(Written: 18th July 2011)
Arriving in Panama the first thing to hit me after the heat and amazingly high humidity was the huge American influence. The tipping for everything irritation. Someone helps you find a taxi even though you can see the bright yellow things from miles away…. tip. Someone opens a door for you, tip….. I said to one guy, ” and there was me thinking that you did it out of the kindness if your heart.” but he didn’t see the funny side and just reiterated that I should pay him for the “help” I never wanted or asked for.
With the drop of 2600 meters I started to feel better almost straight away as my symptoms became easily manageable. But now I had something else to fight, the humidity. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere quite so humid in my entire life, I was sweating even when I was motionless! Any clothes I got out of my bag would feel damp in seconds and if you got anything wet, well it would stay wet. But it’s not only the people and clothes that suffer, so do the buildings of the old town. I managed to find a hotel in the old town with a damp but luckily cool room. But walking around town you can see that practically every other building is in a state of ruin. Much of this ruin was caused by the American invasion in 1989, something they did quite a lot in the 1980’s! But once there was a small hole in a roof or wall and no one to repair them, damp attacked the wooden floors and within a few years all that would remain are the empty shells you see today. It is very sad to see, however, rather selfishly these decaying buildings are far more picturesque than those that have been “reconstructed” as these appear a little fake. More like a Disney interpretation of what the old town used to look like rather then what it actually was.
Contrasting against this on the other side of the bay is the new Panama built on the revenue from the famous Panama Canal which was handed over to the Panamanians from the USA a little over 10 years ago. But I couldn’t leave panama without visiting the canal. I can’t say the museum was really worth it but it’s still quite impressive to see the big cargo ships being threaded throughout the relatively narrow locks. It would have been far much better to travel by boat the entire length of the canal to get a better impression as to its size and the scale of the manmade lake that makes up much of the route. But that might have cost quite a bit to do as it turns out most ships crossing the canal pay between $350,000US to $400,000US to do so! That’s about a quarter of a million pounds but I guess for what you get that isn’t a lot. I mean it’s barely a one bedroom flat in a dodgy area if London, but in terms if shipping, to go the entire loop around south America rather than taking the canal would have taken about two weeks and cost $4million dollars to do! So it seems like s bargain in comparison!
Heading back to the guesthouse I found a British couple in heated discussion with the owner. It turned out that they’d had all their money stolen which amounted to $830US. They said that they had left it in the pillowcase for safekeeping when they went out and were accusing the maid of taking it when she changed the bedding. I didn’t know whether to believe them or not as who puts all of their money in a pillowcase in a dormitory for safe keeping! It didn’t seem right somehow although they did go off with the police. After they went the guesthouse manager said that more than likely they were trying it on to get money from either him or the insurance, it turned out that this happens quite often and by other British backpackers although the last ones were caught out when the money was found hidden in one of their shoes!
But it was time to hop over to Cancun in Mexico, via Miami as it’s cheaper that way! But as nothing is ever easy I had problems at the airport when they said immigration would not allow me to get on the plane because I didn’t have the right information. I needed to show that I had permission to enter the USA which I of course had, but I hadn’t printed the email out as I figured I wouldn’t need it. After rushing around to find a computer with the Internet on it, I was lucky to find that as I habitually send copies of confirmations to myself just in case, I had done so here and was able to print a copy. But back at the check in the lady said she still couldn’t let me on the plane as I had not submitted an address in the USA where I would be stopping. I explained that I was just in transit in the USA for 3 hours and therefore did not have nor require an address. She was adamant that I could not board the plane until I gave an address even though I was connecting to another plane from her company for which she’d just checked me in! I then added that as I had shown my Esta permission which clearly showed that as a British citizen I didn’t need to give an address she then said, sorry I can’t let you on. I couldn’t believe the stupidity! In the end knowing full well that this was purely company policy and in no way would be sent to American immigration I made up an address… 04 Vucks Gate South Fork Dallas 90210 OC USA They accepted it and I was on the plane! Idiots! For those who don’t get the references in the address, the first line was pure annoyance with the zero pronounced like an “o” making the top line sound like what I was really thinking. The remaining lines were addresses from popular American TV shows, namely Dallas, Beverly Hills 90210 and The OC!
Getting through immigration in the states took the usual hour to get through mainly caused by the fact that they only had one person checking all the non-US citizens. By contrast in Mexico I was straight through in 10 minutes. But Mexico is an odd place really. Near the border with the USA policemen and drug dealers are being killed every day in what seems to be a never ending and increasing spiral of violence and retaliation. When I arrived the headline in one of the papers was about a police chief who had just been assassinated. But then in complete contrast you have the Yucatan peninsula which is relatively calm and unlike many other Latin American cities, is quite safe to walk around in. I suppose being isolated on the opposite side of the Gulf of Mexico provides some protection. The town of Cancun itself can easily be missed off any tour, it’s a completely featureless place and has no buildings of any historic worth or interest. There is a famed holiday area which I didn’t head to as my log cabin and swimming pool hidden in a secret enclave in the city did me fine. But I was really here to see what is now considered to be one of the new “modern” Seven Wonders of the World. In fact this was the only one I haven’t seen after visiting the rest over my many backpacking years…. The others are The Taj Mahal (India), Petra (Jordan), Christ the Redeemer (Brazil), Colosseum (Italy), Great Wall of China (China) and the lost city of Machu Picchu (Peru)…..
Chichen Itza is one of the many Maya cities in his part of the world but is meant to be the most spectacular. Walking around the site it was hard not to be impressed at the monumental structures and the history associated with them but for me the amount of tourists completely destroyed the atmosphere. Like the terracotta warriors, people pushed, shouted and jostled to see stuff and touts constantly tried to sell their souvenirs which included a really annoying whistle which made the round of a roaring Jaguar. On top of this were the old dears shouting things like “Walter look here, I think this is where they sacrificed virgins.” as tempting as it was I didn’t go over and say, “don’t worry, I think you\’re quite safe!”
I remember visiting the equally impressive Tikal in Guatemala nearly 10 years ago and I basically had the whole place to myself, the quiet eeriness punctuated by the screams of monkeys added a fantastically emotive soundtrack of the ruins as they lay surrounded by the encroaching jungle. I hope it has not succumbed to the mass tourism of this place. “Walter, I’ve found the bathroom, you want to go? You know what your bladder’s like” was not the emotive sound I thought I would hear before coming here. But the site, if not overly repaired is still nice to visit although you are no longer allowed to climb to the top of the main pyramid. The climb was stopped permanently after a rather unfit American lady discovered a quicker way to get to the bottom than walking. Needless to say it never caught on.
What amazed me more though was how two distinct civilisations that never met on either side of the Atlantic Ocean came to develop the same type of buildings and similar types of gods. The pyramids do strike a somewhat similar resemblance to those in Egypt but you could argue that this is to be expected due to this being the most stable form of large building you could design. But the gods? Both civilisations held the cat in high regard with carvings everywhere and most strikingly, both civilisations created a god with a human body but the head of a bird. For me it just shows how similar we are as a human race to come up with the same solutions for the same problems or beliefs although both civilisations never met….. Or was it intelligent design???? Nope!!!!!
But these thoughts aside, my all too short visit to Mexico was over but my short introduction has left me intrigued and I will definitely come back here in the future to visit some of the more historical but less touristy areas of the country. But the next stop was Dallas, after all, I had given my address as South Fork so I’d better go!