A Scare, A Surprise, and a Cocaine Dealing Cab Driver
So, why the weird heading?
In most ways my trip here was problem free – except for one. When I got to the gate at my first stopover in Charles de Gaulle, I was called to the counter and informed that I wouldn’t be allowed to board the plane, since I had no ESTA Visa. I tried to explain that I was just transiting in the US and that my final destination was Panama City. Apparently that made no difference, and with 10 minutes to takeoff, I felt pretty frantic. Luckily I brought my laptop, and through a WIFI hotspot I was able to apply for the ESTA at the gate. Thankfully the confirmation didn’t take 24-hours, as it might, but arrived 2 minutes before departure. Needless to say, it took a while before I regained my composure and was able to relax.
At the last leg of my journey, from Atlanta to Panama City, I were seated next to an American woman and her mother. They both looked hispanic, and apparently the mother grew up in Panama City close to the Canal. I started talking to the younger and spent most of the trip telling her about Denmark and absorbing as much information about my destination as I possible could. Her name was Kirsten because her father had a thing for Scandinavia. At first he had wanted to name her Sigfried – she was pretty happy he chose not to.
When we arrived at Panama City I was offered me a ride to the city. Kirsten and her mother dropped my off at the hostel doorstep and I saved a 30$ taxi.
When I tried to check in, it turned out that I accidentally booked my bed from the 4th, and that they were fully booked. I found a fairly cheap hotel that only set me back 35$, still thrice the price of the hostel dorm though.
The following day I dragged my jet lagged self back to the hostel and started talking with people over pancakes. I spend the most of the day going to the Miraflores Lock with a girl from Holland, and watched the great Panamax vessels come through the locks.
Nothing so far has been a great surprise, except for the booking error. But the real surprise revealed itself when we got back from the locks and someone suddenly said “Hej Anton” in Danish. It turned out to be a colleague of mine from Denmark and his girlfriend Amanda. I spent the rest of the day with them; asking questions and hearing about their trip through Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. They had been on their way for a little over two months and were finishing off Panama in three weeks time before returning to Denmark. At night we went out to eat, as it was their last day in Panama City before the San Blas islands. Jakob turned 25 the day after, so it was cause for wine and celebration.
On the way to the restaurant we were stopped on the street by a Danish girl named Charlotte who worked as an international trainee in Panama for the Danish company BoConcept. It was a bit absurd and it really baffled me how small the world seemed to be that day. She asked us if we wanted to meet her later for some live music and drinks in Casco Viejo. Which lead me to…
…The Cocaine Dealing Cap Driver
The title of this part speaks for itself, but still requires some sort of explanation.
After dinner we took a cap to Casco Viejo. We got in a really pimped taxi with fender skirts and neon lights. The taxi driver half deafened us with extremely loud reggaeton and asked if we wanted “marijuana and cocaine”. We politely refused, but soon he found his sunglass case and showed us the contents. It was filled with 3 large bags of white powder. I’m guessing cocaine, but who knows? He wasn’t especially unpleasant, I mainly think he liked scaring the gringos.
A guy at the hostel told me that the term “gringo” is derived from the words “green go” because the U.S. Cavalry units wore green stripped trouser when campaigning in the Southwest. The term gringo originally means “green, go home”.
After an interesting cap ride we eventually got of in Casco Viejo. It turned out that Casco Viejo is a really fancy place to go out and that a bottle of wine would set us back at least 50$, while the price to enter most bars was 30$ pp. (Note that an average police officer in Panama gets a salary of around 800$ a month). Another curious thing about Casco Viejo was the substantial amount of police in the area, they seemed to outnumber the number of civilians.
In the end we decided that the 1$ beer at the hostel was preferable to the 3-digit wine bottles and the army of police officers.
Today I’ve mostly chilled at the hostel; eaten pancakes and relaxed. Then I got to talking to Elwood (check out his website here), a chill backpacker from the US. We decided to go to the fish market by the docks and shop some fish for lunch. It was a 40 minute walk in really intense heat, but the cerviche we got there was fantastic and made it well worth the effort.
After lunch I went to the Parque Natural Metropolitano de Panamá, which is a beautiful tropical park close to the city. I went with Andrew, an attorney from South Africa who has taken a year of travelling the world, and Shahmeer (he has a really cool blog, a 20-year old American who decided to go from Seattle to Panama City by bike, a good 8000 mile stretch. He has just finished after about 8 months on the road, very impressive. We went for a good walk in the park and climbed an abandoned crane to get a better view.
Now were back at the hostel, waiting for Elwood to make us Crème brûlée, it’s good to have a chef as a friend!
All in all I have had some good days in Panama City thus far. The city itself is nothing to speak of, but the people here are wonderful.
The Hostal Mamallena is perfect; cheap, good pancakes and very nice people.
Tomorrow I’ll head for the Caribbean to stay with a couchsurfer for a few days and just relax.
I’ll let the road decide!