Monday, May 19, 2008

Country Inn and Suites - Amador

Looking for an immaculate room with aesthetic upgrades on your trip to Panama City, Panama? Then don't stop here.

But if location, service and price are your main concerns, the Country Inn and Suites at Amador is the place to be.

The rooms aren't much to look at, and they're not near as posh as what you'll get at the Marriott. No Ralph Lauren linens or Sleep Number beds await weary travelers after their flight.

But the rooms are amply sized for the price. I paid $125 per night for a springy king bed, sleeper sofa and - count 'em - two TVs. Wireless Internet was free, albeit a bit slow, and the minibar was well stocked. Breakfast was much better than the average continental fare in American budget hotels, and the coffee was tasty and fresh. The room interior was generally on par or a little better than what you get at the average hotel in America. Despite its unremarkable inside, intangibles are where this place shines.

The hotel is situated at the mouth of the Panama Canal, where it runs into the Pacific Ocean. A walking trail runs just outside the fenced pool area behind the hotel grounds, offering great views of the picturesque landscape. Jump the fence and you can walk all the way out on the Amador Causeway, a narrow strip of land constructed by piles of dredged earth from the Canal excavation 100 years ago. The Causeway links the mainland with two islands and tourists with their choice of a variety of restaurants. If you're in the mood to covet, go to the end of the strip and watch the yachts come in.

The Puente de Las Americas (Bridge of the Americas) is in full view from balconies of rooms with a canal view, and boats traverse the Canal day and night on the way through the locks and to and from the Port of Balboa. This is particularly interesting to watch after the sun sets, as giant barges inch their way into the darkness, floating silently like blimps on the water, their little guide lamps the only sign of their formidable presence.

A TGI Friday's is attached to the hotel, and if you don't talk too much to the wait staff, you could really pretend you're in America. To avoid the tourist trap at dinner time, go to the Causeway, or take a cab east toward the center of town. If you do happen to hit the TGI Friday's, go local with the fried calamari appetizer washed down with a Balboa beer. The waitress says Balboa is stronger than Panama Cerveza, the country's flagship brew.

Service is one of this Country Inn's best qualities. The staff speaks English very well and was very charming and willing to help tourists. Great maps of the city are available at the front desk and the drivers outside are always looking to get some business.

Tips for getting the most out of this hotel:

-Try to get a room with a canal view. I think they're priced a little bit higher, but if you're a balcony sitter, you'll think it's worth it. Can't get a view? Check out the cozy pool area and get your views from there. Use the extra money to splurge on a great meal.

-The walls are a bit thin. Sound carries through walls, and you know what that sometimes means.

-There are two types of taxi drivers in Panama - ones that have license to drive up to the entrance of the hotel, and those who don't. The CI&S is back from the main road. Ignore the drivers right outside the door that try to take you in their large white vans. Walk a few extra steps out to the street, to the smaller cabs, and you'll probably pay half of the tourist rate charged by the van guys. But utilize the van guys for scheduled trips.

-Keep in mind, the CI&S Amador is farther away from the airport than a lot of other hotels, but it's extremely quiet, a stark contrast from downtown. And the air is extremely fresh as it blows in from the water.

Photo: Bridge of the Americas at sunset from behind the hotel. Copyright Trevor Williams 2008.

Panama's Logistical Wonderland

I'm no expert on logistics, but writing about international business has required me to learn a bit more about the way goods move around the world. Strange, tangled trade routes stretch like spiderwebs across the globe, linking unlikely nations in lucrative commercial partnerships. Shipping companies, air cargo freighters and railroads coalesce in transportation lines that bring Chinese-made toys to American Christmas stockings, Peruvian asparagus to American dinner tables, and outdated and unsafe American school buses to Panama for use as public transportation.

