Thursday, March 30, 2006

Down in the Valley

We had done the posh American-style malls, the roadside stands, the army surplus stores and the supermarkets. Only one shopping venue remained on our list: an outdoor market in El Valle de Anton, a small town about 1 1/2 hours drive from Panama City.

This market was supposedly less expensive than the malls, and although it promised to be very "touristy," we figured we could find good bargains on souvenirs for all our folks back home. After finding our turn-off from the Pan-American highway, we snaked around hills and descended into the valley.

When we first pulled up, I wondered if we were in the right place. It's not that the valley was anything less than I expected; it's just that pale-skinned tourists swarmed the area. I had expected a few Americans and maybe even some Germans, but so far, white shoppers outnumbered the Panamanian vendors.

The whole town is basically one street with shops lining both sides. There's a grocery store on the way in, and as far as I could tell, only one small place to eat indoors. After we had waded through the many of the booths, we pulled up a stool at a roadside food stand. We ordered hamburgers and batidos (fruit shakes), and we splurged for the 25-cent cup of Pepsi that came with the burger. For some reason, Panamanians false advertise with their burgers. When Americans think of a hamburger, beef is the first thing that comes to mind. Not so here. Apparently a hamburger in Panama means "any patty that will fit on a hamburger bun." Without fail, every time we ate at a Panamanian burger joint, we received what I like to call "polloburguesas," or "chickenburgers."

Sadly, the market was less diverse and indigenous than I expected it to be. Most of the products seemed mass-produced, and a lot of them were way overpriced. I guess if you get thousands of old, rich Americans coming through here every year, you have no real incentive to lower prices. People start to get flippant with their money when they're looking at something they can't get back home. I know the feeling all too well, putting myself in debt to go on this trip, an experience I definitely couldn't have had in Georgia.

I came away with a few bracelets for my mom and Katy as well as a sweet hand-carved wooden guitar keychain. There wasn't much else that interested me. I can't stand stuff that has Panama stamped all over it, and the colorful get-ups made by the Cuna indians have yet to grow on me. I don't know whether the styles of the goods or their high prices turned me off more. I guess when you're used to Chinese prices, it's easier to consider things expensive.

On the way out of town, we stopped at a place on the side of the road where for $1, you could view and handle snakes found in Panama. We stopped to take a look, and ended up getting tangled up in there for about 30 minutes. Brad made quick friends with a boa constrictor, and we viewed our nemesis, the infamous fer-de-lance, through the glass. It's freaky enough seeing and touching these little guys in a closed environment where you know they're harmless. I can't tell you how glad I was not to wake up with a slithery hammock.

Back in the city, we once again lounged around at Euro Hotel. With the adventure coming to a close, we were all (especially Chuck, who had been in Panama for 3 weeks at that point) ready to get home. For our farewell dinner, we opted for the Hard Rock Cafe. If we couldn't be in America, we were going to get close. Besides, it wouldn't be too bad to listen to some good ole rock 'n roll instead of the repetitive latino stuff that had been pounding my ear drums for a week and a half. I think Panama has a "national beat," and it's required to play in every radio single.

Like Coiba rising in the mist, I could see the shadow of the mundane life beginning to form on the horizon. I didn't want to return to school to face the debts and demands of the real world, but our job here was finished. All in all, our trip to Panama was a success, which is a relative term. No, we didn't make it across Coiba, but we learned valuable lessons about who we are, and we got to experience a culture different from our own. The company was good, and the older guys consistently imparted wisdom to Brad and I. Even if we hadn't gone to Coiba, it was worth the trip's considerably high price tag to meet Kevin and to develop my friendships with Chuck and Brad. Who knows? Maybe one day we'll return to conquer the island. Next time, we'll at least know what to expect.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Coiba Video

If you can deal with the Spanish, check out this video of Coiba. If for no other reason, watch it for the great shot of the guacamayas in flight about midway through the video. This video had me salivating before we left America. Strange how it can look so inviting and then become so brutal when you're actually there.

Monday, March 27, 2006

The Canal

Saturday, March 18

With all our preparation for the island, we still hadn't visited Panama's most popular tourist attraction: the Canal. We had driven near and across the Canal countless times as we zigzagged all over the city and down to Santa Catalina, but we hadn't made it to Miraflores Locks and the Canal Museum, the tourist trap that charges you money and tells you official information about the construction of the Canal.

I won't get into the details and about how the Canal actually functions. One, because I don't know all that much about it. Two, because I don't have a mathematical mind; I marvel at the sheer magnitude of the task, but it never gets into numbers or nuts and bolts. Three, because information about the Canal is widely disseminated across the internet.

But I will say that the Canal is a fascinating feat of engineering and that it's worth the $8 to visit the museum and find out more about it. I don't think it's worth coming to Panama just to visit the Canal. The weather is amazing. Why waste daylight watching ships going up and down when you could explore an island or visit an outdoor market? If you're here, plan a day for the Canal, but please don't limit yourself to it.

The museum is built vertically, boasting four floors of exhibits about the Canal and Panama. After each section, you go up another escalator to the next level until finally, you reach an observation deck on the highest level. From there, we checked out the locks and took pictures of the countryside and more inclusive views of the Canal.

There, we met a group of college students from Texas A&M who had come to do mission work near David, a city in the western part of Panama. They came with a missions organization called Global Missions Fellowship (although I think they're in the process of changing their name). This ministry focuses mainly on church-planting among the unreached. According to the team leader, mission teams come in not to do work that will deteriorate as soon as they leave, but to train and inspire the native people of the region to reach their own with the Gospel of Christ.

