February 4, 2008
Crossing the Gap, Day 5
I spent the morning with the Italians waiting to see if the mysterious plane would show up. The two boys were brothers who had been working around Central America and Colombia for the last two years as street performers. Among their luggage was a unicycle and a lot of material for making jewelery. Their dad was visiting them, so they were traveling around a bit more than usual. The other two were an English woman and her Italian boyfriend, but the poor lady didn't speak any Spanish or Italian and only her boyfriend spoke English, so she was left out of most of their conversations. One of the boys was deathly afraid of flying, and as we were eating breakfast we joked about drugging him like B.A. Barackus.
It was a suspenseful morning, but the airplane indeed landed at about the same time as yesterday. The dad continuously stroked his son's shoulder to reassure him that we wouldn't crash. It was an incredible flight as we started over the Caribbean, then worked our way across the Darien Gap, and finally flew over the Pacific. Most of the land we saw was jungle, but occasionally there was a single house that was certainly there under nefarious circumstances. At the end of the flight, we circled around Panama City, and I was amazed to see all the huge ships, luxurious yachts, and massive skyscrapers of the city. It was a big change from Puerto Obaldia.
Despite our best efforts to convince them that we were not on an international flight, we had to go through customs at the airport. One of the officers let a little air out of the unicycle's tire to make sure nothing was hidden in it, but then his attention was diverted when the drug dog discovered something in one of the Italian boys' backpacks. They were asking me if I had any weed last night, so I was worried they were smuggling it, but then I realized that that made no sense because they wouldn't have asked me for weed if they already had it. The customs official wasn't taking any chances and proceeded to search through every inch of the indicated backpack. He found some bottles of ink, which the Italian figured is what set the dog off (I'm not sure why that would be), but he was more interested in the plastic syringes at the bottom of the pack. The Italian explained that they were only for injecting ink and challenged the officer to puncture his skin with them. The officer wasn't amused, but in the end, he found nothing illegal. A group of gringos with barely any luggage entered behind us, and the rest of my group was allowed to leave without being searched because it was getting too crowded.
When I finished getting settled at a hostel, I was surprised to learn it was Carnaval time. I hadn't planned for it yet because it's usually a few weeks later. I went to the parade with some people from the hostel, but it was nothing special compared with the last two years when I was in Brazil and Argentina. In fact, I was kind of put off when a lot of the people from the parade walked around with soda cans with the tops cut off and asked any white person they could find for money. I found that totally against the spirit of Carnaval. One girl in the crowd even had the nerve to walk right up to me and demand that I buy her a beer because I was rich and she was poor. She was about twice my size, so I doubted she was too poor to eat.
I didn't blame the local people for wanting money from the tourists because tourism and western culture in general had obviously overrun the city. Everywhere I looked, there were hordes of tourists, shopping malls, and American chain restaurants. Certainly this must have jaded even the most resilient Panamanians to some degree. It was good to see economic progress, but not at the expense of local traditions like Carnaval.
The photo album for this entry is here.