Over winter break, I boarded a plane from Charlotte to Panama where my son, Eli [Wittum, a Catawba alumnus from the Class of 2015] now lives in a remote village in the rain forest. I'd always dreamed of spending time in the tropics, but I had not expected to ever actually make it.
Going to Panama from Charlotte is an early affair. We needed to get up at 3 a.m. to get on the road, so I didn't even try to sleep. I did take a nap on the floor at the Miami airport during the eight-hour layover. When I run out of gas, I run out. My brother and older son made sure that no one took off with my luggage, and I got about an hour of rest.
We arrived in Panama after dark, so it was hard to get any sort of impression. We did exit the plane in the parking lot, but the airport was large and modern. We reserved a van to our hotel ahead of time, so it was quick and easy to get to our hotel.
The first day, we had a guide who started us off at the Panama Canal. I've seen the canal in photos, but I can tell you that it is much more impressive when you're standing on the breezeway and watching the intricate moves of the channels. The canal was dug by hand, and many of the non-natives returned to their home countries or died. I could certainly imagine that. It's hot, humid, and rainy in Panama.
After a couple of days in Panama City which actually is a melting pot of people of all backgrounds, we headed out to visit Eli's village. Although I felt sure I could walk in, Eli had rented a horse from a villager. After an Uber ride (yes-they Uber in Panama) and a pick-up truck with a metal roof on top loaded down with people and supplies like bags of rice, that horse was a welcome sight.
Fortunately I learned to ride a horse when I was young, so I had no problem getting in rhythm with the horse with no name. Villagers apparently do not name the animals.
The terrain was rocky, muddy, and steep. If Eli had not gotten a horse, I think I would have ended up camped on the side of the road. It wasn't exactly what I'd call a road either; the creek ran right through it. It was rocky and knee deep in mud in spots. The scenery was gorgeous, so I enjoyed the hour trek, although I doubt the horse did. Americans are quite a bit larger than Panamanian villagers.
The village did not have electricity or tap water. Some members of the community did have solar porch lights, and it appeared that life revolved mostly around work and hanging out on the porch. Dogs and chickens and a cat roamed in and around the host family and our small group as we visited. I held Eli's chicken which turned out to be a rooster. No eggs for Eli. He is buying some more biddies and hoping for some hens.
Meals were delicious but different. Rice is the main item served, but we had chicken too, since we were guests. I'm not sure how the chicken was cooked. It looked and tasted like baked chicken but juicier. We had brought the chicken in (not alive), so I also do not know where the chicken stayed for the night and morning. Remember – no refrigeration. There was no oven either. Cooking in the village is done on camp type stove burners connected to gas tanks that they refill as needed.
One drink I have never liked is milk. Eli told me we would be having a special milk and lemon drink served hot. All drinks except water were served hot, since they had no way to keep items cool. I was dreading the hot lemon milk, but it was delicious. I have no idea how they made that, but it was a good surprise.
We slept in Eli's hut. His room was the size of a double bed. One side had a single bed, and the other half was floor. The four of us managed, but that was not the most comfortable sleeping arrangement. We also wrapped up in mosquito nets. Eli had been in the hospital for a week shortly before we visited. He had Dengue Fever (similar to Zika that has been in the news in the United States) which is passed along by mosquitoes.
Outside were all kinds of tropical fruit trees. There were oranges, but they were not like the oranges here. You did not cut them in slices. You cut off the top and squeezed juice into your mouth and gnawed on any fruit pulp that came to the top. This was a rather messy procedure. But, this was the only way to eat rain forest oranges.
Eli lived at the bottom of the hill which I managed to slide down (not on purpose). Not only did I have muddy pants, the mud was so thick and sloshy that even my underwear got muddy. I ended up wearing my pajamas which were fortunately a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. The shower was quite primitive as was the bathroom. The toilet was a seat with a hole beneath and buzzing with flies. I only went once the whole time. I'm glad for the experience, but will stick with plumbing.
