Every time I travel to a new country for the first time, I have a mental list of all the things I want to see and do there, a carefully considered ranking of what really matters to me the most, a map of what I expect to touch my soul, so that I can make the best use of my time there.
It is with a bubbly mixture of both embarrassment and pride that I admit:
The #1 thing on my list for visiting Panama was to drive around Panama blasting Van Halen’s Panama.
The Panama Canal was #2.
Suffice it to say, mission accomplished.
Got the feeling!
Nothing can stop me now!
Hell yeah! They should have this song playing all the time everywhere in Panama, like how Georgia’s constantly playing Ray Charles all the time. I guarantee tourism would go up 100%.
I know what you’re thinking, “But that song’s not even about Panama! It’s about a racecar or some shit.” But is it? David Lee Roth could have just as easily sang “Enema!” you know. It’s the right number of syllables and colonic health is pretty rock ‘n roll. But he didn’t. Because that’s not what the song is about. Besides, Born in the U.S.A. is about screwing over Vietnam vets and nobody gave a shit about that.
You don’t choose national anthems, Panama, they choose you. And yours is way more fun to sing than ours. I’m jealous.
Visiting the Panama Canal feels surprisingly like going to a relatively high-end shopping mall in Orange County, California. The ambiance is much less 3rd World than I was expecting. I thought there might be, maybe, like a little canal-side shed there where you could buy greasy Panama hats and maybe an industrial-looking control room where you could blunder in and watch the canal jockeys guide boats through the canal as flies buzzed around a tattered fly strip hanging from the ceiling.
Instead, it’s an extremely well-developed tourist trap, with lots of air-conditioned shopping, a museum and a goddamned IMAX theater.
“I didn’t come all the way to Panama to sit in an IMAX theater!” I scoffed as I strolled past the long chain of ticket counters.
After an hour of watching boats slowly pass through the canal I was back to buy an IMAX ticket because this shit isn’t that exciting and I didn’t come all the way to the Panama Canal to leave after an hour, dog.
Zounds! There’s a ship approaching!
OH MY GOD IT’S RIGHT ON TOP OF US no I’m kidding it took like an hour to close that distance.
The Liberian cargo ship Baltic Summer was passing through the canal while I was there, bound for Amsterdam and laden with sex slaves- Actually I made that up, the only interesting thing about this boat is that when I just now looked up where it was from to write this paragraph, I was surprised to see that the boat is actually passing through the Panama Canal again, right now. So maybe the whole process takes even longer than I thought.
To pass through the canal, ships have to be met by official canal boats as they approach, then the canal pilots board the ships like pirates and take control to pilot them through the canal, kind of like when your dad insists on parking all the cars at Christmas because the angle into the garage is tricky.
Something’s on fire? That’s cool.
The boats are also guided by two tiny little Japanese trains that lead the ships with cables like a dog on a leash, to prevent the massive ships from dorfing right into the canal walls and destroying the whole thing and wrecking the entire tourist attraction which would be a big problem because the only other movie the IMAX theater has is The Klumps, I asked them. No one wants this, so these little $2.3-million-dollar mule locomotives are on the job, keeping the world safe from saggy boob jokes.
The locomotives tow the ships into the locks, which close behind the boat, and then the ship is lowered by a gravity-fed process, draining the water out of one lock and letting it flow into the parallel lock where another ship is simultaneously raised... Waaaait-
OH MY GOD THERE ARE TWO BOATS GOING THROUGH THE CANAL IN OPPOSITE DIRECTIONS AT THE SAME TIME THIS IS MADNESS MY MIND CAN’T TAKE IT TELL MY KIDS I LOVE THEM OH SHIT I FORGOT TO HAVE KIDS WHAT A MESS AT LEAST I GOT TO SEE ONE TRULY INCREDIBLE THING IN MY LIFE BEFORE I DIED
Anyway, the ship in the other traffic lane was also being assisted by a tug boat pushing it along like they were trying to stuff an elephant into a cupboard. I was mostly mesmerized by how the canal lock had little handrails on it and I really wanted to walk across it. It was unclear how you made this happen, if you had to buy an extra-large popcorn at the IMAX theater or what.
The shifting of the water from one lock to the other is kind of hypnotizing because it’s painfully slow, but then you space out for a second and suddenly realize you can see way more of the ship being raised in the far channel than you could before, like that gag where somebody behind the couch pretends they’re riding up in an elevator.
Ah, I see, the other ship is the SBI Perseus, a cargo ship out of… Liberia? Way to give us some variety, Panama Canal. Boo. If you need me I’ll be off Googling why in the hell Liberia is doing all the shipping in the world.
Once the Baltic Summer had been lowered into place, the lock opened and the Mitsubishi mule trains guided it out toward the open ocean.
Goodbye, Baltic Summer. I hardly knew ye in spite of the copious amounts of time we spent together.
Inside, an air-conditioned museum tells you the story of the digging of the canal in probably too much detail, really, but it’s not like they could go off on a tangent about cold fusion or something more interesting without people asking questions. Anyway, they had the original canal lock doors from 1914…
And an exhibit dedicated to poor Carl, who was the mule before Japanese robot trains were invented.
