Tuesday, February 28, 2012

“Modeling” for Panama Tourism

I really wish I had more pictures of this whole day. While there is lots of pictures and film somewhere, it is not yet in my possession, so unfortunately I will have to post it all later. 
Doesn´t this add look legit to you?
The whole opportunity was too good to be true, so I didn’t mention it to many people before it happened in case it did not turn out the way I thought. A couple weeks ago they were promoting a tourism campaign with Markez World Wide http://www.blogger.com/post-create.g?blogID=3604174840679045883and I heard about it though one of the AIESECers, on the facebook page (totally legit right?). They were looking for “European looking” people to help promote Panama as a tourist destination. I didn´t believe it but that little voice in the back of my head was like “hmm, what if it is that easy?” So I started doing research. I talked to the guy who supposedly knew the people from the agency. I checked with some other AIESECers to make sure they knew the guy and the agency. I researched them online. When I finally found a news article about how the agency had won this contract from the government, I decided it was legit and that I would not be kidnapped and sold into sex slavery. 

So I emailed in a little letter with some adventurous pictures and heard back within an hour that not only were they interested, but that I had already been picked. My suspicious side told me they were a little over-zealous, but it still sounded like fun because they were going to be shooting various activities so I might be able to see several things and have touristy experiences not only for free, but they would pay me for my time. Woot.
A few days before filming started, they had a meeting for all the models to assign roles and tell people when and where to show up. Still cautious, I asked Mauricio to accompany me after work that day, just in case. It turns out the agency was only a block away from where I worked. It was off the main road but looked like such a fun place to work. Bright colors, really imaginative designs and decorations, a great ambiance for a creative, marketing firm.  We were some of the last people to arrive but we still had to wait for it to get started. Oh Latin time. 

There were all different kinds of people there because they were trying to display all the different aspects of Panama. More or less one by one or in small groups, they told us what we would be portraying. Finally my turn came. They told me that I looked very mature and carried myself well, so I would be playing the mother of a 9 year old in a family that was visiting the canal. They introduced me to my son and husband… which was actually hilarious because the kid they picked was a pretty good mix of my “husband” and I. They gave me some instructions on what kind of clothes to bring and said to come back at 5 am that Thursday.
Since they were still looking for people and Mauricio was conveniently right there, they asked him to be in the commercial too. He very excitedly agreed. The funniest part is that he would be playing a Panamanian. The Bolivian guy was going to play a Panamanian… haha! Either way we both left the agency very excited and antsy to get started. 

Wednesday was Mauricio´s turn to go to the filming and I only heard about the experience afterward. The group they had for that day was taken to the Caribbean super early in the morning. Because they were going to film on and around an island, they could only take a few at a time including the camera crew and everyone so some of the extras had to stay on the beach. What a way to spend the day, right? As Mauricio told me, they had to do a lot of shots and ended up pretty behind schedule so he didn’t get to film that day. They paid him for his time anyway ($100) to sit on a beach all day) and said they would call him when they rescheduled.  Unfortunately he is still waiting. The word is that several of the scenes were behind schedule, so they postponed the rest of the filming until March. My fingers are still crossed for him to play a Panamanian! 

Hearing about his experience I was super excited. While I had wanted to be on the beach instead of playing a 23 yr old mother I knew no matter what I would have a good time, get to see new things and get $$. My only problem was I was having trouble “getting into character.” I did not bring much clothing that fit the role of “European mother” and did not have much to go off of. I kept on thinking of how my host mom from Spain, Pilar dressed. Very classy and feminine. Yeah let´s go with that. I ended up hitting up the inexpensive mall by my work and buying a few thing I thought they might approve of and packed a bag for Thursday morning.

Markez at 5 am. Whomp whomp.
I don’t  care who you are or what you´re going to do, 4 am is not an hour of the morning to get excited about something. I had to take a cab to the agency because it was still pitch black out and around here my hair pretty much glows in the dark. I got there just after 5 and the bus and a couple of the other “models” were there waiting; a Panamanian my age, my son and his grandma. We settled in to wait for the others since the building was closed and others began to arrive. I should have known better than to get there on time. The majority of the commercial crew didn’t even show up until 5:45 and we weren´t in the bus ready to leave until after 6. I should have slept on the bus on the way there but I wanted to see the countryside more than I wanted to sleep. 

On the way there I found out that the crew would be filming two scenes that day; the first of the family at the locks and the second of a group doing zip-lining through the forest. Damn… zip lining… And I had to stand next to a boat with a kid I had when I was 14. Maybe I would get extra EXTRA lucky and they would need more people as extras to zip-line. We stopped at a supermarket in Colón for breakfast. That was another great part of the filming, they fed us and hydrated us all day. We hung around chatting in the little café area for about 30 minutes getting to know each other and munching on empanadas. 

