Sunday, May 29, 2011

In the words of DL Roth: "Panama!!!"

A good day: Finding out that my job is taking me to Panama, a country I've never really had a chance to explore, and I will now have time to do just that. A great day: Learning that we are going to be accompanied by my buddy, Gabe, a real-life Panamanian who is eager to show us the sights and is unafraid of joining the demolition derby that passes for driving in his lovely city. A "how could this possibly get any better?" day": Enjoying a fine afternoon in said city with the aforementioned Panamanian when a text comes in informing me that my next trip will be...wait for Panama.

Thus I found myself in Panama City twice (for a combined total of roughly 4 days) in the last three weeks. By no conceivable account is that enough time to appreciate everything there is to see but it is certainly a good start. (Note to Francisco, my Panamanian friend who might mistakenly thinks I will stop nagging him now about a Panamanian getaway: the operative word in that previous sentence was "start." I want more!!!)

So anyways, when I do return with Francisco- subtle enough?- there is one area we'll have to go to . It is the colonial heart of Panama City, known as Casco Viejo (which to me translates as Old Helmet, but my Spanish is very Cuban-ified, so I could be mistaken). At one point in time, this historic area fell into some serious disrepair but it's now undergoing strenuous revitalization and is the site of plenty of cool bars, restaurants and hippie hangouts. Pastel painted homes now double as art galleries and in a truly inspired feat of reinvention, a seawall turned dungeon prison has become a fine-dining restaurant/ jazz bar. Gabe took us to Las Bovedas, as it is now called, which has no set menu, only a blackboard listing what I assume are the catches of the day. One word of advice to vegetarians: bring some chalk, because that is the best chance you will have of seeing a veg entree in this fish-crazed land.

To me, the best thing about Old Helmet was just wandering around, taking in the easy vibe and checking out the old homes while getting to peek into people's lives, something which is very easy to do with the large windows and open courtyard-style that is so prevalent in colonial architecture.

No peeking here but I was told that Ruben Blades, the salsa singer turned politico, lives in the yellow building on the left but I have no independent confirmation of this. Perhaps I could call the number on the "for rent" sign and inquire.

Going from old to older, I awoke early the second day to check out the ruins I had noticed on the way into town from the airport. They were in la Ciudad Antigua (the ancient city), a protected area, revealing the site of Panama's first settlement. Some ruins, dating back to 1519, are said to be the remains of the first European city on the Pacific Ocean.  The mini-metropolis thrived until 1671 when, in an act of foreshadowing for soccer hooligans worldwide, el pirata Morgan arrived and screwed up the party for everyone else.  Morgan and his 1400 men came to loot and pillage (and do other pirate stuff) but the local General one-upped them by setting his own city aflame.  The entire town was destroyed and never rebuilt. What remains is now being threatened by a more powerful and insidious foe: pollution. There is a major road (the one leading from the airport) that passes immediately alongside the ruins and is causing great harm to the ancient city.  My cab driver told me that there is a proposal afoot to close off the area to all vehicular traffic.  Francisco, won't it be interesting to see if this actually happens?

The modern day view from the Ciudad Antiqua.

Of course, it is not possible to come here and not see tourist destination #1, the engineering marvel that is the Panama Canal. In just two short visits, I can honestly say that I have seen this famed waterway from quite a number of angles. First, Gabe took us to watch the sunset at a laid back canal-side bar, gazing upon the Bridge of the Americas and sipping on Panama beers.

This bridge, built in 1962, crosses the Pacific approach to the Canal.

Next, we spent some time at the official visitor's center and scenic overlook watching ships go through the first (or last, depending on which way you are going) of the three locks.The 48 mile canal is the chief conduit for nautical traffic looking to cross from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean (or vice versa). During our time at the Miraflores Locks, we got to witness a small sightseeing ship (pictured below), a cargo ship and a mondo-cruise liner all go through the two step process, which raises (or lowers) the boats a total of 54 feet.

Due to the narrowness of the Canal, large ships are guided via both a set of small train pulleys and several tug boats. This is in addition to a requirement that all ships must have a certified Panamanian pilot on board for the duration of the transit to assist in the navigation (which I imagine goes something along the lines of "See the walls on either side? Please, don't hit them.")

At this time, there is an ongoing expansion of the Canal, with the idea being to make it both wider and deeper. To that end, there are dredgers and assorted other machinery, which I can not identify without a good amount of googling, constantly at work. Add to that the ordinary dredging that is routinely employed to keep nature from reclaiming the canal and you end up with more than a bit of ruckus (not to mention the sporadic explosions of dynamite resonating through the Canal zone).

Yet none of this was enough to put a damper on our viewing of the canal from yet another vantage point.  On the second visti, we were guided by the always entertaining Captain Carl and his Jungleland Panama, on a picture-perfect day of cruising around Lake Gatun, an artificial lake created as part of the construction of the Canal.

After passing plenty of that nameless Canal expanding machinery and learning about the history of the region, such as how the entire area was once a pristine rain forest, we quickly got to the good part: monkeys.  Despite the regulated chaos of the Canal, they appear to be thriving in the Lake Gatun area and have even developed an affinity towards humans bearing fruit.

"Hey, youse in the boat! That'd better be a banana I see."

"OK, we're cool now."

"You up there, go away!  These are my banana humans!  Pbbfflliitt, I say!"

Dum De Dum " Don't mind me.  I'm just going to grab this tasty peel here and be on my way."

The odd thing about that encounter (other than my lame attempt at anthropomorphizing the poor Capuchin and Howler monkeys) is that Howler monkeys generally eat mostly leaves.  This is the first time Capt. Carl had witnessed one coming out to investigate, and eventually eat, a banana peel.

Continuing across the lake, we spotted some baby crocs, but considering we spent a good amount of the day swimming and splashing around, we should probably be grateful we never came across Mama.

There is one island that is mentioned in all the ads for Lake Gatun/ Gamboa region eco-tours.  it is called Monkey Island, so it is not difficult to see why the fuss. All a boat has to do is pull in close to shore, and the vessel will immediately be boarded by hungry albeit very well-behaved scavengers.

The little guys on the next island weren't quite as bold but made up for by virtue of sheer adorableness.  They were willing, however, to take small chunks of bananas from our fingertips.

Me, personally, I was more inclined to scavenge the mango tree...

But our proximity to Capt. Carl's kickass house boat made that arboreal assault unnecessary. It was here that we had lunch, refilled our now empty beer stash, kayaked around some mangroves and realized that with a couple of floating noodle thingies and an amenable bartender, it was very possible to create one's own floating bar.  Had we had more time, it would have even possible to spend the night on the houseboat.  This obviously skyrocketed to top of the list of things I want to do next time around. But Francisco, don't worry, I was assured that they could stock the house with extra booze because, tu sabes, I know how you are.

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