Panama, a nation of only about 3.2 million inhabitants, sits at one of the main crossroads in worldwide trade. The narrow, east-to-west isthmus of land between Costa Rica and Colombia separates the Pacific and Atlantic oceans by only about 50 miles at its narrowest point. The Panama Canal, one of the most impressive engineering feats man ever conceived or achieved, provides a shortcut between the two, allowing ships laden with cargo to skip about four weeks of sailing around the southern tip of South America and save millions of dollars in operating costs. The canal has three sets of locks - the Miraflores, Pedro Miguel and the Gatun.

I learned on a recent trip that the Canal is the magnet that draws business through a country that doesn't have much of its own consumer market to speak of. More than 80 percent of the goods flowing through Panama will never actually touch Panamanian soil or land in the hands of a consumer there. A $5.25 billion expansion project will add a new set of locks, allowing it to handle the largest vessels in the world, known as "Post-Panamax" ships. But the Canal is not the only logistical advantage the country has to offer. As it has drawn the world's attention - and money - Panamanians, with the help of foreign investors, have learned to make a few bucks off of auxiliary logistical enterprises.

Three ports - Cristobal, Evergreen and Manzanillo International Terminal - operate on the northern - Panamanians call it the "Atlantic" - coast of the country. Cristobal is run by Hutchinson, an international ports company with operations in 22 countries. Evergreen, a massive American shipping agency, runs its own port to manage its considerable inflow of goods. Manzanill International, or MIT, is a Panamanian-owned company housed in a beautifully remodeled building that served as a high school when the American military still guarded the area. And all of these ports have the advantage of the Colon Free Zone, where $16 billion of goods are traded annually. MIT and Cristobal have expansion plans in the works.

The same is true for the Port of Balboa, the only one on Panama's southern, or Pacific, coast. Also operated by Hutchinson, Balboa is gearing up for some major additions. An inlet is being filled with imported sand and more cranes are on the way.

The Panama Canal Railroad, which is half-owned by Kansas City Southern through a joint venture with MI-Jack, links the two ports, providing a cost-effective alternative to the hefty Canal fees for ships that would have had to off-load cargo on the other side anyway. One passage through the Canal can cost from $250,000 to more than $330,000, depending on the ship's cargo capacity.

The country is improving its air service as well. Tocumen International Airport has injected millions of dollars into remodeling projects. Two years ago, the customs counter in Tocumen was a cave. Now it's airy and freshly painted. Customs officials sit at wood-veneered counters and smile at passengers as they stamp passports and visa paperwork. Copa Airlines offers regional connectivity with flights to nearly 40 destinations.

Not bad for a country with a total population smaller than the metropolitan area of Houston.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

My Cousin Eddie

If you're in transit enough, talking to cab drivers is often a good way to gauge public opinion. They're generally very friendly, they meet a lot of people, and let's face it; it takes a certain amount of gumption to do that job, especially in Panama City, where the chaotic traffic means there's no guarantee that you'll arrive alive from any given ride.

Although today's 1 1/2-hour transport to the Colon Free Zone involved a smooth, scenic ride on the luxurious rail cars of the Panama Canal Railway and an air-conditioned bus, yesterday we were adventurous enough to take four different cabs.

Luciano, a van driver that makes his money on tourists exiting the Country Inn & Suites, told us that he used to live in Boston. His son now attends high school in Rhode Island, and he misses the snow, although he really likes the warm, humid weather of his native Panama. He's got a 10-week visa to visit the U.S. to see his kid and he hopes to go soon.

The next cabby took us from the posh Marriott Panama back to our hotel, which is known more for its canal views and location than aesthetic amenities. I didn't catch his name, but this guy helped me figure out what they were selling at the Panamanian/Japanese Marisco Market we saw en route to the hotel. "Fish," he said flatly in English. As one of our trade mission handlers said, they speak Spanish in Panama almost as much as they do in Miami.

As if it was hard to get deeper into conversation than a debate over fish, our next chat was a bit more serious. Eduardo, a dark-skinned Panamanian whose father and grandparents are Jamaican, gave us the full gamut of public opinion about the U.S. Despite the invasion of Panama in 1989, the U.S. is still considered a great friend of Panama, he said. Most people feel very happy that the Americans liberated the country from Manuel Noriega's dictatorship, but many have resented the Americans in the past for having what he called "a country in a country" in the Canal Zone.