The IMAX movie was very large and informative, covering the original doomed French attempt to build a canal, which did not go so well, as doomed attempts tend to go. The project was simplified greatly during the subsequent American go at it, by just flooding the whole area to create Gatun Lake, then using locks to lift ships up to lake level on either end, in contrast to the original “Let’s dig a big trench through an entire country. What could go wrong?” plan. It turns out you have to do a lot less digging when you just flood the whole damn country. Easy peasy.
Two tidbits stood out to me as particularly interesting.
One was that American ran the canal at cost, meaning the fees charged to ships for using the canal were just tied to whatever it cost to keep the canal running, rather than running it for a profit. I don’t know guys, that sounds kind of Un-American to me.
The second was that in 1977, Jimmy Carter just up and decided “Eh, what the hell. I’m bored. Let’s give the canal to the Panamanians. Can you imagine the looks on their faces? This’ll really make their day!”
Look, I’m of the general opinion that all of our presidents in both parties are just stooges for evil rich old fucks, but I like how you stooge, Jimmy Carter.
After a stop in the city for tasty vegan milanesa (which I ironically couldn’t find at all in Argentina), I was off to Metropolitan National Park, a large tropical rainforest situated right in Panama City. Hiking through the jungle, it quickly became apparent that this wasn’t pants weather. Surprise, it’s humid AF climbing a mountain in the rainforest! Who knew? Everyone? Cool.
Thankfully, I’d bought some pants that zip off into shorts for this trip, which saved my life in spite of the fact that I had fully believed I was too cool for that kind of thing every day of my entire life right up until that moment when I zipped off those pant legs and the audible countdown to when my balls were going to explode stopped at 1. Whew!
The hike was lovely, looking up into the canopy of vine-covered trees and stopping to step over countless bustling leafcutter ant parades bisecting the trail.
The top of the mountain offered a view of the Panama Canal on one side and downtown Panama City on the other. Sweet!
On the way back down, I approached the tiny booth where you were supposed to pay some kind of admission fee when you entered the park, but which had been unmanned when I got there. Now there was a soldier standing next to the booth. Uh-oh. Maybe I can talk my way out of this.
I said hola and started into some ragged Spanish asking if this was where you paid the entrance fee or if- The soldier cut me off and told me to follow him. Uh-oh.
He headed off into the woods and beckoned me to follow him. Uh-oh.
I apprehensively followed. It’ll sure be cool if I survive this.
He stopped under a tree and pointed up into the canopy.
I stood next to him and looked up. Absolutely nothing. Leaves. Sky. Tree stuff.
“Eh?” he asked.
I definitely need to play along with this. Oh yeah dude, that’s amazing.
“Ohhhh, wow. …what …is it?” I asked, in Spanish. Good strategy Sean.
“Sloth!” he answered.
“Ohhhh, right!” I replied, not seeing anything at all up in the tree. Thankfully the soldier was satisfied with my simulated wonder and wandered off to go point out more nothing to other people.
After a few more minutes of staring up into the tree in case the soldier came back, something moved. Oh shit! There is a sloth up there. WAY up there! It was moving very slowly and darkly silhouetted against the bright sky. Holy shit! A wild sloth! So, so cool.
I took four pictures of the sloth and looking at them now, he’s not in any of them. Freaking ghost sloths, man.
While I was watching the sloth be slow, it began to rain profusely. Not ideal “Looking up a tree” weather. I hustled off and hid underneath the awning of the tiny fee-paying booth, where the soldier was also waiting out the rain, while I waited for my Uber to come.
Doot de doot de doo. C’mon, Uber! Don’t be afraid, the guy next to me with the machine gun is just a sloth enthusiast, no need to- oh come back.
Panama City isn’t generally famous as one of the beautiful cities of the world, but it sure showed up and was photogenic on the day that I was there.
I love this guy’s statue posture. “Hey ladies…”
When the English pirate Henry Morgan ransacked Panama City in the 1600s, the priests at the Church of San Jose painted this famous golden altar black to convince Morgan that it was made of wood. When Morgan asked what happened to the famous golden altar, the head priest said it had been stolen by other pirates, and that Morgan should donate to the church so they could get a new one. And that’s how that priest became the patron saint of having brass balls.
Not to be confused with the patron saint of check it out I found a tiny boat I bet mice sailed on this thing you guys, so cute.
And you said Jesus wasn’t a pimp. Bet you feel silly now!
Let’s not forget Japan’s gift to the world… Captain America.
A beautiful quiet moment with this homeless guy sitting on the church steps as the sun begins to set.
Wow all the graffiti in this town is incredible, what beautiful AHH CLOWNS WHAT THE FUCK PANAMA CITY I THOUGHT WE WERE FRIENDS
Before I knew it I was on my way back to the airport, which had a few tricks up its own sleeve, like this 100% legit airport chapel.
Uhm, you guys know that being called a banana republic isn’t exactly a compliment… right?
Must be a lot of Beverly Hills Cop fans down here.
Yeah, but don’t you have any BIG deathbunnies?
I… I think Black History Month must mean something very different in Panama.
Pack your bags, black folks! Jeez guys... oh. In time I figured out that it was just an entire month of Black Friday sales. Sounds terrifying.
Wow, okay. So that was Panama. Take us home, BB8...