This Pan-American Life

It's 5:15 and Tara's phone is plinking it's rude reminder somewhere in the tent's blackness. I can hear her moving next to me, dutifully getting dressed. I roll over onto my stomach and pull my knees up to my chest, leaving my arms at my sides. The only thing propping me up is the side of my face stuck to my camp pad. I stay this way for ten minutes or so in petulant protest. The only effective way to break the comfort of the tent is to deflate my mattress, which is best done by lying on it, so my position still counts as progress. Eventually I reach up, unscrew the valve and wish for the hundredth time in the last 7 months that I would remember to brush my teeth before blowing it up the night before.

At this point, routines are pretty well set in place. Like the conversation we have every night before falling asleep.

"What time should I set the alarm for?" Tara asks.

"9ish?" I suggest.

She'll thank me for the input, type into her phone and tuck it away, set for 5:15. Always. She's right, of course. Central America is damn hot and it's best to make progress before the sun is at full force, but I do my best to push it as much as possible.

As of now, at 200+ days on the road, we've crossed the Panama Canal and are sitting in Panama City prepping for our boat ride to Colombia and South America. If only in a continentally visualized version, we're halfway. I figure it's long overdue to give a breakdown of what's become a typical day-in-the-life. Granted, there are all sorts of surprises and wonderful spontaneous experiences, but there is also a routine to things. Particularly when for one reason or another, we're stuck to the Pan-American Highway. And, given there is really only the one road in Panama, this past week was a prime example of what's come to be the routine of the road.

Once roused from the tent, we split up breakfast tasks for the sake of efficiency. Tara is a flurry of morning activity assembling coffee filters, allocating oatmeal and slicing bananas. I'm in charge of the stove and boiling water. The lighting process requires a priming flame to heat the burner itself. According to the stove's directions this flame should last 2 minutes and burn 1-2 feet high. According to us, people use gas stoves inside all the time, so what difference does it make if there is a sporty little campfire on our motel room floor or wherever we happen to be prepping our coffee and oatmeal. Fortunately or otherwise, smoke alarms don't seem to be a thing in our chosen accommodations.

Each morning the bikes need to be packed and loaded. Repetition shines a bright light on inefficiency, and you realize after some weeks that a particular bungee cord strapping technique has caused you some 3 extra hours of annoyance, net. Changing a trip's worth of habit seems even harder.

We each have our own ways of maximizing efficiencies. Tara will rinse her socks and shorts in a sink the night before, hanging them to dry and giving them a head start on being ready to wear again. My approach is the opposite and doubly efficient. Insisting on the anti-microbial aspects of wool, I forego rinsing my socks altogether --boom, efficiency--  and after a few short days it's also no longer necessary to choose which sock should go on which foot as each, even when removed, retains its respective shape quite nicely.

The goal packing up is to be ready as quickly as possible but I can't help but feel like it's just a contest to be ready before the other person. A contest Tara usually wins. Sometimes I'll ask for something random she's already packed just to level things off. "Hey, do you have the toenail clippers?"

If I doddle long enough, Tara usually has to pee one last time before we hit the road and I get my chance feign annoyance at waiting for her instead. I tap my shoe and ask her if she knows my friend "Les"? She doesn't respond because she knows Les's last name is "Do This" and I've made the same joke 200 times already this trip and it's not even funny enough to be a joke, just one of those things that might become funny if its repeated enough times. I'm thinking we're about halfway there. Les Do This.

It's usually an hour or two since we've eaten by the time we're rolling down the road. Time then for Second Breakfast. The term is not ours. It's borrowed from Lord of the Rings, wherein the hobbits --recognizing the importance of things tasty and good-- insist on proper sustenance while on the road. They are shot down by the tightwad Vigo Mortenson who insists they have to get a move on. I'll pause here to say that, in the world of cycle travelers there are definitely many types, and we have met some Vigos, cleft-chinned and hellbent on doing 80 miles a day and sleeping in ditches. It took me a bit to realize --and to embrace-- that of these types, we are definitely hobbits. Second Breakfast is important.   

