As I walked around Heathrow Terminal 5 before dawn, I recalled my departure to Central America on my gap year nine years and 11 months before. I was aware that although this was a day I had been looking forward to for months, I was noticeably less giddy this time around. Had I remembered my passport yet misplaced my sense of adventure?
Of course not. While previously I was like a mad dog desperate to be unleashed into the wider world, this time I was aware of what I was leaving behind: my girlfriend, my friends in London and hot showers.
I was also sleep-deprived and slightly apprehensive about what exactly awaited me in Panama. My emotional unease was evident as I found myself crying while watching The Big Sick over the Atlantic…
I arrived in Panama City at dusk. Conclusions drawn from initial forays into a city after nightfall are often as spurious as Donald Trump’s assertions. This was even more likely to be true for me as I arrived during the fireworks for Separation Day – one of Panama’s four days of national holiday in November.
With its warm climate, skyscrapers and reclaimed land, the wealthiest parts of town resemble Dubai or Singapore. While touristy areas such as Casco Viejo offer more culture than its Middle Eastern counterpart, there are other parts of the city which are less clean and developed and bear greater similarity to unkempt metropolises such as Mumbai.
After a dinner of ceviche, I followed the noise and stumbled across an open-air gig along the Cinta Costera. I then returned to my room, intent on exploring the city in the morning before my flight to Bocas del Toro.
I resisted the temptation to rush out to see the Panama Canal as I hope to spend time in the city to see it more fully in the coming months. Instead I remained in the city centre and soaked up the festival atmosphere for – you guessed it – another Panamanian holiday: Flag Day. A procession featuring marching bands and hundreds of people carrying banners stretched several miles across the city.
Excitement levels heightened further shortly after taking off towards Bocas del Toro. The pilot of the small plane aborted the flight after a bird crashed into one of the aircraft’s rear stabilisers. Most of us didn’t even notice the thud. Returning to Albrook Airport was a precautionary measure and we were never in any real jeopardy. That didn’t stop some passengers becoming a little hysterical though, while others were convinced they had cheated death. Second time around, we made it to Bocas unscathed.
From the tiny airport, I walked to the Habla Ya Spanish School that will be my base until Christmas at least. In exchange for increasing the school’s international exposure through the management of their social media accounts, I’m staying in the school and taking part in 20 hours of Spanish lessons each week.
I could effuse about Bocas’ beautiful beaches and fecund fauna, but this blog post will turn into a tome. We’ll save that for next week, when you can also learn about how my Spanish is progressing.