Live long enough in Panama City and you’ll inevitably face the Circle of Death. This isn’t your regular highway interchange - it’s the pulsing heart of the city, a demonic network of arteries linking the Panama Canal locks to the Causeway, the Ancon Hill to the Terminal, the Centennial Bridge to downtown Panama City. Strategically placed on an unavoidable path, the Circle of Death lures many, sometimes multiple times a day. Allow me to describe this fiendish creation in a little more depth. It pretends to be a harmless traffic junction. With the promise of reducing travel time, it seduces all roads, from proud palm-boasting boulevards, to innocent little streets. Even the most resolute highways cannot resist the temptation. The Circle of Death invites everyone in, and therein lies the problem. As you enter The Circle and start turning, your 4-lanes meet others. All seems fine until you’re ambushed by 2 new lanes, and just as suddenly you encounter a fork ahead. Vehicles frantically attempt to escape the Circle, swerve right, weaving through those who must go in deeper.
As you brave on, the crescendo of car horns indicates that you are near the climax. You’ve reached The Turn, and you’re now fully committed to the Circle of Death. If you’re in a bus, this is the moment where you might feel suspended in mid-air; the bus spins, stands at a 45 degree angle on two wheels. At this very moment, new tourists in the bus are immediately given away - not by their sun burns, flip flops, “Panama” hats (which are neither made, nor really worn by Panamanians), loud voices, travel guides, sunglasses, shorts, backpacks or their pronunciation of the country they’re in (Panamaaahhww), but by their inevitable fall.
During The Turn, you dare to peek outside the window, looking up to the sun for hope. Unfortunately, you only encounter a giant “INFLAMABLE - PELIGROSO” stamped on a mammoth tank truck zooming past you. You think, perhaps, to look ahead for the light at the end of the tunnel. Oh but do not be so naive darling, you will only see another bus, just millimeters away from yours. You know that a single bump, even a gentle tap, on any 2 vehicles in The Circle will unleash a whirlwind of fury. So you despair. You close your eyes and wait. The Circle of Death has surely won. It will consume its prey shortly.
At this point I must remind you that this is Panama. Turn signals are futile. Checking blind spots is somewhat of a foreign concept. The road is not shared between happy Honda Civics and Toyota Prii; it is dominated by battered taxis, proudly displaying their battle scars. And I’m not talking about dings and dents or nicks and notches. I’m talking about missing bumpers, fissured windshields, duct-taped windows, hanging side-mirrors, and ravaged doors. I’ve even seen a few of these taxis with windshield stickers announcing: “DIOS CUIDA DE MÍ” (GOD CARES FOR ME). Remember that whatever fear you have of these yellow kamikazes will be eclipsed when compared to your terror of the mighty Diablos Rojos.
So you open your eyes slowly. You see the dazed tourists, recovering from their fall. You look around in the bus and observe the locals, unfazed. You realize you’ve made it. A few on the side of the bend did not. Some cars, according to legend, are still going around the Circle of Death, unable to escape even after 50 years. But somehow you are here and still breathing. You can now let out a sigh of relief, perhaps even thank your driver, luck, or whichever deity for having spared your life today.
If you hike up Ancon Hill, where a giant Panama flag proudly waves in the wind, a viewpoint looks down on the Circle of Death. From above and at a distance, it seems deceptively innocent. But you know better. You stand there and watch artificial selection in action. The Circle of Death slowly weeds out those who cannot handle Panamanian roads. Perhaps it is a deliberate invention and a necessary evil after all. But The Circle of Death is not something Elton John will be singing about any time soon.
As I muster up courage for my next encounter, I think of Syrio Florel's words, which I'll recite in the face of the Circle of Death.
“What do we say to the god of death? Not today.”