Panama City is my last stop in Central America, and I’m literally hobbling in, as I sustained some foot damage in the time between my flip-flop exploding at the Costa Rican border and finally acquiring a new pair in Bocas Town. Additionally, my laptop is broken. I have not yet filed my taxes, and they’re due in a week, in addition to some other financial issues I’ll discuss shortly.
I had sort of envisioned the possibility that six weeks of Central American travel might take some toll on me, and had decided long ago to book an actual modern hotel room instead of rely on hostels, so at least at the end of my 12-hour overnight bus ride from Bocas, it’s the Radisson Decapolis that i’m blearly stumbling into at two in the afternoon.
Before I can check out any of the town, I need to deal with business. Panama City has plenty of western malls with higher-end electronics shops, but I check about a dozen for the screwdrivers I need to open up the inside of my MacBook before I give up. Eventually I pick up a set of small screwdrivers, although I’m not too optimistic about them working (I once tried to use a similar set of small flatheads on my MacBook back home, with no success). I set up shop in a mall food court — side note, Pizza Hut breadsticks are really different in Panama — and start attempting to dissamble my laptop. The outer casing screws are standard and easy enough to pop off, but the ones securing my battery are the problem. Amazingly enough I’m able to jam the flatheads into the 5-point screws and get them to turn, slowly. After some tediously slow unscrewing, I disconnect and reconnect the battery, hoping that will solve the issue. It doesn’t. With the battery back in, I take the RAM out and replace it. That doesn’t help either. I take the battery out, take the RAM out, put both of them back…..and lo and behold, my laptop works.
Someday perhaps I may give you the riveting detailed version of how I did my taxes, but I think for purposes of this blog it is enough to say that they got done.
About those financial issues: back in Guatemala I had gotten a notification that my debit card had been compromised due to some sort of third-party fraud.Not based on any Guatemalan merchants, mind you, but because somebody back in the US had hacked somebody like Home Depot. I felt this warranted a chit-chat with somebody at Chase. “What was the company that had the breach?” Sorry, we don’t have that information. “So does my card not work now?” No, it will continue to work for a few weeks. “Can I just keep it working after that?” No. “Fine, can you send it to Panama City?” Sure, in Florida. “No, in Panama.” Ok, what’s the zip code? “There’s no zip code. It’s a different country.” I can’t send it without a zip code. “Well there isn’t a zip code so like can you just put the card in an envelope and send it?” After getting this escalated through two people a card was theoretically on its way to Panama City.
By the way, when I left home, I had not realized that Chase would charge me $5 from their end for every foreign ATM transaction, in addition to whatever fees the ATM was charging. I figured if I was going to go through all this trouble, I might as well sign up for a Charles Schwab account, because they not only don’t charge ATM fees from their end, but reimburse you any third-party ATM fees you incur. Turns out though that due to the Patriot Act, you can no longer open a checking account in the U.S. without physically being in the country, so fuck you terrorists, and I was stuck with Chase for the duration of the trip. (Although I did rely on some workaround methods in South America, which I’ll talk about when I get down there.)
The other problem was trying to explain to the hotel staff at the Radisson in Panama City what I was trying to do, which was to have some mail (the replacement Chase card) held for me until I showed up. I called them up and told them I was going to be staying there, and that I was going to have some mail sent there, and wanted it held. I was routed from the front desk, to the concierge, to the business center, and finally I was connected to someone who happily started spelling out the hotel’s e-mail address. It took another twenty minutes to get to a point where I figured that either they understood what I was getting at or they never would.
Hemingway never had these problems.
So when I check in, I am eagerly hoping that the clerk will say, oh yes Mr. Stasiewicz, and we have an envelope waiting for you, but no such information is forthcoming. I ask. They say they’ll look into it. Then they say they don’t have it. Then they say they’ll check with the business center. They say they don’t have it. I check with Chase. It was signed for by the business center. I ask again, and suddenly the envelope is delivered to my door. Hooray. I have a debit card again, and not a moment too soon, as I’m badly in need of US dollars cash before I head to Argentina and it’s ludicrous artificial currency controls. Fortunately, Panama’s currency, the “Balboa,” happens to look exactly like the United States dollar. In fact I don’t know why they keep up the charade of pretending like they have their own currency at all, as the biggest actual Panamanian denomination I see is the 25 cent piece, which is mostly an annoyance in that you think you’re dealing with all U.S. money but suddenly you have a few quarters you can’t do laundry with.
