Sunday, July 5, 2009

in Panama

It's strange to think how simple travel has become. You wake up in Chicago, board a plane, sleep, board another plane, read, watch a dumb movie, eat your proffered peanuts, you go through customs which looks just like other customs you've gone through, and, a mere 8 hours later, you're in Panama, hungry but not at all worse for wear. Perhaps if you had taken a steamer several weeks over rough seas and gratefully found land, perhaps then it would hit you immediately that you had arrived somewhere ELSE. As it is, it will take you a few days to adjust, to really realize that you are in Central America, a part of the world where you have never been, and you will be here for a month.

There have, of course, been a few signs of somewhere new:
  • Everyone speaks Spanish, of course, and you're proud of yourself if you can conjugate "to be" and find enough words for a sentence. For now, this is enough. You managed your first successful exchange in Spanish by walking up to the waitress at breakfast and saying without preamble "Que hora es?" only to realize when she brightly greets you back with "buenas dias" that there should have been some sort of preamble along the lines of "excuse me, but..." if only you knew the words. You sound out every billboard you pass.
  • It's so humid, your glasses fog when you step out of the air conditioning.
  • There's a quadimundo outside the sliding glass doors at breakfast. It's like a raccoon but with less hair, and when eventually some man cracks the door to feed it papaya, it chomps that fruit with impressive teeth, holding the remainder with impressive claws. It does not chomp the man's fingers, and you figure this thing's got a great racket going, pacing and getting fed. It's got cute little swiveling ears and a long quivering nose. You'd like to pet it, but of course you won't.
  • Palm trees. Mango trees, the mangos on them green and the size of your fist.
  • The jungle is behind your hotel. Literally. The Panama canal is five minutes away. Later in the day, you will visit the Miraflores locks and watch, awestruck, for an hour as three freighter ships, each carrying uncounted loads of shipping containers (each the size of a semi) are moved through three locks, the water system raised and lowered with stunning efficiency. The length and width of every ship in the world (that does not want to venture around Cape Horn) is controlled by the size of these locks, built from Pittsburgh steel in 1914.

You know you're in a fantastic new place. You know you're seeing amazing things. But it will take a few more days before it really sinks in that YOU are HERE.

Until then.

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