24.03.2018 - 25.03.2018 85 °F
The key to this global soul, for everyone lay entirely in perception; it was not so much that man had been exiled from the Garden as that he had ceased to notice that it was all around him. - Pico Iyer
"Scuba Steve, you want to go to Colombia in March?"
"Sure, but I have to be back by Thursday, March 22nd."
"That works for me. I should probably ask my wife first."
It was set.
That was the amount of extensive planning involved in a quick jaunt to the home of Pablo Escobar, Shakira, Ferdinand Botero, and the FARC.
We both booked flights and hotel with the modern convenience of miles and points in this contemporary world for the Western traveler. Scuba Steve scheduled a more direct flight, Tulsa - Dallas - Cartagena, and I traveled the meandering route of Omaha - Denver - Panama City - Cartagena that started Saturday and concluded Sunday.
As I touched down at Tocumen International Airport early Sunday morning, an airport experiencing painful transformations to compete in the 21st century as a major travel hub. I took the six-hour early morning layover as an opportunity to explore. I boarded a shared taxi with a Panamanian / Seattle couple returning from their 8th anniversary to the Maldives (bucket list spot). The driver dropped them off at their luxury apartment overlooking Panama Bay and soon dropped me off in the old town, Casco Antiguo.
I had previously visited Panamá eight years ago in 2010 with 24 eager high school students, so the district wasn't novel, but like waistlines, things change, and I wanted to observe any transformations. Fortunately, Casco Antiguo appeared more developed, well-kept, and even included a highway that skirts over the water around Casco Antiguo.
This time, I was solo and awkwardly disembarked with two day packs, entered the nearby Casa Sucre café, and slid up to the front past a mature French couple talking and even older wooden chairs to order a coffee at the wooden counter.
I set out talking in Spanish with the short, tan guy behind the bar, but immediately noticed his choppy response. Like every traveler abroad, I asked him the obligatory first question you ask anyone before you even know their name, "Where are you from?"
"Kansas City," he responded simply.
What? I come all the way to Panamá, albeit briefly, and a guy from Kansas City serves my coffee. Where's the novelty in that?
This guy may well be the sixty year old version of me. His wife, a retired K.C. high school principal, along with himself, had set out on a new adventure after retirement. They were a piece of the mosaic restoring Casco Antiguo from earlier decrepitude. Why not open a coffee shop and B&B two blocks from Palacio de las Garzas, home to the current Panamanian President, Juan Carlos Varela.
I ambled out with a bounce in my step from a cup of Panamanian coffee and pure excitement and anticipation of travel, despite 45 minutes of interrupted plane sleep.
In a pace that was deliberate but not frantic, I slalomed up and down the cobble stone streets in search of an outlet to the new Cinta Costera, a thoroughfare circling the congestion of the old town. It accorded me the freedom to stretch my legs next to a triathlon taking place on the road.
Through my meandering, I met Nacho. He offered to drive me back to the airport at a fair price. I agreed. We traded friendly banter about the weather, Noriega, family, the subsequent U.S. invasion in 1989 in which Nacho had trained with the Marines, travel, the current state of his homeland all while his radio blared the local Evangelical pastor challenging the congregation and listeners alike, "¿Crees que Dios te proviene todo?" The crowd's trepid response pushed him to bellow out his question with even more fervor, ¿"Crees que Dios te proviene todo?" explicitly guiding followers to the correct response with the same ardor.
The passionate sermon must have struck a cord with Nacho. As we approached an intersection, Nacho slowed the taxi, hastily rolled down the window, and exclaimed to the woman in a miniskirt crossing the street, "¡Oye mamí! ¿Cómo estás?" He subsequently dunked his head back in the vehicle, commented, "¡Qué rica!", and continued towards Tocumen International Airport with the sermon accompanying us on our journey back to Tocumen.
At Gate A30, I boarded the Copa Airlines plane ready to deliver 180 souls to Cartagena, Colombia, the former Spanish colonial heart of South America.