PANAMA CITY, PANAMA: September 11-14


She's runnin', I'm flyin'
Right behind in the rearview mirror now
Got the fearin', power steerin'
Pistons poppin', ain't no stoppin' now

- "Panama," Van Halen

So the famous song is really about a car and really has nothing to do with the country. Nonetheless the song has been on repeat in my head for the past week. I guess the lyrics could apply to the insanely airbrushed camionetas (chicken buses) that absolutely tear through the crowded streets. 

Leah: Of course Panama would have to add insult to injury during a 16 hour Ticabus ride from San Jose by being the most time-consuming sh*t-show of a border crossing out of everywhere we've been thus far. After exiting Costa Rica, trying to find the Panamanian entry point in the dark through a sea of street vendors, cars and people, paying $1 for a tourist stamp, providing our proof of onward travel and flashing a credit card so they know we have economic solvency, we thought we were good to go. Ha! Then immigration started grabbing all our bags out from under the bus and ushering everyone into a customs room, where they had us fill out entry cards (our passports had already been stamped, so this seemed a bit backasswards) and then had one grandma of a customs agent start going through all luggage...paint dries faster than she was going (Steve: Seriously though, I kind of became homesick. I mentioned to Leah that my Grandma was the customs agent going through everyone's bags). Everyone was getting irate and we had been there 2 hours already, so at some point some other agent stepped in and said we were all good and threw us back on the bus. We settled in for sleep (it was the middle of the night after all) and were just nodding off when we lurched to a stop about 15 minutes down the road for a police inspection, where they boarded and walked the aisle,  scrutinizing all passports one by one. I understand border security and all that, but this was flippin' ridiculous (Steve: we actually had a second post-border inspection, but who's counting?!?). Somehow we made it through and arrived at the behemoth bus terminal just before 5 a.m., where we transferred to a taxi and arrived at Hostel Mamallena, where we splurged and paid $33 for the privilege of pouring ourselves into a private room where we slept until noon (we have since transferred to the dorms, where we're paying $26 for two bunks).

We decided before we arrived that only being here for a little over a week meant that we'd base ourselves in Panama City and take day trips, instead of trying to move around and see a lot of the country in a short time. When we finally awoke, we strolled down Via Espana, the central avenue that spans all the way from the old part of town to the business district. We did some window shopping, marveled at the inside of the  Iglesia del Carmen with its intricate mosaic work and even found a dollar store where we purchased some goodies for meals (although we decided to pass on the vats of hair gel for Steve).  The streets here pulse like New York City--constant honking, exhaust, billboards, foot traffic, crowded apartment buildings and storefronts and carts offering everything under the sun. It's also immediately obvious that we're at a polyglot, international crossroads, what with the different ethnicities, languages and businesses on every corner. It's dirty, cacophonous, sticky and hotter than sin, but the energy and culture surrounds it all.

The next day we walked Via Espana in the other direction toward Casco Viejo, the most picturesque and historically important part of town, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. After transiting a part of the city that everyone is told to avoid at all costs at night due to assaults and muggings, we found ourselves on the waterfront with sweeping views of downtown Panama City, the fish market and the beginning of Casco Viejo. Its appearance immediately reminded me of a lovechild mix between Havana and the preserved old storybook streets in places like Italy and France. Flowers spilled from the balconies of restored multi-storied homes in apricot and aquamarine hues, while right next door other homes lay in crumbling disarray, only to be bordered once more by intricately carved stone buildings. Construction was everywhere and we had to change routes every few blocks to avoid closed streets, cavernous holes and portapotties.

Some of the highlights here included the ruined shell of Club de Clases y Tropas, a former recreation centre for Noriega's national guard, which was destroyed during the US invasion. Its more recent claim to fame is as the setting for a formal ball scene in the (Daniel Craig) James Bond movie Quantam of Solace, which was filmed here in 2008--of course we want to watch it again so we can catch glimpses of where we were! We also enjoyed a stroll down the oceanfront Paseo las Bovedas, where we were able to see local handicrafts and all the ships queued up in the distance to transit the Panama Canal. Steve may have also geeked out over dump trucks building a rock jetty, which I have to admit was pretty cool. The Plaza de Francia at the very tip commemorates the French efforts to tackle the canal under the direction of Ferninand de Lesseps (who managed to throw together the Suez Canal), and apparently during the colonial period  the vaults under the walls served as the city's jail; they would often flood at high tide drowning the prisoners inside. Upon seeing a wall of black clouds and rain making its way right toward us in the distance, we booked it to the Cathedral for a few moments of quiet prayer. Torrential rain started a few minutes after that; Steve chose to walk the cathedral perimeter while I sat in the pew and he later returned with a cute kitty friend who had followed him everywhere and then contentedly curled up between us in the pew for a snooze. We finished off our time in Casco Viejo with an amble through the fish market and a ceviche lunch at the Restaurante Mercado de Mariscos, where we were rudely reminded that service and customer relations are on a whole other level in the US. On the walk back to the hostel we picked up fresh and cheap passionfruit, pineapple, bananas and tomatoes from the sidewalk vendors and then settled in at "home" with books and dinner. Can't go wrong with $0.70/lb for passion fruit, over 2 pints of cherry tomatoes for $0.50, let alone fresh, huge pineapples for a couple quarters! 

