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Monday, May 16, 2005

Panama 2005

Hola mes amigos ! We are at the midpoint of our Panamanian adventures. This will be my second attempt at writing an update, the first been written during a creative period early one morning and lost due to a computer freezing / failure ! Manana !

Panama means " abundant seafood " and we indeed have been enjoying an abundance of varied fresh seafood, and a wonderful adventure. The temperature is between 90 and 100 degrees daily with relatively high humidity even though this is their dry season. In retrospect, I wish Deb or I would have (brought more sunblock for my nose) had more time to refresh / learn more Spanish before our departure as English is not as common as we had understood, and there are relatively few tourists here. The tourists that are here are from South America and Europe. Especially when trekking (as they do not label streets nor apply numbers to locate businesses or residences - without been able to ask for directions even with a good map this is quite a challenge) , and trying to get to know about the people and their country. Deb has indicated that she has blisters on her blisters, from our occasional explorations !

Panama is a narrow isthmus of land (about 100 miles wide ) joining North and South America. In the small third world country nestled between Columbia and Costa Rica the interamericanna road for automobile travel from North America ends due to the density of the darien jungle. Panama has a tumultous history dating back to its discovery by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Building ruins and rich ancient architecture abound similar to Europe. It is a beautiful land of contrasts. Panama City (currently our home base) is a city of 1,000,000 people. They have originated from the Caribbean, Africa, China, Japan, India, and South America with American leadership from the canal construction. It is a certainly a much richer ethnic diversity than we experience in British Columbia. While the cosmopolitan skyline rivals Vancouver, there is the surprise of poor walkways, street vendors, makeshift restaurants, poverty, goats chickens, and garbage in between those buildings. The Panamanian people embrace the Latin / South American love of life that is hard to describe and must be experienced. ( their music for example ) Cervaza's cost 35 cents, a pound of banana's 13 cents, items imported from North America are usually more expensive. Coffee and Banana's are the country's major exports We have seen many beautiful tropical flowers in the wild ( orchids, bougenvilla, hibiscus which we have as pampered houseplants at home ) parrots, harpy eagle, jaguar, monkeys, iguanas, and alligators. The tropical jungle and rainforest is not as dense as we would have expected.

Hotel rooms range from $ 5 / night ( no hot water or private bathrooms ) to $ 600 night (sorry can't answer except a brief visit to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort a 35 million dollar development in a rain forest ) We have seen more new Mercedes, BMW, and high end import cars here than anywhere else we have travelled. The rich have computers and televisions in their refridgerators ! There are many country's embassies here, and we quite accidently, ended up in the Bolivian embassy today where the parking garage had ornate ceramic tile, and we were shown an ornately carved gold sword.

Driving here is like no other city I have ever seen including Mexico, and Europe. There are few street signs, traffic controls are non existant, and when they do exist they are often ignored. The horn is most important ! Having said that although many cars are very wrinkled from repeated accidents and repairs, we have only witnessed one mishap. It is not very pedestrian friendly either, and we have learned to cross roads like the locals by watching carefully and then running like hell ! The traffic will not even slow for a pedestrian or a slowing vehicle; they simply swerve. Cars of the vintage of the VW jetta we have are not even visable amongst the automobile carnage in the countryside ! Given the lovely weather we have only seen two convertibles both BMW's. The average citizen would not own an automobile and would use Rogho Diablos ( bright colourful schoolbuses similar to Mexico but for the most part better condition nicknamed " red devils " at a cost of 25 cents ) or a taxi ( also plentiful and cheap ).

The average Panamanian earns $ 6,000 US per annum and this drops to less than $ 1,000 for rural or agricultural based workers. On an exploration during our first day here we ended up in an are of poverty that we subsequently found out to be unsafe for tourista where hair was been cut ( barbershops ) in the middle of the street, children were playing in a wading pool, groceries were been sold on the corner from behind heavy metal bars, and sex been sold from dimly lit doorways. Near the same area today we discovered the Panamanian Presidential Palace !

We enjoyed a traditional meal at Las Tinajas which was accompanied by local cultural dancing and music. The nightlife scene is very active for the young people with bars and nightclubs opening between 11:00 p:m and 2:00 a:m and closing at dawn. We heard, then saw, an open air bus party touring the city complete with drinks and a salsa band.

The Panama Canal built almost 100 years ago remains a " wonder " today. Quite simply it is an elavator to lift and lower massive cargo and cruise ships 85 feet above sea level to navigate the 100 mile canal ( much of which is manmade Gatuin Lake ) The canal has served over 900,000 vessels in its life. In order to navigate the canal a ship must pay a toll averaging $ 35,000 US in cash two days before entry.( no visa or mastercard ) As a result there are over 180 international banks in Panama City. I understand this is the most banks in any city in the world. On our return from Miraflora Locks on the canal we experienced our only tropical rain storm so far. Boy did we get wet !

