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Panama City

Panama: Panama City

Panama CityWe arrived at our hotel in Panama City around 9 pm and met Shanu there.  Please do not picture the Holiday Inn.  Hotel, on our budget, means a spartan room with beds and a bathroom.  The mattresses are thin, the sheets are ragged, the floors are tiled, and the other furniture (if there is any) is beat up.  There may or may not be a TV or air conditioner.  Such a hotel in the U.S. would be only a den of drug dealers and prostitutes.  In foreign countries, such a hotel is the home of perfectly respectable budget travelers (euphemism for poor/cheap tourists).  But do not assume that this country does not have nice hotels.  We passed several beautiful, luxurious hotels on the way to ours, but you have to pay out the wazoo for them.  Ours was a mere $9 per night per person.

The next morning, we had breakfast in our hotel.  I gleefully ordered toast and “jugo de naranja y te con leche” (orange juice and tea with milk) off the menu with impeccable Spanish.  One cannot truly appreciate being able to successfully pronounce a foreign language until one has struggled hopelessly with tonal Chinese for at least a year.  We paid for our breakfast in the local currency, known as the balboa.  It is the U.S. dollar.  That’s right: Panamanians are all going about their business with George Washington’s face.  They do mint their own coins though, which have the same color, dimensions, and value as U.S. coins, but with different pictures.  (A pay phone at the Miami airport couldn’t tell the difference and accepted the coins from the Panamanian mint.)

Our main event for the day was to see the Panama Canal.  Since we eschew organized tours whenever it is logistically possible, we made our way to the Mira Flores locks on our own.  This entailed walking through the city to a bus stop.  Panama City reminded us of many “third-world” cities: small shops built wall-to-wall, markets spilling out on to the sidewalks, fruit vendors and sunglass sellers sitting behind small stalls, buses, delivery trucks, taxis, cars and pedestrians all competing for space and creating noise.  These cities are alive in a way that most American downtown revitalization committees can only dream of.  But they are every environmentalist’s nightmare: the air is thick with plumes of stinking exhaust emitted from every vehicle.

But Panama City also has its unique quirks.  The policeman carry large, prominent guns and wear bulletproof vests, but they also have high-tech and presumably rip-off Camelbak hydration packs with their water supply for the day.  The public buses in Panama City are pimped-out old U.S. school buses.  While most outside the city still retain their Crayola yellow coloring with only the school district spray painted over, the majority of the local city buses have been repainted so coolly with pictures and designs that even the most truant child would have wanted to ride one to school.  We took one of these buses to the Mira Flores locks of the Panama Canal, just north of the city.  Here is the benefit of taking local transportation: it cost each of us a mere 35 cents for the ride.  I can only imagine how much all those suckers on the tour buses paid.




Panama Canal: Mira Flores Locks
We had to walk a bit from the road to locks, and I was impressed by the total lack of harassment we were experiencing.  Here was a major tourist attraction without children trying to sell us crap?  No beggars parked out front?  Generally, paupers and juvenile sales reps are the unavoidable reminders that it is the poverty of the country that enables us to travel through it so cheaply.  But we didn’t have that reminder in Panama and Costa Rica, and, not coincidentally, our travel turned out not to be as cheap as I had anticipated.  It ended up costing about $80 per day for the two of us, whereas Vietnam (with lots of children trying to sell trinkets) was only $30 per day.  If children spend their days in school instead of being forced to beguile tourists into buying crap, perhaps that’s the sign of a developing country with its priorities in order.  And the beggars?  Could it be that the state was taking care of its people well enough that they weren’t relying on the pity of tourists to get money for their daily rice and beans?  Thinking about the trade off, I decided I was quite willing to pay more as a tourist to travel through countries where the people were not living in abject poverty.

At the Mira Flores locks, there was a large building with an observation deck where we could watch the giant container ships pass through the canal.  Meanwhile, a man on the loudspeaker told us interesting facts about the canal such as:

More than 25,000 people died while building the canal, mostly from disease.

About 40 ships pass through the canal every day.

The Panama Canal generates about $2 million per day.

The passage takes about 9 hours and saves the ship about 8,000 miles (10-12 days).

It is an engineering marvel.

And marvel we did.  We marveled for more than an hour as we watched two ships pass through the locks.  As marvelous as it was, I confess it got a little boring after a while.




Botanical Gardens
We took a bus further north of the city to the botanical gardens and zoo.  The place was a bit run down (perhaps they ought to raise the entry fee to more than 25 cents) but it had some interesting monkeys, birds, crocodiles, and plenty of plants.  Being more inclined to marvel at nature than feats of engineering, I’ll admit that I was more impressed with the biodiversity in even a small clump of trees in the middle of the park.  Since both Panama and Costa Rica are in the rainforest zone, every area allowed to grow unchecked quickly produces a mini-rainforest.  Throughout the trip, I was constantly marveling at the prolific plant life.


Casco AntiguoWe went back to Panama City and wandered around the old parts of town, which were literally crumbling before our eyes.  Some buildings were also being torn down or remodeled as the area became gentrified.  Across the bay, we could see the downtown skyscrapers, many still being built.  Shanu, who has been to all the countries in Central America now, said that Panama City was by far the nicest and most developed city. 

Walking about the city, we tried some street food.  Zac and Shanu tried some beef barbecue, which received rave reviews.  Zac and I tried some corn paste concoction that Shanu warned us was gross, and it was.  But this is one of the joys of traveling: trying new food, be it gross or good.  We also bought some colorful hand-stitched appliqué textiles called molas, made by the indigenous Kuna women.  These women could be spotted around town, wearing bright cloth skirts and strings of tiny beads wound around their calves.

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