Part One: The First Debacle–The Negotiation
The Day of Debacles began when we tried to get a driver for the day, although we wouldn’t find out that the debacle had begun for a while yet. I’ll also admit that this first part of the Day of Debacles was my fault.
You see, a friend and I were in Panama City, wanting to go to central Panama, where there was a volcanic crater known as El Valle. My companion’s guide book said that there was beautiful scenery; a small, scenic town; a zoo; a spa; a waterfall; and horseback rides up into the high slopes above the valley (it was a very large volcano). My companion — we’ll call him John, since that was his name — was all about the spa. He’d been looking for the Perfect Massage for several days, talking about it even before we got to Panama City. The Perfect Massage apparently consisted of the following:
1). Deep-muscle kneading.
2). Said deep-muscle kneading achieved by having the masseuse stand on one’s back.
3). No hookers.
John was quite adamant about #3, to the point where, given the language barrier, I was pretty sure that the people John asked about places to get a massage (everyone) thought that we were looking for a brothel. Overseas, the word “no” tends to get lost in translation when the word “hooker” is also in the sentence. “We definitely, absolutely, positively do NOT want a massage parlor that is really just a brothel” becomes “Brothel? Where good at?”
John was primarily concerned about this last point because, according to him, hookers gave really terrible massages.
However, none of that had anything to do with the First Debacle. That came about because there was a crowd of drivers vying for our attention, none of whom spoke English, and because between John and me, I was the one who could speak the better Spanish, despite the fact that it had been seven years since I had spoken anything close to passable Spanish.
We were hoping to hire a car and a driver for about eighty bucks for the day, based on John’s previous experiences in Panama.
“We need a car and a driver,” we said in English.
“Need car?” they said in English. “He drive.” There is then pointing involved.
“Yes, a car,” I said in Spanish. “Driver. All day. How much?”
“Oh! El Valle very nice. You like. Very far.” Some of this in English, some in Spanish.
Consultation. Some rolled eyes. More pointing.
Really, the rolled eyes should have been a warning to us. The guy who was being fostered upon us was older, lined of face, grizzled of hair, and scraggly of beard. His clothes hung off of his skinny frame.
“Doscientos,” he said. “Todo.”
Turning aside to John, I said, “He wants a hundred for the day. Total.” A hundred was a bit more than we’d been planning, but apparently El Valley was three hours from Panama City, farther than we expected.
Here’s the problem:
If you know any Spanish at all, you know that ‘dos’ means ‘two.’ It’s definitely not ‘one,’ and when it’s put in front of ‘cientos,’ it doesn’t mean “one hundred”; it means … TWO hundred.
Part Two: The Second Debacle–The Noble Stallions of the Valley
Once upon a time, the horses of El Valle — a wide valley in central Panama created by the collapse of an ancient volcanic caldera — may have been the finest of their breed. They may have pranced proudly upon the greenways of the valley, carrying intrepid tourist-adventurers hither and yon and yon and hither and so and forth. Their minders may have been of proud Mayan stock, quick of wit and honorable of intention.
Not so much.
True, we were running late. We’d already eaten sea bass at a quaint little restaurant in a quaint little hotel in a quaint little town. We had gone tourist gew-gaw shopping. And we’d spent a great deal of time at the zoo, where we had seen the rare, endangered golden tree frog of Panama and lost my traveling companion, John, for fifteen or twenty minutes. For a while, our tour guide (the cab driver) and I were convinced that John had wandered off into the rainforest and gotten eaten by a wild boar, or possibly a mountain goat. Later, he showed up. He had indeed wandered off into the rainforest, but nothing had eaten him.
Doesn’t make for a very good story, if you don’t get eaten when you wander off. I made sure to let John know how it was supposed to work — for future reference, of course.
Anyway, there we were, finally, at the horse rental place. In Panama, at least in El Valle, a horse rental place isn’t anything like the Hertz Car Rental place at the airport. In fact, the horse rental place in El Valle was a shady spot under a tree. Said horses were tied up to said tree, looking angry.
How can a horse look angry while standing in the shade?
It was in their eyes. In … their … eyes.
Our tour guide (El Cab Driver) had brought us to this place, assuring us over and over that yes, indeed, the horses would take us up into the mountains so that we could look out over the valley. Yes, indeed, the horses would take us by El Valle’s famous waterfall. Yes, indeed, the horses would take us to the spa where my traveling companion could finally get his massage from a woman who would walk on his back and who was not a hooker. Plus, they would do this in the three hours we had before we needed to start back to Panama City, three hours away by car.
How’d he know? Well, he and his wife had been here ten years earlier. They’d gotten a really good deal on the horses, too.