Hair and makeup!
It might not even be fair how much luck I have. When we got to the Gatún Locks on the entrance to the Caribbean side we had to wait a bit to go into the tourist area. The camera crew was preparing and they started doing makeup for those in the scene. As it turns out, the girl that they had selected to go zip-lining later was scared of heights. They pulled me aside and asked if I minded switching. Mind? Do I MIND? Ahhhhh this is perfect!  That is what went through my head at least. I was calm and flexible and said I could do whatever they needed me to do. So it was decided. I got to relax at the locks while the other girl was prepared for the camera as far as wardrobe. (WIN). 
The Husband I Left
The Son I Dont Have

Everyone was invited into the lock area because we had a while to wait until the boat they wanted to film would arrive and be lowered into the Caribbean. While most people just sat and waiting, I was exploring (even though I had already been there) and chatting with everyone around. I even told my orphaned son to look at some of the information and displays they had around the locks to kill some time. He was a lot of fun to be around and definitely the liveliest of the group. I got to know the makeup artist, talk with my husband a very little before he was put into makeup and hung out with the other extras. After about 30 minutes the group went down to film and the rest of us stayed for a bit up in the observation deck. I started talking to a kid from Venezuela who would supposedly be my zip-lining partner. We watched some boats go by, took some pictures, then went down to join the others who were filming on the platform a few feet from the lock. Very exclusive access. I accidentally wandered in to that area and was told to wait out where everyone else was seated. Whoops. 

tractor to where we ate and ziplined
The lock filming seemed to go quickly and we packed up and were off to the next spot. We drove through part of Colón and out a semi-country road with some rural housing. Over some hills and curves we turned into a place call the Granja, literally the ranch. This is where I would be zip-lining. The entrance was pretty dry and dusty with the registration office so looking over the valley I was a little disappointed I might be zipping over grass and dirt. But no… we just checked in a headed down the road further into the ranch. It was more like an extreme sports area and had a little bit of everything; dirt biking, paintball, horses, and other things I couldn’t see from the dirt road. Our bus and a tractor pulled covered cart made our way through the mini mountains to area that over looked the river and lake. That was more like it. The bus could not make it down the last hill so everyone switched to the covered cart down to a restaurant the overlooked the valley and the lake. This was definitely the spot. Gorgeous. And I could even see some lines and platforms. Now I´m excited.

View from above
At the Restaurant
Everyone unloaded from the cart and settled in to have lunch. We sat at the tables overlooking the water and chatted. Most of us were pretty famished and the food took a little while longer than we would have liked to wait but it was delicious when it came. I had fried fish, rice, lentils and patacones and did not even come close to finishing it all. Plus they had this fresh squeezed juice that I had no idea what fruit it was. Orange, carrot, and… delicious. 

After lunch we got ready to go farther up the hill and film. We had a slight problem since I had brought clothes to play a mom but were able to settle on a light blue tshirt and jeans. The second problem was shoes. I did not bring tennis shoes and ended up having to borrow a pair from one of the camera guys. That probably would have been the one thing I would have changed about the day, because my feet looks like boats. Maybe they can crop that out? I changed and they did my make-up and we were off. 

Once we got up the hill we were put into harnesses and helmets. There would be 4 of us in the scene; the Venezuelan and myself as the main characters and two extra guys plus the zip instructor. We were directed to act like a couple, here for the first time, and super excited and taken back by the beauty of the area. That was easy, he was good looking and it was a beautiful spot which I was seeing for the first time. Done and done.
Lets go Zipline!
We did a couple shots of us climbing up onto the platform where we would be taking off from. Then we did a couple different angles of us up on the platform with the instructor adjusting my harness and giving instructions. The best part was that we didn’t actually have lines to say because it would be dubbed over later. They tried a couple different positions and foci with minimum instruction; look like a couple, look excited, pay attention to the instructor. Everything was easy up until that point. 

The next shot was to be of me being hoisted onto the line and taking off. They wanted the instructor to say a line after I left the platform which made things a bit more complicated. It obviously wasn´t going to be perfect the first time and there was no way to bring me back once I was at the next platform. If I went all the way, I´d have to do the whole course and they would have to fetch me at the bottom to bring me back up. The only option was for me to take off, break, and drag me back up. No problem. 

We did the first take and slid a ways down the line, stopped myself, looked at the wire and decided I could hoist myself back up without help. It was surprisingly easier than expected yet completely unexpected and everyone started to cheer, which I found hilarious. The catch phrase was something like “look at the American girl go!” woohooo. So we did a couple takes that way. After two or three my arms were getting a little tired but the hardest part was trying squeeze the tough leather hand grip to break and stop quickly. After the 3rd someone made a joke saying “only 4 or 5 more” and we all laughed. But it wasn’t a joke! We ended up doing 8 total and my arms were protesting. In the last couple they had to grab and pull me in. The funniest part was the last one because everyone could see that I was getting tired and the worry showed on the extras’ faces. So for the final shot the director was like “Please, guys, for Lauren. She´s still smiling so look like you’re having fun too.” 

