore it. I wandered. I searched for restaurants I had not yet found. Tried calling mom for Mother's Day, no answer. Monday is where the fun stuff begins. Plus, I think I deserve a day off. 

Monday, it hit me that this adventure is almost over. I was determined to take some pictures of the day to day life here. It was great looking at the city not through the eyes of a tourist, but as a man who could give directions confidently, both through Spanish and knowing the neighbourhood. I saw beautiful things in places I had walked past a dozen times or more.

I picked up a couple of souvenirs - not the things that just say PANAMA on them, gaudily. I got a small painting, and a mug from the coffee shop I had frequented so often. As I bought the art, the painter said he was having a rain sale, (3 paintings for $10) and pointed across the bay. Sure enough, the clouds loomed over the cityscape across the water, and he guessed the rain was about 5 minutes away. Well, I was too far away from the house to make it back in 5 but Finca del Mar was right around the corner. 
The first spots of rain began to fall as I stepped under their umbrellas, and I'm telling you - 5 minutes and maybe 10 seconds after his prediction, before the bartender had even greeted me, a storm came down of biblical proportions. Raindrops the size of bullets were ricocheting off every top surface and drowned out the conversation of the couple next to me. Soon, the outdoor patio floor was soaking, puddles making their way across even the floor under my feet. 20 minutes later, I ordered my second, and it was as if someone had turned the shower tap off and turned the light on. It seems I planned my visit perfectly, as the rain gets either longer or heavier with the passing of every day. 

I made my way back to the studio, the streets already steaming in the afternoon sun. Hot bricks and warm rain means within the hour, apart from the errant puddle, you'd never guess the plants had been watered. 

It was my father's birthday, so I skyped him and struggled through the patchy wifi. Promised to have a beer for him - I went and bought 6! 
On the way back, I saw Casco Bikes Peter. 

"You're still here! How have you been?"
"Yep, I leave Wednesday morning. It's been good man, I feel like this town has accepted me a little. I know way more Spanish than when I got here, I've written like crazy, and I feel like this has been the best holiday I've had in a while."
"That's great, I hope to see you again!"

"I hope so too bud."

*          *          *

My last full day in town. I decided to hunt down a final couple of places in my list. 
I grew up with ice cream. It was a big part of our town's history. Some of the best ice cream in Canada was made in our town, and my grandparents or my dad would take us regularly enough that, in this day and age, might be considered child endangerment. (I'm not complaining!) So when I heard that Casco had its own French style gelato, I knew I had to check it out. 
Trouble was, I couldn't find it. I had the address, but it seemed to elude me.
Then I walked across the street. Turns out I had walked past it almost every day, but you don't see the sign when you're walking literally right next to the wall - these sidewalks make it impossible to pass someone without stepping into the street. 

So yeah, I had ice cream for breakfast. Technically it was sorbet: mango and passionfruit, because you can't be in the tropics and order strawberry.  In a way, I'm glad I found this place on my last day. I was hooked. I'd be a fat kid for sure by the end of the trip. 
Next, Las Clementinas - finally! A surprisingly classy place, considering it's right on the line of sketchy el Chorrillo.  A final ceviche and it was worth the wait. With a passionfruit sauce, it was so tart. Incredible. And yes I had a blended drink - in my defence the menu didn't say it was blended. 

Ginger mint lemonade with Citrus vodka. Fuck it. Holiday! 

Back to Granclement - I told you I like ice cream, motherfucker - for their After 8 scoop. Good lord, so minty I'd swear I brushed my teeth. My breath was still cold 4 blocks after I finished.

As the heat of the afternoon got into full tilt, I drifted off. Awoke around 5 and took in the town for the last time from my balcony. I would certainly miss this little world of insanity, and I was just getting used to the heat. Pro tip: don't wear underwear. As if to underline my reflection, a funeral march passed right down my street. There had to have been 500 people - and a full marching band. 

By the time I was ready to head out, it was cool enough to sit outside for dinner. The air conditioning seems to always be cranked, and it's almost a shock every time you step into a building. On the way out, it's like suddenly breathing through a blanket. Puerte del Tierra has a patio right in plaza Herrera, and my last dinner in town should be more than a pizza and a beer. Steak and a pisco sour on a calm night was a great way to say goodbye to this town. 

I had found a copy of Mountain Life in my bag so I gave it to the guys at Mojitos, and met two American guys. It's amazing that, despite heavy Spanish populations in their original places, Miami and Texas, one of them didn't know a word of Spanish; the other had learned as a child but forgotten almost all of it. I knew way more Spanish than them, so I was the frigging translator!
They wanted to party, and they wanted hot bartenders. So I took them to Finca. Both of the women were working, and after only a couple of drinks, one guy went from happy drunk to "I want this pineapple" drunk. Seriously, he took the pineapple. The owner said it was ok, but I feel like that was just to keep the tourists happy. They got a taxi, I made it very clear that it didn't know them, and went back to Mojitos. It wasn't even 10pm! To be fair, they said they had been drinking all evening.
A few drinks later, and knowing I had an early morning the next day, I said my goodbyes. That's what I love about being a bartender: you have brothers and sisters all over the world. I would love to come back, and Mauricio has some big plans for the place in the next couple of years. So if I can save up, I told him I'd invest in whatever his next project is. I can't do this forever.

*          *          *

I called Alexis, my driver from the weekend, and he picked me up at the American Trade Hotel to take me to the airport. It was different this time - he asked about my family, I asked about his (he's a 49 year old grandfather!). It was like a friend was driving me to the airport, and my biggest regret of the trip was that I forgot to get a picture with him when he dropped me off until he was long gone. 

