Panama is rather gorgeous, but keep it under your hat

I didn’t know much about the country before I arrived. The canal, General Noriega and that man who faked his death in a canoe...

Dom Joly
Saturday 13 February 2016 22:02 GMT
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The Panama Canal is used by over 13,000 ships every year
The Panama Canal is used by over 13,000 ships every year

Thirty-six hours was all I had at home. I’d flown back from Mexico City after a month working in the States. I’d done so only to remind my long-suffering family of my existence. It was a good thing that I did. The two dogs sniffed me suspiciously, egged on by my pig, Wilbur, who was hurling abuse from his enclosure. Even the cat gave me a “look what the cat dragged in” attitude.

My family soon arrived home and didn’t appear to be immediately enamoured by this stranger barging into their home waffling on about cowboy adventures and wrestling alligators. My wife was kind but distant, as you would be to a slightly unpopular flatmate. I’m used to this kind of thing. I’ve travelled enough to know that my family quickly adapt to a fatherless routine that is hard to shake upon my return. It normally takes up to a week for things to settle down, but I did not have that luxury. Work, and the travel that comes with it, beckoned.

They managed to put up with me until, exhausted, I fell asleep in front of the telly and started snoring. Even from within a deep sleep, I knew that nobody had missed this type of behaviour. When I awoke it was a rushed goodbye as it was school-run time for the kids and Panama time for me.

If I’m honest, this tiny Central American country had never featured all that high on my destination list. One of the many bonuses of travelling for work is that you are there for a purpose and any delights you find are a Brucie bonus.

On the plane, I racked my brains as to what I knew about Panama. It wasn’t much, the Panama Canal and the Panama hat (both of which are known locally as the canal and the hat), General Noriega, the pockmarked dictator, and that man who faked his own death in a canoe and ended up in some holidaymaker’s chance snap.

As it happens, Panama is rather gorgeous. On the flight from the capital to David, a small country town that serves as the nation’s second city, we flew along the canal. It is a quite extraordinary feat of engineering – 48 miles that link the Atlantic to the Pacific while dividing a continent. The Atlantic entrance was a veritable logjam of vessels waiting to enter the locks.

As we flew into David, the countryside took an unexpected turn and started to look a little like Hampshire. Stepping off the small twin-prop, I was punched hard in the face by a tropical wall of heat. Wonderful as it is to get away from UK gloom, these kinds of conditions are very tricky to film in. I am almost constantly soaking wet, and go through about five shirts a shoot. I am in awe of travel presenters such as Michael Palin who appear to not only never get flustered by the weather but to never even change a shirt. One day I shall learn their dirty secrets. Until then I labour on, clinging to the faint hope that, upon my return, my family and animals will welcome me back with open arms, and that I can try to remember their names.

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