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Published: January 30th 2006
Crossing into Panama
Just before being coated with pesticide
On a couple of occasions we've crossed a border and immediately been taken by how different the new country feels to the last, we had that feeling here. No, hold on, the first thing we felt after crossing the border was temporary blindness, after making it over the wooden bridge (with holes big enough to lose a wheel) we'd forgotten to wind our windows up and received a full dose of insecticide spray...welcome to Panama.
We chose this border because we were keen to visit the Bocas del Toro archipelago on the north west coast (Panama has an east-west orientation so for a good proportion of the country the sun rises over the Pacific and sets over the Atlantic which is a little difficult to get your head around), the scenery approaching the port town of Almirante was stunning, and it did give us both that instant "I like it here" feeling. We were planning on catching the following morning's ferry to the islands but while Rachel was investigating the less than basic accommodation I was told that we could get the last taxi for $3 each, we quickly negotiated a secure parking space, grabbed what we could carry and
were soon speeding across a perfectly calm sea. Bocas del Toro town on Isla Colon was our base for a few days; it has the full range of hotels and restaurants and can get very busy but is a relaxing enough town. We hired a couple of mountain bikes for a strenuous ride up the east coast and were soon accompanied by four local kids who thought it hilarious to first run along side us and then see how many of them could fit on my bike while I was still riding, eventually they settled for two on Rachel's and two on mine. There are superb beaches dotted all the way up this coast, something that property developers have been aware of for some time, the buildings are still very discrete but you can't help wandering how long that will last - put it this way, the real estate agencies in town aren't short of buyers. We cooled down a few times by taking a dip in the sea, there is good surf around this area and it's a permanent fixture on the surfer's calendar. Late afternoon, exhausted and back in town we were ready to take advantage of what
has to be one of the all time greatest inventions...time it right, visit the right places and you can enjoy happy hour all night.
For our last day we arranged a boat tour around some of the islands and were lucky enough to have Sebastian as our guide. There is not a thing that this man does not know about the islands and their wildlife, and he was keen to show us more by taking us away from the routes the other boats were using. We saw the full set: numerous fish, stingray, dolphins, barracuda and various jellyfish, our visit to Red Frog beach didn't show up any frogs but we did see a couple more sloths and some monkeys. It was also very interesting to listen to Sebastian about his views on how life has changed on the islands, as he pointed out the buildings that had appeared over the past five years; he also mentioned that he's been denied permission to build a couple of huts on an island that he grew up on and his family have occupied for generations.
Once again we were reunited with the car and headed over to the other side
of the isthmus towards the town of David. Again we passed through amazing scenery as we climbed to the top of the Cordillera Central mountain range which marks the continental divide. Just one night in David and then back on the road towards Panama City, the reason for this fast pace? We wanted to sell the car; our plans beyond that were not fixed but it didn't make sense to pay the $1000, or thereabouts, to ship the vehicle to Colombia when we were planning on returning home for Christmas, which was just another seven weeks away. We had no idea what joys Panama City had in store for us.
Apparently the French have a phrase that originated around about the same time as their spectacularly failed attempt at digging a trans-isthmus canal - "Quel Panama!”. I now understand what they mean.
Our first day in Panama City, I toured the customs agents and a few of the used car lots, in order to get an idea of the procedures involved and a rough figure of what we could expect for the car; Rachel toured the shops and the posh hotels, in order to get an idea of
how quickly we could spend the money we might receive. Day two: much the same. Day three to eight: Panama City shuts down with national Independencia (from Colombia) holidays, which helped us no end, Customs were closed and the holidays would mean a backlog which would delay us finding out the official import charges. A pattern was emerging though, the car salesmen took a collective sharp intake of breath and informed me that the car was worthless to them but (surprise, surprise), as a favour, they would gladly pay me next to nothing (or nothing) and deal with the bureaucracy themselves. On the other hand we were getting so much interest from everyone we talked to; taxi drivers, park rangers, embassy security directors...it convinced us that a private sale was the only way to go, so we posted several advertisements around our hotel's neighbourhood - in other hotels, internet cafes and restaurants.
After all of our efforts in the first week in Panama City we had around fifty potential buyers but were painfully aware that only 2% of these were genuine, that 2% was Juan. Here was a man who had called up to our hotel room as soon
as the restaurant downstairs placed our for-sale poster in the window - then began a bizarre two week car-sale dance. Juan didn't appear to need our car as he already drove around in an S-Class Mercedes, he couldn't speak a single word of English so we relied on a motley crew of interpreters, he had very poor eyesight (we caught him walking into at least two parked cars), he carried three mobile phones, he regularly stuffed wads of cash through the windows of cars, barked a few orders and then tapped the roof to see them on there way...in short, he was mafia. A series of disagreements about the agreed price and no shows from Juan over the following week saw us re-christen him "Juan-Car".
All of this meant that we had a fair deal of spare time on our hands; we still had the car and used it to visit various parts of the country - El Valle for its famous market, Colon for the duty free zone (another dodgy Caribbean coastal town with not a lot to offer) and the big ditch itself. I'd been looking forward to seeing the Panama Canal for some time; I'm not
a ship-spotter, by any stretch of the imagination, just intrigued by how this thing works and its sheer scale. We spent over two hours watching two 900ft container ships and a US Naval transporter pass through the set of three locks at Gatun, even Rachel was transfixed by the whole process and the huge vessels as they made there way across the continent - all of the workers, locomotives and locks working together in harmony to make the passage successful. We also had time to better explore Panama City visiting the ruins of Panama Viejo where you can witness the bizarre site of people from the neighbouring slums playing football in and around the 500 year old ruins, the Parque Natural Metropolitano a natural rainforest less than a couple of miles from the city centre and Fuerte Amador a causeway linking several small islands, formerly occupied by the Americans after their "Just Cause" operation to rid the world of Noriega, now it's occupied by joggers, shops and cafes but has fantastic views of the city. Our favourite of all though was Casco Viejo, Panama City's old town, where the president shares the neighbourhood with some of his poorest people and
upmarket restaurants are next door to derelict post-colonial buildings; it has a great atmosphere and is in complete contrast to the modern developments of downtown Panama City.
