This blog entry about the events of Wednesday, December 26, 2007 was originally posted on January 22, 2008.

DAYS 36-37:  “People who come here think Panama is going to be similar, like the other Central American countries,” said my Panamanian driver Benny (short for Benigno), who cited Costa Rica as an example of the general Central American vibe.  “But it’s completely different.”

My time in Panama would be short — I’d only see Panama City for that matter — but any educated person without any amount of time there could tell you what the obvious difference was: unlike the other Central American countries, it harbored the big famous canal that cut through the country — cut through the Americas for that matter — so famous that it had its own famous palindrome: “A Man, A Plan, A Canal — Panama!”  And it was this canal whose prosperity has made this Central American city “the showcase city of Central America,” combining colonial legacy, ultra-modern architecture, international banking, shopping, and tropical climate — much like a Spanish-speaking Hong Kong of the West (without the abundance of Chinese people).

AFTER ALL THAT HAD HAPPENED behind the scenes in Colombia, I really wanted my two days/one night in Panama to be a vacation from my vacation, a period to myself to just chill out and recompile.  Staying with friends or relatives is always a good thing, but, like Daisann McLane of National Geographic Traveler once said in her column, it’s also taxing sometimes because you aren’t completely independent; you are bound by other people’s schedules and views of the locale.  And so, I set out to figure out where I’d base my now single self in Panama City for my one-night layover en route to Nicaragua.

Using my Let’s Go guide, I narrowed my search down to one hostel in the old colonial Casco Viejo area that had an airport pick-up, but whenever I called for a reservation asking “Este la hostal?” I’d be greeted rather irately from an American male voice on the other end, telling me I had the wrong number and that I needed to “Dial zero to get out of the country!” CLICK.

But I’m already outside of the country, ass, I thought.

Switching to different cellular networks in Colombia, I tried again. 


“I did that.”

“Well this isn’t the hostel and you should be smart enough to figure out what the problem is and stop fucking calling here!” CLICK.

I ARRIVED IN PANAMA CITY around noon, with plenty of time to spare to find an alternate accommodation.  Should I stay in the new part of the city with its modern vibe, or the colonial Casco Viejo area, which according to my guide, was similar to La Candelaria in Bogota? — straying two or three blocks away from the tourist zone was considered unsafe.  And then I remembered watching the end of some game show a while ago, where the bonus prize was a trip to Panama City (perhaps it was Travelocity-sponsored pit-stop prize on The Amazing Race?) with a 4-day/3-night stay at some fancy hotel over looking the canal, near the bay area where the ships came in and out of the canal locks.  (My budget guidebook of course, had no accommodation listings in this area.)

“I know there’s a hotel overlooking the canal,” I told the guy at the information booth at Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport.  The well-dressed man thought about it and figured it out; there’s really only one hotel over there, on the canal: the American franchise Country Inn & Suites.  He called them up to check rates and availability. 

“Yes, they have a room,” he told me, putting his hand over the mouthpiece of the receiver.  He wrote “$160” on a pamphlet for me.

“Okay, that’s fine.”  I didn’t care; it was only one night, and it was already offset from not having to pay accommodations the past five days.  This was my vacation from my vacation after all.

After close to a 40-minute cab ride into and through the bustling city to the other side, I saw exactly what my money paid for:  a lovely suite, bigger than the NYC studio apartment I’d gotten evicted from, with two TVs (bedroom and living room), a private bathroom, a kitchenette, an A/C that I cranked up since it was blazingly hot outside, and best of all, a private terrace that overlooked the swimming pools and the Bay of Panama at the mouth of the famed Panama Canal.  I chilled out for a while upon arrival, basking not in the sun but the free wi-fi connection, while waiting for room service to arrive.  Apparently the parent company of Country Inn & Suites also owns the adjacent T.G.I.Friday’s, and so it was a Panamanian woman, decked out in more flair than I’ve ever seen on a Friday’s employee, who came to my room with two beers and a Jack Daniel’s Burger. 

THE FACT THAT I WAS in Panama in the comfort of American business expansion was sort of symbolic, for Panama has been in business with America for over a century.  Construction of the world-famous canal that cuts through the isthmus of the Americas was originally an 1880s project led by the French, but after their botched attempts to dig a full sea-level trench (O, mon dieu!), the job was — to fast forward about twenty years of history — given to the Americans.  Under the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, the United States of America led an international effort to build what is still one of the most significant marvels of the engineering and international commerce worlds today. 

However, the canal wasn’t built over night; it took almost a decade — and over 5,000 lives — to convert a 48-mile stretch of swamp land into a waterway permissible for large shipping vessels.  Together with people from Barbados, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Trinidad, Jamaica, Spain, Italy, Greece, India, Armenia, Cuba, Costa Rica, and Colombia, the Americans constructed the canal in nine years — two years ahead of schedule.  Not surprisingly, this feat wasn’t easy, with new technologies in explosives and mechanics having to be invented and perfected. 

Contrary to what I’d thought, the canal isn’t one single passageway from Atlantic to Pacific, but rather a series of passageways and locks that interconnect the oceans with artificial lakes and marshes across the isthmus — the “watershed.”  The chore was to deepen and connect this inland watershed to the two coasts, not only laterally but elevation-wise; a ship must be raised close to 140 ft. above sea level to get to the main watershed level of the canal system.  This is done by a series of canal locks, which raise and drain water levels, causing ships to rise and fall, like they are in elevators.  These locks were engineered with big gears, big gates, and big culverts, all to lock the fluctuating water in a sealed chambers.

