1,326 days is a very long time, so painfully long that I actually winced as I calculated it. Until I arrived in Panama yesterday, I had not visited a new country since setting foot on Senegalese soil on 10th June 2017. After three weeks in the UAE and Brazil, I can finally nudge my country counter up by one unit. There is still a very long way to go to reach the magical target of 195, but at least I am moving forward.

It’s been a long time coming…

Those who know me best understand that this single-minded obsession with visiting every country in the world is categorically not about collecting flags or passport stamps, or even to gain travel conversation bragging rights. I will happily go back to the vast majority of the countries I have already visited, to see parts missed and retrace older footsteps. I can also comfortably live with never talking about my travels again (but good luck to anyone who does want to know…).

No, I am doing this for myself, and myself alone. Having had this modest ambition for as long as I can remember being fascinated by flags, maps, and names of capital cities, now is the time to finally complete the challenge. Only then will I be able to move on to the next stage of my life, and the next venture of opening my own den of craft beer iniquity somewhere in the southern sunshine. I need closure for my mission of global conquest, and what better way to do it in than in one go?

As the first new country of the trip, Panama triggers a particularly powerful high, putting a grin so wide on my face that every airport sniffer dog takes an immediate interest. I had almost forgotten how this felt, and just about restrain myself from giving Panamanian terra firma my papal kiss. Stepping off the plane and negotiating immigration is a moment of such wondrously glorious euphoria, tempered only ever so slightly by an airport PCR test so vicious that my left eyeball is almost punctured from the inside.

After the full sensory overload of São Paulo, my time in Panama will be more low key, out of choice as well as imposition. The country has recently come out of a very severe lockdown and only tentatively reopened its borders to tourism. There is a curfew from 9pm to 4am during the week and over the entire weekend; cultural venues are closed, and the hospitality industry caters to offsite business only. This could have been a disheartening week to spend in what ought to have been a tropical paradise, but for an inspired piece of accommodation selection.

With an ever-increasing number of millennials (and the occasional Generation Xer…) choosing to experience a more exciting nomadic lifestyle hopping from continent to continent, gone are the cockroach-infested YHA gulags of the 1990s, with French motorway services hygiene facilities and an all-you-can-catch buffet of tropical ailments and sexually transmitted diseases. In their place are pristine boutique hostels dripping in industrial shabby chic, with every possible accessory and activity aimed at divesting further pesos from the unsuspecting backpacker.

Selina’s Casco Viejo in Panama City is as good an example of the type as I have ever seen, and worth every cent of the premium this venue cost compared to its competitors. Filament bulb copper-wired lighting on the walls, more yucca plants than a Home Counties garden centre, and a pink VW campervan greeting my entrance tell me immediately that I have found the right place to hunker down and engage low octane mode for a few days. I may be older than most of the guests, but my craft beer t-shirt, pre-hipster era beard, and recent forearm tattoo more than qualify me to stay. With a rooftop pool with bar and restaurant, café, projector movie room, pool table area, pod laptop stations, 24/7 food & drink shop, and more importantly fellow pandemic nomads, this is an oasis of tranquility shielding me from the outside reality of lockdown.

“Wait, you mean there is also running water?”

I am delighted and even a little relieved to have any form of decision making removed from me, for a short while. Long term backpacking is not only beautiful beaches, incredible architecture and cultural riches, even though these do supply the primary form of travel stimulation. It is also about understanding when to slow down, doing so in the right environment, and with the best possible facilities available. Aside from a few pleasant daytime walks around the colonial old town, the next three days are going to see me very cosily ensconced in this bubble of comfort.

The ground floor café and pool lounge, sponsored by Habitat…

Interior graffiti ✅  Hanging & standing foliage   Mixed materials furniture ✅ 

Today’s 9pm movie offering in the arthouse projector room is American Gangster. I may choose to watch it, but it is rather more likely that I will head up to the rooftop terrace to hang out by the pool with last night’s crew. Conversation will invariably slow down as the sun sets majestically on the Panamanian capital’s coastal panorama before us, as the lights start to twinkle on all the skyscrapers. But then the chatter will go back to the cost of Covid tests in the various Latin American countries, and where the best empanadas are to be found in Buenos Aires. Oh happy, lazy hostel days, it is so good to experience you again.

Hostels really aren’t what they used to be…

Work pods with pink VW Campervan in foreground ✅ 

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  1. Oi Knoll!

    This is not what I expected at all; so far this trip appears to be nothing short of all-out luxury when what I really want to read about is the cockroach infested digs located in the midst of a shantytown slum where you wake up to find that last nights discarded clothing is being worn variously by several locals, all of whom pretend not to understand your questioning this predicament… I sincerely hope to hear more about this as you face the rigours ahead! If you don have the decency to accommodate this picture in reality, at least have the sense to lie to your discerning reader who has a thirst for danger!

    Keep going JMK; still loving your updates even if they are achingly middle-class these days!

    1. Hahahahaha! Am loving the comments Señor McGuire! The next destination will definitely have a more shady edge to it, but do remember that my poor mother is also on the mailing list! There is a separate mailing list for the favela & scopolamine stories… 😉

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