Archive for the ‘Panama’ Category

Me & Gorgona Mutt

There was nowhere at the surf beach to even get a drink so after my bodysurf session and an hours scorching in the sun we drove to the nearest town which is called Nueva Gorgona for a couple of beers. We found an amazing little beach there where my loud shirt was the only evidence of western tourism. Whilst there I fell in love with the latest in a very long line of mellow surf mutts that I have befriended on my journey south. Got to get myself a hound when I get back. It is long overdue!La Ruina

The beers were lovely but the little shack did not serve any food so we pushed on once more stumbling across this fantastic place which had been built from the wreck of an old US army station. www.laruinatavern.com It’s owner Frank, himself a former GI told me the history of the place and the town. The original Gorgona is now a very long way down under the waters of Lake Gatun, which is the reservoir in the midle of the Panama Canal. It was flooded during the construction process and the residents were reimbursed with land on the Pacific coast, hence Neuva Gorgona.

Dartboards

The station was set up by the USA who finished the construction of the canal (it was started by the French) to help people relocate, establish schools, infrastructure, etc, but was abandoned around the time of the second world war because the people had been resettled.

We had some great food in the brilliant venue that Frank has built up like a phoenix from the ashes, but I got a call from an interested party about my car so had to dash back to the city sadly a long time before I even got to enjoy a game of darts with Jenny. 

Vampire CatFrank did tell me how to find the local surf shop where I was hoping to sell my board in order to avoid the ridiculous surcharges that airlines now make surfers pay when I move on (despite golf bags, skis, etc. weighing far more), and we called in there on the way back to the city.

The foxy female surfer working there could tell I was offering a great deal but her boss wasn’t interested without seeing the board and he was out of town, so it looks like the board will be visiting South America with me.

The only other thing to report there was the animal you see here who I will call Cat Dracula. I thought he was cute at first but the eyes tell the story. He was evil. All my best efforts at chatting up the Shred Betty were in tatters as he kept sneaking up behind me and sinking his sharp little fangs into the back of my unprotected ankles. This would be followed by me doing a flip-flopped version of the can-can. I definitely prefer dogs to cats!

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PanamaNuevaGorgonaWe drove the 100km to a beach where the surf is supposed to be ok and I had been told by a surfer I had bumped into in the city that there was a surf shop.

Upon arrival at Playa Malibu, which does not resemble its USA namesake at all, we found all the locals huddled under whatever shelter was available on the beach. All the cabanas were taken. 

Malibu Beach 1

Sadly the steeply shelving sand meant that what little waves there were at the beach largely just reared up and dumped on the sand.

Although it looks flat in this picture the sets would roll through and at least one wave would result in the entire cast you see here getting swept off their feet. This would almost certainly result in a broken board and given I was attempting to sell it later in the day I thought better of risking it, instead opting to go bodysurfing instead. 

I swam out to the area where I thought the waves were breaking first, which was somewhat further than everybody else messing about in the shore break. Whilst waiting for the sets I would have tiny fish leaping out of the water around me and sometimes into my face, which was a first! Then spotting a set on its way I would try to pick the big one and swim like a man being chased by a shark.

obama_bodysurfingThe wave catches you in the same way it does a surfboard and you then try to stay a rigid as you can planing along the wave. I rode a few waves in this way all the way to the shore, each time getting unceremoniously dumped at the feet of many people who were now watching my exploits from the sand. Sadly Jenny didn’t get any shots of me doing so, but I suspect they would just have been of a couple of hands sticking out the white water superman style so I have added this picture of Barack Obama styling down a wave as it should be done in Hawaii.

It wasn’t great but I can’t tell you how good it felt to be back in the water, and I definitely surfed what was available. One more wave for the scrapbook!

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National Stadium 2

It is Sunday and there is not much going on so I have decided to escape the city for the day.

The road out takes me past the national stadium, which is quite impressive. Just a quick snap of it though because I am keen to get to the beach before the wind gets up.

Centenial Bridge 1

With no little difficulty myself and Jenny, who has once again joined me for this trip, find the Pan-American Highway and eventualy cross the new Centenial Bridge across the Canal on our way Westward.

It is a stunning piece of engineering and we saw huge container vessels traversing the canal a long way beneath us on the way across. 