In an era where performance-based Christianity is all too common, many American churches gauge the success of mission trips by the number of decisions for Christ. While it's amazing to see someone come to know Jesus, I think too much emphasis is put on the Americans doing the witnessing and how well they were able to round up new converts. Sometimes it seems like we have a quota to meet, like we want to hear people pray a prayer so that we can feel good about ourselves, not so their lives can be changed. We want to make statistics, not disciples. It's refreshing to see a missions organization that understands that the best thing a short-term team can do is contribute to the work God's already doing in an area and then trust him to bring a harvest from their seed through the workers on who permanently live among the people they're trying to reach.

Most of the college students on this trip are part of a ministry at Texas A&M called Breakaway. A few of them asked us about Coiba, mostly wanting to know how we were crazy enough to go on this expedition. We just blamed it on Chuck.

After the Canal, we hit up Quizno's subs for dinner. I felt like I was betraying Blimpie (my current employer), but I didn't feel too guilty. There's only one Blimpie left in my hometown Columbus, Ga., so how can I expect to find one in Panama?

This was Kevin's last day on the trip. He was set to fly out at 8:30 a.m., so we returned to the hotel early to give him time to pack and rest. Chuck, Brad, and I made plans to head out to El Valle de Anton after Chuck took Kevin to the airport in the morning.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Back to Panama City

Friday, March 17

The Blue Zone might as well have been the Ritz-Carlton as far as we were concerned. The hostel was quaint, but it was also new and well-furnished. And they gave us towels in our rooms, which is more than I can say for the Oasis. There's no hot water in the showers, but hair this long can only take so much dirt and salt water without washing. Just getting the sand off my body was enough to make me give the place rave reviews.

The outside was even better than the inside. Just past the office, a hut with hammocks sits on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean. Outside my window there was a lime tree and a great view of the mountains. There's even a little porch where you can lounge around after catching some killer waves in the morning. For $7.50 a night per person in a 2-person room, you can't expect much more than this place offers.

We had decided that driving was going to be our big activity for the day. We had a 5-hour trek (without stops) back to Panama City, and with nothing to do, we were going to take our time. our first big stop was at a city called Penonome where we had bought some great supplies at a hardware store on the way down. The place had machetes and accessories, so we had basically cleaned our their stock of leather sheaths. On our way back, Chuck and Kevin decided they wanted a few more, but the place hadn't restocked.

While we were there, Chuck showed us a prison where he had done an easy mission during his time in Panama. It now serves as the headquarters for the National Police in Penonome.

According to Chuck, his commanding officer called the commander of the prison the day of the attack and said, "We're coming to take over your prison at 5:00. Have your men standing out front ready to surrender or we'll kill every one of you."

"He did what?" Chuck reacted. He thought his commander was insane to give up the element of surprise. Now the PDF (Panamanian Defense Force) soldiers would set up an ambush. To him, this was a suicide mission.

But sure enough, when the Rangers arrived, all the PDF soldiers were standing out front with their hands up saying, "No mas! No mas!" Not a shot was fired.

Our second stop was in a town called Santiago. We were all hungry, so we scoped out the lunch scene. As we walked, we stumbled upon a woman grilling some chicken that smelled amazing. So we stopped there and ate a half chicken each for a measly $2.

We made it back to Euro Hotel (the hotel formerly known as Hotel Europa) in time to check into a room that wasn't on the street side. By then it was almost time for dinner.

While doing more unnecessary shopping before we'd left for Coiba, Chuck met a guy who was from the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. Mr. Flores used to be in the car business, but had seized an opportunity to escape to Panama. Now he owns a classy restaurant on the Amador Causeway, and he says he doesn't really miss anything from the States. After some searching, we finally found his restaurant and sat down to eat. The head honcho Mr. Flores himself came and sat with us for awhile. Chuck told him stories about his role in the invasion, and they traded stories about the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. Small world indeed.

Back at the hotel, we had an exciting night of blogging, emailing, and packing. Saturday was Kevin's last full day, so we figured we'd make the obligatory visit to the canal museum at Miraflores Locks. Everything else in Panama we wanted to see was too far away from the city for the time that we had. Darn, I guess we'll have to come back.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006


Thursday, March 16

A small fire built near the camp took off the edge of the brisk morning cold. After breakfast, Chuck made some calls on the sat-phone, trying once again to reach Rolo. We still hadn't received email confirmation that Rolo had gotten our message, but we decided to be ready and waiting at our extraction point in case he somehow made it today.

We hiked from Hotel Sand Dollar (our camp) to the volcanic rocks where the welcome sign stands. Kevin and Chuck hiked about a half-mile back into the jungle to get more water from a stream we had seen on our way out. The water we had gotten from the croc's river was brackish, suitable for cooking but too salty to drink.

Brad and I hung out on the beach. We journaled and talked about how weird it was to be stranded, but how glad we were that we are adventurers. Both of us doubted Rolo would come today, so we started conditioning our minds to that fact. We liked being on Coiba, but with nothing left to do on the island, we really wanted a bed and some good food. We were starting our third day on Coiba, but it felt like we'd been stranded for a hundred years.

While we waited, both for the waterboys and Rolo, Brad and I started reading some quotes from his journal. One of them struck me hard:

"Life is either a daring adventure or nothing."

Amen to that. It seems strange that something so inspiring could come from Helen Keller, who was both blind and deaf. But if you really understand the concept of adventure, it gets a little easier to see how someone with such a difficult life could look at her existence that way. According to a little sticker on my journal, adventure is "a daring, hazardous undertaking" or "an unusual, exciting, often suspenseful experience."

Keller's life was full of adversity. To overcome it, she had to show stubborn perseverance, even when she literally couldn't see the end results. When she learned to communicate, she passed her life's test. She had dared to dream and, despite the hazards, learned that she had what it takes.

If that's not life--or faith--I don't know what is.

