Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Journey to the Big Ditch

Before we go any further into this mish-mash of  random thoughts on the isthmus of Panama, I want to point one very important point when shopping for Panamanian souvenirs; an authentic Panama hat should have the following phrase stamped on the inside head band “Hecho en Ecuador”.  ;-)
Obviously the most noteable thing about this tiny country that divides North and South America is the Panama Canal. Built almost one hundred years ago, this engineering miracle is still something to behold. I was able to enjoy the sight and operation of this man made marvel in several different ways from multiple points of view.
My first view of the canal was from the Bridge of the Americas leading into Panama City. On the right, you see the huge queue of ships and small pleasure boats in the Bay of Panama waiting to pass through the locks to the Atlantic side the following day. That same day, we went the Mira Flores Locks Visitor Centre where we were able to view a large cruise ship drop down into the final lock before reaching the Pacific and watch a massive Swedish auto carrier pass by the four storey viewing platform where you were almost eye to eye with the captain and pilot on the bridge. Watching the locks fill and empty and the gates open and close will put any physics or engineering geek into nerd Nirvana. Completed in 1914, the canal operates on simple hydraulic principles practised  by the ancient Greeks, Chinese and Romans and even likely pre-historic men and women. Water flows down hill. I was able to view the canal system from a few other angles. First via a boat tour of Gatun Lake; the man made body of water that at one point destroyed the ecological balance of the Chagris River system when the canal was first dug but we able to see how Mother Nature’s restorative powers by creating a new ecosystem where both the world economy and nature can live together. On another day, I was able to view the entire route from Colon on the Caribbean to Panama City while sipping rum and cokes in the antique dining car of the Panama Canal Railway. That same day we were viewed the Gatun Lock system that leads into the Atlantic waterways.
By far my favourite prospective on the canal was a boat trip from the mouth of the Chagris through Gatun Lake and into the Pedro Miguel and Mira Flores Locks, the Pacific side of the six lock system. The boat we travelled on was a delight in itself. The Islamadora is an all wooden yacht built in 1904 for the banker, J.P. Morgan and was later purchased by Al Capone to transport rum from Habana to Miami during Prohibition and was subsequently owned by movie stars, Steve McQueen and James Colburn. On top of the marvelous construction and fabulous history, the other great thing about the Islamadora was its size. Only about the size of a medium harbour tug, it was diminutive even when compared to the other ferries that took tour groups through the locks. This small craft gave me such a spectacular perspective of the magnitude of the locks and how fast the chambers filled and emptied and how the boat just seemed to drop down along the wood line walls of the lock. The most amazing view occurred as we were about to pass through the last gate into Panama Bay, I turned to my right and one the auto carriers I spoke of earlier was just entering the channel beside us.  Being thirty feet below its waterline and the ship being almost six storeys high and four hundred feet long, it brought to mind Pinocchio and Gepetto about to be swallowed by Monstro, the whale. By coincidence, I was able to view the Islamadora passing into the Caribbean Sea the day we visited the Gatun Locks. 
The capital, Panama City is in itself a dichotomy of old and new. The architecture ranges from 17th century forts to ultra-modern skyscrapers mimicking those of petro-rich cities like Dubai. The downtown business district has been totally rebuilt after the Americans turned the canal zone back over to the Panamanian people and subsequently destroyed by the Americans when American President George Bush ordered the overthrow of the dictator, General Manuel Noriega, ironically put into place under the orders of then CIA Director, George Bush. Hmm, I wonder if they might be related. ;-)
Not far from downtown is the Old City, which is a UNESCO World Heritage restoration site which is a joint project of the Panamanian government, the private sector and UNESCO. Residences, businesses and churches are being refinished and brought back to their eighteenth century beauty combining the country’s Spanish, French, Columbian and Caribbean architecture.
Panama City is the home to offices of at least 147 international banks most of in which you or I would not be welcome. This is the benefit of being able to hold the world transportation system hostage by being the only game in town. The Panama Canal only deals in cash for passage and does not offer credit terms.
Colon, the second largest city in Panama and the Atlantic side terminus for the canal is quite the opposite of Panama City. Despite being the home to the world’s largest Free Trade Zone (Think of a giant Costco for major international wholesalers) which is an even bigger cash stream for Panama than the canal, the city is rife with poverty, crime and unemployment. This is not say that in any way does it compare with other Latin American countries like Nicaragua basically due to Panama’s education system where everyone is given opportunities. There is a direct correlation between literacy and poverty where education increases poverty decreases.
My second favourite day trip was a motorized canoe trip up the Chagris River to Parara Puru to an Enbera indigenous village. We were able to see the lifestyle one of the aboriginal groups who were partially displaced when the Chagris was dammed to form Gatun Lake for the canal. The Enbera continue to live a very simple life and in some ways primitive but they are also able to embrace certain amounts of technology such as motors for their canoes and cell phones for emergencies. They are able to take advantage of Panama’s modern healthcare and education systems while still maintaining most aspects of their customs and heritage. I think the Enbera people enhance the theory that keeping it simple breeds contentment.
Cristo Negro
Golden Altar

