Friday, March 17, 2006

WTF, Panama, just WTF?

So it's 1:38 AM after one of the weirdest days of my life - and by far the weirdest day of this weird vacation - and I'm trying to get the day together properly in my head. Forgive me if this is not the most coherent blog entry ever, but if it's bollocksed up then it will have followed today properly.

Today was one of those episodic, death-of-a-thousand-cuts days. The weird experiences of today were as follows: El Ray, the Panamanian Post Office, the homeless dude, Casco Viejo, more street people, Ten, and Next. Insert before/between most of these the hotel room, as I kept coming back to it.

So, get up at 8:30. Breakfast with folks, the realtor (names have been changed to protect the innocent) Francesco Rinaldi comes to see them. We're all supposed to go look at houses, and they want to talk business before we go. I'm not feeling so hot and don't much want to talk business so I head up to the hotel room and read some bad fiction on the terrace while waiting for them to come back.

Fast forward to 12:00. Francesco the gay realtor has left, we're not looking at houses. Fine. Why? Mom's got three homes under contract. Really, you know, here in Panama, about 12 people live in every home. Mom's buying three for her and Gary. Whatever. Again, fine. It's time to go to El Ray, the Shoprite owned grocery store down here, to pick up gifts for everyone, cause y'all don't get shotglasses, no, you are all getting beer and candy and juice and that kind of stuff. Probably on Wednesday if you're in/near New Brunswick, or by mail or what-have-you if you're not. This story will make more sense soon.

El Ray is weird in that once you've gotten all of your stuff to the counter, a kid magically disappears your cart. The cart you originally were using is replaced with a new cart that is owned by the (different) kid who is currently bagging your groceries. Word to the wise: if you bring (say) a big blue man-purse with to put your purchases into, the kid will be confused. And while he'll put his hands all over your groceries he won't touch your man-purse. Though once you've loaded it onto his cart he'll be more than happy to push it out to the curb for a tip - duh.

So, back to the hotel. Beg boxes off of the front desk. Pack up care packages for friends not in NB. There is no packing tape to be found, so (like you might) I presume that there will be some at the post office. Get boxes, head downstairs, fetch a taxi. Today sounds normal, right? Here's where it all goes to hell.

So I'm going to draw pictures today. I want to do it in Casco Viejo, cause it's the section of the city I'm most familiar with and it has the added benefit of having a bus stop for the diablos rojos in a square right nearby, and I want pics of these wierd things for home. So, I get a cab to the post office in Casco Viejo, and we're off.

After driving through Casco Viejo for approx. 10 minutes, the cabbie asks directions of 4 different people and finally figures out that the Casco Viejo post office has been closed and is moving to a new location. Said new location is no longer open. Fine. Let's off to the post office at Balboa Avenue. Cabbie drops me off and I'm $10 poorer than I was before. Whatev.

There's four lines at the post office. The signs at each line is in Spanish but they all look the same. There is one person in each line. I get in the third line and wait. And wait. And wait. Approximately 20 minutes goes by. There is a whole lot of passing of paperwork, of speaking back and forth, of phone calls, of more speaking, of filling out new and different forms, and finally, after all of this, the man hands over like $2.50, the clerk stamps his three non-airmail envelopes and it's my turn.

After some furtive hand signals and a lot of bad English and Spanish I find out that I get to go to the first line. Great. I walk to line one, there's one person in front of me. Remember all that paperwork and shit? There's more of that. Twenty minutes or so later, it's my turn. I'm beginning to get annoyed, but it's a new country, and not mine, so I swallow it. I'd also like to point out that I'm holding two large and heavy boxes and am hating my life.

Anyway. Now that the computer is no longer exploding I can keep blogging. The man at the front of this line tells me to stand in the second line, that I'm in the wrong place. Really beginning to get annoyed now. There's one person in front of me, which of course means that it's another 20 minutes before I get to the front of the line. The line next to me, meanwhile, has grown to four people. I manage to communicate to the lady at the counter that I need packing tape. It eventually becomes clear that I have to go the hardware store next door, that they have no packing tape in the post office.