And yet after all that… I wasn´t able to go to the next platform. They wanted to take some still shots of the group in action as well. So they back the cart a bit down the hill to get a good angle. They wanted it to look at real as possible so the instructor couldn’t hold me in place. I had to hold myself on the line while they took the pictures. While it sounds easy, I had already done 8 where I had to hoist myself back up, the angle on the cable made gravity an extra factor, and I couldn’t hold myself with the glove, only with the tough leather break so it would look believable. We did that 4 times and my arms were absolutely shaking. There is no way they can say I didn’t earn my money that day! 

It didnt suck
Finally they let me take off and continue down the course. The way it works is each group goes with two instructors. One in front who watching you come in and one behind to make sure no one has problems. Zipping was super fun and I can’t wait to do it again. The 4 of us were followed around the course by the make-up artist with a helmet camera and she would film us taking off and coming in. The part I found funny was the way they keep you hooked up even on the platform. The instructors have done it a million times so it’s a bit mechanical and like switching dog leashes from one line to another. 

I think there were 8 or 9 lines in total but the best were the last two toward the bottom of the valley over the water. They were extra long too, right in front of the restaurant where we had eaten. Between the 8th and 9th was a short walk and we were all caught up in the fun. The instructors were doing crazy upside-down tricks and the Venezuelan decided to try it as well, which did not turn out as gracefully. I cut a little loose on the last one too and did a couple 360s but nothing upside down. Maybe next time. 

By that time it was one of the best times of the day, about 4 o clock, good and hot, but absolutely gorgeous overlooking everything.  We walked back up to the restaurant and gathered out things. I changed out of my pants and borrowed shoes and was left by the cart who made its way back already so I rode up with the director. I boarded the bus and we rolled out heading back to Panama. Supposedly they saw a sloth heading out of the Granja but I missed it. I have to see one, that is still on my to-do list. 

The ride back also felt quick as everyone was tired and even I slept a bit. I also chatted with the others my age about a free concert that was supposed to be happening that night and trying to talk them into going. I asked them what they were doing for Carnaval which was coming up and what I should try to do to have the best time possible for my one Carnaval in Panama. Someone suggested Las Tablas and the Venezuelan said he was going. I expressed my interest and he said he would look into it. I half laughed to myself at how down this kid was for whatever came up because on the way back we also talked about the Free Trade Zone and San Blas. The answer was always “Let´s do it.”  Little did I know he would be such a good friend and I did end up going with him to Carnaval (Venezuelan = Alejandro, see pictures from Carnaval, Taboga, etc.) and probably to the other things we´ve talked about as well! He is probably one of my closest friends here!

We arrived back at the agency at about 5:30 and they started paying everyone. For me, $200 cash and some great memories. So much fun. A group of us exchanged contact to exchange pictures and go to the free concert that night. Then I started walking home with the biggest smile on my face because I had had such an amazing day. Free zip-lining and money in my pocket. Halfway home another one of the extras, a Colombian, drove by and gave me a ride on his way to film the evening part in Casco Viejo. I meet some of the nicest people.

Campaign After Party
That night I convinced Vinicius, Mica, and Carlos to come to the concert with us. Alejandro picked us up later than planned because he picked up Jorge the Panamanian and we headed to Parque Omar where the concert supposedly was. Unfortunately, we got there at the end and missed the whole thing. Instead, we headed back, bought beverage and played kings most of the night and laughed the whole time. People here love that game. Ok, not gonna lie I do too. When the night was winding down Jorge invited us to a bus party on Saturday. We agreed but never found the time to meet up with him that night because we were out with a group of AIESECers. Ale also showed me one of those card tricks that I can never figure out and kept tricking me into mini bets. I got him on the last one though because I put the card in the wrong place. Sneaky sneaky. I think that had something to do with why I got to go to Carnaval.

So that was my “modeling” experience. I am more than excited to see the pictures and the commercial when it is all done and edited. Hopefully I will get to see it playing or someone will pick it out where ever they decide to air it. Either way, it was an awesome, fun, new experience and I met some great people. I´m so glad I didn’t let the opportunity slip by and will never forget what great things can come from well researched opportunities. 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Panamanian Carnaval 2012

There are a lot of titles I could have given this entry. The runner up was “How to Lose 10 Pounds in 4 Days” since I did nothing but dance and ate very little but I decided to go with something more generic and all encompassing.  So much happened in the 5 days of Carnaval (4 days celebrating, another for travel and recovery) that it is all a blur. Thank goodness for pictures and videos, they definitely help convey the experience better than I can. Anyway, here goes. 

