El Camino Real
The road weaves across river bridges, through forests and into high road side brush. I am enchanted as I track the ancient El Camino Real, the Royal Road. This was the route of the Spanish conquistadores who slashed and hacked their way through the jungle in search of gold and the secrets of everlasting life. For hundreds of years they trekked through this same narrow isthmus transporting gold and booty plundered in South America to Caribbean ports where it could be shipped to Spain. Then along the same route came the English pirates led by the likes of Sir Francis Drake and Henry Morgan. They attacked the Spanish treasure trains, sacked their cities and paved [sic] the way for the end of El Camino Real.
Without warning, emerging from a tall thicket of lush green ferns, the racing motorcycle and its two armed riders again circles me before disappearing up still another jungle trail. This time they wave hello. I recognize that they are the same officers from the day before.
I trudge onward occasionally stopping to tend to foot blisters. My guide is curious as I lance the little blister bubble, rub in antibiotic ointment, apply a sterile dressing and then tape up the concoction before reaching into my fanny pack to retrieve a clean covering sock.
The traffic intensifies precisely as the road shoulder narrows. Large rain puddles need to be navigated in places where road repair crews have left depressions in ground up pavement. Speeding trucks squeeze me down embankment as they pass creating pressure on my shins. It is humid, my water is still warm, but I push on. All of these signals tell me my final destination, the city of Colon, is nearby.
It is a lively place. People bob and weave along the crowded streets. Traffic stalls at the ever present street crossings. Fortunately, a city park stretches like an arrow straight through the heart of the city flanked by the clogged roadway on either side. I notice my taxi guide meets me at every street corner. “Don’t worry about me”, I tell him assuming I am finally safe in a major town.
I smell the sea, and the odor of stale fish, long before I encounter the majestic, but decrepit and aging, statute of Christopher Columbus. There he stands guarding the decaying port of Colon, welcoming its visitors and reminding everyone who views him of times long gone when naked Indians and funny looking pearly white shinned raiders dressed in armor of steel clashed to the death on this very spot.
I reach out caressing the name plate on the majestic statute while saying a silent prayer of thanksgiving. I have walked across the entire American continent, from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean, even if the distance was only 52 miles. [I know some day I will also walk across the North American continent but that adventure will have to wait.]
I am more hungry than tired. I hop into my guide’s taxi for the long drive back to Panama City. “A donut store”, I shout. We back into a parking space in front of the shop. As we leave the carry driver reaches under the seat and pulled out handgun which he tucks into his pants. “This is a dangerous area”, he tells me. “And besides I am an officer. My brother is the chief of Police. Those officers on the motor cycle are my men. Your company wanted to be sure you were protected”
I thought about all of this as I ate my donut and headed home with a greater love for this place called Panama.