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Voyage to the Isthmus of Panama, Day second to last (13)

My mother said there would be cannibals

sunny 29 °C

Day 13 began with a silent chorus of angels. Or perhaps it was the buzz in my head from over-consuming seco last night. Nonetheless, it was a peaceful sort of chorus, one that gently roused you from a lovely night of slumber. No wait, that's a bus. Or a taxi horn. Maybe it really was an angel, though it seemed to be insistent on waking me. Get up Gringo, you have adventure before you. So right she was, as this was the day we set aside to explore one of the wonders of the modern world, the Panama Canal. But first, we must rise.

I walked through the knee-deep piles of confetti and into the bathroom. Looking in the mirror, I thought for an instant that some bizarre clown from another planet was staring back at me. I was still covered in confetti, bits of red, green, and yellow stuck to my almost every part of my body. Festive though it was, I was in need of a cleansing, and not the colon kind. The water showered over me in blissful waves, bringing my mind to another place, one that was tranquil and had plenty of umbrella drinks. This was good.

My Love was next to bathe, and while she moaned quietly under the running waters of life itself, I dressed and retrieved the guide book from the luggage. So, what else is Panama known for besides this really large ditch? Heat? Yes, that was omnipresent... .being located at 8 degrees north latitude kind of mandates the heat. Weak beer? Yes, this one is pretty universal, every country has weak beer to some point. United States oppression? Yeah, that one was a given, the US has been fairly oppressive in all of Central America for many years. Banking? Why yes, this is what Panama is well known for. Why, you may ask? Quite simply, one doesn't pay for transiting the Canal with cash or travelers checks. And actually, travelers checks are really quite useless in this country. You'll see.

Ready my dear? Yes, let's hit the restaurant. We were outfitted as adventurously as we could summon: Flip-flops, Hawaiian shirts, cargo shorts, camera, guide book, travelers checks, smokes. Albert Schweitzer, eat your heart out. OK, so we didn't have a machete, which would have completed the gear, but still. We wouldn't need a machete in the restaurant anyway. Most likely. We were seated amongst a large number of folks who had the appearance that alcohol was the beverage of choice the night before. Perhaps the waitress thought our festive apparel would rouse the crowd into larger tips, who knows. Even the Guatemalan football fans were somewhat somber, very unusual as they were even more bedecked than we. Just readying themselves for the big game tonight, no doubt. I was sorely tempted to get the crowd into a sing-along of "Roll Out the Barrels", but not only did I not know the words in Spanish, but this was a hangover breakfast, and people seemed to just want to absentmindedly stab at their meals. Getting shot at it is not a good way to start the day, so I settled for my usual: eggs, toast, and well-cooked Panamanian meat products. The ham and bacon was exquisite, not too greasy, slightly burned. Well sated, we hit the streets.

First thing to do, return the trusty Nissan, slightly dirtied, hardly dented at all from the encounter at the Los Capitanes lobby, to the Hertz rental agency. Pedro the manager greeted us with a bit of amusement, which we chalked up to being grateful we brought the car back in one piece. Little did he know the stories this vehicle could tell, of being fed gas from Wesson oil jugs, of off-roading through the suburbs of Santa Fe and Boquete, of relaxing on the beach among drunken domino-playing pelicans, and of waiting in the parking lot next to Hell for his charges to return safely. Ah little pony, live well. We petted the girl on her front quarter panel and thanked her for carrying us safely. She snorted demurely and parked herself in a corner of the lot.

Next thing to do, change useless travelers checks into cash. One would think that, in a country that had every international bank situated withing a few square miles, it would be easy to cash a travelers check. Apparently thinking was not on the agenda this day. We went through security (all banks seemed to have extremely tight security procedures in place) of every bank we could walk into, to the amused looks of the guards. Every nation that had a bank, had a branch here, with very well-armed guards. C'mon, a Hawaiian shirt can't be THAT threatening. Every teller told us the same story - no Senores, we do not cash travelers checks, but Banco Such and Such LLC, probably will, they're just up the block. Three hours of rejection, and 25 banks later, we just gave up. A valuable lesson was learned that day: travelers checks are shit. Credit cards, now they were gold. We managed to secure a few hundred dollars from an ATM at one bank, and that would have to do. Fine, we'll pay the 20% fee on an international withdrawal. We needed cash for taxis, and this was better than selling body parts to a grimy doctor in a grimy back alley of a Panama City slum. Besides, we might need those body parts one day.