I absolutely have to start with Friday afternoon at work because it was the perfect start to a kick-ass weekend. At the very end of the day, after wrapping up work, I had two more interviews with Abercrombie and Fitch. I’ve been keeping this on the dl because it is all part of a very lonnnggg interview process. Friday brought my interview total to 4, so I´m about halfway done. I chatted first with a member of the team on which I would be working. He was a ton of fun to talk with and it barely felt like an interview. Second was the person I would be working under on the team. From everything I am gathering, we are talking about my dream job and I am a perfect fit so I am getting very excited. Dream job, right out of college, for an awesome company. I could barely contain myself. When I left work I pretty much skipped all the way home. 

Thinking I would be hitting the road right away (c´mon, haven’t I learned yet?) I started running around trying to get everything done especially because everything I had heard indicated that the traffic would be atrocious no matter what time we left. Pack, grocery, shoes to throw away after and ready. About the time I was done Ale was there to pick me up and for once I didn’t forget anything. Unfortunately we had to backtrack through about 45 mins of construction and traffic to pick up the others almost next door to where I lived when I first arrived, the place we use to joke about having to take a passport to get to because it was so far from everything. With 5 us of jammed in the car and the trunk way too full, we were off. We crossed the Bridge of the Americas at about 9 and most of the way traffic wasn´t too bad, a little stop and go as long as we were on the highway. We switched drivers about 2 hours in after a bathroom and McDonalds break. My first McDonalds in like… 5 years. I love how the menus are just slightly different in other countries. Like here it’s the $1.15 menu… doesn’t quite have the same ring. 

I had also forgotten how much I love driving, and stick no less. Fringe benefits of being the invitee of the invited; I sat shotgun the whole ride and got to drive. Getting the traffic patterns down was interesting. Not so much a culture of slower traffic stay right although I think I saw signs that said it. I ended up getting us almost all the way to Las Tablas. The last hour was back roads through other towns, notably Chitré which is another hot Carnaval spot. Off the highway the traffic was completely stopped for a while because of construction. Again, driving rules here were questionable because everyone was heading into town, no one in the opposite direction, so some took chances and shot up the other lane. Not my car, not me.  

downtown las tablas
We finally got into town at about 2:30. We parked, met up with someone who was apparently waiting for us, and walked into town. At this point I was tired since as co-captain I had promised not to sleep and just taking everything in. We strolled down the main road with little stands selling souvenirs and a lot of people heading in the other direction. We walked through the main parts of the city and stopped in front of the place where, little did I know, I would spend the next 4 days and nights, the PH.  Some people bought their passes but Ale and I decided to wait for something about getting them for free. We wandered back to the car and parted ways with the 3 who had some with us and traded them for two different friends. I’m not going to lie, I wasn´t understanding much at this point to two reasons; 1. I was tired and just going through the motions, 2. They were speaking something that I would NOT call Spanish. 

Literally along for the ride, we dropped our stuff at the house and went to pick up I don’t know what. As a precursor to the rest of this entry, I have to give mad props to Alejandro for being an awesome friend and not only inviting me but for being super attentive the whole weekend. When his friends said just drop her at the house (where I didn’t know anyone yet and it was 3 am) he just laughed and I kept my place as shotty. So off we drove into the middle of nowhere to pick something up that I wasn´t listening to what it was. It was a ways out and a bit off road and we were just about lost after the friends fell asleep. Out of nowhere we turned off into a backcountry house surrounded by trees with no lights and what looked to me like broken down cars. Ale honked and said he we were and some voice out of the darkness said ok, in the brown truck. Ok seriously wtf are we doing here?! This is what was going through my head as Ale go out of the car and started rooting through the SUV in front of us. What were we there for? All the beer we would need for the week for like 20 people. The picture doesn’t even show all of it. Some other person had brought it in their car and we were just picking it up. We never ended up going back there but its for the best, it would totally lose its mystery during the day. I prefer to just laugh to myself and what was going through my mind about being the blonde girl in the back woods of Panama with two people passed out in the car and the other shuffling through a strange vehicle. 

Car full of beer at the most sketch pick-up place
The night didn’t even end there. We drove back to our house and had to inflate the bed. Yeah, inflatable bed at 3 something in the morning. Not the best planning. Hairdryer wasn’t an option (thinking *pleaseee don’t make me sleep on the cold tile floorrrr) but luckily there was a hand pump. Not so luckily, we woke up the entire house pumping up the bed and the mom even came in to see what was making so much noise. I felt so bad. Definitely not how I wanted to meet my host. Either way… bed done, pass out.

