Battling Feverish Nightmares en Route to Panama City

PenonomeI hardly exaggerate when I say that I could barely move upon waking up after my seventy-five mile ride through the mountains of central Panama.  It was quite a wretched feeling, and although I longingly clung to my bed, hoping that perhaps a few more hours of sleep might magically cure me, it was already quite late and there was no time to be lost.  Thus, with the arrival in Penonome and Fatima’s welcome twinkling in my future, I was soon all set and back out in the blazing Panamanian heat-wave once again.

Deliciously, I quickly found that this time the terrain before me was indeed “flat as a pancake” and although I had started off nice and easy, wanting to give my stiff joints time to unlock, that soon all changed.  Without the demoralizing impediment of looming mountain ranges scarring the horizon, I whipped along happily and was anxious to reach my destination, where I had told myself I would have at least one or two days of rest and recovery before carrying on to Panama City.  As my limbs kicked back into full swing I even found myself soaring easily forward, almost oblivious of the rising temperature of the countryside.

However, although the former part of the day passed by swiftly and uneventfully, the latter was quite another story.  I had been riding for about three hours when as if for no reason the oscillating whooshing sound of a flat tire shattered my good vibes.  Oh bugger, fixing a flat was never a fun or exciting experience.  Nonetheless, I pulled to the side of the road, rolled my bicycle off the shoulder and a few yards into the reedy grass, then propped the old girl against an overgrown fence.  Yet it was just one of those days, and regardless of how meticulously I checked my tube and tire or how firmly I applied them, just one patch appeared to be far from enough – although the root of the problem was a far worse surprise.

Tire KarmaAs I stepped behind the bicycle and reached down to release the tire, I saw that there was an orange strip along the surface of it.  Hmm, what’s this?  Well, not only was there orange, but there was another material in between the orange.  Oh sweet heavens, this tire was all worn out!  Not only was it worn out, but the rubber had been completely scraped away and the insides were completely exposed, leaving me to ride along on simply a layer of fabric!

Well this just certainly wouldn’t do, but the problem was that I had not another replacement tire and the only possible fix was to patch the tube up, put the old dead-beat tire back on, and pray that it would hold up until I reached the big city.  Sadistically, this was only the half of my problems, and five patches and a world of exasperation later I had hit a wall.  The problem was that the tube had, rather sadly, ruptured right along its raised seam, and therefore the patches refused to stick to the non-flat surface, air hissing out each time that it was pumped in.  My heart sank, I had no more tubes and had no idea what to do – and something told me that it wouldn’t be easy to hitch a ride in this part of the world.

Yet, astonishingly, just as I had almost given up hope, I went to place the sixth (and my final) patch on the tire, and miraculously it held.  Oh happy days, we were back in business!  I refitted the tube into the ravaged tire and then mounted it onto the bike, ready to set sail.  However, much to my chagrin I was not given the satisfaction of being able to just coast right back into the pace that I had started.

Almost instantly, I could feel that the ride was nowhere near as smoth as before, and additionally, with each rotation of the tire came a rhythmic bumping.  I stopped to inspect my work and see if there was any solution to the unfortunate surprise, but alas, there was not.  When I had put all of the patches onto the same point on the tube, it had left a significantly raised ridge and had also warped the shape of the tube so that it no longer bowed into a perfect arc.  It looked like me and my new problem were stuck together.

My progress was severely inhibited, and as I rode along now at about two thirds of the speed at which I had been going earlier that day, I soon discovered that more misfortune was headed my way.  The now exposed tire insulation proved to be a greater problem than I had hoped.  Less than an hour after my first stop to patch, I was met with another flat, and then after fixing it and continuing, another.  Oh sweet mother of mercy, where does it end!

Long, Hot HorizonWell, after wasting an exorbitant amount of my day on the infuriating task of tube repair and battling the rough riding conditions, my moral had been seriously degraded.  I carried on more slowly and patiently, hoping that if my tire did not hit any sharp objects in the road at a high velocity, then they would not become embedded in the tire and exacerbate the issue.  Fortunately, this held to be a plausible hypothesis, however, a new and ruthless factor had begun to develop throughout the course of my frustration.

The sun seemed to roast my skin as I rode along the completely unsheltered highway, forcing me to stop every several miles to seek shade and fight the heat exhaustion that was beginning to set in.  So many times did I find myself ducking into the little covered concrete bus stops along the roadside that I wondered if I would indeed ever make it to Penonome.  Several times, I put my hand to my back to feel my skin and it felt as though putting my hand onto a hot stove.  This surely couldn’t be healthy – I hoped that I did not have long left to go.

