Here's the thing about being a budget traveler... when someone tells you that they have a place you can stay for free, you don't ask questions. So when my mom told me that her cousin lived with his wife and three kids in Panama City, I thought, amily is family! And gratefully accepted his offer to let me spend a week with them.
Unfortunately Panama City was a 15 hour bus ride from where I was in Costa Rica, so getting there was no easy task.
I had hoped to get some work done on the bus, but my mind was hyperactive and there was no chance of quieting it enough tobe productive. I had also hoped to get some sleep, but the air conditioning was also hyperactive, and my warmer layers were packed under the bus.
I arrived in Panama City behind on work and totally exhausted. Eddie, my mom's cousin, was boarding an airplane to the states just as I was pulling up to his house, but his family wasted no time in making me feel at home. I stumbled in at 6am and they immediately offered me food and drinks and a warm shower but all I wanted was sleep. I tried to be polite, but Tania (Eddie's wife) must have seen my drooping eyes because she quickly showed me to my room.
After a long sleep, a nearly as long shower, and an embarrassingly large lunch, I reintroduced myself to Tania and her three kids, Isabel (8), Sebastian (9), and Andrea (15).
My week in Panama City was a week of recovery. I mostly slept, caught up on work, and let my body bounce back from the beating it had received in Costa Rica. That being said, I did manage to do more than just binge watch Netflix tv shows. Tania took me to see all of Panama City's greatest highlights: the Panama Canal, Casco Viejo, the Amador Causeway, and Panama Viejo.
Each site was fantastic and I'm glad I saw it all, but if I'm being totally honest, I wasn't wooed by Panama City. Every site reminded me of a similar, more stupefying site I'd seen elsewhere in the world.
No, what really made Panama City great for me was the feeling of being home. It was playing cards after dinner while the kids begged their mom to let us have one more round before bed. It was laughing with Isabel as we splashed around the pool. It was reading Sebastian's speech about Henry Ford. It was commiserating with Andrea about the challenges of setting up a school club. It was getting Tania's ancient family recipe for torta de pan.
I saw all the tops on the internet's lists of things to do in Panama City, but my favorite outing was the carnival at the kid's school where I watched Isabel climb a blow-up rock wall and teased Sebastian for not going in the haunted house. It took less than a day for me to really feel like family even though I'd never met these vague relatives of mine.
I've often said I could travel the world forever if every once in awhile I could have a week to relax at home before continuing on. It wasn't California, but it was still the homecoming I needed. A chance to eat home cooked meals and get my laundry washed. It didn't hurt that they have a live-in... Well I'm not sure what the right word is but basically Laurie was the heroine of the house. She insisted on washing all my dishes and clothes and every couple of hours she'd offer me more food. She's the reason my trip to Panama City was so restorative.
I felt pampered while I was there. And when I said goodbye and prepared to board my flight to Colombia, the weary traveler that had arrived in Panama was gone. She'd been replaced by the eager, enthusiastic traveler that is ready for whatever adventure might come her way.