The quarter-full bus, which was scheduled to take two-and-a-half hours to get to the border, and another hour to get from the border to David, offered plenty of time and space in which to stretch out and enjoy the rainforest scenery. Until we approached the border, my parents’ first in Latin America, I did not know quite what to expect. We were quickly greeted by a freelance guide, reminiscent of my crossing into Laos, and I was actually quite glad. After all, the man knew we had a bus so he would not try to get us to ride in his likely overpriced cab. The crossing took awhile, as we had to have our bags examined, our departure tax paid, and our fingerprints scanned. When the guide said goodbye, I gave him a few coins I had in my pocket, and my parents, for some reason, gave him like twenty dollars in Colones and USD after I had already given the guy what I assume was a fair payment of 2 or 3 dollars. On the bus, my mother was happy to talk about how we “got scammed,” even though no one was making her give the guy a ten dollar bill from her purse. Regardless, their first real border-crossing could have been worse.
Back on the bus, we reconvened and my mother expressed her wish to board the next bus to Panama City as soon as we made it into the David terminal. I looked up the bus schedule, and found that there would be one leaving at 7:05, approximately an hour after we would arrive, and then continue on the 4 to 5 hour trek across the entire navigable length of the country to the capital.
Typically, I try to steer away from late-night bus rides. Avoiding arriving at a bus station at two in the morning in a foreign country is one of the ways I try to keep safe on the road, as well as how I maintain a sufficient sleep schedule seeing as I have not mastered the skill of vertical sleep. Regardless, this was my mother’s trip too, and she wanted to see Panama City, so we immediately bought three tickets at the terminal after arriving in David. With an hour and change, we found a fonda nearby, and sat down for a three-dollar meal that I thought was more delicious than anything we had had prior. We bought tender pork in a rich sauce, deep fried yuca, gallo pinto, and a delicious beet and potato salad. Cheap food, to be sure, but the meat was so tenderly cooked and stewed that it would make anyone question ever buying an expensive filet mignon or strip steak again. On the walk back the the station, the sun had begun to set, and it seemed a sort of market was thriving in the bus station. A cage the size of a Honda filled with tiny baby chicks sat amidst counter convenience stores hawking bottles of water, gum,and the like. We walked to the bus line waiting room, charged our phones, and booked our Panama City hotel for the night while we waited for the bus.
We boarded early, and the bus pulled out at 7:08. Our seats were in the lower part of the bus, which turned dark after pulling out of the station. A large flat screen TV was posted to the front, and loudly broadcast a Spanish version of the recently released film “Skyscraper,” wherein Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays an architect whose daughter is taken hostage in a skyscraper he designed. Halfway through the ride, which I was thoroughly enjoying with a row all to myself, the bus pulled to the side of the road. A man entered the lower cabin, made a quick announcement in Spanish which I was too dazed to try to translate, and left. No one in the seats nearby seemed too upset, so I figured we were only stopping for a quick break, perhaps to refuel. We waited for the rest of the movie, and my mom began to grow uneasy at the thought of potential “Panamanian terrorists” (her words). After the credits had rolled to completion on “El Rascacielo,” people from the cabin above began leaving the bus for a smoke. A few minutes later, another bus pulled up beside ours, and we were instructed to change buses. Over an hour had passed since our bus conked out, so it was clear it would be a later night than anticipated. As we left, I hoped against hope that I would have a row to myself on the new bus. When I boarded, toward the end of the line, it was clear this would not be the case. In fact, the bus was overbooked, and a family of five with three little kids was forced to share three seats. When I entered the bus, I had two options: to sit with a large Panamanian man, or with a skinny young Panamanian woman. Naturally, I sat next to the young woman quickly, determined to keep an eye out for a row to claim for myself, should the opportunity arise. The bus made several stops for people to disembark, but by the halfway point no rows had been left completely vacant. As we pulled into the rest stop at Santiago, I was pleased to see that this stop also had a large cafeteria-style hot bar and seating area, so I met my parents at the bus entrance, and we dined for twenty minutes on late night Panamanian sweets.
When the bus door opened, riders poured in, but I noticed that fewer were continuing onto this second leg. When I came to my now-vacant row, I smiled and hoped the girl who sat next to me had in fact disembarked for good. When the bus began backing up, I knew this was the case, and quickly assumed my crash position, despectacled head and back leaning against the wall and besocked feet resting softly on the aisle seat. My mind began to wander and my head rolled in preparation for unconsciousness. Quickly, however I was pulled awake as a teenager across the aisle came into my frame of vision and began asking me a question in Spanish that I could not quite make out. I asked him to repeat himself, and he did so in a hushed but quick tone, motioning to the seat, or perhaps my feet. I still couldn’t understand him, but I assumed he wanted the seat which I so desperately did not want to give him.
