Thursday, March 16, 2006

Route 1 Sucks Anywhere You Go.

Heading out of Panama City is a total trip.

With a few illegal U-turns under our belt well before we left the city, we crossed the Puente de los Americanos (I'm using as much Spanish as I can) and set out down Route 1 to attempt to find a beachfront home for mom and Gary. It turns out that it's really hard to figure out where you're going when you can't read the language and the only map you have is detailed only in comparison to 16th century European maps of the East Coast of North America. Even google maps has nothing on Panama; the best map we could find is probably not out-of-date, but is also a total fiction.

Another word on maps and Panama - even the Census Bureau doesn't have an accurate map. It's not that we couldn't find one, it's that it doesn't exist. This appeals to me, and adds to the whole post-apocalyptic flavor of the country.

There are no signs that tell you what road you're on, nor are the signs for exits clearly marked. Once you're 10km from Panama City, there aren't even any exits, there are only roads to the left and right. There are neither stoplights - of the three I've seen in the country, two were non-functional - nor stop signs, and the speed limits are queer; it's 100km/h (this is roundly ignored; people either drive 15mph or 75mph) on the open country and 65 km/h in towns. There's no warning that towns are coming, either. It's tree-tree-tree-town-scrub-tree-tree-tree. The roads are amazing.

After making another illegal U-turn at a toll plaza since we didn't think we were going the right way, we made a series of bad turns and wound up stopping at a police station to ask directions. No one spoke the proper language, but we eventually were able to tell a cop where we were going. Rather than giving us directions--which would have been admittedly difficult--he told us to follow him, and he showed us the proper way to get where we were going, which was (sadly) where we'd already gone and turned around. The first place mom wanted to go wound up being unfindable.

So was the second.

But we evenutally, through the judicious use of u-turns on the biggest highway in the freaking country, centered ourselves down to see a golf resort, whose name I forget. The place felt terrible--more like a burbclave than anywhere I've ever been before--and we left in relatively short order. It was very high-priced and seriously ugly.

Then we (again circuitously) made our way to the Playa Blanca resort. While mom did not wind up buying a house here, the Hispanic-American salesman Tito drove us about this huge installation in a golf cart (which almost didn't make it up the hills) and yammered about how much things were going to be worth in the future. The sad thing is, I actually think he's right. There is apparently huge appreciation going on here.

Playa Blanca, for all its niceties, has a few oddities inherent:

  • The closest grocery store is 35 km away. (!)

  • The closest gas station is 20 km away, and gas costs more than it does in New Brunswick.

  • It's both hotel and residential, so you're expected to live with full-on transients. Granted, transients in nice clothes, but transients nonetheless.

  • It boasts a rain record of 11 inches per year, and is 15 km from a rain forest. (?)

  • You can do anything you want to a house once you buy it but it has to be painted white and have a blue roof.

  • It is next to tree farms that have ponies browsing in the shade underneath.

  • And finally, buses are not allowed inside, so the day laborers have to hike out 3km when they're done work to Route 1 to be picked up - and there are a lot of laborers. Side note: a skilled electrician in Panama makes $16 per day. (!)

The way home consisted of a lot of dodging of buses, wild dogs (which I insisted on (knowingly) improperly calling coyotes), chickens, bicyclists, and cattle. And then the sun went down.

The country seems a lot more poplous in the night than in the daytime, probably because the houses really seem to blend into the trees; lights on the hills make it far more noticeable where houses are at night than during the day. During the day it seems completely empty--which makes sense, as apparently slightly over half of the country's population lives in Panama City. But at night, you really see that it's not empty, it just looks it. The lights in the hills are not streetlights, btw--the only part of Route 1 that's lighted is the Bridge of the Americas.

Which I was damn glad to cross when we finally got there. Driving Panama at night is actually scarier than driving 278 through Brooklyn during the day. Again, it would probably have been better if I'd been able to speak the language - but so be it. I am still an ugly American.


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