According to the clock on the screen it's the middle of the
afternoon. It's been the middle of the afternoon all day.
I look out the window and see grass that's wet green; just like
I stand on the tarmac. The clouds fleck the sky with a
disinterested nonchalance. They're going to hang around to see
what's going on down below, and if you don't like it, tough.
The lady at immigration looks at my documents. She's bored. She
yawns. She must be tired carrying all that weight around. I'm
from Madrid. Ha, that lot. She indicates a light box on the desk
and motions for me to spread my fingers across the green screen.
Then my thumbs. I feel as if I am being inducted into a prison
Between yawns she waves me in.
Panama is like the old quarter of San Francisco as she was when
I first visited all those years ago. There are no trams, but in
the old quarter the rails are still there. Along the streets are
cables by the million carrying electricity and phones to
buildings that look too old to have ever been connected.
Downtown everything is slick and modern, with office blocks and
apartment buildings shooting up like giddy elevators through
eighty floors and more.
The bank was clearly designed by someone from Finland, or maybe
even by Calatrava himself. It looks like a series of chocolate
boxes spread out fan-wise, but asymetrically.
The streets are full of potholes. The pavements mirror some
distant range of hills, with empty lakes. I avoid another lady,
do a hop skip and a jump to avoid the empty lakes, and muse upon
the phrases one uses.
The phrase 'bumping into somebody' here takes on a new meaning.
Bump into one of these girls, or indeed the guys, and you may
well bounce. The one at the cash and carry has a substantial
figure. At a guess she weighs in at 74, 74, 84, and that's in
inches. She leans over to pick up a receipt that's fallen on the
floor, and her shirt rides up. Her skirt stretches till it's fit
to bust, then slides down the acreage of her bottom, revealing
two inner tunes separated by the Panama Canal.
Folk here are like ships, they carry a lot of ballast. They ride
low in the water.
The clouds gang up, turn black, and a rain of sweat dribbles
down on us. I stand next to a water spray to keep cool.
The tide is out and the smellometer registers something bad.
Sewage mixes with so many other nuances that keep me away from
the water's edge.
In the old quarter the houses are a mixture of ruins, old
colonial apartments with extensive balconies running the length
of every floor, and building sites. Water hydrants sprout along
every street, long since disused but standing as reminders of
I walk past fix-it street. The buildings are wrecks, and along
the pavement edge are cabins built from concrete blocks, old
iron, and timber. Men are mending electrical goods, selling
spare parts, or general hardware. There is a strong smell of
oil, fish guts, and urine.
Further down the road is a new garden area, with plants trailing
over trellises. Beyond this is the old town wall, just a
solitary remnant. At every block there is a square, each looking
more empty than the previous. A lady shaped like a barrel walks
by, dressed in blue skirt and white lacy shirt. She meets a
friend and they shake hands formally.
By the fishing port are alleyways filled with men sorting fish
to crates, and tiny eateries selling fish soup, and various
A family spreads itself across the pavement, another family sits
in wicker chairs on the veranda. Everywhere are ladies running
fingers round bands of elastic, trying to unstick their
There are so many races intermixing, plus the original Indians,
who do not seem to racially mix at all. They are small,
thick-set, and wear distinctive clothes.
It's hot, sweaty hot. The place to be is, I suppose, up in the
highlands, like Boquete.
Getting about is a bit of a nightmare. There are no trains, and
the buses fall into two very distinct categories. There is the
ticabus, which is a system run from San Josť, in Costa Rica,
hence the term tica, which means someone from that country. The
buses are modern, efficient, but fully booked. You want to
travel tomorrow? Tough! How about next thursday, or the week
The local buses are ramshackle things that look as if they were
built back in the thirties. They carry people like cargo. You
jam in, and somehow you get to your destination with much
jolting, horn blowing, and level 11 on the radio volume.
(I stood in the town square at Granada last night after coming
out of church, and a bus rolled in, blasting out the latest pop
tunes. It was like a disco party rolling into town. Hey, this is
fiesta time in downtown Granada. Only it isn't. It's just
another village bus rumbling to a halt so the passengers can
fall off, and drain their ears.)
I wasn't supposed to be in Panama, so I tried to ticabus myself
out, but that wasn't easy. I took a local bus instead to David,
arriving 4.00 a.m. Four hours later I got another to San Josť,
the capital city of Costa Rica.
I didn't really see David. It was hiding amongst the trees. That
happens a lot outside Panama City, as everywhere else is
low-rise. Anything about two stories is tall. Most places are
content with being one story high. Your average house all around
here is a bungalow, with a covered area outside. The kitchen can
be in or out, the bedrooms are in, and the living area is the
covered courtyard outside. It never gets cold, but it does rain,
and sometimes rains like hell, thus keeping you awake all night,
as the roofs are made from corrugated iron.
My journey out of here to San Josť took the best part of twelve
hours with a three hour queue at the frontier. That's just to
get out of the place! We lined our luggage up in a room wile a
man with a dog came in, and the dog sniffed around. No-one was
carrying any dope that day, so we were free to go after the
customs guy had called out our names from the bus manifest. It
was like being back in school with sir reading the register.
Free to go? What am I saying? We had to queue to get our exit
stamps. That's what took the time. Apparently the way to deal
with this is to see the official organising the queue and slip
him the required wad of notes, and you get to the front.
After queuing for three hours we were all heartily sick of
Panama. But, hey, we've got Costa Rica to look forward to.
See you there next week.