Panama City Night Lights
Dec. 2011 - Jan. 2012
The Pearls of Panama
Wow. After traveling for a month by ourselves, seeing very few people and then suddenly being in Panama City, all we thought initially was wow! The shock of being around so many people, cars, traffic jams, noise, was somewhat overwhelming. We tied up to a mooring ball (this was no easy task due to the tight space and the speed of the current) almost directly under the Bridge of Americas, which essentially is the entrance to the Panama Canal. Huge, and I mean GInormous container ships and cruise ships and tug boats and pilot boats are zipping by. It really is a sight to be seen, and felt, as our boat would rock back and forth from the wakes of these ships. We radio for a water taxi to pick us up to get to land because there is no place for us to land our dinghy. We walk up to the Balboa Yacht Club office to check in and they are just so casual. Now let me explain, when you first enter a new country you always feel a bit of apprehension until you are officially checked in. We have already been in Panamanian waters for several weeks and are anxious to be legal. First off, the nice lady in the office asks us how long we are staying..."We're not sure," we say. No problem, pay before you leave, just not on a Saturday or Sunday because she's not there. Huh? We explain we still need to officially check in to the country. She says, "Huh?" It was like no one had ever asked her where to go. Someone else finally is able to explain to us to walk up the ramp and look for immigration, near the laundry room. The very business- like woman in immigration, who spoke only Spanish, and whose office was literally the broom closet, looked at us like I was crazy when I tried to explain in my poor Spanish that we needed to check in. After a few words, she stamped our passports and said, "Adios". Hmmm....we chuckled to ourselves and said, "That was easy enough." We excitedly walked to the yacht club restaurant for a meal and INTERNET! We had been out of touch with the world for what seemed like forever. And, that was the beginning of one bad meal after another here in Panama. Bummer, because I was so looking forward to some great meals, but I'm starting to lose hope. And worse yet, not only is the food bad, the service is deplorable. I don't know how to explain it, but you feel bad even asking for a glass of water. It's like you're putting them out if you order something. It's the strangest thing. A waiter will never ask you if you would like another drink or dessert. I'm not sure if this happens when the tip is automatically included, or if it's just the attitude of the people. Sigh....
The next morning we head off to the Port Captains office, catching a ride from a very nice ex-pat who had been living in Panama for ten years. We are all dressed up, which now means Larry is in long pants and a shirt with a collar, me in something other than a tank top, and Ben in a collared shirt. And all of us in shoes other than flip flops. This has all brought on a huge protest by Ben, but we have read in our books and been warned by other sailors about how proper this country is. The Port Captain couldn't have been nicer, even driving Larry to an ATM machine to get cash to pay for our entry fees. While I waited the secretary downloaded a load of Spanish Christian music on our memory stick because I had noticed she had her bible at her desk and asked what chapter she was reading. I have to say, as I am writing this at a later date, we have met some of the nicest people in Panama. My other observation is that I no longer feel like a tourist here, nor do I feel like we stick out like a sore thumb. It is just much more international here. I almost jumped over the counter and hugged the first Chinese person I saw, making me feel like I was back in the Bay Area. However not as many people speak English, or they don't let on that they do, which can make it a little more challenging when you're trying to get things done. It's totally my own fault. I should have this language down pat by now. Another sigh....
Anyways, now that we are all checked in and legally here, or so we think (more on this later), we jump right into reunions with old friends and a slurry of social activities. Once again, and I know I've said this before, but I feel like a child on Christmas morning when we meet up with our long lost boating friends! Dave and Renae on Bella with their new puppy Maggie, and Rick and Karen on Eyes of the World have been in Panama City for quite some time and we are so excited to have caught up with them! We share laughs and tears, joy and frustration, many meals (and lots of wine!), and just plain old good conversation, with an understanding of each other and what this lifestyle is like. And, they all love Ben, which warms Larry's and my heart.
