Archive for July, 2009

29 Jul 2009

It’s a Jungle Out There

1 Comment Panama

Lychees $1 a bundle – What you have to peel them first?

We have arrived in the pretty mountain village of Boquete, our home for a fortnight. It is a seven hour bus-ride from Panama, and then another hour from David on one of those rickety old school buses peeling ourselves from the sticky vinyl seats. The first thing you notice coming up in the bus is the temperature drop and the lower humidity. Boquete is 975m above sea level and the climate is very pleasant.

Sipping Pina Coladas and kicking back on the beach is not for me. This is where I belong. The mountain air is fresh and cool, and when it rains, it starts off all misty, a fine spray, that leaves my coat glistening in the soft afternoon light, the sunlight filtering through the clouds. Rainbows radiate across the length of the valley. To the west, the volcano Baru (3,475m), Panama’s highest peak, is sometimes visible through the clouds. To the east the Caldera river froths and bubbles away in a menacing manner.

Outside our villa there is another small stream; the water flows so rapidly, we have to sleep with the windows closed. The sound the water makes crashing down the rocks can only be described as thunderous. And things grow, boy do they grow! The gardens are colourful and full of tiny birds flitting about, and the lawns are lush and green. There is so much water, the maid insists on coming every day to change all the towels, the tea towels etc and is genuinely shocked when we tell her every third or fourth day will suffice (being the environmentally conscious Aussies that we are).

Just outside of the town centre a mountain of soil, trees and greenery climbs steeply up from the roadside – you get the sense the whole village might just wash away – a – one heavy rainfall! There was a six hour hike we had planned to do, so we checked in at the Boquete tourist office only to be told the path, the bridge and the hotel adjacent had all been destroyed in heavy rains last November. But I love it! – I have informed Gill and Paul they can push on if they like. I am retiring to Boquete. Fortune magazine rated Boquete as one of the Top 5 retirement destinations in the world, and I think they might just be right

26 Jul 2009

Playing ‘Survivor’

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View from the cockpit – Contadora airstrip

There is a ferry service apparently but it runs erratically. We take a small twin-prop instead. The flight takes 22 minutes and in no time we can see the small island airstrip through the cockpit window, and then before we know it we have landed on Contadora island. The airstrip bisects the island; overrun it and you are in the sea.

Bill, our American host, is waiting for us. We throw our bags in his pick-up truck and drive through the town site (blink and you’ll miss it) and reach Perla Real Inn a couple of minutes later. The island is tiny (2.3 kilometres long), much smaller than Vis, and it feels a little cooler than Panama City, though in reality it is still unbearable. We unpack, shower and flake out. The humidity saps us.

What do you think of my tan?

We take a walk down to the nearest beach to cool down. Besides one of the island locals who is busy sweeping the beach (with a broom), we have the beach to ourselves. We strip down and dive in. The water is warm, almost too warm, and it provides scant relief from the heat. By the time we get home we are desperate for another cold shower. Gill has taken a disliking to jellyfish and now sports a series of nasty red welts that loop in the shape of tentacles from her bum to her shoulder – ouch!

Over three days we walk the island several times. There are really only one or two roads. The islanders are friendly, much friendlier than the Croats, they smile and say ‘buenos’ or wave from their vehicles. By the end of our stay it feels like we know everyone on the island.

The tourists get around in golf carts, while the locals drive ATVs, scooters and pickups.

The best spots on the island are out of bounds: Large mansions, mainly hidden from view, by equally large walls and trees, flowering bougainvilleas and long sweeping driveways. Many of them are empty for most of the year – holiday homes to Panama’s rich and famous, and the international jet set – including the very ugly Dior Mansion with a private glass inclinator that leads down to the beach. They keep a small permanent staff of islanders busy; trimming lawns, tending gardens and cleaning windows.

Even smaller than Contadora

Emmanuel hard at work

We book a catamaran cruise around the islands to do some snorkelling. Emmanuel, our French host, has been living on boats for the last 16 years. His catamaran is immaculate and well set up for touring. He lives onboard with his wife and daughter, through they are currently overseas being landlubbers for a while. He stays in one place for a couple of years then moves on. He tells us all about the islands, and takes us out for a spot of snorkelling. While we are out he prepares lunch. The snorkelling is okay, but not fantastic. There is no coral so to speak of and the area has been largely overfished. After lunch he drops anchor off another island and we swim ashore. This is the island they filmed a ‘Survivor’ series on – I wouldn’t like to be stranded here. Besides the heat and humidity, the jungle is thick and seemingly impenetrable – give me three-star any day!

Fresh pineapple – yum!

We make friends with a Norwegian couple – Kjell and Bente –who are staying at our Inn and we pass our nights having pleasant meals together. On Contadora it is custom to eat outside, under thatch roofs, swatting away the mosquitoes and sinking cold beers.

After three days I have had enough of all this lazing around. Give me some mountains and some cool mountain air. We catch the evening flight back, outrunning a menacing thunderstorm and plan the long bus ride up to Boquete.

Contadora island airport business class lounge

24 Jul 2009

Panama + Canal

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Entering Miraflores lock

Like Cold + Beer, if there is one word that goes with Panama, it has to be Canal.

So before we slipped off to the Islas de las Perlas, one of the must-dos for our time in Panama City was a trip out to the Miraflores lock to see the great canal in action.

Miraflores lock in action

The friendly people at the visitor centre gave us a lot of information, not all of which my woolly head can remember – but here is some of it.

