I slept like a log last night, and things seemed better this morning. But, as often happens at times like this, it doesn’t take much to knock my mood back down again. The atrocious service in the hotel’s restaurant was one thing, but their “continental breakfast” was something else all together.
Which continent has two shiny bread rolls, a mini-tub of butter and apple jam as its breakfast? (Names like “continental breakfast” make me chuckle, though. How very British it seems to decide that a croissant with jam represents the whole of that continent which we seem to begrudgingly be on the edge of. See also Swiss roll, Turkish delight, French stick [can't be arsed to pronounce "baguette"], continental quilt [in the pre-"duvet" days], Danish pastry, Spanish omelette, etc.)
I was determined to enjoy myself, though, so I got out on the street, looking for a cab. Here, they seem to honk their horns at people who are walking along the street to see if you want to hire them, or maybe it’s just the sunburnt tourists they do it to, I dunno. I signalled that I wanted the cab and he stopped. There was already a passenger in the back. This seems to happen quite a lot; taxis stopping to pick up people who might be going in a similar direction. I told him I wanted to go to Miraflores Locks, and he said something and waved his hands like, “I’ve gotta take this lady where she’s going first.”
The new leitmotif of my time in Panama is the dishing out of Tic Tacs in cars. Everyone, aside from Marie, wants one. I’ve done it in three cars so far, and they’re always a hit and I’m rewarded with smiles. Smiles are good. We drop off the lady and speed along the motorway to the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal.
(Backtracking a bit, and going off on a tangent: what the hell is it about hot countries and people honking their car horns? I mean, I know it happens in Britain and Germany; but here, in Belize, Mexico, Turkey, Greece… they’re all at it!)
So, the Panama Canal. I must admit, even though I’d not planned to come to Panama at all on this trip, the Canal is one of the things in the world that I’ve wanted to see but thought I’d probably never get around to. I paid the eight dollars, watched the ten minute introduction film and went up to the fourth floor viewing platform. Just as I got up there, there was a big Korean ship laden with huge wind turbines entering the locks. A voice kept coming over the public address system giving us a commentary, in Spanish and English, all about locks, the canal, and the ship itself. Apparently, it was a Panamax ship; a ship that is the maximum size it can can be to still get through the Panama Canal.
It inched its way into the first lock, and the locks did what locks do, just on a fairly grand scale. The whole process seemed to take about half an hour or so. Then the ship slinks along into the Miraflores Lake, through the next set of locks and then across the country to the corresponding set of locks on the Atlantic side.
After a brief look around the canal exhibit, I left to go and find a cab back into town. A bunch of men were waiting outside the visitor centre, all shouting “¿Taxi? ¿Taxi?” Like the one strong sperm that fuses with the egg, Elvio was the guy who got me into his cab. Nice guy. We stumbled through in broken Spanish and English. He pointed out this big hill, Cerro Ancón – one that I’d seen from the sea front near the hotel – where you had a good view of the whole city, so he asked if I wanted to go up there. I said I did, and it was pretty cool at the top.
Especially the chap and his kids who, seeing my Yankees cap, smiled and said “New York! New York!” I don’t have the Spanish skills to say, “Well, actually, gentlemen, I’m from Lincoln in England; live in Berlin, Germany; but my preferred baseball team is, yes, the New York Yankees.” So I said “Sí!” instead. They watched me taking photos, and one of the kids indicated that I should take a photo of them. So I did. I showed them the result, they seemed happy, so I present it to you here.
I’m quickly coming to realise that this travelling lark isn’t at all about seeing canals, museums, or howler monkeys: it’s about other people. I’ve not been doing this long, but I’ve had so many beautiful moments with strangers. It really is excellent to not know who you’ll pass some time with next, but know that you inevitably will.
So, Elvio points out buildings in the distance for me, going way beyond being a taxi driver. Still, the cynical Brit in me was a tad suspicious of how this was all going to end. With my wallet a lot lighter was my suspicion. But, I’d never have bothered going up that hill had he not suggested it, so I was happy he had.
Back in the cab and he takes me where I’d originally asked to go: Casco Viejo, the old part of town I briefly visited the other day. I wanted to have a better look around. We pulled up outside a church, and he suggested I have a look around, and he’d take me further. Fearing the enormo-cab fare, though, I thanked him and told him I wanted to walk around and, bracing myself, asked “¿Quanto es?” Just twenty dollars. You’d pay more than that to go a few miles across London.
A walk around, a spot of lunch, a bit of rain. I passed the presidential palace, where there are armed guards and herons(!) patrolling the entrance. I tried to ask one of the security guards who checked through my bag as I came close the palace if the president actually lived there, or whether it was just an old ceremonial thing. He didn’t understand, and I couldn’t say it in Spanish. So he just asked where I was from. I told him England, and his colleague said, “Manchester? Chelsea?” I told him “Liverpool!” and did a rather dumb double thumbs-up move. (Boring football stuff: it does amaze me a little bit how quickly Chelsea have “penetrated” the global market. Apart from the Mancs’ shirts, I’ve seen more Chelsea shirts than any other English team’s shirts. Although, rather oddly,
I did see a builder today in an Aston Villa shirt.)
I ambled back towards the hotel, through some sort of port area. Filthy. Stinking of fish, oil, diesel, stagnant puddles, dead birds, and piles of garbage. The only smell that wasn’t entirely offensive was the perfume of the prostitutes; though I doubt I’ll be being that particular brand for my Mum’s birthday.
I mentioned yesterday that a lot of manhole covers seem to be missing here. Coincidentally, that observation and the glum feeling I’ve had about my last few days collided, when I saw this one.
I noticed something move inside the hole. It wasn’t a rat (and fuck me, they’ve got some big rats here; it’s no exaggeration to say I’ve seen a couple that were as big as cats). It was a man’s legs. Moving around, as if shifting in sleep, on top of a piece of cardboard inside the two foot high area beneath the hole’s entrance. I was walking past, taking a photograph with my Pentax, wearing my Nike trainers, Levi’s jeans, Lacoste shirt, and New Era cap. He was trying to sleep in a stinky, dirty hole used for I-don’t-know-what. Feeling sorry for myself about “having to” postpone my flight to Brazil. Yep, now I feel like a shit.
I don’t mean that in the “I need a poo” sense, you understand. Although, come to think of it…