This blog contains my adventures in Panama with the End of All Roads Crew. For my previous Costa Rica blog, click here.
The Costa Rica/Panama border was easily the most crowded and hectic that I went through. In a lot of countries I managed to cross at one of the less-traveled crossing, or hit at times like Saturday of Semana Santa – when it was a ghost town. The guys got a helper whose business model seemed to be to underbid, but then start adding on charges for whatever various BS throughout the process.
Bob was holding pretty firm, but of course when the helper got me alone he hit me up for more money for stuff like “Oh no now there’s two guys inspecting the car and they both want a little bribe”. Right. But now I have to think – do I want this guy, who knows all the inspectors, annoyed at me? And that coupled with my well-documented atrocious negotiation skills, of course I gave him a little more money.
All in all I think he got $50 for helping a car and 3 bikes on the Costa Rica and Panama sides – which is a fair price. He just had an annoying way of getting there. In the end I think he and Bob had a 10 minute brow-beating session for more money, where Bob refused to budge. And of course even that makes me uncomfortable to be in the vicinity of. But I gritted it out and didn’t wander off and hide somewhere. Big moment for me.
Panama is basically a long snake that goes mostly East/West but writhes into North/South at some points. In fact due to the curvature, there’s even a point in the middle of the country where you can watch the sun rise over the Pacific Ocean and set over the Atlantic – pretty cool. We debated stopping in Boquete which is a town I wanted to check out in the mountains in the far West of the country for one night. But they wanted to get their bikes sorted in Panama City, since they only had a few days left before they had to go back to work. I could have split off myself but I figured I’d get the chance to come back and spend more time, which I did.
So we barreled all the way to Panama City, which made it a long day with the border crossing. But we got the dramatic entrance to Panama City at night, which is like nothing else in Central America that’s for sure.
At one point we were on a completely black road driving through the mountains – with bumper to bumper car headlights blinding us from the other side of the road over the concrete barriers. So basically the road was invisible black, even with our headlights on. It was some white-knuckle driving. I became convinced my headlights had stopped working.
The next day we checked out the Panama Canal at the Miraflores locks. Unfortunately there were no boats coming through at that point. But it was still pretty cool. Pop quiz: why are there locks in the Panama Canal? Literally all 4 of us originally had the wrong idea. I’ll put the answer below.
The locks are because the middle of the Panama Canal is a big lake (which they created with dams). You can see it off in the distance in the picture above. The lake is 27 meters higher than sea level. The locks *are not* because the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean are at different levels – which is literally what all of us thought. But if you really think about it – no way that difference can be so much that you need to build giant locks for it.
This is why you travel. If you don’t travel you think really dumb things about the places you haven’t been to. It’s inevitable. It was a constant theme of Tony Bourdain.
<<< Anthony Bourdain aside >>>
I’m still devastated at losing him. He was my travel hero. I didn’t really travel until I was 30 years old – but since then I’ve done my best to make up for it. I’ve seen every episode of No Reservations, The Layover, Parts Unknown and even his pre-No Reservations show – (a Cook’s Tour – where he first encountered Kansas City BBQ).
I’ve spent literally, and I mean literally, 100s of hours fantasizing about if was lucky enough to wind up next to Tony Bourdain on a business class flight. It’s been my favorite little diversion for years now. First, I was going to pitch him Kansas City of course. How the hell could my culinary and travel hero not know about my hometown Kansas City? Then I found his – “A Cook’s Tour” episode I linked above online, and realized – oh KC was one of the first places he went on his journey. Cool.
But then he finally did a real No Reservations episode about Kansas City – where he nailed our BBQ scene: Chiefs tailgating, Stroud’s, Tom Pendergast. He also added a bunch of cool things about Kansas City that I didn’t even know – like how the original Naked Lunch, which inspired the stream of consciousness novel by William S. Burroughs – was from KC. Wow!
So for the last 6 years or so, my fantasy was pitching him my new home (well, close to it): Torrance. Torrance is the suburban Korea-Japan-Thai-Vietnam-Philippino-China-Town. Even India as well. There is so much good food in Torrance and the nearby towns – and it’s all CHEAP. Insane ramen, tataki, banh mi, pani puri, sushi. My ex and I loved eating at Musha (sadly now closed) – a Japanese family restaurant. This was a revelation for me. Musha had Japanese food. But it also had food that Japanese-Americans, sometimes many generations removed, liked to eat – like rice au-gratin – as a signature dish? It dawned on me – this was their comfort food. This was their Red Lobster.
