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  1. The only man wearing a Panama hat is an American travelling first class, already costumed in a white blazer.

This was the first thing I wrote in my notebook as I began to gather my thoughts about travelling to Panama City, the metropolis located on the Pacific side of the famous isthmus. It was May 2008, and I was on the plane from Newark when I scribbled these words down, en route to the small international airport that is the major hub for visitors to the land of the world’s most famous canal.

Coming across this brief note years later, I can recall that moment of first spying the gentleman at Newark, and then seeing him again, as we all waited on the other end at customs, paying our $10 entry visa fees. Though it wasn’t my first time arriving alone in a foreign country, I looked everywhere for clues about the best way to proceed, the quickest way to push myself into a Panamanian mindset. The man with the Panama hat had no doubt decided on his attire in his own attempt to acknowledge his final destination. He was prepared for one type of Panamanian experience: the country that was American enough that John McCain, then campaigning as the Republican candidate for president, was eligible for the post because he was born in the American-run Canal Zone. The Canal Zone is back under Panamanian governance, but American Panama still thrives in Panama City.

I was, as usual, travelling on the cheap, but all I wanted was to get to the place I was staying and settle in. Instead of trying to band together with other arrivals for mini-van transport, I let a cab driver lead me to his taxi. I showed him the address I’d scribbled on a piece of paper and suddenly we were driving into the tropical night. I wondered if I would see my man in the Panama hat again. I would not.

  1. Being in a foreign (language) culture – forces the word-person into experiencing the visual. Deepens relationship to own language? Heightened.

The ‘word-person’ was, of course, myself. In high school I took Latin; for a few months in 2003 I lived in Italy and took foreign language classes every day. I had never spoken Spanish, though I had muddled my way through reading some of the language. I had once been told that Italian speakers could make themselves understood by Spanish speakers, and vice versa. I didn’t realise until I landed in Panama City that this might be true in Europe, but in Central America hearing the Italian language just confuses people. Likewise my own slow and imperfect comprehension of Italian wasn’t much help when I tried to understand the uncertain replies of my interlocutors. Italian seems to sound just familiar enough to Panamanians that they think perhaps they are meant to understand it, but it’s different enough that it registers as just what it is: a foreign language.

And so, on my first morning I navigated my way from my hostel’s enclave, firmly outside the ritzier expat area, towards Casco Viejo, an older part of the city on the southeast side. Casco Viejo was once a hub of activity, the city that was built after the original Panama City – Panama Viejo – was sacked by the pirate Henry Morgan. Just as the hub had shifted after that sacking, as the city grew, its centre shifted again, and this old quarter of Casco Viejo fell into disrepair. In time it gained a reputation for being dangerous – but then, after being designated as a World Heritage site, Casco Viejo slowly began to re-establish its glamour. The mix of decay and grandeur is an equation in the process of being recalculated.

The local buses used to be school buses from the USA. Upon receiving a new lease of life in Panama they were treated to a gaudy new paint job. They streamed down busy roads in lurid abandon, seats still showing the wear that accompanies years of student abuse. From my hostel I walked to the main road and then I hopped on the bus that, as far as I could fathom, displayed the right number. I got off in the centre of town. I walked down a side street with a bustling market, attracted by the chaos of open-air retail. Coming out the other side, I sat down to get my bearings. Thinking I knew my way, I walked down streets in the sultry mid-morning heat of the wet season. I took a wrong turn, and, recognisably out of place, was set right by a passer-by who spoke to me in broken English. Gracias, I answered. Gratitude always the first language mastered in a new country.

And I looked. While so often I am a reader and a listener, in a foreign country I suddenly rely on my eyes much more as language fails me. The world lays out its splendour, its squalor, its confusing, confused, array. Looking bridges the gap created by the lack of language. In Casco Viejo I found that the direction to look was often upward. Ornate architecture bloomed at the tops of buildings, and I could also see an invasion of vibrant tropical plants along the skyline. As I looked I thought about the way that in drought-prone regions of the world, buildings fall apart for the opposite reasons of the pervasive decay in the tropics – and yet the buildings themselves look remarkably similar as they slide into a fallen state.
Wandering in the city I somehow quickly come to plot my own routes, to find my own landmarks, to memorise the visual elements that I so often miss in the English-speaking world. I can’t help but wonder if that foreignness I experience when I reach the language barrier has a tendency to exoticise my surroundings further. Is the decay of Casco Viejo more picturesque to me because its decay is written in a foreign tongue?

