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Danger on the Streets of Panama

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     Our exploits in taking our 80+ year old parents, Winslow and Lydia, to a third world, Central American country. This might not be what we’d consider “Adventure Travel” but then we are not 80 years old. I know for a fact that they have a different opinion on the subject. We once again emerged ourselves into the local culture.We loaded them them into dugout canoes to visit the natives, we gambled on greyhounds in the local “hippodrome”, we hiked down jungle paths, and road a speed-boat down the great Panama Canal but our most harrowing moments were negotiating the bustling streets while lost in the inner boroughs of Panama City. Their unerring faith in our ability to protect them was absolutely amazing and maybe a bit too optimistic.


Day 1: Our First Day in Central America

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     Joe: Winslow, Lydia, Elaine, and I arrived last night in Panama City, Panama.  It was a long trip because of weather delays in Atlanta, finally landing around 2100 hrs. I guess it is pretty much what I’d expected for a third world city. A mix of modern metropolis with lots of surrounding boroughs that have seen better times. For some unknown reason we rented a car instead of relying on the local knowledge of taxi drivers. After lots of assistance from the gendarme, the bus driver that said “follow me” and the GPS we still managed to make some bad turns into some bad areas at a bad time of night. Of course, that’s the “ugly american” impression and I imagine that all-in-all we could of just stopped for a bite to eat and a drink without too much trouble from the locals.

     Elaine: I never realized I could feel so tense for such an excruciatingly painful length of time. As Joe noted, we did rent a car and the trip through Panama city was a fearsome study in contrasts. We first marveled at the huge Megopolis with skyscrapers that rivaled those I grew up with in New York city. Punctuating these buildings were “dots” of small burnt out slum-type edifices. I could not imagine anyone living there and initially thought they were condemned buildings until I saw faces in the windows and laundry hanging out to dry. We came during the rainy season and there was a downpour in the afternoon. Well, of course being the adventurers we are, we all decided to go scout out the racetrack known as the “hippodromo” and braved the weather. BIG MISTAKE! We passed a bunch of what should have been condemned buildings thriving with people and pulsating with activity due to the rain. The strange thing was, people were walking through the streets as if it were just a slight drizzle. No standing in enclosed spaces, no umbrellas, no running. Just walking through it as if it were a sunny, uneventful day. Joe was masterful in his manipulation of this car (standard shift) with cars dashing out in front of him, people crossing–and worst yet, rain pools that made me think we would be flash flooded. Joe said, “even if we were swept away by a sudden channel of water, how far could it take us?” I thought about this and realized he was right–the furthest we’d go is some building wall we would just slam into and likely stop right then and there. You see, that is the difference between Joe and me. I picture us getting flooded into oblivion, and he thinks of how uneventful that occurrence would actually be even if it did happen. Well, the streets were so flooded with water that there was no crossing them without a paddle and an Army SEAL team for support. So even the intrepid Joseph Foster decided to reverse course and try another route. We went down some streets (more like alleys) that made my shoulder muscles spasm in a lock-step march that left me feeling breathless. I felt like every twist and turn sucked an hour off my life. So many times we came within a hair’s breadth of ramming into another car. I knew I had to keep my mouth shut because otherwise I would just add to Joe’s burden. Even now I am finding it difficult to get my adrenalin back to a normal level. Ok, I admit it–I am the quintissential ugly american. In fact, with the added cringing, grotesque facial contortions, and lip biting, I’m sure I’m even uglier today than I ever was. All the advertisements I read about Panama have noted how it has beat its neighbors since it is NOT a third-world country. NEWS FLASH–the reason its not third world country is because it is still slowly climbing up to find the fourth world.
Ok, so its my first day and there is still so much more to see. It is my responsibility, my duty to start tomorrow fresh and open to finding beauty. I believe we are going to try for a more “naturalist” experience tomorrow. Going to the Chagres National Park or to the Panama Canal. We have to be mindful about my parent’s physical limitations so no big hikes or uneven terrain. Tall order, but I am resolved to discover the biodiversity which I know can make up for the squalor I’ve witnessed today. I must say, it did give me a new-found respect for Joe’s abilities and this was an unexpected pearl. Also, my father is laughing liberally and seems to be open to the experience. Better get some rest now.


