30 January 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part 6: Mr. Travel Writer Stays on the Ship

If you're just joining the voyage, you can catch up on the previous Enrichment Voyage posts over here. Or, if you prefer, you can also start from the top and read all the stories, oldest to newest, in one long post.

Location: Colón, Panama
Today's telling detail: the cookies

The most adventurous thing I did today was buy cookies. I risked my life to do this. And they weren't very good cookies. But they were the highlight of my trip to Panama, because I hardly saw anything in Panama--arguably, I saw nothing genuinely Panamanian. 

For all but a half-hour or so today, Mr. Travel Writer stayed on the ship.


There's an assumption among a large portion of the population that "travel writer" inherently means things like swaggering, adventurous, worldly, dashing. Streetwise. Wise, period.

Those people have not read my book. As I confessed there, well ... 

I’m kind of a wimp. Trekking across Nepal holds zero appeal for me, and meditating in a forest sounds like a great way to get eaten by a bear.

Still true--even if, to be sure, I had made some small gains in the confidence and competence departments by the end of that trip. 

Throughout the Enrichment Voyage--and at other readings and author events--I've had all kinds of people ask me for advice. Where should I go in this city? How do I negotiate with a cab driver? What are your tips for finding the best, most authentic [insert Cool Local Thing]? 

To which my first reaction is to think, "Hell if I know. You're asking the wrong guy." 

But you can't say that when you're Mr. Travel Writer. People are counting on you, looking up to you for advice. You'll disappoint them and feel like a total phony if you confess that you're just as much out of your element as anyone else, just as inept at haggling with drivers and vendors, just as unsure which of those dumpy-looking streets will lead to unexpected delights and which one dead-ends at the Tourist-Hating Thugs Annual Convention & Ritual Sacrifice.

And you're just as susceptible to utter panic wisely-considered concern when warned about an unfamiliar town. 


Here are some fun facts about Colón:

  • It's the Caribbean gateway to the Panama Canal, the port closest to the entrance. That's why you, the tourist, come here. No other reason. It's about five miles by sea from the industrial port of Colon to the front door of the Gatun locks.*
  • It's the third-largest city in Panama, if you believe Wikipedia, with a population of 232,748 (ibid).
  • As we learned in the pre-port presentation, Colón is the second most dangerous port on our voyage. (You are probably wondering exactly what we all were wondering: Hold on, then, what's the MOST dangerous port? And I, like the presenter, will keep you in suspense until we get there.)
  • It's a high-risk, low-reward sort of place. There were excursions you could book through the ship (nearly all of which were sold out by this point), but there was basically nothing to see in the town itself--no big museums or interesting historic districts or anything like that--and it's evidently pretty dangerous to walk around on your own, as a tourist. I talked to a few other people who had been there before, and they all shook their heads. Don't bother. Stay on the ship and catch up on your reading.
  • Proof of the high-risk part: I heard of only two people who decided to ignore all the warnings and walk around town (together). They were robbed at gunpoint. Not kidding. 
  • Proof of the low-reward part: If you go to the Wikipedia page listing the largest cities in Panama, there's a representative photo of each of the top four. The photo of Colón is billed as the "skyline," and the brightly-colored buildings in the foreground appear to be the most interesting and well-kept structures in town. Those are, in fact, at the cruise port, and that photo was clearly taken from a cruise ship. I know because I snapped that same shot from Deck 7. 
  • There is a casino at the cruise terminal, just out of the left side of the frame in that "skyline" photo. There's also a Radisson there. And some restaurants and souvenir shops and a large store offering electronics at discount prices. But let's go back to that first one: there is a casino right there, as if it say to cruise passengers, "Okay, look, we realize there's not much for you to see or do here, but we do want you to get off the ship. So, here. Have a casino."

Mr. Travel Writer did get off the ship. It wasn't the casino that attracted me. It was the souvenir shop. Mostly, I needed to get some COLON-branded swag for a friend who has a delightfully immature sense of humor and, as it happens, also has colon cancer. (For you, Ari, I braved the mean streets of the Cruise Terminal Mall. I thought about posing for a photo in front of a city sign, giving Colón a one-digit salute on your behalf, but there was an armed guard standing right there and, well, I didn't want to cause an international incident.)

So I bought a red baseball cap with large white lettering reading COLON. I got some postcards. I went over to the edge of the terminal area and stuck my head outside that invisible tourist-protecting force field and into the street; I lived to tell the tale. 

And I went to the local big-box grocery store, just to see how the average Panamanian--or rather, the sort of Panamanian who shops at a store in a cruise terminal--lives. I headed for the cookie aisle, because my goal had been to sample the baked goods in every country, and this would have to suffice for Panama. There were the full range of Oreos--double-stuffed, inside-out, Christmas-themed--next to the full range of Digestive Biscuits and shortbreads and the like. As with the rest of the store, the shelves offered an intriguing mix of European brands and American brands, all flashy logos and layer upon layer of plastic wrapping. 

After much searching, I found a package of cookies that appeared to be made locally. Or at least there was no English on the package, and the little discs were filled with guava, meaning tropical, meaning probably from around here, or at least trying to be, and that's good enough for now, because I'm hungry.

In all likelihood, there really are a least one or two interesting things to do in Colón. In all likelihood, not everyone there is carrying a gun. 

But Mr. Travel Writer decided not to investigate. 

* Some bonus fun facts for you: 

  • The largest vessels that can fit in the locks are called Panamax ships, and they're built specifically for the purpose of transiting the canal at the absolute maximum size. 
  • Panamax ships are 950 feet long by 106 feet wide. Or, to it another way, they're about 18% of a mile long.
  • Therefore, it would take 28 ships, lined up bow to stern, to stretch from the Gatun Locks back to the port.
  • A chase across 28 Panamax ships would make an excellent scene in a Bond flick. They could call it "A Man, A Plan," in reference to the famous palindrome. Or, if the plot involved purging the bad guys from Colón, the title could be "Colón Cleansing." (You're welcome.)


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