Scratching an Itch in Panama

It began with an auction bid.

In 2016 Angela and I were attending an American Cancer Society fundraiser along with two other couples. There was a silent auction with lots of nice stuff that we didn’t need, so we placed a few bids just to participate, fully aware that we wouldn’t actually win anything.

Later that evening, after a lovely dinner, an open bar, and some passionate, persuasive speakers, the live auction began. Again, lots of things that we could easily pass up after a courteous bid or two.

Then they started auctioning off the vacations.

They started with the local destinations. A weekend in the Smoky Mountains. A spa package at the Grove Park Inn. Florida.

The six of us had already been talking that evening about taking a trip somewhere together, and we had thrown out a few possibilities for the next year. But it was all still in the hypothetical, and no one was seriously making any plans. Yet.

When the auctioneer announced the package for six to Panama, it seemed like fate had intervened. As the bidding began, we huddled together across the table and agreed that a trip to Panama sounded fantastic. Totally off the radar for all of us until that point, we hurriedly established a maximum bid that we could afford to divide three ways.

And, wouldn’t you know it? We won.

But bids placed during the excitement of a live auction rarely consider the logistics of reconciling six vastly different work schedules for an international trip to an unusual destination. Nor do they figure in the cost for airfare or ground transportation to the remote resort high in the Panamanian mountains.

In short, we didn’t read the fine print and spent the better part of two years trying to figure out how all six of us could take advantage of our investment. But to no avail. Too many variables. Too many other responsibilities interfering. Too much time passing.

At least the money went to a good cause.

But it always bothered me. Not necessarily the money, but the the near-miss of a trip to Panama. Coming so close without making the trip.

That odd little connector country had always fascinated me, like one continent holding hands loosely with another. And the engineering marvel of that canal, revolutionizing the shipping industry. Such a simple thing that changed the world forever.

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When Angela and I returned to Ushuaia, Argentina, from our voyage to Antarctica, we still didn’t know exactly how we would get back home to the States. We had a general idea that we would work our way back up the west coast of South America and stop through a few islands in the Caribbean, but precisely when, where, and for how long was still fluid.

But I started thinking more and more about Panama. Like an itch that hadn’t been scratched for three years. So close. Again. And I determined that I couldn’t miss it this time.

So, after our wonderful visit to Cali, Colombia, we flew into Panama City, Panama, and stayed just outside the heart of the city.

A city that begs to be discovered.

With construction cranes striking silhouettes against the orange evening haze and new building developments seeming to compete with the country’s past and with each other, it’s a vibrant, bustling place that boasts an international assortment of restaurants and entertainment. Italian, French, Lebanese, Ethiopian, and Chinese cuisine were all within a ten-minute hike from our hotel.

While we enjoyed them all, I’m a sucker for authentic Lebanese fare. And Restaurante Beirut certainly didn’t disappoint!

Angela and I walked throughout the local neighborhood and took the shiny, new metro to the city center. For further destinations, including a crossing of the canal and a wonderful evening trip to the Miraflores Locks, we relied on a very efficient Uber service.

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With an annual contribution of over 800 million USD to the country’s general treasury, the canal has been (and is increasingly becoming) a major catalyst for the city’s move toward modernity. New money and landed gentry vying for dominance, with a safe, cosmopolitan capital city the assured outcome.

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Here, in the final stages of our trip around the world, we had lost a bit of our early intrepidity. The city was inviting, comfortable, and air conditioned. And the days were growing hot and humid, with the sheen of a heat mirage blurring the horizon. Every time we considered an excursion deeper into the Panamanian jungles or an exciting jaunt to the seldom-visited San Blas Islands, we found ourselves lingering at the hotel pool instead.

There is such a thing as travel saturation. And we had found ours.

So what if our trip to Panama wasn’t the original plan made so many years ago with our friends? So what if we didn’t see a coffee plantation or zip line through the jungle canopy?

We came to Panama and, with cold beer in hand, saw ships slowly passing through the canal.

Good enough to scratch that itch.

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