September 19, 2005

A Canal and the Bus “System” – Panama City

At last we are on the road and in Panama City, Panama! Our first night we stayed in a Marriott Courtyard, which made it feel very much like being in the States. However, I suddenly couldn’t understand what anyone was saying, which makes me really regret not having reviewed my Spanish tapes before coming. I’ve picked up a few new words (my favorite is la centolla (sp? king crab, very delicious).

Jonathan and I both agree that taking public transport is the best and the most authentic way to get to know a city, so we decided to take the bus to see the famous Panama Canal, at the nearby Miraflores locks (5 miles outside the city). Jonathan asked at the front desk for some help to figure out the buses. They thought we were insane – we might as well have asked them how we should tie ourselves up and be mugged. The clerk couldn’t help at all because she’d never taken the bus. A nice taxi driver standing in the lobby helped us figure it out -we were to take one bus to the main terminal at the Cinco de Mayo plaza, then transfer to another bus that would leave us a 15 minute walk away from the entrance to the Canal. Sounded straightfoward, and at 0.25 for bus fare, it was really cheap.

Evidently, public transport doesn’t work quite the way it does at home. Buses have established routes, but there aren’t any signs or numbers or any way to tell where they are going, except to ask the guy who hangs out the side of the bus collecting fares. Buses come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from vehicles that look like old VW vans to old school buses, which all have names (not relating to where they are going) decked out in spray paint art and sparkly stickers.

While we made our first leg with no problem, we got off at the Bus “terminal” which is the intersection of 3 major roads, with no clear signage or any idea where to go. Jonathan got some help from a local policeman and a woman standing at a bus stop. After a few buses, one of the buses told us yes indeed, his bus was going to the Canal. We got on, and after a short trip, we pulled into another bus terminal, where he took us off the bus and tried to hail us a cab. We politely explained to him we wanted to take the bus, and he said that you can’t walk. We told him that we wanted to be dropped off near the Canal, and that we were expecting a 15 minute walk to the entrance. He shrugged and motioned for us to get back onto the bus.

After a few more miles, he dropped us off on a main intersection, and he pointed down a road and said “Keep on walking towards the water and you’ll see it.”
While we couldn’t see the canal, there were some large shipping containers and some heavy machinery nearby, so off we went.

Within 1 minute of our getting off the bus, it started to pour. Of course, we had left our raincoats with our packs back in the hotel, and against Jonathan’s strongest wishes, I had refused to bring umbrellas on our trip (one more thing to carry around, and we have nice rain coats anyway…). Lesson 1 on the road – rain coats are no good if they are not with you.

So, in the rain, we set off down a road. After 10 minutes of walking, we started to get suspicious. There were no signs anywhere mentioning the Canal, which we thought was weird since we heard there was a large, newly constructed visitor center there. The road was ridden with potholes, with no sidewalk, and we had to keep dodging the cars coming down the road to avoid being soaked when they splashed through the giant puddles. We came to a sign saying that it was prohibited to pass the private property of the Canal. I was thinking that this was pretty sketchy, even for Lonely Planet (our guidebook that detailed how to take the bus).

We finally broke down and asked some dock workers on the other side of a fence where the entrance to the Miraflores locks were. They looked startled, and told us we were in Balboa (?) and that we were off by10 km! We walked away not sure if they were trying to mess with us or the bus driver had totally screwed us. We turned around and started to head back to the intersection to try to catch a taxi, when a car pulled up and asked us if we knew how to get to the Miraflores locks. Turns out they were tourists from El Salvador, and were lost as well.

We must have looked pitiful and wet enough that they offered to give us a ride and to find it together. There were three of them, with luggage, so I rode on Jonathan’s lap squished up against the roof. It really was another 10 km to the Canal, and we passed the sign on the side of the highway that we should have been dropped off at.

As promised, the visitor center was incredible, with lots of modern displays and interactive kiosks on the history of the Canal, and the engineering behind it. We got to watch a huge container ship start to go through the locks. Really incredible. It’s so important to shipping that boats are still built to be narrow enough able to pass through Canal. The Canal was constructed over 90 years ago, and is functioning today pretty much as it did then. Over 22,000 people died during the construction, and it was here that they discovered that the transmission of Yellow Fever was via mosquitos. An enormous cost and accomplishment all at once.

Though we could have taken the bus back, we decided to sample the Taxi system back to the the city :)

September 7, 2005

Anxiety is…French class??

The last few weeks have been a blur of selling stuff, packing, throwing out things, shipping boxes, packing, etc. I am so tired of it all I am not going to bore myself any more by blogging on it. It’s been especially hard to say goodbye to friends and family.

We have made it to Houston, and today, I gave up my Massachusetts driver’s license and officially will have a Texas license…very odd. Of all the places I thought I would ever live, Texas seemed as likely as Nebraska or Utah…don’t ask. Anyhow, we were afraid that the Houston DMV would be packed due to all the evacuees from New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, but it seemed to be as efficient as most DMVs…which means we still had an hour and a half wait.

I had an anxiety dream the other night. I was in high school, and sitting in one of those chairs with the desk attached. I was very clearly in French class. There was a guy on my left, and someone on my right, and they were telling me that I couldn’t graduate if I took a year off to travel. I remeber starting to panic, and flipping the pages of my notebook in front of me, and making plans to talk to the teacher and negotiate some sort of deal, yet knowing it was futile. I was also frantically trying to conjugate some verbs, but it’s been so long that that knowledge seems to have slipped out of my subconscious too. At this point, I must have been waking up, because I remember saying to myself, “Wait a minute. I’ve already graduated from high school.”, and then became fully awake because it seemed so ludicrous that of all places I could be stressed in (lab meeting, job interview, dentist, etc), I would dream myself in French class.

Anyhow, one week and I’ll be in Panama! Yikes! A few more things to round out the gear list and we will actually be on the road. Hope to have some more time to post a few more random thoughts.