Of course! Would they only want to eat authentic Japanese food if living in the US for a while? It gave me an insight into how cultures evolve, how local ingredients and customs mix with traditions brought from the old country – sometimes to make something *better* – and ultimately the big insight: this is how food takes over the world. This is how pizza went from Naples, to NYC, to now I can walk down the street where I am staying currently in a small town in Panama called Boquete and choose from a half dozen pizza options. Food constantly evolves – and connects people and cultures in a visceral way that transcends language. This was one of Bourdain’s constant themes. That and poor people always make the best food – which of course is the quintessential story of KC BBQ.
After seeing his Queens and Outer Boroughs NYC episodes, I just knew it was a matter of time until he discovered Torrance. And the best part? Unlike many of Bourdain’s other “discovered” local gems, he wouldn’t have to worry that the hipsters could ruin the scene. There is no way they are ever going to drive down all the way from Los Feliz and Echo Park to ruin Torrance. It’s just too far.
I’ve got a few other celebrity heroes floating around out there: Cesar Milan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Mike Rowe, the Mythbusters guys, Jeremy Wade from River Monsters.
But Tony Bourdain was far and away #1.
So how do I reconcile when my hero, who’s basically living my dream life, decides to take the most drastic step a human being can take to escape it?
Yeah. That’s a tough one.
The only thing I know for sure is to be overwhelmingly thankful that despite my numerous demons and issues, I’ve never been cursed with depression. I consider myself extremely lucky that regard. I don’t understand it except on a surface level. IE – feeling like crap for a few days after a bender. But no matter how bad I felt, I always knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel.
That and unlike Anthony Bourdain, I will never be able to see the majority of the world in a real way. And by that I mean to really experience and know a place and it’s people – not just blow through and do a few tours. Maybe I will see 10-20% of what he saw in what I’ve seen and will see in the years I have left. So I always have something new to look forward to.
Maybe he just ran out of places to escape to.
<<< End of Anthony Bourdain aside >>>
Yaviza and The Darien Gap
The Pan-Am highway comes to an end in a town called Yaviza, beyond is only the impenetrable jungle of the Darien Gap and eventually Colombia. From road end in Yaviza to road end in Turbo, Colombia – is only some 60 miles as the crow flies. I never could get a solid answer on why a road has never been attempted through this jungle. But the best bet seems to be that both countries want the barrier for some reason. Ken Jennings agrees. As does this Quora poster:
This is important, really important actually and the whole world is better off keeping it this way at least until the USA legalizes drugs and Colombia gets rid of its Guerrilla forces. We(Panamanians) have an inhospitable zone called Darien where almost no one lives. It’s basically The Jungle there, and we like it that way since it isolates us from the very big problems south of the border. It’s good for the environment too.
At one point in the 90s there was a ferry, and talk of reopening one recently. But it never materialized. This is why everyone has to ship their car from Panama to Colombia or vice versa. Someone crossed it in a car in 1960 – averaging about 200 meters per hour. And another team crossed in the 70s, with the leader calling the Darien the most challenging stretch of his career.
Depending on which blogs you read this trip is either mildly adventurous or very sketchy. In the recent past the FARC guerillas have used the Gap to hide out on the Colombia side. And there is a constant flow of drugs and human traffic across the Gap. But I trusted the Tucks who said the day trip was nothing dangerous, and the military and police are constantly looking out for you as a traveler.
The guys had some debate about whether they had time to squeeze in the trip. But then it was decided that a group of bikers with a blog called End of all Roads couldn’t really skip the End of the Road. So we headed out a day before they were supposed to turn in their bikes for air shipping.
After a few hours on the road, Dan pulled over abruptly at a roadside restaurant. I pulled over onto the shoulder behind him. As my car slowed down, it started to skid in the mud a bit and I felt like I was going to come to a stop uncomfortably close to his Bike. So I swerved to the right a bit, not realizing the right was still basically a ditch. It was so overgrown with grass and weeds at that point that it didn’t register with me.
So my car started to tilt into the ditch a bit, I stopped and tried to back up and out of it. Well that just seemed to get me deeper into it, as did going forward. Basically any movement just got me more tilted to the right and embedded in the ditch. At this point a truck was beside me and motioning he could help.
