Part 1 of 3: Pit Stop In Panama City

Posted on Tuesday, April 28, 2009 by Ryan

Words by Ryan Clements
Photos and Captions by Rob Meronek

I didn't realize that was the Panama Canal we were flying over until later when we were actually there. Back in 1880, the French tried to dig this ditch. After nearly 22,000 deaths, they gave up and the champs of digging ditches took over. Team America started in the early 1900's and finished it up in 1914, adding another 5,000 deaths. It takes a ship about eight to 10 hours to get through it and cuts a shipment of gay pride from SF to NY from 14,000 miles down to 6,000. Tolls are charged to get through the Canal. The most expensive was this Disney cruise ship that paid $331,200. The least expensive was some jackass that swam it in 1928 and paid 36 cents, about 80 billion in today's currency. The average toll is about $54,000 and there's only one exact change lane
Our local friends in Panama City took us on a quick tour during our three hour layover. It reminds me of the Phillipines in parts of the city here. Here's a quote from Quim Cardona: "I don't mind this third world stuff. It's how I live at home"
This is the Golden Altar in The Church of San Jose in what seems to be a super sketchy neighborhood of Panama City. The altar is made of pure gold. When the priest running the place found out Pirate Morgan (Captain Morgan???) was on his way to steal the altar, he painted it black and made it look like a wooden altar. When Morgan arrived, the priest told him that the golden one was taken by a pirate that beat him to the cheese. That worked and the priest continued his life of lies to people through organized religion that still exists today. Security is pretty much non-existant at the church. The only rule is like strippers in all cities except Tampa - you can't touch
This was scribbled on the wall outside the church
These types of guards were all over the place for some reason. Not sure what they or the dudes in the banana suits were for
I hope the next light is red so we can get a coconut on the go
The locals called these Diablo Rojo. These are old busses dressed up by private citizens and used as public transportation. This is one of the least decorated ones. They get pretty elaborate and they're also usually packed with people standing up in the aisles. This guy must be on break
Things felt right at home when the Red Bull Girls showed up at the Panama Canal
How do you get a ship up and down a hill? This system of locks is used at the canal where one section is filled that raises or lowers the boat to the next section's level. Doors close behind the ship and the water level is then adjusted to the next section's level
The Little Engine That Could tows your big ass boat through the locks super slow
Most of those buildings in downtown Panama City are still under construction. There's been a construction boom here in recent years unlike the rest of the world
This is Ronaldo that took us around for the few hours we were in Panama City. He had footage ready to go and passed it out to us at the airport. Let's have the PanaMan Am here
That's about all the time we have for Panama. We are now on the sketchy flight from Panama City on the way to Cuba. They served up an above average meal on the flight in the economy class
You also get one free drink on the 2.5 hour flight. Don't be fooled by this beer with the word "sober" in it. It's got a decent 4.5% of tasty alcohol in it
Guess which one of the Cuban Customs form questions I lied about by checking the "no" box
After nearly 24 hours of traveling, we are finally in Havana, Cuba and checked into our hotel. We arrived a little after midnight and threw back the local sauce at the 24 hour bar before crashing to get rest for a big and very interesting day tomorrow
I think that I was first introduced to the idea of “Cuba” when I was in high school. I didn’t really get it or know what was up about it, but I knew that as Americans we couldn’t go there. And hey, I didn’t really want to go there either...

As time went on though, and I think that being a skateboarder might have something to do with it, I started thinking that it would be cool to go somewhere that I wasn’t allowed to go, to visit The Forbidden Island. That was only a dream though. I didn’t really think that I was ever going to get the chance to venture there. Never mind the media-hype surrounding Cuba now with Obama taking office. Who wants to go when you’re “allowed” to go, right?

Obviously you’re going to realize that this entire trip was very well orchestrated and properly planned out. Giving every single detail of what we did and how we did it would require writing a small book, so that’s not going to happen. From booking flights to getting a hotel room to exchanging currency and so on and so on, there were certain preparations that needed to be made to make a trip to Cuba a reality. However, this is a really long story, so be prepared to read a lot if you’re going to jump in. And I never expect people to actually read my stuff, but please read this one…it is truly unique.

For handling all of those preparations, there are two men that I want to thank. One is Tomas Crowder. Born in Argentina and having lived all over Central and South America, Tomas is pretty much the man responsible for bringing skateboarding to Cuba. I vaguely recall meeting him at Tampa Pro way back in 2001 or so, and he even mentioned the idea of visiting Cuba to me at that point, which I discarded.