I was the first to wake up at 10 ish since I was still on work schedule. The first people I met were part of the extended family we were staying with. A young couple with a toddle, which is what woke me up. I went out and said hello and apologized for the disturbance last night, still embarrassed. Then went about waking up.  I noticed there wasn’t much pressure when brushing my teeth and didn’t even think about it when going to the bathroom, which barely flushed. Then a few minutes later I went to get a cup of water… and there wasn’t any. Uh oh. Feeling like an ass AGAIN I asked what might have happened. This time it wasn’t my fault. Because so many people come into town for Carnaval, and because of the water they use in town during the day, it was common for there not to be any at certain times when it was being used most. I’m just glad I learned to plan ahead before it was a…. um… problem. When the parents woke up I introduced myself to them too and they were wonderfully nice and welcoming. Even showed me where extra water was for different uses. 

packin coolers
When everyone else woke up we ate and got ready to go into town. The guys had matching tshirts made for a couple of the days which were pretty funny and incredibly convenient for finding out group. We hopped in the dad´s work truck, girls in front guys rollin in the back with the coolers, and he dropped us off close to downtown. Ale and I bought our passes and the others organized the coolers. Along with my 4-day “VIP” entry I got a branded camelback. A CAMELBACK. BAHAHAHAH. Trust me, I put it to good use until I lost it…. Later that day. I had every intention of swiping another but never found one. Oh well, I came home with other swag. The rest of Saturday during the day is an awesome blur of dancing, getting soaked in water and meeting a ton of others in our group. Unfortunately, I didn’t know to take my camera the first day but the other days make up for it and follow the same pattern. The day party shut down at about 5 and each day we would walk over to the Aunt´s house just out of town for food.  The house was gorgeous with a garden out front and full of family who had come into town to celebrate. A cousin of my hosts happened to be the Queen of Carnaval in Las Tablas which is the best Carnaval in Panama so let´s just say the Queen of Panamanian Carnaval. Everywhere you went in town there was posters of her, kind of like Vermilion when Allie won Miss Teen USA in 2005. Only lets be real, Allie´s was a bigger deal. It was easy to tell which house was the Aunt´s because it was also covered in posters of Olga. 
Queen of Las Tablas
Food was always followed by a truck ride back to the house where we were staying and an afternoon nap in preparation for the evening. Each night we got ready and headed back to the PH until about 5. Unfortunately on the first night was wasn´t told to bring my ID which I left at home locked in with all my valuables. When we arrived it turned out that neither Ale nor I had it and we didn’t know we needed it. The problem was only the parents had the keys to the house so we had to scour town to find them at the family flat in the center. Once we had keys we rolled home, grabbed my stuff and drove back. Another note on Ale, I have absolutely no idea how it gets by when no one is there with directions. The good thing is that he is never afraid to ask, the funny thing is not ONCE did he remember how to get back to the car or back home once in the car. Thank GOD I have a good sense of direction. We got back, met up with the group and were there until… um 5 ish.

Day two was a close repeat of day one, except this time with my camera. There´s no way to describe how fun it was and I don’t even think the video captures it. People standing and dancing on coolers, on tables, up in the VIP zone, and water being sprayed everyone 30 mins or so to keep the party goes when everyone started screaming “AGUAAAA.” Ale and I headed up to the VIP for the view. The panoramic might be my favorite picture of the PH. But the videos still trump it. 

Post day party was the usual, back to eat, home to sleep, wake up, PH. The party was a little lame when we got there, or at least I think it was, so we ventured out into the town.  Even after the party stopped at the PH there was always more happening in the center of town whether it was parade, music, fireworks or whatever. Sunday night we headed back home for a big with plans to go back and party later but everyone passed out. Probably for the best.

The Murga, band that plays all the time
Monday: camera day two and much of the same awesomeness. The difference was when the party ended I lost track of the group while talking to some other people who were next to us and had asked me where I was from. Being a very open person, I of course stayed and talked with them and drank their beverage. When I noticed that my group had disappeared, my new friends asked if I wanted to go with them. Well of course that sounded like a good idea. I needed a little while away even though I knew perfectly well where my group had gone.  As a side note, every once in a while I will more or less lie when people ask where I´m from because I don’t want them to speak to me in English. My place of choice? Southern Brazil. I can at least make it believable and that way people´s only option is Spanish. Win. Until walking with this group we passed someone who was speaking Portuguese. MEHHHH. They were like OMG talk to him so I did and he believed me for like 5 minutes at which point the other group had already moved on. Yay more new friends.

new friends, super blurry because its a picture of a picture :(
They gave me drinks and we hung out and danced in the street for a while until it started to get dark. I believe Monday was the day I got most burnt… as pictures can prove. At that point they were headed home to eat too and invited me to join them. I politely declined since my friends might be wondering where the eff I was all this time. A group of the girls insisted on accompanying me home which I agreed with for a few blocks. Then my mildly drunken stubbornness and good sense of direction kicked in since I knew it was a long way 1. I would feel super bad making them walk and 2. They would think I was completely lost going that far. I talked my way out of a taxi since I didn’t know any landmarks nearby the house and of course there were no street names to speak of. Then I talked them into letting me go the rest alone, which was tough, but I agreed to give them a call once I got home knowing my phone had been dead for a day and I didn’t have a charger. I made my way down the little country road and had an awesome walk home. While I love the Latin culture and how much they love to be with groups and other people, sometime I just need my space. Amurrican. 

