Keith Irwin

Arrival at Panama City

Feb 26, 2014

Latin America 2014, Hitchhiking, Travel, Panama


This is part of my story of hitchhiking from New York to Buenos Aires and back, which I did in 2014. I may publish the entire tale in a book someday. Until then, you can read it for free here. To see other parts, check out Latin America 2014. 

February 26

The last ride to Panama City was with a trucker who got lost in the city during rush hour. Poor guy! He found himself on thoroughfares which were clearly designed for smaller vehicles. I said goodbye and jumped out at a red light.

I found an internet cafe. My host had never sent me his phone number or address, so I sent a quick message, asking for it. Then I went into a restaurant and got a plate of food and a coffee. There was a major road outside, and it was loud and bustling. Not a plant in sight.

A photo of a colorful apartment building
An apartment building in Panama City

The internet cafe was open until 8, so I went back at 7:45. Surprisingly, it was closed. I was upset until I found out it was actually 8:45. I was in a different time zone! Fuck.

Not knowing what else to do, I started to wander. Either I could find another internet cafe or a safe place to sleep. I passed a slummy neighborhood with houses built on top of each other and looked for an abandoned one. I actually managed to find one with no door or windows, but a roof. There a bathroom, but no running water, so I brushed my teeth with my water bottle. I was laying out my blankets on the concrete porch when a dog appeared on the adjacent porch. He looked as surprised as I was. He barked.

“Shhhh,” I told him. “Don't wake anyone up. I'm just going to sleep here.”

The dog looked uneasy, but barked again. Then he looked back to his house. Nobody was coming out. He looked at me and barked some more.

“Shut up,” I said and he stopped. “I'm going to sleep here. It's not a big deal. That's your porch and this is mine. So it's none of your business. Don't wake the neighbors.”

He barked some more.

When I realized I couldn't talk any sense into him, I gave up. I rolled my blanket, tied it to my pack, and walked off, looking for a new shelter.

After several blocks, I meandered down an alley toward some sort of scrap yard. A dog approached me, but I kept walking towards it. Dogs can smell fear. So can thieves. The dog started barking. It became clear to me that this way was a dead end. As I turned to leave I saw three guys at a chain-link gate watching me. One of them took a few steps out into the alley, as if to approach me. But he seemed unsure. I didn't get a threatening vibe, so I went over and said hello.

They were working there as security. They were really curious about what I was doing there. I explained that I was travelling to Argentina but had no place to sleep, and was looking for some shelter. They said I was crazy. I was used to it.

“You shouldn't be walking around here at night. It's dangerous.”
I am dangerous,” I said, holding up fists. My confidence reassured them.

One guy was Colombian. “You're going to Colombia?”
“Yes,” I told him. “That's my next country.”
“You will love it,” he told me. “Colombia is beautiful.”
He asked about my bracelets.
“These are my friends in this trip,” I told him. “Look. I have two friends.” I proudly held up two fingers.
“Now you have three,” he said, unhooking a nylon bracelet from his wrist. He put it on me. “A gift from Colombia.” It was black with red, yellow, and blue beads. I thanked him. After a quick chat, I rambled on.

It was late and I was sick of walking. My feet were tired. I passed a high overpass which was under construction, and decided to settle for it. The fence to the construction site would be a good enough defense, and the bridge would at least protect me from the rain.

I climbed through the fence and crossed the sandy site. There were several dormant machines, like sleeping dinosaurs. I unrolled my blanket on the ground. Nearby was a pan of water. As I peeled off my sweaty socks, I wanted nothing more than to dip my feet in the water. So I put one in. But when I pulled it out, it came up black. It was motor oil.

I was never dirtier in my entire life than that moment under the bridge. I was already long overdue for a shower and fresh clothes. And now I was standing barefoot in the sand with one foot soaked in motor oil. I cleaned it off with my towel as best I could and laid down.


Panama Panama City