My Crazy Summer In Panama
My crazy summer in Panama was in 1991. I had just graduated high school in northern California when my brother extended an invitation to visit him in Panama. I remember it like it was yesterday. Giving the subject no thought, I acquired a temporary ninety day passport through Continental Airlines. You will learn more about this so called passport at the end of this article. I flew from the San Francisco airport to Houston Texas. From Houston I flew directly to Panama and bam! I wasn't in Kansas anymore, figuratively speaking. Most of us can accurately remember our first culture shock. For me, Panama was definitely a shock. My brother Norman picked me up at the Panamanian airport at mid day. When I deplaned, the humidity hit me with a shock. I was immediately drenched in sweat. The temperature was well over a hundred degrees. After clearing Panamanian customs I saw my brother through the security glass partition. My six year old nephew, Travis, was on my brother's shoulders searching for me. We made contact and began our one hour trip in a minivan traveling toward the Air Force base my brother called home. He was a Staff Sergeant in the Security Police division of the Air Force. I will never forget the first traffic light we stopped at. The poverty stricken Panamanian youth instantly materialized and swirled around our van armed with squeegees and rags for cleaning car windows. The scene was chaotic and they were hitting the car with the palms of their hands, even trying to shake the car. For an instant I felt like a rock star in a limousine fighting through the crowd so I could perform. This feeling was replaced by fear. The light turned, might brother put his foot to the pedal and sped out of there. He chose at this time to give me the welcome to Panama speech, ha ha. Upon arrival at his house I noticed the only channel on television showed a street map of the surrounding cities that was color coded. The color coding system showed us which areas Americans could go to as well as the restricted areas. I remember "J" street as being a location hostile to Americans. I asked my brother about this and he said it was a known area where Americans have been mugged or killed.
Trip to The Beach
My brother took the liberty of planning a few day trips for his little brother, bless his heart. The first excursion took me across the island to a beautiful place where the beach had black sand. It was paradise. Having the beach to ourselves, we paid five dollars for a hut that we could use all day. We barbequed, went swimming in the warm pacific water and mingled with the local Panamanian population. It had been a perfect day when we loaded up the van and started our four hour drive back to the base. The road was the most dangerous two lane highway I had ever encountered. We snaked our way through the jungle taking every curve and corner like there was no tomorrow. If the big trucks did not kill you it seemed like the drop off on the edge of the road would. Half way through our drive we encountered three village elders in the middle of the road. The guy in the middle was holding broom handle which had a car tire mounted on top with a sign in the middle of the tire that read, "Alto" which meant, "Stop." The other two elders approached our vehicle, both sporting AK-47's. They explained to my brother that they were collecting a toll and we needed to pay if we wanted to continue our journey. needles to say, we paid the toll and continued on to the base.
Shopping in Panama
The next day we went to one of the biggest shopping districts in Panama. This proved to be quite an experience. As we walked on the busy street, some store merchants would literally shut their doors in our face. They locked their doors and we had no choice but to continue walking. When we were a comfortable distance away the store would open for business. The message here was, Americans are not welcome. The hatred was palpable. The stores we were permitted entrance to produced nothing short of an intense experience. There were young Panamanian men, teenagers with automatic weapons that assembled at the front entrance of every store. These young men all had AK-47's and they assigned themselves to you as you entered the store. As I entered one store, a Panamanian kid with an automatic weapon started following me immediately. My escort could be no older than fourteen I approximated. My brother gave me money and told me to give it to my escort before I left the store. I did not ask for an explanation. The kid with the icy cold stare always followed five feet behind me, never taking his eyes off me. I got the message loud and clear, you steal, you die. I also understood that the money was a sign of my gratitude for his protection, wink wink.
I will never forget the day I left Panama, because I almost did not get to leave. It happened at the airport. I had just paid my leaving Panama fee/tax of twenty dollars and continued on to the customs desk. Fortunately, my brother was flying back home with me for a visit. Remember at the beginning of this article I told you about the so called passport from Continental Airlines? Well, I showed the temporary passport to the customs officer and he would not recognize it as a legal passport. I then started to panic a bit and proceeded to show him my California driver's license. He must have thought I was smarting off to him because he motioned for an armed military police officer to come over and they both started talking in another language I could not understand with an occasional finger pointing in my direction. Another armed officer joined the conversation and all I could think of was spending the next twenty years in a Panamanian jail. My brother decided it was time to intervene. Having worked closely with the Panamanian authorities, he talked to the three men and it was decided that my California driver's license was sufficient for travel. To this day I don't know what was said in that conversation because my brother never told me. I just remember flying over the crystal blue pacific ocean with the knowledge that I was one very lucky person.
I chose to write about how crazy that trip seemed to me. The author would like the reader to know that Panama is an amazing, beautiful country. Despite what I experienced, the Panamanian people are some of the best people one could ever hope to come across. In the near future I will be writing a hub about the Panamanian people, their culture, a brief history and some more experiences I had, such as my visit to the Panama Canal and my trip to Manual Noriega's bullet ridden compound. My brother took me on an interesting day trip where we learned about the U.S. invasion and the history behind it. I also remember dining in Panama. I will share the good dishes as well as the not so good dishes. Thank you for taking the time to read this hub.