With all these logistical issues finally settled, I have a chance to check out the city. My first night is spent in the Marbella area near my hotel. It seems like it would be hopping on a weekend, but it’s Monday and pretty quiet. I watch the NCAA tournament final and head home after two beers.
Tuesday is a bit more adventurous. By chance I happen to be in Panama City the week that its first metro line opened up, which I wrote about long ago in this post. As I alluded to in that post, I was taking the metro to see the Miraflores locks on the Panama Canal.
The metro runs to the big bus terminal where buses leave for all over the country, and I make it that far without trouble. From there it’s all a disaster. Nothing is really well marked in the terminal. I know that the buses I’m looking for probably won’t say Miraflores but I can’t even find the buses that I’m looking for until I ask five different people. Eventually I find the right buses (which are in the vein of the chicken buses I became familiar with en route to El Salvador) and seemingly all that’s left to do is to pay my fare, which is something like fifty cents. But I can’t just pay fifty cents. I need to pay with a transit card. That’s fine, I think, I had just gotten a transit card for the metro which also worked for the MetroBus buses. But I guess it doesn’t work for the chicken buses. So now I need some other kind of card, and it only costs a few cents, but I don’t know where to get it, so eventually I say fuck it and get a cab to the locks. On the way in, I see one of the newer MetroBus with a MIRAFLORES sign, so there was some direct service somewhere else in the terminal.
I get to Miraflores in time to find out that they are closed. I’m there at 4:30, thinking it closes at 5, which it does…but ticket sales end at 4:15.
At night i go to Casco Viejo, the oldest part of the city. Perhaps this is what my friend Scott was talking about when he referred to Panama City as the most surreal city in the region. Some of the buildings are literally falling apart – a few winding streets were closed off because of a partially collapsed old building that had been held up by makeshift supports made out of 2x4s — but scattered throughout this area are hip restaurants and bars. For the first time since I left the states, I find a pretty decent local IPA (Chivoperro from Casa Bruja, if you’re interested). I wander past a brightly-lit cathedral and spend a few strange minutes hanging out on a street corner that juxtaposes a gala event with a shuttered casino and yet another collapsing building. But it’s Tuesday night and again, it’s not a particularly hopping evening, so I call it a night fairly early.
Well not quite. Back at the hotel, I have enough of a buzz on to try to convert the match play coupons into real money at the adjoining casino. My first attempt is playing three card, which goes poorly. My next step is taking a page out of my buddy Nolan’s strategy of just betting black or red on roulette. Through the power of the match play coupons, I turn $10 into $60, and it could have been a lot more if I had not deviated from my long-standing Passenger 57-inspired strategy, “always bet on black,” for one spin. So much for my time in the casino, which seems like a poor man’s version of a Vegas Casino, in Panama City, which is a poor man’s version of Miami. At first glance everything here looks shiny and modern, and there is some money here, but never as much as there should be, if appearances are to be believed.
Wednesday morning I head back to the canal, except this time I just take a cab both ways because there’s no way I’m dealing with that transit card nonsense again.
There’s not a whole lot I can say about the Panama Canal that wouldn’t just be a regurgitation of facts better found elsewhere. I will say that it is pretty fucking cool.
I spend the rest of the afternoon by the hotel pool. The one thing I really haven’t appreciated fully is that my time in tropical climates is about to end for a few months, so I try to grab a last few rays of sunshine before checking out and setting up shop at yet another mall food court for a few hours, catching up on emails.
Eventually I realize the night’s getting on. Time to get to the airport. Goodbye to Central America. My flight to Argentina leaves at 10.