Day 3: Miraflores Locks

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    Joe:  A trip to the Miraflores Locks really is worthwhile. The is the western-most lock on the Panama Canal, the first for east-bound traffic and the last for west-bound traffic. I, like any American, knew the superficial facts about the canal from an early age. Built in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s, one of the greatest engineering feats, yellow fever, American and then Panamanian ownership, etc, etc.Because of this, I was not all that excited to go, just one of those required tourist excursions to check off on your list of 1000 things to see before you die. What I had not expected was the gut reaction of watching such a huge ocean-going tanker enter these locks with only inches to spare. The coordination, the engineering complexity, the infrastructure, all amazing in themselves, is dwarfed by the significance of how the canal makes a small world even smaller.


    Elaine: Joe was right about this being one of those thousand places to see before you die. I would probably rank it at 999; followed only by, the world’s largest ball of twine. No, seriously, it was quite majestic. None of us had ever learned about how tug boats are used to guide these huge tankers into place. I wondered what it must feel like to be in such a small vessel being battered by such a behemuth. Picture a volkswagon beatle, working to position a tractor trailor–and then add water for a second element of unpredictability. Really incredible. And I believe it must be witnessed in order to be appreciated.My parents didn’t really understand all the engineering required for the building and intricate workings of the locks and boat crossings, but I think it was still magnificent enough at even a superficial level for them to marvel over the sights. After the Panama Canal, we went to an excellent restaurant where I had “pollo ajillado a la plancha,” which is grilled chicken breast in a garlic sauce. Who would have thought diet food could be so delicious? I could live on this stuff for years, and not complain. Within minutes of finishing this meal we were back in our rooms and ready to rest. Not much went on that evening in terms of touring.

Day 5: Gamboa Rainforest

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   Elaine: The next day we went to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort and Spa for a tour which took us by small watercraft to see the indigenous Capuchino monkeys. I actually had a harder time with this trip than my parents. Although I hate to admit it, by the time I saw my first monkey, I was already 30 minutes into a fantasy about getting my hands on some dramamine. I think I would have paid the equivalent of that tour ride fee for just two tablets of this life-saving, motion-sickness medicine. Amazingly, I was able to enjoy the sights when those little furry, white-faced monkeys did show up. I thought I had done a yeoman’s job of keeping my distress under wraps, but I guess I was just fooling myself because the next thing I knew, Joe was asking about my green color, and if I was feeling ok. So much for the yeoman thing.I must say I have never been happier to touch land and get out of the heat. This only enhanced my appreciation for the Gamboa Rainforest Resort–it was gorgeous. The setting was panoramic and lush with all kinds of exotic vegetation. I silently kicked myself for not shelling out the extra cash to stay there. Afterwards we went to a cafeteria-style Panamanian restaurant and later that night went for a family bike ride. Even my father got into the act of peddling and he seemed to really enjoy himself. All in all, my parents seem to have copious amounts of energy. I felt like a child again when I told them, “I need a nap.” My mother just looked at me patiently with an expression that suggested she felt sorry for me and my genetically “weak blood,” which of course she attributes to my father. Well, that’s all for now. More tomorrow.


