Learn a new place for the price of bus fare | CD Voice
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One good way to get to know a place is to hop on a train or bus.
We got an early sense of Beijing and Shanghai, two cities where we've lived in the past six years, through their efficient subway and bus systems. The population density in the two megacities is ideal for such public transit networks.
During Spring Festival, we experienced a change of pace while visiting western Panama.
We stayed in Puerto Armuelles, a small port on the Pacific coast that is home to about 25,000 people, and Volcan, an uplands community of some 15,000 near the dormant Baru volcano.
Their combined population is only 1.7 percent of the 2.3 million in Beijing's Chaoyang district, where we live.
The two cities we visited also are dwarfed by Panama City, the nation's capital, with a metro area population of about 3.5 million. The city opened Central America's first metro system, a light rail train, in 2014. A portion of the second line is forecast to open in January.
In less-developed western Panama, conditions are different. The recent opening of a four-lane highway to Puerto Armuelles is seen as a sign that the sleepy port is starting to awaken again.
While the provincial capital of David is served by a modern airport, most local transportation is done through a fleet of privately owned buses of various sizes. There are large express buses to Panama City and a huge number of half-size and three-quarter size buses for local transportation.
These smaller buses are customarily air-conditioned and comfortable, but can get rather crowded. Within cities and towns, many people use shared taxis.
On the local buses, people are friendly, and often greet fellow passengers as they board. On any given day, you'll sit next to a teenager dressed up for a social occasion, a farmworker or a parent carrying a child or a shopping bag.
The heyday of railroads ended in Panama decades ago, and old train stations and carriages are museum pieces.
Still standing is Puerto Armuelles' stout pier, built with rails that once carried boxcars out over the Pacific Ocean to disgorge loads of bananas into cargo ships. The banana plantations are coming back, but the pier is only a local landmark now.
There is a proposal, however, to build a new train system for cargo and passenger traffic with China's help. In February, Panamanian officials met with engineers of China Railway Design Corp to begin a feasibility study for a modern, 445-kilometer railway from Panama City to David.
The train, traveling at 160 kilometers per hour, would cut a 7-hour trip on the express bus to 2.5 hours. The trip takes about an hour by plane.
There is talk of extending the rail system into other parts of Central America to stimulate economic growth.
But one question that remains is whether Panama, a small but strategically placed country of just over 4 million, can afford the price tag — estimated at $5.5 billion — even with Chinese financial help.
About the author & broadcaster
Matt Prichard is a copy editor and writer who works on the front page team of China Daily. He has lived in China for more than five years, in Shanghai and Beijing. Before that, he had a 30-year career as a reporter and editor in the United States and Latin America. He has an ABJ from the University of Georgia and did postgraduate work at the Universidad Nacional del Sur in Argentina. He speaks Spanish fluently and is still learning Mandarin.
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