The guys returned with water, and we wasted the day away lounging in hammocks at a new camp we'd set up nearer to the extraction point. At about 5:30, hunger set in, and we had resigned ourselves to the fact that we'd be sleeping on Coiba again. Chuck set up the stove, and we voted on what to eat for dinner. As we were about to open the spam and potatoes, we heard a noise that no animal could make.


We all traded glances, each of us thinking the same thing. We all bolted, but Brad was the first to make it to the beach. Sure enough, it was Rolo with a new boat and driver, coming to rescue us. We whooped like we'd been stranded for a year, and packed up camp with in a whirlwind of excitement. What had taken us half an hour to pack before took less than 10 minutes.

At 5:40, we were back out on the blue ocean listening to the pleasant hum of the 80-hp outboard motor (twice the power of our last one). We turned around to say our goodbyes to Isla Coiba. It seemed much nicer from a distance. The dense jungle looked inviting rather than torturous, and the sunset wrapped the green mountains in rainbow colors. From this view it was hard to imagine being glad to leave.

Back on tierra firme in Santa Catalina, we ate at the Jamming pizza restaurant. It will suffice to say that Pepsi was our nectar and pizza our ambrosia, and we slept very comfortably at a surfers' hostel called the Blue Zone.

Coiba's Critters

Before we left our home at 34-degrees N latitude for the scorching sun of the equator, Chuck did his best to both amaze and terrify us with stories about the wide range of fauna found on Isla Coiba. While most of the national park's biodiversity is found beneath the ocean waters, we landlubbers did get to see some creatures that we wouldn't have laid eyes on if we'd stayed in the north Georgia mountains.

About a mile into our first day's hike, we ran upon a crab that looked like it came straight from the circus. Its body and pincers were a deep plum purple, and its legs were traffic-cone orange. I'm not sure if the species is endemic to Coiba, but go too far away from the equator and specimens like this become much less common.

Sadly, we didn't get to see any monkeys, although we did hear them howling as soon as darkness started to set in. Their cries sounded like hound dogs baying, not the typical audio effect you expect from a monkey. I'm guessing the hound-type noises were produced by howler monkeys. If I knew what a spider monkey sounded like (or if they made noise at all) I'd tell you whether or not I heard one.

The worst of the unseen noisemakers was what Kevin called a cicada, a nasty locust that also plagues other areas of the globe as well as Isla Coiba. Their loud screeching songs made my nights last way too long.

The only animal that we wanted to see and didn't was the saltwater crocodile. But we were able to see his tracks, which probably left us better off than if we'd tromped through the grassland next to the river where he made his home. A $2.95 machete can only do so much against an 8-10 foot beast like that.

While we missed out on the croc, we did see a few big lizards. They were like iguanas but looked more primitive, like something out of the "dinosaurs" chapter of a geology textbook.

I'd have to say that the most rewarding experience was seeing the two groups of guacamayas that flew over our heads as we lounged on the beach. We had seen them from a helicopter's view on a video about Coiba, but to see their vibrant colors in real life was amazing. At first, we couldn't get a great view of them because of the position of the sun. But they alighted on a high tree branch just long enough to show off and then they flew squawking over the beach. This instance was especially significant to me, because I had prayed that God would allow us to see some of these red birds that can only be found on Coiba.

In the water, we saw porpoises, flying fish, and a school of red snapper, each one as long as from my forearm to my fingertips. No whales or great whites, but again, I can't say I'm disappointed about staying away from those guys.

I've been about 2 miles into Coiba's jungle, and that definitely does not make me an expert. But I do know this: If you're a sucker for beauty and diversity, come to Coiba. Make sure to bring some fins and and all your scuba or snorkeling gear.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Deserted, Not Forsaken

Wednesday, March 15

We were up with the sun again, and I was glad to be out of my hammock. The two trees I was using as braces were much too close together, so I was sleeping in a "U" shape. This uncomfortable position--and the fact that I was wrapped up in an emergency blanket that felt like aluminum foil--made me feel like a stale hot dog.

Only 10 miles away from the other side of the island, we decided to give it another try. If we did 4-5 miles per day while staying away from the hills and near a water source, we´d reach the other side in time for Rolo to pick us up at the penal colony.

After breakfast, we sat down for a quick devotional and prayer. Chuck told us that he´d been thinking about going into combat, how soldiers tend to ask for protection from a higher power. But, he said, most people are basically asking God for permission to impose their will (for their safety) rather than asking God to do what he wants to. Our prayer was a petition to find out where God was working on this expedition, either in us, between us or through us.

"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."

The Emerson quote taunted me as we hacked through high grass, only have each path cut off by swamp. We were leaving a trail, but it ultimately wasn´t getting us anywhere. Our plan was to hike a few miles south toward the river, and then follow the valley across the island. An hour later, we sat down in the grass, tired and hungry. It became evident that we might not achieve our goal of making it across the island in 3 days. After one and a half hours of chopping our way through almost impassible terrain, we´d made it less than a half horizontal mile.

As tough as it was to admit defeat, there was only one choice. Rather than get stuck in the center of the island and not make our boatride on the other side, we´d have to return to the drop-off point and call on the satellite phone for Rolo to come get us.

Reluctantly, we turned back and hiked through back through the airfield toward the beach. On our way back through, we discovered more abandoned buildings from the 1980s. One of them was another prison that we hadn´t had time to explore on the way in. The other was a concrete building painted camoflauge. The rusted military helmets and bed frames inside hinted that it may have served as barracks for military trainees. Writing on the walls and newspaper clips on the ground revealed that people had been there as recently as last year.

Back to the beach, we set up a camp Kevin dubbed the Sand Dollar Hotel. It was a great spot among 3 palms, just inland of the high water mark and next to an almond tree whose shade served as our living room.

