Monday, January 3, 2011

A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!

Well, you'll be relieved to know that we made it back safe and sound from our Panamanian adventure. Tired and dusty, like the many roads we traveled, but back. But let's rewind to the beginning, shall we?

The trip to Panama was mostly about exactly that. Getting to, then around, then of course back from, Panama. We began by driving south along the Pacific coastal road of Costa Rica, a stunningly beautiful part of the country. We stayed one night in Costa Rica to break up the trip, then headed to the border, la frontera. We parked at the border (oh, did I make that part sound easy? Perhaps you should reread that sentence another 2o times or so), gathered our bags and crossed the border by foot. Okay, it wasn't that easy, but it wasn't Nicaragua either. It took probably close to 2 hours of mostly standing in line, the time increased by a few surprises such as the fact that Panama requires you to have a bus ticket out of the country to get in the country, car parked at the border be darned. Three tickets from Panama City to San Jose later we were able to cross the border. Oops, then we asked someone if it was okay to cross. Bad idea. Ask questions and you get sent back for a bag inspection. Okay, now we can cross. Really.

Once across, we took a mini bus to David, the second largest city in Panama, about a 90 minute ride from the border. David is a loud, crowded, dusty city full of shopping. At least that was my impression from the small bit of it we saw. Sadie, however, was in heaven. Santa gave her 20 dollars to spend in Panama (I'm guessing because he didn't get her the make-your-own-gum and make-your-own-jawbreaker kits that she really wanted and was trying to make it up to her). Let me tell you, 20 dollars can buy you lots of nail polish and cheap jewelry in David. Speaking of dollars, interestingly, that is the currency in Panama. They don't print any paper currency but instead use US dollars, US coins, and a smattering of their own coins the same size and denominations as US coins. I guess 82 years of US control of the Panama Canal did have some effect on the country.... At any rate it definitely makes the exchange rate easy to calculate.

As for the parents, our favorite part of David was the Lebanese meal we ate. With the exception of some great fresh fish we've had in Costa Rica (and my side trip to the Osa with my mom) our Lebanese dinner was probably the best dinner we've had since we moved. Well worth the trip to David.

The next morning we woke early and hopped on a bus to Panama City. Again, throw in lots of misinformation, running around to various areas of the bus station, and the last minute jumping on a waiting bus without food or coffee and you get the real picture. The good news was that we had seats. The bad news was that our seats were in the back of the bus by the bathroom. Enough said. The 7 hour bus ride was a good 6 hours too long and we were ready to kiss the ground of the Panama City bus station when we finally arrived. As a side note, and a common theme for the transportation aspects of our trip, Sadie was terrific. Thank goodness for some 20 hours worth of Avatar on her ipod and a copy of The Lightening Thief - she spent the entire time reading or watching videos and never complained. Except maybe a bit about the smell, but really, who wouldn't?

Panama City is huge. Over 3 million people, sprawling, packed with cars and buildings. The number of high rises rivals that of San Francisco and a good 15 more are currently under construction. Development seemed rampant and money seemed to be flowing, though poverty was also obvious, of course.

The city is a collection of several distinct areas, including the old part, Casco Viejo, the ancient part, Panama Viejo, and the modern areas.

Casco Viejo was very interesting. Once the entirety of modern Panama City, then as the city grew the area of the poorest inhabitants, and now undergoing rapid gentrification, Casco Veijo looks a bit like a grittier version of the French Quarter of New Orleans, or parts of what I imagine Havana to look like. Narrow brick streets and old colonial building in various states of disintegration or renovation.

It is a gem of an area for Panama City's growing tourism market, and I can only imagine how it might look in 10 years. In the meantime, it retains a fascinating mix of rich and poor, of crumbling and fully restored, of hole-in-the-wall old school salsa clubs and upscale restaurants and galleries. Somehow Sadie can withstand a 7 hour stinky bus ride with nary a complaint, but wandering around looking at "old falling down buildings" is akin to torture for her. Thankfully the area also had a fantastic ice cream parlor which we visited several times.

We had some good food in Panama City, but not too much great food. The highlight was a restaurant upstairs in the gigantic fish market. Whole fried fish, fish soup and ceviche, topped off with a pisco sour.

The ancient part of Panama City, Panama Viejo, was also interesting. More so than the ruins themselves, was the juxtaposition of the ruins against the backdrop of skyscrapers, and how the ruins themselves exist along the edges of one of the poorest areas of the City, and themselves are poorly maintained and poorly signed.

Here's what Sadie thought of wandering around ruins. Clearly we have not yet reached the artisan market at the end of the pathway.

Like Casco Viejo, there is an effort underway to make the ruins more accessible and the journey more interesting and educational for the tourists. The pathway to the ruins along the waterfront has several areas with benches and interpretive signage about the ecology of the area (the vast mudflats and occasional mangroves that border the City). However, maintenance is an issue (of course) and trash is a city-wide problem. Here's a picture for you policy wonks out there.

Then...there was the canal.