Our next stop was a short plane hop to Bocas (an island which is part of Panama). The island looked much more like the tropical environment you see on postcards or when friends vacation in the tropics. The motel had a toilet and a shower which made me very happy.
We shopped around the island, ate some great food, and took lots of photos. Then, we sat down to decide what special trips we'd like to take. My top pick was the cocoa plantation on a neighboring island, so we set that up for the third day.
The guys went out scuba diving. I didn't, because I have allergies, and my doctor said I'd probably blow an eardrum if I ever went scuba diving. I asked the dive guy with dreadlocks if he'd teach me to surf. He said, "Sure." I was just joking. I didn't want to bust my head open on a surfboard, so I relaxed for that morning.
It was time for our cocoa plantation trip the next day, and we took a water taxi over. I've always loved boats so that was fun even when our water taxi ran out of gas. It's "hang loose" on the island. Another boat stopped, and the drivers siphoned enough gas to get us on across. Don't worry. Be happy.
We arrived at the plantation and met our guide, Jack. We chatted with the other members of our tour group who were from several different countries.
Off we went down the path to the plantation. I swear it was only 20 or 30 feet in when my shoe hit a mud slick, and I fell. This would not be a big deal, but my knee landed on a large, sharp rock. Everyone looked back, and I was saying I was okay.
When I get hurt pretty bad, I go into shock or something. I could see the gash was about two inches wide and maybe a half inch deep, but it was not hurting.
Jack (the guide) said, "Oh no, but you are blooding." That made me smile. Apparently I was the first person to gash a knee on a tour, and everyone was a bit confused.
I said I'd be fine and needed to get some chocolate. Jack was worried. One lady on the tour worked in the medical profession and said I needed the knee stitched.
Off to the jungle hospital we went. I think it was actually a clinic for children to get shots. There was a man in the waiting room with an IV pole, so I don't know. My knee got stitched up. I have no idea whether it was numbed or not. I don't remember the stitches. I do remember that there was no air conditioning and no toilet paper in the bathroom and that I was throwing up in a trashcan.
We went back to the motel, and I told the guys to go to the cocoa plantation the next day. I knew I could not do the hike. I slept in, and they left. When I woke up, it felt like a truck had run over me. I hurt from head to toes. I took a look at the leg, and it was red from my knee down to the toes. That is not a good thing.
When the guys got back from the cocoa tour (and with chocolate for me), they got a taxi to take me to the island doctor. I actually have no idea if I was seeing doctors or not. In any case, the medical person took out the stitches, squirted water in the wound, and then stitched it back up. Good to go.
The next morning was worse than the morning prior. Now the bottom part of my leg was red and also half way up my thigh. The guys got me to the airport to the mainland and Panama City. It was too late to check in other than ER. The motel clerk said I'd just sit most of the night, so I rented a separate room, so I would not wake the guys up moaning or whatever I might do with a serious leg infection.
When the sun came up, we went to Hospital Punta Pacifica which is associated with Johns Hopkins in the United States. I can't say a lot about that, because I had my head in the trashcan vomiting again. I do remember someone saying I might lose my leg.
The next thing I knew, the doctor who spoke English told me that they were going to do surgery and put a tube down my throat, since I was vomiting. Someone then put on the gas mask, and I was out cold and the stitches came back out again. Two days later, they put me out again and put in new stitches. Yes. My knee was stitched three times in Panama.
By this time, our flights home were coming up, and I was in no shape to travel. I got to spend Christmas in Panama. No one on duty spoke English, so I don't know what all they said to me. Even the menu was in Spanish (no surprise), and I checked some strange dishes. I finally went with pollo if it was listed.
I begged the doctor to let me fly on home. He said I needed three to five more days in the hospital, but I could fly out if I checked in a hospital when I got off the plane. It was late when I got in, so I slept one night in my bed and then went back to the hospital to celebrate New Year's Eve and Day.
All in all, I had a great trip (other than the knee gash). It's been a couple of months since my trip to the tropics. I have lots of memories and a scar on my knee to remind me of the trip. If I go again, I think I will wear football pads.