Road SignI make this bit of travel sound easy but it really isn’t. It has been so long since I was in the car I had forgotten how bad the road signs are here. Even that suggests that there actually are some, when the regularly aren’t resulting in guess work or solar navigation on the fly regularly making incorrect decisions for you. Some signs on the motorway are actually placed after the turnings to which they refer to and others are in a font so small that you cannot see it until far too late to take corrective action. There is usually a prolonged period of spleen venting which follows!

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Corredor SurIt is great to be mobile again. Today I invited a Venezuelan biology teacher called Jenny to join me in the little green surf machine for the day. Jenny’s English is as good as my Spanish, but the two of us enjoyed a lovely day getting out of the city.

We took the Corredor Sur which is the road going across the sea that you can see here, built because they had run out of land in the city! However we stayed on it far too long and then had a bit of a shocker trying to get to our destination mostly because I had failed to notice the car was running on empty when we had started. Thankfully though my green friend did not let me down when I had company.

panama_la_viejaWe were trying to find the ruins of the original city called Panama Viejo (or Old Panama in English), at least what was left of them after Henry Morgan and his shipmates went on the rampage through here in 1670. The picture here is what is left today of the original cathedral, which was the first one to be built in the Americas in the early sixteenth century. Epic work by the man from South Wales. I may have to burn down the hostel in his honour later this evening!

It was all quite impressive but having grown up just down the road from Conwy’s castle and walled town, which dates back to the thirteenth century I can freely admit to being more interested in the waves on the horizon that were breaking underneath the Corredor Sur.

Corredor Sur Surf 2Even though the water quality is appalling here I almost needed holding back. The opportunity to be the first person ever to surf under a motorway was rather tempting, especially so because I have not had a wave in weeks! It does mean there is swell about though, so maybe tomorrow. 😀

Tour GuideWe strolled around for a bit and enjoyed all the remnants of Spanish architecture, including the convent you see in the background here. It wasn’t actually ruined by the Welsh pirate, it just was never finished after he had trashed the rest of the old town. After the attack it was decided to abandon this area and simply move the entire city westwards a few miles because it could be better defended there.

We also walked through a local artisans market, where every trader tried unsuccessfully to talk me into selling my soul for a brightly coloured beer can holder or equivalent. However after a few hours we had spent enough time in the area.

We weren’t rushing back to the hostel though and stopped for a drink or two on the way home. A top day.

NapoleonBy the way if like me you have ever wondered why Spanish influence in this region faded from near omnipotence across two continents to nothing bar the language being spoken, think Napoleon. I have been looking into it and as best as I can make out there had been revolutions and declarations of independence throughout the world in the late eighteenth century, and the feelings in Central and South America were no different at the time. The Spaniards kept a lid on it at first but when Napoleon invaded and conquered Spain a short while afterwards, also I believe putting his own family on the throne, it gave the locals the excuse they needed to throw off European shackles and stand on their own. I believe that to be true for all the Spanish speaking countries from Mexico to Chile, but please could anybody correct me if I am wrong?

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Kick Up The BacksideI went down to Chulo’s office first thing this morning with every intention of making a nuisance of myself until the car was back in my care.

However in fairness to everybody at my customs broker it really isn’t their fault. Chulo made me a cup of coffee and sat my down in his office watching the BBC news whilst he had guys all over town trying kick some butt at the various Aduana offices.

I sat there for five hours having a good chat with Chulo telling him that he must have the patience of a saint to be in his line of work because there is no way I would have any hair left if I dealt with such an inefficient service.

Paperwork 2As we were getting into the mid afternoon and I was starting to worry that there would not be enough time left to get all over town to sort the various remaining steps of the process when we got word from Chulo’s courier at the final Aduana office that the paperwork was finished and I could pay the import tax. I shall gloss over the fact that the tax was approximately 50% of the value of the car because the sooner I forget about that the sooner I will stop seething about it! Legalised theft!

Despite a further minor delay at the national bank I managed to pay the tax and then collected the paperwork back at the office so I could get the car out of the bonded warehouse. I kid you not it is about half a ream of paper. It is no wonder the process is so slow if there is so much paperwork to be completed. I may have discovered the reason for the deforestation of the Amazon!