The Panama Canal! The whole reason we suffered through that 7 hour bus ride to get to Panama City. They have recently built a visitor's center at the Miraflores locks, which are a convenient 15 minute cab ride out of the city. Seeing the Canal in person was awesome in the sense that I loved having to get my mind wrapped around the idea that I was actually seeing THE Panama Canal! Not unlike how I felt when I first saw the Mississippi River. However, it does not inspire the actual physical awe that other marvels of the world, like, say, the Pyramids of Egypt, do. The locks are big, but not BIG, the ships going through were big, but not GIGANTIC. Still, it was very cool to see. The visitor center included several large outdoor viewing areas that are situated very close to the locks and we got to witness a couple of container ships go through, assisted by groovy little motorized trains.

Here's a link to a webcam at the Miraflores locks so that you, too, can be sufficiently awed. This is THE Panama Canal!:

(Note: most ships pass through from 9-11 am and 2-4 pm, east coast time)

The visitor center had some good exhibits about the past, current and future of the canal, including a nice section on the watershed surrounding the canal, water management, and the surrounding environment. There was a definite emphasis on the future. As in expansion. The glory of the planned expansion project was described in great detail, including the benefits to the people and the environment of Panama (and the world of course), the expansion plans themselves (two additional locks on each side of the Canal, adjacent to the existing locks, and deepening of the majority the rest of the Canal), a date for the grand opening of the completed expanded canal (2014), the price tag (I forget, or blocked it out), and the expansion work already underway. Here's the expansion webcam:

Finally, although the people of Panama approved the expansion project via a referendum in 2006, the actual financing of the entire project was a bit unclear. Hmmm....

(Another interesting side note I learned by a later google is that the US-based CH2M Hill is actively involved in the Canal expansion project as the "program management services consultant")

Really, the Canal is endlessly fascinating. The history of the initial construction, the past and current management of it (managed exclusively by Panama only since 1999), the expansion project, etc. I won't take up any more room on this week's post with more details, but I do encourage you to do some googling yourselves when you have some free time.

And that, my friends, was Panama City. Huge, loud, busy, crazy, Panama City. Interesting, but I don't need to go back.

We did need to go back to David, however. This time we chose the unfortunate day of New Year's Eve to travel. The bus station was a chaotic pulsing mass of bodies, all trying to get somewhere important. Long lines, few signs, lots of complaining people. With little hope for getting out of Panama City we got in a line and lo and behold the stars aligned for us as a random man came to the line and gathered anyone who was headed to David and the border and urged us onto his express bus leaving immediately. So we all got on to a mini bus (this one with no bathroom) and we would have left immediately as described but apparently we had to wait so that we could pile in as many more people as physically possible.

I'm determined to live a life free of sin because I know what is in store for me for my eternal damnation. A crowded mini bus. I actively worked to stave off a panic attack, breathing in through the nose, out through the mouth, as more and more people crammed in. I convinced myself that if I really did literally freak out, the bus driver would surely stop the bus and let me out, darned if I cared where, and settled in for a very long 7 hours. Again, while I tried desperately to block out reality and go to my happy place and not have a heart attack or throw up or start speaking in tongues, Sadie did great. Not a complaint from her.

We stopped once to eat and use the bathroom, and eventually arrived back in David to be greeted by a city preparing madly for midnight. The streets were more crowded than ever, fireworks were for sale everywhere. Once settled back into our hotel, we managed to elbow through the crowd to make another trip to the cheap jewelry store, then headed back to the Lebanese restaurant for another (expensive) stellar dinner.

I don't really need to explain our night's sleep, do I? Suffice it to say it was New Year's Eve. Naturally Sadie slept through the whole thing.

The next morning we squished onto yet another mini bus. This time Ian got to be scrunched up on the seat with the wheel well next to Panama's tallest man, while Sadie and I enjoyed the two seats opposite to ourselves, though we suffered the glares of a few folks who apparently thought it would be more polite if Sadie sat on my lap with all our bags on the wheel well so as to free up another seat. A mere 90 minutes later we were back at the border. Once through (easy peasy, less than an hour), Ian got the car.

OUR CAR! At that moment, there was no better sight than our stinky, dirty, rattling, transmission fluid leaking, jalopy. No squishing up with strangers, no terrible smells, no blaring half tuned in radio station, no beholding to someone else's schedule. By god, we could pull over and pee on the side of the road any time we wanted to!

Five minutes later we were on the open road in Costa Rica. Thankful to be back in "our" country.

We had one more adventure on the way home (involving the Borukan tribe, devils, bulls, and dancing) but I'll have to save that for the next post as I'm pretty sure I've used up my allotted space on this one.

Feliz Año Nuevo!


  1. WOW. Sounds like a trip that is about transportation. An adventure nonetheless. Welcome "home."

  2. WOW. We'll be driving or flying when we go.
    Clear on that now.
    And interested in seeing other parts of Panama too, not just the city I think.

    VERY interested in the Canal. I met someone when I was in high school who was one of the builders. He had a slide show and I was bored. I would not be bored now to hear all about it...

    Thanks for sharing and can't wait to hear about the adventure on the way back.