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A bad start to a new day in Panama City

“I should never have listened to you,” said Angela the next morning. “I knew this would happen. I just knew!”

I wiped the sweat from my forehead and shook my T-shirt. A smidgeon of wind to cool myself down would be a welcome distraction. The street was busy, full of shops opening up for the day. I looked at the map and then at the street names around. Nothing matched up. We were lost and it was all my fault.

Jason Smart's book coverForty minutes earlier, after finishing breakfast, it had been my suggestion that we head outside for a quick wander around. I wanted to take a photo of a skyscraper I’d seen the previous evening. From the back seat of the taxi, the skyscraper had seemed close to our hotel, possibly just around the corner.

“But we’ve got a tour in an hour,” Angela reminded me. “The guy is picking us up at 8.30.”

“I know. It’s plenty of time.”

“What if we get lost?”

“We won’t. I’ve got a map.”

Despite my wife’s reservations, we hit the busy streets of downtown Panama City. We were soon walking past a couple of casinos on the same street as our hotel. All would be opening for business later that day, flashing their neon well until the early hours. Around and among them, bars and restaurants were being cleaned in preparation for the day’s festivities – tablecloths wiped, floors mopped, and buckets of water sloshed out over the pavements. Numerous street stalls were cooking up fried food and were doing a brisk business, serving commuters on their way to work.

Skyscrapers loomed overhead in all directions but I couldn’t see the one I was looking for. But it had to be nearby, I reasoned. Maybe around the next corner. Or the one after that. I pretended I knew where I was going, my eyes greedily searching out a street name I could take my bearings from.

“Jesus, it’s humid,” I said, as we crossed a street full of angry traffic, all beeping, all furiously trying to push into lanes that were not there. Old buses full of Panamanians trundled along, thick plumes of black smoke escaping from their vertical exhausts. Most had been gaudily painted in bright reds, greens, yellows and blues. Others had pictures of animals emblazoned across them – jaguars, lizards and eagles seemed a popular choice, but so did chickens and fairytale creatures. One truck had The Punisher decorated on its side panel. Judging by the looks of the people cooped up inside, it was living up to its name.

Panama city street scene

We rounded another bend, arriving at a wide boulevard that looked like a busy New York avenue. Yellow cabs sped by, passing designer shops and plush hotels.

“There it is,” I said triumphantly, finally catching sight of the corkscrew-shaped skyscraper. It was a few blocks away, poking over the top of some other buildings. I suggested to Angela that we try to get nearer. With over twenty-five minutes before we had to be back to the hotel, we had plenty of time.

We later stood beneath the Revolution Tower (or the F & F Tower, as it is sometimes called), and marvelled. Well I did, though Angela seemed fairly taken with it too. It was without doubt one of the most impressive buildings I’d ever seen. It could easily have joined the skyline in cities such as Hong Kong or Dubai. The way the sun caught its many angles was nothing short of mesmerising. It looked like the end of a screw, but a giant screw made of blue glass. How engineers had constructed such a thing was beyond my comprehension.

I noticed Angela studying her watch, which meant that it was time to move on. I took a few more photos and then looked at the map. I soon noticed a shortcut that would get us back to the hotel and pointed it out to my wife. She looked but offered no comment, which I took as assent.

Panama City skylineTen minutes later, Angela and I were doing a merry little dance that involved glaring, swearing and temperatures flaring. With the map rendered useless, we were walking aimlessly again, sweat erupting from my forehead. We rounded a corner where I stopped a man for directions. Like most Panamanians, he was mestizo, half-Amerindian and half-white (a legacy left over from the Spanish invaders). He claimed to have not even heard of our hotel. I thanked him anyway and trudged onwards. Angela’s mood darkened to storm status.

“I told you we should have gone back the way we came!” she scolded. Lightning flashed in her eyes. “We need to be back at the hotel in five minutes! We’re going to be late because of you!”

“I know, I’m sorry. But what can I do? Throw myself in front of a bus?”

“That would be a start.”

Wiping the sweat from my brow, we rushed along a busy road full of banks and more designer shops. I was looking in vain for any landmark I could get my bearings from. The only thing I recognised was the twisty tower, which had got us into the mess in the first place. In desperation, I stuck my arm into the road, in the hope that one of the yellow taxis would come to our assistance. None did, and so I stopped to glare at the pathetic map again. Why had I decided to put my trust in it, I fumed? Why indeed? Like many Lonely Planet maps, it was utterly useless, out of date and threadbare on meaningful points of reference. Wondering whether to scrunch it into a ball and throw it as far as I could, I glanced around and noticed something. It was tucked up a little side street just along from us.

“There’s the hotel,” I said, jubilantly. Angela spun her head and saw it. I was already smiling and breathing easily for the first time in a while. “See I told you we’d get back in time.” A minute later, we entered its air-conditioned interior. Normal service had resumed.

Read his full adventure, down to Rio de Janeiro, by buying Jason’s ebook.

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