By Paul Lombino
It’s true ─ you don’t miss something until it’s gone. That’s how I learned to feel about road signage and tourist brochures.
Last spring during an impromptu trip to Panama (Why Panama is another story), my three travel partners and I found ourselves at a car rental office in David Airport (pronounced “Da-veed”). Having just deplaned, we were preparing for the first leg of our Central America jaunt ─ a two-hour transmission-grinding drive through the northwest quadrant of Panama.
Our initial destination was the Volcan region where we were supposed to meet our “contact” at Romero’s supermarket at half-past dusk. (My wife had made our travel plans entirely via the Internet. What could possibly go wrong?) At this sight-unseen supermarket, we were to pick up keys and proceed to our jungle hideaway, which was literally carved into the side of a dormant volcano. This was to serve as our weeklong base for off-the-beaten-trail day trips to a Swedish-owned coffee plantation, an orchid sanctuary founded in the high hills by a 20th-century European philanthropist and a white-water rafting excursion run by the most laid-back Canadian expatriate you’ll ever stumble across in Barqueta.
However, finding these various locations would be easier said than done. Back at the car rental office we had just been informed by the desk clerk that there was no GPS service available in the mountainous countryside. And the only map he could muster had virtually no distinguishing markings representing the lush and meandering landscape. There was no marketing material to speak of and road signs were virtually nonexistent.
Overhearing our directional plight, a bilingual customer took pity on us and in broken English suggested we put our maps away and, instead, follow his instructions that began:
“When you pull out of the airport, take a sharp left. Ignore the arrow. Drive four or five miles until you see a prison on the right. Then bear left at the first fork in the road after the prison.”
We asked: “What’s the name of the road?”
He smiled and shook his head. “There is none. Just bear left.”
And, poof, he was gone. That’s how it went for most of the rest of the week. Ask directions. Drive. Stop. Return. Curse. Repeat. Don’t lose hope.
Eventually, we made it to our target destinations but never without getting head-scratchingly lost along the journey. For the first time in my life, I realized how much I missed road signs and promotional collateral.
After returning to Boston, I started to take more notice of our own street displays and ─ well ─ began to pity the poor tourists trying to interpret Bean Town’s unique visual customs. You can’t miss it.