I learnt a lot today. Simple things, really. I learnt that in Panama City, manhole covers are optional at best. I learnt that Hollywood’s continuing portrayal of Latino men as shady characters isn’t always true. I learnt that FC Barcelona are by far the most popular football team in Panama City if replica shirts are anything to go by (Real Madrid, Boca Juniors, and, sadly, the Mancs are fairly popular, too.) And I learnt that you really can’t beat the smile of someone who is happy to have helped you.
Yesterday, something dawned on me. When I was talking to the Australian couple, they told me they’d been forced to spend a bit of extra time in Panama waiting to get their visas for Brazil sorted. A cricket ball dropped in my stomach, and when I got back to the hotel, I frantically checked the Brazilian Embassy’s website. Phew! Brits don’t need one. But what Brits do need is a certificate saying they’ve had a yellow fever vaccine. Fuck.
Stupid, stupid, so very fucking stupidly, when I was getting my shots, I’d not considered the possibility that my travel plans might deviate from the simple Mexico City/São Paulo/Montevideo/Buenos Aires plan, and take me into places where yellow fever is “endemic,” which it is – apparently – in Panama.
Bugger bastard shit wank.
So this morning, I went off to find the British Embassy. Jolly good it was to be in there, too. Felt right at home. Nice cup of tea, some biscuits, and a quick game of croquet before having some Pimms by the pool. Not really. It was like being in any office on the fourth floor of a big tower, except with a bit more security. The very helpful lady there gave me the address of a place to get a vaccine, and reassured me that, as long as I don’t go into the rural, exceedingly humid areas of Panama, I’ll be safe from yellow fever here.
Back at the hotel for a couple of hours to wait for the clinic to open. I asked at reception if they could call a taxi for me. She lifted up a couple of pieces of paper, as if to pretend to be looking for something, and then with what could be the world’s most bored look on her face, said “No, I don’t have a taxi number.” For fuck’s sake, woman, this is a fucking hotel! How the fuck can you not have at least one taxi company’s phone number!?
Being forced to ignore the general advice for travellers in this part of the world (call for a taxi, don’t just grab one off the street), I grabbed one off the street. Hollywood Latino Badguy was the driver and started blathering on, and I kinda got worried that he might not be taking me where I needed to go. But, of course, he did take me where I needed to go. He did fleece me on the fare, though, claiming to have no change for a $20 bill, more or less getting a 50% tip.
The place where he’d dropped me was the place where the people of Panama City come to get their jabs. It seems a fairly efficiently run place. Go to the cash desk in one building. Five dollars, please. Go over to the other building, where they write your name on a yellow piece of card. Take that piece of card to a nurse, she stamps it, and sticks a needle in your arm.
She needed to tell me something, though. Aaah, problemo. No hablo español. She keeps saying “No marisco, no marisco.” Sorry, luv, I don’t understand what marisco is, but look, I have a dictionary, perhaps you can look it up. Now, I don’t speak Spanish, but I do know that when I hear a word like marisco, the best place to look for that word is in the M section of the dictionary. She opened up, flipped to H, and started going towards the front of the dictionary, past G, F, E…
At that point, a guy knocked on the door. I’d noticed him in the queue behind me at the cashier place. When I say I noticed him, what I mean is that I noticed the girl he was with. Early-twenties, quite slutty-looking, teetering on stilettos, huge fake breasts barely staying inside her dress. The nurse asked the guy if he spoke English. Yes! He did! Result. He told me not to eat any seafood (marisco) or drink alcohol until Sunday. And if I get headaches, not to worry, it’s just a side-effect of the vaccine. He smiled at me. The nurse smiled at me. The girl smiled at me in that way that says, “I know you were looking at my tits.”
Back outside, and there again is the man who was enthusiastically waving me to my destination at each stage of the money-paper-injection transaction. He was a middle-aged guy in a filthy t-shirt, moving around like Manuel off “Fawlty Towers.” I gave him a couple of dollars and a cigarette and he told me where to stand for a taxi.