But I was annoyed and embarrassed so I just slammed it in reverse and went all the way back to the end of the ditch (which I somehow was hoping would just peter out into flat).
Under no circumstances was this the correct course of action, which I completely knew at the time and just didn’t care. And of course the ditch did not peter out, but ended with a drainpipe as all ditches do. I clanged into the drainpipe pretty hard, and at that point the car wouldn’t go forward anymore. Welp time to face the music. With a decent amount of difficulty I climbed out of the drivers door, to the waiting crowd.
The guy in the truck turned out to be a local propane delivery driver. The guy in the red who helped attach the strap seemed to just appear from the softball game across the street. We got the strap attached and I climbed back in the car. All of this within 10 minutes after I got stuck – which none of us were really optimistic would be resolved quickly.
Fortunately Dan finished from his “emergency” that caused him to pull over so abruptly, just in time to film this epic piece of video. If you look closely you’ll see Justin offering me a beer right before they try to pull me out. Thanks Justin, but I should probably try to put both hands on the wheel.
Two caveats here:
1) I was wrong about the pitch. I was looking at the forward/backward roll. Just from looking at the pictures, the side to side pitch had to be probably 30% or more.
2) Just for the record – me being bitchy with Dan being a bad interviewer is a result of him complaining about me being a dead interviewee. Which is true. Just saying there’s history. 😉
We offered beers to everyone that helped. Saoul the driver and one other guy took us up, but the mysterious man in red headed back across the street. Once we bought Saoul’s beer, he started buying us rounds. So we got stuck in a virtuous cycle of watery beer for a bit. Saoul told us he had a hospedaje (cheap hotel) just down the road. We followed him down to check it out, then told him we’d stay at his place that night after checking out Yaviza.
I think we hit one more checkpoint. Basically the military and police all want to know a) what we’re doing down here. and b) if we’ll be back tonight. If not presumably(?) they’d come looking for us. I didn’t mind the checkpoints, because I knew they were just looking out for us. The military guys even wanted selfies with the bikes. What was more unnerving was the police checkpoint where some guy in acid washed jeans came out of his little hut and yelled at us for going too fast – both ways. I guess Dan and the guys got threatened with handcuffs on the way back. I was lagging behind at that point and just got a tongue lashing.
Yaviza is a little confusing to navigate. but eventually you find this footbridge that everyone pretty much agrees marks the end of the road. On the other side is a little village and footpaths. All heavy traffic is done by boats past here. I couldn’t get the Boys II Men song End of the Road out of my head, but other than that it was a great time.
We made it back to Saoul’s hospedaje just about dark. He and his wife were amazing hosts – and BBQed for us.
Later we went back to the original bar where I had gotten stuck for a couple beers.
It was pretty dead but for some reason they were playing the weirdest most awful sounding hispanic singer I’ve ever heard.
I still have no idea what was going on with this song.
The next day we went straight to the airport where the guys started packing up their bikes. Well first we found a nearby laundromat because they didn’t want to let their sweaty bike clothes rot in transit for 3 months. They then went to the airport while I got an oil change and car wash next door and waited for their laundry to be done.
On the drive back downtown I got my first real taste of serious Central American rains. You would think a city like Panama City would have deluge drainage problem solved. But I guess if it comes down too fast there’s really nothing you can do.
The next day the guys headed out early to fly back to their jobs/lives.
I began the next phase of my adventure – getting my car shipped out of Panama, and I even got to ride a boat through the Panama Canal. Read about it here.
Well written Matt! Sounds like a great adventure! That guy Dan sure is funny and really told your story well of going off the road. I enjoyed it all. I’m gonna have to look up End Of All Roads. I look forward to hearing the rest of your journey to Ushuaia! Safe travels
PS. Don’t pay those guys at the border!
Thanks! Regarding the border guys – if they provide a pretty valuable service I’ll pay. It’s a lot more difficult with a car. I don’t like the scammy business model this guy used though. Some of the other guys were more upfront.
Another amazing, funky, unpredictable adventure in your Central American odyssey! The stuck-in-the-ditch episode was hilarious (and I let you drive us around when you visit K.C.!). I didn’t know you were such an Anthony Bourdain fan. My condolences. Depression’s a b_tch. I’m glad you never go there. Of course, one of your crazy End-Of-The-Road buddies would be named “Bob.” We’re everywhere! A bit strange to be reading about you in Panama, now that you’ve been back in the States for weeks. Glad you went. Glad you’re home.