a unique perspective on this crazy world

Archive for October, 2017

the importance of being open-minded…

There are some old stories I may still commit to paper but it’s time to get into 2017 on the blog 😉

I have gone through various phases in my feelings about Panama.  When I grew up, it was not considered a tourist destination.  Then I had a friend visit and it got on my radar.  Not long after, I transited through Panama City airport on my way to South America and the experience was horrible so I held it against Panama and it went to the bottom of the list.  Then I read an enthusiastic article about Casco Viejo and discovered my birthday coincided with a great time to visit and airfare would be very reasonable.

Now that I’ve been, I would recommend being magnanimous about the airport and airlines who fly there because it is worth checking out but I had one of the ugliest flights of my life getting there.  The theory was great.  I would overnight to Toronto arriving early morning and then depart in a couple of hours for Panama City, sleep on the plane and arrive midafternoon to start sightseeing.  It all began well enough.  I got to Toronto and indulged in a great breakfast in the terminal.  I had about an hour of sleep on the plane so would survive a little longer.

colonial splendour

It didn’t take long for everything to go horrendously wrong.  Our boarding time came but no one was boarding.  There was something wrong with our plane and we would have to find another one.  They suggested it would take a few hours.  Not great but not terrible yet.  The day wore on and information was sketchy.  I discovered the terminal was filled with few options for either food or entertainment so a place you only want to transit through.  Instead, I got to spend about 15 hours trapped there trying to stay awake so I wouldn’t miss a flight for which I didn’t even have a departure time anymore.  I was a first world refugee.

Finally a flight came onto the board and we all lined up again, actually getting on a plane this time.  The hotel in Panama City was excellent and changed my transfer from 2pm to 4am so I arrived exhausted and disorientated but didn’t have to find a taxi.  I decided to stay in Casco Viejo, which is essentially the old town, but Panama City is an old Colonial city so it was relocated centuries ago so there is a Panama Viejo as well.

Panama has a long, bizarre and colourful history.  Not only has it tangled with Spain, Colombia and the USA, pirates, conquistadors and dictators, it even has a unique place in geological history.  We’ll talk more about all of that but, for the casual tourist, what will matter is modern Panamanian history.  Thanks to Jimmy Carter, Panama got control of the canal on December 31, 1999 and in 2015 the expansion to accommodate modern supertankers was completed. This – along with a better electoral process – has brought a lot of change to the economy.

Like most developing countries, the spoils are not shared as equally as they might be, and it’s good to do some research and not wander randomly, but Casco Viejo is beguiling and I had a wonderful visit.  You will also be supporting social change and economic revitalization (more on that in future).

a place to call home

I had a leisurely stay so split my time between two choices to get a fuller experience.  I would highly recommend both.  The choice depends on your style.  First, I stayed at the Magnolia Inn, an actual restored turn of century mansion.  It’s a mix of hotel and hostel, Staff are very friendly and prices are great.  There is no elevator and you will need to search the neighborhood for entertainment but there are many options only minutes away.

my glamorous room

If you want to glam it up at a super reasonable price and you are a sound sleeper, stay at Tantalo Hotel and gaze at Panama City from the rooftop.  That’s where I spent my birthday, having one of the best hotel experiences of my life.

Stay tuned for more details of a tiny country with a lot to offer still under most people’s radar – exactly when you want to see it 😉

 

solo adventures

I am not averse to travelling with companions but, once you reach a certain age, it can be tough to get people to commit due to their various entanglements with other people so I started travelling solo.  It was also a personal challenge since genetically I am painfully shy but have been training myself for so long now to be bolder and not let my natural personality curtail the opportunities life might present me that people laugh in my face when I suggest that I am an introvert, let alone painfully shy.  I’ve learned to just smile and wear it as a badge of honour.  On a good night, I can even “work a room” now, which still continues to amaze me.  I just feel grateful that I learned at a young age that it was NECESSARY to learn how to talk to strangers, even if it made me want to throw up from nerves when I first began the experiment.

gritty east london

exploring shoreditch

I would highly recommend getting comfortable with talking to strangers.  You will get plenty of opportunity if you stay at the Hoxton and hang out at the bar. It was a while ago so I can’t remember everyone I met but do remember it as a friendly place.  I had a couple of memorable encounters.  One night I met an Iranian immigrant on his way to Australia.  He was somewhat besotted with me despite an age difference that was ridiculous and he was dragged off by his friends to another venue.  I think part of the attraction may have been that I knew a bit about Iran and told him one of my best friends is married to a Persian.  I also have lived in Australia so bonding was easy.

