It took traveling to another country to teach me that something as slow as watching paint dry can be fascinating and is something I could probably be happy doing for hours.
Yes, I suppose that was a bit of an exaggeration. So I’ll restate. Spending 90 minutes at the Panama Canal while larger than life Panamax and New Panamax freighters, cruise ships and enormous naval ships are tugged and glide through the canal is about as exciting as watching paint dry, but so fascinating it’s hard to take your eyes off the process.
I had to make a trip to Panama for business. One of those trips that you prepare and prepare and prepare for and almost as soon as you’ve arrived at your destination, it’s time to get back on the plane and head home. I decided that the likelihood I’d be taking any kind of vacation in the next 6 months was negative on the slim-to-nil scale and took advantage of the weekend running up to the meeting with a couple of extra days in Panama City.
In the 11 months since moving to Honduras I have only had an opportunity to shop for clothes and shoes in the US two times and I was told that shopping in Panama City is incredible, so I packed my largest suitcase with the few change of clothes I needed to get through the trip with high hopes of packing it full of great finds. I had visions of hauling a suitcase back to Honduras that was so full and heavy with fabulous new clothes that I’d have to pay an excess baggage fee. I thought I’d find so much I wouldn’t have room to fit my big camera so I made the monumental decision to leave the DSLR at home and commit only having my iPhone for photos and video and I have to say that although the battery life issue with iOS6 was a bit of a hassle, I might find myself leaving that Panamax of cameras at home much more often — thanks Rob of Stop Having a Boring Life and Larissa of The Blonde Gypsy for the inspiration.
What I came back with was a couple hundred dollars of trinkets for the site to give away as performance incentives, memories of a very successful meeting and the experience of seeing Panamax ships plying their way through the canal and a walk around the Casco Viejo (old city).
I’m glad I went. The Panama Canal is one of those things many have on their bucket list. I once had a strong desire to take a cruise that had an itinerary that passed through the canal, but lost interest for some reason. I never thought about being able to actually sit in a chair and watch as a kind of spectator sport.
It’s a crazy thing, but it’s mesmerizing to watch these behemoths pass through a space that leaves mere inches on either side. It takes hours for the ships to line up and wait their turn, but if they had to go around the long way, it would be days and far more expensive. The freighter I watched that was filled with containers paid $500,000 to go through the canal. That’s not a little bit of money we’re talking about, but I’m sure it costs us all a lot less money for the goods we purchase that spent their time on that ship than had that boat gone the long way around.
I was going to write a long story about how the tour guide that I was told would speak English only spoke a few paragraphs worth of information in my native language and that I really wasn’t upset about it because hey! I was the only English-speaker on the bus and what right do I have to insist on making everyone listen to a language they don’t understand, so I went with it and understood what I could and made up my own tour for the parts in which I was totally stumped.
Our guide, Umberto, was nice enough, had a fabulous sense of humor — at least I think he did — everyone around me was laughing most of the time. But the disconcerting thing was his choice of what pieces to translate for me. Turns out us Imperialist Americans were a horrible lot when it came to Panama and the extraction of Manuel Noriega in the 1989 Invasion of Panama. We pillaged and plundered the land and left the city in ruins and all the good people of Panama got for it was a couple of ugly cream-colored buildings and an abandoned military base.
I’m sure we’ve all had enough political talk this past year so I won’t go any further, but suffice it to say, our friendly tour guide with a bus full of mostly lovely Argentine tourists and one confused gringa didn’t endear himself to me.
I did get a stop in a duty free zone, which translates to two stores carrying the same stuff you’d see in any international terminal in any airport in the world, except there was no good Cartier or Luis Vuitton. I did, however, get a security tag for my suitcase and a bottle of spray-on sun block which I’ve looked for here for 11 months and have not found — SCORE! If you’ve ever taken a city tour when you’ve traveled, you will be familiar with the, “We’re just going to stop for a short while so you can look at the fine jewelry, crafted by locals sitting right in front of you/handicrafts, created by old ladies who’ve been doing this for centuries/duty free goods you can only find here — version of how a tour guide makes a few extra bucks as greedy tourists find ways to spend that “budgeted for shopping money” on stuff no one needs. I am always sucked in at some point — even if it only means a registered luggage tag and a bottle of 30SPF sun block in a can.
The old city — Casco Viejo — is under repair. The renovation of this once flourishing old city is in decrepit, in need of a walker and oxygen, but the buildings that have been restored to their original beauty give a sense of what it was like here long ago. It’s guarded heavily by mean-looking military police who protect the president’s assets — offices, unused house and who knows what else — and has a couple of recently renovated restaurants I’d like to have tried had I not been on a tour with 20 other people who didn’t seem to want to communicate with the “ugly American.” Es lo que es.
I’m happy for having had the experience. It was humbling, once again, to have that expat experience of realizing there is a whole world out there that thinks differently than I do and that my ideas of how things should be, and my perception of what’s right and wrong has to be modified to fit into a culture that is dissimilar to mine. It’s what makes living this life oversea, while frustrating and challenging at times with all it’s personal “growing pains,” extraordinary in it’s ability to open my eyes and deliver experiences that will be memories I won’t soon forget.
Now, if I could just get some of you to come visit me!