Our misguided wisdom allowed us to think that flying to Panama on Christmas day, Heathrow airport would be quiet, as nobody would want to travel then. How wrong we were as when we arrived at the airport the KLM check in area was totally ram jammed full with a throng of people. However, it started going wrong before that. The hotel near Heathrow we stayed at gives free transfers to the airport when you stay there, but I forgot to tell reception we had surfboards. So we arrived in the hotel car park at 6.00 am Christmas day armed with an oversized bag of boards only to be informed that there was not enough room in the mini bus. Therefore, we had to wait for a taxi, making us on the last minute for our flight.
KLM had decided to implement a new check in system, which blatantly was not working so after combining queuing with a bit of defensive pushing we managed to get to the check in counter. The guy, that was checking us in was to be honest in the slow boat and decided to tell us we could not check in our boards in. Eventually we managed to check in the boards and all of the luggage. After more queuing to pay for our boards and waiting for the slow boat guy again, we just about made our flight.
When we got on the flight and settled into our seats a thickly accented voice came from behind us, "Hey, you are the guys who had the surfboards at the airport." He then went on to introduce himself as Ricardo and explained he was a surfer from Panama City. We chatted on the flight about how he had ended up living in England for a year and he gave us the low down on a whole heap of Panama's lesser-known surf spots. Once outside Panama City airport he and his father (Ricardo Senior, who was picking him up) invited us to their house for a Christmas Day party and gave us with there address. At first, we were keen to go but after the jet lag kicked in and the reality, that going to a party in a strange country where you do not know anybody or anything about the place is not possibly the best idea. Therefore, we opted to relax at the backpackers and prepare for the three weeks of adventure ahead.
During our time in Panama, we found the country to have an array of fantastic waves, an amazing culture and history; it was safe and beautiful with amazing wildlife and most of all the people to be very friendly. Disappointed to be leaving we left everything to the last minute and almost missed our flight again.
Entering Panama City, we soon realised that our map was rubbish to say the least and there was a distinct lack of road signage. We eventually found ourselves on a toll road going the wrong way so after paying the toll fee and getting some directions we were able to wave to the same toll women fifteen minutes later coming the other way still not knowing which way to go. Eventually we overcame the lack of orientation, negotiated the traffic jams whilst avoiding the gaudy former US school buses seemingly hell bent on destruction, to thankfully arrived in time and one piece at the airport. Not last to check in, but almost.
Joined to Colombia by the Darien Gap Panama has become a gateway for smuggling cocaine out of South America, so the airport has an army sniffer dogs and soldiers. Queuing up we obviously looked bedraggled from arriving late and unwashed after a six-hour drive from down the coast. Therefore, the dog handlers decided we warranted not just one inspection by the sniffer dogs but several. They came by so many times, that in my stressed out state I became paranoid they were going to find something we did not even have.
Glancing over my should expecting to see another sniffer dog smelling my sullied feet, instead there was the big friendly face of Ricardo Senior who by coincidence was on the same flight heading to Europe on business. Ricardo Junior was there also. By now we were very comfortable in Panama and regretting not visiting the Ricardo's' for Christmas or finding the time to go surfing with Ricardo Jnr. However, we shared our regret with them and swapped details for the future.
Then on the flight, we began to regret our mistake further as we ended up sat next to Ricardo Senior who entertained us all the way through the flight with his flamboyant Latin character. He chatted up the airline hostess and told us tales from his amazing life. It turns out he had been an airline lawyer then started Air Panama before selling it to become a politician and ambassador to the US. Apparently, he is very famous in Panama and a personnel friend of the president. He regaled one story of how he got so drunk on a flight to the US that when he arrived he accidently insulted a senior senator and had given himself alcohol poisoning. At the end of our flight, he gave us his business card and told us to stay in touch.
If everything had gone to plan before on the way to our flights and we had been on time, then we would never have met the two Ricardo's by such amazing coincidence.