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Dissappearing to Santiago

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Written by Matt   
Friday, 08 December 2006 08:21
Being hungover is such a funny phenomenon because while the body is unable to do even the simplest of things, remedy like tie a shoelace or put together sentences, for sale the brain is capable of such deep and evocative thought that sometimes you are too profound for your own good. It was during one of these stupors, these dizzy and mischievous dazes that I decided to effectively make myself disappear.

Step One: Leave at sunrise
I grabbed the three things I could not do without—Pez dispenser, compass, and custom-framed crow photo. I considered taking the Pan-American Highway all the way up through Costa Rica and Nicaragua and Mexico, surprising my friends in Louisiana with a handful of red chili peppers and a big old sombrero, but I was low on gas and surprises are overrated anyway.

Step Two: Drive somewhere remote
I started off driving north (which coming from Panama City, starts off as west). I enjoy driving into the interior of the country because it's a completely different lifestyle. People are more relaxed and life seems to move a little bit slower. En route though, I passed several dog and cat carcasses who appeared to reply, “life here moves faster than you think”. Swirling through mountainous roads and alongside jagged coastlines brought about this goosebumpy sensation in my legs and my arms that compelled me to notice, whether it was accurate or not, that the sun happened to be shining extra bright that day. The air appeared to be exceptionally clean.

Step Three: Sleep by the ocean
Eventually I pulled over in Santiago. Santiago is a nice-enough little town in the Veraguas province, its streets dotted with the kind of old-school establishments you mentally reserve for small villages in Europe: bakers, tailors, goldsmiths. The man who plays the role of the butcher looks exactly as you'd picture him: a white blood-smeared apron tied around his tree trunk-like waist and a stubby golfers pencil wedged above his ear. I enjoy towns like this because they remind me it is possible to live out my dream as a clock peddler or an apple cobbler: jobs that are made obsolete in big cities with monster stores and fast cars.

Step Four: Find somewhere to sleep
Hotel La Hacienda is my favorite place to stay in Santiago and after arriving to my room, I realized I had reached the extent of my plans. The hangoverness was wearing off, and with it was dissolving my spontaneity and my impulse, leaving me semi-clueless on a hotel bed, miles from anything I knew. “What the heck was I doing in Santiago?” Waiting for that adrenaline factor to kick back in, to inspire me to do something grand like scale a mountain or design some crow furniture, my cell phone rang. It was my friend Carlos, asking me if I wanted to play dominoes with him and his grandpa in the park.

“Do you want to come play dominoes with me and my grandpa in the park?” he said.
“I'm in Santiago” I told him.
“Santiago? What the heck are you doing in Santiago?”
“I have a...” At this point I tried thinking of some credible-sounding reason that might land me in Santiago—basically the middle of nowhere. “I have a meeting here. I have an important meeting.”

Carlos read right through my lie: “Well my sister and parents live in Santiago if you want someone to show you around. You should give them a call.”

Step Five: Find someone willing to show you around
I eventually revealed to Carlos the true (and pointless) premise for why I had made the trip and proceeded to cold-call his family, the way you might contact a long-forgotten relative when you need a place to stay, going on the basis alone that you and them have at least something in common. Were I to do this in the states, chances are my contacts would be busy. “I'd really love to have you over” they'd say. “But, with the week coming up, and the bad weather lately, I just have too many things to do.”

It's Panama though, Carlos' sister and mother eagerly picked me up at my hotel and offered me a list of things to do, among the options, a bull festival in the mountains.

The kindness of the people here never ceases to amaze me.

Carlos' sister refused to let me drive my own car, insisting that I needed the chance to reach out windows and take pictures of beautiful Veraguas. Whether or not this was a scheme for her to drive my new car I didn't know, but she was most certainly right. The rolling hills of Azuero are like a jewel on the eye. Peppered throughout the pastures you'll find squads of grazing cattle and wild stallions running free. Old men walk with rusted machetes in what seems to be the middle of nowhere, the sort of scenes that movies like to end with, some cheesy music playing in the background.

We stopped at Puerto Mutis, a sorta foremost hub for boats venturing out to Isla Coiba national park. It's this quaint little fishing village with Montijo Bay, the obligatory waterfront seafood restaurant—complete with plastic chairs, wooden railings, and nautical things like life vests and lobster traps hanging down from above. There's something primal and satisfying about eating shellfish on the water, I imagine, much like Eskimos feel after gnawing on raw seal after the kill. Eskimos have 300 different words for snow. I have 300 different words for cows.

Step Six: Go to bull festival
After lunch, we arrived at the Festival de Toros as the last bits of dying sunlight sank over the western hills. It was a traditional festival of sorts that consisted of hundreds of locals sitting around eating, riding, and celebrating toros or bulls. I've never been one of those Americans to come to another country and blabber out obnoxious English or attempt to command attention but I seemed to have unintentionally accomplished it that day, as nearly ever set of eyes was fixed upon the gringo. I tried imagining myself as a top model strutting down through runway—waving to locals who glanced back with this confused look as if to say, “What the heck are you doing in Santiago?”

After working my way through several drinks of local moonshine and a giant hunk of dried bull meat—the locals seeing my genuine interest in animal protein—I appeared to have lost my novelty, happily becoming just another festival-goer there for a good time. There I was, seated atop a wooden rodeo fence, drinking chicha, wearing my newly-acquired cowboy hat while beside me, and older man with a saw-like knife hacked away at the tissue of a freshly-torn cow leg, the velvet cow blood and fatty white bubbles shooting up and into my lap.

I got back to my hotel and washed off the bull-entrails from my legs, chest, breast, neck, and head. The toilets at La Hacienda come prepared with a sanitation strip claiming something phony like, “this toilet was approved by a certified toilet inspector”—an indication that at one point in this bathroom's lifetime, there was a need for a certified toilet inspector. I took a nice warm shower and fell asleep watching Legally Blonde where the girl tries to fight against cosmetic testing on dogs. So funny.

Trips like these really reaffirm my faith in a lot of things. Among them: kindness, happiness, humanity, beef jerky. Places like Santiago are refreshing, almost like a trip back in time: a time when Blackberry's didn't dominate dinner tables, a time when people weren't too busy to smile and say hello. As I sit on a bench here in the main square, Sunday afternoon, having successfully disappeared from city life, a group of kids kick a deflated soccer ball against a wall. One girl is uninterested in the game, lingering off near my side by a bed of newly-planted roses. She looks at the roses smiling and alive. Then with this poetic timing and almost-creepy symbolism, she motions for me to stop, to come over and to have a smell.

Comments (2)Add Comment
written by Molly , June 13, 2007
I am considering a trip to Panama to visit a long lost friend. I'm pretty sure she lives in Santiago and I was searching the internet for some pictures of the place. Being from fridged Minnesota, US, my mind can't wrap around what this place could be/look like. I ran accross this account of one mans experience in Santiago and I have to say....A picture was drawn. Cheers!
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written by serena , January 27, 2008
Very nice.... you have a way with words
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Last Updated on Monday, 11 August 2008 22:04