I had never seen as many prostitues as in Panama City. We had just driven into the city, trying to find where we were staying. We were coming from Costa Rica where my dad managed a small newspaper. The Panamanian branch of the same newspaper was closing; we had to pick up what useful office supplies they still had. It had taken my dad, his accountant, Ronny, my older brother and I about nine hours to get there from San Jose in our gigantic '85 Dodge van.
A need to go, but not return
It was about 3:00 a.m. when we drove into the city; there were still a lot of people on the streets. We pulled over by a busy but closed fruit stand. A few men were arguing, most likely not about the price of mangos. My dad shouted out questions regarding our accommodation, but they pretended not to understand his perfect Spanish. We were tired, and I was starting to feel nauseous; either from the toothless, withered prostitutes making sucking noises at us through the windows, or from the "authentic cuisine" we had a couple hours ago. We drove around and asked more pedestrians, but everyone we encountered was more than a little inebriated.
We found the tall, L-shaped hotel by chance, and waited in the lobby for about half an hour before they figured out which reservation was ours. My brother and I went up to our room and passed out on the plastic sheets as a cacophony of car horns nagged at us through the sticky, warm air. We awoke the next day, stuck to the bedding.
After a heavy omelet with over-buttered toast bought at the hotel's restaurant, we drove through the city to the hidden office of a failing operation. We walked up several flights of stairs to meet Frank. It was getting hotter and hotter. Frank was the man in charge of the newspaper here. He had a small, flat smile; greeted us with a shake of his wide paw. Before he and my dad got to the official process of shutting down, they made small talk about how Frank's side business was thriving. He went into a lot of detail on how much work he'd put into it. I looked at my brother, whose beard was making him sweat and whose face told me we had just shared a similar thought. How much time did Frank spend away from the office to work on his own business?
My brother and I decided to leave; we weren't needed for an estimated three blistering hours. Tired but excited to go sightseeing, we walked down a steep street to a corner to have a look around. There was a dusty one-story shopping center with a crowded grocery store and clothing stores with bootleg "Nikey" shoes. After flipping over every price tag on all the shoddy merchandise, we sighed at the numbers. Everything cost as much as the real product in the U.S. We left for a shopping center some fifty yards away.
To my confusion, only three small knick-knack shops occupied this three-story mall; the rest of the glass doors had "for rent" signs dangling from them. My brother said he heard something about foreign investors building a lot of high-rises and shopping centers here, thinking that in ten to fifteen years, real estate in Panama City would appreciate immensely. We walked outside and tried to identify which glossy office buildings were vacant. There were more than I expected, and I started to compare the city to San Jose. Without the empty buildings, San Jose wouldn't look that different from where I was standing. Besides, Panama City was built on foreign money; Costa Rica was responsible for its own economy.
It also occurred to me that the only thriving businesses in Panama were banks and stores that sold air-conditioners. Air-conditioning was popular for obvious reasons, and banks thrived because Panama was apparently a popular place to hide money.
After swimming around in the humidity for another few hours, we headed back to the office, where we still were not needed. It wasn't until well after the sun went down before we were useful, carrying old computers, filing cabinets, and rolling chairs into the back of our van. When we were finished, my dad decided he wanted to see Panama's main attraction, the canal. We stood behind a wire fence and watched barges go at about two miles an hour into a giant, cement tub of brown, languid water. I was told that a barge had to pay Panama a scandalous amount of money to get through the canal. Enough money, I thought, that one ship passing through could have paid to make the city decent.
We also saw the new bridge they built next to the canal, which Panama was apparently very proud of. But that looked like any other suspension bridge, only smaller than I was used to seeing. It was made up with little colored lights to try to make it look prettier.
We were then led by Frank, who had come with us, to the canal to a look-out point on the water. This is where you come to see the long line of commercial ships waiting to wriggle through the core of Panama. The long caterpillar of lights created by these sea-monsters was very impressive. They stretched out further than this city was long. I stared at the boats, watching as lightning hit the ocean behind them, not paying attention to all the "interesting facts" my brother and dad were spilling out about this abominable place.
Our stomachs led us elsewhere. Frank suggested T.G.I. Friday's. Once we got there, we were told how wonderful Frank's children were doing in and out of school. I chatted in butchered Spanish with Ronny who sat across from me, trying to tell me exactly how attractive the girls were somewhere else.
Another night at the inn; we were gone in the morning. I forget exactly what time we left the accommodation, but the sun wasn't out yet. Well-dressed men were still walking in and out of the establishment with girls in mini-skirts and cleavage-announcing shirts. We drove several hours through arid, deserted badlands to get back home. I suddenly saw a growth of trees and felt a temperate breeze from the window, as opposed to the hot dust that had previously been blowing in my face.
I told my brother this part of Panama wasn't so bad; I pointed to some far off mountain. He replied we were closing in on the border. The mountains were in Costa Rica.