When we first arrived in Panama City, by the time we got our customs stuff sorted out, our luggage, and were finally picked up, it was dark. Guido, our guide, took us to dinner, then the plan was to return to the airport to pick up another guy who was arriving to join a group of students from the University of Southern Illinois who were also staying at the lodge in Gamboa (the town we were staying in, north of Panama City).
It was a surreal ride, being in this strange, unknown place, and the airport isn’t exactly near downtown Panama City. We were driving this road, in all the crazy traffic (Panamanian drivers are nuts!), and along the sides of the streets were a combination of ramshackle buildings and open markets thronged with people. The lights in these markets were dim, and the smoke and smells of cooking food were heavy in the air. Music was blasting from the markets and from other cars. It seemed so unhinged, and slightly dangerous . . . and I wanted to stop and jump right in the middle of it.
Suddenly this bus, essentially a renovated school bus, loomed up — bright with all these wild lights, and painted up crazily. We saw several of them. Guido told us the are called “Red Devils.” As I understood it, these buses offer the bulk of the public transportation, but were about to be put out of business by state-owned buses due to their being somewhat unreliable, and even dangerous. I thought they were awesome.
They were all over Panama; we saw them everywhere we went. Of course there were far more in Panama City (1/3 of the entire population of the country lives in Panama City) but we’d even see them out in the countryside. Some were fairly plain looking, but most were garishly painted in a way that the most gawdawful conversion van could only dream of. This one was in the mountain town of El Valle, which sits in the caldera of an extinct volcano, hauling people from one end of the town to the other, back and forth. Think about it now, I wish we’d taken a ride just for the hell of it!
Someone in our group — I think it was John — wondered aloud if the people who own these buses treat them like tattoos; as the money is available, new art gets added, or more lights, or bigger and louder tailpipes. There were just so many, and so wild in appearance!
I wasn’t able to take all the pictures I’d have liked to, and most of the ones I took from inside our van didn’t turn out. If I had the time and money, I’d love to go back and shoot a coffee table book’s worth of images. They were a lively and interesting part of the experience of touring around Panama. It’s sad to think that by the time I make it back they may no longer being roaring down the roads.