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Big trouble in little Colón, Panama’s Pacific port

‘Be careful when you get to Colón,’ a man on the bus warned me. ‘Everyone is very nice. Some will offer to help and . . . well, it’s a port – just be careful.’

‘Thank you,’ I said, ‘I will.’

When I arrived I quickly found Avenida Central, a long, wide street with an area like a ‘square’ extending down the middle, with trees, seats and the odd sculpture, which acted as a useful landmark. I saw two policemen and gave no thought at the time to why they went around in pairs. I checked in to the Milan Hotel, which looked to be the best of a rather basic bunch. It had entrances from two parallel streets, one via its own restaurant, a cosy place with bar stools at the serving counter and a line of tables stretching to the door of the hotel proper. The restaurant was run by a cuddly, mumsy type, whose dyed chestnut hair made her seem European. She looked after me and I felt safe there.

Poor tenement in Colon, PanamaI had a room on the third floor. Peering through the louvred windows I could study a scene of Dickensian squalor. Facing the side of the hotel was a two-storey block of flats, cramped and in poor repair. Some of the doors were off their hinges and resting against their doorways. A single bench and some old boxes served as outdoor furniture. You could not say where the residents’ living space ended and where a general yard littered with rubbish began.

I had a spyhole in my door, which I suppose was a useful security measure. When I looked through it I saw that the door of the room opposite was open. A woman was sitting on the bed. Her legs were bare, one stretched out, the other bent at the knee, which pointed upwards, a pose somewhere between casual and provocative. A man of about my age was standing at the doorway, conveniently to one side, allowing me still to see the woman. I heard bits of their conversation.

‘How much do you charge?’ the man asked.

I thought this was a cheeky joke on his part to a woman who had carelessly presented herself as a lady of the night, when she was nothing of the sort, but as the conversation continued in a matter-of-fact way I concluded that there was no irony on the part of either of them. I couldn’t hear the woman’s reply but it must have been on the lines of ‘x dollars’, because he asked, ‘For how long?’

‘Half an hour,’ she replied.

‘I’ve got a girlfriend in such-a-place.’

I saw the man go away. Then a younger man came along, went in and the door shut. When I went out a short while later, the door was open. The younger man had gone and the woman too. Perhaps he’d asked her to come to his room. In the woman’s place was a large cuddly toy in the shape of a panda, an unlikely mascot for a sex-trade worker. Later I saw her again on the bed, her face changing colour and brightness as the light from her television screen played across it. As I was going to bed at 11.30pm it was still hot. The children from the Dickensian flats were playing naked in the street with a hosepipe.

The next day a thin, restless man came up to me in the Avenida Central.

‘You Okay, man – how you doin’?’ he asked.

‘Fine, thank you,’ I replied.

‘Where you come from – England?’


‘First time in Panamá? How you like it?’

‘I like it very much.’

‘When you back to the States then?’

‘I’m not going back.’

‘You going to Panamá (City)?’

‘No, I’ve just come from there.’

‘Where you going?’

‘I’m getting a ship to new Zealand from Cristobal [the dock area]. Now, I can’t find Cristobal. It’s not on most maps. I need a good map.’

‘I know a place where’s there’s a big map. I’ll take you there.’

‘Thank you.’

‘I gotta go to Panamá. I just need two dollars for the bus. You wouldn’t give me two dollars? My auntie died. She had a business but she died. So there’s no money coming in. If I could get to the States I could get a job in Macdonalds – work my way up. People think I just spend it on marihuana. You’re going round the world. I’m fifty – I haven’t done anything with my life. I wanna make something of myself.’

Cristobal turned out to be less than ten minutes’ walk from my hotel. I found the Shipping Agent’s Office. I introduced myself to the agent and confirmed our arrangement that I should be there by 12 noon the following day.

On my way back I noticed a street that seemed to have been abandoned. It was full of potholes, puddles, mud and rubbish. I could see no shop in it, nor a single person. It was like a strip of waste land but it lay only three streets from Avenida Central. If nobody else went down this street, I certainly didn’t want to do so.

When I went back to the hotel, the lady of the night said, ‘Alo! Alo!’, demonstrating that she was a ‘lady of the afternoon’ as well.

‘Hullo!’ I said and slipped quickly into my room before I made her think I was looking her over, although I had had time to gain an impression of someone with a warm personality and a big cuddly body – nothing much to hurt yourself on there, I thought.

