Travel time from Singapore to Panama City takes nearly 1.5 days, one-way, or 3 days in total. This includes flights and various airport layovers. It was, and still is, the farthest I’ve ever flown.
But there I was, sipping a piña colada at the CasaCasco rooftop terrace in the middle of Casco Viejo, Panama City’s old quarter. I was chatting with our site engineer from Barbados and our site veteran electrician from the Netherlands about Jollibee. It felt a little surreal. Why was I here?
The why was easy to answer. I was in Panama for work. I visited a site along the famous Panama Canal and wrapped up what I had to do in a few days. On the way to and from the site I was surprised to see vehicles in Panama had no front licence plates. Our site engineer confirmed it wasn’t required, which he said could be annoying if you were waiting for an Uber and had to let every car pass by first before you could check out its plate.
Considering I had come such a long way, I decided to book a guided day tour on TripAdvisor to see the canal’s water locks and a few other sights. When the tour van arrived, it ended up being just me and an African American family of three from New York – parents and a surly teenager – which suited me just fine as I could chill with my music at the back, by myself.
The parents asked me where I was from and I told them I traveled from Singapore but am from the Philippines, which surprised them. The mother in particular seemed keen to hear about where else I’d been and kept trying to make small talk. Maybe she was just being polite.
Panama City uses US dollars so it’s a popular place to holiday for Americans. Miguel, our tour guide / driver told us if you drive straight on the Pan-American Highway, we’d reach Costa Rica, then Mexico, then the US. We could even drive all the way to Canada and it would only take us two weeks. It was the first time I ever heard of this road.
Our first stop was the Panama Canal’s Miraflores Locks. It sounds cliché but seeing the canal up close really emphasised how it truly was a marvel of human creativity and engineering. It opened in 1914 and continues to operate in the present-day virtually unchanged.
Miguel said, think of it as the Pacific on your right shoulder, the Atlantic on your left. The locks elevate up to 1,200-ft length ships to head-level. (Probably not to scale.) No pumps are used, and ships save up to twenty days of travel around Cape Horn. The two magic ingredients? Gravity and more importantly, water.
We made a pit stop near the Bridge of the Americas where there was a small park dedicated to the Chinese community in Panama. They had a long history here on the other side of the world and were key to building Panama’s railroads and bridges over 150 years ago. (Even here, I was reminded of my language classes. 惊喜连连!) Miguel seemed very amused by the phonebooth in the park and made each of us take a photo inside it.
Miguel drove us to Amador Causeway which was an artificial road built by the American military to protect the canal entrances and exits at both ends. At the end of the causeway was an outlet store where I bought dark chocolates with chili and sea salt and briefly considered purchase of a Panama hat as pasalubong for the Hub.
We then made our way back at Casco Viejo, where I had been the evening before, to look for a place to eat. There were many teenagers on the square – it was graduation day that day – and there were also a number of churches which reminded me of Intramuros.
We ended up at Central Hotel (Miguel’s recommendation) ordering what I thought was a pretty standard carbonara pasta. Apparently, it wasn’t basic enough – the teenager was only picking at his plate and I overheard his mother saying “How are we going to travel if you don’t start eating different” which for some reason struck me as funny.
Traveling alone didn’t bother me as much as having to transit through a US airport. It was my first time to do so. This was a great source of anxiety for me, mainly because of horror stories from family and friends. Their overarching message seemed to be: travel through the US is tough when you’re brown-skinned.
Thankfully, my trip was mostly uneventful except for my transit through Houston to Panama City. The guy at immigration was all right, he asked me if I travelled a lot, I said yes and he stamped my passport and waved me on. Customs was slightly scarier – they stopped me for a bag check which left me waiting nearly 40 minutes near a special luggage belt.
There was very little time on the layover and I felt stressed because it was ten minutes to boarding and my bag had not appeared on the belt. (I needed to check out and in again, because I had to pass through immigration.) My luggage had been tagged and was supposed to be one of the first to appear. I mentioned this to the airport staff who quipped “Oh, they don’t care about that downstairs.” Amazing service, US airports. (In contrast to Singapore, where you can find your bag on the belt as soon as you clear immigration, or Tokyo, which even positions your bag a certain way on the belt so it’s easier for you to grab and go.)
Anyway after all that, I was eventually told they’d just let me go because the airline had already forwarded my bag on to my next flight.
Still, the presence of so many Filipinos in the SFO Airport shops was comforting.
Think critically dear readers,