Day 6: The Hipodroma 

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     Elaine:  I just finished kissing the ground of the hotel parking lot. Why? Because we made it back safely from a trip to the Hipodromo again. Remember when we tried this same trip on Sunday, and I thought it was the rain that made it so scary? Well, I was wrong. It was scary even without the rain! The traffic going into Panama city must be experienced in order to capture the core of true terror. Joe is like a chameleon. He is able to turn native as soon as he puts the key in the ignition. The only problem is, the natives do not seem to understand these little inconveniences known as traffic lanes, safe distances between vehicles and speed limits. I was so afraid, I honestly could not swallow my heart back fast enough to keep the blood circulating through my body. Joe stopped so close to the back bumper of the car in front of him that I could literally see what was in that next driver’s ash tray. My father even found himself yelping and questioning our sanity for going out in this city traffic. There were school buses (which is their mass transit) crowded with people and then lines of more people waiting for the next bus. I wondered where they all came from. Where were they working all day. How could they tolerate the heat and the traffic–and the crowding? It made me appreciate my little mediocre existence in Niceville. It’s strange but when you have a life-altering experience such as the near-death rush hour we had tonight, it’s almost like you forget where you came from…where you live when you’re not gasping for   your next breath. But it came back to me as I typed these words; I felt a faint comfort in the memory of street signs in English, traffic lights that work, cops ready to write a citation for speeding, and people who actually wait for the light to change before darting out in the middle of traffic.I told my parents when we had finally arrived at the racetrack that we should bet every cent we had since we obviously had won the “life” lottery by just making it to our destination. They chuckled, but it was obvious they were mainly focused on thanking God and the stability of our rental car’s brake system,   bumper, power steering, seat belts and driver. None of us could picture ourselves driving in this traffic and we were very grateful to have Joe and his reflexes to chauffer us through the city.

I know I spent an inordinate time describing the traffic and I will stop now, but I think you get the picture of how great an impact it had on this trip. So, now let’s talk about the hipodromo. I have to laugh as I think about it because I went dressed as if I was going to be sitting in the club house at Yonkers raceway. In reality, this place was a cross between a really loud discotheque with music you would hear on separate floors playing side-by-side in an ear-splitting cocophany and a county fair–but with horses in the middle. There was no club house. I was so over-dressed it was laughable. Who knew? I will say that the drinks were stiff and cheap. I paid one dollar for a rum and Coke that I couldn’t even drink because it was so strong I couldn’t find the Coke in it. Joe said that rum is less expensive here than Coke. Personally, I think it has to do with lowering inhibitions so people will bet more money. We left after the 5 race. None of us could stand the noise. Thankfully, we were able to stay on the highway back to the hotel and made it “home” in no time. We are back in our room now. Safe and sound. One more day, then we’ll be back in the states and in our own bed again. Funny how important the little things one takes for granted on a daily basis can seem when they are missing. I don’t see myself retiring in Panama. But I do see myself retiring to bed right now. All the adrenalin has poured out of me and now I am left with pure exhaustion. Tomorrow, we will take our last tour. Pray for us.


Day 7: The Traffic

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     Joe:  As Elaine had described, last night certainly was an exercise in stress management. I was not looking forward to our horse racing adventure for several self-preserving reasons. First, the track is on the opposite side of the city as us and the GPS refused to guide us down easier routes that I knew had to exist. I seriously suspect that the well known and accused “they” have deliberately programed the country’s GPS data such that it takes us gringos down the more adventurous routes. The purpose being to filter out those who do not belong. What evidence do I have for this? On several occasions the GPS advised us to make turns in the opposite direction that we needed to go. After several such forays Elaine started loosing confidence in the machine and read the signs instead…..”no Joe! You need to go left!” This in itself, Elaine having to give me directions in a foreign land, is evidence enough that something has seriously gone wrong.After about an hour in rush hour downtown traffic with a wide variety of close calls behind us we arrived at the Hippodromo (racetrack). Our first short visit at the beginning of the week had provided us with enough knowledge to know that the casino in front of the racetrack was not where all the action was. We had spotted some open air cafe’s in the back that appealed to our adventurous side…..well maybe more so for Elaine and I than for her parents. This time around we drove right around back to the track side cafes. We stepped into a world of heat, humidity, sweaty bodies, extremely loud music, whole fried fish, cheap beer by the bucket, racing forms and televisions at every angle. Winslow and Lydia acted as if they’d been born here, they knew what they were doing, sat down at a table and started reading the racing forms. Elaine was a bit more nervous than they but she also seemed to adapt pretty quickly. I, on the other hand, was in a place that apparently gringo’s never go. I felt that all eyes were on me as if I was the only white boy in town. From what I could see, I was the only one at the racetrack. I guess technically Elaine’s family is white also but they’re hispanic ethnicity seemed to give them a free pass.  They gambled, Winslow argued with the tellers, I watched for trouble (OK, maybe I have a little bit of anxiety also) and Elaine relaxed while secretly nudging me saying “please keep track of my Dad………”