As I stood watching the sunset over Panama Bay
one thought struck me…. why hadn’t I done this before? Escape the funk of the Latvian winter for a (***oxymoron alert***) “working holiday” in the sunshine.
Why Panama? My impending 40th birthday, a fairly dire summer weatherwise in Riga and a feeling that I had to do something to ease my
midlife existential crisis dilemmas were all factors. It would have been super easy just to jump on a Ryanair flight to another European country. I’m sure I’d have found work somewhere if I’d arrived at the right time. But northern Europe : Benelux, Germany, the Nordic countries (sorry Latvia, you’re not one of them) are a wash-out for teaching English. Only the brave or extremely stupid venture there and the brave quickly move on. Aside from specialised jobs at Universities, the work just isn’t there. Southern Europe offers more possibilities, but I’d already done Spain and Italy is just a more expensive version of that with worse food. Greece or Portugal? Haha! Ultimately that was the problem: when I started travelling in my 20s Madrid, Berlin, Paris, Italy etc all gave me a huge buzz. These days, it’s more “ho, hum, here we go again.” After you’ve been to numerous places in Europe, it all starts to blend into one.
I’d been in Panama before and it seemed a decent place to hang around for a longer period of time. Decent climate, Spanish-speaking, decent economy, but still, for Europeans, relatively unknown as a travel destination (for North Americans, it’s a totally different story.) I booked flights there via Paris and Toronto. In the latter, I stayed with an ex-student of mine, who told me it’s colder than Riga. I can vouch for that. Getting on the plane there in -13 and getting off in Panama in +32 is an experience. Now I know how the frozen pizza feels when it’s stuck in the pre-heated oven.
I quickly decided I wanted to stay here a while longer. Pad through snow and cold in the dark in vest, shirt, jumper, hoody, long johns, winter coat etc versus sitting around in just shorts and sandals beside a swimming pool?
Bit of a no-brainer. Plus it gives me the chance to
annoy impress my friends on Facebook by posting gloating pretty pictures. Pounding the pavements, cv in hand, it took me less than a week to sort out work.
Last time with limited time, I’d really splurged out, getting taxis here there and everywhere. Doing a bit more research, I found that I could save the $30 on the taxi and pay $1.25 for the bus. By pure chance, the Honduran-Canadian guy sitting beside me on the plane was staying at exactly the same hostel as me. We were the only foreigners on the bus.
With the main tourist stuff done the previous time, I can stroll round at my leisure, enjoying the heat and sun and mix of architecture.
It’s an unusual place. Sleek, shiny skyscrapers rub up against shanty towns. The people are a mix of locals and quite a lot of North American retirees, passing their last years in the sun. There are hardly any Brits or Irish here, aside from the occasional backpacker passing through.
I decided to try some local things and top among them was a local football game. Checking through the fixtures, we found one on the opposite side of the road from El Chorillo (translation: Don’t go there) one of Panama’s shadiest districts. Pablo, a Basque guy staying at the hostel volunteered to go with me. The taxi driver, who obviously isn’t working on the side for the Panamanian football federation, spent the whole journey down cheerily assuring us that our day out would end with us getting mugged and beaten up. We’d be ok in the stadium, but during the game someone would have texted their mates to organise a Chorillo welcome party of 6 or 7 guys willing to help us out by relieving us of heavy objects like mobiles, money etc. We told him to wait for us at the stadium while we sussed it out. It did look very dodgy, so after a quick picture at the stadium
we made a hasty exit.
Also on the list of to-dos was a day out at a beach. Panama city doesn’t have its own beach so this involves bussing to one of the nearby towns an hour away or, my option, a boat trip to Taboga, a tropical volcanic island.
The trip is across Panama bay, jam packed with a series of container ships on their way to the canal
Taboga is well worth the journey. The first sights of it look like something out of a postcard
with a lot of lucky locals hitting the beaches or chilling out in the shade. After an inspection with sniffer dogs (!) I walked inland a bit
but ultimately the lure of the beaches proved too much.
They’re nice beaches too, with water that’s warm enough to swim in and, better yet, unlike Jurmala in Latvia, you don’t have to walk 2 km before you reach water deep enough to swim in.
I’ve spent most of the nearly 3 weeks here pinching myself that this is actually happening and I’m living the dream in the heat, rather than than having sour faced people shove me around on Riga’s public transport. If you’re looking for something different to the usual European travel destinations, I really recommend Panama. There’s a lot to enjoy here and that’s exactly what I’m planning to do in the coming months, when I’m not posting cheesy tourist pics.