Sit In ProtestRaul the courier took me back to the bonded warehouse just as rush hour was starting, to collect my car but left me to it. It was a fairly straight forward process until they offered me a credit note instead of cash for the $165 rebate I was due on the time I had not used of the month’s storage which I had been forced to pay in advance. (At this stage I will explain that I was very tired by now and have been under the weather for a few days with a fever so was not feeling too good.) It was definitely the straw that broke the camel’s back, and I lost my temper quite badly. At the top of my lungs I stated “No dinero, Yo no vo!” which may or may not have been good grammar, but the sit down protest which followed made it pretty clear that I was not leaving until I got my cash back. It was late Friday afternoon and they were trying to fob me off saying I could come back next Thursday for the cash, but I wasn’t having a bar of it and refused to budge knowing they all wanted to go home. The senior manager of the site eventually came to see what all the row was about, and had to good sense to find a way of paying me my cash, because I would still be there now had she not done so!

Even that took forever though, but I can happily report that the car is now in my posession again. I am free to sell it and have already installed the ‘for sale’ signs in the windows to self advertise the little green surf machine. I will be driving it around Panama City for the next few days trying to drum up some interest, but sadly still have not finished the importation process. I have to go to another customs office on Monday to get the vehicle stamp removed from my passport, which was the whole reason for undertaking the importation process in the first place. There simply had not been the time to complete it today.

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Brown-Throated-Three-Toed-Sloth

There are loads of sloths in this area. Just like the customs people here they don’t do a great deal.

As much as two-thirds of a well-fed sloth’s body-weight consists of the contents of its stomach, and the digestive process can take a month or more to complete. The leaves they eat provide little energy, and sloths deal with this by a range of economy measures. They have very low metabolic rates (less than half of that expected for a mammal of their size), and maintain low body temperatures when active (30–34 °C or 86–93 °F), and still lower temperatures when resting.

Sloths move only when necessary and even then very slowly. They have about a quarter as much muscle tissue as other animals of similar weight. They can move at a marginally higher speed if they are in immediate danger from a predator (4 m per minute), but they burn large amounts of energy doing so. Their specialised hands and feet have long, curved claws to allow them to hang upside-down from branches without effort.

skeleton-computerWhile they occasionally sit on top of branches, they usually eat, sleep, and even give birth hanging from limbs. They sometimes remain hanging from the branches after death.

In a similar vein I am expecting to be found slumped over my keyboard when the notice that the customs process is finished has arrived.

 

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Manana

I am getting really annoyed by the Central American approach to getting something done. Every day I am promised that the customs process will be finished tomorrow, which means I sit around all the following day waiting for the call that never comes, with my cash at the ready to pay the importation tax.Boring

I held back on some of the tourist things to do once in Panama City because I could see this exercise in patience coming from a mile away, but I have now exhausted even the limited options available to me here in the city, and I cant leave the city because I don’t have my car.

I am so bored just sitting around the hostel day after day adding to my insect bite collection, only to be spun another load of ‘probablies’, ‘think it will’ and ‘possiblies’ at the end of each day about what will be happening tomorrow. I didn’t come on this trip to waste my time like this. I was told the process would take less than a week, but it has now been more than two.

Project Planning ChartAs a project manager the scale of the inefficiency of the process offends me.

All they have to do is put a value on my car so the import tax can be calculated and I gave them a copy of the receipt from when I bought it.

Pull your finger out you useless twats!!!!!! I have got far better things to be doing.

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Pirates_of_the_CaribbeanI am not talking about the recent Disney movies here, more about the two British seafarers who had a significant impact on this part of the world. I have been hearing a lot about them since arriving in Panama so thought I would pass some of that on.

In particular I am talking about Sir Francis Drake and Admiral Sir Henry Morgan who caused quite a lot more havoc than I have whilst visiting the region in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries respectively.

Sir Francis DrakeOn his ship The Golden Hind Sir Francis Drake was the first person from Britain to circumnavigate the globe, and I suspect that feat was a tad harder than my own trip in 2013. He was also largely responsible for the defeat of the Spanish Armada when it intened to attack England in 1588, but that is just as well because he was probably part responsible for the Armada being created in the first place due to number of attacks that privateers like him made on the Spanish settlements in this neck of the woods. Under the sponsorship of the English monarchy Drake and others like him would sail into the ports and steal all the gold and silver warehoused here ready for transport across the Atlantic, which the Spanish had in turn largely stolen from the indigenous people here.

He also died off the coast of Panama after contracting dyssentry on the last of such voyages. The lead coffin he was buried at sea in near Isla Grande on the Caribbean coast is still being looked for by treasure hunters today.