“Necesitas sentarse aqui?” I asked, pointing to the seat.
He nodded. I was pleased with this translation of my thought. I would give him the seat, but only if he needed it. He smiled and nodded, and I reluctantly moved my feet and shoes to my seat, and leaned my side against the window. Needless to say I was not at my happiest. I was on a delayed night bus, which I would typically avoid, and I couldn’t even get a row to myself because some kid didn’t want to sit with his mother. (It should be mentioned that the ‘kid’ in question might have even been my age, but was certainly no younger than 16 or 17. But if he were 27, I possibly would have called him a kid. I’ll happily call a millenial a kid if he or she is particularly ignorant-sounding or dumblooking. Or if they are on their phones scrolling through any of the ‘big 4’ social media apps. This is a total kid-move, even if the person in question is a millennial. In fact, I once got into trouble at a recent job I took as a cashier at a liquor store, when I was asked where a four-pack of beer had gone, and I had responded with “I sold it to some kids” who happened to be a group of 28-year-olds stopping at the liquor store ten minutes before close like there was an open house at Upsilon Gamma Eta. You ought to know, dear reader, that I can be a condescending prick.)
As I tried to dissociate my attention and attain the pre-sleep state I was in earlier, but quickly noticed that the kid was doing something weird. He had his torso covered with a thin fleece blanket and was making swirling motions with one of his fingers above his left shoulder, the one closest to me. I was distracted, but I figured nothing was completely out of the ordinary. After all, this was likely just his way of falling asleep, I thought. In a few seconds, he began touching the fleece harder from underneath, so much so that it began brushing against my arm, one, two, three times. I leaned closer to the window. Did he not notice? Perhaps he was already asleep, and he was somnambulantly moving his hand? I pulled my arms in tight, hoping he wouldn’t move closer. My hood was up, and my legs were crossed, but rather than ignore me, he began actively petting my arm and shoulder. There was now no doubt in my mind this was not an accident, but I froze in an icy dread. I had given him the aisle seat. There would be no clean getaway. This, whatever this was, was happening, and I was cemented in place. I glanced right, that is to say I was able to glance right, and my eyes met his. His eyes were cold and dead, like a zombie salivating over fresh meat. I shuddered at the sight. I shifted my weight, as I could not yet move from one place to another. At least he would know I was awake. At least he would know I didn’t want this, that I was uncomfortable. I had had nightmares like this before. Dreams in which there was nothing and know one intent on killing me, but wherein I was approached by people who just wanted to touch me and for some reason I could not escape. These dreams filled me with this same fear, the fear of being frozen, unable to act, incapable of exerting control over the situation. As I moved my body slightly from left to right, swaying but also creeping, ever so slightly, toward the window that I was already pressing myself against, the hand began slipping down to my thighs, and then cupping my rear. That was enough to provoke action. I swung my torso forward and began putting on my shoes. It felt like it had taken a whole minute to put the first one on, my left foot not even entirely in the shoe, but rather the back pressed down under my heel like a slipper. He was jabbing his hand like a spatula under me. “Why was he doing this?” I thought. I was failing to put the other shoe on. “Good enough,” I thought. I began putting the other shoe on, but the kid’s hand had made its way over my thigh to my crotch, and was now moving closer to my groin.
“Fuck it,” I thought.
“I need to go to the bathroom,” I stuttered in the likely incomprehensible language of English. “Doesn’t matter,” I told myself. “I just need to get out.”
I stepped over his spread legs with some difficulty, but I was wielding a shoe, and the bus was full of precariously sleeping passengers, so he did not make a fuss about me leaving. When I made it to the bathroom, I struggled at first to find the latch, and struggled for what felt like an eternity before a father, the same father who had three kids sitting near and on him, helped me open it. I jumped inside, closed the door, and took a profound breath. I thought about how I would get out of the bathroom, how I would get off the bus without meeting those cold eyes again.
I left the bathroom, and quickly walked through the aisle to the front of the bus where there was, thankfully, an empty row three or four seats behind my parents. What the hell had just happened? I felt so disgusting. Was I just assaulted? Or was that not the appropriate term? And what was he? An assailant? Just some guy? I thought over what I had said: “Necesitas sentarse aqui.” But if I had accidentally said “sentirse,” that could have meant “to come over,” and rather than a question, it could have come off as a statement or instruction. Had I invited him?
For the rest of the trip I was on high alert, simultaneously hoping this guy would get off at some crossroad, but also fearing that he would pass by me and I’d have to see him again. As the last hour passed on our ride into Panama City, I wished this had never happened, and that I could feel just a little less disgusted with myself than I did.
