Panama Trip #2: Day 2 (May 19)

The first flight is about to commence. I’m off to Houston, making sure to read the safety card as soon as I sit down. I always do this, even though I’ve seen it dozens of times, and it rarely changes, perhaps just some image updates. The safety demonstration had changed from the flight attendants to a video several years back. I don’t know why, maybe it was the bored look on their faces as they mimed to another’s narration that made passengers ignore the safety demonstration, the video isn’t much better at keeping attention, but at least it can better express the location of the exits and aisle lights than an attendant lazily pointing in some direction.

I have an aisle seat, and my two half-row mates are talkative, all three of us are strangers. Each of the other two are telling us quite a bit of personal and family information, I guess being total strangers who will likely never meet again comes into play here. However, the woman in the middle is telling us stuff about how her daughter, sitting directly in the row in front of her, dropped out of high school because of some personal problems. I wonder if the daughter heard her mother tell this to us, or maybe the mom has done it so much the daughter no longer cares.

There is no food on this red eye flight, and the movie is Miss Potter. Headphones are $1 and you can keep them forever. I do have my own, but these have two prongs, which allows for stereo sound. If you use your own single prong ¼-inch jack, you only get sound in one ear. I don’t want to listen to it anyway, having little interest. I may look at the screen every so often, but most of the time, I am reading the Sky Mall catalog. Those atomic solar chronograph watches are quite spiffy, particularly the Oceanus brand (I like the logo design).

The flight is mostly uneventful, though I do get two packs of peanuts and a can of Pibb Xtra at 2:00am, remember that since I’m up for near 48 hours, there will be no teeth-brushing. Nor do I chew gum, but I do rinse with water a lot, from a bottle I filled up at a water fountain after security.

In Houston, I want to get food despite knowing breakfast will be served on my next flight. I have a 3+ hour layover, so I walk around the terminal/gate area, but as it is soon after 6:00am, most of the shops are still closed, and the newsagents that are open don’t like you reading the material if you don’t plan on buying, which I won’t. A shop called Space Traders has NASA and astronomy-related merchandise, as Houston is home to the Johnson Space Center. I poke around and see lots of astronaut food (i.e., freeze-dried), but with no prices, I am not about to buy anything.

The Little Creamery now has a long line. They also sell ice cream, which I suppose is the reason for the name. I should have gone there first to buy some food before looking around the shops. Oh well, I stand in line for a blueberry bagel, toasted, with cream cheese, and a bottle of orange juice for a total of $4.28. That’s exceptionally reasonable; I’ve paid more for less in San Rafael, though you do have to put the cream cheese on your own bagel.

I find a seat at the gate near a free power outlet and fire up the computer, using the 9 minutes to spread the cream cheese and listen to CNN, because the LG-branded flat panel LCD has no picture. A young woman asks if I am going to Panama. This is risky, because the plane at this gate is actually preparing to take people to Cleveland. I’m there early enough to sit through one departure before waiting for mine, same as last night in San Francisco. Fortunately for her, I am, and she asks about a tourist card. I tell her that last time, I paid for it at customs in Panama, it was $5 and was done with no complications.

This session of television-on-computer will catch up on Entourage. I start the oldest episode I have, but I’ve already seen it. Good, that means less total time needed to catch up and more free hard drive space coming. By the end of the second and the start of the third archived episode, announcements are coming about having your passport and boarding pass checked before boarding, to ensure you have the proper documentation to enter Panama.

After that small line, we are told that we also need to buy a tourist visa for $5, but the guy who does that has not yet arrived, so we will need to line up again. Now I have no time to turn the computer back on to finish the most recent episode because no one knows when the guy will show up. Eventually, we line up to finally board. Again, people bunch up in front of the gate, blocking those waiting to board from actually getting onto the plane. The bagel is consumed long ago, but I manage to spread out the orange juice and finish as I get into line, not wanting to carry another bottle with me.

I have the same aisle seat number as the previous flight, and the two half-row mates are a couple. I read the safety card again, noting that this particular aircraft has only one over-wing exit, as opposed to the two on the previous plane. The movie is The Pursuit of Happyness, and again, I don’t listen to it, only occasionally looking at the screen. This time, I am reading the official airline magazine, titled Continental (guess what airline it is). It’s a very bland read, the United Airlines magazine (I don’t recall the name) has better articles.

On the ground, I head through customs with no hang-ups and go straight to the exit, not having to wait at baggage claim because no checked baggage. I am often concerned that something will occur to make me appear suspicious. Back in 2005, when going through customs in Cairns on my flight to Sydney, I was asked to stay back, where my passport was checked thoroughly. I don’t know if it was a random check or something else. It was also considered an international flight because it originated in Japan and continued to Sydney, hence I had to walk across to the international terminal and go through customs.