The Zone was controlled by the U.S. from the Canal's completion in 1914 until 1999, when it was returned to Panamanian control as per a treaty signed by then-President Jimmy Carter. Since that time, the Panamanians have been leveraging the Canal as an economic development engine, and the U.S. has pulled out most of its military personnel. Former U.S. army barracks and Air Force bases are being retrofitted to house companies and government offices. The cloistered American life in the Canal Zone is over.

As a cab driver, Eduardo had the added bonus of actually knowing where he was going. He found us a great strip of restaurants. Somewhere in the course of conversation, he clarified that "Mariscos" are not necessarily just fish. "Pescado" is the term for fish, while mariscos refers to all kinds of seafood, including shrimp and lobster. When we disembarked, we found out that his last name was Williams, the same as mine.

"Cousins!" I said.

"It's a small world," he replied, laughing.

On the way home we pried the day's last driver for his opinion on which is the best of Panama's predominant beers: Atlas, Panama Cerveza and Balboa.

"I don't drink," he said. "Food, food, food. As long as I have food and friends, I'm okay," he said. As an afterthought, he said he thought the Country Inn & Suites Amador is the best in Panama because of its quiet location, fresh air, and view of the ships traversing the Canal.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Panama: The Return

It's been two years since my feet touched Panamanian soil, and as far as I could tell from the drive from the airport to the hotel, not much has changed.   COMPARE the narrative from two years ago. 

In fact, it was quite a flashback for me to disembark from the Delta 757 that brought me here on today's only flight from Atlanta to a country that prides itself on being a crossroads for international commerce and the last bridge between Central and South America. 

As I made the short walk up a small ramp into the customs area, the smell of grilled food still hung in the air, left over from an earlier, busier time in the terminal.  Blue and yellow signs of Tocumen International Airport welcomed us to a new land, which is closer by plane from my Georgia home than some parts of the American West and definitely much more convenient than the 14-hour marathon I took to Shanghai, China, last month.

In 2006, I snapped photos of the welcome sign.  I wonder if the fact that I didn't this time means I'm maturing as a traveler or just that I'm less enamored because I've already been here before.  Maybe a trip to a less-familiar place would have rendered me trigger happy.

The customs counter was a breeze compared to America.   The people were actually nice, and they've widened and brightened the light blue and white walls of what used to be a dungeony area the last time I was here.  They've even installed a DMV-style digital numbering system that directs you to the next available attendant.  After so many uneasy trips to China, it was comforting to see foreigners all around me and to hear the familiar thud of the approval stamp thumping the counters, signaling their official access into the country. 

After baggage claim, this trip began to differ a little from the fiasco that was my last Panama arrival.  Long story short:  This time, instead of a creepy, lurking taxi driver chosen as a last resort after being jilted at the airport by a friend, we were carted away in a Mercedes Benz.  All told it was $32.50 for a half-hour trip.  Extortion?  I don't know, but the convenience was nice and the air-conditioned ride was smooth.  

As in America, billboards are prevalent here.  It's ironic that I noticed this on the cab ride, because I just overheard some people talking at the post office today about how great Europe is because it doesn't have billboards, or at least in Germany; they couldn't really agree.  I couldn't tell you a thing about Europe, but I know the the Koreans (Samsung, LG) are happy that advertising isn't passe in Latin America. 

The Multicentro is still here, as is Super 99, a popular grocery store, and the Hard Rock Cafe and Dunkin Donuts, two very important institutions.  I don't particularly like being the American who clings to recognizable brands while soaking in a different culture, but I have to admit that it's comforting to see things that remind me of the previous trip.  It gives me a sense that I know where I am, even if I couldn't get there by memory if you set me loose with a car.

I'm also reliving another Panama experience: the Country Inn and Suites near the Amador Causeway.  Last time we stayed here for a night of relative luxury before heading off into the wonderful worlds of budget lodges and outdoor camping.  This time I'll have four nights.  Speaking of cultural clinginess, I ate fried calamari and drank Panamanian beer at a TGI Friday's attached to the hotel.  

