Saturday, January 18, 2014

Once Upon A Time......

Once upon a time in a castle overlooking the Caribbean Ocean in Panama was Princess Terry and her fearless friends in adventure. Her faithful Prince Clyde was the chauffeur of the Royal Rav Four Chariot as he led the foursome through a day of tiring adventures. Our friends Allison and Ray Guinn were visiting from Virginia this week to start the process for their pensionado visa with their lawyer. As they needed a break from their tedious days in the immigration office we captured them for a day of sightseeing.

We left the hotel around 9am and set out along the highway to the coastal city of Colon. We drove past the enormous Free Trade Zone, a 600-acre operation that opened in 1948.  The Trade Zone is dedicated to re-exporting a wide number of goods and receives 250,000 visitors a year to it's 1,751 companies within the complex.  As we made our way through the busy streets we passed a number of outdoor markets, tenements, churches and more where locals shopped and waited for buses. Known as one of the least safest places in Panama, we stayed in the car most of time only venturing out only near the waterfront for a few pictures.

Ray And The Princesses Allison and Terry
Even Colon has KFC and McDonalds!

From Colon our plan was to find the third set of locks called Gatun Locks which seemed almost impossible to find, but find them we did. The entire Panama Canal has three sets of locks, the most touristy because it's the easiest to find is Miraflores Locks in Panama City. The second set of locks is San Pedro Miguel which sits along the roadside, and the third being at Gatun.  Each set of locks is paired, meaning that two ships can pass simultaneously in opposite directions for more efficiency.  At Miraflores in the Pacific Ocean the ships goes through a two-stop process, then a one-step process at San Pedro Miguel locks before they're lowered into Gatun Lake by another three-step process. The total lift of each ship is 85 feet, depending on the tide levels at the time. From Gatun Lake the ships can transition into the Caribbean Sea saving about 8,000 nautical miles.

Being residents of Panama we're able to get into the locks free and since Allison and Ray had their newly issued temporary cards, they too reaped the rewards. The viewing platform was packed with tourists and groups from a local cruise ship making us feel like sardines. Eventually we did manage to get a glimpse of the massive ships transiting the canal.  Although we've seen the whole process several times before, it's always amazing to see the ships go through the locks.

Visitor's Center At Gatun Locks

A View Of A Ship Going Through The Locks.....Over The Heads In Crowd

The Three Musketeers Again

A Ship Entering The Locks

The Large Lock's Gate Opening
This Ship Heads Into Next Lock....Notice The Guys On Deck Waving To The Crowd

Clyde wanted to visit the location where the new set of locks is being built, so off we went.  The excavation of this massive undertaking has been going on for years, and like all big endeavors it's met with many problems. But someday when it opens the new locks of the Panama Canal will be able to transit wider, more massive ships through it's huge gates.

One Of The Massive New Cement Gates For The Expansion Project...New Set Of Locks
Visitors Center For New Locks

Site Of The New Locks Excavation Project

Another View
 Clyde Being Silly On A Donkey

Next Clyde wanted to show them a few old forts on the Caribbean side of the country before ending up in the town of Portobelo.  Our first stop was Fort Sherman, a former US Army base that was used as a defensive base for the Atlantic side of the Canal. It was also used as a training center for jungle warfare for some time before it was turned over to Panama in 1999 when US troops pulled out of the country. Today it's home to a number of abandoned buildings, and something we didn't find all that impressive.

Fort Sherman

From there we headed into the jungle to find Fort San Lorenzo and The Castle, for the two princesses on board, of course. Along the way we spotted a sign leading to a beach which we followed down a bumpy, dirt and gravel road. As soon as we all jumped out of the car Clyde and Allison, the photo buffs headed toward the water to snap some shots.  While standing quietly alongside the jungle with Ray, we heard rustling in the canopy high above us.  We looked and watched until I spotted the white face of a capuchin monkey sitting in a tree.  We waved to the others to point him out, and the four of us watched in awe as a dozen or so monkeys entertained us in the trees high above. Allison and Clyde snapped picture after picture, hoping to capture a monkey in the thick brush above. After a while we headed back onto the road to find the illusive castle in the woods and the fort that bears the same name.

