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.