April 19 to May 2, 2010
- The Panamanian police officer blocked my way into the police station. “You can’t come in here dressed like that.” I looked at my shorts and sandals. “Why?” I asked. “Is this a restaurant?” Yawn.
- The road to the remote mountain border crossing between Costa Rica and Panama had no signs. NO SIGNS! How would we ever find it?! Blech.
- Huge ants crawled around us inside the camper we had rented for the night. Roz and I bolted outside to sleep in our tent instead. Groan.
I can’t do it. No matter what I write, I can’t make our travels through Panama sound exciting. What can I say? Not a lot of exciting things happened during our two week stay there, but that had more to do with our mindset than with the country itself. After seven months on the road, we were so excited to finally get to South America that we hardly even noticed Panama. Instead, it became a mere stopping point to make shipping arrangements for the big the jump to Colombia. But that’s the nature of travel sometimes. You get so fixated on your destination that you miss everything else along the way.
When we entered Panama from Costa Rica, we decided to bypass the notoriously busy border crossing on the Pan American highway and instead, use a little known entry point in the mountains near San Vito. Bird Bob, our helpful host from our stay on the Osa Peninsula, had provided us with detailed instructions on how to find the crossing (“…left at the soccer field, then a mile to a Y where you turn left…”), but the dirt road was so deserted that we wondered if we were going the right way. And of course there were no signs, so all we could do was hope for the best and keep driving. Eventually, our faith in Bob was rewarded by the sight of a tiny village on the border. Being so remote, there were no border line-ups so we whizzed through the crossing in half an hour. And then we were in Panama – ta da! I bought some beers using American dollars (they call them Balboas) and then we hit the road. We drove through the gorgeous Panamanian highlands which, with its cool mountain air and pine trees, so reminded me of British Columbia. After a month of living in the humid Costa Rican jungle, this region of Panama was most refreshing.
As lovely as the higlands were, Roz and I were keen to get to Panama City so we charged through the mountains and at Vulcan, site of a big volcano, we turned towards the Pacific and descended back to the hot coast. There we rejoined the Pan American highway, now a decent four-lane road, that allowed us to scream along at a firey 100 km/h (60 mph). With visions of llamas dancing in our heads, we drove for a steady eight hours until it started to get dark. An hour short of Panama City, we turned off the highway to find El Valle, a quiet mountain town. The dirt road gave us some concerns when it started to get steep and slippery since Yuki, our Suzuki Samurai, still didn’t have four-wheel drive (the transfer case was still stuck in two-wheel drive), but Yuki persevered and we rolled into town at dusk.
In El Valle, we went to a “campground” that Roz had found on craigslist, run by a couple of clueless hippies. While they meant well, the place was a dive and the camper we had rented for the night was infested with huge ants. By midnight, unable to fall asleep with critters crawling around us, we bailed out of the camper and set up our tent instead. The next morning, when we were going to demand a refund, the hippies were conspicuously absent. Hmmm. So we packed up and headed for Panama City. Soon we were in stop-and-go traffic trying to cross the huge bridge that spans the Panama canal. An hour later, we were across the canal and driving through some of the worst-looking slums we had seen in our entire journey. The low-end apartment buildings were falling apart, debris filled the sidewalks and clusters of idle young men reminded us that this was a neighbourhood we didn’t want to travel through at night. Having found no hostels with secure parking in this old part of Panama City, we drove to the more upscale district of El Cangrejo. After hours of driving in circles trying to figure out the city’s bizarre arrangement of one-way streets, we finally found the Hotel Venecia, which had secure parking, wi-fi, and most important of all in this stifling hot city, air-conditioning. All was well as I cracked a beer and settled down to watch Project Runway.
(ROZ: Despite all the dilapidated dwellings we had seen throughout Mexico and Central America, they were nothing compared to the urban decay I saw in Casco Viejo, the old town of Panama City. Although the area was in the midst of a gentrification, er, “beautification” project, the majority of the apartments were in complete ruins. If it weren’t for the loads of wash hanging from lines everywhere, I would have thought that they were all abandoned buildings. But it soon became obvious that people lived there – as well as cats. Panama City was the first place where I saw “street cats” – literally dozens of scrawny felines hanging around the streets looking for scraps of food. One night we found ourselves slightly lost as we drove in circles through the old town. I’m ashamed to admit that it was the first time I felt vulnerable and slightly afraid – to the point where I actually locked the car doors. Trond, however, pointed out that we weren’t “lost”, only temporarily misplaced, and reassured me that it wasn’t that dangerous an area because there were women and children around. I suppose that tourists visiting Vancouver must get the same feeling the first time they see the poor district known as the Downtown Eastside.)
