After two years of living in the USA, without traveling outside the country, while learning what its like to be a responsible adult (well as much of a responsible adult as you can be while living in the basement of a group house with murals painted on the walls and a disconcerting number of creepy treasure troll dolls kicking around), with a responsible adult job, I decided that I needed a change of scenery.  When the opportunity to work short term for my friend’s internet start up business, helping him expand their network of connection in Panama came up I seized the opportunity.  His company, Keteka, works to leverage the global Peace Corps networks to connect small to mid-sized tour operators with travelers seeking an authentic experience and allow them to book online.  This seemed like a perfect chance for me to travel in Central America again and warm up my now rusty Spanish, while helping out a friend and working for a socially conscious company who’s efforts I can really get behind.

On short notice, I decided to trade in my nine hour days sitting in front of a computer screen for the adventures of central American bus travel and the freedom of working for a tiny start up (if you don’t care about money or access to hot showers, this is a great option).  I put in my two weeks notice, bought a last minute flight, and packed my bags.  To save money I booked a 6am flight on Tuesday morning and I was ready to go.

Panama City Skyline

Panama City

Being the nervous flyer that I am (you would think that 4 trips to Asia and one to Australia would have assuaged my fear of flying), I was fidgety the night before, and didn’t get to sleep until about 2am, just in time to be comfortably slumbering before my 3am alarm went off.  My groggy slog through check in and security at the airport was brightened by a chance sighting of a full grown man with a shaved head and a biker mustache angrily yelling at one of the check-in agents, while wearing a My Little Pony man bag.  I later learned through Facebook that there had been a Brony Convention in Baltimore that week (Brony= Bro+ My Little Pony enthusiast…seriously).  Bronies aside, it was a good trip down, and despite a delay on my first flight leading to a mad dash through the Houston airport to just catch my connecting flight, I made it to Panama City safe and on time.

As soon as I walked out of the airport, the stifling humid air and the cab drivers jockeying for fares told me I was back in Central America.  I picked a driver, hopped in the cab and was off for the city center.  While Panama City boasts impressive skyscrapers, a modern bus system, and even a metro line, it is still a Central American city at heart.  My driver battled his way through streets choked with traffic and construction as we headed towards our destination, La Cabeza de Einstein (Einstein’s Head).  That’s right, because there are no clear street addresses, the easiest way to get to my friend’s apartment is to ask the driver to take you to a giant statue of Einstein’s head.  Why this exists in the capital of a country, which to my knowledge, Einstein never visited or had any special interest in, I cannot say; nonetheless, there it sits.

Panama City, Cangrejo, Via Argentina, Einsteins Head

Yep, it’s just a big old statue of Einstein’s head


As we arrived, I spotted my friend waiting for me in the shade of Einstein’s unruly stone hair, paid the diver, and was about about to jump out, when he asked me about the tip.  It is worth noting that in the US I tip cab drivers nicely (the few times I ever splurge on a cab), but in Central America this is just not done.  All fares are agreed upon before entering the cab, as there are no meters, and this price includes whatever they would get as a tip.  I don’t fault cabbies for trying to pick up a bit extra off tourists who don’t know any better and are often happily tossing around money, I just refuse to fall for it.

An English translation of our interaction would go like this:

Diver: “And the tip?”

Me: “We had agreed on $30 for the trip”

Driver: “True… but how about a tip?”

Me: “Ehhhhhhhhhhh”

Driver: “Tip?”

Me: “Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh”

Driver: “How about a little tip?” (he actually used the diminutive ending “ita”)

Me: “Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh”

Driver: “Ok, you drive a tough bargain”

It’s good to be back.

Panama City, Cangrejo

The view from my friend’s place in Cangrejo, Panama City