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04 March 2010

Exhaust Fumes and My Arrival in Costa Rica

5:31 PM. Panamá Tocumen Airport.

Often, a smell can take you back to a memory faster and more intensely than any sound or sight. And it is often the smells that we associate with places. Well, Panamá smells like car exhaust. Heaps and heaps of exhaust fumes. And horrible exhaust - the stuff that comes out of our cars in California smells like a wedding cake compared to this.

I spent another 2 hours on the bus - there was so much traffic. I was on the verge of getting off at a random stop and shelling out the money for a taxi, because I was afraid of missing my flight. Luckily I made it, with a little bit to spare!

So where did I leave off? I finished my lunch at the food court of the Albrook Mall and exited through the T-Rex exit (each mall exit is marked by a different big animal, so you won't get lost!). I grabbed the first taxi I could to Miraflores. The driver wanted $10; I got him down to $8 - but I should have only paid $6, according to the tourist info lady at the airport. Next time, settle the cab fare before getting in the car! It was a quick ride through the outskirts of the city (and definitely much faster than any bus). Because I was haggling with the taxi driver in Spanish, he was convinced that I spoke Spanish and he probably thought I was faking my "no habla"-ness!

I got to the canal locks, walked up the stairs to the main entrance, bough a ticket that included the exhibits as well as the observation deck - my Berkeley ID got me a good discount on that! I went straight to the uppermost deck to watch a small cruise ship and a couple yachts/sailboats pass through the locks. I was at the Panamá Canal. It's one of those moments where you just have to let it sink in.

It was warm but very muggy, so I went to the bathroom to change out of my rapidly soggifying jeans and into my manpris. Much better. There was a big tour group of Germans (AIDA Tours or something like that) who got called down to watch the "history of the canal" movie in German - I almost joined them. Heh heh, gotta love European tourists (or any tourists for that matter). I then went through the museum exhibit thingy that they have. It spanned four levels, but I stopped on the second level to catch the next showing of the movie in English. I didn't learn much more than what I already saw about the canal on the History Channel. But when I finished the movie, there were two huge container ships going through the locks! Awesome - now that's what I came here to see! They sailed in, squeezing tightly into the locks, and were lowered down to sea level. Apparently they're expanding the canal and replacing the locks in the next couple years. I then finished the final two levels of the museum exhibit and was essentially done with the canal. I headed back out into the head and grabbed a taxi, this time making sure I wouldn't pay a dime over $6 to get back to Albrook. I had to walk through the mall (which is huge; it made me feel like I was in Makati) to get to the bus terminal on the other side. I grabbed a bus that went to Tocumen, which meant that it goes to the airport. But I had no idea what I was in for: TRAFFIC WAS INSANE. The route took me through the city, and more city, and more city! Nearly 2 hours of an excruciatingly slow crawl on the city streets.

Needless to say I had plenty of time to think. I thought about this place--Panama. It's value as a country lies almost exclusively in its geography as an isthmus. There doesn't seem to be much manufacturing here; the main economic driver has to be the canal itself (and with tolls of hundreds of thousands of dollars per ship, it's certainly feasible). Thus, geography is destiny. A lot of the people I see work in the service industry. It looks like there's a big consumer culture here too (or maybe I'm just skewed after spending so much time today in the mall). Still, it's a nice country - I can see why people would want to retire here. It's easy to just adapt a "que sera" attitude, taking it day-by-day and letting your (mostly pointless) worries just fall away. I seem to get that vibe from most other countries I've visited - so is it instead a mirror upon my own culture? A reflection on the extent to which we Americans (or "United Statesians" I should say - Panama is the center of "America" after all) are obsessed with accumulating wealth, status climbing, and simply workworkwork?! There's always a more distant American ideal to strive towards, an American dream to realise, pushing us forward - but for what?

Tocumen Airport - it's nice. Kind of reminds me of Prague's airport (and a little like the airports in Stansted and Dublin). Kind of. The security guys asked me twice where I was going, and then proceeded to open up my backpack. Oh well, they called me señor so it's all cool.

I'm pretty surprised by the extent to which I can understand Spanish. I can understand almost half of the words, maybe 20% of the sentences, but I can't really say much. That taxi driver really did seem to think that I was a Spanish speaker!

Snacking on cashews as I wait for the flight to start boarding. There are 2 flights to San José - leaving 6 minutes apart from each other! And they're leaving from adjacent gates! I'm on the first of the two flights.


8:50 PM. Escazu, San José, Costa Rica

Arrived in Costa Rica a little late - the flight took a while to board; there was some turbulence too. I sat near the back of the plane - got the window seat again. The girl sitting behind me had dropped her passport on the floor but my neighboring seatmate called up the flight attendants to make sure it was all right.

It then took a while to go through immigration and customs, because my whole plane was in line ahead of me, and I had to get my luggage from the carousel. Christina was waiting for me right by the exit as I exited. What a relief - I could finally get by without struggling to understand what was going on around me. We took the bus into the city, where we met John and Donny, two Americans from North Carolina who were headed to the south to surf (at the second-longest left wave in the world) or something like that.

We're now at our couchsurfing host Fernando's pad. It's a nice place with ample futons and couches to crash on. His friend Pierre is joining us and we're headed out for some food/drinks.

I can't believe it's been only one day since I was in LA. I've done so much today. It's incredible. I love it.

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