I got back to the house and had to holler in through the bedroom window for someone to open the door. Through their sleepiness and a little bit of laughter there was exclamations of “the gringa is back” and “where WERE you.” And all I could do was laugh. “I was around.” That afternoon became known as the day I got kidnapped since they never got much detail and I´m still laughing. 

Monday night was another camera-less blur. I know we didn’t stay too late at the PH but the time we were there we were up in the VIP. For most of the time I was the only one in our group dancing. But come on, you can´t waste a good song just sitting and sipping on your drink. So I made more friends. I forget who started talking to who, but I made friends with the Columbian girl next to me and spent the majority of the night dancing with their group. Until the next night when we met back up with them, I had no idea why a camera was following them around. I thought it was just part of the VIP deal so I ignored it. Later in the night I was exhausted since I hadn´t really napped when the others went back to the house so I may or may not have fallen asleep for a little bit on the Colombian´s shoulder. Yes, I was that girl.

Tuesday I wasn´t the only one who was dragging. We all slept in later than planned and were slow to get out of the house. I have no idea why I didn’t take my camera since it´s indestructible. I guess I thought it would be very similar to the other days but I was wrong. The group positioned itself closer to the stage because there were a couple live shows. The first was this pretty renouned DJ who absolutely rocked it. Im not even usually that into house music but he killed it. He also threw out some stuff like cds (which I got one), Yards (which I got one) and even bottles of liquor (which I got one). Definitely an occasion when it was good to stick out in a crowd. You´re welcome, group! The second person to come out was a Panamanian version of Nicki Minaj who was damn sexy and also rocked. The final one was some rapper who wasn’t really my style but it was a good mix. The after shower was more of the same music from the previous days. Carnaval was definitely good for me to learn all the hit music here between going out and the music in the car.

Tuesday night was epically long, but not in a bad way. We of course ate and rested, although a little later than usual. We didn’t get out of the house until probably 12:30. We first headed to the family apartment in the main square for part of the Carnaval parades. The cultural part. After, we headed to the PH and back up to the VIP where we were the first night. I ended up finding my Colombian friend again and rocked out with them, although not as hard as the night before. We got to talk a lot more and I found out than I told them I was Brazilian… haha whoops. I did explain to her that I had lived in Brazil so it wasn’t a complete lie. She explained to me more about her group. They had won some kind of promotion and were filming a type of reality show which is why the camera was following them around. Also, every guy in their group was gay which is why they were so fun and so good at dancing. As if the two stereotypically go hand in hand, that´s how she explained it to me. 

Post party, last night at the apt. watching the parade
We shut down the PH on that last night and started to make our way out when they played one last song. Everyone was stoked for the last note and started cheering and throwing… everything. Drinks, water, beer, I don’t even know what fell on me. I just know my sweater smelled horrible in the morning because I used it to cover myself. 

Little Polleras dancing, theyre so cute!
Post party we headed back to the apartment to see more of the parade. While there, the Queen was taking refuge and resting for a bit before heading back out into the multitudes. She looked just like all of her posters and her headdress and all was absolutely amazing. I have to say that she was very poised and had incredible patience. Definitely groomed for her reign. 

As far as tradition goes in Las Tables, this was described to me when I got back to work and was telling everyone about my experience: When a girl is born in Las Tablas, it is pretty much decided that she will be queen of Carnaval, and the family starts preparing her. When a boy is born in Las Tablas, he will be a “princess” because he doesn’t have his life planned and managed like a girl´s and his Carnaval experience is influenced in a completely different direction.  

dancing in the street
Queen or princess, we all headed back down into the street to dance with the street band around the block and watch the Queen in all her glory on the last night. Keep in mind this is after 5 am and this girl is still smiling, dancing, interviewing, and graciously taking pictures. After dancing around the block we waited until the fireworks started. I don’t know the official name of this but it was explained to me as similar to a mixture between the Mascletá and San Jose or the burning of the Fallas in Valencia. The things I remember from both of those are lots of noise and crazy fire. Apparently Latins love loud things. When the Panamanian one started I thought a bomb had dropped because there was an explosion and a huge cloud of fire rose just around the block in the park. Holy effing loud. Unlike the Spanish version, there were no fireworks lighting up the sky, just loud noise and light on the ground. Since I´m a big baby I stood with my ears plugged most of the time but it kept going. And going. And we went up to the apartment. And it kept going. An hour and a half later of constant noise like bombs on your house was the finale and the people cheered. It was 7 am on the dot. And everyone started to dance. Somehow I was still standing with the family when the others had gone to bed on the cots in the apartment but there also wasn’t any room left for me to lay down so I sucked it up. When Carnaval finally came to a close at about 7 am on Wednesday, the family cleaned up the apartment, we woke up those who had passed out and went back to the house to sleep. Yah, it didn’t look like I was going to back it back for work at 1 pm on Wednesday like expected. I left a message at work to let them know I would have to switch my work days since I wouldn’t make it back passed out until 11. 