The Beach Off The Beaten Trail
Monkeys In The Wild

A White Faced Capuchin I Believe

What we found was a nice display of ruins from the 17th and 18th centuries nicely preserved, and overlooking some of the best views in Panama we've seen in a while. With the clear, blue waters of the Caribbean Sea at the mouth of the Chagres River below us, we walked through the array of forts, castles and barracks left behind from so many years ago. These fortifications created a defensive line of protection around the bay, and protected the harbor on the Atlantic side.


A Cannon At The Fort
The Castle Awaits for The Princess!
More Of The Fort

A Window Looking Out From The Fort

A Caribbean View From The Top Of Fort

On our way back through the jungle I spotted something black in a tree that hung over the road.  Directly above our car was a monkey, perched high on a branch watching us go by. Quickly we all jumped out of the car and watched in awe at the little darling that was just above our heads.  He turned his back to us exposing well, let's just say his male parts, either being shy or afraid?  But then a few minutes later he scurried down a branch right in front of us, stopping to strike a pose along the way, so we could get some good pictures.

Our Favorite.... A Howler Monkey In The Wild
Just Hangin' Around

Striking A Pose For The Gringo's
Although it was getting late we just had to pursue one more stop on our Caribbean adventure which was the port city of Portobelo. The tiny town is home to a large white church called, "Iglesia de San Felipe," which houses the famous statue of The Black Christ. The life-sized effigy of Christ holding a cross sits to the left of the ornate alter, protected by glass. No one knows exactly how or when the Black Christ arrived in the community, or even where it came from but for many believers it's responsible for many miracles.  Every year on October 21, tens of thousands of people visit the church.  Some walk the 53 miles from Panama City, others join them along the way from the town of Sabinitas and many crawl the last mile on hands and knees looking for a miracle.

The Black Christ In Portobelo

The town of Portobelo itself boasts a certain type of charm with it's run-down buildings, locals hanging out and kids riding bikes in the streets. We saw kids playing outside in their underwear wearing nothing more than mismatched socks, yet still carefree and enjoying life. A pet monkey in a cage entertained passerby's in front of one tiny house as we walked the gravel streets. We watched as the sun set over the Caribbean before leaving the little town to find some dinner.

Local Boy In Underwear and Two Mis-Matched Socks

Two Girls Dancing In The Streets Near The Fort
Nearby we spotted yet another castle, but this one served food and drinks.  El Castillo de Portobelo sat just inches from the Caribbean Sea in a rustic old building and was full of old-time charm. We dined on of all things a Thai chicken curry that put a nip on our tongues for something different. Allison had Thai pad noodles while Ray played it safe with a cheeseburger and fries. Even the bathrooms dripped with ambiance with pull chain toilets, and a rustic rock and wooden sink vanity.  The sounds of the surf provided a soothing backdrop as our enchanting day came to an end sipping drinks with good friends, feeling like a princess....along the gringo trail.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Near Misses In The City And The Jungle.....

When our friends Allison and Ray from Virginia said they were coming to Panama City this week, we jumped at the chance to go have some city adventures and that's just what we did. We headed into the city on Friday for some shopping then checked into a hotel to meet up with them in the afternoon.  After dinner at our favorite restaurant and a tour of one of the malls, we headed back to the hotel to rest up for a long day on Saturday.

After a mundane breakfast we headed up Cerro Ancon, the highest point in Panama City to take in the cityscape, only to find out the hill didn't open until 1pm.  Perhaps the hill sleeps in on Sundays catching up on beauty sleep?  We thought it was strange that an outdoor, hill natural area wasn't opened, but this is Panama.  So we headed over to the famous Albrook Mall to show our friends that carnival of shopping treasures to kill some time giving the "hill" time to wake up and have her coffee. Back to Ancon Hill we went after one only to find a line of cars waiting to make the drive too. The road up the hill is one-way only with a guard at the top and bottom who carefully monitor the flow of traffic. Since there's only so much parking at the top only a certain number of cars are allowed in at one time while the others wait.  As we sat in line waiting our turn cars coming down barely squeezed by us, so close that we had to turn in our side mirrors to avoid having them banged up. Cars inched by us heading down as we pulled over as far as possible trying not to fall off the side of the mountain.  After that all those waiting in line including us decided to make a difficult 10-point turn in very little space to turn around and get out of there.

