Panama Trip #2: Day 3 (May 20)

Waking up at 9:00am, I have time before church service at 11:00am, so I continue the blog until another set of family arrives, as we are going with them. Dozens of cars are trying to find parking, which is dangerous here, as there is no such thing as right-of-way and cars just move in if the driver sees an opportunity, no matter how close a collision may be. We simply walk, literally, across the street as the bells ring signifying the top of the hour. Inside, it is well air conditioned, much different from the Christmas Day mass in Australia six years ago, when it was over 90°F and high humidity, with just a couple of fans on each side of the church. Here, there were no less than 20 industrial-sized units, all on and very noisy. I guess the people here are used to the noise, but don’t care for the heat and humidity. You would think they would be acclimatized to it. I can handle it just fine, and am even wearing multiple layers of clothes, as is my usual custom.

45 minutes later, the service is over. I’ve been told that if it starts to go longer, people just start leaving. In the US, all the ones I’ve been to are at least an hour long. On Sundays, most churches conduct a mass every hour, about 8 a day. I suppose then that it is necessary to get a full church done and emptied in less than an hour before the next show begins. We walk back to the hotel and wait in the room for Luis to come get us and take us back to his house to pick up his mom and sister, where we all go to Sunday brunch/lunch at a sushi restaurant.

It ends up being the same sushi place I visited for my first meal the last time I was here. There are 15 of us (and I was expected to remember all of them from meeting them for the first time a year and a half ago), so I imagine the final bill was huge. Something that was new (you should notice a pattern when it comes to food in a faraway place) was beef in sushi. One in the party wasn’t a big fan of fish, so he found sushi that has meat in it instead. It wasn’t bad, the beef (almost looked like small pieces of prime rib) was well-cooked in advance of preparation, but when served, fit the same refrigerated temperature range as the rest of the sushi. Barcelona beat some other team (don’t remember the name) while we were eating, and Real Madrid also won earlier in the day (we were watching at his house while waiting to leave). If you don’t follow football (“internationale”), this probably means nothing to you.

Mom goes back to the hotel and Luis takes me to Albrook Mall, a giant shopping mall, perhaps a full kilometer from end to end, with two floors and a movie theater. Incidentally, it is Cinemark, the same company that owns the (formerly) Century Cinemas at home. Nothing is appealing, The Marine is new to them, as well as Match Point (the latter of which is really old, comparatively). I have no need to see “El Hombre Arana 3” as I didn’t care for the first two. It is a popular enough film to have theaters for both English language with Spanish subtitles and Spanish dubbing. Most US films are just subtitled, as it is the cheapest option. But childrens’ films are always dubbed, as it is deemed generally too difficult for kids to read quickly enough to follow along. Side note: I saw an episode of Heroes on the Universal channel last night, and the Japanese spoken by Hiro and Ando was subtitled in Spanish in the yellow font at the bottom of the screen that you often see for films. In the US, the English subtitles are in white and placed near the speaker, which made me think it was done intentionally to mimic comic book panels and would remain in the distribution to other territories, because it seemed a permanent part of the final editing. Instead, the white English was entirely removed, which looks like a more complicated process to achieve.

There are so many people here, and the food court is packed all day long. I don’t know if it is because today is Sunday, or that it is such a large mall that it becomes a destination. No local malls at home are like this, except for perhaps the Great Mall in Milpitas, but only because its name implies that it takes a certain amount of dedication to get there that you have to spend your time in a way to make the trip worthy. There are at least three malls of this caliber (though not as large) and all three are often as packed with people. Panama City has around 500,000 people, less than San Francisco, but more people are here than I have ever seen in a mall (barring the last time I was here), even for special events, like when I went to the Santa Rosa mall to see Alton Brown. There is even a carousel in the middle.

We head into a few game and electronics shops for fun, just to compare products. There are so many Nintendo Wii consoles around (a full glass cabinet in one store), I am tempted to buy one and bring it back home to sell online. The food court is impressive, with all the chain and fast food restaurants you would expect: McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, a KFC/Pizza Hut combo, Sbarro’s (classic mall fare), Dairy Queen, China Wok, Subway, and Quiznos. Of course, plenty of independent restaurants abound: barbeque grills, multiple pizza places (Panamanians love pizza, apparently), sandwich stands, hot dog (not on a stick, but looks similar), ice cream, and local dishes. Luis wants a slice of Sbarro’s pizza, so we head to the upper floor for it, and I watch him eat his $3.50 combo of sausage and bacon pizza and Coke.

