La Casa Grande

La Casa Grande
Panama City, Panama

The first thing that turned me off to Panama City was the Hostel. Luckily it wasn’t the first thing I saw, but the favourable impression of the city churned up by a 20 minute cab ride over the canal, was checked by a fit of repulsion when I was dropped off at the Casa Grande Hostel in what was purportedly the historic center of town. Though I am sure crumbling buildings that already ditched their last legs years back could by default suffice as historic, as I stood surveying the Hostel from the outside, there was nothing that could qualify it as anything above the status of crackhouse. But since I was tired after sitting squashed-wise on a fourteen hour bus ride, where I alternated between sucking on my kneecaps and smelling my ass, stretching my body took precedence over whatever Third World tenement conditions awaited me inside.

The reason I had pulled up in the first place to Casa Grande was the result of a little Internet research job I had done in Costa Rica before I boarded the night bus for Panama City. The reason that I had chosen to stay in a Hostel in the first place was it would be a great way to meet people in a city that wasn’t too kind to the solo tourist. Google coughed up two results: the Voyagers International and the Casa Grande Hostel.

I was soon in a cab, perched to whoop up the Panamanian nightlife with some fellow travelers. The cabbie – who spoke a fluent Caribbean-style English – though had never heard of the Voyager Hostel, nor was he familiar with the streets I had written down. On the other hand he knew of the Cathedral, where according to the directions offered by a gloss Internet Site, Casa Grande stood only a block removed.

But as I walked through the iron grating door and up the few steps to another iron grating buzz-in portcullis, I felt I was checking in for a five year stint at San Quentin. At first I pretended that the nifty website blurb on Casa Grande – Internet access, TV, laundry, and a unique traveling experience – was obviously a case of mistaken identity. The crackhouse would turn out just that and my quarters would sit snugly in the real, UNESCO preserved, city center replete with starry eyed tourists and not the wild-eyed street urchins that hadn’t eaten in a week. Though startled that the $7.00 price quoted by the plump Senora was the same offered by the Internet site, I played my trump card:

“Internet es dispnoible? (Is Internet available?)”

But the deck was loaded:

“Yes. Down street a little.”

So this was it. But I still held out hope against calling this place rustic to save crushing disappointment, for as I climbed up the crumbling concrete steps, I heard pop music. Yes! I would rot away together with bitching travelers who had fallen for the one night dupe.

As I turned the corner with the Senora tagging along behind me chirping instructions like R2D2 in her incomprehensible Spanish, I sensed the form of a woman turning the corner. Could it be a slim and trim Heidi from Austria, or perhaps a rebellious young Colombiana, heading North to escape the authoritarian shadow of her parents?

My optimism was swiftly toppled over by an emaciated sixty year old woman whose features had either been eaten away by drug addiction, HIV, or both… cool, I was in Club Med! And it didn’t get better – a barefooted twenty-something mulatto was trudging away in his tattered clothing to some remote corner of the Casa Grande dungeon. Luckily R2D2 saved me from the perils of darkness by having me head straight ahead to room 39 where contestant number one you have just won your own:

  1. Broken fan in the sweltering Panama heat (I did not find this out until several hours later).
  2. A sheet ruffled bed just used by an HIV infected prostitute sporting numerous other addictions.
  3. A balcony door that should not be opened to let out some of the stank air because, son, outside is peligroso and we need some security from those into scaling buildings….

I was happy enough though to leave the flap wing balcony doors alone as they were flaking enough lead chips to render an entire elementary school profoundly retarded.

Really I should have screamed bloody ‘No!’ as soon as the Caribbean cabbie turned into the Historic Center, or more so when I saw that my fellow occupants wouldn’t even be eligible for DMV employment. But I was weary and irrational, and decided to stay – it must have been the complimentary toilet paper and towel that lay atop the frazzled bed spread.

Though the whole point for me in overruling commonsense was to grab some sleep as soon as possible, I decided the only way I was going to get any sleep was to first get completely trashed. Then at least the fear of people climbing over the walls and raping me, and selling my dirty laundry on the black market, wouldn’t keep me floored in the corner with my stinky sneakers my only weapon….climbing over the walls!…no, I was not losing my grip on reality. The Casa Grande obviously got its name from the 20ft high ceilings (and the fact it is a grande scheme), and not the makeshift partitions that served as 8 foot walls to separate someone from the sight, but not the intimate sounds of a neighbour’s snoring. Inexplicably a 2 x 3 foot window also sat directly above the door frame, leaving enough space to smuggle several pygmies through.

