Breezy, Probably Unfair Generalizations About Panama Based On An Hour At Tocumen International Airport

Writers are famous for blowing into places for a very short period of time and then spouting off on them as though they were experts. Click on my name here and you’ll see that I’m just as guilty as everyone else. And writers with a hell of a lot more talent than me have done the same thing.

According to Paul Theroux’s “Tao of Travel,D. H. Lawrence spent just a week in Sardinia, but needed 355 pages to describe the trip in his book, Sea and Sardinia. Graham Greene spent just 18 days in Liberia preparing “Journey Without Maps,” and Rudyard Kipling never went to Mandalay, the subject of his famous poem. Bruce Chatwin would wash up in a place for an hour or two and somehow get three chapters of dialogue-driven material, much of it likely fabricated, without breaking a sweat. (Theroux wisely doesn’t disclose how long he spent anywhere)

The hazard of writing non-fiction is that there will always be readers who know more about the topic you’re writing about than you do. Travel writers record their impressions of a place and then duck for cover as people who live there or know it very well take justifiable shots at us.I had all this in mind on Valentine’s Day when I had an hour to kill at Tocumen International Airport in Panama City, Panama. Like most Americans, I know very little about Panama, but I wondered what I could pick up about the local culture from wandering around the airport for an hour. Here is what I noticed. I hope that those who know Panama well will use the comments section to set me straight.

See through pants. The first thing I noticed after stepping off the plane was a middle-aged woman’s ass. Mind you, I was in the airport with my wife and two children, but even my wife couldn’t help but notice it.
“Dave, look at this woman’s outfit,” she whispered with a nod, as though it had somehow slipped past me. “Her pants are totally see through! You can see her ass.”

I wanted to get a photo of it, for posterity, but I didn’t want to get too close, and from a distance, it wasn’t possible to detect how shear her stretch pants were. I didn’t see anyone else in a see-through outfit but I did spy plenty of women in very tight, form-fitting attire and even the airport janitors looked quite fetching in their uniforms.

Treasure Chest: As I stood underneath an airport monitor marveling at all the exotic places I could connect to in Panama (Manaus! Belo Horizonte! Ascuncion! Cali! M.A. Gelabert?!) my sons made a beeline for one of those horrible feed-a-dollar-and-your-child-will-get-the-prize-they-don’t-want machines called Treasure Chest, which was full of stuffed animals and other assorted junk kids love.

My three year old will plead with us to feed coins into these machines and then, invariably, commence a meltdown of biblical proportions when he doesn’t get the thing he wants. I swear that Tocumen has at least 100 of these exact same machines all called “Treasure Chest.” And my sons approached every last one of them, harassing us to buy them something. In some areas of the airport, there were two of these machines back to back. Why so many? Obviously Panamanians must be into spoiling and indulging their children.

Wealthy elite. Panama is a relatively poor country but the rich elite must be damn good shoppers. Rolex, Roberto Cavalli, Valentino, Caroline Herrera, Lacoste, and Salvatorre Fergammo all have locations in the airport, not to mention other upscale retailers I wasn’t as familiar with. My favorite was Harmont and Blaine, an upscale Italian store with a WASPY name and logo featuring two dachshunds. (Short sleeve polo shirts sell for $90) Most of the posh stores were empty and it seemed like the only places doing any business at all were selling perfume or electronics.

No Bargain. Here’s all I know about the cost of living in Panama: a pizza sub and a small bottle of water from a Subway sandwich shop cost me $11.50 U.S. Even by airport standards, that is ridiculous.

Could I get a newsstand, please? You can find a decent newsstand and/or bookstore in almost any major airport in the world. But I looked very hard for one at Tocumen and asked several people to guide me and came up empty. I finally found a very small place with a modest selection of magazines (all in Spanish save Time and Men’s Health) but, oddly enough, they had no newspapers. Not even local ones.

I asked the woman where the papers were and she said they get them in the morning and by the afternoon they’re all gone. I suppose one could take the optimistic stance that this shows avid readership but I found the lack of reading materials in the airport a bad indicator for the country’s literary scene, and indeed, the list of famous Panamanian writers online is pretty modest.

