Sisyphean Airlines

Day 56 - Panama City

We nearly didn't make it into this slip of a country. Cruel fortune had us standing in the queue for the only Panamanian border officer who had read and decided to adhere to the rules. "Return ticket?" bugger.  His steely, uncompassionate gaze was unmoved by our desperate explanations of our travel 'plans'. Bribery also failed to move him to endorse our entry so our bus driver, with infinite generosity, offered to relieve us of another $36 to write up a return ticket to San José that we would never use. This finally satisfied the entry requirements and the stamp thumped down.
The country is divided by a synonymous strip of water down which floats a not insignificant quantity of the world's goods. Though our initial plan was to dive the canal, renovations kiboshed that idea and we had to settle for the traditional topside view.  On initial viewing the city itself seems built on the wealth its transoceanic connection brings.  Buildings soared to heights unknown since we left New York nearly 2 months ago, the skyline that of a modern metropolis.  The skyscrapers loom across the bay from the colonial ramshackle of the old town.  Though much of it lies in ruins due to several foreign incursions it retains that familiar charm of the old new world. Would that Birmingham had half the aesthetic of these places. I strolled its cobbled alleys alone, an absence of directional sense meaning every direction was the right one. Time passed and I found myself on a wooded hill to the north watching small deer frolic and a preoccupied armadillo snuffle though the leaf litter, silence soothed my ears and calmed my thoughts. It is an abused and ill-appreciated commodity these days. A short walk took me past the port with its Lego brick mountains of shipping containers and into a residential area populated almost entirely by men clad head to foot in white looking like they'd just stepped off the set of 'An Officer and a Gentleman'. As I headed back toward the old town I passed into an area best described by a resident that accosted me as a 'red zone'. It wasn't the best kept part of the city admittedly but his warnings of impending robbery and doom seemed a touch melodramatic.  I thanked him courteously for his advice and walked on. A policeman I encountered ten minutes later was more assertive with his advice and near threw me in a taxi. There ended my walk.
Pre-trip research had failed to throw up the alarming fact that Central and South America are entirely unconnected by road. Between them lies a vast forested area called The Darien. Home to deadly snakes, exotic diseases, guerrillas and drug traffickers it isn't exactly prime hiking territory either. If we thought getting into Panama was tricky it was as nothing to the saga of our departure. In our attempts to avoid an expensive and unbackpackery (it's a word, Mike told me) international flight I plotted a convoluted series of hops down Panama's Atlantic coast and over the water into Colombia. Involving a (cheap) plane, some boats, a bus or two and (probably) a donkey.  Alas the crucial flying portion of the jaunt was booked up for a week so we were back to square one. Square too were my eyes after hours straight at the laptop.  After near enough a day it was apparent the only way we were getting out of this country was via some pricey plane tickets.  Having negotiated Avianca Airlines labyrinthine purchasing process at perhaps the tenth attempt, I clicked the button marked 'buy'. Card blocked. An eye-wateringly expensive call to Natwest put me through to a guy whose security check was comprehensive and, I suspect not a little arbitrary. I should have asked if he moonlighted as a border control officer.  Card cleared I returned to the fray. The transaction went through, this time tomorrow we would be in Colombia! I checked my emails, confirmation was there.  I quickly checked the details of the long awaited document:

Panama City to Cartagena check
Sunday 30th January check
Passenger(s)
1, Mr Benjamin Welsher check
2, Mr Benjamin Welsher expletive

Now of course such an elementary detail cannot be changed just like that. No sir, you'll need to rebook the tickets. Again I started a process as familiar to me now as breathing. This time, this was the time, all details double checked, all security checks hurdled but one, the little blue loading icon turns its interminable circles. "This website cannot be accessed."
At this point I shot myself in the head.

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