Living in Panama for three months was tough.
And it kind of sucked.
And seemed as though Julie was truly unhappy there, which of course means that I was unhappy about her being unhappy.
That sort of sucked, too.
When we decided to stay in Panama we were hopeful. I’m not sure exactly when I abandoned hope altogether but it might have been somewhere between the fifth or sixth sleepless night. When I say sleepless, I mean ZERO SLEEP. I might have been hallucinating but here is what I thought I heard or read about all of the splendors that is Panama:
- Everyone said that Americans from the United States were flocking there in droves; Panama is the new retirement capital of the Western Hemisphere!
- Panamanians LOVE people from the United States! Just look at our long-standing friendship and history. (We did give them the canal, you know.)
- Panama used the U.S. Dollar interchangeably with the Balboa and were pegged at a 1:1 exchange rate; no mental currency conversion necessary!
- Panamanians all speak English! All of the senior retirees who don’t speak a single word of Spanish are having no problems with communicating at all.
- Panama is an up and coming travel destination and is just like Costa Rica!
- Panama has two vast coastlines and the diving in both the Pacific and Caribbean would probably be EPIC and unspoiled!
- I had no less than 5 friends, Julie calls them my “pen pals” because I only knew them from Facebook, living in Panama that I really, really looked forward to finally meet and hang out with. Surely, having in-country contacts always helps grease the skids in the unlikely event we encounter some minor difficulties!
- No need for a car! Taxis are cheap and plentiful!!!
And of course we had pre-paid for this really upscale apartment downtown with a perfect view of the Pacific Ocean through BRAND NEW SOUNDPROOF WINDOWS near the swankiest mall in Panama City just a stone’s throw from the best night life from a seemingly pleasant landlord who lived in the apartment until moving to the United States.
The odds were stacked in the Harrell’s favor for a change. This should be the easiest move we’ve made yet!
What wasn’t there to love about Panama really and what could possibly go wrong?
In two words? Diablo Rojos. The Red Devils.
Why they call them “red” devils is entirely beyond me; they aren’t red at all, usually they’re colorfully pained pieces of art that remind me of the type of artwork that adorns the death machines (OK, they call them rides…) you might see at a travelling carnival criss-crossing Central America.
Why they call them devils is NOT a mystery: These busses are Hell. Perhaps even Satan himself.
The streets of Panama City are a special kind of Hell anyway… probably the type of Hell that would most certainly be reserved for the likes of me… LOUD!
You see, I like my quiet, especially with a 3 and 4 year old Mad Max running around talking all day, “Daddy look!” “Daddy watch this!” “Daddy, come see!” “Daddy, what are you doing on your computer?” “Daddy who are you taking to right now?” “Daddy…”
If Mad Max isn’t talking, then something is definitely amiss and required quick investigation to prevent death or serious architectural damage.
If you have children, I’m sure you get the picture. If not, perhaps you’re old enough to remember Jeffrey from Bill Cosby’s classic stand up routine “Himself;” he, too, was 4 years old…
The Diablo Rojos are repurposed school busses that tear through the streets of Panama City, belching thick black smoke into the air through unregulated, straight pipes coming directly from the manifolds of 450 horsepower diesel engines. The noise that comes from these buses is enough to blow your hair back and cause bleeding from your ears.
Think of the loudest noise you can imagine and then multiply that by 6 and stretch that out over 5 minute bursts. Then imagine the Diablo Rojos speeding by your window every 4 or 5 minutes between 6am and 10pm. Except for Sunday. Sunday was a day of rest.
When I’d finally grown numb to the engine noise I became acutely tuned in to the squealing air brakes that pierced the din of traffic like a sharp knife plunged into the center of my back.
But what about the swanky apartment thirty stories above the streets below with the NEW SOUNDPROOF WINDOWS???
One small detail left out of the apartment’s advertisement… the new windows were only in the master bedroom and there was an honest-to-God five inch gap above the new windows and the top of the window casement…
There was a 4 foot long, 5 inch high GAPING HOLE IN THE WALL above the soundproof window. It seems that the owner knew that there was still some work left to do renovating the apartment since the window they installed was the wrong size.
The rest of the windows? Jalousie windows. Effing useless for anything except for maybe keeping the birds out.
There was nothing soundproof about this apartment at all and the Diablo Rojos’ exhaust pipes all pretty much point straight up in the air injecting their thunderous staccato directly into that apartment through the windows. There’s nothing to baffle or deaden sound that travels vertically the same as it would be mitigated if the exhaust was directed horizontally because the sound would be absorbed by things like cars, buildings, landscaping, etc. etc.
It always amazed me that I could have a conversation with someone on the ground while parachuting down to them from several hundred feet up… it’s the same principle.
That beautiful Pacific Ocean view included not only the ocean and the busiest street in Panama City directly below us, but the smell of low tide twice a day came wafting in with Diablo Rojo’s hot breath, too.
“Daddy, did you bring home lionfish? I think I smell lionfish except it smells really yucky.”
So after a few weeks we all sort of became immune to the noise from the street and the smells from the ocean. Our nerves weren’t so raw and we all sort of found a rythmn and weren’t all at each other’s throats when we were at home. Then, the fireworks happened.
Did I mention that Panamanians LOVE their fireworks? Yeah and we were told that the country was transitioning into “a season of fireworks.”
Fireworks are freaking awesome until they start firing off one hour shows at 11:30pm.
The mortars are literally exploding at the same elevation as Mad Max’ bedroom window less than 100 yards away. That first explosion, the one that literally blew me out of the bed and caused me to have flashbacks from my dad’s service in Vietnam, was pretty much the last straw for everyone.
We packed our suitcases up, put what we didn’t need into a storage facility and spent our two remaining weeks exploring the rest of Panama with mixed results.
I did, however, manage to finally get some sleep.
If you’ve ever had the opportunity to actually ride in Diablo Rojo, you will immediately connect with this video, even if you don’t speak a lick of Spanish:
Note: About the time we were leaving Panama the government had essentially tried to outlaw the Diablo Rojos and replace them with new, cleaner, greener and QUIETER busses. You may, or may not, have quite the same experience we had.
What’s been your worst travel nightmare? Tell your story in the comments below and maybe save a fellow traveler. We want to hear from you.