A Day in Panama City

It was early morning at the Tocumen International Airport in Panama. I was on a layover waiting for my flight to Washington D.C. when I found out that my flight was canceled. Fuck! But hey, shit happens. I’ve seen many people bitching about flights any chance they get, but I’m not one of them. As the comedian Louis CK said “You are sitting in a chair in the sky!” C’mon man, you are complaining about your inconvenience?? Give me a break! Flying is a privilege and not a constitutional right. We are very lucky to have the chance to travel around the world. So, instead of complaining, people should be grateful for having this incredible opportunity.

I was offered two options: Take the late night flight or travel early the next morning. I decided to fly the next day. I immediately started to think of things to do in Panama City. I have a good friend who was born in Panama. We had planned to travel together in the country, but my plans had changed. So, this time I thought to myself, “okay, I’m here in Panama. Why don’t I use this chance to get a glimpse of the country?”  The exploration of Panama’s world famous rainforests was out of question. I had only a day of free time. And, I decided to spend it in Panama City. I got excited just thinking of a visit to the famous engineering miracle, the Panama Canal.

To find a tour was easy. As soon as I passed customs, I saw a few tour operators offering their services. I picked one. An operator directed me to a waiting area outside. There I had to wait for a bus and an English-speaking guide, Raphael. The tour group was small. Four other people waited with me.

Our guide showed up soon. Raphael had a mustache and wore a straw hat. He explained that our tour would include a visit to the Panama Canal Visitor Center. From the Center, which is located on the Pacific side of the canal, we would see the Miraflores Locks. All ships have to pass through them on their way from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. Raphael also suggested to visit the local museum that tells the story of the canal construction and engineering. 

Raphael was very knowledgeable. Without doubt, he had been doing this job for a long time. Two people in our group spoke only Spanish. That’s why our guide spoke first in Spanish, translating everything into English afterwards. 

Standing in front of the bus, Raphael spoke into the microphone:

“The idea to build a canal was born in 1513. It happened when Spanish colonizers discovered that the Isthmus of Panama separates the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Charles V, King of Spain, ordered a survey for a route through the Americas. It was concluded that such a construction was impossible. In 1881, Ferdinand de Lesseps, a Frenchman who had built the Suez Canal, started the canal construction in Panama. The project was abandoned in 1889. More than 20,000 workers had died from malaria, yellow fever, and poor working conditions. By that time, France had invested $260 million into the project. In the late 1890s, a French engineer, Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla, traveled to the USA. His mission was to convince the U.S. government to buy the French canal assets in Panama. (Originally, the USA had planned to build a canal in Nicaragua.) Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla was a key figure in the history of the Panama Canal construction. He convinced the U.S. government that Panama was safer than Nicaragua.”

We arrived at Miraflores lock at 9:10 am. Miraflores is one of the three canal locks. It is also the name of the lake between the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks. We were on the fourth floor of the viewing tower. That place was already crowded. I used my wrestling skills to find a spot where I could see a ship going through the canal. The announcer informed about an upcoming ship. Everyone got excited. People started shouting. It felt like we were at a football stadium with loud fans cheering for their team. Finally, after forty minutes of waiting we saw a large ship entering into the canal. We were told that when ships go through the locks, they are being raised or lowered to more than 54 feet. Hmm… Good to know. That’s lots of feet!

After seeing the ship passing through the locks, Raphael asked if I wanted to eat in the nearby restaurant. The price was $42! 42 dollars for buffet food that had probably been sitting there all day! No way! I could probably get a fresh seafood meal for less than ten bucks in the city somewhere. So, I politely declined.

The next stop was at the Canal Museum. I found the exposition to be very interesting and informative. The Museum got crowded quickly. Seeing so many people pass through a small and confined area was exhausting. I decided to leave the group and catch a bus to Panama City. I found a bus right away and I took off. 

The bus brought me to the neighborhood Casco Viejo. I enjoyed a long walk through the narrow cobblestone streets of the old city. Many stairs and walls were covered with kitschy woven masks, baskets, and fabrics. Street vendors seemed to be desinterested. Some were reading and others chatted loudly. I was surprised that nobody urged me to buy their goods. I walked unnoticed. 