I trusted that my anxieties were foolish and left the room with the hope that when I returned my backpack wouldn’t be shanghaied, bouncing in the waters of the Pacific or merrily making it way up the Caribbean as the world famous canal receded from view.

I ventured out with the warning from the Senora that I should not walk around the Hotel?!? because there were thieves about. I waited only a few moments before a cab pulled up. In that time I was able to see a coat of arms emblazoned on the side wall of the reception area full with a fighting lion ready to claw away at any thieves, but who was probably a bloody thief himself. Underneath the coat of arms it read ‘Casa Grande Hospedaje’ – Hospedaje?… well I guess that made it A-Okay.

The cab dropped me off on a promenade where it looked like the poorer people went to shop. It reminded me a bit of Market St. in San Francisco but without the intermittent fancy stores and a sleeping bum for every parking meter. I walked along for about half a mile sporting the hex sign at all the McDonald’s, Wendy’s and KFC’s, and ended up smugly dining on a $1.50 chicken and rice dinner. I turned back, walked past the same stores all apparently selling the same clothes, the whole while feeling a bit uneasy; I was the only one with Caucasian blood, save the Euro couple, that had two police bicycles with them, even though it was still daylight outside. Without any such security by my side it looked like I was the easier target for a mugging or just resentment (the cab driver on the way here was happy I was German – I’d lied. He told me he hated Americans because they sent their arrogant military down to Panama by the thousands, so they could train the Panamanian army to fight the Colombian guerillas at the border. If that meant the McDonaldization of Colombia, then I was for coke). So I just picked up a cab and returned to the Casa Ghetto. The walk had me even more tired and I was ready to deal with whatever Golem-like Panamanians cared to climb over my wall.

When my head finally hit the pillow it wasn’t physical assault per se that I had to worry about. My neighbour who was decidedly deaf, perhaps as a result of chain smoking, had to watch one of those horrid telenovelas (Spanish soap operas) at a volume that would bother Beethoven as he tried to compose the Ninth.

So I ended up sleeping fitfully in an ashtray with vivid dreams of Panamanian prisses, plotting revenge on their square jawed lovers…which could just be shrieking until pretty boy cried Tio with a self inflicted gun shot to the head.

After two hours of this enviable sleep I awoke with heavy eyes and a cloudy head. Had I the energy I would have wailed at my neighbour till I brought the balsa wood walls to their knees. Instead I just shuffled off to the shower with my complimentary towel in hand.

Though I knew through the pure fidgeting of my neighbours – courtesy of my Miracle Eared walls – that the Casa Grande was brimming with guests, I saw no one on the way to the bathroom but only heard odd human sounds coming from the rooms.

If anything good could be said about the Casa Grande, and this is a major strain for me, the toilets were not caked with shit, but instead offered a well-kept slab of porcelain. The showers too were relatively free of gunk, though they had a hot-line (so not to speak) to the Arctic…that delivered a blast that had my balls running for my body cavity.

Since I had to tap dance around the periphery of the spout to avoid frostbite much of the film of grime I had picked up in Costa Rica still hugged my body as I exited the shower. Nonetheless I was ready for the Saturday nightlife of Panama City.

Before leaving, however, I still had to choose between carrying my wallet and moneybelt with me so they could get snatched as soon as I left the Casa, or leaving them in the room with the same result. Since the guy with emphysema next to me, didn’t have a chance of climbing the walls without choking on parts of his blackened lungs I decided to leave my valuables in the room. I just hoped that the two emaciated, sketchy looking types who eyed me as I left the shower and had seen me head for my room (I had tried to foil them by loitering outside the chainsmoker’s door), didn’t have any designs on my valuables. Though they could have had a tea party in the open area above my door, I banked that they would not be able to cough up enough energy from their wasted frames to slither through the opening.

I took $20 out of my wallet and put them into my cargo pants pocket. I stuffed my wallet along with my money belt into my backpack. Just to be crafty I positioned a piece of paper at a strategic point on the backpack, i.e. cloak and dagger Lele would be able to pick out if anybody had sifted through my belongings. I then left my neighbour to his cigarettes and telenovelas…

The night ended abruptly. The first taxi driver dropped me off at a movie theater after I asked him for a place with beer, though in his defense the movie theatre did have beer. With the second driver I was more direct – discoteca, mujeres, bailar. This time I was driven way out to suburban hell. We must have passed a dozen McDonald’s. Unlike the ones on the promenade, these were neon and glitzy with the taste of America – Panamanians taking a bite of the upper-class while eating reconstituted soy meat, with beef tallow fries, while the plastic crew of McDonalds characters – Ronald and company – smiled along with their every bite.

