Panama City, Panama; November 1992
Waiting for the Sun to rise… desperately. My head hurt and I was very sweaty. I didn’t want to shut my eyes anymore because I was tired of the dream. I couldn’t deal with it anymore. There seemed to be a dim light in the atmosphere. It had to be almost dawn. I wanted to get up and face the day. I wanted the shitty night to be over. I had things I needed to do. I was in Panama City. I wanted to continue South to South America. The only possible way to go overland to South America was to go through the area known as the Darien Gap into Columbia. The guide book warned that it was a dangerous route filled with drug smugglers and paramilitaries. Indeed, the tiny Isthmus which connects Columbia to Panama had become sort of legendary among the many backpackers I met traveling in Central America… Have you done the Gap? No way man, the Gap is too dangerous. Si’, the Gap Es muy peligroso. I want go Gap? You too? Do you dare to do Darien man, cuz it is danger zone….
As a practical matter it was very difficult to “do Darien” because the area was mostly a very big swamp with only a few passable dirt roads. Control of the few roads was often in dispute between various rival paramilitary factions so much traveling in the region was done by speed boats or small plane. The guidebook recommended getting on the ground, up to the minute information before trying any route through the region because the security situation there was always in flux. Part of me wanted to do it, but mostly I was afraid. With all the news stories about Pablo Escobar and violent drug wars in Columbia, I was thinking about skipping Columbia altogether. I really wanted to hurry up and get to the Amazon. Couldn’t I by-pass Columbia altogether and just quickly cut through Venezuela to Brazil?
According to my guidebook, it was possible to go directly by boat from Panama City, Panama to a harbor on the coast near Caracas, Venezuela but it was not easy to arrange passage because there was no official public ferry plying the route. There were a few private cruise ships that connected the two destinations but passage on cruise ships was expensive with several pleasure stops along the way. It was also possible to charter a boat from the Panama City harbor to the Venezuelan harbor but that too would be very expensive unless you were part of a big group defraying the costs. For shoestring travelers, my guidebook recommended asking at the private cruise lines for a job as a deckhand in exchange for free passage or going to the harbor and checking bulletin boards for notices of groups that might be looking for sign-ons. So that was my plan for the day. Head to the harbor to find out about boats to Venezuela and scope out some on the ground, up to date information on the Darien route to Columbia.
The sun was definitely up. It was light out. I climbed my hungover, sweaty self out of bed and went across the hall to the bathroom and showers. I had to brush my teeth about six times and submit to a blast of very cold splash, but I felt mostly sane by the time I dressed and headed out the door to find breakfast. This was 1992, so I was traveling without cell phone or iPad and I had no individual timepiece so I never really knew what time it was but I was guessing it was about 7:00 am. The price of the hotel room theoretically included breakfast that was served from 7:00am -10:00am in the balcony sitting area so that is where I went. A young local man dressed in waiter whites greeted me as I approached and asked if I wanted coffee or tea. I scanned the scene. Only a few tables were occupied but there was Gunther sitting at the same table as the evening before. He saw me as well and gestured for me to join him. I told the waiter I wanted coffee and went to join my new Swiss friend.
“Good morning my young gringo friend,” he said, “I trust you found some food last night and got yourself a good night sleep.”
“Sort of,” I said as I sat down. “I went to the Irish place and had the Shepard’s pie.”
“Not exactly Panamanian cuisine but delicious nonetheless.”
“Sure tasted good,” I said, “but it didn’t do well in my belly.”
“Now now,” said Gunther, “don’t blame da pie for da problem of da whiskey.”
“Very perceptive,” I said.
“Or da problem of da tequila,” he added. His wrinkled eyes twitched sporadically as he smiled like a dirty gnome in possession of incriminating secrets.
The realization hit me with a wave of nausea. “Oh my god, you were there. Did I see you? Did I talk to you? I hope I didn’t say anything offensive. I’m sorry if I did. I was really drunk. I don’t even know why. I honestly can’t remember seeing you at all. For that matter, the whole night is such a blur that I hardly remember anything. I was so wasted I think I even threw up in the plaza on the way home. Could someone have spiked my drink?”
“Perhaps,” he said, “but probably not. I was only there for a half hour around ten o’clock. We didn’t talk because you were busy doing shots of tequila with some bar friends when I saw you. I waved hello but you didn’t seem to recognize me. My educated guess is that it was the tequila that made you sick. Someone else didn’t spike your drink. You spiked it yourself by switching from good clean whiskey to dirty yellow piss water.”
At this point, the waiter in white arrived carrying my coffee. He was Panamanian but his English was very good. There were three breakfast options; pancakes, eggs or fruit salad. Gunther already had the pancakes in front of him and I chose the eggs (huevos revueltoes). After the waiter was gone, I sipped the coffee and tried to relax. But the caffeine gave me the jitters.
“So now what?” said Gunther inquisitively. “You heading towards da Gap very soon or you planning to stay around and take in some Panamanian attractions first?” Continue reading