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Dave and Jan's travels, day 296:
Panama City

10th March
The way carnival works is as follows: first the planning takes place. This involves assembling at least one and ideally two or three sound systems. These should be the kind of things that make the Rolling Stones jealous. Then, play music on each that doesn't quite mesh. Surround all this with a giant array of food stalls, as well as people selling water pistols and confetti. When I say water pistols we aren't just talking small squirty things, we're talking Kalashnikovs with water filled backpacks and plenty of them. Throw in a few water cannon and you're all set.

During carnival, which goes on for three days, everyone gets out in the street. Then, people use the water pistols and confetti on anyone they pass that strikes them as needing it. It takes a little while to get into this, but eventually we even bought our own supplies of confetti and started dealing retribution to anyone that attacked us. We even ended up launching a few pre-emptive strikes. The weather makes being water-pistoled almost pleasantly refreshing, and the good humour of all concerned makes it fun.

As befits a capital city, Panama's carnival was rather more splendid, with a procession of highly elaborate floats and a stage show broadcast live on TV every night and some great fireworks.

Our other major goal in Panama was to try and sell the car. This was hampered by carnival, which closes all business for three days around weekend. Even the following Wednesday, when everyone's theoretically back at work, it turns out that they don't really make it in until mid-afternoon if you're lucky. After various hopeless conversations with the US and UK embassies, we devoted most of a day to finding out what the import duties might be. The first government office we approached directed us to the immigration office. They directed us to the Ministry of Finance. They gave us a customs phone number. They gave us another customs phone number. They gave us a third customs phone number. They directed us to take a taxi to a customs office. They directed us to a deserted green trailer. Eventually we returned to the hotel and called the first commercial customs agent in the phone book, who after taking various details said that the taxes would be $1,543.14.

Other parallel inquiries revealed that none of the locals want to own a gas-guzzling Ford when you can get twice as many miles per gallon from a Toyota. These two pieces of data combine to explain why we are now driving back towards the USA to sell the car.

As well as all that, we also found some time to have a look around Panama City. One day we went off to look at the canal, which is enormous. The locks are 305 metres long and 33.5 metres wide, and most of the big ships built in the last ninety years are specifically designed to squeeze through with two feet clearance on each side. We saw a giant cargo ship and a sleek passenger liner pass through, and the whole thing was most noteworthy for clockwork efficiency and lack of visible spectacle. It was really just like a Thames barge only much bigger, and the whole machinery is so fast and quiet that it's hard to tell the difference.

And we spent a day looking around Casco Viejo. This is Panama City's second colonial centre. The first is a ruin, courtesy of Britain's Henry Morgan, a gentleman thug whose name we've encountered throughout Central America, mostly breaking things.

We decided to walk the mile or two from our hotel to Casco Viejo. After a little while we encountered two cops on bicycles, who after the usual glance at our passports, explained that we were walking along a dangerous street (presumably the various family groups wandering along had highly dangerous children). So, they escorted us for a while, before handing us off to two of their colleagues as we reached the edge of their patch. All told we went through three sets of escorts in forty-five minutes. The photo at the right should provide a feel for the inanity of all this. Still, it's nice to feel cared for.

Casco Viejo itself centres around a nice square. The area is part dumpy slum, part beautifully preserved colonial grandeur. The Presidential Palace and National Theatre are stunning buildings protected by soldiers: the kids playing football in the next street almost make you believe the police were right to worry about us. All very odd.


   (click thumbnails for a larger picture)

Casco Viejo

Police Escort

Panama Canal