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Travel To Panama City – JFK To PTY

Traveling to Panama.

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TERMINAL 4, JFK, NYC- They were sprawled out upon the cold, hard white tiled floor, awkwardly perched up against rectangular columns as they crouched over phones, they were curled up in the fetal position while trying to balance on a little embankment that stuck out from beneath the windows at the front of the hall. Some were twitching to get into a better position, others just gave up, allowed their heads to drop upon the stone cold floor … and endured. They all were miserable.

Why do airports need to look like refugee camps?

While airports sometimes house actually refugees — such as my Syrian friend Hasan was in Moscow — it was not this type that was splayed out all around as I walked through the arrivals hall of JFK Terminal 4 in search of an ATM. They were just normal travelers unfortunate enough to get delayed in such a dire place.

It’s always shocking to me how purposefully uncomfortable many airports are. Their interior designs often border on the sadistic — they’re as cold, hard, and jagged as they can be, preferring to have wide open halls full of nothing than to set up some benches and chairs so people could rest or maybe even sleep a little before their next flight. The design is the antithesis of character — it’s a transit zone alone, an over glorified hallway between here and there. Nothing to see here, nothing to dawdle over, nothing to experience … unless, that is, you get stuck here.

And this is a simple fact of travel: many people are going to get stuck — they are going to opt to just hang out and wait for their connecting / delayed / rebooked flight for 5 – 10 hours rather than get a hotel room. I’m among them, as I’m sure most of you are as well. So we splay our bodies out all over the floor, pile up our bags into impromptu beds, and hide in corners with our heads in our arms.

… the airport is probably the only place where it is socially acceptable to do this, and I’m not sure why.

I would like to take a moment to say thank you to Rob from Florida for becoming a new $5 per month contributor to Vagabond Journey! We’re moving to a new financing model that will ensure absolute independence as far as the content, opinions, and perspectives that we publish, and contributions like this is what’s making that happen. Thank you, Rob, it’s much appreciated!

The sweet spot of travel

I’m now sitting at my gate. The hyperactive thought patterns of preparing for travel, getting to the airport on time, and going through the security are starting to dissipate … and that inexplicable full body calm of starting a new journey is starting to overtake me. I can almost feel it radiate out from my solar plexus through my legs and arms and up through my head. I take a deep breath, exhale … and get ready to step into the great theater of “things around me.”

There is really nothing more stimulating than travel. Even the simplest things create oscillating waves of thought — the kid with cornrows astutely dribbling a basketball between his legs while he sits waiting for his flight, the old people in wheelchairs lined up in a row looking worried that the airline attendant forgot about them, the lady who can’t seem to decide what self-help book she needs the most … The narratives of those around you start spinning and you know that you get absorbed into that sweet spot of travel.

I smile. I really have nothing to do but walk around, look around, and talk with people. There’s really nothing I’d rather be doing.

Avianca Airlines

I can’t complain.

This is the new era of travel: you don’t have to talk to anyone anymore. If it wasn’t for the gate agent asking me when I was planning to return after my boarding pass triggered an alarm, I wouldn’t have talked with anyone from the airline at all.

There’s now self check-in AirBnBs, hotels, and hostel, and airlines are increasing following suite by streamlining everything to make check in clerks and gate agents redundant.

Everything in life will soon be the social equivalent of a vending machine.

The TSA agents that check your ID and boarding pass as you enter security, they will probably be gone soon — terminal 4 of JFK already has these new (albeit unused) facial recognition screens that I imagine will one day match you to your ID and boarding pass, adequately doing the job of the person sitting behind them.

I’ve already seen pilots of high-tech turnstiles at airline gates which allow you to board without a human checking your boarding pass … and some airports have already completely transitioned to these.

It’s not like the airlines provide much customer service these days anyway, serving the primary function of saying “tough shit” when something doesn’t go your way.

But those bastards screaming at you to take your iPad out of your bag and to take your shoes off, they’re probably there to stay. It just wouldn’t be flying if your privacy wasn’t violated and your dignity knocked down a peg or two.

The paradox of the tropics

There is only one word to describe my two hour layover in San Salvador: cold.

The paradox of hot climates is that the air conditioning is blasted everywhere, making them surprisingly cold places to travel. Airplanes, airports, shopping malls, cafes, restaurants are often freezing, making it a prudent practice to carry around a sweatshirt in otherwise 90-100 degree heat.

I was cold on the flight to San Salvador. I was cold in the airport. I was cold on the flight to Panama. And as I was standing before the agent at immigration I was cold to the verge of shivering.

But the guy kept asking me questions.

The agent was a little old and moved slow. After each response he’d move sloth-like over to the computer and enter in my responses. He’d then slowly rotate back towards me, ask another question, and would repeat the process. He was just doing his job but as he did this over and over again all I could think about was stepping outside of the airport and into that hot tropical sun …

Into the sun

Once stepping outside I held out my arms and basked for a second in the hot sun, feeling my body become supple and warm again. There is nothing like stepping outside of the airport after traveling from a temperate climate to the tropics. The instant rush, the energy from the heat, is the surest indication — for people from the north, at least — that you have arrived … that you’re somewhere very different than where you’re from.

Is there any better feeling than that?


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Filed under: Air Travel, Panama, Travel Diary

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3716 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

3 comments… add one

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  • Matt May 1, 2024, 6:19 pm

    Would we get regular blogs again if we donate? Followed you for at least a decade and would look forward to reading you more regularly again.

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    • VBJ May 2, 2024, 1:25 pm

      Hello Matt, That is definitely the idea! All I’d need would be 500 monthly contributors and I would be able to just do this everyday — which is actually all I’ve ever really wanted to do. Thank you for reading all of these years!

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  • Alluring India May 18, 2024, 6:30 am

    Exploring Panama City through your blog is like embarking on a captivating journey from the comfort of my screen! Your vivid descriptions and stunning imagery truly transport me to the heart of this vibrant destination. Keep sharing your adventures – you’re inspiring wanderlust in every reader!

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