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Fiestas Patrias in Panama

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Written by Matt   
Thursday, 06 November 2008 12:25
Fiestas Patrias in PanamaMy two best friends and I decided to take a road trip the summer we graduated high school, salve symbolic of our coming of age. While other kids our age were experimenting with drugs and alcohol, discount road trips were our vice, characterized by a safe blend spontaneity and responsibility: an accountable first step towards freedom as adults. We had explored extensively the landmarks and attractions that surrounded the state of New Jersey, but in growing older, we decided to upgrade not only the destination but our means of transportation in getting there. It was that memorable summer that we rented a giant RV and set out for America's dirty south where we envisioned ourselves taking part in redneck truck rallies and eating barbeque atop cattle fences. We planned to attend peach festivals in Georgia and hang out at dusty truck stops in Savannah where we'd inevitably find something funny to laugh about.

A high came in Birmingham, Alabama. We had ventured off the highway in search of gasoline and quickly realized why Birmingham holds its place on America's list of top ten most dangerous cities. This was a place where everyone and their babies were outside on the street at midnight. And when one young man, after making some sort of hand-to-hand transaction on the liquor corner tried to open the door to our RV, we decided it might be a better idea to get gas somewhere else.

"This reminds me a lot of Camden," my friend Adam pointed out. It was his habit to compare sights on our trip to sights he knew from home. We'd be eating at a restaurant and the comparisons would continue. "Crab cakes," he'd say. "These crab cakes are just like the ones from Blue Point Grill. Boy, I sure do miss those crab cakes."

Adam hadn't made his associations to consciously annoy us, but he was achieving it with relative ease. "This bridge," he said in Charleston, NC. "It's almost exactly like one over Carnegie Lake" or "this porch is so similar to the one off the back of our beach house."

"What about this foot?" we wanted to ask him. "Does it remind you of anything that's ever been up your ass?"

I suppose it's natural, to want to draw comparisons when traveling abroad to things you're familiar with at home. And while Adam had taken it over the edge, revealing that the donut holes in Sarasota were almost identical to the ones in Princeton but with a slightly lighter feel, I have occasionally found myself in Panama trying to associate new towns, traditions, and cultural nuances with those that I know and love.

Just recently, Panama's holiday-ridden month of November started with a bang and the commencement of Fiestas Patrias, a four-day celebration of the nation. I found myself, not unlike Adam, describing it to a North American friend who'd never participated in anything remotely similar. And in doing so, I realized Panama's Fiestas Patrias have a way of coming off as oddly alcoholic and immature.
"So everyone leaves the city and ventures into the interior of the country where beer stands and Seco tents are set up all along the road," I told her. "Beginning on Sunday night at twelve, the drunken celebration lasts until Wednesday after which the people of Panama are given a hung-over day to recover and then it's back to work."

"What if you don't drink?" my friend inquired, a question neither I nor any self-respecting Panamanian had ever contemplated. "So it's like a countrywide Pigroast," my friend observed, referring to an annual tradition at our University in which all students commit to being drunk and stupid for twenty-four hours.

Highways during Panama's Fiestas Patrias are lined with speed traps and DUI checkpoints, beside which you can usually see a small convoy of cars caught in the act. The rural villages of Panama's interior turn into mayhem, complete with parades, fireworks, and roving drunkards who tend to pass out in the most obscure places. I saw a local man who couldn't have been less than seventy years old in Pedasi, lying face down in a ditch beside the road. The way I knew he wasn't dead was that he had this wonderful drunken grin on his face as if, after a grueling hike, he had finally made it to a tempur-pedic bed. Standing near him was a teenager with a blindfold on, announcing something extremely dramatic to the side of a concrete wall.

Fiestas Patrias in Panama are very similar to Carnavales in that it's a several-day party across the nation. While everyone acts silly, there is certainly an underlying theme of patriotism and pride. Panamanians love to drink and liquor sales during these periods shoot up like champagne corks. It's also arguably the worst time to be on the road for obvious reasons. Places like Las Tablas, Pedasi, Santiago, and Coronado fill up really fast so get accommodation reservations far in advance.

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Last Updated on Thursday, 06 November 2008 12:32