A few hours later, I finally found myself pedaling into the rolling green outer limits of the city.  My ass was sore from sitting on the seat all day, my body was burning from the relentless late afternoon sun, and my patience had almost completely worn away any good humor.  Add to that that I was very hungry.  A few minutes later I had reached an intersection which appeared to be somewhat situated in the center of town and decided that it was time to call upon Fatima.

Princess LeyaWhen my cell phone finally put me through to her, she told me that she was on her way back from the beach with another friend from CouchSurfing and would be there shortly.  Not long after, when she stepped from the bus and walked toward me, I could have cried and hugged her in exasperated joy, but I wasn’t really in any hygienic state to be sharing bodily contact with anyone.  Nonetheless, that didn’t prevent me from joining them as we stepped next door from the bus terminal to chow down on some Chinese cuisine.

Over our meal, I got to know Fatima and her daughter better, and both turned out to be sweet and energetic characters, one playing of the other frequently, like Laurel and Hardy, but without the physical similarities.  I almost met Evan, an American from the Northeast who had majored in Spanish and was now out to get some practice while traveling through latin America.  Although he turned out to be a very friendly and sociable character as well, I was still somewhat appalled by the gargantuan load of luggage that he was lugging around the Americas – highly reminiscent of the Princess Leya character from Spaceballs (although perhaps his suitcases didn’t consist of giant hair-driers).

I was thoroughly enjoying the company of my new friends, but it didn’t take long after eating for my energy to start fading fast, and once we were back at Fatima’s sweet little countryside-like house, I very quickly dismissed myself from conversation and did a nosedive into the top bunk of her daughter’s bed.  When I awoke the next day, they had both already hopped out of bed and were in the living room watching morning novelas intently.  Then once they had pried themselves away from the television and we were all bathed and ready to go, we headed out to explore the town.

Panamanian FashionShockingly, only a short few hours later, after having lunched, visited a museum, and met Fatima’s friend for a drink, I almost fell down unconscious at the table of the open air restaurant.  My energy was completely sapped, I could barely think, was incapable of making any conversation, and had to prop myself up on the table and keep repeating that I thought I was fine.  However, I could only try to put on this front for so long and then, although feeling horribly rude, I informed our small group that I absolutely must go.  Equipped with the house keys, I bid everyone farewell and fell into a cab, and prayed that relief would come soon.

When the cab finally arrived at the door, I could barely walk from the car to the front door, and once I had gotten in I barely made it to the bed before collapsing.  Yet relief was not to be had, and although I thought that upon lying down I would surely find instant satisfaction in sleep, I instead lay in bed turning agonizingly, my brain and body feeling completely wretched.  Strangely, after what felt like an eternity of this (and was probably almost two hours), I realized that the one recurring theme that kept running through my mind was the persistent desire for something sweet.  How strange, here I was barely able to move and all I could think about was desert.

But once I finally drove myself crazy by lying there lifelessly in misery, I was able to muster up just enough energy to head to the kitchen and satisfy my craving.  Although the kitchen turned out to be a culinary wasteland, having almost none of anything edible, I did manage to discover a small bag of sugar in an empty cupboard, and seeing no other choice but to indulge myself, I had at it.  A few spoonfuls later I had succumbed to gravity once again and was back in the bed, however within only a short time I could feel the veil of agony lifting away from my body and my energy returning.  Well, it looked like I had just had my first hypoglycemic attack.

Bridge of the AmericasAfter this little scare, and the rough physical state that I found myself in the next day, I decided that I might need a little time before returning to my rigorous cycling schedule.  However, I had also found the stifling heat of Fatima’s un-air-conditioned home in Penonome to be a bit much for me at the time, and so found myself in a great hurry to depart.  The day after my attack, I found myself back on my bicycle, but this time only to the nearby bus terminal.  In light of not only the physical aspect, but also the sorry state of my tire’s physical health, the only prudent thing to do was hop in a bus and head to Panama City.

Consolingly, the city was very near, and less than two hours later we were driving high over the Bridge of the Americas which spanned the mouth of the Panama Canal and entering the chaotic metropolis.  Although my plans had been to arrive in the city, take a few days to absorb the sites, and then hop on a slow-boat headed for Cartagena, Colombia, little did I know at the time that this mire of a city was soon to become my home for the next three weeks.  And if it had been relief from the blistering tropical sunshine that I had been looking for, then I had most certainly come to the wrong place.  It appeared that Central America was more than happy to wreak its final wretched curse upon me, and that it wasn’t ready to part with me quite just yet.


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