|All told we spent four nights and five days in Panama City. Within the country it is simply called 'Panama', which caused us a little confusion on our way to get there. "Are you going to Panama?" The bus driver asks. (Shared look of confusion as we try and remember what country we are in.) "Does this bus go to Panama City?" We return. "Si, si. Panama is Panama City, of course, of course." So we go.
It is a city, no doubt, and when we arrived at the bus station the size of place was fantastic. The Albrook Bus Terminal was recently built and has a Mall, a movie theatre, grocery store, food court, and many shops to greet you. The one thing we both noticed, however, was that there was nothing else to greet us. We were becoming accustomed to the gentlemen, which every bus station has, who want to carry your bag for you or get you a cab or a hotel room or a shoeshine or a zip-line tour or a haircut or a horse. But when we ascended the steps of our bus at Albrook it was as though no one had told the gentlemen that we were coming. We should admit that we felt a shred of unimportance. Apparently Panama City was more difficult to impress. We found the cab stand by ourselves and with one last look over our shoulder to see if someone would offer us something we didn't need, we were off.
The bustle and size of Panama City is impossible to ignore and difficult to describe. It sprawls along a number of miles of coast with the entrance of the Panama Canal on its western edge and the ruins of the Old City skirting it to the east. All day you can see the numerous vessels in the bay awaiting their turn to enter the canal. All along the main avenues there are street vendors selling anything you could want. In particular demand these days, it seems, are plastic cell phone coverlettes and lottery tickets. We spend lots of time discussing and theorizing how the lottery system works down here, but we prefer not to ask anyone who might know. The mystery intrigues us, and it is fascinating to witness the tables upon tables of the ticket sellers. Most of them have little plastic coverlettes for their cell phones.
We spend one full day wandering the streets which is perhaps the best way to get to know any city. Our traversing brings us to Casco Antigua, the older and more picturesque, Spanish section of town. The colonial architecture, with balconied windows and cobble stone streets, reminds us of Granada in Nicaragua. Supposedly this is a more dangerous part of town, but in the daytime (and sticking to main streets) it seems absolutely safe, and the people we encounter everywhere are gracious and helpful. A bit run-down, as you can imagine, but the care and intimacy of cityscapes like this create a romantic mood that is hard to ignore.
We visit the Canal Museum and take the audio English tour. They give you a little telephone you carry around with you and at each display you press the indicated number, hold the telephone to your ear, and are provided with a wealth of information on the history of this engineering marvel. (The politics and cultural devastation of the canal are less marvelous, but enlightening to know about.) Thousands of manual laborers, mostly African-Creoles and Irish, died while digging this trench in the mud for wealthy gold merchants in New York City.
We also took the time to explore the National Theatre located in Casco Antigua. The front doors were open so we walked right in. We sat for a while and watched a ballet rehearsal in progress. They didn't seem to mind that we were there. (Jon signed a waiver that he wouldn't steal any moves).
Other time was spent in the city inhaling exhaust and dodging Diablo Riojas. These are the 'red devil' buses and they act as the main form of public transportation within and around the city. There is no shortage of them, be sure, and these ex-school buses have never looked so good with the fun and exotic (sometimes 'erotic') paint jobs they receive. Perhaps American children would be less reluctant to go to school if our buses weren't so drab and yellow all the time. Perhaps they wouldn't be so reluctant if school wasn't so boring. Who knows?
The Miraflores Locks were only a Diablo Rioja away and although we got there just after closing time we still got to see the locks in action. Huge cargo ships and tankers pass through these locks everyday, all day, and it is an impressive sight to see. We were impressed for about ten minutes before we realized how hungry we were. That night we walked the length of the Causeway, which is a long road (built from the trenchings of the canal) that connects three islands right at the mouth of the canal. The weather in Panama City was superb, especially with a little distance between us and the knitty gritty smoggy downtown, and we were treated to a wonderful sunset as we strolled the causeway. The day, and our last in full one in Panama, we took a day trip to Isla Taboga, where we saw the second oldest Church in the Western Hemisphere (sort of the American equivalent to the largest ball of twine or the Corn Palace). Jon got sunburnt and on the boat ride home, Mandy received important life (and marriage) advice from a pastor (wearing soccer jersey) who was visiting Panama from Columbia. 'Respect' is the most important thing in a marriage he told us. A very nice man.
Our last night in Panama, and trying to save money, we went to get Chinese food. Jon ordered a 'large' fried rice, and without exaggeration the thing could have fed six hungry people. We also ordered, by mistake of course, ten gigantic dumplings, and Mandy had chicken and rice. The waitresses all had a pretty good laugh when they saw the look on our faces after the food arrived. Us? -- We're still laughing.