Gridlock:  Travel During the November Holidays

Nearly a year has passed since we wrote about our first experience with Panama’s November holidays.  (  At that time, Panama’s government had recently ended its strict lockdown that kept people sealed hermetically inside their homes all but a couple hours a day for two (men) or three (women) days per week.  Preferring to keep insulating our then-unvaccinated selves from the uptick in COVID-19 cases that a month of national holiday vacationing wrought, we – just the two of us – celebrated a quiet Thanksgiving during the weekend after the U.S. Thanksgiving Thursday date.  This year, our now-vaccinated selves (and with Brian’s blood still coursing with post-COVID antibodies from his August infection) welcomed the arrival of  Panama’s November holidays with an escape to a beach condo offered to us by friends for a few days of rest and relaxation overlooking the Playa Santa Clara (Santa Clara Beach).  Still rather reclusive behavior, but by choice instead of by mandate.

Following a few days in Miami the previous week so that Audrey could attend a school governance training conference with her board, and so that Brian could catch up with a college classmate and former housemate from his D.C. days whom he had not seen in 30 years, we arrived home at night on the last Friday of October too late to participate in the pre-Halloween trick-or-treating sponsored by our La Montañesa homeowners association for the neighborhood kids.  On Saturday we picked up keys from the realtor for the Costa del Este apartment we are buying.  Then, with ISP on break for the first week of November, on Sunday we packed a few clothes and lots of food before driving 137 kilometers (85 miles) out from the Panamá City metro area, across el Puente Centenario (Centennial Bridge) that spans the Panamá Canal, and along la Carretera Interamericana (the Pan-American Highway) to Santa Clara.  We stopped along the way at the regionally-famous Quesos Chela (Chela Cheeses) in the Capira District of the Panamá Oeste Province to pick up good cheese and delicious rolls for making lunchtime sandwiches during our mini-vacation.  With only about 30 people in line ahead of us at Quesos Chela (a relatively small number, given that we have seen more than triple that crowd there), we incurred not too much of a delay (though, arriving at 1:30pm, our shopping reprised Monte Python’s “Cheese Shop” skit as most of the cheeses had sold out for the day), and completed the trip with minimal traffic on the road in roughly two hours.

We arrived.  We settled into our digs.  We felt rejuvenated by the ocean view and the constant sound of waves rolling up the beach.  We ate well.  We stayed in pajamas some days and had Aperol Spritzes daily at noon because we could.  Life was so good.

Then we had to leave, needing to prepare for the craziness transitioning into our new apartment would bring over the next couple weeks.

We had driven to Santa Clara on October 31…a Sunday…a day of the week when people typically drive BACK to Panamá FROM the Interior instead of FROM Panamá TO the Interior.  So we found the drive rather pleasurable with minimal traffic.

Not so for our return to Panamá City three days later.  We headed back home on Wednesday afternoon, November 3, the first of the November national holidays and the first of three consecutive days remembering Panama’s 1903 split from Colombia (November 3’s Separation Day), the creation of its flag by Maria de la Ossa de Amador three months before she became the first First Lady of Panamá (November 4’s Flag Day, changed to Patriotic Symbols Day in 2013), and the people of Colon preventing Colombia’s military from marching across the isthmus to Panamá City to put down the bloodless revolution (November 5’s Colon Day).

Often people living in Panamá City own additional homes along the beaches or in inland towns of the Interior.  Traffic across the Centennial Bridge and el Puente de las Américas (the Bridge of the Americas) and along the Pan-American Highway typically backs up so much heading out of the Capital on Fridays and back from the Interior on Sundays that many of our friends and associates with beach or mountain homes rarely brave the weekend traffic.  Instead they stay put in their skyscraper condominiums in neighborhoods like Marbella, San Francisco, Coco del Mar, Punta Pacifica, Costa del Este, and Santa Maria, saying that one day of pleasurable escape does not compensate for many extra hours lost to driving each way.

Our drive back from Santa Clara to Panamá City went counter to the endless line of vehicles of all sizes packed with people heading west..slowly…very slowly…to meet up with families and friends for the patriotic triduum in the western provinces from Panamá Oeste and Coclé to Veraguas and Chiriquí.  Like Thanksgiving and Christmas in the U.S. and like Ramadan and Eid in Morocco, Panama’s November holidays are when it seems the entire nation travels to spend holiday time with those they love.  Soon, however, the overloaded highway lanes across the median burst like a controlled automotive aneurysm as orange cones narrowed our eastward path to a single lane and oncoming vehicles flowed into eastbound lanes to lessen the pressure of cars, vans, and trucks on the westward arterial.

First we slowed from our good pace.

Then we slowed to stop-and-go traffic.

Then we just stopped.

And sat.

We felt cast into a living version of James Taylor’s 1977 song Traffic Jam:

“Well I left my job about 5 o’clock, it took fifteen minutes go three blocks,

Just in time to stand in line with a freeway looking like a parking lot.

I said, ‘Damn this traffic jam!’ How I hate to be late, 

It hurts my motor to go so slow. Time I get home my supper’ll be cold.

Damn this traffic jam.

Now I almost had a heart attack, looking in my rear view mirror,

I saw myself the next car back, looking in the rear view mirror,

About to have a heart attack.

I said, ‘Damn this traffic jam…’”

For roughly 45 kilometers (shy of 30 miles) we moved a little, then waited a while, then moved a little more.  We watched people get out of their cars to fetch items from their trunks to help them pass the wait time.  We watched people pull their cars over to the shoulder so they could get out and pee while pretending everyone else with nothing to do but watch them pee could not see them next to their cars.  We watched policemen not notice the three guys on the side of the road peeing next to the car from which they emerged, standing together and conversing while emptying in a urinal line of nature.  We watched minutes tick by on the dashboard clock.

Stretching from the Coronado area (popular with American expats for retirement living and with Panamanians for beach residences) onward to La Chorrera, we wondered if it would continue all the way across the Centennial Bridge and, if so, how many more hours we had left before arriving home.

And then, just past La Chorrera, it stopped.  That is to say, all of a sudden the orange cones disappeared to open up multiple lanes again, and instantly traffic started once more to move at normal travel speeds.  We went from crawling to cruising speed in a blink, making up for lost time almost the rest of the way home.  (Of course, there was the one detour spot Brian tried to preempt by reminding Audrey in advance that she always insists forcefully on his going the wrong way on Corredor Norte; which Audrey then acknowledged and owned completely; and then promised not to insist forcefully that he go the wrong way on Corredor Norte; and then screamed involuntarily at Brian, “CORREDOR NORTE!…There!!…There!!!…THERE!!!”; leaving Brian, knowing all the while it had been written in stone through the ages as that which one must do, to smile and embrace this fated irony, and head in the wrong direction on Corredor Norte for a few kilometers before reaching the now-familiar turn-around maneuver at the Clayton exit.)  Somehow, even with James Taylor along for the ride, what should have been a two-hour trip took us only an extra 30-45 minutes to complete.  We suspect that had we stayed a few days longer and traveled home with the masses instead of pitying them on the start of their holiday journeys while we headed home from ours, our drive time would have doubled or tripled.

Needless to say, in a couple weeks when Panamá celebrates the bicentennial of its 1821 independence from Spain we will be home enjoying the view of the Pacific from our new condo balcony in Costa del Este.  And with several bathrooms at our disposal, we need not pull over to pee on the side of the road in front of an auto-encased audience while hoping the police will not notice.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

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