It’s about24 hours since I landed in Panama … just back to the Posada Hostal Urrica after a full day of city exploring – ohmigod, I’m exhausted! And in a really good way – that drippy, soaked, dog-tired, can’t-walk-another-step, but I keep on walking kinda tired.
I arrived in late afternoon yesterday after a missed connection in Miami because of leaving San Francisco five hours later than scheduled. I ran, ran ran for the Panama-bound flight out of Miami with only ten minutes in between the time I got off one plane and the other one was scheduled to depart. Alas, they had just closed the door when I came dashing up and the very unfriendly woman wouldn’t hear a bit of my lament. She was actually quite rude (“Well, you should get here earlier if you want to catch a plane!” Harumph! I told her that with that attitude, it was no wonder they were going bankrupt!), and I found my way to the re-ticketing counter where I asked for meal vouchers, got them and waited for the next flight in a few hours. It was hardly a big deal at all, especially once I let go of being frustrated after a few minutes when I realized that a few hours here or there simply didn’t matter. It’s part of the traveling deal, so no sense getting in a tizzy over nothing.
The Hostal Posada Urrica is a simple place, clean, tidy and quiet and while nothing fancy, it fits just fine as an arrival place. I’m in the “Bella Vista” neighborhood with supposedly easy walking to the places I want to go to, although I must say, I took the very unusual (for me) way out today; while I walked for several miles, I also took several taxis which saved my ass in the intensity of the tropical heat. It’s still dry season here in Panama, headed toward the wet season soon. What this means is that it’s in the high 80’s with very high humidity, quite similar to what I experienced in Southeast Asia last year.
While the heat is similar, the culture already feels so very different. Where I often felt invisible all other Southeast Asia, already that is so not so here. The women greet me, the men take great notice of me. Ohno, I am definitely not invisible here – sure, I could do without the cat-calls of the men on the street, for sure, but I appreciate that people make eye contact. They make it and I find I’m the one to break it, not them. This is definitely not Asia! I’m pleased to be seen – I like that – it definitely beats feeling like I’m walking down a street and no one even realizes I’m there. Oh, I’m getting noticed alright and yes, I like it, I like it!
Upon my arrival yesterday, I got settled into my teeny, tiny single room and then headed out for a little walk to check out the neighborhood as is my way. The first two people I stumbled upon on the sidewalk took me back – two elderly Hasidic Jewish men. (Is it redundant to say ‘Jewish’ after Hasidic? I mean, are there any other Hasidics than Jews? And what about “Jews?” Is that considered an inappropriate slang? Ohmigod, save me from all this language stuff, please!) So much for thinking I was in the bastion of Catholicism – not sure I’ve seen Hasidics since New York, although I must have somewhere else along the way. After I recovered from seeing them, I just wandered and then noticed some people with plastic grocery bags and decided I’d follow where I saw them coming from. Sure enough, I found the neighborhood super-mercado where I bought some frui, bread, yogurt and a cookie – a mercado very much like what we are used to in the States … and I must say, prices to match! I was told that Panama City was expensive, so I’m not surprised. After a snack of banana, baguette and some goat cheese, I went right back to my room and crashed … so tired with no sleep the night before; and frankly, the conversations I heard in the lobby were none that interested me. Again, here I find myself on the young person’s tourist circuit – and I’m just too tired to enter into those same old conversations.
Something happens to me as soon as I arrive in a foreign place – it’s like I wake up in a way that I am not quite awake in my ‘normal’ life (a place that’s getting harder and harder to describe thus-ly). It’s certainly not that I sleep-walk through my life – far from it – but there’s a way that my senses are alert and more fully engaged. I’m in a new, foreign and unknown place whose ways are totally unknown to me and I thrive on this, a part of me comes alive in this environment that simply doesn’t exist at any other time. I open the door of the taxi, step out into the steamy, thick air and it’s like I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole and I’m in a whole new world. Somehow after all my experience of traveling, still I’m surprised that I ‘simply’ get on a plane in one place, get off in another and everything, everything is different. I look around, I take it all in and I realize I am alone in this place, in this space, alone and yet solid and firm on the earth. At least that is so in this moment; and in this moment, it is enough.
My Spanish came creeping out of its cob-webbed corner in the attic of my mind immediately if for no other reason than it had no choice – the folks who work here at the Hostal don’t speak English, or they speak it like I speak Spanish … so I’m speaking my Spanglish and amazed at how quickly, no matter how badly it is, it returns to me. They seem to understand me, although I can’t quite say the same about their Spanish – soooo rapido! But with a few repetitions, I begin to catch on and I’m delighted! I can have simple conversations about food and directions and places to see and go and general stuff – somehow I’m amazed that it still lives inside of me some place and a few of these local Panamanians even compliment me on my pronunciation – amazing indeed!
I had a full and deep night’s sleep (amazing how quickly I can get acclimated – nothing like total exhaustion to help out in that department!) and woke late – almost 9 am! I had expected to get up and out earlier, but there was no hurry, so I slowly made my way into my day. The woman here at the Hostal told me I could walk to the old section of town, but after only fifteen minutes in the heat and consulting with two women on the street, their eyes and shrieks told me I better take a taxi. Interesting, I find I almost always turn to women for help on the street when I’m in a foreign country (well, except for that amazing day in Venice, but that’s a story for another time) and they are invariably so very kind to me. Two times today I did it and both times, the women hailed taxis for me and negotiated a rate – surely one that would have been double if left up to me. Yes, like everywhere, people here are friendly and helpful, no matter what we hear otherwise!