I was bored. I went back to the Avenida Central and hung about for as long as I could make myself. The other people were hanging about out of habit – or because there was nowhere else to go and nothing else to do. There were lots of them and almost anything that passed for a seat was taken. Eventually, I found a space on a seat, which already had a man sitting on the back of it. I kept an eye on him, but he showed no interest in me. I had my draw-string bag with me with a few odd items in it. When the strings were pulled tight, the hole closed up and you needed two hands to open it, but I kept it away from people. They looked at me as if I were strange. I was strange. I felt strange. As far as I could make out I was the only European in the town. I must have stood out like a raw sausage on a plate of well-cooked ones.

I was looking forward to going to sea. I’d had nine weeks on the road, guarding my valuables, always keeping a look out, struggling with the language. I’d overcome my initial fears. I’d travelled from Fort Lauderdale to the Panama Canal and apart from losing $86 at a frontier crossing, nothing bad had happened to me. I couldn’t help feeling I’d done rather well. One more night on land and then I’d be joining a British ship. If I kept my cool I’d soon be able to relax.

Still bored, I went to a café and ordered a papaya smoothie, although they don’t call them that. There was too much sugar for my taste and I could only get it down with the help of the iced water that came with it. I decided not to hang about outside any longer but play safe and go back to the hotel.

The lady of the night appeared at her door, now a ‘lady of the early evening’. She gave me a generous smile. Indeed everything about her was generous – her make-up, her bust, her hips, even her waist. She had long black hair and rich brown skin. She wasn’t exactly pretty, but she was without question voluptuous. She gave me another huge smile.

‘You see, sweetie,’ she seemed to be saying, ‘how well I can take care of you.’

She went back into her room, presumably to watch some more television and wait for business to hot up. I went into mine. I tried to read. There was nowhere to sit except on the bed. I put the air conditioning on. When it got too cold I turned it off. There was nothing I wanted to watch on television. I had a sense of anticlimax.

I wanted to have a decent meal on my last night, to round off this section of my odyssey, to celebrate my success so far. After being spoiled for choice in Panamá City, in Colón I hadn’t found a restaurant that really appealed to me and I’d seen most of the place. There was one quarter I hadn’t explored and I decided to check it out. I emptied the draw-string bag and repacked it. I wouldn’t need my camera so I hid it in the room. I took my dictionary, my reading glasses, my notebook, a pencil sharpener and my waterproof. I had a pencil in my pocket. I locked my door and set out for my last dinner in Panamá. It was dark but there were plenty of lights in the Avenida Central. I went up the one section of it I had not explored before. There was not a single restaurant.

‘I’ll look quickly in this side street,’ I thought, ‘and if there’s nothing there I’ll give up looking for somewhere new and go back where I’ve been before.’

The street was darker than Avenida Central but I could clearly see there was no restaurant. But with my built-in aversion to going back on my tracks I pressed on past the end of the abandoned street I’d avoided earlier. It looked just as grim from this end. I was moving quickly out of habit in dark places. The next street, I thought, would take me right back to the part of town I knew. I was well into this street, when I could feel some anxiety building up. There was no shop – none lit anyway, no street lamp, no traffic. It was dark but I could see figures standing at the side of the road, people hanging around as if they’d nothing to do. There were puddles to dodge and these brought me nearer to the people than I wanted to be. Mostly they seemed indifferent to me but there was a man, my size but much younger, who looked at me so intently, intensely, that immediately my anxiety turned to outright fear. My pulse was racing. I felt I was in real danger. It was too late to turn back. In any case I would have had to pass the young man again. I held on tight to my draw-string bag and, careful not to stumble on the uneven surface, I moved as quickly as I could without breaking into a run. Ahead of me was the street I knew, with lights and lots of people. Suddenly, like things happen too quickly in dreams, I felt something or somebody pulling hard on the bag. Fear cut right through me, like the terror that takes over just before you wake out of a nightmare. Without thinking I tightened my grip on the draw strings. Well, if I thought anything, it was, ‘these are personal things – they’re no use to you!’ Then what I took to be a fist hit me on the side of the face. I let go the string immediately. My glasses had been knocked off my face. Without them I couldn’t see in the dark. I didn’t know where I was. The nightmare was real.

Extract taken from Surface Male. Round the World Without Flying
by John Barclay (9781848767928, Hardback, £16.00)

Surface Male is the true story of John Barclay’s challenge to travel around the world, doing as much as possible by land and none at all by air. 

Available from

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