The rest of the time in Las Tablas was spent gathering belongings, packing the car and saying goodbye. The people who had come with us originally had left earlier so we had different passengers on the way back. Traffic back was not as atrocious as I thought it might be and we still back it back in 5 to 6 hours as planned. It was great coming back across the bridge into the city as you can see in the picture. 
city from the Centenario Bridge

Wednesday night was spent getting my life back together and unpacking. I got a good laugh pulling out different articles of clothing and remembering the smells of the different alcohols that were thrown on me. Definitely a Carnaval well spent. Thank you so much to everyone who was part of it! Hope everyone enjoyed themselves as much as I did!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Adventure to the Caribbean

Sunday was probably one of my favorite days here in Panama. Six of us crashed in an apartment for 3 or 4 and we woke up at 7 am to start our adventure. Carlos and I went to pick up our rental car over at the Thrifty right by our house. Even though its just a hold of $250, I always feel like I’m signing my life away with those kinds of contracts. In a very non-Panamanian way, we were all in the car and on the road my 8 am, sharp. 

For better or for worse, since I had signed I drove the whole way there and back to the Caribbean side of Panama. Driving for me means getting to see all the scenery in front of me but missing everything that goes by. It also means I did not have to be scrunched in the back with 4 people. Teehee, sorry guys :)

Our first destination was the ruins at Portobello. It was almost too easy to find as we twister and turned along the coast and drove literally right by them. The approach into the area was just as fun as actually being there because we came over a hill, hugging the mini mountain and all of a sudden saw a beautiful blue bay, the ruins, the boats anchored in the bay, and all the buildings surrounding it. Everyone in unison “ooohhhhh.” 

The ruins themselves were super neat too. There was not a whole lot of history there to know about them, a guide would have been helpful, but they were still fun to explore and of course take lots of pictures. I personally loved the view of the bay looking out to the Gulf. Meh, let’s face it, if there’s water involved, I like it. We spent some time there, ended up having to pay “parking” which was probably more like a tourist fee in an empty field and hit the road again to the beach.

With our very basic map it was easy crossing the isthmus and finding signs to the beaches. Where we ran into trouble was in the twisty, hilly back country where we thought we might have made a wrong turn, which is difficult because there are very few options as far as other roads to take. We saw signs for different beaches and followed figuring we’d get somewhere eventually. After driving for a while and not seeing water we made the mistake of turning to GPS. I may be a traditionalist, but I rarely rely on GPS because I know I can read a map and can navigate well. I also happen to be rather stubborn. Either way, we were about a 50/50 split in the car saying that the map was out of proportion to the GPS and we had to go inland before we’d hit the water again and the others saying that according to GPS we were in the middle of the forest, not on a road, and heading more inland. 

Don’t get me wrong, at no point we were actually fighting or even very frustrated because the scenery was beautiful and the roads twisty and fun. We kept thinking we were going the right way because we would see the Red Devil buses carrying people to beaches. Once when we were heading down a twisty hill, a bus came down the other side and was a bit in our lane, all at once we screamed as we passed and the bus dove back on his side. Sweet mother of buses here in Panama who drive however they want! Either way, we stopped to ask for directions probably 3 times. Twice we were going the right way, the last time we were more or less right because we were in between two beaches but decided to head back to the more touristy, original destination. Before leaving the countryside, I made everyone get out of the car and take a picture of the gorgeous view, also to remember being lost out there. 

Back at the cross roads we decided to eat since we were all a little car sick and had been trapped for a couple hours trying to find the beach. The decision was pizza before hitting the last few kms to Guaira.
On the final stretch we paid a few more “tourist fees” which was basically locals dressed up in the street dancing or just plain being in the way and not moving until you give them some money, Not much but definitely not official tolls.
Once at Guira, apart from the signs, we could tell we arrived because of all the people on the “beach” and all the Red Devil buses stopped on the side of the road. We parked and checked it out. While the water at Guira was clear and inviting, there was not much beach because it was close to high tide. Basically pack and not much room to enjoy, we all felt uneasy about trying to squeeze in and have all our stuff with us. It reminded me of “hillbilly beach” ( in an endearing way) in Tampa, FL where locals who don’t want to waste their time getting to a better beach drive up, drop their stuff and grab whatever piece of sand they can along the bay, just off the highway.