A borrowed picture of Ancon Hill
That we didn't quite make it to on this trip

Since plan A didn't work out we had to come up with a plan B, which was to head out toward Gamboa and stop at the Summit Zoo.  As we approached the area we noticed hundreds of cars parked along the roadside for miles since the parking lots were full. The tiny zoo after all was not that special, so we gave up on that idea and had to come up with a plan C.

Tug holding a ship in place at the locks

Stopped at the San Pedro Miguel Locks
These are the middle set of locks
viewable from the road


My resourceful hubby thought he'd head out toward the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, an overpriced gringoized resort surrounded by gorgeous vistas of greenery. A rickety, old, one-way bridge had to be crossed to get into the area which always made things interesting. A sign in Spanish sits beside a traffic light near the bridge, and the idea is when the light turns green the traffic goes, a concept we all should understand. The sign says something to the affect of wait your turn, the exact phrase I can't recall at this moment but between the sign and light drivers should get the message. We had the green light and with no other cars in sight Clyde proceeded over the bridge.  About a third of the way across another car headed toward us and refused to stop.  With our headlights just a few feet from each other the other car finally stopped and just sat there holding his ground.  We waited, Clyde signaled the man to back up but he just remained. In the meantime five or six other cars lined up behind us, since our side did have the right of way, or so we thought? Clyde got out of the car and went over to talk to the man who said he was not moving.  In the meantime other drivers behind us started to get out of their cars, but once they realized Clyde had already approached the man on the other side they backed off.  What we seemed to have here was a real live Panamanian Standoff that I feared could get ugly.
After a long wait the last car behind us decided to back up, then the next followed suit until we were able to do the same.  The jerk on the other side won the battle this time and we just had to let it go so it didn't ruin the rest of our day. Eventually we made our way over the bridge and continued our drive through the rain forest.

The wonderful One Lane Gamboa Bridge
that we shared with a train

Bamboo Entryway to the Gamboa Resort

Soon after the bridge we found out the entrance to the resort was blocked by a guard with a clipboard who only allowed paying guests through the gates. So we gave up on that idea and continued our drive just for the purpose of sightseeing. Clyde is good at getting lost on back roads and eventually after driving around our friend Ray looked up and said, "isn't that the hotel?"  Unbeknownst to us there was a back way into the resort with no guard and Clyde found it.  We parked and walked inside like we knew where we were going and looked around.  The place really is beautiful with a balcony overlooking lush, topical rain forest, a lagoon pool area, hiking trails and much more. We snapped a few photos and used the restroom in the lobby before getting back into the car.

Just liked these flowers

Next we followed signs leading to a Rain forest Discovery Center that turned out to be closed but looked like something we'd certainly like to explore another time.wttp:// We strolled along pipeline road on a trail through the woods where we spotted an agouti, a large rodent common to this area and a coatimundi, a mammal in the same family as a raccoon. Allison was in awe over some leaf-cutter ants that were as their names says transporting leaves to their nest.  On the way out we spotted a sloth hanging on a branch in the canopy above us, another photo op for our camera happy friends.

A cute little Coatimundi
welcoming us to the park

By the time we made our way back to Panama City it was time for dinner and Allison had mentioned TGIFridays on the Amador Causeway earlier, so we headed that way.  Although the restaurant is a bit pricey by Panama standards it's situated along the waterfront overlooking the canal.  We dined on coconut-banana chicken fingers accompanied by mixed veggies glazed with rum and Caribbean rice while watching ships go through the canal. As we watched the picturesque sunset over the water we thought there were quite a few people around and knew something was brewing.  After dinner we merely had to turn around to head back to the hotel to drop off our friends, a simple task or so we thought.  One of the reasons we picked this restaurant was because of it's close proximity to the hotel, at least on a normal night.

