The Journal  

10 January 2006

Panama City

Author: Jeremiah

Photographer: Holly


Panama City , Panama , Panama

December 21-24

The area between Panama 's major cities along the Pan-American is rural and nearly uninhabited, except for the occasional small town or gas station. But the road continued to be good and we made good progress, until twenty miles out of Santiago our lane was blocked by a police officer, his hand outstretched for us to stop. We pulled over to be informed that we were speeding in a work zone. I had noticed several policemen along the highway, but none had seemed to be paying attention to the road. With a ticket looming, I used all the excuses from not seeing the signs to the fact that the Guzzi's speedometer was broken. None worked.

In Costa Rica , we were warned to watch out for police officers who become more likely to stop tourists and collect “fines” during the holiday season to supplement their meager salary. Although I'm sure I was probably exceeding the speed limit, I quickly realized that this traffic stop was not about breaking the law. The officer told me that I could pay him or he could write me a ticket that I would have to deal with in Panama City . I refused to give in to a bribe and told him I'd take the ticket. He walked back to his motorcycle to retrieve it. While he was gone, I thought about how long it would take to fight a ticket in Panama City that I would have to end up paying anyway, wasting time we didn't have.

When the officer returned, I noticed that the ticket in his hand was blank. “How much would it cost to pay the ticket here?” I asked in Spanish. He told me twenty dollars. I carefully opened my wallet, using my thumb to hide my stash of twenty dollar bills in the back, and showed the officer a stack of ones. “Lo siento, yo tengo solomente 12 dolares. Esta bien?” I asked. He nodded and was placing our “fine” into his uniform pocket as we rode away, me feeling stupid for needlessly getting us into a situation with the police and ashamed that I encouraged corruption by resorting to bribery as the easy way out.

Nearing Panama City , we rode into the Canal Zone , an area of abandoned military buildings protected by barbed wire fences that are relics of the American control of the transcontinental waterway, which was relinquished on December 31, 1999. The Pan-American crosses the Canal over the Puente de las Américas. The bridge's metal arches curve high over the waters of one of the twentieth century's greatest feats of engineering. As we crossed the canal, we could see yachts and sailboats, making their way to the Pacific Ocean .


We crossed into Panama City over the Puente de las Americas or Bridge of the Americas , which stretches over the Panama Canal.

As soon as you cross the canal you're in the old part of Panama City , where the streets are narrow and confusing and the drivers reckless, but courteous to a pair of lost American motorcyclists. We stayed in a hostel in the residential El Carmen district, where we could park our motorcycle inside the courtyard beside a kennel that held two Rottweilers. Our fellow guests included several vacationing Europeans and an American couple and their child from Kansas , who had “escaped” from the U.S. following the November 2004 presidential election.


The hostel we stayed in, like many previously, had a resident parrot that spent most of the day squawking “¡Hola!” or “¡Bueno!”

We spent our time in Panama City making plans to get both ourselves and our motorcycle shipped to South America and catching up on our journals. Since we had traveled over 6,000 miles from home, the Guzzi was scheduled for maintenance. I had planned to find a dealership in town that would allow me to use a corner of their shop, but walking up the street from our hostel for supper one evening, I noticed a house with several motorcycles parked in the garage. I inquired inside to find that the owner was an American-trained Harley mechanic, who offered to let me use space in his shop.

On Friday, before I took the Guzzi to the airport for shipping, I adjusted the valves and changed the oil, parked among several Sportsters, a KTM Adventurer and a Dodge Viper Venom. The mechanic loaned me tools, disposed of my used oil and then refused payment as I prepared to leave for the airport. I gave him a Honda cleaner travel pack from my saddlebags, a small gesture of gratitude to a fellow wrench-head, before heading out to Panama City 's international airport.


The owner of a motorcycle repair shop just up the street from our hostel let Jeremiah use his facilities to do routine maintenance on the Guzzi.


After valve adjustments, an oil change and general tightening of bolts, the Guzzi was ready to be taken to the airport in Panama City.


Dirty hands were a sign that much work had been done the Guzzi before it departed for Bogotá , Colombia.

The best view of Panama City comes from driving the toll express that connects the city to its international airport, nearly 20 miles northeast of downtown. The elevated road passes along the Pacific Ocean , the water's edge lined with slums and swamped boats, and by Panama Viejo, ruins of the original city that was destroyed by pirates in the eighteenth century. Heading back from the airport, the tall buildings of Panama City made for the most impressive skyline I had encountered on our trip.



All photographs © Holly Marcus / Page design by Robin Marcus