Becoming an expert.

Trip Start Sep 28, 2011
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Panama  , Colón,
Sunday, January 29, 2012

A few months ago I would have totally baulked at the idea I could travel alone in this part of the world without any grasp of the language.  Now I'm rapidly becoming an expert.  That's because I take taxi's.

Actually I'm not being entirely fair on myself.  I'm racing a little against time as I realise I've not seen the canal yet, and I need to be in Portobelo this evening.  The canal is outside the city and costs around $6 in a cab.  I decide it's best not to return to the hostel, check out, and pile all my belongings into the first yellow, black and white checked car I see.  As ever it's not that straightforward.

 I've noticed that customer service in the public transport industry isn't cutting edge.  I've been on buses where the driver has stopped for an ice cream and a natter to mates.  I've been in a pick up truck racing to make a last boat, and the driver has been flirting with someone out the window.  Here I'm treated to an impromptu journey around the Casco Viejo old town, while my driver goes about his errands.  It's also very disconcerting when he pulls into a side street, turns and utters; "un momento" then disappears into a dark ally, leaving me in the back of his cab, with all my worldly possessions on full display on my lap.

I make it to the canal and bundle myself into the visitor centre doors.  I have the option of paying $8 for the full tour with video presentations, or $5 to the observation deck.  I opt for the latter and bolt with alarming ease through security, carrying a massive ruck sack, a bag attached to my front and a guitar.  I guess the guitar convinced them I wasn't a terrorist.

So.  The famous Panama Canal.  They have a little viewing deck, with a cafe and bleachers to watch the ships descend to sea level.  Just to let you all know, in case you were under any disillusions; it's a canal.  We have them at home.  It's a canal, with very large locks, for very large ships.  We have them at home as well.  In Fort Augustus.  Granted they are slightly smaller, and maybe for not quite the same sized sea craft, but nonetheless it's still a canal.  Perhaps I should have done the full tour to appreciate it a little more.  They did do a nice burger though.

I snap a few shots, then boost back to the bus terminal, where someone screaming "Colon" helps me find my transport.  Unfortunately I need to get a connecting bus to Portobelo, but I'll cross that bridge when come to it.

And come to it I do.  After a sleepy couple of hours I arrive in Colon.  Now here is perhaps where I should have done some research.  Colon doesn't look at all gringo friendly.  It's a dirty city with nothing to redeem it on the surface, and I can't find the right bus with as much ease as I did in Panama City.  Again, seemingly for their own amusement, locals at the bus stop feed me the wrong information, or they claim to simply not know where the connection leaves from.  Some kind soul comes to my rescue and I make it to a chicken bus, which doesn't set off for another half an hour.

It's getting dark as we finally pull into Portobello.  Over the miles previous, I have been convinced I wasn't on the right bus.  I've tried to ask passengers to confirm if I'm going the correct way, but I've not received anything concrete.  I'm getting significantly more nervous as the light gets lower, but the sign I was craving finally looms out of the darkness.  I'm dropped in what appears to be a town centre.  Filthy with rubbish, apparently from a big party they had last night.

Now it starts to get sketchy.  There stand I, surrounded by a few pockets of locals, staring at the amount of stuff I've heaved onto my back, just as the sun drops totally away.  I have no idea where I'm going, or how to ask for it.  I give it a go anyway, and as usual I'm sent on a wild goose chase, before a broken English speaker leads an uneasy me to another welcome sign.  "Captain Jack's, 80 metres". 

Clambouring up the stairs to a raucous cheer from the by now very drunk punters in the bar usually would make me turn around and walk out.  As it stands, this is where I need to be, I find my friends, and collapse in a heap of success and ice cold beer.  The boat is booked, my bed confirmed and I have had another successful day of traveling alone.  I'm getting pretty damn good at this.  Travel is taken out of my hands for the next few days and that's very welcome.  I wonder how I'll fare in Colombia...
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