Next, we went to find a fresh water source. A river emptied into the ocean about a mile up the beach, so we packed our bottles and tried to beat the high tide to the fresh water. Next to the river, we saw the unmistakable tracks of an 8-10 foot saltwater croc. We wasted no time getting water. And we had someone armed with a machete guarding on both sides those who were filling the bottles.

Chuck called and left messages for Rolo with the sat phone and we had a good time relaxing on the beach. The sunset was more beautiful than usual. It was the kind that convinces you no matter what´s going on that you´re in the right place at the right time.

As soon as the first hint of darkness appeared, the flying teeth came out. To escape, I took a long walk on the beach and had a great time alone with the God. He´s blessed us in many ways on this trip, giving us the discernment to turn back even though our pride wanted to continue. We were stranded, yes. But stranded on the beach is much better than stranded in triple- canopy jungle with no boatride back to what the locals call "tierra firme" (the mainland).

Flying Teeth

The worst thing about the Coiba´s jungle isn´t the symphony of scary noises that you hear when you´re trying to sleep or the thought of waking up with a tarantula on your face or a fer-de-lance in your pants. It´s the flying teeth.

Up till the time we set up camp, we hadn´t seen any mosquitoes at all. I thought that was a good sign, especially since I was going to be sleeping without a bug net. But there were these gnats--called "chitras" by locals--that began to eat us alive.

The strange thing is that they only seem to come out at dusk, like microscopic vampires hell-bent to suck as much blood as possible before the sun goes down. It seems like the only purpose for their existence is to bite things, particularly succulent gringos that aren´t used to sleeping in the jungle.

Because of this, Chuck´s boy scout troop used to call them "flying teeth." The name has stuck. It´s amazing how something so tiny can terrorize sophisticated beings like us. By our second night in the jungle, we were saying things like, "Let´s cook dinner before the teeth come out," and the guys were jumping in their jungle hammocks as soon as the sun disappeared over the ocean. Without a bug net, I wrapped up in my emergency blanket and t-shirt and hoped for the best.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Coiba -The Dream Comes True

Tuesday, March 14

With all the obstacles we had faced, we were excited to be up at first light Tuesday and wading through murky water to Rolo´s boat. This trip to Coiba--which had up to this point been a really shaky dream--was now blossoming into a reality.

With the sun rising at our backs, Rolo and Chambon revved up the 40-hp outboard motor and we started our trek across 36 miles of open ocean. From what we had heard, the trip would take about three hours in total, a small price to pay to visit a deserted island that not many people have ever had the chance to explore.

About a fourth of the way to the ANAM ranger station (the place where we had to go to validate our permit) the motor puttered to a stop. We were afraid for a moment, but Rolo kept us calm. It was just a problem with the propellor. He had brought along a brand new one just in case. While we floated, I looked over the side of the boat. A school of red snapper was hanging out 10-20 feet below the surface. I couldn't believe how clear and blue the water was. I haven´t even been to the Caribbean before, so to me, it looked like something out of a movie or a travel brochure. Maybe God purposely stopped the boat so we´d get to marvel a little more at his creation.

Traveling an average of less than 18 km per hour, we had a lot of time on the boat to rest and look at the scenery. A few times, flying fish zipped out of the water, flapping their fins and hovering about 3 feet off the surface for a good distance.

Soon, Coiba rose out of the mist, tantalizing us from afar. The island is so massive that we felt like we were almost there even though we still hadn't made it halfway. Slowly but surely we inched closer. Before we reached the ANAM station we marveled at Granito de Oro, Coibita, and other small islands northeast of Coiba.

We were overjoyed to reach the ANAM station, an ocean oasis of a visitor center. Most people who come to the island are content never to leave here. They have cabins for rent and a 14-foot pet crocodile named Tito. There are bathrooms and an exhibition of preserved forms of many of the species of animals found in and around Coiba. Other than ANAM and the penal colony--which closed down completely in 2004--there isn´t much else on the island that attracts visitors. That's exactly why we were headed into the wilderness.

We dropped $10 a piece for permits to enter the park and had Rolo drop us on the other western side of the island at Playa Hermosa ("Beautiful Beach" in English). The bow-shaped beach is over 2 miles long, nested with palm trees at its back and jungle-clad cliffs jutting out on both sides to form a secluded bay. The sand is darker than the white sands you read about in resort advertisements, and the fact that it naturally occurred that way somehow made it more beautiful. Carbon-colored volcanic rocks embossed with coral fossils burst from the sand at our drop-off point. On top of the largest one was the sign: ¡Bienvenidos a Playa Hermosa!

Bubbling with enthusiasm at this point, we organized and hiked briskly from the beach into the jungle. The first place we walked was an old airstrip possibly constructed by the CIA in the 1980s. Chuck´s writing a book on Coiba, so I´ll let him explain the details. Just know the airstrip, while a little overgrown, gave us a flat path with little resistance for the first leg of the hike.

About a mile in we noticed some abandoned buildings that looked like ancient ruins. Upon further explanation, the rusty iron cells and window bars told us that the place had been used as a prison. Chuck theorizes that the CIA had a training camp here for contras fighting a civil war in El Salvador and that the prisoners were kept on this side of the island to help maintain the camp (More speculation as to the significance of these buildings in a later post). Bats had taken over the prison, so we only explored one side. There was graffiti all over the walls, much of it referring to God. Brad later commented that he liked how the graffiti shows that the prisoners were stripped of hope, and God was all they had to rely on. We stopped for lunch under a shade tree that allowed us to escape the ruthless sun and thick humidity.

After refreshment, we continued our hike out of the flat, grass-covered airstrip and into the dense triple-canopy jungle. To make a long story short, our revised plan was to climb the highest peak on Coiba and continue across the island from east to west, visiting the penal colony before heading back up to the ANAM station.

