Despite claiming to be an expert in history and geography, I realized that my knowledge of Panama was largely confined to hats, canals, Van Halen and Mariano Rivera. However, it is a land of contrasts. Mira:
1) Panama City, the capital, is located at 8 degrees N latitude and 79 degrees W longitude, putting it roughly due south of Buffalo, New York and at a latitude similar to Lagos, Nigeria. This will probably the farthest I will ever go without leaving the Eastern time zone.
2) The national currency of Panama is: the U.S. dollar. Surprisingly, Panama uses the U.S. dollar, which makes life easy for me. It is also the hub of Latin America's banking industry. Much of the country's economy is based on an advanced services industry similar to the U.S.
3) Because it is a center for banking, it is one of the richest countries in Central America. Much of Panama City is extremely modern and new and would probably interest brother Jimbo immensely.
4) During the 1980s, Panama's banking industry was maligned by rampant money-laundering schemes involving much of Latin America's drug dealers (i.e. in the 2001 movie Blow, Johnny Depp's character George Jung deposited all his ill-gotten gains in Panamanian banks). However, they have sinced cleaned up their act, meaning bad news for guys like Jung.
5) Despite it's wealth, Panama has the 2nd most unequal income distribution in Central America. It also has terrible rural-urban and education gaps. Literacy is 90% or higher in the cities, however it falls to roughly 60% in rural areas. These are some of the reasons there are volunteer groups throughout Panama, like the one I will be with in Boquete. Overall, though, Panama has made great strides in poverty reduction over the last 10 years.
6) Boquete is a small mountain town in western Panama, about an hour from the Pacific and three hours from the Caribbean. I was under the impression that Boquete was something of a quaint mountain town. However, it has a population of about 20,000 making it slightly smaller than good ol' Rockville Centre.
7) In 1671, Captain Henry Morgan led 200 of his buccaneers across the moutainous, mosquito-infested isthmus towards the beautiful, shiny new Spanish settlement of Panama City. The land and heat took their toll on the men, forcing them to eat dogs and even their own belts. However, right as they were on the brink of mutiny, they stumbled across an abandoned outpost that had been vacated by someone who had heard of their approach. However, they left it stocked with grain, eggs and chicken which the weary, hungry pirates ate with gusto. Morgan then led the newly-invigorated men into town and proceeded to raze the shit out of the place. The beautiful city was burned to the ground and rebuilt 5 miles down the road. The ruins of Panama Viejo are still a popular attraction in PC. The bloodthirsty, gold-hungry, scallywag Morgan is one of the most fascinating figures in New World history. The Spanish colonists were so terrified of him they literally thought he was an incarnation of the Devil. As a hairy gringo with the last name Morgan myself, I am curious to see how I will be recieved.
8) In 1903, Panama gained independence not from the dastardly Spaniards, but from their whacky southerly neighbors, Colombia. The U.S. was very helpful in their quest for independence and as recompense were essentially granted full control over the Panama Canal. The canal is undergoing a massive expansion. Construction on a third set of locks began in 2007 and is expected to be completed in 2014.
9) I had heard that Panama was a very safe place for travelers and my old pal Wes confirmed that for me as he has traveled to the area several times. Unfortunately, according to the State Department, Panama now is designated with a 'High' crime warning. They said the eastern border with Colombia is particularly dangerous (FARC even operates inside Panama) and most of the violent crime in PC can be traced to Colombian narcotrafficking. Luckily, I'll be in western Panama, near Costa Rica which is kind of like Canada (I'm guessing, compared to Colombia at least).
10) Panama hats actually originated in Jamaica. They were popularized by Jamaican workers who brought them and wore them while working on the canal. I have no idea why "Panama" by Van Halen is called "Panama".
So, there it is. Now you are ready for your trip to Panama. I'll see ya later. The next time you hear from me I'll be in Panama. Wish me luck and I'll catch you later.