March 6th, 2011 8:58am
Flew in to Panama City yesterday. It was a surprisingly short flight from Atlanta at about four hours. Waited around at the airport after making it through customs and meeting the agent from Royal Caribbean. Saw more beautiful women wearing less clothing at the airport than I've seen in quite a while. Eventually the other guy we were waiting for showed up, a Romanian casino manager who is on his 11th trip. He's on a four month contract and is going to head home from one of the European ports as it is a lot closer to Romania than NYC (were he's from).
Got to the hotel (way shwanky, and totally westernized) to discover that we were the last two for the night, and that I was sharing a room with someone. He turned out to be a pretty nice guy from India who is going to be cooking on the boat (don't envy him that job). I don't remember where he's from, but he flew from Mumbai to Newark and from Newark to Panama City (don't envy him that flight either). It was almost midnight at that point and I'd woken him up getting into the room, so I quickly brushed my teeth and went to bed, setting the alarm for 7am as I wanted to be sure to catch the bus to Colon.
Got up at 7, showered, shaved, dressed, etc. etc. Couldn't find breakfast in the hotel but didn't want to venture to far from where I was supposed to meet the bus as I don't speak the language here and don't have a working phone. It turns out I probably could've found some breakfast, as the bus didn't leave until 8:30, but oh well. Currently I'm on the bus headed North to Colón.
The thing that really struck me about Panama City is how jumbled together everything is. RIch, poor, slums, mansions, huge steel apartment buildings, plaster hovels, everything is sort of pushed together in a way that made our ride through the city very interesting. Even in the space of one building you might have a beat up pawn shop downstairs, a clean apartment upstairs, and a hummer sitting in the driveway across the street. It was very odd. Things were pretty quiet, but it is Sunday morning after all. I imagine the city is much more busy during the week.
There is also an odd prevalance of used auto and auto accessory shops here in panama city. We passed more than I could count on our way out of town. It was like it was a law that for every building constructed in panama city, a corresponding auto shop must also be installed. My favorite was the decript old ruin with a corrugated tin roof and rotting plaster walls that featured a pristine pair of white Greek colums at the main entrance (no cars in that lot though, it's a shame).
Now we're on the highway, a four-lane paved affair that I imagine Balboa would have appreciated. Every once in a while a dirt track will wander off from the freeway to a collection of houses made of cast off building materials and blue plastic sheeting. Some of the villages are clearly more prosperous than others, with clean plaster buildings around the outskirts and cars parked in yards, while others are barely hanging on (or at least look the part, maybe my standards are skewed as a Northerner). Near one of them there was a huge circling flock of black crows, which was a bit ominous, but I couldn't see what they were circling. There is a little bit of cattle ranching going on, and some large open meadows filled with grass as tall as a person. I'm not sure if they were cleared artificially with logging or if that's just how the vegetation of the area grows. Most ares are covered with wide, leafy trees, and filled in with dense green undergrowth. There is a taller type of tree with a white trunk that I see occasionally jutting out of the forest that doesn't seem to have leaves at this time of year. The vast number of drainage gullys and pipes along the highway tells me that when it rains here, it really rains!
Panama reminds me of pictures I've seen of other Latin American countries in that the juxtaposition of modern and older technologies is often jarring and sudden. There are regularly spaced pedestrian overpasses made of contcrete crossing the freeway, and twenty feet from the shoulder they become a dirt path marked on either side with two lines of sticks driven into the ground. The afore-mentioned village exits from the highway are totally unmarked and usually just a pair of tire ruts that abruptly end on the shoulder.
One thing is certain -- I need to start really learning a language. I brought a few Spanish books with me and I think that will be my first one -- it should be useful at most of my destinations on this contract. Since I got off the plane, I've met one other native English speaker, and he's a Brit so that doesn't really count (and that's out of 35 of us on the bus to Colon, all headed to work on the Grandeur). Most people speak a little English, but if I need to make myself understood or get into trouble I am going to have a rough time of it (and this is pretty much my own fault, as I'm the one who only knows one language).
We keep passing an odd type of vehicle that I'll make note of here. They're old school busses, painted first white and then covered in ridiculous colored murals and writing. Small fins (longitudinal, like sharks, instead of latitudinal, like a spoiler) have been added to their roofs here and there. At the rear of the bus the exhaust pipes are usually brought past the rear bumper and then turned up to the roof like a pair of semi-truck exhaust pipes. Usually they're made of a rust-spotted chrome. The buses seem to be filled with youths who do not look too happy about the arrangement -- my first thought was that it was some sort of church program (it is Sunday after all) but the decorations look too commecial to be a faith-based organization.
I'm excited to reach the boat and get settled in! It will be good to start working -- I'm ready to meet the musicians and start playing. Hopefully I'm not too out of shape, as the past few days have been so busy with preparation and travel that I've played very little.