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13 March 2010

I Had Made a Very Wrong Turn Somewhere

4:25 PM. Saturday, March 13, 2010. Just outside Panama Tocumen Airport.

She was begging me to get in a taxi for my own safety...

The past few hours have been yet another adventure:

I left the Albrook mall on one of Panamá's many festive buses to the plaza Cinco de Mayo, 10 minutes away. The streets around the plaza were alive with food vendors and people enjoying their Saturday. There was a pedestrian-only promenade leading away from the plaza, filled with vibrant shops and street vendors. I bought a small bag freshly-fried platano chips with hot sauce drizzled on top (yummy!), then I bought a cup of fresh coconut juice to cool me down from the sweltering day.

It was a vibrant and welcoming scene. I would soon find out that not all of Panamá would be as friendly...

It felt hot - even by Panamanian standards. Plenty of young families were out and about (Panamá's population is so young!), and there were a good number of indigenous Panamanian women in their colorful dresses. I followed the crowds until the street tapered off, then I branched off down a side street in the direction of Casco Viejo (the old town). Soon I found myself in the heart of "real" (i.e. poverty-ridden) Panamá City.

First the shops became smaller and fewer, then the streets became emptier, with unpaved sidewalks lined with garbage. I didn't feel like I was in personal danger until I walked by (and almost into) a 6-foot-deep pit/storm drain with absolutely no cover in it (anyone could easily just fall down into pure filth). There were definitely more homeless people around, and the locals seemed to have more of a dark edge in the way they looked at me, as contrasted with the smiley faces of the people at the plaza.

The sun continued to beat down upon me, so I tried to stick to the shade of the buildings when I could. I had no idea what street I was on - the tourist map I had didn't display all the streets, but I still felt like I was walking in the right direction (toward the coast) when I came across a street corner with shops and people and a futbol field. I began looking at my map again to figure out where I was, when a young woman approached me.

"Do you speak English?" she asked, and then she proceeded to speak to me in Spanish.

From what she told me, I learned that I had made a very wrong turn somewhere, because she was practically begging me to get in a taxi for my own safety. This area was crawling with thieves apparently. She flagged down a taxi. I asked, "Casco Viejo - cuanto?" and learned that it only cost $1. Okay, I'll take that deal!

It was nearly 2pm when I arrived at the safer (i.e. tourist-focused) Casco Viejo, which is the one of the old Spanish settlements. There weren't many tourists around. I walked around the neighborhood, which was located on a peninsula; there were some vendors.

I'm not usually much of an impulse buyer, but I'm such a different person when I'm in another country (not to mention the clock was ticking on my visit). So I bought a Panama hat. It felt to be of good quality, but I still feel like I overpaid at $15. Oh well, when else am I gonna get a Panama hat in Panamá? It helped shade me from the hot sun (and from my fear of getting sunburned).

Time to head into the airport...


5:25 PM.

If I ended up getting shanked and killed, my friends and family would never forgive me...

It was easy to get into the airport and through security; but my gate isn't ready just yet.

The city of Panamá seems more glamorous now, through the glossy windows from the air-conditioned airport terminal. There wasn't much glamor earlier today, as I walked through the streets of the old town, Casco Viejo. Most of the buildings had long been abandoned and were restored only for tourists. A cafe stood across from a statue commemorating Vasco Núñez de Balboa and his crossing of the isthmus. The cafe seemed to be plucked straight from Italy or France, providing a respite for travelers who want to stay in their protected bubble. They'll soon hop into taxis and conveniently whiz past the vibrant but difficult local culture on their way to the hotel. Sigh.

On the other side of the old town is a walkway overlooking the bay, with Panamá's high rises in the distance. Underneath the overlook is a small beach with about seven children playing in the water, amongst garbage and car tires.

I wanted to walk all the way along the coast, but a section was closed off :/. Security politely told me not to go that way. So I politely obliged and walked around. Four loud young Americans emerged, trying to flag down a taxi. I walked on, past a hostel, and around the next corner I found myself back into another filthy barrio. A few homeless guys stared at me as I walked by. There was a middle-aged guy urinating the middle of the street. Okay, I thought, if I end up getting shanked and killed, my friends and family would never forgive me. So I grabbed the first taxi that drove by and took it back to the plaza Cinco de Mayo for $1.25. Fine. I arrived back at the plaza, which was as lively as ever. It was nearly 3pm, so I thought it was about time to start heading back to the airport. I meandered through a passageway of souvenir shops, checking to see if any had a wall-sized flag of Panamá (no luck, oh well). It was time for me to start heading back to the airport.

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