Travelling home was an experience all unto itself. My modus operandi when I fly is to fall asleep before the safety announcements come on. That way, I'm vaguely aware of us taking off but it doesn't phase me, and when I wake we're already a portion into the flight. So I took my nap, and awoke... on the tarmac still.  A mechanical failure had kept us grounded for over 90 minutes. We landed in Houston, literally at the same moment my connecting flight was taking off to Vancouver.

By this time I had made casual friends with another Canadian, headed to Victoria after Vancouver. We waited for each other at the various fuckeries of airports - baggage, customs, etc. - and they put us up in the same hotel for the night, as the next Vancouver flight was 9.15am the following morning. That was the one good thing about the delay: up until then, I was scheduled to arrive at 12.30am, with the bus leaving to Whistler at 9am. This holdup in Houston meant I at least had a safe place to sleep and shower, instead of the relatively hostile floor of an international arrivals lounge. 

The following morning was an early one - the airport shuttle was at 7am. The hotel had a "breakfast" that consisted of waffles, bananas, coffee and juice. I wasn't in the mood for pastry at 6.30 so I had the "I'm late for work Special". As we're eating, a woman who had been staying there some nights started to cause a commotion at the front desk, then turned to the tired folk (who clearly didn't want to be there in the first place) and told us all that she had been bitten by bed bugs every night since she arrived.  *shudder* I'm just saying, if you find yourself in Houston, and are forced to stay at the America's Best Value near the airport, maybe sleep in the tub.  

We finally arrive in Vancouver, and all of our delays are made up for in YVR. From landing to walking through final customs took under 45 minutes - in fact, not much more than half an hour. I said goodbye to Josh, my travelling friend (a bartender who had to work that same night), and sat out by the terminal awaiting my bus to Whistler.

What is your favourite journey?
Going home.
William F. Buckley 

It's such a shame that all world adventures have to begin and end in airports. No matter how hard they try to be individual, it's just straight lines, white walls, and ugly carpets. It's like they're trying to actively stifle inspiration. Looking through my notebook, I began to read some of my earlier entries, the first being in the summer of 2011. I remember I got this book for my birthday from a woman who no longer speaks to me, the bliss of engagement to her current partner drowning out even the wake of any memories of her ski bum experience.
What I did find was the entry just before my first holiday writings. I don't know exactly when I wrote it, because  I am never sure whether to timestamp these things, but I'd estimate it at about 2 months ago.

I realised something today. I left the house really before I had to today, thanks to my brother and his girlfriend booking a romantic trip to Hawaii and being sickening with each other. I'm all for romance, but take it down a notch, you know?
I arrive in the village, and walk past dozens of vacant-eyed people, licking their ice cream cones and absentmindedly so. Walk past somewhere that is playing moronically sugar-sweet pop music - who pays bills and listens to that crap? And who wants to listen to it on their vacation?  Everything rubbed me in exactly the way I didn't want it to. The Universe was pissing me off. 
Suddenly, I wanted to be AWAY. Away from civilisation, squeaking automatic doors and status updates on weather reports. I wanted to be miles away from everything, and I had to settle for a small island of trees between a playground, a road, and a hospital.  I couldn't not look at one of these things. In my mind, I began to identify with the old dog, who, one morning and completely out of character, bites his owner. I wanted to harm these chewing cows. Call of the Wild, I suppose. 
Of course I didn't do anything, but the desire to break out of the spoon-fed lifestyle is still there. Call me ungrateful if you want, but when even your "nature" is manmade and contrived, it doesn't scratch the itch that makes you want to start a fire and dance around it. Not without getting a ticket from an officer.

You can't go through life and not learn anything - that would be an impressive feat. Learning is important all the way through your life, and not just finding out what you want out of it - what you don't want out of it as well. When I moved to Whistler almost 10 years ago, I didn't know what was next, but I knew I didn't want an office and Casual Fridays to be "next". 

So, what have I learned on this trip?

I've learned that it doesn't matter where I live, I'm far more physically and creatively productive when I'm not there.  I don't yet know why, but that just means I have to find more "homes".

I've learned to be truly alone for far longer than before, and that "being alone" is vastly different from "being lonely". (I've also learned that I talk to myself if I go for too long without speaking to others, but that's a story for another time.)

I've learned that sometimes, fortune and serendipity can exist from time to time. Sitting down at a bar next to amazing conversation, or choosing just the right cab at the right time.

I've learned that the brain (my brain anyway) craves conversation, in whatever form. I won't presume to say I'm trilingual but my brain has sponged up enough Spanish and retained enough French that I can speak for a short time with people from literally all over the world.

I've learned that good people can show up when you need them the most. 

I've learned (or rather, it has been confirmed to me) that travel is important, and I've been sacrificing it for too long because of my comfort in existing. I aim to change that.

I've learned that, while bricks and cobbles are nice, nothing can compare to grass, dirt, and sand under my feet. 

Most importantly, I've learned that shifting away your comforts, be they physical or geographical, forces you to look at what in life makes you happy, and what brings you down. Not to act on these things is doing a great disservice - but only to yourself.   It's true that while I was away, I found something in my life that is lacking. Unearthing this Great Sadness may take some more work, but it's important that I now know that it's there. 

*          *          *

And that's that. I hope you enjoyed reading this collection. Thanks to everyone that kept up with this craziness.  I started a few projects while I was in Panama City, so if any of them come to fruition, I assure you I'll post about them.

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