Yesterday we went to El Valle - a mountain village located just below a volcano. It was noted to have a wonderful artisan market of native indian handicrafts. It was the most English we had heard since arriving and wares were pricier than we had found elsewhere. Obviously more for the touristas ! Renting some bicyles to briefly explore, we saw the retirement homes of many wealthy North Americans and a wonderful conservation centre for orchids. Orchids grow wild here just like dandelions for us ! Our return journey of about 3 hours was with a local family having a family outing. It was wonderful to make numerous stops along the way to acquire fresh fruit, cheese, and plants from local villagers who often market directly by the roadside. Pickup loads of bananna's, pineapples, canteloupes and huge watermelons were everwhere. Banana's are eaten here as a staple vegetable / instead of potatoe, as well as a fruit. Use your imagination now - slice, batter and deep fry your ban ana and add salsa sauce or ketchup. Soccer and baseball were been played in dusty open fields by adults and children. We went to a local fishing village , passed salt been mined in fields, and the beach.

Although the sand and beach is beautiful it is sad that they have little pride in their country. The litter, garbage, broken glass, cigarette butts are everywhere including the beach. The family is an important part of society here and because of poverty families are often multi-generational and expanded. This has created an interesting facility known as a " push ". It is a discreet looking building with many garage doors. Apparently one drives in, the door closes, and you rent a well appointed room beyond, by the hour.

Buenas tardis amigos, as our contribution to the economy of Panama draws to an end ( an entry fee of $ 5 , a departure tax of $20, accomodation, variety of transportion costs, exhibitions, meals etc... ) we would like to share some final observations.

Due to the climate most Panamanian homes / buildings windows are open, or depending on the area use wooden shutters, iron railings, or open designed cement bricks. Glass windows are rare and only the wealthy or modern apartment buildings use glass in the windows if they are air conditioned. Any / all glass store fronts have an additional metal covering door that is drawn down after hours. Property owners instead of securing the building doorway, secure the property perimeter with a fence and locked gate. Again contrasting Oscar de la Renta will be debuting his new line here next week in an International exhibition.

Our window cleaning vendors found at local traffic intersections have a lot to learn. Where there are traffic light controls at intersections here you will find everything from flowers, fruit, vegetables, bread, prepared food, ice cream, newspapers, and in the darkness of evening, entertainment - musicians and flaming torch juggling been very successfully sold. Perhaps it is the busy pace of life that creates this successful transient automobile economy.

Yesterday marked the begining of the Easter Holiday. Latin America is primarily Roman Catholic - this holiday is observed in very traditional ways with most business activity closing down, and refocusing on family and the church. Although they are not supposed to drink alcohol during this period we saw signs of some serious partying.

To our previous list of wildlife observed ( parrots, harpy eagle, jaguar, monkeys, iguanas, and alligators ) we need to add dolphins, humming birds, butterflies, and a large blue fish locally known as " lulu " harpooned by a local diver.

The train trip to Colon was in an older refurbished Amtrack domed passenger car which followed the canal through the jungle for most of the journey. The Caribbean side of Panama receives almost double the rainfall that the Pacific side does and the tropical jungles were more what we were expecting ( although still not as lush or dense ) The city of Colon itself was a major disappointment. This town about the population of Kamloops B.C. has experienced significant unemployment since final workers on the canal became unemployed. In an attempt to eliviate this situation the government created the largest " free trade zone " outside of Hong Kong. Over 1700 stores from around the world do whosesale business here avoiding all duties and taxes. Unfortunately very little of this economic impact goes beyond the zones walls into the community. The poverty is extreme. Certainly more folk from Jamacia and Trinidad with the music shifting from Salsa to Calypso. Although many cruise sh ips stop briefly in this Caribbean port, and many more people spoke some English, in walking about we were constantly been told by local people who contradicted themselves about which areas we should not walk in due to bandits and thievery. A security person at a local gas station was armed with some weapon which had a two inch diameter barrel ! .

The Isle de Taboga was a wonderful tranquille setting in the Pacific Ocean. On the journey over we travelled with many local people visiting family or friends for the easter weekend. Armed with supplies of food, groceries, water, furniture, fans etc this was their primary means of getting things to the island. Porters to unload the cargo were plentiful An isolated island of approximately 1000 residents where life was very basic. There is no running water. Water was collected through rain collecting facilities and stored until required ( both individual homes and for the village ) We watched the village water truck with tires that the treads were showing, and were well beyond being as smooth as a baby's bum ( incidentally this is very common even on loaded commercial trucks out on the highway ) attempt to climb a steep hill to the resovoir to fill and distribute water. Electricity was present but we were not able to identify the generating source. They are no automobile s other than the odd delivery or work truck. There were a few golf carts and quads. Building materials ( clay roof tiles ) arrived by boat were unloaded with manual labour using wheelbarrows and dollies transported to their final destination. Fresh fish was being carried by local fishermen along the narrow street paths. We indulged and enjoyed a wonderful meal and tropical drinks in the nicest local restaurant and hotel with a beautiful view overlooking the bay.

Have a wonderful Easter Holiday ! Sharing the wise words, and empassioned embrace, of an elderly, toothless, black Jamaican man ( who in a city of one million people we have encountered on three entirely seperate and random occasions ) " If I don´'t see you again I'll see you in heaven ."

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