But one woman I asked in a perfume shop who was talking to a guy that looked like a Panamanian drug lord straight out of central casting was nice enough to give me her copy of “La Estrella,” a 164-year-old daily newspaper that is apparently one of the oldest in Latin America.

Beisbol and boobs. After I’d seen enough of the airport, I sat down and leafed through “La Estrella,” which was full of coverage of the country’s baseball championship between teams called Metro and Occidente, and seemingly random photos of bodacious women. One particularly fetching photo, which appeared in the Sports section under the headline “La Apasionada” (The Impassioned), featured the porn star Sophia Rossi, who makes Pamela Anderson look like the flat-chested girl next door. (And has been romantically linked to the baseball player, Pat Burrell)

Diversity. I spent the rest of my time people watching and, while you never know where people are from, the diversity was impressive. There were people of every skin tone, befitting a country that’s long been a crossroads and a melting pot. I was only in Panama for an hour, not even enough time to get Van Halen’s song of the same title out of my head, but I saw enough to know I want to go back. Next time, I’d like to actually exit the airport.

[Photo credit: Dave Seminara]

Panama’s Copa Airlines: Free Cocktails In Coach! And They Might Let Your Kids Fly The Plane

Leave it to the fun-loving Panamanians to know how to show their passengers a damn good time. I had some United miles burning a hole in my pocket this winter and wanted to use them for a trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua. The only routing available for my preferred time window was on Panama’s national airline, Copa Airlines, a Star-Alliance member I’d never heard of before.

If I’m flying solo, I’m willing to board just about any aircraft with a logo and a couple of wings on it, but since this was a family trip I thought I’d do my due diligence and Google Copa before booking the flights. At the risk of coming off like a hopeless xenophobe, I should admit right here that I do not associate Panama with here-take-our-lives-in-your-hands-competence and efficiency.

If I was looking for someone who could get three outs in the ninth inning, I might turn to a Panamanian. But for an airline? I had no idea. But I was impressed to learn that Copa has been around for decades and has crashed just once, and that was way back in 1992. Sure, there was another incident when one of their pilots veered off the runway and wrecked one of their planes, but hey, no one died, so no harm no foul.

I also liked the fact that they have a really pretty girl named Ana who provides nuggets of valuable information on their website’s top ten questions page. For example, in response to the apparently very popular question, “Do you speak Spanish?” Ana assures us that sí, the Panamanian staff does indeed speak Spanish. (Now who would have guessed that?)

But we got off to a less than promising start with Copa at O’hare airport on Valentine’s Day.

“You will have to be very patient with us,” warned a clipboard-carrying Copa staffer who was directing travelers into two lines at their counter. “Our computers are broken, so we are doing everything by hand today.”

We arrived at 6 A.M. for an 8.09 flight and by 6:45 we’d barely moved in the line when we noticed that the young woman was directing several late arriving passengers into their business class line, which had been empty. I ducked out of the coach line and complained that people who arrived after us were getting served before us and the woman apologized, opened up a brand new line just for us and assured us that we would be next. I felt moderately embarrassed by the rock star treatment but I was secretly delighted.

After we boarded the plane, I brought my sons, ages 3 and 5, up for a peek in the cockpit and the Copa pilots seemed oddly delighted to meet them. They both doffed their pilot hats, put them on my sons and let them touch a few random buttons before suggesting I go fetch my camera for a few shots. After the photo opp, they suggested I bring the boys back again after the flight was over for a “flight lesson.” Huh?

The aircraft was ice cold and didn’t warm up even an hour into the flight. I’m the kind of person who is always hot, not cold, and I had on a polo shirt and a light jacket and was wrapped to the neck, mummy style, in a Copa blanket but was still freezing. I asked a beautiful Copa stewardess with coffee colored skin and high heels that were like stilts why it was so cold and she looked at me like I was crazy.

