Part 1 of 3: Pit Stop In Panama City
Posted on Tuesday, April 28, 2009 by Ryan
Photos and Captions by Rob Meronek
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.
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.
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.