Today marked two months of travel-flying, railing, driving and floating across land and sea from the geysers of Iceland to monuments of Spain to the beaches of Barbados-searching for darts. Now, I had one month left to explore Central America before flying to Los Angeles for a John Lowe exhibition.
But first, I had one more day to enjoy on the cruise ship that carried me across the Atlantic Ocean. By now, the Grandeur of the Seas was filled with new friends, but I was about to make a new one. Somewhere between morning buffet and afternoon trivia, I was up at the grand piano, playing alone in the empty sky-deck lounge. A woman entered and sat to listen. I offered to teach her how to play, and we became momentary friends. Her name was Julie, from Australia, and one of the more independent and interesting characters I might ever meet. Neither of us knew, a day later, a little destiny would twist us together for the next few weeks.
Meanwhile, I finished the day celebrating with my older new friends, staying up late, turning the clock back one more hour, and lamenting the end of this luxurious leg of the journey.
In the morning, many of us were up early, hitting coffee and the last of the our all-you-can-eat meals, while watching the ship get closer to Colon, Panama, and the eastern end of the Panama Canal. The morning was ominously grey, wet, and warm, and countless ships floated as far as you could see, all waiting their turn to enter the canal. At the final stop of our repositioning cruise, the ship was docking and preparing disembarkation procedures for all passengers.
Other than knowing I was leaving five-star comfort for the glorified backpacker life again, I didn't have much of a plan at this point. A friend had recommended a hostel in Panama City, so I figured I would finagle a way across the thin isthmus of Panama, along the canal and the freeway through the jungle, to the towering capital city. Colon isn't well known for its safe tourist friendly streets, and I didn't much feel like finding a dive bar dartboard in one of the world's seediest ports. So, me, my rolling bag and satchel, and three thousand other passengers reluctantly walked the gangplank into the customs building, out into the parking lot, and began looking for rides and guides to drive us to the big city. Julie, or Jules as she's more commonly called, was there too.
"Oi, hey Adam mate!" Jules chortled. She was wearing her usual colorful shirt and straw cowboy hat; she also toted a small acoustic guitar along with her suitcase and carry-on. "What's your plan mate? Mind if I join ya?" she said, after I explained where I was headed. Within minutes, her and I and few other acquaintances from the cruise had a minivan zipping through the greenery, away from the Atlantic shore toward the Pacific. And, that's how Jules and I became travel buddies for the next four weeks.
Who knew we'd eventually discover oches near mangrove alligators, dartboards surrounded by cloud-forest monkeys, and search for steel tips on volcanic islands in shark-infested lakes.
After an hour or so, and some glimpses of the mighty Panama Canal in action, we pulled into Panama City, where skyscrapers tower like drill bits in a case. Thanks to the Panama Canal's "cash only" fees, every bank in the world has a branch in Panama City. And, on top of the incredible amount of global commerce passing through-not to mention less legal imports and exports-this is one of the fastest growing and wealthiest cities in the world. This was my second visit in four years, and the skyline is still filled with construction cranes and new glistening highrises.
After some winding around, our driver found our destination-Panama Hostel By Luis-near the heart of downtown, two blocks from a main boulevard. We checked in. The owner, Luis, was expecting me, and Jules and I got the best room they had-a private bunk room for four with its own bathroom. Of course it was rustic and simple-with the humid feel of Panama creeping in, even with an air conditioner-but it would be home for the next two nights.
Jules and I hit the nearby superstore-always a fun experience shopping in a foreign place-and loaded up on some staples, including plenty of Balboa beer, just fifty cents a can and the coolest way to keep cool.
We started making friends with the rest of the hostel clientele, a very interesting mix of budget travelers and adventurers, many trying to find a cheap way to Columbia or some other hidden paradise where the party never stops. I got to know Jules better too-now mostly retired, her resume includes country singer, circus animal trainer, and shrimp boat captain. And, she's traveled the world far more than me, an expert at traveling tough. That night, after a hostel-wide barbecue on the patio, Jules played a few soft songs while I surfed up potential dart bars on my Mac in the muggy tropical night.
There wasn't much luck within walking distance-in fact, finding darts in Latin America is almost impossible, it's very rare-but I did get a lead on an English bar in the city center called The Londoner. Jules and I planned to find it tomorrow.
After a morning round of Luis' complimentary pancakes and bananas, Jules and I hopped on a local bus and headed to town-it's always an experience taking a chugging old bus, covered in colorful murals, cranking Latino hip hop, filled with students and workers crossing the city. Every seat was broken, and every pothole launched you from your seat, but no one seemed to mind. Jules and I enjoyed this kind of adventure.
We hit a mall to grab some things, and bussed back to downtown Panama City, where we walked the waterfront and searched for The Londoner, which we found, still closed until evening. But, later that night, with two new friends from the hostel, we cabbed our way back to the pub-and, near as I could find, the only dartboard in a city of millions.
The Londoner was just like I expected: dark wood, plenty of taps, billiards, and a handful of locals and English expats hanging about. I met the owner, Piers, and explained who I was and what I was doing. Excited to have a darts writer in his midst, he bought us some beers and showed us the dartboard tucked in the corner-a soft tip electronic board, but darts nonetheless, the first I'd seen in two weeks.
"Unfortunately, it hasn't been working right. Let me see if I can get her going," said Piers.
I stood there, hoping...
Over and double out.