¡Hola a todos!
I arrived in Panama City in the early evening on Tuesday 1 September. Many months ago, when I was planning my flight itinerary with a helpful chap from STA Travel, he made it known to me that my intended flight from Quito to Los Angeles would stop in the airline's hub airport of Panama City and asked whether I would like to continue straight on to LA or enjoy a short lay-over in Panama. Intrigued, I chose the latter and so found myself with an additional week in which to explore a little of Central America. I had decided even before arriving here that such a week might prove useful in helping me adjust from South America back to a more westernized perspective (of course, this was before I had experienced the cosmopolitan nature of Quito at such length).
Before boarding the flight in Quito, I allowed my sight a lazy assessment of my fellow travellers: I was seeking in particular those who might be fellow backpacking journey-folk. There is truth to the saying "safety in numbers", especially when visiting a hitherto unfamiliar location and as night is falling. Furthermore, I had been in e-mail correspondence with a hostel in Panama City and they had told me to expect to pay roughly 25 dollars US for a cab-ride from the airport into the centre of the city. My logic in seeking other travellers extended then to hoping that such an exorbitant fare could be divided between us. Thus it was that a nice English couple, a stray German and I shared a taxi and the twenty dollar cost.
I came to Panama with little by way of knowledge of the country and certainly no fixed plans as to how best to spend my time here. I had heard, of course, of the famous Panama canal and I knew from other travellers that there lay an idyllic archipelago of Caribbean islands named San Blas lying off the country's northern shore, a popular stop-off point for sailing ships transporting backpackers between Colombia and Panama: indeed, I had considered such an enterprise myself, before falling sick in Baños and determining that there simply would not be enough time for the undertaking of such a voyage. One of my first tasks on my first full day then was to read up on the country at my hostel and try to make some firm plans as to how best to spend my week. Of course, I checked my e-mail also and who should have been in touch to say that he had just jetted into the city from Bogotá - Seb, of course! Furthermore, he had decided to stay at the same hostel and so there was chance for yet another happy reunion, one that I had scarcely imagined would occur here: certainly, it trumped that damp parting in the Baños clinic.
The following day, Seb, the English couple from the airport, three German girls and I boarded the only functioning passenger train in all Central America to run the short line of track from Panama City to Colon in the north, a route that hugged the path of the canal and offered some spectacular views at fairly regular intervals, so the guide-books informed us. Here there befell a rare instance of my luck deserting me, as the entire hour-long journey took us through a tropical storm of dense, impenetrable cloud: alas, I saw little of the canal, little of the immense feat of engineering that went into its construction - one guide-book claimed that if one was to take the volume of soil that was removed to form the canal and place that soil in box-cars, the resulting train would circle the Earth four times at the equator(!). I did see enough of the canal to at least accommodate this claim: certainly it is an incredible piece of man-made construction, one in which the workmen involved in its birth literally moved mountains in order for it to succeed. My sense of wonder grew upon reaching Colon when the English couple and I decided to take a taxi out to the Gatún lock, a mile-long, three-gated composition that enables monstrous cargo ships to rise and fall between the altitude of the Panamanian interior through which the canal runs and to sea level. The scale of the operation was mind-blowing and we were lucky to arrive in time to see two ships engaged in this process of rising and falling, one heading into the canal and the other emerging back out into the Caribbean. The experience was added to (I think...) by the assortment of fellow tourists present at the lock: located on the Caribbean shore of Panama, this is the natural hot-spot for those visitors from the large cruise-ships passing along the coast - it is quite some time since I saw and heard quite so many Americans (some of sizes I never dared to imagine conceivable) - seemingly, my trip to the States had arrived a few days early.
We returned from the lock to Colon, a city with a thoroughly condemned reputation in every guide-book any of us had read before this excursion. A quaint colonial city turned back, Colon has been left crippled by the fluctuating economic conditions inherent throughout Latin America: many of its citizens are desperately poor and more than a few have turned to a life of crime. Time spent within this tension-riddled war-zone was to be kept to a minimum; spending a night here considered unthinkable. I must confess that my personal feeling towards Colon was that of unease and not just on account of the doom-laden guide-books. The city has surely seen better days and the locals were far from endearing, a trait to which I am becoming rather accustomed here in Panama, sadly. We hung around long enough to find out which was the next bus departing to Panama City from the terminal and then settled down to a protracted journey back to the capital.
Ensconced in the humid, close embrace of the city once more, I sought air-conditioned shelter in the form of a host of internet cafés: the connection speed in Panama is very fast and I remain behind on my blog entries. Perhaps I do Panama a disservice in preferring to spend quite so much time blogging rather than visiting further sights but, I am happy catching up on the events of the past couple of weeks and sparing my ragged body from the ravishing effects of this dense climate. Reflecting on this first Panamanian excursion I remember that it was brief and cursory, much like this entry. The canal itself was interesting and worth the day-trip to see it but, no more than that. I decided that I would make good my intention to escape the heat and haze of city-living for a few days, trading it for the relaxed, slow tempo of the San Blas islands in the Caribbean, thus fulfilling another long-held aspiration; to play Robinson Crusoe upon my own desert island.
¡Saludos a todos!