Panama is a hilly country and hills teach you to be honest with yourself. The road is tough sometimes and the physical struggle is matched by mental and emotional challenges as I face my inner demons. As Bryan rightly said to me after I lamented “I suck!” wallowing in self-pity and doubt facing a particularily steep hill, “’You’re just getting depressed because you don’t have any high water mark to compare yourself to.. so you just look all the way up to the sky and think, “I’m not way up there, I must suck.”” I am judging myself in comparison – to other cyclists, to ideals of myself, and apparently to the sky. None of these are actually me. What I am actually is sheer determination and willpower completely present in the moment working hard to climb a mountain and stay with my breath. Each crank of my pedal is a moment in eternity where I exist and am fully alive. We both make it over the mountain range and it is an exhilirating descent as the colourful blues and greens and misty grays of the world around fly by. We reach the busy, gritty Pan-American highway and the blood pumping adrenaline wears off.
Honesty with ourselves is about being aware of our inner feelings and self. We soon realized that we weren’t enjoying ourselves on the Pan-American highway. I call out to Bryan to stop after another couple kilometre climb up a hill, less steep than climbing over the mountain range but still bringing me down to a grinding 5km an hour in the heat. I need a break and as I get off the bike, I feel dizzy and almost faint. We decided to hitch 20km back to the city of David where we could catch a bus to Panama City the next day.
There are many valid reasons to bus the homestretch to Panama City. First, we have had a wonderful time riding and enjoying ourselves in Central America, especially a wonderful month in Costa Rica, but we are a little behind schedule and have firmly hit the rainy season here. The hot and humid rains make for slower riding which not only means a harder ride in Panama but also that we may risk being late for dry season in the Andes. Secondly, I’m feeling a bit sick and something bit my right hand causing it to swell up painfully making it hard to ride. Taking care of myself, I should rest but again that puts us even more behind schedule (our schedule being the seasons). Thirdly, we may have worked out a ride on a beautiful sailing ship leaving soon and need to get there quickly to meet with its captain. Fourthly, we’ve got some bike problems and think that one of the bearings in Bryan’s back wheel is shot and the good bike shops are in Panama City. Last of all, we may have ridden through the best riding in Panama already.
While steep, the backcountry secondary roads were rather blissfully traffic free with stunning jungle and cloud forest scenery, chattering green parakeets keeping us company, the vibrant underwater world of the Caribbean for us to discover, little indigenous villages along route that rarely sees outsiders which we camped in, stunning waterfalls for a refreshing dip right by the road and a rewarding climb across a mountain range largely protected as a national park. We got to camp right in the middle of the national reserve at a stunning location, on the patio of the La Fortuna dam visitor centre overlooking the lake, the wild flowers and misty mountains. The Pan-American highway in comparison was hilly, hot, busy with traffic and under construction as Panama is turning the whole stretch from a two-lane highway to four-lanes. Not extremely pleasant.
Though all five of these reasons are valid, they really are just excuses. If we really wanted to, we could grind out the last bit to Panama City in about a week. However, it would be just a grind and keeping with honesty to ourselves, it probably won’t be much fun. Some things are worth the effort but we have to consider why. It would be just a ride to get to a destination. Being honest with ourselves, Panama and us have not clicked. There has been fun parts but in general, we are constantly left with this bitter taste of feeling somehow unsatisfied with how things are going. It is nothing that we can pinpoint – it was just as rainy in Costa Rica, it was just as expensive in El Salvador, the climbs were just as grueling and roads even worst at times in Guatemala, the climate was just as opressively hot as in Honduras. People have been friendly and the scenery is beautiful here in Panama. However, it is like a bad relationship where I felt like if we had continued the grind toward Panama City, we could be clinging on for the sake of clinging on. Like a bad relationship, it is probably more us than the country itself – feeling a bit homesick after family visited us and our friends that we started out with have gone home. Most of the other cyclists that we have gotten closest with have gone home or have continued their adventure elsewhere while the other cyclists on this journey that we never got too close with because they were ahead of us are now far ahead of us. Panama is like a lingering break-up with Central America and the lingering only breeds bitterness in the trip itself. Grinding to Panama City is not an expression of feeling alive, of freedom to enjoy the bounty of life, of effortlessly going with the flow. It is mindless slog to a destination, for a promised happiness and satisfaction at an end to justify the means. It is, infact, the opposite of what this trip is all about.