The bus to Panama left at 1:00 pm, so with the ordeal in Nicaragua fresh in my mind, I arrived at the station at 11:30. I checked in, at the same time asking them to reprint my ticket as somehow, even with my passport in their hands, someone managed to spell my last name with an "A". Probably not a big deal, but I really didn't want some pissed off bus attendant or Panamanian immigration clerk giving me static for it. It was a long trip, scheduled to be 15 hours including 3 stops - 2 for food, one for the border.
Armed with a used copy of "Interview With the Vampire" I picked up in a little bookstore, my iPod spewing out something from Johnny Cash and my legs excited about having an open seat next to me we were set to depart. Out the corner of my eye, I saw one last hurried passenger pleading to get on. "Drive away. Be precise and heavy-handed and don't let this person on" I selfishly thought over and over. However, accommodations were made, and he now sat down next to me. My knees cursed him profusely. We didn't speak for quite a while, leaving some of that "traveler's distance" between us for a while.
The ride was again beautiful - this time in a more surreal, mysterious way. We headed up into the mountains on winding roads and switchbacks. A thick set of pale, wet clouds had swallowed the entire range, leaving an eerie void outside the bus. It was as if like an artist, God was interrupted in his drawing of the scene, finishing only the frame of the large window and the dark foliage of the foreground. It was slow going - the road was a two-laner, meaning we were stuck behind more than a few vehicles having difficulty navigating the dense fog.
After about an hour and a half, the clouds receded, and the late-afternoon sun came flooding down, revealing the beautiful peaks and valleys, the rich greens of the jungle forest, the soft tans of whatever crops had come to the point of harvest, the dark browns of recently tilled farmland. Huge peaks appeared from the white behind us, revealing a large expanse of green hills rolling down toward the West. A small village appeared in the valley nearest us. At its heart a cathedral gleamed bright white in the receding daylight, shining like a beacon in the center of the entire scene. It was truly something out of a movie.
30 minutes later we pulled into a little gas station where the driver backed our coach near a water faucet. A few of us jumped out to stretch and grab something from the little diner attached to the station. The driver and co-pilot proceeded to open up the back of the bus, exposing the engine. The driver then hooked up a hose to the faucet and proceeded to spray water into what I assume was the radiator for about 10 minutes. At the same time, the co-pilot had latched onto a broom, and was poking the handle into the engine. While this seemed to greatly amuse the watching patrons in the diner, I was becoming just the slightest bit nervous. After about 10 minutes more of this, they seemed satisfied and we were on our way.
We stopped around 5:30 to eat at a little roadside cafeteria which seemed built for the sole purpose of feeding the hordes arriving from tour buses to and from Panama. A nice little enterprise, as coach after coach, van after van pulled up to get in line. While we were waiting, I took the opportunity to get to know my seat-mate a little better. Fortunately, he was a pretty cool guy named Tim from Canada. He was on his way to Panama City with hopes of booking passage on a sailboat to Cartagena. We talked about travel, about his time in Southeast Asia and about my trip around the world. He also had an iPod, to which we both eventually retreated. He was watching a downloaded episode of "24". My respect for him went up immensely.
Just as I was falling asleep, we hit the border. The pain-in-the-ass that is a border crossing reached new heights here. To enter Panama, you of course need a valid passport, but you also need a "tourist card" which must be purchased for $5 US, then get a "tourist stamp" from someone else for $2 US. You then have to take that and your passport along with proof of onward travel (meaning a return ticket or a plane ticket out of Panama) to the immigration counter where an all-to uncaring agent took it all into his little world behind the window, stamped a bunch of things really quickly, then handed it back. Now, all of this would have been much more difficult had Tim and I not been assisted by a kid named "Hamilton" ("just like the president on the twenty" he was sure to point out) working for Panaline. He couldn't have been more than 15, but he knew his way around the border procedures. We trusted him - I really don't know why - and basically turned our passports over to him to expedite things. Now Hamilton didn't really have on any markings from Panaline, and stupidly, nor did we ask to see any. In hindsight, it was probably really dumb, but at that point in the night, amid all the confusion, the change makers, the cards, the stamps, etc. we decided to trust him. We both gave him a nice tip when we were finished, realizing he truly did save us a bunch of hassle, and that, at pretty much any time, he could have just run off with our passports never to be seen again.
