I can´t remember if the alarm woke me, but somehow I opened my eyes at about 8:15 a.m. The tropical sun was already shining bright, an early reminder that sunscreen would be on my list of necessities today. Chuck was sifting through the wreckage of that is our hotel room, and Brad was lying next to me. Without speaking, we were debating over who should get in the shower first, or if there should be any showers at all. Brad got up first, and I enjoyed an extra 15 minutes of lying around.
The great thing about vacations is that you don´t have anywhere you have to go. While obligations dictate our every move in daily life, I´m now about 2000 miles away from all my duties. Brad and I were free to plan our day however we wanted, a fact that´s both scary and freeing at the same time.
Chuck went off to shoot some interviews for CBN, leaving us with his phone, our wallets, and a metropolitan playground with over 3 million inhabitants. After showers and free breakfast (I would say continental, but Panama is kind of in the no-man´s land for continents) we caught a taxi from the hotel to a part of the city called Casco Viejo. Before the Canal was built in 1904, Casco Viejo comprised the entire city. There were only about 30,000 inhabitants.
We rode through a pretty tough area called Chorillo. Even Chuck, who´s bulletproof, told us that we didn´t need to be walking down any dark alleys there. The driver let us out next to a big museum situated on the west side of a large public square in Casco Viejo. On the north edge of the square, there was a huge cathedral that boasted a white bell tower on each side. We took some pictures there and headed south on Avenida Central to the ocean.
From this, the second oldest part of the historic city, we could see modern Panama City, with its towering skyscrapers, sprawling eastward down the Pacific coast. We walked down the coast, catching some great views of the sea and crossing paths with numerous tourist groups. If you can believe this, some Chinese people were taking pictures on one of the sidewalks. I started speaking to them in Chinese, and got them to snap a picture of Brad and me with the city in the background.
We made a circle back to the square (a lot of shapes there), passing the French embassy on the way. Once back to where we started, we sat down to rest and plan our next course.
A Haitian refugee who identified himself as Jacques approached us as we sat on the bench. He began babbling about the plight of his country, asking us if we had heard of the poverty his countrymen had to endure. He told us he would be obliged to give us a tour of the area.
And then it came--the punch line. We knew it was coming from the time he sat down.
"I´ve been around to twelve churches today, and we´re trying to raise money to buy one can of milk for 27 kids. If you could help us, I´d appreciate it. And I wish you had time to let me earn the money by taking you on a tour," he said.
I´ve heard beggars´scams before, so I tested this one out. He said the can of milk (a giant can of condensed milk) would cost around $5, and he´d lend us the 75 cents he had to help pay for it.
"Okay, we can help you. Show us where to buy the milk." Now, if this guy just wanted money, he would´ve left us alone at that point. But no, he dutifully led us to a shop a few steps away and found the can he was talking about. He handed it to me.
Call me a softy or whatever, but I can´t refuse someone that needs food, especially if the food is for children. I went to the register to pay for the milk. And guess what. More Chinese people. I got them laughing as I asked them in their native language whether or not they were Chinese. Jacques also got a kick out of it--and some milk for the kids.
After the milk incident, we left Jacques and traveled the pedestrian walkway of Avenida Central. Innumberable shops lined the road on both sides, most of them either zapaterias (shoe stores) or cell phone shops. We enjoyed the experience, but didn´t find any great bargains.
By the time we had passed the shops and dodged some diablos rojos (red devils, school buses sprayed with graffiti boasting pimped-out rims and deafening mufflers. These are an integral part of the public transporation system in Panama City), it was noon and the sun was high in the sky. It beat down on my neck, picking on the places where I had forgotten to put sunscreen.
We took refuge in a Burger King for lunch, then headed over to Albrook Mall, an American-style shopping center that seemed to go on for miles. We stayed there for a good while, waiting for the brutal sun to move a little more west. Luckily I was able to keep from getting burned.
Another taxi later, and we made it to the Parque Natural Metropolitano (Metropolitan Nature Park, for those of you who don´t ¡Habla Español!), a 250-hectare forest preserved right in the middle of the city. The lady at the desolate park was very polite, and I could actually understand most of what she was saying. We hiked a short trail through the jungle, but couldn´t find any of the birds and monkeys the Lonely Planet book had been so excited about. While that was a letdown, the quick trek whetted our appetites for Coiba even more.
All that walking coupled with the sun exposure had us dog-tired, so Brad and I hopped a cab back to our hotel, the Country Inn and Suites in the Amador, located right next to southern part of the Canal. The sea is about 100 yards from our pool, and the Bridge of the Americas is entirely visible from the grounds.
The rest of the day wasn´t too eventful, other than the fact that we got word that our Coiba permits wouldn´t come through in time for us to get out on the island. Don´t fret though. To make a long story short, something got lost in translation, and one of the guys at the office told Chuck it would be all right if we just went out there and got permits from the ANAM Ranger station on the north end of the island. Now, if we could just find our guide, Mali Mali, we´d be ready to go. The former prisoner is taking care of some things here in the city, but we haven´t touched based with him yet.
With all these things going on, our theme for the day has been that it´s good to know a sovereign God who won´t let something happen to us unless he can use it for good.
I´m learning a lot, about this historic city and about myself. I hope you´ll continue to share the journey with us, as we attempt to conquer more of the city tomorrow and prepare for our expedition to Santa Catalina, and ultimately to Coiba.