We had ascended about 400 feet, almost to the summit of Hill 164 (on our map) when I about gave out. Not only was the climb steep, but we had to hack our way up through dense vegetation. And to make matters worse, black palms were everywhere, making it more difficult for us to brace ourselves and avoid falling down the hill. The heat was more than I could bear, and dizziness had set in. I plopped down on the hill, totally defeated, and we were only a few hours in. More than once, I got so disoriented that I thought, Lord, are you gonna let me die up on this hill?

Chuck went to the top of the peak and looked at what we had on our plate. He decided that we weren´t going to be able to bag Cerro Torre at the rate we were going. It rises about 1400 feet in altitude. And 400 had taken all of our strength. The only place left to go was down, so we set up camp by a water source and decided to try a new route across the island in the morning.

Lying exhausted in my wool hammock, beneath the stars and next to a running stream, I let the screeching cicadas, the fluttering bats and the howling monkeys sing me to sleep.

New Addiction

We thought we´d lose weight coming to Panama, seeing as we were set to spend almost an entire week hacking our way through virgin triple-canopy jungle. But there´s a little shop in every mall in Panama City that has thwarted our plans to trim our waistlines.

Gelarti, an ice cream shop found in the Albrook Mall, the Multicentro and the Amador Causeway offers an array of tantalizing treats that varies with each location. On one of our many shopping trips, Chuck introduced us to the crepe wrapped quesadilla style, filled with nutella and fruit and topped with a heaping scoop of ice cream and chocolate syrup. It´s enough to feed two people, definitely worth the $3 price tag and the increase in cholesterol.

We indoctrinated Kevin the first night he came into the country, and he´s been hooked ever since. But even more than the crepe, he loves their mochaccinos. Every time we´ve stopped at the mall, some unexplanable gravitational force has pulled us there. So, even though we suffered on the island, don´t expect us to return to the U.S. looking all emaciated and weak. With all the sweets we consumed, we´ll be lucky if we haven´t gained weight!

Friday, March 17, 2006

We´re a go

Monday, March 13

We had some housekeeping issues to take care of Monday morning before we could leave for Coiba. For one, we still hadn´t found our guide, Mali Mali. Chuck had called all his contacts, and we got a hint that if we went by Panama´s environmental authority office, we´d find someone with Mali´s cell phone number.

After a scavenger hunt of phone calls, we finally got ahold of him. He said that he´d been waiting for our call for the entire weekend, but since he hadn´t heard anything, he had taken other work. Without Mali, who works for the ANAM station at Coiba National Park, we knew we´d have to go through the Panamanian bureaucracy to get a permit to be on the island. So we headed to the ANAM office. Chuck used his social skills to pull some strings, and we soon had paperwork verifying the authenticity of our expedition.

So we headed off in our Toyota rental car to Santa Catalina, a surfers´ haven in the southwest coast of the Panama isthmus. Until sometime last year, you needed a 4-wheel-drive vehicle just to pass the road down to the small fishing village. The road has since been paved, and the village has burgeoned into a small town where you can do some great scuba diving, catch some good waves, and more importantly, launch an expedition to Isla Coiba.

On the way down, Chuck played "miss the pothole" and the rest of us soaked up the great scenery. Brahma bulls littered the pastures on either side of the road. The countryside boasted rolling hills clothed in vibrant shades of green. The drive down there is no Sunday cruise, but the going gets easier when you hit the newly paved segment leading into Santa Catalina.

Our first order of business in SC was to find our boat captain, a guy named Casey whom Chuck had met on his last trip to Panama. Casey was expecting to take us to Coiba today, but our permitting problems had pushed our expedition back a day. We hoped he´d still be able to lead us out to Coiba Tuesday.

Chuck strolled up to Casey´s house, a 2-minute walk from Scuba Coiba. Casey´s wife told us that he had found other work because we had been late. Sound familiar?

So we got to work finding another boat captain. It´s interesting to see how God worked this out. Chuck had been in Santa Catalina a week or two ago shooting a story about a internationally known Panamanian body surfer who got saved in SC and is now a strong believer. While shooting the story, Chuck met a young guy called Chambon, a friend of the body surfer and also a brother in the faith. Chuck found Chambon, who hooked us up with a guy named Rolo, an entrepreneur in the area who owns some popular cabanas and a boat. After a lot of explaining and planning, Rolo agreed to be our captain, and we were set to leave in the morning.

For our last meal we went Bianca´s, one of the two nice restaurants in Santa Catalina. With outdoor dining complete with reggae background music, hammocks, and great lighting, the place has a great ambiance and some pretty good food. I´m of the breed that believes you should experience another country if you´ve spent your money to go there, so we tried the octopus ceviche as an appetizer. Chuck enjoyed it, but if your taste buds are American, I´d say try it at your own risk.

While waiting for our food, we plotted our course across the island. The conversation was dripping with bravado. We talked about sleeping under the jungle canopy while programming our GPSs and looking at the topographical map Chuck had gotten for us.

After our meal, we checked in at the Oasis (better link to come later), a quaint hostel situated directly on the beach. The rooms were small and far from luxurious, but the view was amazing. We had spent too many nights in the city. Out here, every star twinkles, and they look so close that I could blow them out like a candle. After packing my gear for the expedition, I sat in a lawn chair on the beach and read my Bible under the light of the full moon. Every so often, thunder swept up over the deep, roaring like a jet engine taking off.

All this blessing, I thought, and this isn´t even what we came for. We´d jumped through a lot of hoops, and the mission was finally a go. It´s great to serve a God who knows our needs before we ask.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

China 2006 Trip Narrative

So, I've finally done it. It has taken me nearly two years, but I've finally compiled all my China 2006 blog posts into a chronological compendium of travel goodness. If you were on the trip or are just interested in missions in China, please take a gander. The dates denote what day the post was written, not the actual timing of the event. The trip was a month-long excursion across four provinces and countless cities and towns. There's tons of stuff I didn't even write about. To view the previous year's trip, go to China 2005 trip narrative.

