Urban survivalist savvy on a 6-hour layover in Panama City

I’m in the Panama City airport on a six-hour layover from Colombia to Guatemala and I have some shit to do. I’ve just exchanged the last of my Colombian Pesos for American dollars (Panama uses American currency) so I can buy a pair of headphones. My last few pairs were $3 sets that couldn’t wait to fall apart as soon as they were released from the packaging. It was like undoing a corset and letting everything hang loose as soon as the binding was undone.

I had gone to the exchange counter and, in a fit of chattiness with a dash of desire to practice my Spanish, I explained the headphones situation to the woman working there. She turned out to be nothing short of an airport saint and an exchange rate wizard. With my 103,000 Colombian pesos, I had enough to buy the set of $24 (US dollar) Sony headphones that had beckoned to me, promising deep bass and pristine melodies. However, with the exchange commission, it wouldn’t be enough. But as I mentioned before, this woman was a wizard with math. Tweaking the numbers, she turned “not enough” into “just enough” and off I went to get my boredom-saving headphones with a profusion of “muchisimas gracias!” to the woman who saved the day.

At the electronics shop, I watch as the clerk puts my newly-purchased headphones in a large plastic bag, and I almost object. Instead, I see clear as day, the wet bathing suits or towels, leaky shampoo or cooking oil bottles the bag could hold, or the makeshift garbage bag it could become, and I remember Rule #11 on the road: never underestimate the possibilities of an empty bag.

I was now faced with a new airport challenge. Having spent all my cash on a pair of headphones, there was no money left to buy a water bottle. But, alas, I still had purification drops from my recent excursion into the wilderness. Rule #3 on the road: always have a water back up plan.

I go to the crowded airport bathroom and fill my empty water bottle with questionable Panamanian airport water. The woman washing her hands and checking her airport-chic outfit in the mirror next to me says, “No debes tomar este agua.”

I check my own reflection; worn black leggings, a sweater with a pattern like I’m going to an Ugly Christmas Sweater Party as soon as I arrive in Guatemala City, and hiking boots still scuffed with mud. I also have a doozy of a sunburn from the day before spent on Lake Guatape in the green hillsides of central-western Colombia.

“Está bien,” I respond reassuringly. “Tengo gotas de purificacion.” To further reassure, I pull out the purification drops themselves and add exactly three turquoise drops to the airport water solution. The look she gives me either says, “look at this fucking gringa” or “I am impressed with your urban survivalist savvy.” I take it to be the latter and decide that, since I’m already in the bathroom, why not use it for what it’s for? I enter the stall and notice with mounting anticlimax that the toilet paper dispenser is devoid of its namesake. But I always keep a roll in my day pack for more-common-than-not situations like these. I retrace my steps to the sink where I discover a soap drought amongst the soap dispensers. But I also carry hand sanitizer with me because rules number 4 and 15 on the road are: always carry toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

Exiting the bathroom, I find a corner that has a wall socket, get comfortable on the floor, plug in my phone with another dubious piece of electronics that I’ve bought in Colombia, and pull out all manner of devices (designed to entertain and please!) as I settle in for the six-hour wait. My phone appears to be fighting for life on a charger that is siphoning off power instead of supplying it.

Through the rows of airport chairs and fellow backpackers asleep on the floor, I see two strangers strike up a conversation after both plugging their phones into the same wall socket. As I watch them happily find commonalities, in broken English and Spanish, hunger sets in. The cheesy bread and instant coffee supplied by Avianca airlines on the flight from Bogota to Panama City at least ensured that I wasn’t running completely on empty, but there’s only so much it can do when faced with an extended layover.

I pull out my food bag – rule #11 on the road: always travel with food – and see what I can turn into an airport floor picnic. A bread roll, an apple, a slightly bruised banana, dried lentils, dried oats, dried quinoa, cooking oil, a jar of peanut butter, a spoon. I eat the apple and make a bread, banana, and peanut butter sandwich which will hold me over until the next airline culinary feat of cheesy bread or bag-of-crackers that the connecting flight serves up.

I have my picnic leaning against the backpack that has become home for the past 14 months, listening to MØ with my new headphones fulfilling their promises of deep bass and pristine melodies. I wait, contented, for the next flight to take me to Costa Rica and then to my destination in Guatemala. Tonight I will sleep at the most convenient hostel, take a shower, and eat a real meal. And tomorrow, I will get to know Guatemala.

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