  1. The walls of hostels all resemble one another, only with newer or older paint.

Another hostel, and there they were on the wall: the barrage of brochures advertising still more hostels. In David, the purple house run by a former Peace Corps volunteer who stayed. In the archipelago Bocas del Toros, the frat house-like dormitories. In Boquete, high in the mountains, the hostel that would turn out to be two spare rooms filled with bunk beds in someone’s family home. I would stay in these places in the coming weeks, as they were named in the guidebooks, and available to book online. It sometimes seems difficult to escape the identity of tourist. On the noticeboard there were suggestions of things to do: visit the canal, take tango classes. The walls were scratched, marked, and a little damp. The plumbing was suspect. A map covered part of the wall, and was itself covered in pins to show the web of people who had passed through.

I would have written ‘that had passed through its doors’ except that this hostel didn’t have doors. After walking through a gate downstairs, the stairs led up directly into the reception area and lounge. A piece of material sufficed as the barrier between inside and out.

  1. Clara Bow – shame? Erasure?

Because no matter where I am, and what new sights surround me, my thoughts slip back. The same preoccupations follow me. Clara Bow had been on my mind, the subject of a poem I was writing, or trying to write. She was the brightest lit of film stars for those few years in the 1920s when she was It. Hollywood was besotted with her, and she built her career on zany exuberance. ‘Madcap’ is a word often used in descriptions of her; a word not heard often anymore. Once glamorous, she – like the once-stately Casco Viejo – had slipped into disrepair. Terrified of talking in the new sound films, she fled Hollywood and slipped into agoraphobic madness. In the town of Searchlight, Nevada a collection of her hats is still on display at the local history museum, which occupies a corner of the tiny local library. She couldn’t stand the buzz of Hollywood life, but also couldn’t abide the loneliness of small-town Nevada: Searchlight a town without even a cinema.

At the time, Las Vegas (about an hour’s drive from Searchlight) was not yet Las Vegas. Searchlight was still a frontier, an outpost of dust. Panama, too, was a frontier – the famous canal was the ultimate act of trailblazing – and an outpost. Canal-zone expats have no doubt wiled away long, steamy afternoons for decades with games of solitaire, or cheap mystery novels. I couldn’t escape the sense that wherever it was ‘all happening’, that place was not here. The boats all passed through, but they were all on the way elsewhere.

  1. On television, showing English, Spanish subtitles – B grade teen horror/thriller – proprietor, Z., watching with guests.

No matter the time of day, the hostel always had someone sprawled on the couch, overcome by wet season lassitude. After darkness fell, the numbers swelled. The television was always on, and at some point in the evening the telenovelas switched into ‘prime time’ fare: prime time, presumably, because the programs came from the USA, not because they carried any stamp of quality.

The hostel owner didn’t seem to have any greater energy than her guests. She was young. She hovered. She wasn’t concerned with the slow slump her business was taking – sped up, of course, by the travellers that were only concerned with paying little for crashing for a night or two, and had no investment in keeping things clean. While there was a lady she hired to come in occasionally to take care of the kitchen and bathrooms, all those efforts seemed perfunctory. I didn’t feel that she was so much representative of Panamanians as she was representative of a certain type of hostel proprietor I had come across on other travels, in other countries. She recognised that people who wanted to travel cheaply would often accept cold showers, leaking pipes, broken ceiling fans, lumpy mattresses – that she could make money from the low standards of her guests. I heard about other, nicer hostels, only a dollar or two more, but the lassitude hit me too. I’d already learned to find my way around, I’d booked for a number of nights; the place would do.

Running a hostel provided our proprietor an opportunity to be the leader of an ever-changing ‘in’ crowd. A couple of guests travelling together one night began to ask about places to go out – not just the same old local bars, but a place more akin to a club. As the owner mentioned places, more and more of the people draped over the couches or hunched at the computer terminals became interested. Eventually everyone in the hostel decided to take off together, including our host. Walking out en masse we waited as our leader rustled up a few taxi-vans and gave instructions to their drivers.

We ended up inside the ruins of a building in Casco Viejo. Its roof missing, the place was like a walled courtyard. An impromptu bar sat in the corner, offering a limited range of drinks, and on the remains of an interior wall a DJ had set up his equipment. We hostel guests were the only non-Panamanians there, which no doubt made us feel somehow more successful as ‘travellers’, to have come to a really ‘local’ establishment, or, as the case was, non-establishment. We drank and danced with locals; some revellers drifted off to other late-night, pop-up places in the old quarter, some looked set to stay on as long as the music kept up, and I joined a few in a taxi across town, back to our beds.

