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Trekking Around Panama

Blades approaches tourism not just as a lucrative industry but also as a platform for instituting social justice. It's a new attitude in Latin America, but one that is making some headway in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and here. During the military regime of Noriega, of course, tourism came to a virtual standstill in Panama. Neighboring Costa Rica, seeing an opportunity, surged into the field; while Panama was stalled under the unsavory Noriega, Costa Rica had for its president Oscar Arias Sánchez, a Nobel Prize winner. It made a difference then, and Panama—finally a real democracy—is trying to catch up.

"We want to offer cultural, historical, recreational adventure ecotourism," Blades says. "We don't want the tourist version of McDonald's. When people travel to another country, I don't think they want only to be entertained and sit around the pool with a margarita. Tourism is a spiritual affirmation, or it can be. It should be."

For me, panama already provides just that. As I leave town, I have to drive out through the Casco Viejo, and drive slowly, too, because the streets in the old district are narrow and there is too much congestion (the government has been brooding for years about traffic patterns in the area and about parking, with no visible result). I'm glad the traffic moves slowly because it gives me time to peer out at the glories of this quarter: its second-floor balconies and chipped pastel paint; the regrets that, along with several sharply uniformed guards, stand watch on the landing of the Presidential Palace; the repetitive arches of the old colonial structures; the blue and green interiors of the fluorescent-lit bodegas; and the plastic-tablecloth décor of the nongentrified houses with their doors open to the breeze. The whole place is still so authentic and so full of the past—those archways, the broad sidewalks, majestic old wooden hotels, colonnades, terraces, cathedrals, and plazas—that its profound reality feels almost artificial.

Perhaps the most spectacular thing as you travel around Panama is catching sight of the top of a huge, bulky containership through the leafy green canopy of the jungle. Parrots fly in and out of the sun, and the ship's smokestacks mirror the columns of trees as its prow and cargo-filled deck nose through the fabulous flora, in a bizarre conflation of the man-made and natural worlds. Every aspect of the canal is fascinating: the huge ships (many of them of a size called Panamax, meaning the largest a vessel can be and still pass through the canal); the superstrong metal "mules," vehicles like tanks on tracks, that travel up and down both banks of the canal using thick cables to guide the ships through their passage; the locks, whose gigantic Pacific gates are 82 feet high and weigh more than 790 tons and so are able to check the extreme tidal fluctuations of the sea; and, after all that hugeness, the tiny figures of half-naked Chinese seamen on the stern deck of a transiting freighter, jumping up and down and waving for all they're worth at a pack of elderly American tourists on the shore, and the Americans, in their hats and sunglasses and pastel-­colored outfits, waving back.

The road to the cloud forest was long, and I was thirsty. I ducked into a small bodega next to a gas station to search for water and a snack. Instead, the cashier showed me a refrigerator shelf of almost-peeled oranges, with the white inner skin still on and a small hole cut in the top. He demonstrated: You squeeze the sides, gently, and suck from the top. Presto! Jugo! This was ingenuity, the orange both the container and the thing contained. I bought two, and they weren't even messy, although by the end you had two pulpy shells to dispose of. Along the way up into the highlands, Berta and I passed by fields of tall sugar­cane and fields of low corn. I sipped my orange. Pasted on walls everywhere were posters of Martin Torrijos. Behind him in the picture stood his looming father, General Omar Torrijos (another controversial and popular Panamanian strongman, long dead), smoking his trademark cigar.

I was having breakfast in the dining room of my hotel in Santiago, a provincial town, when a small boy in a baseball cap, about nine years old, came in and plunked himself down at the counter with a big bag at his side. Out of the bag, one by one, came Styrofoam cups, each one loaded to the brim with bright red strawberries—not a tropical fruit—which were battened down with plastic wrap.

"And where are the strawberries from?" I asked him as I forked over a dollar for a cupful.

"Boquete," he said, naming my destination, still some 160 miles away and up in the mountains. And I thought, of course: Strawberries. The cloud forest.

We headed up more steeply now. It was hot out. Alongside the road, usually in single file, trooped men and women in traditional indigenous clothing, holding an occasional umbrella for protection from the sun as well as the rain. Inside our air-conditioned car, we were having a heated discussion about Panamanian politics when we drove over an enormous pothole and were rewarded with two flat tires. We pulled over to the side of the road. No one passed for a while. We put on hats. We began to wonder what we should do. Then, fortuitously, a man driving in the opposite direction stopped his flatbed truck and took in our predicament. With grave dignity, he removed our two dead tires and left us there with his wife and little daughter, Cristal, by the side of the road in the bright sun, while he took the tires to the town to be fixed. Fortuitously is a good adverb for the tropics. In the ­tropics, someone always comes to rescue you, fortuitously. We sat at the edge of the forest. There was little refuge from the heat.

A brook was babbling somewhere nearby, but we couldn't see it. Here, only 300 miles north of the equator, the foliage was too dense. I sat on a perilous old log that showed signs of dry rot and insect infestation, because no other seating was available. I sat and sat, with ample time to consider the natural landscape. We heard birds, but none approached. Cristal was sitting on a section of the newspaper. I gazed down at it, but sadly, I could see that it was a part of La Prensa I'd already read—something about a $5 billion plan to widen the canal. I opened my book but couldn't focus in the heat. What I watched instead were the butterflies. A big blue one, as big as my fist and blue like the ocean on a globe, landed on a branch next to Cristal, nearly tangling itself in her hair.

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