On my way I saw the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Arco Chato, the Plazas, and many churches. All these sites that were in front of me were very familiar. It was an overwhelming feeling of having seen these buildings somewhere else. It suddenly struck me: of course, there was nothing new because the Spanish colonial architecture looks the same in many places in Central and South America. Ah. The Spanish colonialism wiped out the indigenous cultures! I needed a drink. I am not a fan of shiny cafes, bars, and restaurants built for western tourists. In all of my travels, I avoid such places like the plague. I headed to the Panama City’s fish market located along the Cinta Costera. I walked through street food stands and stopped at a place that had a green stand. It was called La Benidicion. That place was very busy. I checked the menu and ordered ceviche in a small plastic cup. The dish was delicious. Most importantly, the fish was fresh, too. A friend of mine and I had once a bad experience with ceviche. It was in Chiclayo, Peru, when he got a serious food poisoning and ended up at a hospital. 

All of a sudden it started to rain. The rain was getting stronger. I ran as fast as I could desperately trying to find a place where I could shelter and get a drink. One place looked like a bar and I went inside. I was right. It was a small bar with four small tables. I sat at the bar and asked a bartender if I could have a local beer. He served me beer and said something in Spanish that I couldn’t understand. I looked around. The place was run down. The paint was peeling of the wall. The ceiling was damaged probably from water and felt it was about to collapse. The floor was greasy and dirty, with a few large brown spots that looked like someone just vomited. I overheard three guys speaking Spanish at a small table. I didn’t pay attention to them until I heard “Gringo”. I noticed that they were looking at me. I smiled lifted my glass towards them and said: “Salud”. I could clearly hear their conversation from twenty feet away. Words like “loco” ,“no manches” , and “plata”. I knew they spoke about me. Probably to see a foreigner wasn’t a common occurrence there. It was uncomfortable to be the subject of their conversation. It wasn’t clear what intentions they had.  Although I looked like a poor backpacker than a rich hipster, I knew that I could be an easy target. I don’t know why I decided to buy a drink for them. I probably wanted to show a good gesture. I asked to send a pitcher of beer to their table. The bartender brought beer and told them it was from me. The men raised their glasses and said, “gracias”. Only one guy approached me. “Oh, boy”, I thought to myself. He said “gracias” once again and patted me on my shoulder. He spoke in Spanish. After five minutes of his monologue, I heard words: “Hablar hasta por los codos”, “chikas sexy”, “perfecta”, “la fiesta”. I guess he wanted me to party with them and probably women would be involved. 

At the same time, I was thinking to myself: “I’m a stranger. I don’t know these men and they don’t know me. Probably none of them speaks English. And, they want to drink with me, and have fun for no specific reason? Yeah, right.”  I politely declined: “Muchas gracias amigo, lo siento, pero ya tengo un compromiso.”’ He stared at my eyes for a few seconds and replied: “Ok, okay amigo,” smiled, patted me on my shoulder again, and left.

I finished my beer and left the bar. I walked towards Esteban Huertas, also called Lovers Lane. The walkway was lined with various shopping stands which looked like an American flea market. I walked through the market and ended up in a small park called, Plaza de Francia. The park was dedicated to the friendship between two nations – Panama and France – and the French effort to build the Panama Canal. A monument stood in the middle of park.

I decided to take a break and sat down on a bench. Next to the bench I noticed a hiking boot filled with soil. Someone had left it in the park… Nobody had picked it up or thrown it in a trash can. It just stood there, like an old disarmed missile repurposed for the city’s daily life… Was it a wistful mockery of the consumer society?

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes for a moment, and then looked up at the sky. “I am a stranger in an unfamiliar city. Nobody cares for me here. This city doesn’t even know that I exist… But life flows through me.” 

I don’t know why but I suddenly started thinking about Sartre:“I am the one who pulls myself from the nothingness to which I aspire: the hatred, the disgust, or existing, there are as many ways to make myself exist, to trust myself into existence. Thoughts are born at the back of me, like sudden giddiness, I feel them being born behind my head… If I yield and I always yield, the thought grows and grows and there it is, immense, feeling me completely and renewing my existence.”

A young man who sat on a bench nearby was eating food from a plastic container. He didn’t see me. It seemed he didn’t pay attention to anything else around him. He was busy eating. Between bites, he looked up and stared at the twilight… On another bench a couple was chatting: the man placed his hand on the woman’s shoulder and leaned over to her ear. He whispered something. She laughed and put her head on the man’s chest. The man smiled as he gently kissed her on the forehead… 

I sensed an urgent need to feel the cool breeze on my skin. I got up, unbuttoned my shirt and continued walking along the beach looking at ships in the Pacific Ocean. 

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