Panama City is at the intersection of two continents and two oceans. This is excellent for various reasons. 1: You can see the ocean from almost anywhere in the city, and 2: Panama is in close proximity to Columbia.
I wanted to travel again, and decided upon Central America, for logical reasons. Flights were cheaper than elsewhere, and I didn't know Spanish.
I'd been looking at flights for a few days and refused to pay the seven hundred dollars roundtrip that appeared to be standard pricing at the time. One night, I had taken a few hits off of Pakistan's joint, and was feeling happy and high. Everything was a little blurry around the edges, and I felt like my tongue was the size of a mammoth's. I found a roundtrip flight for four hundred and thirty dollars, San Francisco to Panama City. Amid overwhelming feelings of joy, I booked the flight. The next morning, I awoke with the realization that there is a Panama City in Florida. Five minutes later, I was ecstatic to find that I had in fact booked a flight to Panama City, Panama. This was a good start.
At the Panama City airport, I wandered in circles like a dog chasing its tail looking for a currency exchange. I never found one, but I did find a bank. When I handed over four US hundred dollar bills, the bank teller pushed them back towards me. I thrust them back at her and insisted, "dinero!" I said the word with such authority that the teller then handed me twenty US twenty dollar bills. I pushed the money towards her again with the confidence of a moron. This shoving of bills across the counter continued until someone with a grasp of the English language explained to me that Panamanian currency is US dollars. My suggestion to anyone traveling anywhere: if you do no other research, figure out what money the country uses, and if there's some historical necessity you should see, like Machu Picchu or the Panama Canal. I am proud to say that upon arriving in Panama, I did know of the existence of the canal. This was largely because I was lugging around a 698 page book that my mom's boyfriend had given me called The Path Between the Seas. In the subsequent months throughout my trip, other backpackers found it amusing to heave the Path up to eye level and read the back cover aloud. Generally, the reader would get three sentences in before two or three people would feign sleep and the rest would scream that they were already bored and to stop torturing them immediately. A few times, one of the guys would walk over to a wall and repeatedly bang his dome into the wood until the reading ceased. For the record, I found it a fascinating book about politics, economy, the French, and the creation of the country of Panama. Plus, if I ever had trouble sleeping on a bus or on a sidewalk, I'd read a third of a page and then swiftly lapse into unconsciousness.
I grabbed my bags and waited at the bus stop outside the airport holding a piece of paper with the name of a hostel that a friend of mine had told me to stay at. Buses came by, I shouted, "Luna's Castle? Casco Viejo! Old Town or something!" at them, and they drove off. Many of the passengers laughed at me as I jogged alongside the bus (not all of the buses actually stop, they just slow down enough to briskly load and unload passengers) with my bag on my back, shouting and waving a piece of paper in my hand. Panama City is so humid that after eleven bus drivers spurned me, I looked like I had just emerged from an Olympic-sized pool of man sweat. I flagged down a taxi driver, who proceeded to drive in circles through the one-way streets of the city looking for the hostel. We circled the same four-block radius in Casco Viejo for forty minutes before I got out, asked directions, and walked.
I marveled at Panama City's skyline, wine bars, upscale cafes, and the ability that resides through all major cities: certain areas smell like the excrement that would result from two thousand eggs shoved up an elephant's ass.
Luna's Castle was housed in an awesome dilapidated colonial mansion. It had everything that I deem important in my traveling life: balconies, hammocks, free internet and water, and $1 beer.
Within two hours of arriving at the hostel, I had met some Americans, Canadians, Brits, and two Irish lads. I introduced them all to the beauty of the card game Fuck the Dealer. A half hour in, we had twenty people playing around a long table in the central area of Luna's Castle. We invented new rules to the game, the receptionist required we sling booze around our heads every time there was a social, and a twelve-year-old boy traveling with his family looked on in fascination at our progressive levels of intoxication.
A cool chick from Oregon who was working on a boat from Panama City to Columbia was in town for the night and motivated us to go out downtown. On the ride there, she gave the cabbie drug money and he promised that he'd return.
"Really?" Ireland said. "You just gave money to a cab driver. A cabbie in Central America. At least have some sense and give him half now and half later."
The cabbie did return with the drugs, and we relocated to a club. Our group of caucasians was a bit out of place. I was as comfortable as I imagine I would be watching a stripper bathe her child in a vat of sperm. I just didn't know what to do with myself. I can't really dance. All of the locals upstaged me with their swinging hips and their rampant sexiness. If there was a disorder that involved semi-mentally capable adults dancing with autistic capabilities, I would have it. I bumbled along until someone took mercy on me and led me outside.
The next day, we saw the Panama Canal. For anyone who hasn't seen it, don't get too excited. Remember, I was reading The Path Between the Seas and becoming thoroughly educated on the thirty-four years it took to build the canal and all of the intricacies surrounding the construction. I spewed off facts like an encyclopedia. Granted, I was only three pages into the book, so I had gained these facts from looking up the canal on my phone. I proudly announced little golden nuggets of information like, "some guy swam through the canal in 1928 and had to pay thirty-six cents," and "the canal is forty-eight miles long!"
While I was largely ignored, I was impressed with my own regurgitated knowledge. I do know that when you get to the Miraflores Locks in the Panama Canal, you walk out in excited anticipation of seeing the canal. You look upon a waterway with a ship in it, and go, huh. I didn't know the answers to the few questions the guys asked me.