The early stopover eats up the last of the morning's cool riding and we're back out on the road with the Central American sun high overhead. This past week we did enjoy Panama's binary logic surrounding highway roadwork. As in, if it's not finished, it's closed. For 150 miles between David and Santiago 2 lanes of the soon-to-be 4 lane highway, were coned off to everyone except road workers and two cyclists wearing imbecilic grins and similar vests. For the most part, workers seemed to be finishing the last inane details, while we rolled over mile after mile of bowling alley smooth asphalt. A pleasure for sure, but after eight hours of our own private highway, it carried with it all the heat and excitement of spending the day biking through a parking lot.

I try and meditate in the longer sections. Getting beyond the lizard brain impulses: thirst, hunger, hot etc. There are definitely successful stretches, but, on a bike, the hunger has a way of sneaking up on you. An artificially accelerated process I'd compare to being on an airport moving sidewalk where the beginning is "I'm sorta hungry" and the other the end is "I'm gonna lose it" and you're taking the thing at a full sprint. Before you can even hear the automated warning signaling the end, your feet can't catch up to your body and you're a sprawled mess of carry-on and misdirected anger and it's definitely lunchtime.

Meanwhile, and hopefully before it's not too late, we need to sort out where to eat. Couples are regularly undone by this question. Add the fact that we're pedaling down the road some 10 feet apart and one of us has their back to the other and you have a recipe for some chippy fireworks. To ease the process, we have a partially scientific hierarchy of potential eatery standards. It goes something like: Locals enjoying a meal > looks like it could be good > sad and empty > sad and empty with dirty plates left on the tables > exists.

On the Panamanian PanAm we were forced to place a premium on existence. The distances between tiny towns with any sort of lunch spot being more suited to cars than bicycles. The best part of blinding hunger, though, is that almost any food is greatly appreciated. Which is important, because, while the ingredients have been the same throughout Central America (beans, rice, chicken) the plate's flavors have decreased steadily with each country since Mexico, ending here in Panama, with all things brown and fried. There was a brief moment, when we were first offered salchicha that I thought we had discovered a new delicacy. Unfortunately salchicha is hot dog.

Lunchtime is a treat for reasons beyond food. Taking a note from siesta culture, we sit around post-meal, staring at our plates and tossing excuses back and forth as to why we can't keep going. Most of these establishments are family run, with a roadside patio and a kitchen behind. Tara usually suggests we call it and ask the owner if we can camp for the night. We'll do the ol' chuckle to sigh to staring silence and I'll check the map on my phone to see if we've made it any progress since we sat down.

Some of our most memorable interactions come with the lunch crowd. Mostly working men, who greet the entire establishment as they enter and sit with a recognizable savvy, first removing their belt-clipped cellphone and then reaching for a second plastic chair, double stacking them in what I imagine to be a lesson in necessary reinforcement they needed to learn only once. They are eager to chat up foreigners visiting their regular hangout and ask about our bicycles propped behind us. Fortunately, this is our most well-worn Spanish path and we're able to go back and forth remarkably well.

Where are you coming from? How long have you been going? Where are your niños? Where are you headed? Etc. When we get to the bit about Argentina, one of the most consistent moments of the trip happens. Of those listening, each will have a similar expression. Equal parts Latin American warmth and what the fuck. The classic expression is most easily achieved by pressing your tongue to the back of your teeth, grimacing a smile, and pulling in air sharply past your molars. Perfect. No translation necessary.

In the high heat of the day after lunch comes the slog. Time to simply make the last of the miles to get where we're going. It's during the slog that conversation and roadside comprehension really fall away. We each retreat into our own thoughts and just pedal for a few hours. It can be confusing to get back on the same page at times. Like the moment I came out of my daydream to tell Tara that I wanted to pretend to tattoo the words "pura vida" on my side and send a picture home to friends and family to convince them I'd changed and co-opted Costa Rica's license plate slogan for life. She told me that sounds nice but if I see a good pee spot that would be better.