  1. Met some other travellers who changed hostels this morning, including Ishmael, who wanted to keep talking to me.

I’m generally too shy a traveller to join outings, or to know how to begin conversations with other hostellers. Somehow I’m better talking with locals, perhaps because the language barrier limits what can be said. Backpackers often talk of being on ‘their journey’, and in regions like Central America more of them seemed to be planning to spin those journeys out for as long as possible; I had only three weeks, wedged between the end of a semester of study at Georgetown University and the teaching job I had lined up for six weeks mid-summer, also at the university. When I travel, I read intensely, and sometimes feel that I have left my regular abode in part to be able to reconnect with books in a deep way. In Panama, as in so many other places before, I wandered through the city alone for six or seven hours, and read for another five or so hours. About once a week I stretched my day of explorations for as long as twelve hours. Mostly, however, I stuck to this solitary routine. I don’t share my experiences with other travellers much – though I often eavesdrop on them – and instead I share my thoughts on it all with a notebook. I feel that my way of being, my own desire for anonymity, and, too, my bookish interests separate me from many of my fellow travellers. I can’t help but feel that what is right for me looks, to many hostel-dwellers, like ‘doing it wrong’.

But in this hostel, and on our excursion to the temporary bar/club in Casco Viejo, I began talking. I met Claire, a serene German girl who had arrived in Panama after six months in South America. She was attempting to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the original Spanish, in order to improve her language skills. She told me of an affair she had that led her from Peru to Ecuador, and of the volunteer work she had done in rural Peru. She told me she stopped taking anti-malarial medication in the first few weeks, and was still fine. The huge pills were something I, too, had stopped taking – you are only mildly more likely to contract malaria in Panama than you are in the other Panama City, located in Florida. I told her of my long day’s trip to the Caribbean side of the canal, seeing the canal locks outside Colón without yet having seen the Pacific side locks. We decided to go together to the Pacific side, and then to go to the zoo, up in the rainforest. When this trip happened two days later we both forgot insect repellent, and, bitten all over, we decided to try out something Claire had heard, to see if it was true: if you do not respond to the itchiness of a bite for half an hour, she said – if you can just refrain from scratching – it will stop tormenting you. We kept our hands in pockets, or clasped them together. At some point the itching subsided, but we hadn’t kept an eye on the clock.

I met Zora and Jessica, who were college friends. They attended what they described as a hippie college in Washington State, and their four-month journey around Central America qualified as ‘independent study’. They mentioned flooded roads in Nicaragua, and encountering families torn apart by drug cartel activity in Guatemala. They were nearing the end of their trip, and they too had taken on a certain serenity. The doorlessness of our hostel didn’t bother them.

I met a man whose name I never learned, who was looking for a boat to Cartagena. He was on the southward journey – he hoped this journey would go for months, but he was worried about the boat. A guy who’d found a berth in the opposite direction put him in contact with another guy, who in turn put him in touch with the captain of one of the boats drifting back and forth between Panama and Colombia. He’d paid money upfront – several hundred dollars – and hadn’t seen the boat. He’d heard about captains running drugs on this route, but was risking it because he didn’t want to fly into South America; he wanted to arrive by sea – to not arrive too fast. He was worried this leg of his journey would turn sour if the ship was inspected and found to be carrying illicit goods, casting suspicion on all aboard; most such journeys work out as the ships enter port at Cartagena either without inspections or without arrests, and the travellers aboard pass on. Nonetheless, this guy worried that something would befall him in the coming weeks, and force him to go home. Everyone I met on these long-haul journeys was worried they would have to return home too soon.

And then I talked with Ishmael. He was studying engineering. He asked about my studies in literature (he had seen my pile of books in the dorm) and about my own writing. Like me, his time in Panama was comparatively brief, but was a necessary respite at the end of another year of study.

Unlike Claire and Zora and Jessica, Ishmael was not happy with doorlessness and the languid proprietor more interested in fun than in the proper functioning of showers or the security of lockers. Within an hour of checking in – right before we all went to the bar – he made a booking to switch hostels the next day. When I woke, before most of my fellow revellers of the night before, I found him gathering his bags together. He was moving to a place in Casco Viejo, a place that offered pancake breakfasts and guaranteed ‘new’ mattresses. ‘I’d like to talk with you more, though,’ he said, hesitating on his way out. I do not remember my exact response, but I often agree with such sentiments, and perhaps gave him a means of contacting me. Like the man in the Panama hat, I never saw him again.

