My mother said there would be cannibals
28.01.2005 - 28.01.2005 35 °C
Day 1 continued with little fanfare. I say this because we were bound to several airplanes for the rest of the day. The first jetted us to the bright lights of lovely Newark New Jersey. I’m not entirely sure why Newark exists, perhaps it’s only due to the overcrowding of the other two nearby airports, JFK and LaGuardia. On the upside, they have a very nice smoking area swathed in grey concrete outside Terminal 2, with a great view of the Statue of Liberty and the Cargill shipping terminal. Honestly, who could ask for more when faced with a 4 hour lay-over. Warmer weather would have been nice, perhaps an outdoor bar, but we were fortunate to have worn our hardiest Arctic expedition gear to face the joy of a January in New Jersey. We were travelers, an expeditionary force with which to be reckoned, and no amount of inclement weather would keep us from our appointed rounds.
Four hours later, we were again birds on the wing. Assuming birds sit in horribly stiff coach seats when they migrate south for the winter. They do not, but we did, because we were intrepid. Panama lay a mere 5 hours down the planet from our current location. Time passed. The movie sucked, but then again, we didn’t buy the headphones so we could actually hear the movie either. It still sucked. We passed the hours playing card games and consuming vast quantities of alcohol, occasionally twitching violently due to a leg or a buttock having fallen fast asleep. This was travel – hours of boredom punctuated by bodily malfunctions. We lived.
The plane touched down at Tocumen International Airport in Panama City shortly after 10 pm local time. The majority of passengers leapt to their feet as soon as the wheels touched the ground, partly out of sheer joy at having survived the flight and partly because they were rude bastards. Please people, don’t get up until the plane has come to a complete stop and the cabin door opens. How hard to understand is this concept? We were more civilized – we stayed in our seats until blood flow returned to our legs. Having survived five hours in an aluminum tube and poor blood circulation, we made for the baggage carrousel. I love waiting for baggage to appear from the plane. Sagas could be written about the temperament of passengers who seem to insist that they are indeed the only people on the planet, and that others only exist to inconvenience them. Fortune would again shine on us, because it was relatively easy to clothesline the elderly and trip up the disabled to get to our bags. The golf jocks were a tad more difficult, but we managed them by asking them inconceivably hard questions like “Do you speak Spanish cabron (cabron meaning something akin to bastard in Spanish)”? “Do you know where the cab stand is Senor Chupacabra?” Golf jocks are such good game. It’s really quite irresistible.
We were able to retrieve our 12 metric tons of baggage in a mere 60 minutes. I was pleased, mostly because we could chalk up 4 elderly, 3 disabled, and 16 golf jocks to our tally of conquests. Now, a more challenging proposal. The sign said, in Spanish and something that might have passed for English in Mississippi, “Do Not Accept Rides From Unlicensed Taxicabs”. Sorry, my Spanish was poor, and my Mississippi even worse. So we strolled out the door into a heat and humidity that can only be described as “OH MY FUCKING GOD”. Yes we had overdressed for the occasion. Upon resuming the all-important task of breathing in and out, and stripping off several layers of winter clothing, we found a car that was more than willing to drive us to our hotel. But first, a smoke. It had been six hours since our last puffs, and now that we were well into our Latin adventure, it was time to light up. There are few things more entertaining in life than watching a desperate smoker take that first puff into winter lungs in a tropical climate. It was, nonetheless, necessary, as we were about to venture into cannibal country (or so my mother told me). Cannibals are notorious for disliking smokers – something about being hard to boil or some such. I read that in our guide book. So we figured better safe than sorry. Plus it was a good rush.
The driver of “the car” that was to ferry us to our hotel was a genial man, though he appeared to be mildly insane. I was taught to drive a stick shift in Mexico on a 1958 Volkswagon Beetle that rattled when the engine was off. I loved that car. You could move the windshield wipers with your hand while driving. This taxi was in somewhat worse shape. The driver, grinning like a cannibal that had just found fresh meat, happily loaded our 12 metric tons of baggage into the trunk. It did not all fit. “No problema”, he happily exclaimed. 10 metric tons went into the trunk, the lid of which was promptly secured with a handy bit of wire conveniently saved for just such an occasion. The other 2 tons sat on our laps in the back seat. Trapped in the back seat, the driver made for town. Our driver…..did I mention that he appeared to be mildly insane?... took great joy in describing the entire route to us in the most curious Spanish-based Mississippi drawl. “Mira aqui, son las ruinas de la Revolution”. “Y aqui, el camino de las touristas qui se mueran por taxi del aeropuerto”. OK, my Spanish wasn’t that good, but I could have sworn he said that this was the spot where tourists died in a taxi from the airport. Panamanian roads, at least from the airport to town, are riddled with potholes that could easily have been created by B-52’s dropping 2000 pound bombs. And our driver took no notice of them whatsoever. They actually appeared to be a challenge for him, much like a brave matador dodging 1500 pounds of angry pot roast. I did manage to keep an eye on the trunk, just in case the wire was insufficient for its task. 45 minutes passed, and just before the car was about to shudder into pieces, we pulled into the hotel. The Continental Hotel Riande stood there, appearing to us as Shangri-La appeared to Ronald Coleman. Our apparently mildly insane driver grinned from ear to ear as he deftly unloaded our goods. This alone was worth a big tip. The Bellman scoffed slightly at our driver while smilingly grandly at us. Bigger tip for the driver. He deserved such, as not only did he appear mildly insane, but he was also an unlicensed cabbie who began our adventure into cannibal land with a flourish. Gracias Senor, y mucho gusto. The Bellman whisked us to the front desk, where we were checked into our room with the utmost kindness. Peeling off the remaining 12 layers of winter clothing, we smiled, mostly because the room was air conditioned. And the bar was still open. It was 1 am when we gladly slipped into an unconscious slumber, ready for the days to come.
And so really endeth Day 1 of our 14 day voyage. Really this time. Stay tuned for more spine tingling adventures as we boldly traverse the Isthmus of Panama in a rented Nissan SUV.