Tomorrow, work begins.  I might switch my chronicles to a GlobalAtlanta blog once the work information piles up.  If you're interested in the Panama Canal and its interplay with trade flowing through the ports in Georgia and the Southeast, stay tuned.  

Sunday, May 11, 2008

War of Words

We all have our own pet peeves, and in our civilized world, we devise schemes to deal with them.

A common annoyance to those of us who enjoy the study of language is the proliferation of the grammatical, spelling and punctuation errors that plague our society, even in circles and professions where education should have weeded them out. In my net-surfing, I've come upon a few interesting foot soldiers in the war of words seeking to redeem language and rehabilitate those that abuse it:

-Kill the Cliche is a Web site that uses tracking technology to monitor Web sites for words and phrases that have been beaten like a dead horse. You know, those repetitive and redundant bits of lexis that just get under your skin. They tend to stick out like a sore thumb amid news reports these days, but instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water, this site has chosen to help writers who are in over their heads with the use of cliches.

-ABC News did a great little video piece about the "Human Spell Checker," a recent college grad that travels the country fixing errors on public signs. Equipped with a tool kit of markers and white-out, he's traveled from the Northeast all the way to California on a "Typo Tour" to defend the English language from devolution.

-The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks postulates what signs would really mean if their makers actually meant to put quotation marks in the ghastliest of places.

Anyone found any other particularly fun contributions to the war of words?

Monday, May 05, 2008

Travel Time

Praise God for travel time.

Imagine spending five hours in a car and having - at least relationally - the most productive day in a good, long while. It seems counterintuitive, but today's trip to Augusta and back gave me the opportunity for unfettered conversation that I often don't get during the week.

A sidetracked life sometimes makes me forget the value of simple and engaging conversation with the ones I love. This is partly a cultural problem: I think the overall design of American life is terribly efficient at keeping us from connecting in true community. Homes get larger, and families get smaller. Commute times get longer, and conversations get shorter. We're busy expanding our sphere of influence while neglecting our inner circle.

But days like today help me reign in my radius and get re-centered. The two hours there was like a retreat for my wife and me, and the two hours back (wife absent), were spent on a God-filled conversation with an old friend. The time in between was spent with the in-laws. I know the old cliche about the painfully awkward route those conversations stereotypically take, but ours are usually very authentic and packed with memorable content. Today was no exception.

The lesson? Be more engaged so these moments don't only come around when boredom forces them. And at the same time, when I fail to engage, I should grasp hold of the gracious lifeline a day like today proves to be for my relationships.

Friday, May 02, 2008


I can't believe it's been almost two years since I shouldered my backpack and headed off to strand myself on Isla de Coiba, a beautiful, remote island about 20 miles off the Panama coast. In 2006, I stretched my college budget to the breaking point to pay for the trip, and I definitely got my (or my friend Brad's) money's worth. (Don't worry, I paid him back...eventually.) During our weeklong trip, we explored Panama City and eventually traveled west to the town of Santa Catalina, a fishing village where our boat to Coiba began its 18-mile journey into the Pacific.

I just found out the other day that I'll be returning to Panama in two weeks. This time I'll be trading Underarmour for business casual, a machete for a pen and a backpack for a briefcase as I'll be traveling to find editorial content for my publication, GlobalAtlanta. My boss and I will be reporting on business opportunities for Georgia companies and individuals in Panama. We'll visit the Panama Canal and report on a $5 billion expansion that will allow the largest ships to pass through, creating more traffic for Georgia's Port of Savannah, the fastest-growing port in the nation. We'll also make a stop at the Colon Free Trade Zone, the Atlantic gateway to the canal on the northern part of the isthmus.

It's no daring adventure, but it's a chance to whet my appetite for travel in a place where I already know the lay of the land. For some reason, God continues to feed that desire, and miraculously, he does it in a way that my wife can accept. Chances are I won't be getting lost on a sweltering island this time, but it'll be exciting nonetheless. God is good.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Real Aga Khan?

