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03 March 2010

The Girl Who Works at the Airport

12:25 PM. Albrook Mall, Panamá.

It's too hot here to lose your cool!

I made it to Panamá! The flight arrived a little early, which gave me time to go through immigration (almost as tedious as entering the US - luckily, no line!), filling out customs forms. Yes, it's warm and humid - not totally oppressive but it's close - somewhere between summer in Virginia and in the Philippines.

At the airport I talked to the tourist information lady, who directed me to take the Corredor bus to Albrook station, where I can get a taxi to the canal.

Armed with that information, I walked outside the airport confidently. There I found - a line of taxis, a parking lot, and no bus stops in sight. I wandered through the parking lot (the information lady told me the bus stops were beyond the parking lot), only to find that the lot was gated in and there was no exit there - and still, no bus stops in sight. I wandered back to the terminal, where I asked a couple airport employees for the bus stop. They then tried to haggle me onto a taxi - "11 dollars", "special deal" - but I would have none of it, especially now that I knew that a bus ride costs only 25 cents. (The currency of Panamá is officially the Balboa, but everywhere uses US dollars; the only time I saw balboas were as the quarters i got as change for bus fare.) The airport employees directed me to walk all the way down the roadway out of the airport, telling me the bus stops were outside the airport. So I wandered.

It was then, as I was walking along the median of what looked almost like a highway, that I met Melanie.

We were both walking the same way when I timidly asked her where the buses stop. She told me to walk with her, across the highway, and to the bus stop (there were two stops but she asked which one was correct). She then got on the bus with me and explained to me how the buses here work. You don't pay when you get on; you pay $0.25 when you get off at your destination, no matter how far that is (what a good deal!). The thing is, the buses are all private, they look like former school buses that have been "pimped out" with bright colors and decorations all over. They're impossible to miss. They remind me a lot of the Jeepneys in the Philippines.

Anyway, Melanie and I spent some time talking; she has visited the East Coast before and is currently working at a store inside the airport. She gave me her phone number in case we might meet again when I return to Panamá, and she got off the bus. Seriously, Melanie saved me from what could've been a confusing Panamanian adventure (in the worst sense)!


12:35 PM

The bus ride took a while, over 1.5 hours - there's a lot of traffic here! The exhaust fumes are terrible too (I guess cars here don't get smog checked).

My first impression of Panamá is one of great diversity and heterogeneity. The city suburbs, at different moments, give me the impression of Manila, Florida, the Soviet Union, Bratislava, and East Los Angeles. Especially East LA. Panamanians also seem to be people at work - a lot of the people getting on/off the bus are dressed in work uniforms. The cars on the road are almost exclusively Japanese or Korean - I'd say that 95% are Toyota, Mitsubishi, Kia, Hyundai, Nissan or Lexus. And a lot of them are new. The plants and trees here all look familiar. Contrasting it with the Philippines, where the fauna all seems so exotic, the trees in Panama generally look like trees and shrubs I've seen in Southern California.

And the people! Panamanians have no standard "look" - they are a rightful display of the country's history: Amerindian, white, black, even Asian.. and everywhere in between. I seriously have had several moments where I feel like I'm just in LA. Like any tropical country (or as I would presume), the atmosphere is calm and laid-back. You gotta stay cool to beat the heat! People honk their horns a lot while driving, but it doesn't seem like anyone ever really gets road rage or takes it personally. (And why should one get pissed off? It's too hot here to lose your cool!)

I'm here sitting at the mall eating lunch - I got a freshly made 9" personal pizza for $2.50!!! Incredible deal. I am eating at a food court at the mall, though (I know, shame...). Anyway, I'm going to get a taxi to the center of America - the Panama Canal. Time will probably be short, less than 2 hours to see it before I return to the airport.

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