We hailed a cab, determined to not let the bureaucracy of international banking get us down. Adventure my dear man, we need adventure. This is probably the worst possible thing one could say to a Panamanian cab driver. Manuel, our driver, sped off as if starting a Grand Prix race. We could have made it to Costa Rica by nightfall at this pace. I take you Senores to the Parque Nacional, and there you will find adventure, they have monkeys there. OK, not something we have back home, drive on. A few short minutes later (driving at warp speed is an amazing way to get somewhere fast), Manuel pulled over. There Senores, there is the Parque. But oh, it seems to be closed. They closed the park? The National Park? Well Senores, there isn't anyone around, so they must be closed. Uh, ok, well just drive around a bit and maybe we'll see someone. An hour of this was sufficient, as every roadway was completely deserted and devoid of any adventure, though the scenery was quite nice. No monkeys either. They must be sleeping off the party from last night too. Manuel, be so kind as to shoot that buzzard-sized mosquito off the hood of the car and take us to the Miraflores Locks. Manuel was a crack shot, and the giant mosquito fell dead in the middle of the road. Oh Senores, you wish to see the famous canal, this is very good. Bolts of light passed the windows (light speed, remember?) and soon we were at the Gem of Panama, that grand passage through the Isthmus that has been the salvation of sea-going vessels for 91 years. As long as they didn't bring travelers checks.


Manuel let us out at the newly-built visitor center, and insisted on being our tour guide for the day. How much, Manuel? Oh Senor, not much, only $40 USD, and I will show you all that the canal has to offer. I was tempted to bargain, but why bother? Manuel was kind enough, albeit an insane driver, and was well-versed in canal lore. OK, Manuel, come along, show us what you've got. Oh Senor, you will not regret this, I will show you everything. And so we paid the visitor center entrance fee for Manuel, and began to immerse ourselves in the history of this massive project.


There were amazing displays of the boats and equipment used to build this wonder. I was hoping to see a diorama of the giant buzzard mosquitoes descending on the hapless workers and carrying them off in their beaks, but to no avail. We learned that the average transit cost for cargo vessels is several hundred thousand dollars, which pales in comparison to the time and cost of going around South America. Hence the banking system.....no, sorry Senor Capitan, we do not take travelers checks. The least expensive transit cost USD$0.36, but the man swam the canal. That takes balls. Manuel gratefully filled in the details on how the French tried to build the canal and gave up. But you know, the Spanish originally tried to build a canal in the 1500's, but they too were carried off by the bugs. Then the Americans came in with their bug spray and heavy equipment and finished the job in only ten short years. It is incredible, no, Senores? Si Manuel, muy incredible. We ambled up to the roof of the center with Manuel in tow. Ah, the panorama (that's Manuel next to me in the picture).


It seems the Guatemalans had been in need of adventure as well, as the roof was crawling with them, festooned in their blue and white jester hats. Manuel spat, apparently disgusted at the sight of so many of the enemy football fans gathered in one place.


The only boats we were able to see were tugboats, slowly chugging through the waters of the locks. I imagined that they were off to rescue some stranded vessel on Lake Gatun that had fallen prey to the mosquitoes. No matter, this was history unfolded right before our eyes, and with a narrative we could not have performed. Seems that all cargo ships built to date must be no larger than Panamax standards, in other words, able to fit through the locks. The Chinese have built larger vessels, but they cannot transit. There is a movement underfoot to expand the canal for larger ships, thanks to the ever-growing presence of Chinese made goods in Wal-Mart stores in America. Manuel, back to the hotel, and step on it. This was hardly worth saying, because no sooner were we seated in his cab than we were back at the hotel. Simply amazing how a cab that, at first glance, could have easily been a relic in a museum, yet was capable of moving so quickly, oblivious to the laws of physics. Manuel embraced us heartily and bid us goodbye. The bellman at the hotel just smiled, knowing full well that we had paid what he considered to be way too much money for nothing in return. It's all a matter of perspective, I suppose. Our lives were enriched for having met Manuel.

Back in the bar, the Guatemalans were going crazy. The game was tied at 0-0 in the second half, but hopes were high. The competitive spirit was in full swing, and the outfits were colorful. Oh well, you have to love fans, so we ordered more drinks and joined in the fun. I was tempted to ask if anyone liked American football, but it's a serious business in Latin countries, so I kept my mouth shut.

We drifted off to sleep many hours and many secos later, nearing the end of our voyage. Comfortable bliss was our bedtime story, and a new day awaited just a few short hours hence.

Stay tuned for Day 14, wherein we find that indeed, one can bring too much luggage, and flying home can bring rewards of its own.

Posted by beerman 11:41 Archived in Panama

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