  • Did you know that the canal uses a lock system to lift the ships almost 30 metres to the level of the lakes inside Panama and then down again to the ocean on the other side?
  • The French tried to build a canal here before the US but they planned a sea level canal and struggled with the environment and the amount of earth they had to move. Plus 22,000 people died while they were building – mainly from a variety of tropical diseases.
  • The canal is still functioning using the same technology as when it first opened in 1914. This technology consists simply of gravity plus shitloads of water. It could only work in a country with so much rainfall.
  • Several locomotives on rails guide the ships through the locks. The captains of the ships have to cede control of their vessels over to canal pilots.
  • About 14,000 ships go through the canal every year, paying around US$250,000-US$400,000 per journey for the privilege and generating some US$800 million in profit for the country, its main source of income. Charges are levied by displaced volume and weight. The lowest toll ever levied was to Richard Halliburton who swam the canal in 1928 and paid a grand total of 36 cents.
  • Now the canal is too small to cope with the ginormous freight ships of today and Panama is working on an expansion which will be finished in 2014. These new locks will recycle the water – using more sophisticated technology.The Panamax ships we saw going through the Miraflores lock looked pretty massive to me – its hard to imagine what the new locks will be coping with.

Being guided through the canal

23 Jul 2009

You what? You eat kanagaroo?

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Panama city view from the hostel

Put a set of car keys into any normally docile Panamanian’s hands and you have instantly created a suicidal monster. Even the friendly pastor, Max, who sat beside us on the flight from Miami to Panama City, who subsequently offered us a ride into town, transformed into a reckless maniac once behind the wheel. Having our eyes closed and the possible direct connection to heaven did little to allay our fear. Ironically on the horror drive in, on the approach to Casco Viejo (the old town district we were staying in), Max wound up all the windows and locked the doors and said “It’s dangerous out there.” It felt pretty dangerous in here too.

When it rains, it pours

Panama City is hot and humid. The air is so thick you can eat it. It is the wet season in Panama. The Panamanians call it the Green Season, but we have them sussed. When it rains it comes down in a flood. The skies just open up and in fifteen minutes later everything is awash. Then as suddenly as it comes down it is over. The temperature remains the same.

We stand out as tourists, not just because of our skin colour, but because we glow with sweat. Cold showers are the order of the day. In fact there is no hot water in our hostel. Toilets flush but you can’t throw paper down them. It is all very rudimentary.

Typical Casco Viejo building past its heyday

We are staying in Casco Viejo. The district has seen better days. It is world heritage listed and the facades of the buildings are magnificent. Unfortunately only one in every thirty buildings has been restored, the rest are boarded up and decaying. The streets are bad and the sidewalk is full of holes. It is necessary to look down when walking. The Presidential offices are in Casco Viejo and as a consequence there is a high military presence. They are armed with pistols, rifles and even machine guns. Several streets are blocked off. Other streets are a no go zone for other reasons. Armed guards warn us not to go down certain streets; definitely not in the night time or even in the day time – they are unsafe. All the streets look similar. It pays to take a map. It matters little, because we can only walk a short distance before we need to return for another cold shower.

Restored Casco Viejo house

From the balcony of our hostel, we can look out across the bay to Panama City. It is a different story – all high rise apartments, glistening glass and steel and office towers – a modern city, a few kilometres down the road – a world away. We take a horror taxi ride to Panama City. The taxis are unmetered, but we know the score. It is US$2.50 to the city.

Panama City at night – glass and steel

We drink beers, eat some food and take in the view. The beer only serves to increase our levels of sweat. There is no need for regular toilet stops in Panama – you sweat it out. We speak Spanish and are understood.

We return in another horror taxi ride to our hostel. Our private room we have taken to referring to as the cell, swelters. The ceiling and wall fans struggle to cope. We sleep in a wet stupor. The bar next door pumps out music through the night. Bliss!

We repeat this for a couple of days. The beers, the food, the sweat, the taxis. It doesn’t get any easier. And then we plan our escape to Isla Contadora, a tiny island in the Pearl Islands. We flag a taxi to get us to the airport for the flight across. He is the ultimate maniac. He waits at the lights impatiently revving the engine and tapping his horn. His taxi has a sports steering wheel and he is wearing driving gloves. I fear the worst. At one point he has not one, but two mobile phones to his ear. We are in the back seat and very uncomfortable (there are no seatbelts) – ah well it has been a good life. We hurtle past traffic, and then at some point he turns to us and asks us where we are from. “Australia.” We say nervously, watching the road ahead for him.

“Ah, Skippy the Bush Kangaroo.”

And Gill chimes in, “They taste great.”

And then we notice he slows down, suddenly becomes more docile, a Panamanian again. He processes Gill’s words. “You What? You eat Kangaroo?”

We keep talking. He drives slowly, almost sensibly and listens with interest.

“I never heard that before. You serious? You eat Kangaroo?”

We keep him talking about anything really, the nutritional value of Kangaroo. He continues to drive sensibly. The airport is in sight. We are safe.

PS: The North Americans and Central Americans are extremely knowledgeable about Australia. Crocodile Dundee, Steve Irwin and Kangaroos can keep any taxi driver calm for hours.

PPS: A small gallery of Panama photographs can be found here.

23 Jul 2009

Automatic Blog Recipients

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Okay, because of some technical problems and the high level of whingeing, the automatic blog recipient list has now been cancelled. Anyone on the list (and you know who you are) now has to check the blog manually.

And you may have noticed, I was a bit behind on the blog – this is supposed to be a holiday – be warned I am almost up-to-date!