Another week, so that's three in total, and Juan-Car won back my respect; none of the hurdles were of his making they were just the Panama way of doing things, and he was very apologetic even with misunderstandings that where clearly of my making, he knew our story and was anxious to buy the car, not for his own sake but so we could push on with our travels. However, in our minds his notoriety grew with each meeting, every government, customs, police or bank queue we found ourselves in there would be someone who new him, shaking his hand and overdoing the respect thing.
Finally we reached a stage where the car could be signed over, I went off with him in his Mercedes (remember, the man can't see) to the metropolitan transport office, office was closed, directed to another one, told we can't transfer the car that day because the documents are in the closed office which is closed because of a suspected gas leak in the air conditioning
system...Juan asked to see the manager which caused a commotion, he paced around a bit, gesticulated but never lost his temper, he then used his phone and disappeared into a side room - this was a crowded government building and I was just wondering who was going to take the hit. The next thing I know I'm being smiled at by every official in the building, asked to sign a document and the car was officially his...our relationship was now lengthy enough for us to have a vague understanding of each other so Juan told me that he'd tried the standard approach but gave in and called the government official in charge who had ordered the transfer of the vehicle, he then explained some more...looking back, we feel a bit foolish pigeon-holing him as a mafia don when we now know he's a politician, an easy mistake to make I guess.
The end of an era, it was quite hard to watch our 4Runner being driven off by someone else, after 9 countries, five months and just short of 10,000 miles we were finally car-less. So after all that time and all of those crazy Central American drivers, what
Expensive restaurants next to ruined buildings
was the worst driving that we experienced? Probably mine.
We were back on foot, back to the buses and chose to take a family up on their offer and stay in their home on a Caribbean island. They were selling souvenirs on the street in Casco Viejo and convinced us with pictures of their real home in the San Blas islands, how could we refuse? We would reach their island of Carti Kunidup via a very early start, a very uncomfortable bus journey to Miramar via Colon, and a very wet and stormy crossing in a couple of dug-outs. The journey was worth it, their island is one of the most traditional in this area, populated by the Kuna Indians - a very hardy race and the second shortest people in the world, after the Central African Pygmies - our only contact was Aaron who we had met in Panama City, he spoke reasonable English and welcomed us to his family's home, introducing us to his Grand-Parents, his Great Grandmother and our hut - constructed of palm fronds complete with mud floor and hammocks as beds...perfect.
We weren't immediately welcome, while we listened to the medicine doctor next
The Big Ditch
It's very difficult to get a perspective on scale
door treating a patient with his hypnotic chanting, Aaron went off to get permission for our stay from the village chief. We needn't have been concerned, Aaron has a maturity and knowledge beyond his twenty years, he easily brought the chief round to his way of thinking - that controlled tourism was a benefit to the island as a whole and that they should maintain their traditions with no electricity and limited outside influence. Aaron is paying his own way through university and studying tourism, he's passionate about the Kuna people and their traditions and wants to develop tourism in a way that will celebrate but preserve - he's a very clever guy, and a perfect host. We spent some of the most relaxing and enjoyable few days of our whole trip on that island, for a couple of days we shared the family's attention with two American girls, Kelly and Denelle, but then we were on our own, the only foreigners on the island. We were treated to meals of fish, crab, conch or lobster taken on snorkelling trips, traditional sailing boats and dug-out trips to some of the most idyllic islands we had ever seen and given presentations
The old administration building at Gatun
The locomotive in front of the building is one of the eight used to tow a 900 footer through the locks.
on the Kuna culture by another clever man, Jose, on the main island of Carti Sugtupu. The family seemed to warm to us and even gave up selling their hand made crafts, happy just to chat to us and show us how they go about their every-day lives; Aaron's Grandfather, Jimmy (not his traditional Kuna name) was particularly animated in explaining how they grow their rice and vegetables on the mainland and how food is prepared and cooked, Jimmy’s wife didn't talk she just demonstrated and, occasionally, smiled. This seems to be the norm in the Kuna culture, the women are generally more traditional in their customs and dress and are uninterested in tourists, the men dress in western clothes and are far more open.
It had to happen, we had to leave. At the time it was almost a relief - we hadn't had a proper shower for six days, and the diet of seafood and rice was beginning to become a little monotonous, there was also the fact that there is no fresh water on the islands, we'd had rainwater for the first couple of days until we finally managed to source some bottled water from the
only shop on the main island. An early start and brief farewell to Aaron and we were in a dugout heading towards the mainland and a remote airstrip cut out of the jungle, the plane arrived early and within twenty-five minutes we were back in Panama City - the outward journey by bus and boat had taken fifteen hours in all.
Then it was our (mine really) worst nightmare, we were going home. We had an overnight bus trip to San Jose, Costa Rica where we stayed for a couple of days before catching a flight to New York via Miami and then our homeward flight to London. To say we've enjoyed ourselves over the last 13 months would be a huge understatement, each country has added to the long list of best experiences, so much so that we've decided to go again next year...just don't tell Rachel.
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