Navigating Panama

Two orders of business: after the incident below I met Owe at one of my favorite hideouts, la Rana Dorada, a brew pub with okay-decent house-brewed beer, a selection of appropriately greasy/salty pub grub, and wi-fi, after the wi-fi in the “gaff,” (it so terribly confused me for the first week that Owe kept referring to the flat as a fishing hook, until I learned that it’s Dublin-specific slang for flat) mysteriously went out. He brought his computer to do some work, I had my book but was prioritizing people watching.

“You should write another blog.”

“It’s your fault I’m not.”

“And how is that?”

“If I hadn’t locked myself out of the apartment I’d be writing one right now.”

“And it’s my fault you left your keys in the apartment.”


“Just as, I suppose, it’s my fault that you didn’t wear sunscreen when you took an hour long walk in the tropics at noon.”


“Well, I’ll not hold you back. You can go back to the gaff right now and get your computer.”

“We’d have to move inside. I need a plug.”

“YOU ARE THE WORST TRAVEL BLOGGER EVER. I’m not saying you’re a bad blogger, just that you’re the WORST TRAVEL BLOGGER EVER. You can quote me on that. You can tell the world that I, managing editor of (here we protect the innocent and the reputation of a reputable travel magazine by omitting true names) have said, YOU ARE THE WORST. Other bloggers would have a smart phone or a tablet and could just sit here and bang out a blog. Jesus Christ. You need a plug and a fifty pound dinosaur of a computer.”

“It’s four years old.”

“Fine. Sit there and read.”

“Too many people on the street. Oooh! I spotted a backpacker! I’m guessing- French.”

“(Shakes head)”

Secondly, Panama, I admit, has grown on me. My bad attitude the first couple weeks was probably exacerbated by general fatigue and the fact that I miss the FUCK out of Istanbul. I really do. My mourning period went into overdrive when I woke up one Saturday to find that my name was all over Turkish newspapers, my court case was reopened, and prosecutors were seeking 1-7 years imprisonment for me, but that’s another blog.

Buh-bye, dream of returning to Turkey.

However, as I wander around, and sit and people watch, and talk to people, its charms are becoming more apparent.

This blog isn’t about those charms though. This is about trying to find things.

“Did you find the store?”

“Nope. But I did determine that it’s NOT on the same street as Rey.”

“Oh, that’s my fault. I gave you pretty shit directions. Yeah, it’s not on the same street as Rey. If this is Via Argentina, and this is Via Espana, then the store is over here and back some.”

“So you expressed this to me by saying it was on the same street as Rey.”

“Yeah, that wasn’t helpful.”

“Well, I got my exercise.”

“I still don’t understand why you didn’t google map it.”

“Darlin. For the last time. I can’t read maps. I don’t think you have taken me seriously enough when I say that, so let me emphasize: I am actually spatially retarded. Once I took an IQ test just for fun- I got all the verbal reasoning questions except one right, I did pretty well with the logic and even the two trains running mathy ones, but on the spatial/visual reasoning ones? I did less well than if I’d blindly guessed.”

“Everyone has their blind spots, I guess.”

“Yeah, and mine is HUGE. How do you think I got lost in my ex-boyfriend’s bathroom? Why do you think I keep walking into the maid’s closet instead of my bedroom? Direction makes no sense to me, how a map corresponds to the physical world makes no sense to me. I compensate by making narratives out of sequences of landmarks, but there aren’t enough meaningful landmarks on maps. So that’s why I didn’t google map it.”

The very next day I had a job interview. I wrote and asked for directions, but the manager didn’t get back in time to me, so I sat at the computer and puzzled over the google map.

“Hon, if you have a minute, can you come look at this with me?”

“Sure. What’s up?”

“Okay, so, I think- wait- that’s the casino, where’s our apartment?”

(shifts view to right.) “There.”

“Oh. Okay. So, if I leave the apartment and turn right, then I should turn left, or away from Rey, right? And then go down here-”

“You know if it was me I’d avoid the big roads and take these little roads. They’re more pleasant-”

“Hon, I will get lost there. Let’s stick to keep it simple stupid.”

“Okay,” in the tone of someone indulging another’s unreasonable request, “Fine. So you wanna go down to this intersection. There’s a church there.”

