Big Ships And Hairy Landings

It wasn’t our first choice. It wasn’t even second. But for some reason, we are in Panama on a 3 week holiday.

The original plan was to go to Burma but the political situation still seemed a little fragile so we postponed that idea. Our thoughts then turned to Central America.

We enjoyed Honduras and Guatemala so much when we were travelling and had vowed to see some more of this area so we looked into Costa Rica but eventually decided against it as it sounded a bit too developed for our tastes. So in the end, we went for Panama.

The trip took an age to plan due to some severe ineptitude from us both. Somehow, planning 3 weeks’ travelling seemed harder than organising 7 months but we got there in the end.

With 3 days to go before we left though, getting there was thrown into doubt by the British weather. The forecast of light snow in the West turned to heavy snow everywhere by the day before our flight and insurance policies were checked. Fortunately, it eased off for a time though and our only delay was caused by some passengers whose luggage had boarded the plane without its owners.

Despite the fact that we were seated next to a small, potentially noisy baby, the flight to Miami passed in relative comfort. Which is more than can be said about the trip from there to Panama, which will be remembered for the ear-piercing shrieking of a child nearby who dealt with the change of air pressure as we descended by repeatedly throwing up into a bag.

Travel fatigue had set in by the time we climbed into a taxi headed for the city, exacerbated by the eon that it took to clear customs due to Tocumen Airport insisting on security scanning everyone’s bags on the way out!

Our apartment was shown to us by a grumpy man and we headed to a local bar, scoffed a pizza and a beer and fell into bed at 1am, 22 hours after leaving Brixton.

The next morning, we decided to investigate the district of Panama City that we were staying in, pausing only briefly to deflect the attentions of our first attempted con. Ah, the old “it’s my birthday” scam – how we’ve missed you.

Casco Viejo is the old part of the city and has more than a touch of the Havana’s about it. Crumbling colonial buildings, until recently the home of the poorest in uncared-for slums, are slowly being expertly restored by property developers. Whether the residents are simply evicted, it’s hard to say, but my guess is that the new wealth here is not that evenly distributed.

We spent the day wandering around the town and the afternoon on the roof terrace of our apartment, sipping rum and coke and reading.

We had three goals to achieve the next day. Eat some ceviche in the cafe above the fish market, find out how to get train tickets to Colon and see the original European settlement in Panama – Panama Viejo. All were achieved but it was hard going.

The fish market was eventually found and prawns and sea bass bought for dinner, but the discovery that the cafe upstairs didn’t have any ceviche was a surprising one. Where on earth would they be able to get the fish from?!

Lunch consumed, we set off in search of the tourist information office, but this turned out to be nothing but the base for some very unhelpful tourist police who gave us some clearly made-up directions to a non-existent information office.

An old US school bus thumping with Panamanian beats ferried us round the bay, through the main business district of the city to Panama Viejo, which turned out to be quite underwhelming, the local government having seen fit to build a road through the middle of the buildings that were destroyed by the marauding pirates under the command of Captain Morgan in the 18th century.

On our way home, we stopped at the headquarters of the tourist information centre to find out about the train, only to find the usual glum-faced, confused staff that have typified Panama so far. Shrugs, monosyllabic replies and, crucially, no information were delivered so we threw in the towel, realising that the Internet would be more forthcoming.

Our dinner consisted of ceviche along with home cooked prawns and sea bass in a garlic and tomato sauce, eaten on the terrace with a bottle of wine – superb.

The next morning began at 5.30am as the train to Colon, along the banks of the Panama Canal, left at 7.15. The hour long journey from the Pacific to the Atlantic was principally a tourist trip and tour groups were rife. Some amusing jostling for position followed whenever container ships appeared briefly through the jungle undergrowth and being touristed was getting on our nerves. But the worst thing was the feeling that the canal wasn’t anywhere near as amazing as I thought it would be. I had imagined lines of huge ships, queuing their way across the isthmus but precious few were spotted.

Once in Colon however, we hired a taxi to take us to Gatun Locks and suddenly things picked up. First of all our taxi driver, Victor, was a really nice man – could it be that some Panamanians were actually friendly? But the main reason for the lift in my spirits was the locks themselves.

To think that these things were built 100 years is astonishing. To all intents and purposes, these are normal canal locks, similar to those you see barges passing through as they wind their way through the English countryside. Except they are MASSIVE.

Ships the height of a 7-storey building, carrying around 4000 enormous containers slide into locks which allow less than two feet of clearance either side, guided by four trains – two either side – which prevent them from bumping into the sides. Water pours in, raising the small floating city of consumerism to the next level and on they go. We watched all this for an hour and a half from a platform virtually within touching distance of the cargo. Incredible.

I could have stayed there for hours, mesmerised by the sheer mind-numbing size of it all but time was moving on, so we bid Victor farewell and took a bus back to our apartment for some more ceviche, a rubbish steak dinnerand an early night.

And an early morning. 4am to be precise. Our time in Panama City was over as we had a 6am flight to the San Blas Islands.

I knew the plane would be small but this was ridiculous. I counted 21 seats and that included the two pilots who didn’t have a separate cockpit as such – they just had the two front seats really.

The flight was bumpy at times as the cloud built up and I think we were both a little perturbed when one of the local Kuna people actually had a chat to someone on her mobile phone half way through. I was quite keen to land by this point and as it turns out, my wish was the captain’s command – assuming my wish was the most terrifying landing possible.

I was first aware of our impending arrival when the strong smell of fuel filled my nostrils as the plane angled towards the ground. Well, angled towards the trees really. Then suddenly, we took a sharp right turn and I realised that we were falling fast and the tops of the trees were meters away. With no runway or indeed, anything other than trees, in sight, we then swung left and, just when I’d come to the conclusion that we were done for and that our bodies would probably never be found in the thick jungle, we landed. Barely a minute later, we were standing on the tarmac of the runway at Playon Chico – alive.

A short boat trip later and we were on the island of Yandup, our home for the next two days. The entire island consists of 10 circular cabins, most of which are on stilts over the turquoise water, a small restaurant, the staff cabins, a generator and a water tower and is no more than 200m by 150m.

Yesterday we visited another small island and today we hope to go to the local Kuna village to gawp at the natives and, I would imagine, fend off their sales patter. We shall see.

Other than that, it’s just been reading, sleeping- and blogging of course.

The people here are much more cheerful than those in the city so we’re hoping that it was a bit of a city thing in PC. Tomorrow morning, we fly back there but only so that we can take a bus to Pedasi on the Pacific coast where we have a b&b for 3 nights which is where this will be posted from, I expect. Not much in the way of electronic communications round these parts.