It’s hard to believe I’m in Central America, the so-called 3rd World, when I look around here in the city. Maybe I took a wrong turn and ended up in Dubai or something. The place is brimming with brand-new skyscrapers in every direction, most of which, my airport shuttle driver told me, are apartments. There’s more and more of them going up everyday, he tells me and “muy, muy caro” (very expensive). Designer stores and malls and fancy cars clogging the streets – it’s like no other Latin American city I’ve ever seen. Generally I spend absolutely no time in these capitol cities – I fly in and get out as quickly as possible. But I read that Panama City was different and so it is, so far anyway. I’m not the least bit interested in the new section of the city and spent a good part of the day in the ancient city, the entirety of which has been deemed a World Heritage Site and with good reason. I walked and sat and walked and sat and that seemed to be my way of making it through the intensity of the heat. I noticed myself noticing, observing, looking in every direction and moving slowly enough to be able to take everything in – like a writer, a traveler needs to take note, to look at the people without being invasive, to notice the things that look so similar to home (here, it’s the flowers), to see what’s strikingly different (everything else!), to see the women talking to each other across their balconies, to engage in something like a walking meditation, surely a requirement with the sidewalks filled with huge potholes and pukas so big I just might fall in if I don’t watch it! I had only a bit of an agenda in what I wanted to see, so mostly it was simply an opportunity for me to be out on the streets of the city and take in whatever showed up.
One time when the boiling heat felt like it was overtaking me, I walked by a super-mercado and felt the chilly cold air billowing out and onto the street. In no time, I ducked right in and sure enough there were some chairs lined up against the wall and I found my place amongst the women sitting there, doing very likely what I was headed there for myself, to rest and cool off. I’m book-ended by two older women – to my left is a brown-skinned Latina, dressed well and with thick gray hair braided and rolled atop her head. She sits quietly and returns my smile. On my other side is a coffee-bean Black woman whose shoes are falling apart and whose shirt seams are giving way. Her finger nails look fungus-laden and even her dark skin is mottled. It seems as if I’m sandwiched right here in the super-mercado by the dramatic class distinctions which typify this sophisticated city. A young girl approaches, stands nearby in her crisp school uniform which bulges with her advanced and obvious pregnancy. The Black woman looks almost disdainfully up at her, asks a few questions I don’t understand and then looks at me and shrieks, “Ruina! Ella ruina la vida!” – Ruined! She’s ruined her life! I look at the young girl and smile, lest she feel some similar judgment from me. She smiles back and stands silently, almost demurely, but unable to hide behind her protruding belly. “Donde esta la protection?”, the woman continues. “Digame, donde esta, donde?!” Where is the protection? Tell me, where is it, where?! Where indeed? Where is the protection for this young woman? Where is the protection for all women, protection of reproductive freedom that white men across the United States are vehemently fighting against as this scene plays out in this super-mercado in the streets of Panama City? Would they like it for American women to be in the same predicament as this young woman, with the same choices, or the lack of those choices? Has she ruined her life? What’s possible for her now? What’s possible for any of us if we cannot control the basics of reproductive health and freedom? I ask the young woman how old she is – “quince,” she says – 15. 15 years old and she stands on the precipice of motherhood – certainly not unheard of across the world in places just like this and places like Hawaii, too. She keeps smiling and then takes her leave. This calms the Black woman who goes on to tell me that she went to Miami once many years ago – “Working, working, working. All I did was work as a hotel maid so I could send money back here. But the work, it was too hard and the days, they were too long. And Miami, it was too expensive. So I came back, I came back to my home, my Panama and now this is where I will stay.” The woman on my other side just looked at her, looked at me and sat quietly. Somehow I felt like I got a slice of local life in these few moments and I was grateful.
I took my leave shortly and headed to another part of town, the real old Panama, circa 1500 – 1600’s that’s now just crumbling ruins amidst a bustling city. I had the area mostly to myself, with only a few other people wandering through the dusty and sweltering afternoon. I was reminded of the hordes of people at the ruins of Angkor Wat and while these were nowhere near the scale or magnificence, still I was touched by the antiquity and the mystery that lie in the rumble of ruins that surrounded me.
Now it was taxi time again and I headed to my last stop for the day – the Amador Causeway that links three islands to the mainland. The Americans (that would be us) built this several-mile long causeway when they were here building the Canal and it’s quite the hang out of the rich and famous – more yachts than I’ve ever seen in one place! I wandered and wandered and felt the warm breeze on my skin a welcome relief to the still air of the ruins and the inner city. I stopped for a simple lunch of fish and fried plaintains, along with a papaya and banana shake and noticed the day was soon drawing to a close. That seemed fitting somehow, as my body decided it was time for such a a closing of this day.
Dusk came sooner than I expected or realized though, and I found myself walking alone along the causeway without a taxi in sight. The darkened sky began to frighten me a bit – how did I get myself into this situation and on my first night here? Before fear could set in too strongly, though, I gave myself a good talking to, tried to conjure whoever the Taxi Goddess might be (a relative of Dolores, the Parking Goddess, no doubt, I figured) and trusted she would be along shortly. Sure enough, of course, she was and I was then safely barreling down the road in the back of the taxi with the Latin music blaring (so far, only one volume setting appears to work in all of the taxis and that is m-a-x!), the breeze in my face and the lights of the city twinkling as we made our way back to Bella Vista.
And now, it’s late night and time for sleep. Oh, there’s more to say, there’s always more to say. But my body says it’s done and time to say goodnight here in my new home in Panama City. So goodnight it is!