Since the cabdriver did not know of a bar/club center I had to settle for a solitary discoteque. But they wouldn’t settle for me. Just as I tried to pass through the door I was stopped by a bouncer that looked like Donkey Kong. Even with the everpresent 90°F heat of Panama City this dingy discoteque felt that my black tank top represented something backward and decadent. This was the first time this had happened to me in Central America. I mentally thanked him for the dose of nostalgia from my hometown of San Jose, California.

Before calling it a night though I thought I would stuff my gut just for the warm glow of the ‘after-feed’. I ordered fish that, according to the menu that hung above the kitchen, was $2.75. Great deal! When the waiter handed me the bill it read $6.50. He responded to my snarled up face, with a special night menu. I took the triple inflation as I lesson, paid the gringo tax, and headed back to the Casa.

Once in my room I read for several hours to the backdrop of telenovelas and emphysemic eructations, a.k.a. smoker’s cough. They continued through the night, punctuating my sleep with a jolt of nausea every time I emerged from a dream. Even the gray break of day was greeted by the alternate sobbing and shrieking of the raven haired vixens of Panama’s finest soap operas. I greeted the day with an “apage la television! (turn off the television)”….and finally something went right at the Casa Grande.

About an hour later a street crew, who obviously didn’t honor the Sabbath, decided to have a jackhammer rally. I tried to sleep, but this was hard to do, even after being made deaf by a telenovela marathon.

I had resolved the night before to leave the Casa first thing in the morning. To make rancid lemon juice out of rotten lemons I told myself that the pounding jackhammers were my alarm clock. I only wished for a snooze button, though I tried to sleep through the noise anyway.

My balcony doors – the canvas of lead – which had since remained closed received a hearty tapping as I was trying to fall back asleep. I got up and tried to look through the cracks without inhaling. I quickly realize that the knocking had actually come from the adjacent balcony door. It quickly went from persistent to desperate.

Then there was this explosive sound, that very well could have been the Panamanian National Soccer Team kicking down the balcony doors. Since I was still dazed from sleep deprivation, my neighbor, whose balcony was being served with a battering ram, felt it was his duty to throw a tantrum… and holler he did. He stormed out of his room and ranted out thundering invectives that mostly included the words merda (shit) and puta (bitch). I opened my door and looked out and saw this angry old man storming up and down the corridor in his white undershirt and unnecessarily brief…well, briefs. He was now at the top of the hallway trying to cover as much ground as possible. I suppose he figured if he was going to get bum rushed out of sleep, so too was the rest of the crackhouse.

That was my last attempt at sleep. The chug, chug pounding of the jackhammer had moved closer so I quickly set to packing my things. I had barely managed to squash some of my unlaunderables into my backpack when I realized that I was getting sprinkled with the much dreaded lead chips as they flew off the door and into my room in every direction. As soon as it started it abruptly stopped. Then it was my turn for the tap, tap, tapping at my f*king chamber door. As I fiddled to undo the lock, I was suddenly hit by shots of water that made their way through the grating. I managed to pull the balcony door open with only a moderate soaking. Standing outside with a hose pipe in one hand and a drill in the other stood a workmen in gray overalls. He was barking for me to get out of my room. Since even with a gun to my head I could not think of a single reason to stay a moment longer at the Casa Grande, I told the no-nonsense workman that I was almost done clearing up so he could return to destroying my door while logically watering it down.

Within a minute I was tumbling down the stairs, thoroughly mystified by what the hell, why the hell, when the hell, they were out there, but unprepared to give any grief to the Senora squatted at her post with her morning cup of coffee. I handed her the key and asked her the time. It was 7:30.

About 20 minutes later as I meandered through the streets of the old-town trying to avoid snoring bums and wobbling drunkards (though completely unable to avoid a smell that was the equivalent to being served a plate of rotten meat with a hot side of feces) I realized that I had forgotten to return the lock that had fastened the balcony doors – that were probably now wet splinters.

The lock was meant to keep something out, but proved illusory in that function. Just as the Hotel? Hostel? Slophouse? had proved illusory in its function to provide me with sleep or a modicum of comfort or… well, whatever… I sure as hell was not going to return the lock. For now I would tuck it in my clasped hand and use its gold glint to scare off any bums who dared to think that this backpackin’ gringo would make a nice Sunday catch.

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