Central America is a challenging place for roadside relief. Particularly if you're a lady. Since I'm often out in front, it's my duty to pull over at an appropriate spot. A challenge because we have slightly different standards as to what privacy means. And, because so much of the land is agricultural, and almost all of it is worked by men and women in the fields, there are occasionally surprises. There is definitely at least one banana farmer whose life Tara changed forever.

Of course, the best option for rest and recuperation en route is the corporate cooled oasis known as the truckstop gas station. They appear on the horizon as shimmering mirages of primary colored branding, the perfect place for the afternoon cold bev break. The facelessness of a corporation allows for a special kind of exploitation. The cooler door stays open longer. I take a special interest in the backmost beverage and put my arm in up to my shoulder. Tara comes out of the bathroom with a mummified hand of backup TP. We block the front window with our bikes so we can more easily see them from the air conditioned aisle inside. Because we don't need gas, no employee has to leave the AC to help us and it's obvious from their indifference that their wages don't forge an allegiance to Puma Gas CO. strong enough to ask us to get our heads out of the ice cream freezer. They get it. We're in this together.

When the slog is over, it's time to sort out where we're going to sleep for the evening. By far the biggest variation of any part of our routine. The variables are many. If it's a pre-determined destination, then the challenge is actually getting there and finding it. Of these, there are Warmshowers Hosts, campsites shared through Apps, or friend's recommendations. If the destination is unknown, it's a different challenge entirely. If we've made it to a city, we'll tour cheap hotel/hostel options with whatever energy we can muster. Though a premium is placed on price, we often end up in a bit of a Goldilocks dilemma with cost versus amount of incriminating stains. This room has too many, this room not enough, and then there comes a day, like last Saturday, when we realized, for the price, there can be such a thing as just the right amount of blood on the floor.

The ride from Boquete to Panama City covered the spread on accommodations. From two nights sleeping in the tent, to a night in a divey PanAm Highway hotel, to then getting offered our own beachside bedroom from a couple after we asked if they could recommend a place to stay. Where to sleep remains the most interesting day-in day-out challenge we face.

Dinner is the final obligation. We're generally worn through and tired of the heavy prepared foods available on the road. We'll go to the grocery store and  find vegetables in whatever form they exist. Most often it's tomatoes, onion, beans, beets, cheese and chips. Sliced and diced, these could generously be called veggie tacos for dinner. Some nights, on less inspired occasions, it's basically just chips and salsa. It works, cravings satisfied, hunger temporarily knocked down until tomorrow's oatmeal. There's usually cookies, too, halved with mathematical precision.

We generally don't last that much later than sun. At least in Panama we've skipped to Eastern Time and that pushes things closer to 7, but darkness usually means fading pretty quickly towards bedtime preparations. Exhausted from the day and knowing another one is coming tomorrow. I'll inflate my air mattress before brushing my teeth, and Tara will ask, "What time should I set my alarm for in the morning?"

Weaseled our way to the Hard Rock Hotel's 62nd-floor nightclub well before it opened. The janitor allowed us "cinco minutos" before sternly directing us back onto the elevator, ground floor button pre-pushed. 

Weaseled our way to the Hard Rock Hotel's 62nd-floor nightclub well before it opened. The janitor allowed us "cinco minutos" before sternly directing us back onto the elevator, ground floor button pre-pushed. 

Date night in the big city. 

Date night in the big city. 

Too hot to venture out midday, we took to walking only during that good light.

Too hot to venture out midday, we took to walking only during that good light.

En route to our last North Continental breakfast.  

En route to our last North Continental breakfast.  

End of the Central American pedaling line. From here, we catch a sail boat through the San Blas Islands, bound for Colombia.   

End of the Central American pedaling line. From here, we catch a sail boat through the San Blas Islands, bound for Colombia.   

Arté Salchicha

Arté Salchicha


Subtle stove priming.