I'm in Panama right now, waiting for a flight to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. I will be spending the next month working in Haiti as a consultant for a food company that needs to obtain high-quality ingredients from farmers. I will of course be writing much about those experiences in the coming month, but I wanted to set down my impressions of my flight thus far and the ambience here in the Panama airport, because it's very trippy and a far cry from the reality I'll be living in Haiti.
I set out this morning at 5:30am from Bogota. Actually, I woke up at 2:30am and got out the door by 3am so as to be nice and early for my flight. I was to fly with Copa airlines, the national Panamanian airlines and an associate of Continental. I had engaged in a good number of credit card promotion plans/scams that had endowed me with lots of Continental frequent flier miles, so when I had the opportunity to work in Haiti, I redeemed them and ended up with an almost-free flight from Bogota to Port-au-Prince.
I had flown Copa Colombia before. Copa Colombia is a semi-independent subsidiary of Copa that flies throughout Colombia from its base in Bogota. It's often a lower-cost regional alternative to Colombia's national Avianca airline. But I'd never flown internationally on Copa.
I have been very pleased with the experience thus far. On the plane I read about Copa's strategy of being what they call the “Hub of America”. From Panama City Copa flies to destinations throughout the hemisphere, from Argentina to Canada and everywhere in between. A particularly valuable service Copa offers are flights to secondary cities, such that businessmen in Cordoba, Argentina or Cucuta, Colombia, can fly to places like Manaus, Brazil or Santiago, Dominican Republic. Incoming and outgoing flights are organized around 6 time “blocks” in Panama, such that transfers are quick and efficient.
Copa's business model seems based in part on the mix of low wages and good infrastructure offered by Latin America. Seats have ample legroom, and the hot sandwiches and packaged plantain chips are delicious and filling. The plantain chips are made by Frito-Lay, but their high content of fiber and vitamin A makes me feel like they're a better alternative to potato chips. These services and amenities are a far cry from Spirit, the ultra-low-cost, no-frills carrier I normally fly. I can only believe Copa can offer such great service at a relatively low cost because it's cheap to hire middle-class, educated people to work the plane staff.
I was really stoked by this pan-American vision, to the point that I even fantasized about working for Copa Airlines someday. A good deal of the planes are Boeings (the rest are Embraer, another entity from our hemisphere), which means that Copa Air is also supporting one of the few industries that still seem viable in the US (and thus benefitting my hometown of Chicago, Boeing's corporate headquarters, and my father's hometown of Wichita, a major plane manufacturing center).
I had to nuance, if not temper, my enthusiasm upon arrival in Panama. The short walk down the exit tunnel from the plane to the gate was humid, though still cool at 7am. This humid air was to be about the only taste I would get of Panama as a country, because the airport itself was another world, sort of like a limbo between countries. You don't go through customs or immigration unless you leave the airport and actually stay in Panama. Otherwise, all the flights in the airport come and go from foreign countries, with no connecting flights within Panama, so there's no need for customs or immigration. I guess this makes sense—once you're in Panama, why would you need to fly anywhere? Even by road I can't imagine anything is more than a few hours away.
As I marveled at the lack of customs or other symbols of national control and sovereignty, I wandered lost around the terminal, just to make sure I didn't need to register anywhere. The Tucumen airport of Panama is like a weird inter-national space, full of people talking in English and Spanish, and there even a fair number of Chinese wandering about. You see the same lurid, offensively decadent perfume ads as in airports in Colombia or the US. There's only one general store with things like Kleenex or Pringles chips, but there are tons of Duty-free purveyors of electronic goods, perfumes, clothes, and luggage. I took a look at the laptop selection, and found that they were actually pretty expensive.
From this limited introduction through Copa and the airport, I envision Panama as sort of a Latin American Singapore. A port to the world, where goods and people come together, sometimes to stay, often on their way elsewhere. An economy based on tourism and shipping, a meeting point of many cultures, though perhaps this dilutes its own local culture. I'd like to visit someday, get a sense of what such a place would be like. In a month, on my return flight, I'll have an overnight layover in Panama, so maybe I can walk the old city a bit.
Though it seemed like everyone in the terminal was from somewhere else, I got some idea of what Panamanians are like from the store employees. They look and talk like Colombians from the Caribbean coastal region, which is about the pre-existing image I'd had of Panama. I have to admit that I know very little about the country. It was once part of Colombia, it has the Canal, famous people include salsa singer Ruben Blades and narcodictator Manuel Noriega. I am sort of embarassed to be in a place I am so ignorant about. I had a vague idea that Panama uses the US dollar as its currency, but I was still a bit timid and unsure of what to expect when I used an ATM. Sure enough, out popped some good old greenbacks.
So hungry (or rather thirsty) for a bit of authentic Panama, I went to an airport bar and asked if they had any Panamanian liquors. The bartender recommended me the 7-year-aged version of the national Abuelo rum. I asked if he could serve me that so early in the morning, and he directed my attention to his bar's publicity poster, which said in English, “It's 5pm somewhere”. So at 7:46am I found myself drinking straight Panamanian rum, watching on the bar's TV set a rather sad video of a recent Rolling Stones concert. Keith Richards's mummylike face, Mick Jagger's emaciated body and pin-legs, the lack of coordination between instruments and vocals (I'm not sure if this was actually a mess-up at the concert, or if the DVD player was offbeat); it all seemed sad to me.
After a short phone call to my wife Caro, I headed to my gate to wait for the Haiti flight. The black-skinned Haitians chatting amongst themselves and looking like more or less normal people contrast with the generally palid, flaccid mass of consumers bustling about the rest of the airport. Seeing the Haitians also reminds me I should brace myself for my impending entry into Haiti, get ready for the crude and harsh existence sometimes manifested there. I've never partaken too much in the steady consumerist diet of modern bourgeois culture in the US or elsewhere, but I suppose that in my years I've become accustomed to the flash and gaudy brilliance of middle-class surroundings, so much so that I'm comforted or reassured by them even as I criticize them. Hence it's always a bit disconcerting for me to go to a poorer country without a bourgeois veneer that masks the hardness and vitality of raw life. I know I'll adjust, but it's a transition I have to force myself through, like quickly ripping off the band-aid of oblivious complacence from the hairy arm of reality underneath.