Luckily there is another option waiting for you at the docks of Guira which is what makes it a fun beach destination. There are tons of dug out boats that take people over to Isla Grande and the beaches just across the bay, which is what we decided to do since it was only $5 round trip, a little more reasonable than the Jet Express to Put-In-Bay. So we hopped in one and jetted over. Gotta love the extremely fashionable and well-fitting lifejackets. I do have to say that everyone around that area was very friendly. Our boat driver gave us his number so we could go back with him and even offered for us to pay then which I thought was pretty trusting giving the number of identical boats. I was impressed but we paid and ended up going back with someone else anyway. 

The beaches of Isla Grande were packed as well but it was so neat wandering through the trees and seeing everyone with their coolers and families and in the water. We go to the end of the south side of the island and set up camp on a little, all-sand peninsula. On the one side everyone was swimming and just chillin in the water, and on the other there was a reef that came up pretty much to the beach, so much to explore! We had to move a couple times as the waves overtook our area but it was still an awesome spot. The water was lovely and we took turns watching our stuff. 
One of my first moves, other than into that gorgeous, crystal clear water, was to get a beer from the little shack on our little peninsula. I ended up coming back with beer and a rented mask and snorkel and looking more touristy than previously imagined possible. I would say this picture pretty much captures the blonde girl on the beach amongst all the tan latinos and on top of that she puts on an oversized mask. I´m really not good at blending in. 

Super-tourist or not the mask was one of the best $3 purchases I have ever made. It made my camera that much more fun to take underwater pictures and stalk fish on the reef side. I was able to get a couple good ones of fish but the real win was all the pictures of us. Floating, sinking, above water, below, eyes open, eyes closed. An indestructible, waterproof camera was the best thing my parents could have given me.  Below the water I even found a bunch of shells which, if I can find reasonable matches for each, I plan to make earrings with. So now all my girl friends know what they´re getting as a gift from Panama.
While I do have tons of wonderful things to say about Isla Grande, Guira, and the whole area, there were a couple things that gave me something to think about as far as development. The first is that on the public part of the island there was not one trash receptacle. People were expected to take it with them when they left. Which of course did not always happen after drinking all day and having to carry things back to a boat to get to the mainland. Even at the restaurant they did not have garbage cans but instead a sign that said take it with you. Needless to say, there was a lot of garbage that got left from food, cans and bottles. Even in the water you could see a bit of glass, cans (especially around the docks) and other junk. I was almost compelled to go with my goggles and start cleaning. 

The second thing that made my jaw DROP had to do with alcohol consumption. Not that I am against it on the beach, I am actually very for it and am sad that we did not plan ahead for that like the large family next to us. This family, a group of about 20 or so, was having a great time with their cooler and all ages jumping in the water and spending time together. A nice way to spend a Sunday. We could tell they were from the Colon side because of their accent and mannerisms. The funniest part was this squishy lady who seemed to be the ring-master of the group, sitting atop the cooler and every once in a while causing a little trouble by pouring water on people or convincing some of the boys to throw someone in the water. She also took it upon herself to distribute the beer. To everyone. Including minors. VERY minor. I think one was maybe 10 years old. And she of course passed it out to the notably young moms and dads, who poured it down their TODDLERS’ throats when they complained about being thirsty. Yes. Toddler. I pointed this out to others in our group who also thought poorly of this, but not our place to say. 

I would like to note that they were drinking Schlitz which I have never seen in person, only in the sailing house on the old-school advertisement that says, “when you´re out of Schlitz, You’re out of beer” with a classy 50’s pinup. Yay for new experiences. 

As the day was winding down everyone tried to get the most out of the sun, sand, and water. For a few it was probably a little too much sun so they took to the shade. We decided to try to beat the rush back and jumped on a boat back to our car. The beach on mainland was still packed and getting rowdier so it was probably for the best that we beat all the drunks out of there. We did end up hitting a bit of traffic on country roads getting back into Colon getting stuck behind buses and the rest of the weekend traffic.  Everyone was beat and quite on the way back and we had to stop for another snack at the grocery store in Colon. I would like to note that everyone I have interacted with in a grocery store really values the opportunity to take their time and make your transaction as long as possible. While I am aware of this cultural difference, for some reason it still really annoys me. Or at least it did Sunday because I was hungry and burnt out. With food in my stomach I was more tolerant and the drive back to Panama City was easy. 

Even after a long day, it was Superbowl Sunday and I wanted to watch the game. We got home at about 6:30, showered, and I hurried everyone out to go to our favorite sports bar. The goal was to get there early, relax, I would watch the game and they would use internet and have a Pan-american experience (lots of American influence in Panama, they love our professional sports). There were 2 things that went wrong. 1. We did not get there early enough to get a table for all 7 of us. 2. I thought the game started at 8… whoops. Anyway, after going around to about 4 bars trying to find seats and internet, the group went home and Ernesto and I ended up back at our original choice, Superbook. Where a large group was previously impossible, two was doable at the bar. I got to see the whole second half and use the internet.  A great game and a great end to a fantastic day.