Business Times - 25 Apr 2009
LETTER FROM PANAMA
Encounters with the unexpected
By TAN TOI CHIA
PSA Panama International Terminal
FLYING into Panama City from Los Angeles offers a spectacular view of the Panama Canal, all 80km of it. The Canal is a lifeline for the shipping industry. It bridges the world's two largest oceans and has resulted in an intricate, far-reaching web of trading routes connecting ports around the world. Some 40 ships transit the Canal every day, mostly containerships, but there are also las tapas of luxury cruise ships, oil tankers, car carriers and bulk carriers. Recently, the Russians spiced things up. One of their warships paid a courtesy visit to Panama while mega-tycoon Chelsea-owner Roman Abramovich's 115m mega-yacht Pelorus transited in February this year.
The fact that the strategic position of Panama Canal is very similar to Singapore's from a shipping point of view has not been lost on Panama. No wonder the FTA between Singapore and this wave-shaped country was concluded with gusto three years ago.
Having previously concentrated expansion efforts in Asia and Europe, it is in Panama that PSA decided to take its first step into the Americas by developing a container terminal at the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal which will be ready by mid-2010.
Meanwhile, the aircraft completes tracing the route of the Canal and gets ready for the finale of a seven-hour redeye flight. As if on cue, the pilot banks the airplane, momentarily filling the view with an anchorage of ships waiting their turn to enter the Canal, before presenting the skyline of the capital, Panama City, throughout the final touchdown descent.
This aerial approach holds a wealth of visual clues to the pulse of the city. There are towers of grey concrete that have transformed over time into glistening apartment and office blocks. A flurry of trucks and dust along the Avenida Balboa promenade have settled into a wide ribbon of road and park, promising relief to the city's congested streets.
Touching down and getting around, the city wastes no time in becomingly intimately acquainted with you, tempting you into thinking of it as another 'city of contrasts'. You know - the old next to the new, the poor next to the rich, swanky new restaurants betrayed by ignorant service, a large Chinese population speaking mainly Spanish and Cantonese, two big 'gentlemen's clubs' located steps away from an important church.
In reality, it is a country filled with the unexpected. A newly-arrived colleague was delighted when he received notification of his belongings arriving in Panama shortly after leaving Singapore. It turned out to be an extended negotiation with the local agent, something about customs and admin payments. He eventually received his boxes after his delight had been replaced by incredulity, and finally by resignation. On the subject of deliveries, Panama has no official system of street addresses, and no regular mail service. Chinese New Year cards did find their way to me ... two months after the event.
Fortunately, if you know where to look, there is pretty much everything you need, ranging from business needs to filling the stomachs of food-loving Singaporeans. If you know how to ask, even crystal clear rules reveal the capacity for exceptions. If you know who to approach, invisible doors open.
Panama has its fair share of seaside playgrounds. Bocas del Toro rolls off the tongues of world-worn travellers. Located near the border with Costa Rica, the township is surrounded by a clutch of islands washed by the Caribbean Sea, but involves a domestic flight on tiny aircraft from the capital.
The strong-willed attempt the 10-hour drive to Bocas instead. I can no longer recall who said this to me: 'If you survive the roads in Panama, you survive Panama. If you are at peace with the roads in Panama, you have succeeded in Panama.' How true, because Panama driving is a distilled representation of Panama living.
And so, as I go around the city generally trying to get from place to place as efficiently as possible (still a Singaporean at heart!), I try to maintain my calm at the next pothole, think que serÃ¡ serÃ¡ when one-way streets change directions overnight and check that my cell phone is ready to contact lawyer friends in case the ubiquitous police pull me over asking difficult questions.
Panama has a habit of catching you when you feel like you have gained some headway in understanding how things work.
Maybe it's because my work revolves around ships that I begin to think about the life of sailors. They know that there is no point in fighting the weather but to make the most of it. And then, with landfall in sight, they know the calmest seas can still hide the rock that sinks the ship.
It is a long trek to Panama, but if you visit, there are countless surprising rewards. Just remember to leave your expectations behind!