Writers are famous for blowing into places for a very short period of time and then spouting off on them as though they were experts. Click on my name here and you’ll see that I’m just as guilty as everyone else. And writers with a hell of a lot more talent than me have done the same thing.
According to Paul Theroux’s “Tao of Travel,” D. H. Lawrence spent just a week in Sardinia, but needed 355 pages to describe the trip in his book, Sea and Sardinia. Graham Greene spent just 18 days in Liberia preparing “Journey Without Maps,” and Rudyard Kipling never went to Mandalay, the subject of his famous poem. Bruce Chatwin would wash up in a place for an hour or two and somehow get three chapters of dialogue-driven material, much of it likely fabricated, without breaking a sweat. (Theroux wisely doesn’t disclose how long he spent anywhere)
The hazard of writing non-fiction is that there will always be readers who know more about the topic you’re writing about than you do. Travel writers record their impressions of a place and then duck for cover as people who live there or know it very well take justifiable shots at us.I had all this in mind on Valentine’s Day when I had an hour to kill at Tocumen International Airport in Panama City, Panama. Like most Americans, I know very little about Panama, but I wondered what I could pick up about the local culture from wandering around the airport for an hour. Here is what I noticed. I hope that those who know Panama well will use the comments section to set me straight.
See through pants. The first thing I noticed after stepping off the plane was a middle-aged woman’s ass. Mind you, I was in the airport with my wife and two children, but even my wife couldn’t help but notice it.
“Dave, look at this woman’s outfit,” she whispered with a nod, as though it had somehow slipped past me. “Her pants are totally see through! You can see her ass.”
I wanted to get a photo of it, for posterity, but I didn’t want to get too close, and from a distance, it wasn’t possible to detect how shear her stretch pants were. I didn’t see anyone else in a see-through outfit but I did spy plenty of women in very tight, form-fitting attire and even the airport janitors looked quite fetching in their uniforms.
Treasure Chest: As I stood underneath an airport monitor marveling at all the exotic places I could connect to in Panama (Manaus! Belo Horizonte! Ascuncion! Cali! M.A. Gelabert?!) my sons made a beeline for one of those horrible feed-a-dollar-and-your-child-will-get-the-prize-they-don’t-want machines called Treasure Chest, which was full of stuffed animals and other assorted junk kids love.
My three year old will plead with us to feed coins into these machines and then, invariably, commence a meltdown of biblical proportions when he doesn’t get the thing he wants. I swear that Tocumen has at least 100 of these exact same machines all called “Treasure Chest.” And my sons approached every last one of them, harassing us to buy them something. In some areas of the airport, there were two of these machines back to back. Why so many? Obviously Panamanians must be into spoiling and indulging their children.
Wealthy elite. Panama is a relatively poor country but the rich elite must be damn good shoppers. Rolex, Roberto Cavalli, Valentino, Caroline Herrera, Lacoste, and Salvatorre Fergammo all have locations in the airport, not to mention other upscale retailers I wasn’t as familiar with. My favorite was Harmont and Blaine, an upscale Italian store with a WASPY name and logo featuring two dachshunds. (Short sleeve polo shirts sell for $90) Most of the posh stores were empty and it seemed like the only places doing any business at all were selling perfume or electronics.
No Bargain. Here’s all I know about the cost of living in Panama: a pizza sub and a small bottle of water from a Subway sandwich shop cost me $11.50 U.S. Even by airport standards, that is ridiculous.
Could I get a newsstand, please? You can find a decent newsstand and/or bookstore in almost any major airport in the world. But I looked very hard for one at Tocumen and asked several people to guide me and came up empty. I finally found a very small place with a modest selection of magazines (all in Spanish save Time and Men’s Health) but, oddly enough, they had no newspapers. Not even local ones.
I asked the woman where the papers were and she said they get them in the morning and by the afternoon they’re all gone. I suppose one could take the optimistic stance that this shows avid readership but I found the lack of reading materials in the airport a bad indicator for the country’s literary scene, and indeed, the list of famous Panamanian writers online is pretty modest.
But one woman I asked in a perfume shop who was talking to a guy that looked like a Panamanian drug lord straight out of central casting was nice enough to give me her copy of “La Estrella,” a 164-year-old daily newspaper that is apparently one of the oldest in Latin America.
Beisbol and boobs. After I’d seen enough of the airport, I sat down and leafed through “La Estrella,” which was full of coverage of the country’s baseball championship between teams called Metro and Occidente, and seemingly random photos of bodacious women. One particularly fetching photo, which appeared in the Sports section under the headline “La Apasionada” (The Impassioned), featured the porn star Sophia Rossi, who makes Pamela Anderson look like the flat-chested girl next door. (And has been romantically linked to the baseball player, Pat Burrell)
Diversity. I spent the rest of my time people watching and, while you never know where people are from, the diversity was impressive. There were people of every skin tone, befitting a country that’s long been a crossroads and a melting pot. I was only in Panama for an hour, not even enough time to get Van Halen’s song of the same title out of my head, but I saw enough to know I want to go back. Next time, I’d like to actually exit the airport.
[Photo credit: Dave Seminara]