Henry MorganHalf a century later Henry Morgan, who was originally from South Wales, was up to the same sort of mischief. He is remembered as the greatest of the privateers, amassing huge fleets and attacking prominent targets. His three most famous exploits were the 1668 sack of Portobello (which is just down the coast from Colon), the 1669 raid on Maracaibo in Venezuela and the 1671 attack on Panama City. Most of this was done with the support of King Charles II of England but the attack on Panama City with about 1,000 men in which the city was destroyed, was undertaken after a peace treaty had been signed between England and Spain, so you can imagine that the Spanish were not best pleased.

captain_morganMorgan was summoned back to London because the situation was at the very least embarrassing for the English too. However not only was he never punished, but he was feted by the gentry and commoners alike upon his return who were impressed with his exploits. He was also knighted by the king and then sent back to his base in Jamaica as Lieutenant Governor of the island, where he worked on improving the defenses of the island which was Britain’s jewel in the Caribbean crown.

He was guilty of the death and torture of countless innocent Spanish civilians and spread terror far and wide on the Spanish Main, but the English loved him. So much so that the Captain Morgan dark rum that you may enjoy today over ice with coke is named after him.

All of which means I have a lot to live up to in the time I have left here! What would they call the drink they name after me?

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Hotel Washington

The Hotel Washington to be precise, which is the only place I saw in Colon that was at all clean.

My Rough Guide to Central America had recommended the hotel as a decent pit stop for a drink so Robert and I had made our way there safely, more by luck than judgement. 

Washington Foyer

It is an oasis of opulance inside the foyer where chadeliers and marble dominate everything in sight.

All of which is such a contrast to everything we saw outside of the high walls around the hotel.

Washington Pool 1

The receptionist had directed us through to the area around the swimming pool when we asked for a drink.

It is perculiarly placed with its backdrop of the rusting shipping freighters that are moored up alongside the hotel in the waters at the Caribbean end of the Panama Canal. 

Caribbean Boats 1Once there we had got a table under one of the canopies (you can just make out Robert waving) before the masses of local families arrived, and neither of us felt any need to move on for hours.

It was the first time I had seen the Caribbean, but the second that I had seen two oceans in one day. We spent hours there having some food, drinking a few beers, watching the ships go by and cooling off in the pool, all the while enjoying the fresh breeze off the sea.

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Anatomy-Colon

I am not talking here about the piece of anantomy at the end of the human digestive tract, but it would not be an unfair comparison to make.

I am talking about the town of Colon at the Caribbean end of the Panama Canal, which Robert and I decided to go visit today. The first problem we had was getting there because the train that runs the length of the Canal was not running due to it being a bank holiday in Panama on Monday 

Colon Building

This meant we had to take the bus which was very cheap but the driver decided that seats were not necessary for everybody on the express option we had chosen, and invited an additional dozen or so to stand in the aisle along what would otherwise have been a fairly comfortable coach. After paying for my ticket I had kept my wallet in my grubby paw so as to keep a close eye on it, but this backfired because I put it down to get water or something else out of my bag and then failed to pick it up upon leaving the bus. I realised this a short stroll down the road from the bus station in Colon and nearly sprinted back to the bus where fortunately we had been the last ones to get off.  The driver let me on and thankfully I found it, the $200 it contained, along with one of my credit cards. Sooooooo Lucky!!

Colon Tenement

We had read that crime was a bit of a problem in the town before heading off, and as we walked down to the coast from the bus station you could see why. The town had once been very rich due to being a way station for the transfer of gold, silver, etc from Central and South America to Spain, and there were a few signs of a faded glory but there was no indication of any wealth left in the town we saw, anywhere. 

Police Patch

I was pretty sure that we were heading the right way to get us to a bar that had been recommended but saw a policeman so double checked with him. He confirmed my belief that the Hotel Washington was just a few hundred metres down the road, but when I went to head off he stopped me and asked why we were walking around the area. ‘Did we have any idea how dangerous it was there? You should not be walking anywhere in this city.’

Even though we were only a few hundred metres from our destination and could have walked the distance in a couple of minutes, he would not let us leave his side until he had got us into a taxi. It was only $2 but by the way he had spoken to me (as a rule I do have enough Spanish to understand people now) there was no doubt in my mind that it was probably the best $2 we would spend all day. 

Zona LibreOf the rest of the town we had hoped to visit the Zona Libre or free zone later in the day, which is a duty free walled area that the locals are not allowed into where designer goods, electronics, etc can all be purchased but the bank holiday had put a stop to that too. That may have been a blessing in disguise however, because I have been looking for an excuse to replace my troublesome laptop for some time now, and buying one only to have it stolen upon leaving the gated area would not have been money well spent!

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