Glints of orange, white and green bobbed in the Caribbean black of midnight: cargo ships anchored at the northern side of the Panama Canal, waiting their turn. The flight from Dallas traced the length of the canal zone, banked east across the Pacific, then north into the capital city. Busy years at the Tocumen airport terminal, with Copa Airlines profiting from routes from Spain and across Latin America. Venezuelans taking their money out of Chavez's economy. Columbians resettling from the other side of the Darien jungle. Buenos Aires bankers.
The flight from Dallas held mostly white faces, including that of Phil, a grocer from Wisconsin returning to his home in Panama after a quick trip north. It had been 95 when he left Panama City some days ago -- minus-5 when he arrived in snow-stacked Madison. On the Panama City approach, Phil looked out the window at the spikes of luxury condominiums. "The national bird is the crane," he said. "Construction crane."
It has been nearly 20 years since the U.S. invasion of Panama toppled Noriega from power and left the El Chorillo neighborhood in ashes. Now brochures such as "Realtors," thick with glossy offerings for high-rise luxury condos -- "Breeze," "Rivage," "Conde del Este Country Club," and "Skyline" -- greet new arrivals.
As the plane pulled to the gate and the two bells dinged, Phil looked around the crowd:
"It's like we're flying to New York, or something. Full of gringos."
A well-heeled woman turned to her friends, chattering about the staff aboard the yacht they would soon be on.
She rolled her eyes: "I am a destination traveler."
Essdras and I plan a day around the capital - shaken this week by rallies against construction worker wages, and the police killing of one protestor - and then to head west, into the countryside.
But first, a stop at the rental counter for some wheels.