More bizarre was my Sunday night adventure.  I didn’t expect much to be happening on Sunday night but, when you are a tourist travelling alone, your room is a bit boring so was sitting in the lobby area working on the blog when some locals spotted me.  It’s always nice to meet people from the actual ‘hood in which you are temporarily domiciled and these ladies were real EastEnders, born in the neighborhood before the more recent gentrification.

Apparently the Hoxton offers membership and discounts to locals to encourage them to hang out, especially on days when tourists may be sparse.  While you may not meet many people on Sunday night, it is also likely the people there will bond more easily.  With very little effort, my blog prep efforts were abandoned and I became part of an intriguing quasi safari observing human behaviour rather than animal 🙂

The women were old friends and very chatty.  At first, everything was pretty normal.  Where things got interesting was when it changed from chit chat about how the neighborhood had changed to being a participant in a cougar safari adventure.  I can’t remember now how the young guys got involved but they seemed happy to buy everyone drinks and flirt. One of the lads was handsome and exceptionally charming.  The other two women lapped up the attention.  It was like watching soap opera live.  After a while, the young men took off and I figured the entertainment was over but then one of the women also left.  The other lady was pretty drunk by then and very determined that I needed to stay with her.

I’ve had some interesting encounters with drunken strangers over the years 🙂  This one ended up the most bizarre of all.  An older businessman joined us in the bar.  He was staying in the hotel and they hit it off.  He seemed like a nice guy.  The very inebriated lady seemed determined to stay in my room, which would have been weird but, in the end, she decided she could stay in the gentleman’s room.  I had to walk with her there.  As soon as we arrived, the safari got a little too much like a nature documentary so I shielded my eyes as I backed out of the room as fast as possible!

If bizarre encounters with strangers aren’t your thing, there are other less adventurous things you can do in Shoreditch.  One of my favourite discoveries this trip was the Spitalfields Market.  Lots of choices at better prices than you normally find in London.

You can opt for a traditional English pub or go more locavore in a pretentious cocktail bar.  We tried to get into nightjar but you really need to make a reservation.  We did get into Happiness Forgets and the cocktails were excellent but it was uncomfortably hot.  Perhaps it’s a heritage building and you can’t install air conditioning…

You can also stay in Shoreditch and explore other parts of London.  As already noted, British cuisine has come a long way since I first encountered it.  What is funny is that London is the advance team in cultural affairs in almost all respects but, when it comes to food, it is tipping its hat to the Pacific Northwest.  I think it’s a combination of the hippie past, the affinity for nature and the lush local produce but the idea of getting creative with local ingredients has been part of the Pacific Northwest for a few decades.

Ironically the restaurant we went to in Fitzrovia is called Portland.  I don’t think the Brits realize they are eating Pacific Northwest style cuisine but it’s the formula I’ve known and loved most of my adult life – in season local produce identified by supplier, clever and creative combinations and great flavours.  I normally order European wine in Europe but they had a bottle of D2 from Washington state, which was delicious and seemed to match the menu 🙂

A more English experience, I also went to have a cocktail at the Connaught as it had been recommended by a London bartender.  It is an experience and certainly worth doing.  Just know that there will be no question you ARE in London when the bill comes so be ready for the sticker shock!  The most expensive drink of my life – now surpassing deciding to drink champagne (without first asking the price) at the legendary Victoria Falls Hotel while looking at the falls. Also worth it 🙂

While the British Empire might not have been a good idea, it does mean that London is

somerset house design biennale

incredible creativity and colour

agog in cultural treasures from all over the world.  In a 21st century acknowledgement that the world has changed, Somerset House initiated a biennale to celebrate global design and I just happened to be in London.  It was amazing and the next one isn’t until 2018 so there is plenty of time to plan for it.

My final stranger encounter this trip was one of my favourites.  I stayed in Earl’s Court when I got back from Riga as it’s on the tube line to Heathrow so made my exit faster.  Stayed at the Rockwell Hotel, a small hotel only a short walk from the station.  It’s very well priced for London.  It was Sunday night and nothing looked too interesting on the street so decided to have a mojito at the hotel bar and head to bed.  I wouldn’t recommend having a cocktail at the hotel as the bar is not really properly equipped to make them but it did lead to an interesting chat with my charming server.

posh west london

rockwell hotel ‘hood

She was from Vilnius!  I don’t think she gets too many customers who have just been there.  I expect many are not sure where Lithuania is so we had a lively chat about proper cocktails, life in London as a foreigner and the rise of the Baltics.  Yet more proof of the rewards of talking to strangers 😉

London is a multifaceted place and you can live all sorts of lives there from super posh to super gritty.  I like to mix it up and keep things fresh 😉

 

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