What's Old is New Again, Part II

Trip Start Sep 07, 2011
1
24
54
Trip End Dec 22, 2011


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Flag of Panama  , Colón,
Saturday, October 8, 2011

Of course I will go to great lengths and extremes to seek out the most local of experiences but even I run into my limits.   The city limit of Colon is one line I dare not cross based on everything I have read and heard about this cesspool on the Atlantic.   Colon en espanol means Columbus.   Colon in English is a polite way to say ass.   The Colon on the map is the ass of Panama that craps out all the crime, prostitution, and drugs imaginable.   Though I have not and likely will not witness the chaos first hand, many politicians contend the city remains unsavable, and Colon continues its slide into further decay and ruin.   Even guidebooks advise a taxi for travel even block to block.

Looking for ways to kill time I decided the Gatun Locks near the ass of Panama would be a good way to spend the day.   One possible route is bus to downtown Colon and then switch a few blocks over for another one to the locks.   Then having survived the bus transfer, I'd have to walk a kilometer to the viewing platform after figuring out where the appropriate stop is.   As much as I'd love to see the Canal, my safety in Colon even going one block was not worth the trip.  I can handle the walk at the canal itself but not the unknown safety situation along the way.

Being the resourceful person I am, I asked around and discovered I could hop off the bus early "near" 4 Arcos Shopping Center and then search for a Gatun bound ride on a nearby street "across the railroad tracks."   I got off "near" the shopping center in an area I would at best describe as sketchy and I didn't feel so safe.  You know how in the US a city will have a wrong side of the tracks?  Here both sides just looked so wrong and having no idea where to even look for the transfer chicken bus without being liberated of my backpack or wallet, I headed into the relative safety of the shopping center to regroup.  I can't even imagine what downtown Ass, I mean Colon, looks like!!

In front of the grocery store, some negotiations with my un poquito Spanish bought me a $15 taxi drive there, hour waiting time, and then return to the bus stop for Portobelo.   Turns out my taxi driver, Jorge, is an electrician for the Canal and drives taxis in his off time.  He even proudly showed me his Panama Canal ID badge.  That's nice and all Jorge, but please watch the road.  We almost bit it while you fished out your ID.

Most tourists venture to the Miraflores Locks near Panama City as part of some overpriced tour and the rest of us have Gatun Locks pretty much to ourselves.   The $5 admission here is easier on the cashflow than the $12 at Miraflores, too.   And 15 years ago, I had been to the locks near Panama City and wanted to see something new anyway.

Watching the ships enter the locks and then drop down is amazing.   Three sets at Gatun lower or raise the ships a total of 85 feet as they make their way to or from the Atlantic.   Each lock chamber is 1050 feet long by 110 feet wide, and these dimensions are known as Panamax to describe the maximum ship size that can transit the canal. 

Jorge dropped me off on the side of the road near 4 Arcos where a large crowd was milling about in the trash and mud for the next bus to wherever.   I joined this mass of humanity who can likely afford neither car or taxi and waited for a Portobelo bound chicken bus. The locals were looking at me like what the hell is this white dude doing here taking the bus?  Luckily a brightly painted hooptie ride came by in about 5 minutes and scooped up about 10 of us into its oven like insides.   I wish I knew how to tell the driver en espanol that if he got the bus out of second gear maybe this bat out of hell speed would allow sufficient airflow to pass through the dirty windows. 

Like a '78 Cutlass Supreme rolling on 22's in Atlanta, the only item of worth in this entire bus was the sound system belting out the obligatory salsa type rock music.   I watched as an old woman who could barely climb the stairs took her seat, closed her eyes and then bumped along to the beat.   I particularly liked the dozen or so Glade solid air fresheners (the kind in the containers you twist and raise the outer shell) though having long since lost their stink were all hanging in one batch by the door. The crowning touch to maybe 20 pine tree air fresheners was a plastic Jesus dangling amongst them in all his glory right in front of purple feather boas stretching across the front of the bus.

Another observation I have is that this whole chicken bus system could be sped up if people used some courtesy and common sense.   The bus will stop to pick up one person in front of a house, then roll ten seconds to pick up another and then another 15 feet further up the road.  Can't they all collect in one place?   The same goes when they scream "Para" for the bus to stop since no fancy cords to pull or buttons to press exist on a 1970s school bus.  One patron will yell Para, shove his way up the crowded aisle, get off and then another person decides to repeat the process fifty feet later.   Can't the second person just get off with the first and save the rest of us the torture? And judging by the Panamax size of some of these people, they could use 50 feet of exercise. 

On the ride I reflected on the long dead air fresheners and noticed some more recycling going on outside the bus.   For all of you into home decorating here is a great tip.  Save all those Happy Meal boxes and hang them from your concrete shack like some sort of junk food paper lanterns.  It's the Panamanian version of Christmas tree lights hanging in July.  Oh how Ronald McDonald can dress up a front porch in so many ways better than say a fresh coat of paint and some house cleaning.  If Micky D's is not so much your taste, don't despair.   The poor residing in these shacks take creativity to a new level with paper orange juice containers.   Just slit one down the side several times and push the top and bottom together in a way to make a nice hanging decoration we will call a Lanterno de Tropicana.   Yes, all that is old turns new again.

Digging up the unexpected such as Happy Meal lanterns and Jesus air freshener displays is what this trip is all about.   I am continuing to relax with no agenda ahead of me except what is to eat and drink.  Life is good.

How I got here:

Chicken bus from Portobelo to 4 Arcos Shopping Center- $1.65 One hour
Taxi roundtrip to Gatun Locks - $15
Chicken bus from 4 Arcos Shopping Center to Portobelo - $1.65 45 minutes

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