The Departure / The Arrival

11 Apr

10 April 2012.  The Republic of Panama

The alarm was set for 3 a.m. but we arose before it went off, having slept fitfully.  We dressed, had a quick cup of coffee, and zipped up the last duffle bag in preparation for our 4 o’clock airport pickup.  Oliver, our beloved English Cocker Spaniel, was edgy and nervous, pacing the floor and looking anxious. The car and driver arrived on time and after loading our bags and Oliver’s travel crate, we started out on our next adventure with Oliver sitting on my lap in the back seat. The darkness prevented us from seeing much of the road we had come to know so well as we journeyed for the last time down the mountain toward the sea.  During our 13-month sojourn in the township of Sora, District of Chame, Republic of Panama, this was the road that had led us to everywhere and anywhere we had wanted or needed to go.  We saw lights coming on in the houses along the road and the car headlights spilled over small groups (mostly students) waiting for the bus that would take them down the mountain.  As the dawn began to emerge we turned onto the Panamerican Highway and noticed increasing numbers of people awaiting bus transportation for their trip to school or work place, many seemingly headed into Panama City.  The darkness had evaporated by the time we passed over the Bridge of the Americas which spans the Panama Canal, that 51-mile waterway that changed the ways of the world, and we passed the multitude of skyscrapers, including the one in which we have lived when we first arrived in Panama nearly 14 months ago.  Then the 15-mile drive along the Pacific, passing the high-rise towers of Costa Este, shimmering as the sun rose out of the water, arriving at the airport in the morning light at 6 a.m.  The Tocumen International Airport is known as the gateway to the Americas and in 2011 it served over 5 million passengers; the check-in line was long.  But after about an hour we watched Oliver, ensconced in his crate, go the way of all baggage and we were left to sit and wait another hour before boarding our 3 hour and 50 minute flight to Mexico City.

The Benito Juarez International Airport, located 8 miles east of the historical center of Mexico City, is one of the busiest airports in all of Latin American and handles over 21 million passengers annually.  Currently Mexico City is ranked as either the second or third largest city in the world with over 20 million residents.  The airport is huge and it took us over 10 minutes to taxi to our gate.  It is attractive in appearance and efficient in its procedures; nonetheless we experienced unforeseen difficulties since Oliver’s “papers” were not considered to be in order.  We were delayed a few hours while we negotiated a solution that resulted in a veterinarian coming to the airport to administer some medication.  Finally we were underway just after 5 in the afternoon and commenced the 180 mile drive to San Miguel de Allende, in the good hands of Estaban, our driver.  Located at about 7200 feet elevation, midway between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean, Mexico City lies in a valley forty miles wide and sixty miles long, known as the Valley of Mexico.  It was through this fertile valley that we traveled, surrounded by mountains and volcanoes that rose to elevations of over 16,000 ft.   It reminded us both of other places — many other places.  At times it seemed like Napa Valley, or parts of California’s Central Valley, or perhaps New Mexico, or Northern Arizona.  Although south of the Tropic of Cancer the landscape that greeted us seemed anything but tropical.  Having left the jungle of Panama, we now saw pepper trees, willows, flowering jacarandas, oaks and laurels.  We drove by grasslands, acres of grazing cattle, dairy farms, fields of alfalfa and many other crops.  Occasional rain showers passed overhead and more than one rainbow came into view.  The road took us northwest into an absolutely stunning sunset.  I realized then how long it had been since I had seen a sunset; where we lived in Panama the sun went over the mountain and set somewhere in the Caribbean.

6 o’clock, 7 o’clock, and the sun remained visible in the western sky.  It seemed strange to us for during our time in Panama the sun always went over the mountain around 5:30 and set somewhere around 6:15 or 6:30, day after day, month after month with very little variation providing approximately 12 hours of daylight all year long.  Panama is on Eastern Standard Time and only 8 degrees north of the equator whereas Mexico City is on Central Daylight Time and 19 degrees north of the equator.  Even though the clocks reveal the same hour in both places, the quality of the light is markedly different.  The sun finally set around 8 o’clock as we continued our journey, drawing ever nearer to our destination.  Shortly before 9 o’clock, having descended nearly 1,000 feet in elevation, we saw the first lights of San Miguel de Allende.  As our driver negotiated the narrow, hilly cobblestone streets, we were enchanted by the sights and sounds:  people out for an evening stroll, dogs being walked on leash (a rarity in Panama), outdoor cafes, the sounds of guitar music.  We found our way to Casa Paloma, the home we rented for a month while we search for longer-term accommodations.  Happy and exhausted we fell into bed, Oliver included, and all three of us sleep soundly until 9 o’clock the next morning.  So it begins.

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