“Oh! That’s where the church is! Okay. And then it looks like I pass three streets? Right? And then take a left?”

“Yeah, and it looks like there’s a park right before, so that’s a good landmark. It’s pretty straightforward, you shouldn’t have any problems. But you should leave right now.”

“Yeah I just hafta write this all down.”

I left the house full of optimism, with a yellow pad full of landmarks and street numbers and as much careful detail as I could muster from a map, and successfully turned the right direction at the end of the street. At the next intersection I managed to confuse myself, but there was the church! Aha! And the next street was 51st street, like I was expecting, and it was actually marked! Everything was going my way!

Then something went horribly wrong and I was by the seaside.


I asked a doorman at a major building if he knew the Global Bank building. He scratched his head. A remarkable feature, I’ve found, in Panama City natives, is that none seem to know where anything is. Streets often have more than one name, and most aren’t marked anyway, so no one knows them. You have to give cabdrivers landmarks: they don’t know street names either. A fun feature is that buildings have names, but not numbers, so there is no way of telling where on a particular street a particular building is. For someone who can get lost on a grid, this spells disaster.

After I’d given the doorman 4 or 5 seconds to scratch his head helplessly at me  I gave up and began retracing my steps. I had a moment of clarity- I’d simply neglected to turn left on 50th street! Aha! Find 50th street and turn right! Impressed at myself, I walked up the street for a bit before it dawned on me that this wasn’t the street I’d walked down. But the streets that were marked were ticking up- 46, 48… so surely I’d run into 50? Surely whatever street this was ran parallel to whatever street I’d walked down?

I stopped to ask someone. She directed me to the right. I walked down that street and asked again. The man directed me to the right again. My general fool proof method of not getting lost in a strange land is to clarify directions every block or so, to make sure I’m still on track. This has only about a 50% success rate in Panama, so I was starting to get a little panicky, imagining well intentioned strangers leading me in circles while my job opportunity slipped away.

I ran into a group of people and asked them if they knew where 50th St. was?

“No, we’re lost ourselves. Do you know where Chase Bank is?”

“No. Do you know where Global Bank is?”

“Yes! I saw that! It’s down this way.”

“What street is it you’re looking for?” They told me the name. “Yeah, I have no idea where that is, sorry. But I’m pretty sure it’s not up there- that’s all residential. Don’t be confused by the street names- there’s no correlation. 49th has no relation to 50th, which is below 46th, as it turns out.”

“Good to know.” We all walked in the same direction for a few blocks, exchanging small talk, and then they left me, with assurances that I was headed in the right direction, that I’d see a sign for Global Bank just past Tower Bank.

I stopped and asked a man in a suit if I was on 50th street and he said yes! Aha!

After Tower Bank I stopped and asked a lady where the Global Bank building was. She directed me back the way I’d come, assuring me it was that building behind that one.

Now keep in mind, it was now quarter after 12, I had been walking for an hour, and was on one of those horrible, unshaded, muti-lane roads surrounded by shiny skyscrapers that reflect and refract the noon-time equatorial sun, and that, because it’s Panama, every single car on that multi-lane road was honking it’s horn. This is just to give you insight into my physical and therefor mental state.

I walked back the way I came. What choice did I have? On this huge bustling road, none of the cross streets were marked, giving me no sense of my place in space. I was dependent on strangers.

I stopped again and asked two men who were smoking outside. One pointed confidently and immediately at the building the woman had pointed to. The other said, “No! No!” and pointed the opposite direction. They argued, but the second man pointed out that on the building he was referring to, one could just make out the letters GLO-



“You left your phone at home and your man called to tell you he’d be running late. I told him not to worry, that you’d be lost anyway. I mean, I told him you’d definitely get there, but to take his time cause you were lost. Were you?”


“How late?”

“Miraculously, only 5 minutes. I beat him.” I began to tell him my adventures and he interrupted me.

“Why are you even asking people? Beyond useless. I don’t understand why you don’t just read a map.”


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2 Responses to Navigating Panama

  1. Alan says:

    . . totally empathise – I never could learn foreign languages either! Sad that we’ll not share those beers and jokes.

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