I recently wrote an article about the Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, the supreme spiritual leader and imam of (some say) about 20 million Ismaili Muslims around the world. I hadn't heard of them before, but I found out that the Ismailis are a Shi'a sect mostly found in South Asia - India and Pakistan - and in pockets in more than 30 other countries around the world. The Aga Khan is revered as their 49th generational imam and is said to have descended directly from the Prophet Muhammad.

Although I'm not clear as to Shi'a beliefs in general or those of the Ismailis in particular, I know that the Shi'a/Sunni split originated in a dispute about the who should succeed Muhammad as spiritual leader of the Ummah, the Muslim community. Sunnis believe the Caliph, as they were first called, should be elected from the community, while Shi'as hold that he should be a relative of the Prophet stemming from the line Ali, the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law.

As the holder of such a pious office, the Aga Khan is an interesting character. He's not only called "Your Highness" and regaled with head of state status as he travels the world, but he also has a huge bank account stockpiled with billions of dollars gleaned from the offerings of his Ismaili followers. He's received countless awards for his philanthropy, and he founded and chairs the multi-million-dollar Aga Khan Development Network, a conglomeration of nine separate but overlapping agencies that focus on alleviating poverty throughout the developing world.

He recently came to Atlanta, and I was able to listen to him speak about education in an age of increasing globalization. I found him quite eloquent, and it was easy to see why many have labeled him a modern and progressive Muslim leader. He engages crowds with a light European accent. He gives off an air of humility, and he calls for peace and tolerance from his followers while encouraging them to engage with their communities for the good of humankind. He wears western suits and travels by private jet, a walking contrast to the extremist, militant Islam that many Americans mistake as the only interpretation of the 1,400-year-old faith.

The Aga Khan is a pretty popular guy. Nearly 1,000 people have viewed the article I wrote and more than 2,000 have watched the video on YouTube that we posted of his speech. Just so you know, those numbers are huge for our small, local publication.

But according to one reader all the way from Denver, Colorado, the Aga Khan is just a bit too popular, especially among Ismaili adherents. Although they are reticent to reveal this to the outside world, some actually call him God, said a man who made a cross-country call to tell me the "true story" behind the Aga Khan. While he refers to himself as the Ismailis' imam, the Aga Khan is an extortionist who demands the worship of his Ismaili followers and uses the amount they give as a gauge of their devotion. Believers must buy their way into certain congregations, and they sometimes ask the Aga Khan for the forgiveness of sins. The Aga Khan and his forefathers are carousers and cult leaders, according to the caller, who identified himself as Alex.

Alex claims to be an insider, a Bombay, India, native and former Ismaili follower who was chosen by Jesus Christ to be brought into fellowship with the true and living God of Christianity. He said he had personally bowed the knee to the Aga Khan and to pictures of him. His family made the same mistake. Alex said were often transfixed by Satanic spirits as they participated in the mindless incantations that he says are a regular part of Ismaili worship. But they never received the truth, and they died in their sins, without the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. The Aga Khan, Alex said, had "stolen the eternity" of his mother, father and sister. Now, Alex wants to expose the Aga Khan, not for revenge, but so that the leader and his followers might shake off their ignorance and come to know the Lord Jesus Christ.

So who is the real Aga Khan? Is he a cult leader who earns billions of dollars a day by keeping people in spiritual bondage? A rich guy who does good with the offerings entrusted to him? A shameful liar who builds the legitimacy of his regime on the salaries of his constituents?

Whatever the answer is, I hope to find out, and I think I'm in the right place to do it. I'll be in contact with Alex, whom I like to think of as an "apostle to the Ismailis." And I live less than five minutes away from the largest Ismaili community in the Southeast, the Ismaili Jamatkhana (house of worship) on Dekalb Industrial Way. Anyone out there who can offer some clarity on the true nature of the Aga Khan, please leave your comments, and stay tuned for more...