As we pulled in I met my parents at the front of the bus, and my mom followed me out. Needless to say, I was more than eager to get out of there, but I didn’t feel quite comfortable explaining what had happened. I said “let’s go,” in a kind of rushed sort of way. After all, my parents were in the front row. What did I have to worry about? My dad, it turns out. He decided that at nearly three in the morning, it was a good idea to play with his bag on the bus before disembarking, tightening straps and securing whatever the fuck someone with a mountain climber’s pack has to secure before making the daunting three-minute excursion down a ramp to a taxi stand. As soon as I saw him, my mother and I began descending the ramp. He saw us, he knew where to go, and I was getting out ASAP. At the bottom of the ramp, I argued with the taxi driver as there were no Ubers available, and got him to half his excessive charge of $20 to go about a mile to our hotel. When we got to our hotel, where a bunch of alcoholics were yelling on the sidewalk from the casino next door, we quickly checked-in, and I slipped immediately into my bed while my bumbling parents dropped pill bottles and glasses cases on the floor. I was horrifed and angry, but sleep came easy, as I was able to push the thoughts of the evening away by focusing instead on putting my middle-aged parents in a nursing home the moment we got back home.
The next morning I awoke reluctantly. I slept through breakfast and awoke to find a text from my dad, saying they were a few blocks down on the Avenida Central, and I should meet them. The Avenida, I discovered, was a pedestrian thoroughfare that essentially led from our hotel to the middle of the Casco Viejo district. It was Thanksgiving day, and I shot texts to a couple of friends and my brother before leaving the hotel. As I walked, it came as a surprise that people were actually celebrating Thanksgiving in Panama. There were parades, marching bands, and Panamanian flags hanging from windows where the parade was to pass. We navigated through alleys and police checkpoints, visiting cathedrals, several parks, and the Panama Canal museum before seeking lunch in a top-rated fonda I had found on Tripadvisor.
The menu, which was housed on a whiteboard behind the woman stationed in the front hall, was written in local slang, and the descriptions were messily jotted below. After a few minutes of frustrated translation, I ordered three different items off the list more or less at random, and we grabbed a couple bottles of Panama beer and sat down in a small table tucked in the corner. By the time our food came, our beers had been emptied and my father had grabbed a second drink, a tamarind smoothie, he thought, so before we ate I took a second beer from the fridge and told the maitre d’hotel that my dad got a “tamarind thing” so she would add that to our tab.
We ate our unknowable but delicious dishes. My dad’s meal looked like some kind of deep fried, crispy risotto, while I ordered a delicious baked carpaccio of, I want to say, pork. When our plates were taken away, a bowl with a large pile of snow was brought to our table. We looked at each other. Did I order this? I looked down and the waiter explained the three things that came with the raspado: malted milk powder, condensed milk, and tamarind juice.
“Are you sure the drink you ordered was made of tamarind?” I asked my father.
“Not really, no,” he said with a shrug.
It was far from a regrettable mistake, and we finished our high-end raspado with smiles, then left to see some more of Casco Viejo and then the Panama Canal. Before calling an Uber, we found a small group of indigenous peoples, who were selling molas, or colorful hand-sewn squares with varying patterns. The color schemes, and I mean this as a compliment, reminded me of Trader Joe’s. We bought nothing and caught an Uber to the canal at Miraflores Locks. We had been to the canal museum already, so I was not eager to go to another exhibit, but I was pleasantly surprised at how little there was to do at the Miraflores Lock. We sat in a theater for about fifteen minutes and watched a video about how locks worked, and how they constructed Miraflores, then went up to the top floor observation deck and watch for a half hour as a petroleum tanker entered the top of the lock, then was lowered down and released into the Pacific.
Still catching up from the previous night’s travel into the capital, I happily went back to the hotel, lounging and reading, in a pre-dinner siesta. My mother had her hopes set on “a nice meal in a nice restaurant downtown,” and I was happy to oblige. We located a rooftop bar overlooking a beautiful city square in the Casco Viejo district, and became thoroughly muddled by mojitos before taking the elevator down to the ground floor restaurant for Thanksgiving dinner. I ordered the $42 cochinillo or suckling pig, which came with warm, melted cheese, sliced root vegetables, and a rich, sweet molasses sauce. I slept soundly again that night with a belly full of the best Thanksgiving meal I’ve probably ever had.
The next day, we had a noon flight scheduled to Colombia, and I was excited to embark on the last new country of the trip, and on my first new continent since I had flown to Asia for the first time earlier that year. We ate at the lavish breakfast buffet then caught an Uber to Tocumen Airport, several miles east of our hotel. Our driver only spoke Spanish, so I sat in the front and chatted with him almost the whole way as he pointed to the favelas off the highway, and warned me to never go to them. As we disembarked, my mom gave an Italiañol “gratzi-as,” and I was able to manage without making a bitter comment about her ignorance. Besides, our driver was nice, and I took it that he was not offended.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.