Like all Latin American countries, the Roman Catholic Church has taken a major role both historically and currently in this country. I am not going to delve into the political or religious arguments in favour or against the church but as a lover of architecture and art the RCs take the cake. Anyone who toured Europe or Latin America has stuck their head into a Roman Catholic cathedral and witnessed some jaw dropping sculptures, structures and paintings. Panama was no different. The two most striking icons I saw were the Golden Altar in the Iglesia de San Juan in the Old Panama City district and the Cristo Negro in the Iglesia de San Felip in Portobello outside Colon. The Golden Altar is a massive altar carved from ironwood and covered in 18 carat gold leaf. The other outstanding feature is that the carvings on the altar are not of the RC icons but of symbols relating to the natural wonders of Panama and some important indigenous icons. The church is also home to four other beautiful altars that were originally meant to go into other churches in the city but were never installed for many political and military reasons. The Cristo Negro is a statue of Jesus that portrays him as black. This icon was originally considered blasphemous and banished but after years of coincidences (considered miracles) the archbishop finally allowed it to be placed in the church. The statue is dressed in different coloured ornate robes relating to the Catholic calendar. It is considered an honour to donate a robe to the church and many Panamanian sports stars like boxer, Roberto Duran and New York Yankee reliever, Mariano Rivero have their contributions on display in the Museo del Cristo Negro next door to the church. However my favourite church I stumbled across was located in Fallon, the village adjoining our resort. The Capilla Virgen del Carmen is a quaint little church painted a golden yellow with exterior pillars embedded with seashells that reflected in the sun with their mother-of-pearl inner linings. It should be noted that Catholicism is not only religion represented in Panama. Panama has become a very multicultural country and is home to one of the most important Baha’i temples outside of Iran and there is a huge mosque in the Free Trade Zone in Colon.

Noriega's Villa
I managed to book a room at one of the largest resorts in Panama, the Royal Decameron located in Fallon about one hundred kilometres southwest of Panama City where Panama Bay merges into the Pacific Ocean. Now, most people when they here “ocean view resort on the Pacific Ocean” immediately think of beautiful sunsets over the sea. Wrong-o! The isthmus of Panama is S-shaped and runs west to east, between Panama City and Fallon, the sunrises over the Pacific side and sets on the Atlantic/Carribean side. This makes for some confusion if you are at all directionally challenged. The Decameron has a bit of an interesting history as well. It was originally an American military base. Because obvious required upgrading to make it into a resort you don’t immediately see the connection but when you go down to the beach and look back up at all the small buildings you can see the basic design of military barracks all over the world. Of course, I can imagine a young private being on the same beach looking out to the ocean and thinking “Well, I guess there are worse postings in this army.” The resort also shares the beach with a number of large viilas including one previously owned by General Noriega. It’s easy to pick out. It’s the one where US Navy gun boats did some serious renovating with 50 mils. The local Panamanians completed the redecorating job by looting the mansion of all its furnishings.
As cuisine goes Panama is famous for its plethora of seafood. The adage “give a man a fish and you will feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you will feed for life” definitely applies. Hey, even I caught a tilapia in Gatun Lake! Being a lover of shellfish I was in heaven.  As far as food goes in this country there are only two rules to remember.  First, unless you plan on re-soling your shoes stay away from Panamanian beef. And even more important, never offer a Panamanian a banana; he is more than likely to strangle you because these fruits are so plentiful and grow everywhere they have been force fed bananas from their first solids as a baby to mashed plantains on their deathbed. ;-)
I started off this rambling mess clarifying the hat myth but I still can’t figure the second one, what the heck is Van Halen singing about?

Thank you and enjoy the rest of the day here in the Magic Kingdom...Oh crap, wrong theme park! ;-)