Three Hour Tour

July 15, 2010 | Natalie Fernandes, Intern

With the convenience of airports, foreign lands can be reached within 24 hours. You can travel to India, China, Thailand, Australia, all within one day. Travelling to Central America, specifically Panama, is a fraction of this time; a mere 7 hour trip, including layovers—yet this particular trip has turned into a whopping 36 hour fiasco! All that could go wrong, went wrong. I arrived at the Ottawa airport, pristinely ahead of time, but with a bittersweet demeanour (I am not the greatest at goodbyes). I arrived four hours ahead of time, confident that I had done everything in my ability I could do to make this transition as smooth as possible (I had even pre-separated out my liquids)! Knowing I would surely go over the 50 lb limit, I brought an additional carry on with me, and forced my friend to bring his backpack so I could return any dead weight to his apartment (namely, my entire wardrobe—don’t judge, it’s three months). Successfully, I was allowed to check my luggage at 51.8 lbs (I think there was a certain amount of pity involved…)

All of a sudden, and rather ominously, things started to go wrong. In a Jekyll-Hyde fashion, the same heroine who let me keep my luggage as is, suddenly transformed into the bearer of bad news, “you’re flight to Newark is delayed by 45 minutes due to bad weather.” Any passive, sane Canadian would think, “hmm…45 minutes, not bad.” But I had only an hour and a half layover in Newark to board my flight to Panama….and my connecting flight was at Newark Liberty Airport, the viceroy of airports, with maximum security, three terminals, and over 100 gates per terminal (this in comparison to Ottawa’s one terminal, and oh, say 15 gates). Add to this my tendency for hyperventilating, and garnish with my total lack of spatial bearings, and you have a recipe for disaster! With fervent optimism, I decided to hope for the best.

Let’s just say the best didn’t happen. We boarded the plane at 3:10 (only 50 minutes behind schedule), and then proceeded to taxi…I really thought at this point that I could make it. Then we came to an abrupt halt. I looked around—why were we stopping? I was convinced that we were waiting for Stephen Harper himself to make the flight…him, or maybe Lindsay Lohan. What else could explain this delay?

Weather. Apparently, Newark was experiencing heavy winds and intense rainfall. Translation into airport terms: monsoon. I was sure that the Professor and Gilligan would come aboard anytime now, and start constructing coconut radios out of black boxes. In airport terms, it was like the apocalypse had happened. We waited, quite literally, an additional hour and a half, of taxi-ing, eating pretzels, and drinking V8. The kind stewardess convinced me that I would not miss my connecting flight—after all, if nothing was going into Newark, nothing could come out…right? After all, the entire Newark airport was closed….right?

Wrong. We landed to “sunny weather with local temperatures in the high eighties.” Not a cloud in sight. After searching Newark’s vast array of shops, seats, and security stations, I finally found the shuttle to take me from terminal A to C. Upon arrival, I was “kindly” informed that I had missed my flight. By over forty minutes. In fact, my flight from Newark to Panama left basically on time, somehow in the midst of the apparent tsunami that was waging over the Big Apple.

After this I was met with more lines, and more waiting. I had to first redirect my luggage, then exchange my ticket for a later flight. I was also told, in not so many words, that I looked like an idiot for not just changing my ticket in Ottawa…but c’mon, how was I supposed to know that Continental would have such performance anxiety in the face of a little rain? When I attempted to re-book my ticket, I was met with my worst enemy in stressful situations: ticket machines that looked suspiciously like computers. Waiting for another ten minutes for an actual human being to assist me, I finally rebooked my flight, which, in Groundhog Day fashion, ironically ended up being the exact same flight, just a day later. The rest of my night is best not remembered—it was a mixture of misplaced money, broken toilets, and a lot, I repeat a lot of Ina Garten and HGTV.

The next day, I decided to look for good signs and bad signs, as an indication of how the rest of my voyage would be. Good sign: the elevator down to the lobby came immediately. Bad sign: it stopped on every floor. Good sign: Tears in Heaven by Eric Clapton was playing in my hotel lobby. Bad sign: a U2 song shortly followed. Good sign: the airport security guard and I shared a soft chuckle about my (overly?) full disclosure of my hand cream. Bad sign: I now can’t find that hand cream. Damnit…

A Few Hours Later…

Success! I made it to Panama, and met a charming German couple on the plane ride, who convinced me that I would love Panama and the Panamanian people the second I stepped off the plane. And they were right. Now, less than a week into my experience (and far over my intended word count in my blog entry), I must admit that I truly enjoy Panama (from what I have seen). I stayed in Panama City the first night, and I felt I was living in my own chapter of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, for Panama City is a dichotomy of old, colonially architectural buildings, composed against new skyscrapers to represent the huge banking industry and booming economy. Looking across the bay, it is truly amazing to see such a sharp contrast in lifestyle.

Upon arrival in Santiago, Veraguas (four hours outside Panama), I am proud to say that I have already been immersed into Panamanian cuisine, with my first ever (and definitely not last) empanada! I have met briefly with my host organization, Nutre Hogar (in english this roughly translates into “feeding house” or “nutrition house”), but have yet to start work until Monday. I am eager, but extremely apprehensive—although the work done at Nutre Hogar is necessary, it is also extremely taxing emotionally. I cried during and after My Best Friend’s Wedding, so we shall see how things go. More to come…

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