Right. After a cursory customs inspection, we were back on the bus (I've found most customs agents really hate looking through backpacks. You have to unpack everything, unstrap and unzip stuff... They'd much rather just let me go on, and move to the little couple with the easy-open Samsonite suitcases or the cute girls with the large shopping bags). It was nearing midnight now, and everyone was really tired. About the time we were all asleep, we stopped again, this time at a similar roadside cafeteria with adjoining snack bars and shops. I talked briefly with a British couple I'd casually conversed with in our prior stops. They had been on holiday for a couple months now, spending a good bit of time in LA before heading to Guatemala, and now to Panama City. They too were looking for a boat to Columbia. The woman was fairly plain, pretty with long blond hair and pale skin, but somewhat transparent, fading into the background. The guy however, was pretty interesting. He was probably in his late 30's, pronounced British accent, long floppy hair with a button up shirt revealing his beer belly and his money belt, worn cargo shorts and hiking boots. At every stop, I noticed him finding a little curb to himself and rolling a cigarette or two using tobacco from a green pouch with an immense warning label stating: "Smoking tobacco can cause a slow and painful death.". As I was reading, he opened it and rolled another.
We pulled into Panama City around 5:00 am. I'd slept a good bit on this last stretch, but was pretty tired. As we had the same guide book, Tim and I were heading to the same hostel and we shared a cab. As we pulled up, another taxi glided in behind us. The British couple bounded out smiling. Should have known. I ended up getting a dorm for 2 nights, needing to head back to San Jose with enough time to feel settled before my flight to Quito. Tim headed immediately to sleep, but I was now up, with little hope of resting in the daylight. I asked a few questions of the staff, and found there to be a city tour starting at 10:00 am. It included a sprinkling of highlights, including (most importantly for me) a trip to the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal. Sweet.
After a quick exploration of the surrounding area, I joined my fellow tour mates in the lobby of the hostel. They consisted of a cute little couple in their late 40's from Canada, and another cute little couple, this time from Sweden and in their early 20's. Our tour guide was actually the owner of the hostel, a sweet little lady named Guadalupe. She was probably in her mid 40's, about 5' 2" with long brown hair. She wore a matching long white skirt and blouse, completed with tiny white Adidas tennis shoes.
Expecting to get on a shuttle bus or a small van, I was actually excited, yet nervous to see "Lupe" heading to her little Ford Escape. Yup, Lupe was taking us in her own car, but one a little too small for all of us. Unselfishly, the Swedish guy volunteered to sit in the very back, the cargo area under the hatch. Lupe seemed cool with that, so off we went. She spoke pretty good English, but it required some attentive listening from time to time. She put on some salsa music for us to listen to on our way.
We first headed up to a large hill in the middle of the city. It was here the majority of the US military forces and canal administration offices were located. Around it were a web of American-sounding roads, and nice neighborhoods with manicured lawns. Access to the hill is somewhat restricted, but it seemed Lupe was well known by the guards, and she had the system down. Before reaching the first gate, she'd made a stop to pick up some sodas. One by one, as we hit each checkpoint, she greeted the guards, many time by name, and handed them a soda. They smiled and let us pass. She explained later the "official" nature of the hill, and that to drive up the winding one-way road was a bit of a privilege which she liked, and intended to keep. The top of the hill produced sweeping views of the Canal, the Bridge of the Americas, Old Panama City, and the new city, growing tall with skyscrapers and cranes.
After a quick stop through a park holding re-creations of colonial and native architecture and homes, we headed into Old Panama City. At first glance, it appears to be a large slum, buildings once beautiful falling apart due to neglect and mis-use. As we passed through Lupe would tell us about Noriega hiding in this area during the US invasion, and that he had a bunker underneath what is now a basketball court. We drove further in, passing heartbreaking poverty and need. Just 5-6 blocks later, rejuvenation was apparent. Some of the buildings were beginning to receive new paint, new ironwork and fresh shutters. The tall buildings were coming alive again, slowly and with great effort, but you could see it. In 5-10 years this area will be something again. We visited the Plaza Espania, an area south of the old town, jutting out into the Pacific. When out on the point turned back toward the city, on the left you could see the old town with its dilapidated buildings and crumbling facades. On the right in the distance you could see new Panama City, a Manhattan-esque area of high-rise condominiums, banking plazas and investment firms, peppered in between them the vision of massive cranes and construction equipment. Old and new.