We finish walking to the other end of the mall, which is so large that giant animal sculptures/figures are places at the doorways so you can remember where you entered and parked: a giant kangaroo (where we entered), panda, penguin, dinosaur, rabbit, elephant, etc. At the dinosaur end is Leonardo’s, a pizza chain that has a location in the mall, but not at the giant food court, nor at the smaller food court in another place, such that not all the food-seekers are all in one area. Last time, I got a full 9-inch pizza and soda combo for $2.99. You’d never find that at home (if you know of one in California or the rest of the US, let me know). It was surprisingly good, too. Maybe the low price garnered lower expectations, but the end product was a good deal.

On the way back, we spot a new mini golf course, of the black-light variety – 9 holes for $5. Luis noticed it before, but the he thought it was a golf shop based on the name – Back 9. They take our names to print out a scorecard, and one of the workers follows us around to keep score. It is very poorly designed – there are rails on each side of the putting area to keep the ball in, but it also does not allow for a full backswing, leaving most of my putts falling short. The tee is also a hard plastic sheet with a resting hole for the ball, which means the ball cannot be placed anywhere for a more optimal alignment if you want to change the aim of your path. In addition, the tee board is raised off the carpet, so you can easily hit the plastic instead of only contacting the ball, throwing off your stroke. Lastly, if you manage to not hit the raised board, the rubber putter doesn’t slide across the plastic sheet, so your putt is stopped by the friction of rubber on plastic, then a stutter-start to continue the stroke, leading your ball to be impacted in a vastly different way than you intended. We are done within 15 minutes. Even the unappealing “El Hombre Arana 3” is cheaper than $5 and lasts for around two hours (I actually have no idea about the running time).

I’d like to go back for a slice of pizza, choosing the food court’s Full Pizza (that’s the name, there’s also a Full Sandwich), which claims to be New York style pizza. A 9-inch cheese pizza is 99 cents, $1.79 with a topping. You read that correctly. Larger sizes are still insanely cheap. If this existed in the US, Americans would be even fatter. We take it back to the hotel, knowing that dinner will be around soon, but not when or where. It is cut into six slices. Each slice is around the same size as slices I picked up in Melbourne for $1. A tiny $2 gold coin and you can walk down the street with a mini-meal. I thought those were good, now I get three times as much for half the price? No wonder so many American retirees come here (not to mention Michael Scofield’s non-extradition laws reasoning).

We get the call about dinner – a nearby Italian restaurant called Rino’s. It’s also about an hour since I had the pizza, but I still manage to have a Caesar salad and the Tortellini Tricolores – three colors of tortellini pasta filled with chicken, beef, or cheese in a creamy sauce (probably just the alfredo sauce). No dessert for anyone. Then, two of the three cars go to the Santuario, where the local priests live, to meet my grand-uncle. For years, he used to visit the US from Italy every summer. Even when he retired to Panama, he still came, but about 8 years ago, he stopped, possibly because health and advanced age made travel more difficult. We stay for a while and then split up, we had considered going to their house to use the internet, but mom wants to go to sleep for the airplane ride home tomorrow, and I don’t want Luis to have to drive to the hotel, then home, then bring me back to the hotel, and home again. I guess the blogs will be posted later, and I won’t be able to manage any of my fantasy leagues or other time-sensitive online presences.

Back at the hotel, I change clothes and go down to the seventh floor barefoot to get ice. The hallway carpet outside the door is wet, presumably the increased humidity from the ice and ice machine condenses from the cold air (look up “relative humidity”) and gets all nearby surfaces wet. I had my computer in the trunk of Luis’ car for most of the day, in case we had time to spend at his house, where I could try again to get internet access (yesterday’s attempts were failures). We watch a little television as I continue the blogs up to the current time, but Luis leaves before I finish. Once mom is sleeping, I turn the television back on and finish the blogs. I still have many other things to do before sleeping tonight, and it will be another early wake-up for the airport trip.

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