“Don’t let them charge you more than $8 per hour, total,” he told us.
After fifteen minutes of arguing with the proprietor of the horse riding establishment, we settled for $10 each per hour, or something like that. I was never quite sure how that argument ended, but then I was the guy who had thought we were paying $100 for a cab ride and a driver for the day when in fact it was $200.
Then we had to deal with the horses.
Once, perhaps (as previously noted) these horses might have been warriors’ steeds. Now, though, they were swaybacked, dirty, tired, sullen, mean, single-minded (the single mind the urge to return to their shady spot under the tree where they could look angry in peace), somewhat mangy, ill-mannered nags.
When we finally got them on the road, we found that they only had two gears: trot, which is the horse riding equivalent of taking your four-wheel-drive Jeep out into the Arizona Badlands and driving it around blindfolded; and Let’s-stop-and-eat-grass-by-the-side-of-the-road.
Our guide (not the cab driver) wasn’t much better. He spoke no English, and apparently no Spanish. He just rode behind us on his much-better-behaved horse switching at ours occasionally with a leafy branch in order to get our horses to move at a trot (as opposed to a nice, friendly ‘walk’ or a speedy-but-relatively-comfortable ‘canter’ or even a hair-raising-but-at-least-not-painful ‘gallop’).
Thinking that we were going to be riding on trails through the mountains, we instead found ourselves riding on roads in the quaint village we’d just been in. We were able point to the quaint restaurant in the quaint hotel, the quaint shops with the quaint tourist gew-gaws, and the quaint road leading to the quaint zoo … all while the locals paused to point at us, the quaint tourists, and giggle.
Finally, though, we made it to the waterfall. At least now we would be able to take the horses out on nice, SOFT, mountain trails. But it wasn’t to be.
The waterfall was right beside the road. We could have driven there in five minutes instead of subjecting ourselves to an hour of torture on horseback.
Then we turned around and went down another road to the spa.
Which was closed.
Part Three: The Third Debacle–The Cab
After a day spent in central Panama enjoying things such as a hundred-foot-high waterfall pounding down through a rainforest canopy and a lovely lunch of sea bass in salsa served with fried plantains, we were finally leaving the ancient volcanic caldera called El Valle, with its spectacular vistas, its quaint … everything … and its surly horses.
In only three hours, we would be back in Panama City in time for supper.
However, at this point the theme song for “Gilligan’s Island” started playing in my head (“A three -hour cruise / a three-hour cruise”) along with all of those castaways-on-a-deserted-island connotations.
The sun was setting over the ridge surrounding El Valle, and this was the car we were about to drive three hours in:
1). The driver’s side door got stuck once in such a way that the driver had to climb over me, in the backseat, to get up into the front.
2). The rearview mirror was broken and almost completely useless, except for one sliver of silver that was somehow hanging on. Which rearview mirror? Yes.
3). Every red light that could possibly be lit up on the dashboard, signaling an impending emergency, was lit.
4). It was only after the first three miles, heading up out of El Valle, that the driver realized he had left the parking brake on. Yes, that was the source of the burning brake pad smell.
5). Every window in the car was tinted. Not just a little tinted, but a LOT tinted. Not just some of the windows, ALL of the windows, including the front one.
6). The front headlights were dim, dirty, and misaligned.
7). Fact #6, combined with fact #6, meant that once night fell, the driver couldn’t see anything in front of the vehicle without sticking his head out the window like a wind-hungry Labrador.
At least he was upbeat about all of this. “Not used to this car,” he said. “My regular car is in the shop.”
A chop shop, maybe?
And then, “It is hard to see. Funny, yes?” No. “Once we get to the highway, there will be lots of other cars. We will use their light to see by.”
It started to rain.
He was at least correct in that there was plenty of traffic on the highway, most of which he then set about trying to hit, since he still couldn’t see anything through the heavily-tinted windows. Luckily, the other cars were able to see us and most of them dodged out of the way in time.
Okay, okay, ALL of them dodged out of the way in time, but there were a few close calls, a lot of honking, and at least one very, very scary semi.
My only condolence in all of this was that I was in the backseat. I figured that I had a fifty-fifty chance of surviving any given smashup.
Meanwhile, in the front, my traveling buddy, John, kept up a banter with the the driver about the possibilities of finding a massage parlor where he could have someone who wasn’t a hooker step on his back.
The driver just kept trying to peer through the windshield from three inches away, as if that would help.
Finally, though, the rain stopped and we drove in to Panama City, where the street lamps were at least bright enough that we could see the edges of the road, if not the actual lanes marked on the asphalt.
Then we had to pay the cabbie the $200 I had accidentally agreed to earlier.
And John still didn’t find his brothel … er, massage parlor.