Before I left for Lima, my friend at work brought me a picture of Machu Picchu from a travel brochure. She went there years ago before they regulated the number of visitors and hikers. She stayed in a hotel just outside of the ruins. When she looked out the window of her hotel room, Machu Picchu was right there. In bed she stared wide-eyed out the window thinking, That’s Machu Picchu.
She said, “The best part is when you’re standing on the ruins looking at the Andes all around you and you’re the same person as you were at home. You’re the same person, but you’re standing in the middle of an ancient civilization.”
Today I had this same feeling, but I was still flying over South America. From the plane, Dave and I could see the mounds of vegetation protruding from the ocean, the long fishing boats, and the fog hanging over the water. All of a sudden it occurred to me that I was in Panama. How did this happen?
These are the things I know about Panama. One: There is a certain kind of hat that people in Panama are known for. Two: When I was eight years old, my grandpa had a lady friend visit our house and she was from Panama. He had emphysema, so she may have been one of his nurses. He liked to flirt with them and give them his money. This one was a woman who was about my height – I was small for my age – and she had a baby. The baby looked huge in her tiny arms. I was bewildered that a woman so small could make a baby at all.
We got off the plane. The inside of the airport was humid and we were dressed for frigid New York temperatures.
“We’re in Panama!” I said.
Airports, Dave observed, are just malls that you fly in and out of. While we wandered around looking for our terminal, pretty ladies with stacks of advertisements tried to bully us into sampling Paris Hilton’s perfume. We passed shops purveying the quintessential Panama hats and Rolex watches and duty-free shops selling expensive liquor. Who would buy a Rolex watch on impulse?
“Let’s play the find-the-most-expensive-item-in-the-store game – oh, there it is,” Dave said, indicating a liquor aptly named Louis the Fourteenth. It came in its own locking travel trunk, s it should for $3,400.
“It probably tastes okay,” Dave said.
Dave looked for a lunch that would make up for the sardine tin of pasta he ate on the plane. There were Flying Dogs – apparently what people in Panama call the hot dog – and Quizno’s and McDonalds and Cinnabon. We probably passed five different Cinnabon stands. All Dave wanted was a sandwich.
At the terminal, where the passengers loitered around the desk, bored and waiting to board, the announcement for our flight came. The voice on the loudspeaker told us important information about boarding but did not switch into English. We realized that no one was going to translate anything for us at this point.
I never thought I would ever be in Panama, even for a layover. After graduation I despaired, wondering if my adventuring days were numbered and if I would spend the next twenty years working a number of menial, minimum wage jobs to pay off my education. Sometimes I feel like my brain is turning to the consistency of a deep chowder. As I was listening to this language that might as well be a secret code, my ears perked up. I felt the familiar feeling of the unfamiliar. It occurred to me that I was same person in a different hemisphere.