Red Devils and the City of Treasures

It was Friday –  the day I would see two oceans in one morning by way of the Panama Canal Railway. Zach and I woke up early and hopped on the metro.

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A metro train in Panama City

The metro in Panama City leaves me with very mixed feelings. The first and only line was completed just a year ago, meaning it is very new and clean. The trains come like clockwork, and the stations are big, open, and airy. It’s easy to feel safe as there is usually an armed guard at either end of the trains, and there are always guards at the ticket turnstiles. (Panama had some rough gang violence for many years, though things have calmed down recently.) However, some aspects of the metro did allow for some head-scratching. Large screens seemed to be advertising something exciting coming soon, but Zach explained to me that all the large screens were built but no contracts for advertisers sent out, so they were all blank. Of course. The trains are all far too short for the platform, almost as if they didn’t have money for more cars on the trains. This means that during rush hour, the trains turn into veritable sardine cans. To make matters worse, Panamanians aren’t afraid to outright shove, and they will gladly do so, since the train doors open for mere moments and don’t account for peak hour traffic. Hopefully, with the addition of the second line currently being built and longer cars, there will be less crowding. But it is interesting to see a metro culture in it’s infant years.

We arrived at Albrook Station, a massive commuter hub as well as a mall, and the crowd blossomed out of the trains to go catch connecting buses. We crossed over a large pedestrian bridge to get to the mall where we would find a taxi, and I looked out over the sea of Diablo Rojos and more official looking city buses. What is a Diablo Rojo, you might ask? I was soon poised to find out.

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Our taxi cab, lacking in seat belts and with an overabundance of check engine lights

Zach hailed a taxi that would take us to the nearby train station. I climbed into the backseat, mindlessly reaching for the seatbelt and coming up empty. Of course – in Panama, seatbelts were only required by law in the front seat, and for some reason only known to the Panamanians, backseat seat belts were consciously removed. At least, they were removed in every taxi and car I encountered in the country. So, I sat, unfastened and bouncing, as the taxi sped down the highway with salsa music blasting and the check engine light proudly shining from the dashboard. I held up the Dunkin Donuts coffee I had purchased at Albrook like some sort of holy relic, helplessly watching as the nut-brown elixir shot out the hole in the lid like some sort of misplaced, pathetic geyser.

The taxi whizzed by some landscapers mowing the lawns of office buildings using weed whackers. Yes, weed whackers. Inexplicably, Panamanians mow their lawns with weed whackers, resulting in incredibly closely cropped grass and the befuddlement of many a tourist. I will say, they are very dedicated to their lawn care.

Soon enough, we arrived at the Panama Canal Rail station, and after haggling our fare with the taxi driver, boarded the train. The Panama Canal Railway train is a freight and passenger line that runs between Panama City in the south and Colón in the north, connecting both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It runs parallel to the Panama Canal, and you can glimpse the canal through the trees at multiple points during the journey. It is incredibly strange to see a massive cruise ship sitting amongst the thick jungles inland, but that’s a wonder of the world for you. The cars themselves were pretty swanky, and what I would call “old world”. Zach and I got a booth to ourselves (not too difficult, considering how empty the car was) and sat on the left side of the train for the best views of the canal. A lady came through with a cart offering complimentary coffee, and I suppose that’s the closest I’ve been to the Hogwarts Express…so far.

 

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A staff member serves coffee on the Panama Canal Railway

 

The train chugged through the forests at a good clip, and lush, tropical vegetation came right up to the windows. Every now and then, I spotted small, rough shelters on the side of the tracks, and several of them were surrounded by men standing in the light rain, silently staring up at the train as it passed by. There were “smoker balconies” in between the cars, but most of us went out onto the balconies to feel the fresh air and get better views of the scenery. I held onto my Panama hat in the strong winds, but my jovial hat salesman from the day before was right, and the smaller size faithfully stuck to my pate.

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A cruise ship in the middle of Panama – crossing the Panama Canal

Soon enough we arrived in Colón, known as the second city of Panama. Colón is incredibly poor, and considered one of the more dangerous cities in the country. It is advised that tourists don’t go there, and if they do, spend as little time there as possible. Daylight muggings on main streets were said to be common.  Although I was quick to take the advice of passing through quickly, the rumours made me sad. There are fiercely proud people in Colón that would love to share their city with the world, and tourism can bring a lot of economic benefit to the city. The government built up a Free Trade Zone in the city in the hopes to spur some more development, but unfortunately many people that work and shop there come up for the day from Panama City and return there at night, leaving Colón right where it started.

Zach and I walked from the train station to the bus station, neither of us holding our phones out for directions. The streets were muddy and full of potholes. We passed tenement-style buildings, colorful laundry hanging on ropes out of almost every window. We reached the bus station, which was bustling with morning activity. Locals and tourists alike ran to catch their bus, drivers shouted out destinations, merchants sold trinkets and individual candies from tables in the middle of the sidewalk, and travelers grabbed breakfast from food booths emanating sizzling heat and the thick aroma of grease. Stray dogs twisted in and out of the crowd, and accompanied the sleeping homeless in dark niches. An official looking man pointed us in the direction of  bus to Portobelo, and my visual senses were overwhelmed with color. Although the bus system in Panama is fairly extensive, it’s only within the city that you see buses you’d expect. Out in the country? This was the land of the Red Devil.

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Some of the Diablo Rojos in Colón, Panama

Diablo Rojos, or Red Devils, are retired American school buses that get sold and shipped down to Central America, where they are painted in stunning patterns and colors and outfitted with enormous smokestacks in the back. I’m shocked the drivers can see anything, as the windshields are covered in elegant graffiti broadcasting the bus route. The safety of said buses may be questionable, but they are ingrained into society, since in many cases they are the only means of transportation between cities for folks living out in the countryside.

