I expect I will continue thinking about Darien for some time to come and indeed the region shocked me. It is quite easy to understand why a road has not been punched through to Colombia as the harsh jungle does create a rather natural barrier against smuggling in all forms.
What I find even more difficult to understand is what sort of misery one must feel they are living in order to take the sort of risks one takes to smuggle drugs, prostitute their bodies or simply smuggle themselves.
While my Cuban friends continued their precarious journey north, a taxi whisked me away to the four-star Continental Hotel in central Panama City. After several days of ‘roughing it’ in the jungle, I didn’t think twice about spending $100 on a good hotel with a pool, gym and nice restaurant.
The taxi driver told me about the huge volume of Cubans transiting through his country. He seemed sympathetic to the Cubans and explained that many women finance the long trek to the US by selling sex.
However after hearing of my travels in Colombia his sternest warning was to stay away from Colombian (and Venezuelan) women; “they will do anything to take everything you have and in Panama City they are all prostitutes.”
After checking in, I showered, wrote a little, spoke to Finn in Australia and then went out for food. I had not eaten since the previous day and managed to consume an entire pizza – big enough for a family!
As happens in the tropics the sun fell out of the skye right around 6:45 pm. The lights of the city came on and the ladies of the night came out. Prostitution is legal in Panama and while the idea of a cold beer in a local pub appealed greatly, I was scared to enter any pub as all the establishments I walked past were filled with absolutely stunning women, obviously for rent.
Closer to the hotel I found one empty terrace bar, so I entered cautiously and found a nice seat from which to watch the world go by.
The friendly waitress was Venezuelan and was thrilled I spoke Spanish. She told me most of the ‘gringos’ who visited did not have the language, but were happy to pay the $250 fee for the company of the reconstructed ladies – lips, boobs, waist and bottoms. I said, as kindly as I could, those women would never receive a even a dollar from me. To that she asked with seeming genuine sincerity whether I would in fact be looking for a wife. I told her I was already happily married, tipped generously and retreated to my room. (As a note to the taxi driver: the Venezuelan lady was not working formally and certainly was leaving the failing system in Venezuela, but she was NOT a prostitute.)
I continued to ask myself – perhaps naively – how prostituting oneself on the streets of Panama could be better than a typical life in Colombia or Venezuela. In the same vein I could not stop thinking about the friendly fellow from Bogota who will now be living in a stinky, crowed jail in Panama.
I suppose from those brief experiences I have to understand how Colombians have earned their reputation, but in their country I met so many friendly, educated and professional people I simple cannot believe that smuggling or prostitution stand above other activities in esteem – or success.
I hope for those who follow my blogs my respect for human dignity is clear. Also you will note I avoid sex-tourism destinations at almost all costs. In fact that was part of the reason I did not visit Cartagena on this trip.
While this was my first (and conceivably last) trip through / around / over Darien, I have been to Panama City before and perhaps did not perceive this seedier side previously. Back in the hotel I was reading about Panama’s laws and came upon an interesting blog from an excellent writer. If you would be interested in the woman’s perspective on this subject, please visit the site Overland Undersea.