  1. Watching Indiana Jones in Panama City.

Sometimes I need an escape from travel itself. I am certain I am not the only person who longs for that escape from time to time – years ago I’d watched tourists sitting at Pizza Hut in Italy. While this seemed like a particular affront, I understood the pull of the familiar. My escape, however, isn’t usually to retreat into the familiar flavours of home, but to the familiar feeling of entering an imagined world. I do this with the books I read, and with cinema. In Panama City a ticket to the movies cost $2, and the mid-afternoon rain made it an attractive option. So it was that I saw Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull not once but twice. I didn’t consider the new chapter of Indy’s adventures worth the second viewing, but the pleasant lull of the movies, the escape from the humidity, drew me back.

There is something comforting about seeing bad movies – even seeing them more than once – in foreign cities. But impatience with the film itself made the confusion once again preferable to the thought of escaping in the darkened room for a few short hours. The discomfort of realising that Indiana Jones had grown a paunch, even if he could apparently still crack a whip, was in the end more confronting than monsoon rains and steam rising off the pavement when I left the cinema again.

  1. Proper caffe latte – $1.50, café con leche $1.25.

Travellers keep different kinds of indexes. Cost of a hamburger. Cost of a bus fare. Cost of museum entry.

My index is based on my daily pleasure: a good cup of coffee. Panama is in a part of the world where good coffee is in ready supply – its neighbour to the West, Costa Rica, is a large coffee exporter; so, too, Colombia to the East. Panama, by contrast, doesn’t export much coffee: due to the variousness of the landscape, and the large part of the country not at all developed in the Darien jungle wilderness, coffee is not grown in the same quantity as it is in neighbouring countries, and so the relatively low yield is almost exclusively for domestic consumption. The quality, however, is high.

The prices I noted down first came from a tourist area. I’m embarrassed now by the snobbery betrayed by that word ‘proper’, as if it is more correct to drink it the way growing up in Melbourne groomed me to. I quickly switched from the latte to the café con leche. Later I discovered a stand in the local supermercato where my café con leche was only 75 cents. The fluoro lighting and its windowless corner of the building made it a less attractive place for sitting from the point of view of a tourist, but I always find the parade of local life that inevitably passes through any grocery store fascinating to watch – and the coffee was good. While waiting for a movie to start at the theatre a block up the street, I sat in this café and wrote postcards that I wouldn’t send until I’d already left the country. I read novels I’d picked up at the main supplier of English-language books in the city: I had raided the literature section to find the three or four Penguin classics I hadn’t yet read. I scribbled more notes in a notebook. It was during mundane escapes like this that I made my truncated observations of places that still remain strange to me.

  1. All shoe stores are air-conditioned.

It’s not the heat so much as the humidity that is crippling, through the long stretch from midday to sunset. Hair drips down the back of the neck, all movements cost a near unbearable effort. It is the perfect weather for reclining with a book, for letting a completely ineffective fan breeze over the top of me, but instead I wander.

I arrived in Panama with one pair of sneakers and one falling-apart pair of sandals. The sandals, I knew, were no good for a great deal of walking and I ended up throwing them out. By the end of my first day I didn’t want to continue with the sneakers either. My socks were drenched when I peeled them off, which was somehow much worse than the inevitable sweaty dampness of all my other clothes. I had already revived myself in a number of shoe shops. All had shop fronts with their doors thrown open to the street; their air conditioning was enticing, entirely effective. I can only imagine the energy consumed as the cool, dry air pushed out the doors, into the stifling street and then vanished a few feet into the damp heat.

I bought a pair of shoes – leather slides, five dollars, the last pair – and they are still among the most comfortable of my summer shoes. I wore those shoes as I walked in the rainforest; I wore them as I caught the boat to and from the Archipelago Bocas del Toro, passing a turtle conservation site, and left them waiting on the sand as I swam for the first time in the Caribbean; a few weeks later I wore them as I saw a volcano erupt in Costa Rica; many months later I wore them as I walked a Labrador owned by a friend and teacher around Bethesda, Maryland; two years later I wore them as I drove several thousand kilometres around the American Southwest. They are possibly the cheapest pair of new shoes I have ever bought and every time I put them on I recall my initial relief as I tossed my sneakers aside and slipped my feet into them. Every time I pull my feet out of them they have accumulated the dirt of another day.