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Aboard a Diablo Rojo

Zach and I boarded the bus and took seats near the middle as we waited to depart. A mistake, we soon found, as the closer to the back you get, the more the suspension is a distant memory. The bus was covered in mold and the windows took every muscle in my arm to close as the unseasonal rains started to come down. The Diablo Rojo thundered to a start, and we were off towards Portobelo. The bus driver went impossibly fast, and didn’t even bother shutting the front door as he went. At most of the stops people hopped on and off with the bus still rolling – clearly, contrary to everything we had seen or would see in Panama, time was money on the Diablo Rojo. Safety was quite secondary. Though I did notice that most drivers will always wait at a full stop for women and children to be seated before tearing off again. We raced down twisty and narrow roads along the Atlantic coastline, brushing past other buses, to the point where our driver would casually reach out and pull in his side mirror every now and then. I focused on the waves to my left – this was the second ocean we saw that morning, since you could see the Pacific from Zach’s building.

Due to the harrowing speed of the bus, we were quickly at the town of Portobelo, allegedly named by Christopher Columbus 1502. It is also said to be the resting place of Sir Francis Drake, among other rich histories. It was established in the Spanish Colonial Period and used as a stopping point for the Spanish Treasure fleets. The Spanish built extensive fortifications in the natural harbor, the ruins of which can be explored today.

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A glimpse inside the Church of the Black Christ in Portobelo, Panama

It was quite overcast and rainy in the small town. We walked through the wet streets to the famous Church of the Black Christ. Cristo Negro, or ‘Black Christ’, is a highly venerated wooden statue that washed up on the shores of Portobelo in the 17th century. Every time there was an attempt to remove the statue from the city there was a great storm, so there the statue remains, a source of pilgrimage from all over. Alas, a sign at the door of the church asked for those in shorts and short sleeves to refrain from entering, so I made do with glimpsing the statue from afar as Zach walked in for a better picture.

Sadly, the treasure house was closed for renovations, so Zach and I continued on to explore the fortifications of San Lorenzo and San Jeronimo. The fortifications were in ruins, but the walls, watchtowers, and cannons were left intact. We schlepped through inches of mud and climbed up to the little watchtowers for views out into the harbor. There were many boats anchored in the harbor, and Zach and I were very curious to see several boats that looked like they were straight up sinking. Yet no one seemed to be in a panic, so neither were we. Determined to see everything there was to see, we walked down dark staircases and turned on phone flashlights in dark tunnels, but none of them went very far and nothing greeted us except an exceedingly strong smell of must and mold. I did brave a foot of water to go look into a small enclosure – I expected only about six inches, and got a nasty surprise when my foot immediately plummeted deeply into silt and dirt. The amazingly fascinating view of absolutely nothing was, perhaps, not quite worth it.

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Exploring the town and ruins in Portobelo, Panama

We walked back to the center of town to find a place to eat, and ended up at Casa Congo, a restaurant right on the harbor. We enjoyed garlic shrimp and Ropa Vieja, a flavorful cuban meat dish. Along with Panama beers, of course. After the meal, feeling like we’d seen just about all there was to see of the city, we decided to start the journey back to Panama City. Luckily, buses ran every thirty minutes through the town back to Colón, and we only had to wait a few minutes at the bus stop outside a convenience store. Though it was enough time for me to watch a man go into the store to do some shopping, his pump action shotgun in hand. Like you do.

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Our fiercely decorated Diabo Rojo that took us from Portobelo to Colón

The ride back from Portobelo was no less hair raising. That particular Diablo Rojo had brakes that positively screamed when in use, which, incidentally, didn’t seem to be as often as I would have liked. I’m not sure if the Red Devil was the bus or the driver, and I am ashamed to say I gripped the seat in front of me quite hard with white knuckles. I felt like a jumpy tourist, as no one else was bothered in the least. Some were napping, others chatting on their phones, and children and chickens walking on the side of the road were nonplussed as the Diablo Rojo roared by.

In Colón we switched from the Diablo Rojo to a coach bus. It was already almost full by the time we boarded, and I was separated from Zach for the ride. I sat next to a Guna woman, and between her, a man standing in the aisle next to me, and the woman in front of me who joyfully discovered that the seats could recline, I became the poster child of claustrophobia. The bus driver’s assistant squeezed up and down the aisle, advertising Doritos and water for sale in impossibly fast Spanish. Despite my 20 square inches of space, the ride back would have been uneventful, but about halfway through, a woman seemed to be incensed that the bus route changed, shouting and raving from the middle of the bus that the driver was “loco”. The argument grew heated enough for the crowded bus to stop on the side of the road for the argument to finish, and it would have been tense if not for everyone chuckling quietly to themselves and shaking their heads. Luckily for my squashed self, we were soon on our way again, and thanks to Zach’s quick thinking, we managed to alight at one of the first metro stations we passed rather than go all the way through the city at rush hour, saving us an hour of time. Good man.

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Zach thoroughly “enjoying” the unique exercise contraption in a park in Panama City

Christine met us at Albrook, and despite thinking we could maybe attempt the Amador Causeway, my energy levels ran out and we returned to their neighborhood. After more of  Zach’s delicious lasagna and The Simpsons in Spanish, we went out for batidos (milkshakes). Batidos were a close second to palatas as my favorite dessert in Panama, and I enjoyed such flavors as cherry, passionfruit, mango, and even avocado. I never thought I would have an avocado milkshake, and its unique flavor was strangely addictive, and easily deceived me into thinking I was being healthy. Which I totally wasn’t. Luckily, that night on our walk home, we found a local park with all sorts of exercise contraptions, and burned off perhaps a tenth of our batidos. Indeed, from an old world train to delicious milkshakes, it was a day in Panama well spent.

 

 

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