We then drove back to the hostel, where Lupe's family had prepared us a fine local meal of seafood. Now, this of course is where my picky-eating habits become problematic. I can't decline the offer of a home-cooked meal. I looked the setting over carefully. Salad - cool. I can handle salad. Rice. Check. Some sort of potato salad with some weird orange sauce and other items in it I can't recognize... Hmm. Moving on. The main course was a "stew" of seafood, including scallops (no problem), broth (no problem), and mussels (not bad, but some of them were pretty scary looking) and squid (ok - now we're entering dangerous territory). I don't mind the occasional bit of calamari, but these were full-on big chunks with multiple tentacles curling out in all directions with their tiny suckers reaching for me. Hmm. I expertly picked around those when I dished myself some. All in all though, a pretty good meal, and I felt good about my attempt.
After lunch, Lupe rushed us out the door - she had an agenda on her mind. We were headed to the Canal. Yes! Apparently the best time to see the large ships go through is around 2:30 or so, which we were now perilously close to. We drove out to the Miraflores Locks, got our tickets (which were included in Lupe's $30 fee for the whole tour), and headed to the observation deck.
It's really hard to explain the details of the locks without having a frame of reference. Essentially, ships move from sea level on either the Caribbean or Pacific side of Panama to about 80 some feet above sea level as they cross through Miraflores Lake, then back down. The locks are long containers of water held by large doors that open and close on demand. We saw two ships coming in from the same direction - from the Caribbean side heading to the Pacific. The ships come through the lake, and are slowed and nudged into position by tug boats. When in position, guidelines are thrown to the bow and stern of the ships to little track-bound locomotives that run parallel to the locks on either side of the ship. These locomotives then help guide the ship into the first lock, filled with water to the level of the lake the ship just came from. The doors close behind it, then the water drains out of the lock, lowering the ship to the level of the next lock. Then the doors in front of the ship open, the locomotives guide the ship into the next lock, the doors close behind it, and the water drains out, lowering the ship to sea level. It's really quite amazing. The whole thing takes a while, but much quicker than I had anticipated. We saw a ship get through the two Miraflores locks in about 30 minutes or so (don't hold me to that). It's quite the operation. As soon as a ship gets through a set of locks, they immediately start filling up with water for the next ship. There are two fully independent sets of locks, allowing two ships to move through in either direction at the same time. It's an engineering marvel. We saw a short film on it, outlining the construction process, the challenges, the death surrounding the entire project. Hard to believe it was started in 1904, finished 10 years later, and is still fully functional with relatively minor adjustments. It was one of the most interesting and amazing things I've seen.
After the canal, we headed to the Bridge of the Americas, a large steel bridge spanning the last bit of the canal where ships enter and exit the Pacific. It's quite beautiful, reminding me quite a lot of the huge bridge in Sydney, Australia. We then headed to "the causeway", a connection of three islands the roads to which were created from the excavated dirt from the canal. They seem to be an area ripe for development, as evidenced by the new housing developments and shopping areas going in. All you Bennigan's fans will be happy in Panama City in a few months. Apparently the Donald has invested quite a bit in not only the causeway, but also in Panama City, his crown jewel being a huge hotel/executive building being build in the shape of a giant sail which is said to become the tallest in Panama.
The tour ended there, and we headed back to the hostel. I spent my remaining day and a half exploring the city, walking the streets and taking pictures. I like Panama City. It's very cosmopolitan. The influences of a great many cultures and peoples coming together in the area to create a feeling not unlike New York, Barcelona or London. It's still got a long way to go, but the start is evident.
The ride back to San Jose was painful. 18 hours on a bus with seats small enough to make the locals complain. I'll spare you the details, rest assured I spent the next few days in San Jose bus-free. I'd never been so glad to stretch out into a Hyundai taxi cab.