The other man that needs a huge THANK YOU and pat on the back for making this trip possible is Chris Nieratko. You may know him from the creative writing that he has been producing for about a decade, or you may be familiar with his skate shops, NJ. Without Chris and Tomas, we would not have had this experience of a lifetime, so thanks fellas.

Day 1 – Part 1 – Tampa to Miami to Panama City
We (Barak, Rob, Jenna, and I) left Tampa at 6:45am bound for Miami. After a three-hour layover, we boarded a plane to Panama, arriving there at about 1:30pm. At this point we needed to switch airlines to one that flew to Cuba. However, we had about a six-hour layover, and our friends at Red Bull came to the rescue.

Nieratko got in touch with his Red Bull contact in NJ, who got in touch with a national RB contact, who then got in touch with the Panamanian RB contact, who was waiting for us when we landed. We then met up with the rest of the crew from the Northeast area. There was also an entire crew from California, too. At this point we were rolling like 20+ deep because there were like eight Panamanian skateboarders with us, as well. I will break down the entire US crew in another portion of this article, or else getting through the first day is going to take forever to explain!

The Panamanians had a 15-passenger van and a pick-up truck to take us around Panama City, which has apparently experienced a HUGE construction boom in the past few years. They sure don’t hesitate to place brand new, gigantic hi-rises right on top of literal shanty towns.

Two things I couldn’t get over was the insane amount of advertising and the trash that was freakin’ everywhere. There were more billboards, signs, and ads than I’ve ever seen…and the majority of them were in dilapidated shape. And the trash. Oh man. I’ve never seen so much trash on the streets of any city. Panama City even makes South Philly look clean. Dumpster full? No problem. Just pile the crap up next to it. Is it blowing around the town? Who cares? That was more shocking than when one of the Panamanians said, “My friend, this is the part of town that you should roll up the windows.”

The “old town” was absolutely amazing though. There were buildings on top of each other, tiny one-lane streets, and people everywhere. We stopped at some church where the inside area behind the pulpit was done completely in gold. From there we headed over to the Panama Canal and got to have dinner while watching boats cross from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. The size of these “boats” was more like massive ships carrying oil and all sorts of cargo across the Canal. The way the levees work and drain and fill with water to allow the ships passage was a site to see in person. That was one for the memory banks.

As the sun was setting, we had to book-it out of the Canal Zone and head back to the Tocumen Aeropuerto, which consisted of some of the craziest driving that I’ve ever experienced. THANK YOU to our friends in Panama for taking time out of your day to show us around. Your hospitality was amazing, greatly appreciated, and will not be forgotten. The favor will be returned if you ever make it to Tampa.

Day 1 – Part 2 – Panama City to Havana
I’m not going to claim to know all of the rules, laws, and ins and outs of what you legally can and can’t do in Cuba as an American, or if you can go or not. I do know for sure that you can’t get a flight from Tampa to Havana. And the funny thing is that everyone you talk to has a different opinion on what’s legal and what’s not legal.

I’ve only read a very limited amount of material on the subject, too, but I can tell you this: It was much easier than I thought it would be. I will admit that I was a bit nervous, we all were. But starting from getting off the plane to Immigration, Customs, and getting our bags, all went rather smoothly.

In fact, Cuba actually welcomes citizens of the United States of America to their island by NOT stamping your passport upon entry. That way there is nothing traceable to “prove” that you were there in case Big Brother wants to come after you. They were all friendly, but the officials seemed a bit disorganized. They actually make you go through a metal detector when you get off the plane, as if you got some illegal items from the time you went through the metal detector at the last airport.

For extra precautions, they run the wand over you, even touching private areas. They also had the standard dogs going through and sniffing the bags. No sweat when you’re only carrying a bunch of skateboarding product and some clothes. However, while going through one of the final inspections, Nieratko got stopped and questioned on why he had so many bags with him. This is where Tomas took over and we had the product past Customs 25 minutes later.

It was a little after 1am when we got in the cab to head towards the hotel. Obviously it was dark out. The streets were desolate, with the exception of some night-crawlers and prostitutes. There were very few streetlights, but you could still see that there weren’t exactly too many “new” buildings. That is, until we got to the hotel, which was really nice, had a 24-hour bar, and a band playing in the lobby. 21 hours later, after starting in Tampa, Florida, we laid our heads down in Havana, Cuba.

Footage: Panama City and our arrival in Havana

Related Articles

Part 2 of 3: Havana Slamma, Cuba

by Ryan on Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The full story and photos from a few days on the streets of Havana, Cuba.

[View more in the Article Archives]

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