Panama: Adios Central America

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I know it’s only a few days since my last offering but I’m afraid I’m far too OCD to be able to bridge two countries in one post, never mind two continents! Our final Central American destination was Panama City where we splashed out on a few nights in a comfy room with lots of English-speaking TV channels (quite a luxury!) and a tasty complimentary breakfast, courtesy of Rachel and Vic Green – thank you, it’s much appreciated!

It was a fairly quiet few days since there was a LOT of rain and storms but it was really relaxing to have a longer stay in the same place. We took the opportunity to indulge in some Domino’s pizza, Carl’s Junior burgers and a couple of incredibly cheap trips to the cinema to see X-Men and The Other Woman.

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After months in small towns, developing cities and rural locations, the sky scrapers, malls, manicured parks, American fast food establishments and an underground train line were quite the sight! The metro is so new (opened 5th April) that there are no signs or maps until the actual platform but it turned out there’s only one line so it was easy enough to get the hang of! It’s strange to be in such clean, new trains and stations and there’s a distinct feeling of people being taught how to use it by lanyard-wearing employees instructing people to move down the platform and armed guards on and off the trains. The best thing about arriving during this phase of implementation was that it was free!

Generally Panama City had the feeling of a place striving forward to secure its place in the modern world, more so than anywhere else in Central America. Here are a few photographs of the business district and coast:

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And below are the Bridge of the Americas and a contentious building that has been under construction for over a decade and will eventually be a museum:

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However Panama is the first country since Guatemala where there have been people – well, women specifically – in traditional dress. Back west towards Boquete Guaymí women wore loose-fitting light cotton dresses called naguas in one main colour (pinks, oranges, blues, greens) with geometric embroidered sections on the waists, necklines and shoulders. I didn’t get a photo but there’s one here.

Panama City, though, is home to people from the Kuna tribe and consequently a very different type of dress. I love how colourful it is: knee-length saburet with large, bold animal print; a plainer or more intricately patterned blouse with billowy sleeves and mola panels front and back; a red and yellow headscarf (musue); a gold nose ring; short hair; and tight beaded bands (wini) from ankle to knee and on their arms too. Both men and women of the tribe seemed to be very short which even sometimes made me feel tall! As usual I wasn’t brave enough to ask anyone if I could take their picture but there are enough snaps here to give you an idea.

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I expect that despite their clothing, they’ve probably lived alongside their modernly attired neighbours in the city for a long time, but there’s still something very incongruous about seeing them on the metro or using a mobile phone or going into KFC!

The city’s metropolitan feel and diverse multiculturalism is due, at least in part, to the Panama Canal. We visited a museum in the old town to learn about its creation. Here are a few facts:

☆It is 77.1km long and joins the Pacific to the Atlantic.

☆3 sets of locks with two lanes each raise the water level to the height of Gatun Lake (26m above sea level) and back again.

☆100,000,000 litres of water are required to fill each chamber.

☆The amount of matter excavated to create the canal could have built up to 63 Egyptian pyramids.

☆The canal was nearly made in Nicaragua. Some say that letters to officials using postage stamps featuring a Nicaraguan volcano played a part in persuading them that Panama was the more favourable option!

☆An average of 14,000 vessels pass through the canal annually.

☆The locks are as high as a seven-storey building.

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☆France began work on the waterway in 1881 but had to abandon it due to engineering difficulties and high mortality rates from diseases such as yellow fever. The USA took over in 1904 and the canal was first used on 15th August 1914.

☆A lock gate can weigh more than 300 elephants.

☆For the first 86 years, the waterway operated with no commercial goals but in 2000, when Panama gained full control of the canal from the USA, it was decided that it needed to start turning a profit.

☆Vessels can now carry up to 12,000 containers.

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☆10th September 2010 saw the millionth vessel pass through.

☆ It’s necessary to watch out for crocodiles in the canal zone!

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On another day I went to visit it and was able to watch a couple of huge ships passing through the Miraflores locks, steered by the little tug vehicles.

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This was a museum simulation of what it’s like to be on one of the boats:

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Panama City’s old town, Casco Viejo, is quite picturesque for a wander: some very grand buildings next to others that are very run-down.

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This is a glimpse into the courtyard of the presidential palace, also home to a group of white African herons that stroll freely.

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It’s rumored that during the visit of US president Richard Nixon in 1977, the palace was sprayed with disinfectant that caused the death of all herons. They were said to be replaced overnight.

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Another grand sight was the Iglesia San Jose. Its star attraction is the seventeenth century Baroque style golden altar which is carved in mahogany and covered in gold leaf. The story goes that when the pirate Henry Morgan attacked Old Panama City – where the altar was originally located – a priest concealed it from the looters by painting it black. Afterwards, the priest told Henry Morgan that another pirate had stolen the alter and convinced him to make a large donation for its replacement!

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Now we’re in South America – Ecuador – and it’s chilly! Lots of new, exciting things to see and do though. Tune in next time!

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