A Rough Guide to Panama

Blind and Alone 3,500 Miles from Home

Illustration by Ben Ricker

Miami Mike’s head swung slowly back and forth as he eyed the pretty girls sauntering past his hotel on their way to work.

In Mike’s defense, little else goes on in the sun-bleached corner of Panama where he opened up shop.

Swaying woozily beside him, I stared vacantly ahead into the daybreak, sunlight glaring off a set of chrome hubcaps parked at the curb. My fever had broken and the spells of delirium had abated.

Finally on the mend, I thought.

I noticed Mike was talking some kind of shit, but his voice sounded weak and distant. That’s when a black cloud washed slowly across my field of vision and left me blind as a cavefish.

I pressed my eyeballs hard with the palms of my hands, hoping to jumpstart them somehow — nothing.

“Mike,” I said. “I just went blind.”

“Yep,” he offered. Mike was a listless deadpan expatriate from the sunshine state. “I have that effect on people.”

In late January, Miami Mike’s Backpacker Hostel in Chitré should have been packed with blond surfers who piled empty cans of Panama beer and splashed their money at local drug dealers.

But it wasn’t.

In 2010, people weren’t much in the mood for tropical getaways and exotic sightseeing. Homeowners, careerists and retirees shelved any vacation plans after Wall Street ‘s finance wizards jackknifed the economy.

Travel agents across Mexico and Central America felt the shockwaves of First World anxiety when their phones stopped ringing. Popular tourist attractions went eerily quiet almost overnight, and many of the nearby villages where tourists normally cashed travelers checks and sipped cocktails became ghost towns.

Tour guides, restaurateurs and moneychangers I’d met along the way from Mexico City to the Panama Canal floundered at the mercy of forces beyond their control and prayed for miracles.

The unflappable Miami Mike, however, wasn’t sweating it. I only heard him gripe once, in an offhand sort of way, about the fortune he was hemorrhaging by the minute.

Mike’s head rolled back a bit when, fresh off a bus from Panama City, I wandered into his place the day before. The paunchy innkeeper returned his gaze to a TV set that filled the air around him with the sounds, colors and solace of American football.

I let my backpack fall to the floor, slumped into a chair and fell asleep.

Before coming to Chitré, I’d spent days tossing and turning on a sweaty, narrow mattress in a rundown Panama City hostel. A tropical strain of the flu, maybe, had gotten the better of me and sucked out all my strength.

“Nothing tastes good,” I scribbled in my notebook. Apples I’d bought at a grocery store were like ashes in my mouth and nothing stayed down.

Another entry reads: “Spiciest chicken soup [indecipherable] legally allowed to make. Downed it in a hurry. Spiked the bowl on the floor. Collapsed into a chair. Sat hunched over and out of breath, sweat pouring from out my face. Pray for me.”

My journal goes spotty thereafter.

Fever dreams starred long lines of Rockettes wearing blood-red miniskirts. The dancers kicked up their flashing high heels and stomped them down hard on shards of broken glass to the beat of Les Baxter’s “Calcutta.”

Fear drove me out of Panama City after I began to suspect the place was cursed and that I’d certainly die unless I managed to escape.

So, weak and confused, I fled the capitol.

I can’t say for sure how I wound up in Chitré or why I went blind the morning after I arrived. I’ve always chalked it up to fatigue and malnutrition.

Whatever the reason, Mike’s apparent lack of concern kept me calm while I wondered if I’d ever see again.

“I’m going back to bed,” I told Mike.

“Probably a good idea,” came his voice from somewhere behind me.

I crawled up a flight of stairs and into a bunk, where I lay for an eternity thinking in abstract terms about the deep trouble I was in if my eyes didn’t soon reestablish a good connection with my brain.

Snapshot memories came to me out of the dark: a three-toed sloth creeping down out of a palm tree by the sea, a Panamanian squirrel monkey leashed to a banister in Portobelo, the starving dog with whom I’d shared a half plate of deep-fried plantains, the opening notes of Aerosmith’s “Dream On” blasting from the window of a passing jalopy.

There’s no splashy end or tidy moral to this story. I woke up the next morning with my eyesight restored. I paid Mike what I owed him and then climbed aboard a bus heading out of Panama.

Sometimes you luck out.