I had never seen a windscreen adorned with a feather boa before. Nor had I seen a bus gearlever and steering wheel covered in matching pink sparkly tape. I’m fairly sure I’ve never seen a bus with Hugo Chavez and Osama Bin Laden painted on the back of it either, but in Panama City they are not your average buses. Decorated with bright murals and each with its own theme, they are full of character. I’ve been on pimped up buses with spiky hub caps blasting out rap at ear bleeding volume, chintzy buses with floral-covered seats playing violin concertos and loud r ‘n’ b buses with teenagers at the wheel and their friends dancing in the isles. Getting around the city is good fun, certainly more fun than the 16 hour Tica Bus journey from San Jose to Panama City. The freezing air conditioning which gave way to what felt like a heat wave, did not make for a comfortable trip. Although when I wasn’t adding or taking off layers of clothing, the beautiful mountains and lush green countryside made for a good distraction. As did my book, A House for Mr Biswas.
I digress, it was the teenage party bus with the pink feather boas that dropped me a ten minute walk from the Miraflores lock on the Panama Canal. A visitors centre and selection of viewing platforms were built next to the lock in 2000, the year that the Americans handed control of the Canal to Panama (31st December 1999 to be precise). I spent a sweaty couple of hours marvelling at this engineering feat, enjoying the exhibition and then an informational video, which was strangely accompanied by music that would have been better suited to a squat party in the East End of London.
As the London Express container ship passed through the lock I decided to leave and with no party buses in sight I hailed a cab. The taxi driver took me though what used to be The Zone, where The Zonians lived when Paul Theroux was here. Things have certainly changed since then with the Canal a success for the Panamanians and the planned extension of the locks underway.
The driver pointed out the old US houses, the airbase, which is now a national airport, and what was once Balboa High School, where Paul gave a talk to some rather disinterested students. It’s still a school but now for the children of the Panamanian families who work for the canal. I asked my driver how life had been since the canal had been handed over: “I used to drive the Americans everywhere, between bases, to meetings, back home. Since they left there is less business for me, but some people are happier, it depends who you ask.”
The next stop for me is the 7.15am ‘Balboa Bullet’ to Colon. Happily, the first train journey of my trip. I’ve chatted with a few people about spending the day in Colon, as the train, resurrected in 2001, runs at the same time as it did 30 years ago: one train a day departing Panama City at 7.15am and returning at 5.15pm. Most people have described Colon as: “Very dangerous with high unemployment” and made comments such as: “Please don’t go there, you’ll get robbed.”
The Lonely Planet guidebook does not fill me with enthusiasm either: “A sprawling slum of decaying colonial grandeur and desperate human existence.”
I’ll be getting on the Balboa Bullet, for certain, how much time I’ll spend in Colon remains to be seen.