Mom and Luis were waiting outside, and we left to go back to the hotel, since I didn’t need to eat right away. I could wait from arrival at 1:10pm until we were supposed to meet others for tea at 4:00pm. The Crowne Plaza is fine, not as luxurious as the one in Alice Springs. In fact, I was reading the blog of one of the new 5 Takes TJs, Vinnie, about his recent bad experience at the Crowne Plaza in Washington D.C., and his previous bad experiences working at another one. His advice was to never stay at one. I had to comment that I was leaving in three hours to stay at one and the only other one was a great hotel. Maybe the ones in the US have some issues. I know the Alice Springs one was great, I could have looked at the lobby of the one in Sydney, and the Panama City one is good.

The tea has been pushed up to 3:30pm at the Sheraton hotel. We make several laps of the area looking for parking, as a book fair across the street ha led to a lack of free street parking. Eventually we use a yellow curb spot, hoping that there won’t be a ticket when we come back (there wasn’t, and more cars parked next to ours in the meantime). We sit for a while until the three other family relatives show up.

The tea is more of a buffet with finger foods, cakes, and other desserts: ceviche, half hot dogs, miniature hamburgers, what looks like falafel and tastes like something never before encountered (but still good), breaded mozzarella nuggets, fresh fruit (papaya FTW), flan, chocolate raisin cake, cheesecake, pound cake, etc. A rather nice spread, keep in mind that it’s almost 2:00pm my local time, and we all treat it like a meal.

You may have previously read about my attitudes towards tea and coffee: I’m not a fan of hot drinks, because I drink fast, often water, because it’s good and cheap (juice is relatively expensive and soda is too bubbly, but both are still doable). Hot drinks don’t lend themselves well to quaffing. Anyway, since we are there for tea, I should have some. The guy comes by with a box of instant teabags for our selection. As I have no flavor preference, I choose Earl Grey (Picard FTW).

Afterwards, we walk around the pool area, looking for the mini-zoo, which this Sheraton apparently has. We see parrots, but the turtle pool is closed off, which sounded fun. Back to the hotel to hang around until mom gets picked up and taken to her school reunion (main reason for coming to Panama). Luis and I then meet his family at PriceSmart, which is just like a Costco. They even have the exact same items for sale in the same layout, except the girders are blue and orange instead of brick red and orange. They require a membership card to get in the door and have similar food items at the café. We get a large can of dry roasted peanuts for snacking in the hotel room. We figure we can put a big dent into it by the end of the four days, and he will keep whatever is leftover. Remember those extra packets of peanuts from the airplane? I had to throw them away before customs because they are considered nuts/plants. No one else wanted them and I didn’t want to eat them.

After the PriceSmart, we went to his house to pick up his computer and Nintendo Wii to play in the hotel, as he wanted to try some of my games, which he asked me to bring. On the way back to the hotel, we stop at a Super 99 for snacks and drinks; I like to find food items that aren’t found at home, even if they are essentially the same concept. We select several 25 cent bags of chips and some soft drinks, many bottles are of the 2.5 liter variety. Luis recommends an apple soda and I choose smaller bottles of other fruit flavors (an orange and strawberry). We manage to pick up a lot for just over $5. If there is leftover when I leave, Luis said he will take it home.

Wii (ha!) unlock all the games in Wii Play, and after he plays the tutorial in Elebits, we play a round of multiplayer with the nunchuk he wanted me to bring. He really likes Super Paper Mario, enough to possibly buy it. While he is playing alone, I’m typing out my blogs to paste into the blog entry page when I get internet access again. We take a break because he is feeling hungry, specifically for KFC, possibly because it is close by (or so I am told). The menu is pretty much the same, but a new item stands out, called the Meltz. It looks like a tortilla folded over chunks of chicken with shredded cheese, diced tomatoes, and sauce. When I get it back to the room, it resembles the Taco Bell quesadilla, it even comes in the same type of paper/plastic envelope. Upon closer inspection, the chunks look more like chopped chicken nuggets, but the overall flavor is above average. Beware that the large pieces of chicken can easily fall out.

Mom has come back from her reunion (she left while the rest of us were out), and Luis hangs around playing and watching movies and television. By the time he leaves, around 1:00am, I am nearly done with two days of blog. Mom wants to sleep, so I stop writing and start in on about three day’s worth of downloaded podcasts. We’ll be getting up around 8:00am for Sunday church, which is across the street from the hotel. I’ll finish the second blog and hopefully get the third day done by the end of the day tomorrow.

I’ve been up for around 42 hours, so I test the shower and brush my teeth, then continue the podcasts. If you’re wondering what I listen to, the podcasts are from Australian radio shows (specifically Triple M and Fox FM).

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