It’s about 19h00 in Panama City. We’re at our hotel’s top floor outside terrace, and I’m sure that if I were 2 or 3cm taller I would be able to reach those thick clouds cruising just above our heads. A weird light rips through the dark grey mantle, showing patches of an orange and pink sky. Zeza orders 2 mojitos, and I’m trying to get in the pool before the downpour starts.
From up here, the intense traffic in which the city’s almost permanently immersed in is nearly imperceptible. A couple of hours earlier we had our first contact with Panama’s most annoying feature, which we could almost find astounding, were it not so insane. The drive from Tocumen to El Cangrejo took over an hour, half of which spent in the last 2 or 3km. This allowed plenty of time for us to befriend our driver, Alex, and discuss the current state of events.
Our first acquaintance
We met Alex shortly after arriving at Tocumen Airport, when we noticed him at the arrivals section holding a sign for “José Fernando Ríos”, with our hotel’s logo on it. We had not yet thought about the best way to get to our hotel, but if this guy happened to be going there and could give us a ride, I’m sure this was it.
Alex said he was there to pick up this José Fernando Ríos gentleman, arriving from Bogotá. Unfortunately he was not allowed to take anyone else with him. But he could contact a fellow driver to pick us up. We agreed, and he asked to take our picture so his colleague could identify us. Sure, go ahead Alex, you seem alright, not like we’re used to have a complete stranger taking our picture 2 minutes into a conversation, but what the hell, in a while we’ll be entering some other complete stranger’s car, so I guess we’re all in on the first bet.
About 15 minutes later, Mr. José Fernando Ríos was yet to make an appearance, and the Bogotá flight had long landed. Alex made a quick phone call and said: “El patrón no está, ustedes vienen conmigo, les llevo al hotel.” So off we went with him, happy to have found an easy and (probably?) scam free way to get to the hotel. Great guy, this Alex fellow, polite, helpful. Never cracked a smile though.
Whoever you are, Mr. José Fernando Ríos, here’s our appreciation for letting us use your designated driver. And to you, other driver who we never met: please delete our picture.
Panama hot topics
In the first few minutes of the drive we went through the customary chit chat. What we do, what brings us to Panama, what’s it like to be a driver in this traffic mess. When the first needles of the Panama City skyline pierced the horizon, Alex suddenly turned into a political speech, introducing us to a few Panama hot topics:
“See all these skyscrapers? Money laundering towers. Very few people actually live there. Check out how many lights you see on at night…”
“The subway is cheap, safe and fast, but there’s only one line. They’re expanding it to the airport, but many areas of the city will be left uncovered.”
“This road, the Corredor Sur, and the Cinta Costera, were built a few years ago to help disperse traffic, but they miss the most problematic areas. Traffic is worse than ever.”
“The Hard Rock Hotel throws a massive New Year’s Eve party on the top floor!”
As the first rain drops start to fall in the pool, I’m dwelling on these issues. Of course we’re aware of the financial schemes of dubious legality out and about. But could it be that this is so present, so visible, so imprinted in the city’s genome, that even its layout is built atop these practices?
And the traffic – yes, it’s a problem in many places around the world, as is corruption. But Panama seems to be a serious case of both. With this in mind, shouldn’t it be paramount to turn the subway into a true alternative to road traffic, improving and expanding its coverage in the central areas of the city? Is the rail connection to the airport so more urgent than solving downtown’s carmageddon?
Panama is, in fact, the world’s greatest meeting point. North America meets South America, Atlantic meets Pacific. Man’s most remarkable feat of engineering meets Mother Nature’s full creative capacity. The traditional way of life of the indian communities meets the sweeping advance of progress. Would you not expect this city, this country, to be resourceful, efficient, serious? To be driven by its key role in international commerce and geopolitics, in order to somehow escape the disorganized organization found in most Latin America?
Or… would you expect exactly otherwise?
That New Year’s Eve party at the Hard Rock’s top floor sounds brutal. Too bad we’re in June.
Our mojitos are waiting for us at our table as we exit the pool. We post a photo on social media, toast to a great honeymoon, and just before I take the first sip, Zeza startles me:
– There’s ice in this!
– Well, of course there’s ice in a mojito, how could you dr…
Suddenly, I get a flashback to our traveler’s medicine appointment. A harp plays while a faded image of the old doctor descends from the clouds, saying:
– Zika? Meh, you’ll be fine. Malaria? No worries… Tap water??? DO NOT DRINK IT!!! No drinks with ice, don’t even brush your teeth with it.
The only health advice we had been given, thrown from the 15th floor on the first opportunity. What about now, should we drink these? Despite the doctor’s rant, we heard and read that tap water is safe to drink in Panama City. And let’s be reasonable: if it was not, a hotel like this would be diligent enough to serve bottled water or, at least, to purify it. Right? Probably. Would they, though, use bottled or purified water to make ice? Perhaps. But if so, why would the old doctor, so indifferent towards every other potential health issue, feel so strongly about drinks with ice?
The ice cubes had all melted down by the time we finally decide we would not risk drinking tap water so early on the trip. The waitress seems very confused as we pay for the drinks we did not drink. I try to explain, but she just nods, empty look, complacently repeating my sentences’ endings. No attempt whatsoever to assure us the water’s drinkable. So maybe she’s conniving of serving us bad water. Or maybe she’s just tired of these damn tourists, always something wrong, either the lounge chairs are dirty or there aren’t enough towels, only thing there’s enough of is complaints, now these 2 weirdos think they’ll get diarrhea for drinking perfectly fine ice, if you’d just shut up, take your change and gtfo that would be great, and guess what, once you leave those mojitos and myself will have a blast, just so you know.
Throughout our trip to Panama, we managed to drink only bottled water, or so we think. But, inevitably, we ended up accidentally brushing our teeth with tap water, both in PC and Bocas, where they say it’s more prone to disease. And since our digestive systems never resented from it, we remain unsure of the water quality in Panama, haunted by the memory of our undrank mojitos everytime we see ice on a drink.
Roughly an hour later, I’m looking out our hotel room’s window as Zeza gets ready for dinner. Night has fallen, rain is stopping. There are 5 lit windows on the 18-storey high building just across the street.