January 1 - already it seems like so long ago.
Flying over Cuba with its small towns laid out in Spanish grids.
Seeing patterns of white sand undulating under crystal blue water.
Then coming over the Isthmus and being pleasantly surprised to see it so green and so mountainous.
Waiting for an hour to get the rental car at the desk, and then another half an hour to get it brought over from the parking lot across the street, and not complaining because I know this is how things are done here.
Driving by myself out of the City and not making any wrong turns. (Could that be a metaphor?)
One of the first things I noticed while driving through Panamá City was the psychedelic buses. These are private buses converted from old school buses. Each one is unique in artistic design. My favorite ones had Jesus on the back. I didn't have time to take pictures while driving in traffic, so these are from the web:
There is a new law making these buses illegal because they are unsafe. While this is a gain for safety, it is a loss for art.
I'd heard about the custom of pedestrians walking in the road, and that is indeed the general practice. This was New Years Day, undoubtedly rife with many more pedestrians than normal. They were scattered about all along the side of the road, some at bus stops but many in random places, all waiting for the bus.
But wait...one moment of inattentiveness about an hour out of the City and I bumped the car in front. It was stopped along with two others in the right lane of traffic on the Carretera Interamericana, the main highway in the country, not even pulled over on the shoulder. Actually, come to think of it, there was no shoulder. By the time I saw it and slammed on the brakes, there was a bump. Just a little one, with fortunately no injuries.
The group of young adults from the cars spoke just enough English and I spoke just enough Spanish to communicate. They had an extended conversation with each other, looked at the scratches on the rear bumper of their car, and said it would cost $100 to fix. They implied if I paid the $100 all would be forgotten. This was communicated with an unmistakable gesture by the young woman in the group of one hand with fingers bunched coming down upon the outstretched palm of the other.
Fortunately I had that much cash on me, and was grateful that Panamá uses U.S. dollars for its currency. They counted out the five twenty-dollar bills, cautioned me to drive slowly, and drove off. The lone girl in the group gave me a hug just before they left. No hard feelings, I guessed. When I passed them down the highway, they were stopped again and waved as if we were old friends.
I think I was taken for a ride. Later, talking with my hotel hosts the first night, I learned that this is a common practice. They were probably waiting for their next target when I passed them.
But I was happy to be out of a sticky situation and enjoyed the rest of the ride. Now I know why the all-inclusive insurance is required for foreign drivers by the rental car company.