The deal here seems to be, you wait until someone arriving in a taxi gets out. I was in for a long wait. No traffic along the street whatsoever. Then Mr. English-speaker and Tits pull up in their fancy, big, white-with-blacked-out-windows car. The passenger side window descends, and Mr. English-speaker turns, says something to Tits, then smiles at me and says, “You need a ride?”
I jump in the car, introduce myself, he tells me he is Roberto, and I turn and smile at the girl in the back, she smiles, and I tell them which area I need to go to, and we’re off. My mouth tasted like a baboon’s arse, so I got my Tic-Tacs out, took one, and offered them to Roberto. He took one. I indicated to pass them to the girl. He asked Marie if she wants one. I understood her reply; she didn’t want one because it contained sugar. One point nine calories, woman, one point nine! You’re still gonna get adoring looks on the beach in Rio if you eat one Tic-Tac, luv. I didn’t say that, of course.
By this point, it’s quite clear by the way that she talks to Roberto, and the way the back seat is strewn with all of her belongings, that Roberto is her driver. Is she rich? Is she famous? I don’t know. But, she was civil to me, Roberto was friendly, and they dropped me off right outside my hotel, which was exceptionally nice of them. I wished him a good day, her a good time in Rio, and came up to my room to swear loudly at myself in the mirror.
Why why why didn’t I get a fucking yellow fever jab in Berlin? Why? The notes on the embassy website say it must be taken at least ten days prior to arrival in Brazil. My flight leaves in four days. All of the entries in the log book back at the clinic, I noticed, were for people travelling to Brazil, so they must be pretty strict about it. And even though my friend there seems to think I’d be okay to risk it, I’m not brave enough to arrive at São Paulo airport and be swiftly turned away.
So I check the details of my booking on Expedia, and send them an email. It seems that, for a fee, they could change my flight, but I’d still have to contact the airline to confirm it. I remembered that down the road is a Copa Airlines office, which I passed yesterday. So rather than replying to Expedia’s email, I went for a walk.
Now, the Internet is great. The Internet has been very good to me. I wouldn’t be on this trip had the Internet not allowed me to publish my work for you folks and clients to see. It gave me a way out of the music industry just at the right time, and I look at my good friends back in London who still have fingers in that pool, and fear for what they will do when the inevitable happens and they all get fired ’cause no-one at the big record companies has worked out how to make money via the Internet.
And, of course, the Internet has made this trip so much easier. Log on, find a flight, book it, and you’re off. Problems can be solved relatively easily. And, without wishing to get all sentimental on you, doing this web log has made me enjoy the trip a lot more. It’s lovely to read your comments and emails. God knows that if it was someone else, I’d be reading all this thinking, “Flash fucker, swanning around Latin America…” It allows me to stay in touch with my friends and family, too. (And my Mum has told me tha
t she’s started reading the blog; which worries me a touch, ’cause I really shouldn’t be using words like “tits” and “slutty” and “cunt” in her presence. Sorry, Mum.)
My point, though, is this: no matter how essential the Internet is to me, it can’t actually smile back at you. It can try, like this : ) but it can’t do it with the eyes. When I went in to the Copa Airlines office and, with the weight of the last few days dragging my face down, asked how much it would cost to postpone my flight for a week, the woman behind the desk looked at me and said, “Nothing.”
I was shocked. That didn’t seem right. She asked when I wanted to change it to. I told her from the 11th to the 18th of February. She printed off a ticket, saw the almost tearfully happy look on my face and beamed at me. Fucking hell, that was truly one of the most magnificent things that could’ve happened at that moment. I was so unbelievably happy. It was a tiny matter, and I wasn’t expecting to have to pay too much, but it was just that one potential hassle had gone so smoothly, so much better than I’d expected. I had a lump in my throat.
It’s been an exhausting day, mentally. I haven’t the will to go and explore Panama City this evening. I’m just gonna sit down, enjoy the wifi, and email some friends back home. I miss them.