A couple of days later, we moved into an apartment Roz had found on craigslist, just off the main thoroughfare that runs along the polluted waterfront. Surrounded by towering glass and concrete clusters of high-end apartment buildings and hotels, it was hard to believe we were in Central America. But Panama City was like that. While it had the usual Central American characteristics of crazy drivers, lack of apparent road rules and loud buses that belched diesel fumes and loud music, we hadn’t expected to see so many expensive cars, modern buildings and a skyline full of cranes. It suggested a growing economy that didn’t sync up with the rest of the planet’s financial hardships. But the most telling signs were the shopping malls, some over a mile long, which were packed with a burgeoning middle-class who seem to be reaping the economic benefits of having the Canal back in Panamanian hands.
The next week was a blur of activity getting everything ready for our leap to South America. The Pan American highway abruptly ends about 200 km past Panama City. At that point there is a 100 kilometer stretch of roadless dense jungle called the Darien Gap which separates Panama from Colombia, so we had to make arrangements to ship Yuki by boat and to fly us to Cartagena. Through fellow travellers we had met back in Mexico, we were put in contact with a German couple who wanted ship their VW van to Colombia, and after a few emails, we all agreed to share a 40-foot container to help reduce the transport costs. We met up with Dieter and Lore, both in their 60′s, and together, went through the numerous steps required to ship our vehicles. This included finding a broker (Barwell Shipping) and getting our vehicles and documents inspected at a police station. It was at this station that I was barred entry by a police officer because I was wearing shorts and sandals. So I found some shoes in Yuki and borrowed a pair of billowing black Tai pants from Dieter, which stopped short of my calves. While I looked ridiculous, I was finally allowed inside. I guess the Panamanian Police department’s motto is “To serve and protect – the properly dressed.”
While getting Yuki ready for departure, Roz and I did the same for ourselves. We got booster shots for Hepatitis, saw a dermatologist to cure Roz’s ongoing itchy skin problem, and shopped for supplies we didn’t think we’d find south of the Darien Gap. On the Yuki front, I bought and installed a bushing for the transfer case that once again gave us four-wheel drive. I also bought some spare parts and had the transfer case shifter welded together (I had prematurely cut it off in Costa Rica because I thought it wouldn’t come out – turns out I had read the instructions incorrectly – d’oh!). These missions weren’t always easy with my bad Spanish, but everyone I dealt with was patient, kind and genuinely interested in helping me out. For instance, when I was looking for a welder for the shifter, I stopped by a shop that specialized in fixing old Volkswagens. The owner didn’t have a MIG welder so he ordered one of his idle lackeys to guide me to a nearby shop. This neatly attired older gent sat with me in Yuki (Roz didn’t join me that day) and directed me down an alleyway full of small dirty shops. At the end was a guy with a MIG welder who, within a half hour, had welded my shifter together. I returned my guide to his boss’s shop and gave him a tip for his time. No one spoke English the whole day and I hardly spoke any Spanish, but with pantomime, pointing and a few laughs, we got the job done. Days like that made me realize that we humans really can get along and make things happen – even if we don’t share the same tongue.
But it wasn’t all work in Panama City. One night we indulged in Sushi at a place called Matsuei. While slightly expensive, it was by far the best sushi we’d eaten since Vancouver. On my 45th birthday (YIKES! Who’s that fat old fart in the mirror?!), we celebrated by seeing Iron Man 2 in a theatre that literally had lazyboy chairs for its patrons. There was even a call button on the chair to summon an usher who would bring you popcorn and beer (but being a polite Canadian, I got my own goodies). And one evening we went out for dinner with the Germans and this lovely young couple we had met at the Hotel Venecia, Andre and Liz, who had driven their Toyota 4-Runner to Panama from California. It was a great dinner, but by the time we left the restaurant, it was pouring rain like we’d never seen before. We drove through bumper-high puddles and when we parked in front of our building, the park across the street was underwater. It was insane, but we loved it.
Finally, the big day arrived. It was time to drive to the deep water port in Colon, on the Caribbean side, and load Yuki onto a container ship. During the drive, Roz and I were awed by the gorgeous jungle and we realized we had missed seeing a lot of Panama’s beauty. In Colon, we met up with the Germans and after doing more paperwork with the broker and the customs office, we drove to the port. There we spent a few hours getting the vehicles inspected again and eventually, we were allowed to drive into the staging area to park our babies. With reluctance, I gave Yuki’s keys to a young dock hand and walked away. We had insurance for Yuki should she be damaged in the container, but it was limited to a few hundred dollars. If the ship sank, we were out of luck. So with a final look over my shoulder, I said goodbye to Yuki and hoped we’d meet again in Cartagena.
The Germans, Roz and I boarded a bus back to Panama City and a couple of hours later, we were all back in our respective apartments full of excitement. Two mornings later, we said good-bye to our landlady and hopped in a cab with the Germans bound for the airport. An incredibly fast ride later we were at the airport and not long after that, we were buckling up our seat belts on a de Havilland Dash-8 aircraft bound for Colombia. As the plane taxied for the runway, Roz and I held hands. This was it. We were finally on our way to South America. As the plane began to barrel down the runway, I knew that one part of the journey was ending and a whole new one was beginning. Thanks Panama for helping us with the transition – I hope we’ll explore more of your lovely beaches and mountains on the way back.
END OF PART 20