I oh-so-very recently fulfilled several goals I’ve simultaneously juggled since having a child: getting out of the country with my best friend, getting out of the country without my child, and visiting Panamá. Planning and funding this trip was no easy feat: with two jobs, a two-year-old, and around two dollars (not really, but it worked with the rest of the sentence), it got a little tight in places.
Before I get into all the awesome details, lemme go ahead and put it out there: I know taking ANY kind of trip, let alone one that requires a passport, is a stretch for a lot of parents — me included. Also, some people just aren’t travelers (right? Don’t you guys exist?) so this might not be very interesting to you. However, I also know that if you can find a way to swing a trip while leaving your tyke (or two, three, etc.) at home, you’ll (probably) be crazy happy that you did.
The roots of the tale
I’ve known my best friend Kimberly since we were fifteen — we go all the way back to high school. She’s a Kerouacian through and through and I’d drive a bus (à la Kesey & co) around any country you’ve got a map for (and plenty that you don’t), so we’re a match made in globe-traversing heaven. We share a love of the world combined with a fierce sense of intrepidity, and always planned to take a trip (or several) together. Unfortunately for our precious little fifteen-year-old selves, finding the opportunity to do so proved to be challenging. Time went by — we graduated high school, attended three colleges and universities between ourselves (spread out over more than six years) and then I got married and had a child. It seemed like if one of us could swing a trip beyond the surrounding five states (we live in Alabama), the other one couldn’t… until earlier this year.
The hows and whys
We chose Panamá for a few reasons. The first is that I have a good friend (also from high school) who lives there — this was a huge plus since it meant that we’d get to see him, we’d have someone to help us around and show us awesome stuff we wouldn’t see otherwise, and if we found ourselves in a jam we’d have a number to call. Another very compelling reason is that for us, flying to and staying in Panamá for a week is significantly less expensive than it would be to go somewhere like, say, San Francisco (where we originally planned to visit) — if you know which airline to use and where to stay. We lucked out, as we live in a region of the United States that Spirit Airlines services, and both of us were able to fly to Panamá for under $1000 combined — including taxes and fees. Considering all the American airlines I looked at were charging at least $1200 each, this was a HUGE bit of savings for the two of us. Of course, we had to drive four hours to Atlanta and had a layover in the most boring airport in the WORLD (I’m looking at you, Fort Lauderdale), but we still saved a bundle.
I’m a huge fan of hostels — if you give me a choice between a swanky hotel and a slightly-run-down but beautiful hostel, I’ll go with the hostel every time (and no, I haven’t seen the movie). We went back and forth between two options — Hostal Urraca and Luna’s Castle before deciding on Urraca. There are a few price differences (our seven-day stay in private rooms at Urraca was $140 each, but would have been $210 at Luna’s), but if you’re considering visiting and curious, the most significant factor to take into consideration is the goal of your trip. Luna’s Castle is located in the middle of Casco Viejo, and is surrounded by bars and nightlife, while Urraca is nestled a little further back in a slightly more gritty part of the city. If you want to party, definitely stay at Luna’s — they have their own bar. If you’re interested in parties but also want to see a little more of Panamá than you might otherwise, head on over to Hostel Urraca.
What we did
I would have loved sharing so many beachy or mountainous moments with my son, but I also grooved on sharing them with my friends and just with myself.
I went into the trip without a lot of goals — I didn’t know a lot about Panamá other than the historial things you learn in a lot of American schools. Honestly, I just knew I wanted to go and I wanted to chilllllllllll. We spent the first few days in the city, roaming around, doing the things you’re supposed to do (visiting the Canal, etc.). We tried food (Riba Smith, a grocery store, has a fantastic cafeteria that allows for some great people-watching and Panamanian food, which is remarkably similar to what many of you probably eat around the world; Madame Chang has delicious but somewhat pricey Chinese; Beirut serves up Lebanese dishes with impeccable service, and Masala has incredible Indian food), went to parties, and visited.
Our lovely friends planned the rest of the stay, which included an overnight visit to the road-less and fabulous Isla Grande. Isla Grande could be a week (or life) long trip in and of itself — I don’t think I’ve ever set foot in such perfect oceanic waters before. The community is friendly, even when you’re stumbling over the language (or just totally giving up — why did I take French in high school?!), and the island itself is the reality of the dreamiest of your most dreamy daydreams. If you venture there, I recommend loading up your iPod or music-listening device (because you WILL want tunes) with Bon Iver, Radiohead, and M.I.A., because they rocked my music-and-ocean-loving world.
We also spent time at Cerro Campana, which is the first national park created in Panamá. It was an awesome diversion from the rest of our stay — a country with mountains and beaches? The best. I would have loved sharing so many beachy or mountainous moments with my son, but I also grooved on sharing them with my friends and just with myself — something I haven’t done since Jasper was born.
“Oh wait… didn’t you miss your kid?”
Hell yes I did! At least those first few days. No, seriously, I missed Jasper throughout the trip, but I also enjoyed the fuck out of relinquishing nearly every responsibility in my life for a week. Go out until 6AM without having to wake up at 7AM to get breakfast going? Don’t mind if I do! Actually being drunk (it only takes me two beers, you guys) in the DAYLIGHT? That hasn’t happened in years! If I wanted to do something like wander around for an hour and take photos, I could, and did, do it — more than once. In short: It. Was. Awesome.
The first day or two was a little bumpy, emotionally-speaking, but I also left home knowing that he was MORE than well taken care of. Both his dad, who was able to stay home with him for the week (I know! Lucky me!) and his grandmother entertained him and kept him distracted from my absence. As it turns out, he wasn’t really all that bummed out by the fact that I wasn’t there. He was definitely CONFUSED, but not riddled with sadness like I feared. Both Jasper and I lost our composure the last night before I came back, and I broke our no-phone-calls rule (I thought it would confuse him to speak to me but not see me). We had a five minute call that consisted of a lot of “Hey Mama,” singing of George Harrison songs (my child is awesome), and “I love yous.” After that, we were both solid (ok, so I cried a little).
While I learned a ton on the trip, one of the biggest lessons I gained is that my child and I aren’t solely reliant on one another for our happiness.
While I learned a ton on the trip, one of the biggest lessons I gained is that my child and I aren’t solely reliant on one another for our happiness. I mean, Jasper has added innumerable shades of brilliance that wouldn’t otherwise exist in my life, and it’s clear that we love one another tremendously — but we can also each have a great time when the other isn’t around. I feel I’ve done a great job (or at least, one that I am very happy with) maintaining a sense of ME since becoming a mother, but it’s good to see that my son also has a sense of HIM that doesn’t depend on whether or not I’m there, physically guiding him through it. It’s a comforting thing to know that if you leave for a day or seven that your child will keep trucking on — and to know that he or she will also be over the moon when you get back.