A Panama Paper

Panama City SkylineI’ve been teaching myself Spanish for a few years now.

It was always something I wanted to learn, but my natural tendency towards procrastination had stopped me from actually doing anything about it. In fact, had it not been for the urgent need to find an alternative entertainment to the excruciating radio advertising jingles that accompanied my daily commute, I would probably still be trotting out increasingly implausible reasons not to start.

So, spurred into action, I bought a set of eight “learn in the car” Spanish language compact disks.

Before the first disk started to spin, my knowledge of Spanish was less than rudimentary. I knew how to say hello and goodbye; please and thank you. I could politely greet people, provided that I met them before noon. And I could order up to five beers. That was it.

As it turned out, the timing of my decision to learn the language was good – although that was inclined more to the fortunate than to the prescient. Over the next few years, my wife, our daughter and I would travel to a half dozen or more Spanish speaking countries, each one exposing my newly-expanded language skills to practical examination.

I was sporadically successful.

I was able to negotiate taxi rides whose endpoints and costs were largely consistent with my expectations. Aside from a still-perplexing pepper pot/beer confusion in Lima, what arrived at our restaurant table generally matched the respective order. But I doubt I’ll ever forget the slightly terrified expressions that swept across the faces of a friendly, middle-aged couple in southern Argentina when I happily told them we would be staying at their house tomorrow – and would be there for two weeks.

Despite my occasional stumbles and the puzzled looks that often greeted them, I was making progress. Gradually, the single question and answer exchanges became conversations. And there was a lot less pointing at things.

Yes, my Spanish was still basic and still littered with errors – but, for once, small successes encouraged me to persist more than the possibility of mistake deterred me from trying. This was new territory for me; as publicly exposing something less than complete mastery of a subject has never been a prominent area within my comfort zone.

It fell to Panama to witness the next incursion into that zone.

And I am not afraid to admit that Panama City took me by surprise.

El Cangrejo District, Panama City

During our wind-buffeted descent into Tocumen International Airport, the view out of the window revealed a darkening sky that was being pierced by the seemingly never-ending succession of high-rise towers that form the city’s skyline. Hundreds of white buildings, some impossibly narrow, seemed to extend for a mile into the air. Dotted among them, wonderfully eccentric office blocks silently competed for design awards. Beneath them, unseen from our current vantage point, a city buzzed.

Surprise was only matched by an eagerness to explore. I also temporarily forgot any lingering concerns about being understood during upcoming exchanges on the subjects of transportation, accommodation, and alimentation.

It didn’t, however, require any particular linguistic expertise to realize that the driver of our pre-booked ride from the airport to the city center had deposited us at the wrong hotel.

Panama City (Iglesia del Carmen in foreground)

At first, he seemed somewhat reluctant to accept the error and proceeded to repeatedly stab his index finger against the piece of paper on which the name of a hotel – not our hotel – had been scrawled.

Even when my wife pointed high into the sky at the illuminated sign bearing the name of our actual hotel and I exclaimed, “¡Allí!” did he finally admit to the possibility that we may be correct. But it still required a confirmatory call to head office before he agreed to get back in the car and drive us the remaining one hundred yards to our originally intended destination.

Any frustration created by the slightly circuitous route was short-lived, however, for tomorrow – and as an unexpected lesson in perspective – we were going to be taking a trip through the world’s greatest short cut.

The Panama Canal is awe inspiring in any language.

From the vantage point of the deck of a small boat made more insignificant by the canal, the sheer magnitude of the achievement almost defies comprehension. As we sailed south from Gámboa (approximately 25 miles north of Panama City) and through the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks, jostled all the way by a huge Polish container ship and chased by an intense storm, we were as inspired by the early twentieth century ingenuity able to envisage and realize such dreams as we were shocked to learn of the thousands of lives sacrificed in its pursuit.

Suitably humbled, over the next few days we turned our minds to more familiar recreation.

We strolled the narrow streets, the grand plazas, and among the restored colonial buildings of Casco Viejo; the pre-canal limit of the capital. We devoured the city’s eclectic food. We hired a car, drove from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic coast – not just because we could (although I’ll admit that was part of the equation), but also to explore some of the country’s interior and spend a couple of hours relaxing on a small island. And we were still able to get back to our city on the Pacific in time for dinner.

As Panama disappeared beneath our climbing plane and I reflected on our three days in the country, and with worries about my Spanish language proficiency deferred until our next sojourn, something struck me about what feeds our insatiable desire to travel.

It is not only the promise of magnificent feats of engineering, of energizing cities, of breathtaking vistas that inspires us to move. It is also the people we meet along the way; the moments where the paths of our lives fleetingly cross with theirs. We may only meet them once, we may only exchange a handful of words, but each meeting adds a depth and clarity to our memory of the journey. It is as if our recollection of those encounters brings the entire adventure into a sharper focus.

In Panama City, across the street from our hotel was one of the many, confusingly named “Mini Super” convenience stores that seem to be a constitutionally-required presence on each street.

Its owner greeted our first visit politely and we responded in kind. However, as soon as he realized that my wife and I were speaking English to each other, his features took on a concerned, almost haunted look. It was as if he instinctively knew that, in a matter of moments, we would be asking him – loudly and slowly – for directions to the nearest Starbucks in a language he didn’t understand.

Shortly, we approached his counter with half of the store’s contents precariously balanced in our arms. With a hint of nervousness and studiously avoiding the eye-contact that might provoke a conversation, he punched the cost of each item into his small desktop calculator before placing the goods carefully into a bag.

Finally, only a small container of yoghurt remained on the counter. With the transaction almost complete, he visibly relaxed as the threat of dialogue appeared to have been averted. Then, as he went to place the yoghurt in the bag, I asked him, “¿Tiene usted una cuchara?”

Over the years, I’m sure that a lot of spoons have been placed in a lot of bags, but I doubt that any have been accompanied by a broader, more relaxed smile.

We will never see that shopkeeper again. He will never know that he is now a part of our travel story, or that – when we arrived home and remembering his smile – a new set of language CDs started to spin.


Nick Orchard
5th July 2019


Useful links
Panama Canal Partial Tour Southbound (USD 125 per person): https://www.pmatours.net/


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