It’s 1:58 PM, and I’m pressed against the back of a standard Eagle school bus (American made, Panama adored), using my backpack as a seat and the shoulders of two schoolboys as my only support to avoid tumbling into the already tangled legs of at least seven pubescent Panamanians. Still attached to the elementary-level novelty that the back of the bus is where the cool kids sit, I had pushed my way as far as any human could for the long ride home half an hour prior, fully understanding the fate I had resigned myself to. Panama has encouraged the idea, at least in part; maybe they’re not so cool, but the last three rows are crammed with kids. Loud, smelly, hairy (for a bunch of thirteen-year-olds), angsty, flirty, mind-blowingly frustrating kids.
I’m offered a seat between two of them, a seat so unappetizing that I actually laugh when met with the inquiry, instead gesturing to the 40 something señor next to me, who at four inches shorter looked about four levels above the patience I currently maintained. When compared with a seat that would involve sweating half of my ass off, becoming reacquainted with the odiferous scent of middle-school boy and being shouted at or over in Spanish for more than an hour, I’d take none at all, any day of the week.
It’s now 2:04 PM, and I’ve been standing for over two hours.
I’ll spare you the gritty details of Panama’s mass transportation system, but in order to get a more sensuous feel for how we travel in this country, I would like to briefly outline the average journey from Panama City to San Miguel:
- Any process begins with getting to the first destination: the bus stop. We are lucky enough to live right across one; however, this is the stop toward the city, not away from it. It’s as though Panama City would rather you never leave, but if you really want to, you can die trying. To get to the departing stop, just cross three lanes of traffic, only one complete with a legitimate crosswalk, avoiding the barrage of honks of varying pitch and speeding vehicles as you tempt fate. Extra points if you can jump in with a group of bolder, braver Panamanians who will cross regardless of how fast that Ford Expedition is barreling towards you.
- Step two requires a Metrobus, if you’re lucky enough to corral one. On a good day, Panama’s newest addition to its public transportation will show up within ten minutes. I’ve had about one good day in Panama City. More likely you’ll wait in the sweltering heat for half an hour or more, cursing in the language of your choosing every time a bus drives past, flashing Tocumen or Panama Viejo or, God forbid, En Transito. Once a ride has been secured, you’ve got about a 30/70 chance of it being a slightly enjoyable trip of air conditioning, mildly comfortable seats and quiet, or the more likely full-sweat, full-stand cattle drive to veinticuatro de diciembre.
- So you’ve made it to the glory that is 24. You’ve passed the pushy fruit stand owners, managed to hold your nose long enough to evade the scents of the highway, and dodged the taxis and Suburbans shooting at you like a cheap arcade game, only to find yourself in la doña, waiting in a line so long it has to be considered cruel and unusual punishment. The torture is only furthered when you see three chivas brilliantly displaying ‘San Miguel – La Doña’ in the parking lot. I would like to thank all involved participants of la doña for teaching me the values of patience, endurance and a good McDonald’s ice cream cone, though I’d prefer to never, ever come back.
- After waiting any amount of time – from less than a minute to over an hour – you’re granted the greatest blessing of all: knowing the true meaning of sweat. For all you athletes out there, I challenge you to the 75 minute work out of a chiva ride. For the sauna lovers, I’ve got one right here for you, and it’ll only cost you a dollar and your sanity. For my adrenaline junkies of the world, I dare you to be the last one on the bus. You’ll spend your chiva time hanging out of the door, one foot’s slip away from Panama’s latest highway shutdown.
You’re probably wondering why I’d choose to spend my last blog blasting Panama’s public transportation system to all seven hells. Isn’t there something more philosophical, more meaningful that I’ve gotten out of eleven weeks in this country? Haven’t I learned more than to spend time exercising my negativity?
Maybe there’s hope for me yet. I’d be lying if I said I was going to miss the Metrobus, the wait for a chiva, the sights and smells of such an ordeal. But I’d be blind if I said it didn’t teach me anything.
I wasn’t able to secure an actual seat on the chiva until after we crossed the first bridge before San Miguel, an event that signifies twenty minutes left in the trip. At this point, there are only a handful of stragglers left, so the bus is relatively quiet, save for a five-year-old jumping from seat to seat and her older brother, giggling at the monkey. At this point, I could use a chuckle, so I look up to take in such an energy I cannot ever imagine possessing, when a signature catches my eye. It’s mine, written weeks earlier, perhaps even months, fading into the cache of doodles and love notes taking over every seat back on the chiva. Just my name, a heart, and ’12.
I walked into casa llena after the particularly taxing city-to-town journey at 2:45 PM, close to three hours after I left Hispania, mentally and physically exhausted, to my dear friend Kelly listening to music at the kitchen table. A discussion of our house rooster, Alejandro, and his sad excuse for a crow somehow ensued. Where once we would only make fun of the poor immasculated creature, the conversation turned quite sentimental, with Kelly saying she was going to miss that pathetic cock-a-doodle-doo more than anything. Regardless of all the mornings we’ve woken up to the call, the afternoons where we wondered why he even bothered, Alejandro’s personality was all his own. He was a part of what made casa llena so weirdly, uniquely, untouchably beautiful.
To me, our transportation experiences have done just the same. I would go through all the frustration, all the sweat, all the overpriced taxis, all the near death (or at least near hospital) experiences, all the chiva drivers paid entirely in dimes and nickels, all the embarrassing gringo faux pas, all the uncomfortable stares, all the waiting, all over again if I had to. I’d do it for the woman in the blue eyeliner, falling asleep in her plastic seat, coming from her 9-to-5 in the city to her cinder block home in the highlands. I’d do it for the gaggle of gossiping fifteen-year-old girls, blissfully unaware of any sneer I might give to their exuberant laughter. I’d do it for the quiet elderly man, salt-and-pepper hair combed neatly across his head, taking the ride like he has four hundred times before, his eyes closed and his mind wandering. I’d do it for every single intern, for every single horror story we’ve shared back at the house over neon plastic cups of Abuelo and one powdery mix or another.
And so, at the end of it all, I think I’ll keep my Metrocard, if only to remind me that there is really, really nothing like Panama.