“You’re cold? That’s funny because I am perfectly comfortable,” she said with a smile before walking away.

Well, so long as she was comfortable and, let’s face it, so darn cute, that was good enough. A few minutes later, her colleague, a beefy, handsome Panamanian steward in a tight uninform who looked like he would have fit in nicely on Jersey Shore, came by with foil covered plastic tins of enchiladas. For breakfast.

“What’s in the enchiladas?” I asked.

“I have absolutely no idea,” he admitted, seemingly fielding this question for the first time. “Why don’t you try them and find out?”

My wife did just that and reported that they were very edible. (And filled with ham and cheese, let the record show) Around 11 A.M. they came around with a drink cart and I noticed that several passengers- in coach, mind you- were ordering cocktails. I assumed they paid for them and wrote them off as nervous fliers or incorrigible alcoholics.

We arrived on time, and on the way out, the pilots insisted that my sons come back into the cockpit to sit in their seats and horse around. (see video) An hour later, we caught a connecting Copa flight in Panama City bound for San Jose, Costa Rica, and, once again, noticed that quite a few passengers were enjoying cocktails in coach. (Cocktails in Coach- wouldn’t that be a great motto for this or any other airline?)

I didn’t even want one- after having risen at zero-dark thirty, I was shattered but curious. My wife ordered a rum and coke and I asked the stewardess to confirm that it was free.

“Of course it’s free,” she said, as though I’d just asked her a profoundly stupid question.

“And is alcohol ALWAYS free on Copa airline?” I asked.

“Yes, of course,” she said. “For us, alcohol is always free.”

Now that, my friends, is what I call a damn good airline.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara and egm tacahopeful on Flickr]

Cheesey Street Foods Of Latin America

With the possible exception of Argentina, most people don’t associate Central or South America with cheese. Like all of Latin America, these countries are a mix of indigenous cultures, colonizing forces, immigrant influences, and varied terroir, climatic extremes, and levels of industrialization. They possess some of the most biologically and geographically diverse habitats on earth. As a result, the cuisine and agricultural practices of each country have developed accordingly.

The use of dairy may not be particularly diverse in this part of the world, especially when it comes to styles of cheese, but it’s an important source of nutrition and income in rural areas, and a part of nearly every meal.

While writing a book on cheese during the course of this past year, I tapped into my rather obsessive love of both street food and South America for inspiration. As I learned during my research, the sheer variety of cheesey street snacks from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego are as varied as the ethnic influences responsible for their creation. Read on for a tasty tribute to queso.

Arepas: These flat little corn or flour cakes from Colombia, Venezuela and Panama may be grilled, baked, boiled, or fried. They’re usually stuffed or topped with a melting cheese, but may also feature meat, chicken, seafood, egg, or vegetables.

Anafres: Essentially Honduran nachos, composed of giant tortilla chips, refried beans and melted cheese. Named for an anafre, the coal-fired clay pot the dish is served in.

Pupusas: This Salvadorean staple is similar to an arepa: a thick, griddled corn cake stuffed with meat, cheese–usually a mild melting variety known as quesillo–chicarrones (pork cracklings), or queso con loroco (cheese with the buds or flowers of a vine native to Central America).Choclo con queso: Boiled corn with slices or a chunk of mild, milky, fresh white cheese may not sound like much, but this roadside and market staple of Peru and Ecuador is irresistible. The secret is the corn, which is an indigenous Andean variety with large, white, nutty, starchy kernels. It’s satisfying as a snack all by itself, but it’s even better between bites of slightly salty queso.

Empanadas (empadinhas in Brazil): Perhaps the most ubiquitous Latin American street food, riffs on these baked or fried, stuffed pastries can be found from Argentina (where they’re practically a religion) and Chile to Costa Rica and El Salvador. The dough, which is usually lard-based, may be made from wheat, corn or plantain, with fillings ranging from melted, mild white cheese to meat, seafood, corn, or vegetables. In Ecuador, empanadas de viento (“wind”) are everywhere; they’re fried until airy,filled with sweetened queso fresco and dusted with powdered sugar.