Rage. Fine. I buy a $1 roll of packing tape at the hardware store, head back to the post office, assemble my packages, and get back in line. Again, one person ahead of me. The line next to me hasn't moved. Once I get to the front of the line, the clerk leaves. I wait. She comes back and starts doing paperwork. I wave, talk, knock until she looks at me, and she tells me that I'm in the wrong line for packages, that that's line number three, which was the very first line I waited in. There's also five people in that line and there have been five people there for the last half hour.

So I left. I was immediately accosted by an extremely dirty homeless man, who jabbered a long stream of Spanish at me. I said "no spanish, english only." He spoke a lot more spanish and ended with "25 cents." I said, "No change. Zero. Nada. Nothing. Nada," and smacked my pocket for emphasis - there was really none there. He jabbered some more, I said fine. I bent, propped my unmailed packages on my knee, and gave him whatever change I had, which was seven cents, apologising the whole time. He yammered longer and then handed me my nickel back with a dirty look and what I presume was a rude hand gesture. Which would have all been acceptable if he hadn't kept my goddamn pennies.

I took a cab home (and this driver was completely suicidal, even when compared to the other cab drivers in the city, and is the only person I've ever seen to push his car up to ~45 mph in second gear), dropped the packages, yelled at Sabrina for a bit because I was so freaking enraged by the post office (and kept a happy face on the whole time), then left to draw and take pictures in Casco Viejo.

The cab driver was normal, but got flagged down in the ghetto by another driver. By the time I figured out what was going on, we'd left, and I had one more thing to feel guilty over: the other cabbie had broken down and his fare, a young single female tourist from Argentina, needed to not be where she was. My cabbie took my mangled statement "no hablas espanol" to mean "she can't ride in my cab" and despite repeated attempts to figure out what was going on we didn't pick her up. Well, fuck me, huh? I'm feeling even more weird now.

So we head over to Iglesias San Remo, a beautiful ancient church in Casco Viejo. I wanted to go back here to take a few notes on the borders of the stained glass windows in the place - these borders look nothing like American or European borders, btw, and they're very gaudy and cool at the same time - and sketch this awesome Virgin Mary in the church. So I sit in a pew and begin sketching.

The experiences of the day so far are really telling on me: my hands are shaking far too much to draw well. Today's drawings are as bad as the drawings on the first day of the trip, I'm sad to say. This sucks because the Mary in question is awesome: the statue is life-size painted, carved stone, holding the church that we're in in her hands. Underneath her are a collection of busted-ass ramshackle buildings which she is apparently protecting. Beautiful in every way imaginable. I wanted to draw her, and I did, albeit poorly.

So I get done my sketches and stand up. Now, I ain't a believer or nothing, but I still figure I'll show some respect to Mary since I sketched her, so I bow to her. Upon bowing, this freaking American snot starts laughing at me. How do I know he was American? You tell me: he was approx. 50, white, had greasy+balding combed over hair, wearing dark, gold-framed aviators, a hawaiian short-sleeved dress shirt unbuttoned halfway, and had a cane and three cameras around his neck. Either North Jersey or Ohio, fer serious. Also, he spoke English. I glared at him and left.

Sorry this is such a long post, it gets longer. It's after two o'clock AM now, and we're at about 4pm. I'm on the street outside the church and am taking pictures. I snag some architectural shots, and then this little guttersnipe walks up to me. He makes hand motions while saying, "Take my picture, I'm hungry." Well, fine. Whatever. I feel like I have some karma to pay off, so i snap a picture of him and his brother and give them a dollar and leave. No lie: twenty seconds later, I hear from behind me, "Amigo!" and there are no less than freaking 20 kids yelling "Take my picture! Take my picture!" running down the street at me.