  1. The man with the hat – tan/camel pans, white blazer, thick rimmed glasses – like the millionaire you assume is a patsy until it turns out Marilyn’s character really does love him.

Still that image kept coming back to my mind: the man arriving already dressed for Panama. As if, I thought to myself, dressing in accordance with some image from a movie.

There’s more than one potential patsy among Marilyn’s on-screen lovers. In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes it’s Gus Esmond, the shy, wealthy man whose father doesn’t approve of Marilyn’s Lorelei Lee – assuming she’s a gold digger. And she admits it: ‘I don’t want to marry your son for his money,’ she explains to Gus’s father. ‘I want to marry him for your money.’ Except, of course, she wants to marry him for money and love. In How to Marry a Millionaire, it’s Marilyn’s Pola Debevoise who’s on the make. She’s initially chosen the wrong man: an imposter who pretends to be a millionaire instead of the real deal. Her own vanity sets her right: she hates to wear her glasses, as she believes they get in the way of landing herself a job as a trophy wife – and it’s that very resistance to wearing her glasses that frees her from the imposter as, at the denouement, she wanders onto the wrong plane. (Was this really once possible?) Heading to the wrong destination – that will of course be the right destination after all – she finds herself seated next to a kindly old gentleman who encourages her to put her glasses on. He likes women who look smart. And it turns out, of course, that he’s a millionaire. Were they jetting off to Panama?

How many places in the world have I imagined from movies? In Panama, the men who wear what we think of as Panama hats are almost never Panamanians. The hat was imported from Ecuador, but was useful to the canal workers: a well-made Panama allows no water through its tight weave, a relief in this rainy tropical region. On street corners and in shops everywhere these hats are on sale. They range in price from five dollars – serviceable as any hat in providing shade, but no real relief from all that water, especially as they warp when drenched through – to over a hundred dollars for the genuine, artisanal article. I assumed the man travelling in first class had this kind of Panama hat, the real McCoy. There were no doorless hostels in his future. He would no doubt mingle with that half-glamorous, half-languorous expat community.

But was I the patsy? When booking my trip I considered the money I had in the bank, and looked at the map of Central America with the friend I thought I would be travelling with. I calculated which flights I could afford and contemplated the options. She wanted to go to Mexico. I resisted, perhaps strangely, because I had wanted to travel to Mexico for years. I discounted Guatemala because, again, I had wanted to travel there for a long time. I landed on Panama because I realised that the only thing I knew about it was that there was a canal. I wanted to find out what else was there. My friend, who also booked a flight into Panama, changed her mind and, after spending twenty-four hours in the country during which we failed to meet, she flew to the Yucatan Peninsula where she had really wanted to go all along. Though I still very much want to go to Mexico, and still imagine it would be fun to travel with a friend, I am glad to have chosen the stranger adventure, crossing the country’s 80-mile width within a few hours and then coming back. The Caribbean and the Pacific in a single day. I think of Keats returning from the Atlantic side, the wild surmise of the Darien vantage point, the opening wonder of the Pacific Ocean on the other side of the thin wafer of land.

Perhaps the man in the Panama hat arrived with an idea of the place conjured from spy-dom – by The Tailor from Panama – because John LeCarre was once the most famous expat in the place. I had never read a LeCarre novel when I arrived, though I loved watching thrillers, and I had carefully alphabetised some of his books as a teenager when arranging my parents’ disorderly library. Now I wonder why, instead of picking up the black Penguin classics I always defaulted to, I hadn’t picked one of the expat’s Smiley series. Habits are hard to break; I have never been able to settle into the ‘beach read’. But while I was there I wanted to see the place where the author had spent many of his own days and nights. I looked for the bar he had frequented, a legendary institution said to plunge its customers into the milieu of international intrigue. Supposed to be located only one or two streets over from my own hostel, I wandered by the address again and again: all I found was a cul-de-sac with no activity. The spooks, it seemed, had cleared out. What was left were us travellers, wandering between North and South America, wondering what else there was to the country besides a famous canal, occasionally finding out, or fooling ourselves into thinking we were finding out. Navigating between the idea of the place we had come to and the place itself. Arriving already kitted out for the place we thought we were visiting. Never finding it.

Image credit: Martin Sharman