8/18/06 - Enter the Forbidden City
8/20/06 - Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen Square)
8/22/06 - The Chairman's Image
8/22/06 - Mai Dang Lao
8/30/06 - The Temple of Heaven
8/30/06 -The Great (Long) Wall of China
9/4/06 - The Other Side of the Wall
9/6/06 - Beijing's Summer Palace
9/6/06 - Beijing Duck
9/6/06 - Bumpass, Virginia
9/6/06 - The Return
9/7/06 - Chinese Breakfast
9/21/06 - Platforms
9/21/06 - From the Ground Up
9/26/06 - The Office
9/26/06 - The School
10/10/06 - Evaluations
10/12/06 - Devotions-1
10/12/06 - Meals-1
10/17/06 - First Day of Camp
10/25/06 - Music Class
10/26/06 - Meals 2-Dico's
10/26/06 - A Ray of Light
10/29/06 - Web Developments
10/29/06 - A Good Day
11/13/06 - Hurdles
11/13/06 - Peacock Lake Park
11/14/06 - Recreation
11/20/06 - Rain for us, Rainforest
11/21/06 - Meals 3-Burma
11/21/06 - Rooftop View
11/26/06 - China Travel Articles
11/26/06 - Double-take
11/26/06 - A Gentile Sabbath?
11/26/06 - Leisurely Labor: A Sabbath Rest in China
12/2/06 - Holy Days
12/20/06 - Party Time
12/22/06 - A Change in Climate

Panama 2006 Trip Narrative

Coming Soon....

Monday, March 13, 2006

Driving with the Devils on Sunday

This morning, we had a devotional time during which we read some Psalms, sang some songs, and prayed for God to show himself powerful by helping us find our guide, the elusive Mali Mali. I find myself in a new country, but God´s teaching me the same old lessons about dependence and desperation that he taught me in China. Without Mali, this trip can´t take place, and without faith, we can do nothing but worry. As I said before, I´m glad that we serve a Sovereign God.

Today we checked into the Hotel Europa, or "Euro Hotel," as it says on the sign. Sadly, our free stay at the Country Inn and Suites has come to a close, and we´ve moved into a noisy streetside room with four twin beds and a barely functional air conditioning unit. But the internet is pumpin´good, and this should be our last night in the city (fingers crossed).

After settling in, we went and bought more groceries for the trip. We´ll definitely be the most nourished adventurers ever to come through Coiba. We have enough food to feed all of Central America!

Other than riding "diablos rojos" (red devils) for the first time today, nothing extremely exciting happened. Like every other day, Chuck pulled off some crazy driving maneuvers and we rode through dangerous neighborhoods for no apparent reason. Living here for a few days, "danger" and "risk" have become relative terms.

But there is no ambiguity in the word "dormir." I mean...sleep. Darn Spanish. I need some rest. I hope to post again before we leave for Santa Catalina. But if not, I´ll have a lot to blab about if and when I return from the Coiba.

Sunday, March 12, 2006


Saturday, March 11

You probably won´t get that title unless you´ve either been to Panama or I explain it to you. I won´t assume that anybody reading this has been here, so I guess I´m only left with one option.

Movistar is a prominent provider of cell phone service in Panama. They sell prepaid SIM cards that users can slide into their phones, which is the way that most cell companies work outside the U.S. Anyway, I love the name because it reeks of globalization and it portrays my transformation from a relative unknown to an "executive extra" in a CBN feature.

Although we hadn´t set the alarm, I awoke at about 8:30 to the sound of Chuck rummaging through the shipwreck that is our hotel room. Brad and I had no specific plans. We figured we would explore more of the city and meet up with Chuck later in the day. But Chuck had other ideas.

As we drifted in and out of sleep, he said, "Well, I was gonna hire you guys to be extras in our shoot today, but we have to leave in a few minutes."

That woke us up, especially when he mentioned that we would be paid. I had been an extra in one of Chuck´s CBN pieces in Jordan. I was floating in the Dead Sea with rocks stacked up on my chest. This time, however, I´d get to see more of the inner workings of taping a feature.

One shower and 15 minutes later, we were leading a caravan of cars to the Casa de Oracion Cristiana, a church on the other side of the city. The CBN crew was planning to shoot a reenactment for a story they were doing about maestro David Choy, a composer well recognized in Panama for the worship songs he has written. I didn´t catch the whole story, but apparently he was in a car accident that left him seriously injured. As far as I know, he was watching the 700 Club one day and he was healed of his illness through prayer. The part of the story we were shooting was when he returned to his home church and prayed at the altar after the healing took place. Brad and I are faux audience members, acting as if we are discussing the scriptures (and we actually were) while other members of the church are praying for Choy.

Each of us received $10 for our services, not bad for about 2 hours of hanging out, waiting for other extras to arrive and for the producers to put the shots together.

After the reenactment, we headed to a restaurante for lunch, where Brad and I both ordered filet mignon. With CBN footing $5 of the bill for our services, we figured we´d splurge for the $6.75 steak. Apparently, Panamanians have a different idea of filet mignon than we do. But it was still tasty, and we were glad to get all the protein we could from meat before we have to subsist on dried foods on Isla Coiba.

After lunch, Chuck dropped Brad and me off at the Super 99 grocery store to finish shopping for food that we would eat on the island. Chuck´s been trying to get us to plan a menu since we got here, but neither Brad nor I am very organized about those types of things. Our trip to the Super 99 was more to get ideas from the store than to actually buy them. (More on shopping in a later post).