Once the canal was completed in 1914, it wasn’t long before it became a international sensation — shipping to and from the east and west coasts of both North and South America were easier than ever before, much easier than the Panama Railway that had been used to move goods over the isthmus before the canal’s existence.  Shipping from Europe to Asia also became easier, as well as dozens of other popular shipping routes between the “new” and “old” worlds.  All this trade going through Panama was undoubtedly lucrative, but it was America — not Panama — that retained ownership and profits of the canal’s business.  For decades there was much-warranted animosity towards the USA from Panamanians, but all that changed under the presidency of Jimmy Carter, who signed a treaty that, if all went well, America would hand over the canal to the Panamanian government in 1999.  In December of that year, the day before the turn of the year 2000, control of the world-famous canal did in fact go to the Panama Canal Authority (just two years after lucrative Hong Kong was given back to China by the U.K. in 1997, if you are still keeping up with that similarity).

As history progressed, so did technology, and in the 1950s, the Panama Canal went under a big “modernization” phase where the old mechanical systems of the early 20th century were upgraded with faster and more efficient pneumatic and hydraulic systems.  But modernization of the canal didn’t stop there; with bigger shipping barges these days, the canal is currently in the process of making wider locks to raise wider ships to the watershed level.  As I’d read, “Without the expansion, the Canal will reach maximum capacity around 2012 and will cease to be an important part of the world transportation system.”  While the canal currently generates about three million dollars a day, profits could start to dwindle with the all the competing alternate modes of shipping these days — plus goods are becoming smaller and faster and easier to transport via air. 

MOST OF THIS WORDY HISTORY LESSON is a result of my visits to the Museo del Canal Interoceanico and more significantly, the Miraflores locks, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Panama City area, as they are the closest canal locks to the capital city.  The private taxi I took there from the hotel introduced me to my driver Bengino, who also served as an English-speaking tour guide.  (He was also a PADI divemaster, should I have needed one at the time.)  In no time, we were at the working part of the canal.

Miraflores is the southernmost lock of the canal (picture above) — the last one if coming from the Atlantic to the Pacific, or first if vice versa — but it is also the home a museum and tourists’ visitors center.  Not only is it an impressive exhibition of canal history, but of the other factors involving the canal: its ecosystem, its engineering, and its future, both technologically and commercially.  There is also a simulation room where you rode the entire canal, from Atlantic to Pacific. 

Of course many people rush through this stuff and head straight for the locks themselves — especially when a ship comes through, like the India Lotus.  The massive cargo ship was tugged into a lock (via little strong railcars on each of its side), then lowered by draining water in just about eight minutes.  The gates were opened, and it slowly cruised off to the Bay of Panama on the Pacific side, creeping like an Imperial Star Destroyer in Star Wars cruising through outer space.

BUT PANAMA CITY isn’t all about the canal; as Central America’s showcase city, it is also every bit relaxed and cosmopolitan.  In my short stay there, I rented a bike and rode the Amador Causeway, a stretch of road along the Bay of Panama that linked the mainland with three islands — each a harboring marinas and nightlife with numerous of bars, cafes, and discoteques, plus the really chilled out wine bar I went to for a glass of Pinot and some fresh ceviche.  This trendy area was only outdone by the scene in the modern city, with its rapidly growing skyline of post-modern skyscrapers — most of which are luxury condominiums for the many American ex-pats (some who never left after the military action against Noriega in the early 1990s) who are planning to make Panama City their getaway home in the warm tropics.  (It doesn’t hurt that Panama’s currency is the US dollar too.) 

The modern part of the city contrasted the San Felipe/Casco Viejo area (charming and safer in the daytime), the colonial part of the city built up in 1673 after pirates pillaged, plundered and burned down the original establishment standing since 1519.  I wandered there the morning of my second day, admiring the Spanish-influenced cathedrals, the national theater, and plazas — although I will admit I was pretty tired of the same old Spanish colonial thing.  (I was “conquistadored out” if you will.)  Not surprisingly, this area has been a big tourist draw, and with the foreigners came the hawkers selling wares and souvenirs along the cobblestone streets.  They sold the usually tchtochkies, but really pushed for the sale of “Panama Hats” — which I put in quotes because, as everyone knows (or should know), they are NOT from Panama, but from Otavalo, Ecuador.  During the construction of the canal, South American goods starting making their way north, including malleable straw sun hats from Otavalo, Ecuador.  Because the Panama Canal was such a big topic of conversation in those times, many people just assumed new goods (like the hats) were from Panama, thus the misnamed “Panama Hat” was born — a misnomer has been with us for a century.

I LEFT PANAMA CITY completely relaxed after only a thirty-hour stay there (one of those was for an hour-long in-room massage), but in that time I knew it was a place I’d want to visit to again, the next time with more time to explore more than just the city.  I’m told Panama isn’t just different from its Central American siblings in terms of the urban scene, but out in the country as well, characterized by its indigenous tribes like the Kuna — and my only encounter into their culture was seeing one of the village women in Casco Viejo wearing traditional Kuna garb while talking on a cell phone.  Whether or not she knew to dial “O” to get out of the country I did not know, but I’m sure she’d figure something out.

Next entry: The Same Old Thing

Previous entry: Ocean’s Three

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Comments for “Panamania”

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  • Good info on the “Panama Hats”.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/23  at  10:17 PM

  • could it be, im the first one to post besides Erik…Nice, first time for everything.

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This blog post is one of thirty-nine travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: The Central American Eviction Tour* (*with jaunt to Colombia)," which chronicled a six-week journey through Central America, with a jaunt to Bogota, Colombia.

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