Quesadillas: Nearly everyone loves these crisp little tortilla and cheese “sandwiches.” Traditionally cooked on a comal (a flat, cast-iron pan used as a griddle), they’re a popular street food and equally beloved Stateside.

Provoleta: This Argentinean and Uruguayan favorite is made from a domestic provolone cheese. It’s often seasoned with oregano or crushed chile, and grilled or placed on hot stones until caramelized and crispy on the exterior, and melted on the inside. It’s often served at asados (barbecues) as an appetizer, and accompanied by chimmichuri (an oil, herb, and spice sauce).

Queijo coaljo: A firm, white, salty, squeaky cheese from Brazil; it’s most commonly sold on the beach on a stick, after being cooked over coals or in handheld charcoal ovens; also known as queijo assado.

Croquettes de Queijo: Cheese croquettes, a favorite appetizer or street food in Brazil.

Coxinhas: A type of Brazilian salgado (snack), these are popular late-night fare. Typically, coxinhas are shredded chicken coated in wheat or manioc flour that have been shaped into a drumstick, and fried. A variation is stuffed with catupiry, a gooey white melting cheese reminiscent of Laughing Cow. Like crack. Crack.

Queijadinhas: These irresistable little cheese custards are a popular snack in Brazil. Like Pringles, stopping at just one is nearly impossible.

Pão de queijo: Made with tapioca or wheat flour, these light, cheesy rolls are among the most popular breads in Brazil.

[Photo credit: Empanada, Flickr user ci_polla; food vendor, Provoleta, Laurel Miller]

Tour a Panama hat factory in Sigsig, Ecuador

First popularized by President Theadore Roosevelt and worn by countless travelers ever since, the Panama hat has become a symbol of coastal and tropical locales. Nothing screams I’m on vacation somewhere warm! quite like the straw hat, which is known for being breathable and able to return to its original shape after being folded in a suitcase. But what is not as well known is that Panama hats don’t actually come from their namesake country. The hats actually originated in Ecuador, but were mistakenly called Panama hats because they were shipped through the Isthmus of Panama before making it to locations across the rest of the Americas, Europe and Asia.

Panama hats are still made throughout Ecuador, where Ecuadorians call the hats sombreros de paja toquilla (or “hats of toquilla straw”). Anyone selling the hats at markets or in shopping malls, however, is well aware that tourists often ask for them by the name “Panama hat.” Several towns are famous for the production of the hats, including the small town of Sigsig in the Andes Mountains near the colonial city of Cuenca. It is possible to take an hour-long bus ride from Cuenca to Sigsig to visit a Panama hat company owned and operated by indigenous Ecuadorians who work directly with wholesalers. There, you can see women with amazingly nimble fingers as they weave the hats. Remarkably, each hat takes a single weaver several days to make. While there, you can get a good deal on a hat of your own or purchase other items made out of straw — including bowls, boxes and coasters — from a small company store. There’s also a nice photo op in front of a giant Panama hat in the courtyard of the warehouse.


Click through the gallery above or watch the video below to learn more about the art of creating Panama hats.

The adventures of the island interns

The Adventures of the Island Interns is a new online travel video series following the life-changing journey of Ben Brown and Luke Hansen, winners of the first-ever Island Intern Contest.

Held last Spring and hosted by Amble Resorts, the eco-development company searched for an intern to live on the site of their flagship eco-development, Isla Palenque, a 400-acre private island/ecotourism playground featuring twelve beaches, volcanic bluffs and abundant wildlife.

This week, the first episode, “The Opportunity of a Lifetime,” shows the excitement and life-changing outcome of the Island Intern Contest that sent Hansen and Brown to live on tropical Isla Palenque, Panama for six weeks last summer to document their experience.

This contest is part of Amble’s mission to shine a light on emerging destinations like Panama’s Chiriqui province while emphasizing the importance of preserving the world’s most spectacular natural and cultural wonders.

The 12-part online travel video series will be released Mondays.

Photo: Amble Resorts