We later ran some errands with Chuck before heading back to the hotel. Again we led the caravan to the Choys´ house, where the CBN crew was to film one more reenactment. This time, they would stage the car accident that put maestro Choy in the hospital. We pulled into a dark parking lot at the end of the street where the Choys live. A lone streetlight shone yellow on the rugged pavement under which most of the action took place. The crew used their rented van for the "accident," but to make the scene more realistic, they needed traffic in the picture.

I was called upon to drive two different times. Once, my part was nothing more than backing the car up. The second time, though, I played the part of oncoming traffic, and I had to swerve off the road to avoid slamming into Chuck, who was playing the part of the drunk driver in the reenactment.

I thought my duties as an actor were over, but I also served as a filler person in the last shot of the night. It was the interior view of the wreck scene. David´s son Alex was used to play his father, and all the other actors in the car--who played party-crazed friends--were latino except me.

Overall, it was an exhausting experience and an unorthodox way to spend a day in Panama, but I learned a lot about broadcast journalism and TV production. I also got to meet some amazing Christian brothers and sisters. Everyone was very receptive and courteous toward us, and they even tolerated my botched attempts to speak to them in their heart language. I´d like to think I encouraged them as much as they did me.

I never realize how limited my vision is until God pries me away from the States. Every time, he seems to say, Remember when I said, "Every tribe, tongue, and nation? I wasn´t kidding."

He´s never kidding about saving people from their sins and encouraging believers. I pray that my eyes will always be open to where he´s working around the world. And I pray that he´ll continue to give me the grace to join him where he´ll have me do so.

On the run

For those of you who have been faithfully checking the blog, I'm sorry to tell you that I haven't had time yet to post something in detail about Saturday's events. I'll catch up tonight and let you know about all the interesting things we experienced yesterday. For today, we'll be tying up some loose ends around Panama City and hopefully we'll be able to head out to Santa Catalina tomorrow morning.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Panama City--Way better than Florida´s

I can´t remember if the alarm woke me, but somehow I opened my eyes at about 8:15 a.m. The tropical sun was already shining bright, an early reminder that sunscreen would be on my list of necessities today. Chuck was sifting through the wreckage of that is our hotel room, and Brad was lying next to me. Without speaking, we were debating over who should get in the shower first, or if there should be any showers at all. Brad got up first, and I enjoyed an extra 15 minutes of lying around.

The great thing about vacations is that you don´t have anywhere you have to go. While obligations dictate our every move in daily life, I´m now about 2000 miles away from all my duties. Brad and I were free to plan our day however we wanted, a fact that´s both scary and freeing at the same time.

Chuck went off to shoot some interviews for CBN, leaving us with his phone, our wallets, and a metropolitan playground with over 3 million inhabitants. After showers and free breakfast (I would say continental, but Panama is kind of in the no-man´s land for continents) we caught a taxi from the hotel to a part of the city called Casco Viejo. Before the Canal was built in 1904, Casco Viejo comprised the entire city. There were only about 30,000 inhabitants.

We rode through a pretty tough area called Chorillo. Even Chuck, who´s bulletproof, told us that we didn´t need to be walking down any dark alleys there. The driver let us out next to a big museum situated on the west side of a large public square in Casco Viejo. On the north edge of the square, there was a huge cathedral that boasted a white bell tower on each side. We took some pictures there and headed south on Avenida Central to the ocean.

From this, the second oldest part of the historic city, we could see modern Panama City, with its towering skyscrapers, sprawling eastward down the Pacific coast. We walked down the coast, catching some great views of the sea and crossing paths with numerous tourist groups. If you can believe this, some Chinese people were taking pictures on one of the sidewalks. I started speaking to them in Chinese, and got them to snap a picture of Brad and me with the city in the background.

We made a circle back to the square (a lot of shapes there), passing the French embassy on the way. Once back to where we started, we sat down to rest and plan our next course.

A Haitian refugee who identified himself as Jacques approached us as we sat on the bench. He began babbling about the plight of his country, asking us if we had heard of the poverty his countrymen had to endure. He told us he would be obliged to give us a tour of the area.

And then it came--the punch line. We knew it was coming from the time he sat down.

"I´ve been around to twelve churches today, and we´re trying to raise money to buy one can of milk for 27 kids. If you could help us, I´d appreciate it. And I wish you had time to let me earn the money by taking you on a tour," he said.

I´ve heard beggars´scams before, so I tested this one out. He said the can of milk (a giant can of condensed milk) would cost around $5, and he´d lend us the 75 cents he had to help pay for it.

"Okay, we can help you. Show us where to buy the milk." Now, if this guy just wanted money, he would´ve left us alone at that point. But no, he dutifully led us to a shop a few steps away and found the can he was talking about. He handed it to me.

Call me a softy or whatever, but I can´t refuse someone that needs food, especially if the food is for children. I went to the register to pay for the milk. And guess what. More Chinese people. I got them laughing as I asked them in their native language whether or not they were Chinese. Jacques also got a kick out of it--and some milk for the kids.

After the milk incident, we left Jacques and traveled the pedestrian walkway of Avenida Central. Innumberable shops lined the road on both sides, most of them either zapaterias (shoe stores) or cell phone shops. We enjoyed the experience, but didn´t find any great bargains.

By the time we had passed the shops and dodged some diablos rojos (red devils, school buses sprayed with graffiti boasting pimped-out rims and deafening mufflers. These are an integral part of the public transporation system in Panama City), it was noon and the sun was high in the sky. It beat down on my neck, picking on the places where I had forgotten to put sunscreen.

We took refuge in a Burger King for lunch, then headed over to Albrook Mall, an American-style shopping center that seemed to go on for miles. We stayed there for a good while, waiting for the brutal sun to move a little more west. Luckily I was able to keep from getting burned.