I eventually get away from all but one of them (while magically retaining my wallet and most of its contents). The one left, I snap a picture of and give a dollar because I just couldn't argue anymore. I mean, he posed and yelled "Please! Please!" I don't know if most tourists get a kick out of photographing malnourished street children but goddamn did I feel like a conquistador dickwad.

I took some more pics and drew some more, managed to not take any more pictures of children (but the four 8 year old girls who asked me to take their pictures while going into the church, all dressed in their finest white-and-blue dresses, were tempting. Okay, truth, I was out of film on the roll and they were in a hurry to go to church. Whatever.) and went up to a square to get the pictures of the buses I wanted. Where I was at in the square there were these two benches that formed an L, and these four old men were sitting there. I took a picture of a bus and these dudes started cajoling me (in Spanish) to take their pictures. I mean, enough already. I said, "English Only, Sorry" and started walking away while looking at the buses that had shown up in the meantime. This comment caused a great stir. After I had gone ~10 feet, I heard a yell behind me, "English!" I turned around. "I know English! Hello!" Okay, sure. "Hello!" Reply: "Hello!" Um. I reply, "Hello!" He replied, "Hello!" C'mon. I replied, "Buenos dias!" And got the hell out of dodge.

Back to hotel. Got dressed for dinner. Went to leave w/o a suit, saw Gary was once again wearing his, put a suit on. Dinner was at the best French restaurant in Panama, called Ten (the price of all the dishes), with Francesco Rinaldi the realtor. Francesco was born in Panama, lived in France for 30+ years, and moved back like five years ago. Francesco knows everyone in the world, used to own his own restaurant, is currently a realtor, raises chickens, goats, sheep, cashews, and mangoes on his 20 acre farm, and is as gay as the day is long. I really liked him. Got tons of data on Panama from him - including that little brother M. might not get too arrested here for his various indiscretions. Good news.

After one of the most amazing dinners of my life, I went outside for a cigarette and to clear my head. I pop in the smoke and am about to light it when a street kid about 14 years old asks me for a cigarette. You know what? Fine. He looked older in the darker light, it was only after I'd handed him the cigarette that I realized he was underage. Well, shit. He mimes that he needs a light. I hand him my lighter. He futzes with it, not lighting his smoke, and starts backing away. I must have given this kid such a look as I put my hand back out because he stopped in his tracks, lit the cigarette, handed me my lighter, and walked away. He was so about to just walk off with the thing, the look he gave me slightly before I stabbed him with my eyes just said, "Sucker!" Eh, whatever, I got my lighter back.

So, back into the restaurant, talked a little more, then Francesco dropped Breeze and I at the "best club in Panama," neXt. Suffice it to say that I don't really do the dance club thing, but if the best club in Panama has a dance floor that would fit 75 max and the DJ's don't fade between songs, but fade down one song and then wait until they feel like starting the next one (about 5 seconds between songs), then, well, the much-vaunted club-centric nightlife of Panama must suck far worse than I thought it did.

But Breeze and I danced anyway. The crowd was weird; when each song ended, about 40 people would leave the dance floor, and as the next song played, more people would filter on until the song ended, and then the crowd would empty out again. Breeze and I didn't dance long because the club sucked worse than we did. However: while we were leaving the floor, some 40-year old guy handed me a card: "BEAT. George Ballesteros. c:6684-4642. t:226-0780.," slapped me on the back, and spewed a stream of Spanish at me. Ah, I'm an old hand at this: "No Spanish. English Only." Reply: "No Problem! We are big-time producers! You call us! We make star!" I can only figure for gay porno because fer serious, the only people who like my dancing are sketchy-ass apparently gay dudes. I hate my life sometimes. We left the club in short order.

So the only thing that I had to feel proud of today was when we got a cab and the (excessively suicidal) cabbie quoted us twice what it had cost to go home from where we were now than it had cost to come from much farther than where we were yesterday. I yelled at him. He told me to get in the cab. I wouldn't have, but Sabrina was already in the cab and just wanted to go home. So I did.

Really, you know what? Days don't get to be as weird as today was. It's just not allowed.


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