Yesterday, however, was the absolute highlight for me--Panama Canal Day! This was the only site I absolutely had to see in Panama, having read so much over the years about it, specifically the lives lost in the process from tropical diseases. After a more than frustrating foray back to the bus terminal, where we learned that you have to pay to exit the terminal doors, as well as pay for your bus fares (and that there are separate cards for all of this), we finally found our bus and chugged our way towards the Miraflores Locks in a drizzle that would prove to be a constant companion throughout the day. I have to share here that while I appreciate the science, technology and effort behind creating and maintaining massive structures, my jaw doesn't usually drop upon seeing them. However, from the moment we stepped off the bus and I saw a container ship through the trees, the Panama Canal rendered me childlike in awe and wonder and ended up being an incredibly emotional experience for me (we had also just heard the night before about the attacks on the Libyan embassy and the ensuing deaths, so I was admittedly already a bit fragile). I pretty much half ran/half skipped to the entrance with giddy excitement, half noticing the signs warning about crocodiles in the area. We paid our $8 full-access fee (observation deck, museum and video) and hauled up the stairs to watch, where I promptly became teary. There are so many engineering marvels in the world that took years, labor and death to create, but I'm hard-pressed to think of one  of this magnitude that you actually get to see in motion. 

From a few stories up we watched the tugboats escort these giant ships to the locks, where they were then tethered to the compact but powerful electric locomotives on either side (6-8 total depending on the ship size) and further guided into the locks so the gates (miters) could close behind them and the process could begin. I stared open-mouthed as the water levels raised and lowered, the miters opened and closed and all around the environment was steeped in both tragic and triumphant history. I had remembered reading throughout the years how the French undertook this job in the late nineteenth century but abandoned it in 1893 after losing nearly 22,000 workers to diseases like malaria and yellow fever. The US then took up the mantle 10 years later with vastly better machinery and an understanding of tropical disease vectors, which allowed them to complete it in 1914. It was only on December 31, 1999 that the US relinquished control of the canal and the surrounding area to the Panamanians, so I just kept thinking about all the lives lost, the men and women who flooded the region from continents and countries around the world to help construct a dream and the absolute genius of making it all happen. Instead of paragraphs of info, I've compiled a top 10 list of the more interesting bits below in no particular order:

     1. The miter gates are on average 2 meters thick, 8 stories high and can weigh 700 tons (that's about 300 elephants for a little perspective). They were also manufactured in Pittsburgh, PA (shout out to my fam!) and the original ones are still in use.
     2. The canal cost $387 million to build and opened 6 months early, as well as under budget. 
     3. Roughly 35-45 ships transit in a day; the bigger ones during the day and the smaller ones at night. The full transit can take 8-10 hours through the 50 mile canal stretch and the average yearly transits number 14,000. Also, the boats move from the Pacific to the Atlantic in the morning and the opposite route in the afternoon.
     4. The US, China, Chile, Japan and South Korea are the top 5 most frequent users of the canal.
     5. Transit costs are based on container and ship size. The record for the most expensive single transit fee stands at over $490,000. The record for the lowest is $0.36 paid by Richard Halliburton in 1928 to swim through-it took him 10 days. The average fee for transit is about $205,000.
     6. It takes 26 million gallons of fresh water from Gatun Lake on each side of the locks (52,000,000 total) to transit each ship. If Panama didn't have 200 inches of rainfall annually, the canal would be impossible to support. 

     7. The two most important stipulations for transit are that the fee much be paid via bank transfer 2-4 days beforehand and that the captain must cede control of his vessel to a special Panama Canal pilot for the duration of the transit. This is the only canal in the world to require the latter.
     8. Ships hoist a Panamanian flag while they are in the Panama Canal and they also have a solid red one they're required to use if hazardous materials are being transported (petroleum, etc.)
     9. The water is pumped back and forth between the gates via hundreds of underground culverts measuring 4 feet in diameter each.
    10. In 2006 the Panamanians approved via popular vote the expansion of the Panama Canal, to be completed in 2014 in time for the centennial celebration. This will allow bigger ships to transit (currently only ships with 4,500 containers can be accommodated, while the expanded canal will be able to handle ships with 12,000 containers), as well as helping with wait times.

I kid you not when I say this was a viscerally emotional day for me and watching the ships, miters, locks and locomotives for hours on end was a truly magical experience. I understand now the fixation some of the kids from my nanny days had with trains and trucks and everything big and powerful. There's something about watching living history on such a magnificent scale that renders you enthralled and innocent...I still have goosebumps thinking about it.  



  1. Hi guys! I have just a few thoughts on this entry:
    1 - You took a flippin' feral, flea-ridden, mangy, street cat into a church and on your LAPS? Gross.
    2 - I also got completely gaga about the Canal! I know, it's nothing you'd ever think would be such a big deal. But it was, as you said, so much more than machinery! The years, lives, stories, diseases, families, dreams, etc. that surround its history seem to be visible in the canal itself. Crazy.
    3 - I just read our blog entry about leaving Panama and entering Quito. I was so ecstatic to leave the swampiness and enter the cool mountains, so you have that to look forward to!
    And finally,
    4 - Kevin got one of the best haircuts EVER in Panama City for something like $3. Just sayin', Steve, I saw the dare...

  2. 1. The cat was ALREADY in the church--we just had fun petting his mangy, flea-ridden, feral self for a bit.
    2. We're talking about going back a second time.
    3. Actually, we're flying into Guayaquil (cheaper), but two of our workaways are near Quito and we're super stoked for the cooler highlands.
    4. Thanks for the tip, stay tuned...


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