Another taxi later, and we made it to the Parque Natural Metropolitano (Metropolitan Nature Park, for those of you who don´t ¡Habla Español!), a 250-hectare forest preserved right in the middle of the city. The lady at the desolate park was very polite, and I could actually understand most of what she was saying. We hiked a short trail through the jungle, but couldn´t find any of the birds and monkeys the Lonely Planet book had been so excited about. While that was a letdown, the quick trek whetted our appetites for Coiba even more.

All that walking coupled with the sun exposure had us dog-tired, so Brad and I hopped a cab back to our hotel, the Country Inn and Suites in the Amador, located right next to southern part of the Canal. The sea is about 100 yards from our pool, and the Bridge of the Americas is entirely visible from the grounds.

The rest of the day wasn´t too eventful, other than the fact that we got word that our Coiba permits wouldn´t come through in time for us to get out on the island. Don´t fret though. To make a long story short, something got lost in translation, and one of the guys at the office told Chuck it would be all right if we just went out there and got permits from the ANAM Ranger station on the north end of the island. Now, if we could just find our guide, Mali Mali, we´d be ready to go. The former prisoner is taking care of some things here in the city, but we haven´t touched based with him yet.

With all these things going on, our theme for the day has been that it´s good to know a sovereign God who won´t let something happen to us unless he can use it for good.

I´m learning a lot, about this historic city and about myself. I hope you´ll continue to share the journey with us, as we attempt to conquer more of the city tomorrow and prepare for our expedition to Santa Catalina, and ultimately to Coiba.

It begins

It hasn't even been half a day since we boarded the plane in Atlanta, but the adventure has already begun. And by adventure, I mean peculiar circumstances that have blindsided us and knocked us out of what little comfort we had.

The plane ride was pleasant, a 4-hour walk in the park compared to the 20-plus hour sojourn to China that Brad and I are used to. There was a surprising amount of college students on the plane, a few of which down an entire bottle of Jack in the four hours we were on board. I was impressed that they could still walk after we landed. I sat next to a guy named Jason, a lonely adventurer drawn to the surfing environment in Santa Catalina, Panama. From what I gathered, he liked the solitude just as much as the "big pipes" he plans to catch tomorrow. He had been on a surfing excursion to Panama before--for five months--and apparently he couldn´t get enough.

After the landing, we were able to get through customs relatively quickly. The lady at the window asked me if I could speak Spanish.

"A little bit," I replied. She then proceeded to ask me some questions in Spanish, none of which I could answer. So much for a little bit.

Baggage claim was a breeze too. This was shaping up to be a nice travel experience. To me, a missed connection is more of an opportunity than a mishap, but there are times I enjoy having things actually work out like I plan them. All we needed was for Chuck to be waiting on the other side of the painted black automatic doors that separated the baggage area from the arrivals terminal.

We walked through and were greeted with hoards of people lined up behind those temporary barriers you see in restaurants and Six Flags lines. My eyes sifted through the sea of tan faces. Chuck´s was nowhere to be found.

"Maybe he´s outside waiting with the car," one of us (I´m not sure which) reasoned. So out into the heavy air we went, and we were welcomed by Panama´s distinct aroma. Still no sign of Chuck. Back inside, we regrouped. Brad noticed some payphones, and I tried to use them to call Chuck´s Panamanian cell phone. No luck there, so I tried out my Spanish on two ladies sitting next to me.

I asked them if they could help me dial the number. We had a difficult time communicating about whether the number was Panamanian or American. One of them took me to the phone and tried her best, but to no avail. I´d tell you the woman´s name, but Í've already forgotten it.

So here we were, stranded at the Panama airport with weak language skills and no idea where Chuck was. We waited a few more minutes, hoping he´d arrive in his rental van to rescue us. He didn´t come. A cab driver had been eyeing us since we walked through the door. By this time, it was past eleven, and business was getting slim. With no other options, I asked the guy if he could give us a ride to the hotel where Chuck is staying. He responded by leading us out to his taxi.

"How much to Hotel Europa?" I asked.

"25 dolares," he said, as if he was giving us a steal of a deal.

I shook my head and told him I thought it was too expensive.

"18 and no less," he said. I still thought we were getting ripped off. The look on my face told him that I wasn´t pleased.

"10," I said.

"15," he countered. I agreed.

The ride was interesting. I did my best to converse with the driver, whose English was limited to numbers and words like "brother." I´m still terrible at Spanish, but it at least started to come back to me a little bit. After 25 minutes or so, we pulled up at the hotel. The girl at the front desk said they had no vacancy, and she couldn´t find a Chuck Holton in the database. Still no sign of him.

Our driver, who was waiting outside with Brad, said he would take us to a "more economical" hotel where we could get a room, internet and free breakfast for $20. We decided we´d find Chuck in the morning.

After settling in and saying goodbye to our friend, we sat down in the internet area. Having exhausted all other means of communication, I sent an email to Chuck telling him where we were and what had happened. We fully expected it to take him till tomorrow to find us. Less than 30 minutes later, we heard a light rap on the door. We looked up, and sure enough, it was him. Chucky boy to the rescue.

"C´mon guys. You can come stay with me," he said after our initial greetings.

Sadly, we´d already paid for the room, and we couldn´t get a refund. We counted it as a sunk cost, a really expensive 20 minutes on the internet, and we grabbed our packs and headed out of the tiny rat hole that was our room. We piled in the van and in a few minutes, we were staring at a very modern and spacious Country Inn and Suites, where I now sit writing this narrative.

I came seeking adventure, and today´s strange events promise nothing less. And just think; it´s only just begun.

¡Vamos a Panama!

For those of you who don't know, I'm taking a little break from the China narrative, and I'll be blogging about my trip to Panama for the next few days (while I'm there). So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride. It's sure to be bumpy and filled with twists and turns.