We are also now suddenly thrust into the Christmas rush. Panama City has several very large malls and by the amount of people in them there is definitely no recession here. It can take what seems like an eternity to drive downtown in a taxi, and I need to add that these are the most aggressive drivers I have ever seen. If we don't get our act together, and catch a cab before 1 PM, they just simply will refuse to take us downtown. The infrastructure here has not kept up with the population boom, but as I write I believe an underground subway is being built. The Panama City skyline is a sight to be seen. Massive high rises are built, or are in the process of being built everywhere. And what is strange, which took me a few evenings to figure out, is that at night only about a third of the windows are lit up. You would think it would just be spectacular at night, but it sort of disappoints. In other words, a lot of the buildings are empty. So, I guess that level of the economy has yet to catch up. How is the grocery shopping you ask? Well, I am a happy camper here. I can find almost everything I want, and for much more reasonable prices.
December 23rd we excitedly picked up our daughter and boyfriend Seth at the airport for eight days of Christmas fun! While we were still in the big city we did a complete tour of the highlights in one day, including a hike in the Metropolitan Park - seeing sloths and many other kinds of animals, a visit to the old ruins of Panama Viejo which had been burned down by Captain Morgan and his pirates in 1671, the Miraflores Locks including a wonderful lunch at the restaurant that overlooks the ships as they pass through, then wandering around Casco Viejo which the pirates developed and settled in to have a better view of the bay and potential invaders. There is so much history here and it really was a fascinating tour. The town squares and statues, the cathedrals, the narrow streets and some of the newly renovated buildings are charming and make your imagination run wild with what this area must have been like in its time. For Christmas Eve dinner, we went back to the Casco Viejo area and ate at the restaurant Las Bovedas, which was an actual dungeon hundreds of years ago. After barely making it back to the boat in a taxi, yes I am convinced we will probably die in one someday, we all fell in to bed exhausted...except Ben...who was so excited for Santa to come he could hardly sleep. At 4 AM I was rudely awakened by big feet pattering on the deck, then Ben rushed into our cabin claiming Santa had left a note for him telling him to look up on deck for something too large to fit below. Yes, Santa brought Ben a 15 horsepower engine for the dinghy! No gift has ever delighted our child more! We can now zip around anchorages, pull away from shore quickly if needed in breaking waves, and skurf behind our dinghy - which is like water skiing only you are being pulled on a surfboard. Super fun!
Christmas day we head out to the Las Perlas Islands for a week of fun in the sun! These islands are gorgeous, with white sandy beaches, crystal clear turquoise waters, the best snorkeling as of yet. This is what all of us cruisers have been searching for since we left the west coast of the United States. Ahhh..."Finally!" we all say, giving each other an understanding nod. Bella is here as well, and we are also delighted to hook up with our old (young) friends, Carl and Cristina on Bamboleiro, whom Ben has really developed a strong friendship with. (You can read about Bamboleiro's adventures by clicking on their link on the right side of our blog.) We spend our days looking at colorful fish, swimming, kayaking, working on our tans, seashell and sea glass hunting, skurfing, and of course eating and drinking. Ben has made it his personal mission to feed us all by spear fishing. A spear gun is what he decided to spend his Christmas money on from his grandmother, and I have to say he is a good shot. Carl and Ben are quite the team, always coming back with fresh fish and usually some oysters to throw on the grill.
Watch this video of Ben fishing offshore!
Jessica and Seth had a vacation of a lifetime and we were so delighted to spend the holidays with them. Sadly we bid adieu on December 31st, looking forward to the promise of another visit in an exotic location. Ben, Larry, and I, exhausted from all the fun, spent a quiet New Years Eve on the Lisa Kay. Watching the magical fireworks fall over the Panamanian skyline we each thought to ourselves...what will the new year bring... what amazing people will we meet...what adventures lie ahead of us as we set sail again to new and exotic lands? To quote a saying from the John F. Kennedy, "We have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea - whether it is to sail or to watch it - we are going back from whence we came."
Happy New Year family and friends! We wish you happiness, good health, and prosperity in all things important!
Pictures for the blog are in the gallery "Pearls of Panama"