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PANAMA SEEMED LIKE A GOOD IDEA THEN

SOMEWHERE IN BOCAS DEL TORO, PANAMA

It’s sucking me in alive! The Earth swallows my foot, my calf, finally stopping at my knee. Mustering my strength, I free my leg from the muck with a belch, my sandals still stuck deep in the mire. No choice: I roll-up my sleeve, close my eyes, dig into the slime, grope and pull —  like birthing a cow.

Stuck in the mud

How did I get here again? Here, in Panama, in the mud. I rewind to the beginning, past the illegal froggers, the professional sniper and Naughty Edgar the kleptomaniac; before The International Man of Coffee, Alice!, the spying landlords and birdwatching zealots.

Panama Map 2 copy

CHICAGO (8 months prior)

“Why Panama?” They ask me, flummoxed. Less flummoxed than when I went to Dubai, but still somewhat flummoxed.

The idea to travel to Panama germinated in 2003 when I developed a little crush on Canopy Tower Ecolodge and Nature Observatory after reading about it in Travel + Leisure. The article prompted me to research the area. I learned that the weather is sunny and mild most days, confirmed my suspicions that a trip would be economical and discovered that the country is relatively “safe” for a woman traveling solo. Panama’s geographical diversity clinched the deal for me: in the span of a week I can visit a rainforest, a metropolis, the mountains and an archipelago.

Traveling to Panama is easy for U.S. citizens: it’s on Eastern Standard Time, no visa is required, and the dollar is the currency. Yes, some vaccinations are required, but I’ve already received most of them, and I asked my physician for cipro and Malarone prescriptions. For everything else, there are Pringles. I don’t leave the country without them.

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CANOPY TOWER ECOLODGE: SERIOUS DOUBTS

HOME

2:30 a.m.: Damn this alarm!

PANAMA CITY

1:00 p.m. I land, the full afternoon stretching before me.

CANOPY TOWER ECOLODGE and NATURE OBSERVATORY

2:00 p.m. My driver and I arrive.

Canopy Tower Ecolodge offers two suites, five double rooms with private baths and five single rooms with shared baths. Management typically requires guests to book a minimum of three nights, but when I explained that my heart has been set on staying therefor years, they were gracious to extend a single room to me for one night. It never hurts to ask. A staff member greets the car and shoots a double-take at Bagzillo, my trusty oversized Hartmann luggage. I follow him up the path towards the ecolodge, a stocky, robin’s egg blue silo of a building with a big yellow yolk on top. Hardly The Ritz. My driver takes off. Don’t abandon me here! Canopy Tower Ecolodge Panama

We enter the lobby, a dark, high-ceilinged wooden room with décor consisting of nature posters and a telescope. How…rustic. My guy hefts Bagzillo up the metal staircase with a series of clunks and we arrive at my room on the third floor. There’s a bed, wooden table, luggage stand and some sort of canvas thing hanging on the wall. How…spartan.

Canopy Tower Ecolodge Lobby

I follow him out to the corridor, and he points to the communal shower and bathroom, which I had conveniently mentally blocked-out until now. A stall and a toilet. This is going to be a problem. I can barely stand to share a bar of soap and a hand tower with my own family.

Canopy Tower Ecolodge Single Room

Back in my cell, I pantomime (after a month well-spent in a language school in Barcelona, my Spanish is limited to donde esta el baño, una caña por favor, vino tino, zapatos and bolsa) that I’m missing the key to my room and he gestures that there are no keys. I plop down on my bed with a huff, chin in hands, and pout. I don’t want to share a toilet. I want a key. I don’t like the canvas wall-hanging. There’s no place for my stuff. I hate Canopy Tower Ecolodge! And Nature Observatory!

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VENTURING INTO THE RAINFOREST

CANOPY TOWER ECOLODGE

I pull-on my egregiously masculine hiking shoes (zapatos) and reluctantly join my fellow guests for the daily guided birdwatching trek in the rainforest. We bounce along in a truck bed dressed up with seats, spying several iridescent blue morpho butterflies and multi-colored toucans (I recognize them from the cereal box) as we go. I can’t help myself; I am beginning to have fun.

GAMBOA RAINFOREST

We walk five yards. We stop. Up come the binoculars. Scope, scope, scope. We walk five yards. We stop. Up come the binoculars. Scope, scope, scope. We walk five yards. We stop. Up come the binoculars. Scope, scope, scope.

Fuck birdwatching. The birds are pretty and everything, I guess, but I have been crammed into planes for eight hours today and I need to MOVE. Eager to actually explore the rainforest, I abandon the group.

Plantation Trail is paved in bright gold leaves, save for a wake running through them. I can’t figure out what formed the line. Upon closer inspection, from a crouch, I see that the line undulates. It’s actually a living path of ants carrying leaves on their backs.

Plantation Trail Gamboa Rainforest

CANOPY TOWER ECOLODGE

I kick-off my offending footwear, grab my book and retire to the common area on the top floor. Blissfully supine in my hammock, I read a page, gaze out at the treetops, read another page, and gaze out at the treetops again. At 6:00 the staff sets out beer (cervezas), wine (vino tinto), and fresh guacamole. I love Canopy Tower!

Canopy Tower Ecolodge Common Area

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