Friday, October 21, 2005

Reluctantly taking to the air...

I'm at Panama's International Airport, awaiting my 6:15 p.m. flight to Bogota, Colombia. I checked in at "Girag" air freight terminal this morning, inquiring as to the procedure for shipping the motorcycle. They're located at the old airport, which, though only about a mile from the international airport "as the crow flies", is reached via a convoluted 20- or 30-minute drive. At "Girag", "Andreas" speaks English and was very helpful. He suggested I purchase my airlines ticket first, then return to drop off the bike. $241 for my ticket to Bogota on "Avianca" airlines. The agent said to return at 3:15 p.m., three hours before the flight!

Back to "Girag" to drop off the bike. They wanted the gas tank drained (at least most of it.) I siphoned off a little over a gallon into a can they had, leaving a little reserve so that I can drive to a gas station at the other end. Disconnected the battery. Packed up my computer, camera, riding jacket and documents to carry with me. I wanted to leave the helmet with the bike, but they told me to take it with me. "We don't know what they'll do in Colombia." Everything else remained on the bike. We then inspected it together, recording any pre-existing damage. It cost $400 to have them ship it. I should be able to pick it up tomorrow morning and take it through Colombian customs. (They're closed Sundays.) Everything was pretty straightforward and painless. Taxied back to the airport. The little Toyota taxi showed over 484,000 kilometers on its odometer; still earning money for the woman driving it.

It's very strange sitting in an airport again. Feeling really lethargic, almost drugged, as if the change of seasons, from summer to autumn, just hit me since arriving at the airport (even though there has been no perceived change of seasons in Central America!)

***

In Colón last night, I went for out a walk around downtown. Not really a comfortable place for a white guy. (I seemed to be the only one around.) I tried to ignore that instinctive fear, and just experience this very different world.

The streets were alive: so many people out walking, gathering in small groups, sitting on their apartment balconies, playing card games on the corners, children playing ball in the dark. A vibrant community; I didn't get the sense that people here sit in front of their TV all evening. I wish I understood the language better: passing between people, all the greetings, remarks, slights, solicitations, propositions. I could only record that there was this whole current of communications at work, but it was mostly beyond my comprehension.

The old crumbling buildings, many having a colonial feel, their surfaces weather-stained, cracked and peeling, are poorly lighted with old incandescent bulbs. In the shadows, I could hear people more than I could see them.

I stood out in front of my hotel for a while, chatting with a cast of characters that gathered. The security guard, a very sympatico black fellow who stood 6-1/2 feet tall, "Minta", a slight Puerto Rican about my age, visiting from Brooklyn; a Chilean taxi driver and a couple other gentlemen who were just out for the evening. Minta and his wife have come to see the "Black Christ". Tomorrow is the festival of "El Christo Negro de Portobelo". They expect 20,000 visitors to the small town. (I had planned to drive out there tomorrow, but now I think I'll avoid the crowds.)

Among the men, there was constant commentary about the passing women. The guard said he could get me whatever I wanted. "You're very kind, but no thanks." Then an attractive woman would pass and he would ask again. He seemed to know them all. "Thanks."

Minta had a "runner" who would retrieve beers for him in exchange for a small tip. He drank the beer, then tossed the cans out in the middle of the street. "It will be gone soon." Within minutes, scavengers carrying plastic bags collected the cans.

After an hour or so, I excused myself and went to my room. Watched Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut."

The hotel reeked of whatever cleaners they use. I went through the dresser and side table drawers, collecting the moth balls placed in each, flushing them down the toilet. (At the Costa Inn, I had to toss the "air fresheners" - essentially urinal fresheners - out the window. Finally the housekeeper got the hint.)

***

Awoke this morning to an almost startling blue sky! I have seen so little of this in Central America, especially Panama.

Crossing the Isthmus to Panama City again, traffic was very light in my direction, heavy in the Colón-bound lane. (And I barely registered the multitude of billboards, since their backs were facing me. It's funny how, when not distracted by advertising, one actually sees the landscape!) Low hills I passed through were covered with elephant grass and a scattering of trees. I wonder if the grass is naturally-occurring here? (There are no elephants.) The dominant feature in the low-lying areas is dense tropical forest.

Approaching Panama City, the sky was the more customary black: rain on the way.

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