So. About two weeks back I got my U.S. passport in the mail.
Six days later I was in Panama.
I am not usually that impulsive of a person. The Virgo in me says to think, re-think, and then think again before doing something like that. But circumstances fell in a perfect way in that I had a three-day weekend coming up, a place to stay in Panama City, and a quick check of Expedia netted a nonstop round-trip flight for $350.
Not to mention a beautiful hostess who was very eager to show me around. (Insert the wink icon here)
I have never ventured outside of the States. Canada doesn’t count. So this was going to be my first real international venture. Customs. Foreign people. New culture. I was very excited. And luckily, my excitement and expectations were easily trumped by the experiences. Panama is a beautiful country with very friendly people.
Panamanians are very passionate about two things: The Panama Canal and Roberto Duran. And luckily for me, I got to meet both. A friend of mine told me, when I mentioned to him I was going to Panama, that I needed to meet Duran. My initial thought was, yeah, sure. A city of two million people and I am going to find him. I informed my hostess, Ileana, of what my friend said. She replied, “Oh, Roberto is a good friend. I’ll introduce you.” My jaw dropped. See, I am a boxing fan, and there was no better period, in my opinion, of boxing than the early 1980’s Middleweight scene – Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas “The Hit Man” Hearns, Alexis Arguello…
And Manos De Piedras. Roberto Duran. He was the best of them all. If you don’t believe me just check out YouTube. He kicked Sugar Ray Leonard’s ass before the ‘No Mas’ fight.
So Ileana takes me to his club in downtown Panama City, we open the door…and there he is. Ileana tells him that I traveled all the way from the United States to meet him (a nice little lie there). Roberto puts his hands together and bows to me. Bows! I shook his sandpaper hand of stone and said “Manos De Piedras…it’s an honor.” He thanked me and said, “You want picture?”
Hell yes! And here we are.
The other point of pride, the Panama Canal, was also on the itinerary. We took a day trip to the Miraflores Locks and watched the huge vessel ships go through. Here was a history lesson for me – the Panama Canal isn’t just a set of locks. It is eighty miles long with a series of locks which raise and lower ships from the sea-level of the two oceans to the level of the lake in the middle of the country, about 85 feet above sea level. A massive engineering undertaking to essentially raise and lower ships via the gravity of water up 85 feet then back down.
While Panama City is certainly cosmopolitan, the country is quite third-world-like in many respects. People do not know how to drive. Road signs are a minor inconvenience, which are only voluntarily adhered to. Cars come from you in all directions. Livestock crosses roads. Some of the living quarters for people are better suited for poultry. Being from the States, I considered this all quite quaint. Ileana informed that if we got pulled over by the police to not say anything (because that would peg me as a foreigner) and to give her ten dollars. Often cops stop you just to get money. See, had I spoken and they heard my gringo voice, the price would have gone to $50.
The president of the country lives in a section of Panama City called Old Town. There is no mistaking when you get near his residence as there are soldiers at the ready with machine guns. You are instructed to turn your headlights off (after dark) so that they can see inside the vehicle. Again, a little Banana Republic-like. Old Town is a place full of character. Sort of a cross between the French Quarter and Key West. Narrow streets and a feel of danger. But I was told it is very safe, and I had a personal confirmation of this, as children went laughing and running down the streets.
Panamanians are very friendly people. Coming from Miami, and only being there for three days, I never truly accepted this, as my Untrusting American side kept coming out, like when I bought a Panama hat for $25 but handed the guy $40. He said he had to go get change. I demurred, and told him oh nonono…you leave with that $40 and I will never see you again. But I was assured by Ileana that he would return with my change. And he did.
I thought I was an urbane individual. But after my trip to Panama I realized just how much of a sheltered life I have lived.
And I cannot wait to go back.