When traveling to foreign lands I have specific things I like to pay attention to more than others. Here are a few that I can think of: 1. Language - Talk talk. What is/are the languages? Before I leave I force myself to learn the basics: hello, how are you? please, thank you, good morning, noon and night. If I don't know the language very well (this is the case for every language other than English, Frenchlish, Spanglish and Vietnamesish) I carry around a trusty phrase book to get me by. Here in the wild southernmost Central American country of Panama, the Spanish is a bit thicker in the city (Panama City). Overall it sounds more romantic, a bit like Columbian Spanish (which to me is like the British dialect of English - if that makes any sense whatsoever). Just an hour-long flight north, in Bocas Del Toro and Isla Bastimentos, the dialect is faster and often comes with the punch of an afro-caribbean (French and English Creole) accent. It's much more complicated for my ears to comprehend the Spanish of Bocas Del Toro and Isla Bastimentos, so I have found myself doing loads of smiling and nodding to compensate for my lack of verbiage.
2. Food - For the belly. I like to know where locals eat - and eat there (even if that means I take a couple of "thank you" bites (of duck fetus, spoiled fish and molded something or other) and continue on my merry way). Thus far, I've tried several seafood ceviches, sauteed and fried plantains, yucca rolls, chicken tamales, coconut rice and kidney beans, and fried fish. Fried, fried, fried. On the islands, the food tends to be slightly more spicy (which I prefer) than what I masticated in the city. Street food is often some of the tastiest and cheapest you can buy. Grilled meats and fruit (pineapple and papaya) juices (jugo!) are popular here. Shopping at the local markets and "super" markets are also a fascinating way to hone in on a culture. There are oddities and wacky packaging galore. I generally find a place to stay with a kitchen so I can cook up things using ingredients I've never used before. This seems to challenge my senses and enhance my (white-ass) palate. The markets in Bocas haven't been the best. Meat smells too much of rot and the produce is feeble at best. Still, you have to work with what you've got. This morning I made corn cakes with scrambled eggs, tomato, onion and chile sauce. Tonight I may attempt some local lobster.
3. Music - For dancing or humming along. Unless there happens to be a band playing around every corner (which seems to be the case here) I generally turn to the radio for this basic information. Foreign radio makes my toes jiggle and jive, even if it's bad. Riding around in cabs with various cab drivers has also keyed me in to what the locals like. Here, the music is a bit of a smorgasbord. From old school salsa, to Panamanian rap, to Cuban ballads, to afro-beats, to bad Spanish pop, to (hands-down the most popular musician in the world) the late Bob Marley), ears have their way with sound.
4. Flora/Fauna - Every land has its earthly treats. Panama's jungle is one of the wildest in the world. There are tree sloths (haven't seen any, but would love to for I am certain sloths as some of the wisest creatures on the planet), anteaters (haven't seen any), monkeys (saw one today tied to a shack. I pet it fondly until I noticed its raging monkey boner), sharks (haven't seen any and don't necessarily want to), turtles (saw twenty five the day before yesterday during a hike in "The lungs of Panama City's" national park. Thinking we would feed them something yummy, they swam furiously over to us while carelessly knocking each other's shells into the mud.). And there are more animals, insects, sea creatures and plants I couldn't possibly name and others that have yet to be discovered. Panama has one of the largest and most diverse ecosystems on the planet. This is one of the main reasons I came. To breathe bigness into my starved lungs and dig deeply with my all too-pixelated eyes.
5. Trash/Recycling - Where to dump. How a culture handles their trash says alot about their government's priorities. Panama City's recycling program seems to be better than NYC's (they even have public composts). Bocas Del Toro just started a sort of primitive version of recycling and on Isla Bastimentos, the ground appears to be the best place for all sorts of rubbish.
6. Mannerisms (and the people behind them) - High fives. Hand gestures, public displays of affection, eating, blowing a nose, etc.; these little actions are so dang fascinating to my cabesa. In Panama, girls who are friends hold hands while walking, sturdy handshakes are popular, and men don't seem to mind making eye contact with me despite me being here with another man. Depending on the day, everyone says good morning, good afternoon, good evening. People are so polite it has taken me off guard a bit. I almost want someone to say something rude, but smiles are contagious.
7. Class - The rich overshadow the poor. Yep. This is the case here. There are rich hoods and poor hoods and the rich laze about while the poor do all the work. Seems to be a global problemo.
8. Architecture/Design - Where corners meet. Buildings, parks, the layout of a town or city, signs, the common house. People on Bocas are not afraid of color. Most of the buildings are coated in hyperreal hues. Island homes sit on stilts and teeter to the left or right. Doors and windows are left open. Over the last ten years, Panama City has put loads of money into development. The skyline is impressive and some of the newer buildings are some of the most innovative I have seen (one twists, one is the shape of a d, one looks like an elaborate staircase), but it appears developers got a little overzealous. Most of the buildings are unoccupied. I'm particularly fond of the old school deco buildings with little wire signs above the doors and the hand-painted signs that can be seen in the poorer hoods of the city.
9. Art - Um? Supposedly Panamanians don't revere such a thing. There are the indigenous embroidered molas and jewelry, but for the most part, "art" doesn't make many appearances.
10. Beds - For dreaming. The width and hardness of pillows, the use of blankets and sheets, the material used for a mattress. The two beds I have slept in here have been slightly lopsided and hard. Pillows are rotund and firm and one sheet seems to keep in sufficient bodily warmth.