Finally catch a picture of a sloth in the wild!

Within minutes we found ourselves bumper to bumper in four lanes of traffic going both ways, on a tiny side street designed for only two lanes. Parking attendants were directing people in and out of spots for some unknown reason, and we had more than one near miss of an accident.  Again we pulled in our side mirrors while I hung out of the window trying to help Clyde squeeze by cars that were a mere inch or so away from ours.  The terrifying moments didn't get any better as we seemed eternally stuck in this maze of cars, people and chaos that we longed to escape. Allison kept asking me to ask someone what all the hoopla was about and finally I did.  Seems there was a huge event with many bands going on nearby, something that would explain the thousands of cars and people all around us. The five-minute drive back to the hotel ended up taking us over an hour as we once again were spared being scraped, banged up, or severally hurt and crushed in this horrible mess of cars. I did notice a sign that read, Tala 14 The Day After Event," that I looked up as soon as we got home. One would assume that they'd think about parking before putting in an arena that held over 10,000 people, don't ya think? Apparently not in Panama!

A tranquil sunset from
The TGI Fridays restaurant
This is actually the canal

Turns out this was a MAJOR concert that lasted for three days with over 26 different performers.  Held in the Figali Convention Center which holds over 10,000 people, no wonder the streets were packed with people.  It seems that a three-day pass ran for around $129, big bucks for a Panamanian that only makes $400 a month.  But that didn't seem to keep them from buying tickets by the looks of  things in the streets. It took us a little over a hour to make the 10-minute drive back to the hotel. We said good night to our friends and made the trek back to Chame by 10pm for yet another day of adventures in Panama....along the gringo trail.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Over The Creek And To The Salon......

If you remember my last blog about our yearly food basket drop for families with special needs members, this one is sort of a continuation. An organization we're involved with called CASA (Coronado Area Social Association) organizes the annual event in conjunction with a local women named Maribel who opens her home to hundreds of people. Several of the families were not unable to attend the fiesta because they live way out in the interior of the country where no buses or taxi's are able to travel.  So chauffeur Clyde volunteered to drive to these homes along with CASA president Louise and Maribel, who had directions......kind of!  I went along for the ride using it as an opportunity to practice my Spanish, and also since it sounded like fun.

A House Behind A Creek

 Maribel In White, Louise In The Back, Me On The Side And Two Kids In Front

After picking up Louise and Maribel she directed us along the highway and down some long, winding side roads where we stopped to ask for directions. We seemed to be on the back roads of a little village called La Ermita.  Maribel used her cell phone to continually call for more directions to our first stop. We presented the food basket, took a picture and headed to our next stop.  Since things became more confusing at this point Maribel had us follow her contact in his car to the next house. When the man we were following became lost we stopped at a house and Maribel asked the people outside where so and so lived, and they pointed us in the direction once again. At one point we were following a man on a bicycle who pointed out the house and then took off in the opposite direction.  Apparently the person we needed to see was up the street in a beauty salon having his hair cut.  We followed a young lady walking who crossed over a bridge while we drove through a small creek to the salon. The young man receiving the gift came out and once again we posed for pictures before taking off.  Our last basket was presented to a blind man who walked down the road from his house to accept our gift. All of the locals thanked us with big hugs and smiles for giving them these little tokens of niceness.

Another Recipient

We were only were invited into one of the homes and were amazed at what we saw.  On the large front porch sat an old man in a chair.  Nearby on a simple day bed slept a frail, thin, old women who was perhaps the grandma of the family.  Here in Panama families take care of their elderly and this family was doing just that. The family relaxed while grandma was allowed to sleep in peace outside where Panamanians spend much of their time. We walked through a tiny kitchen and out the back door where a special needs man was laying in a hammock.  He was the recipient of the basket and arose to our intrusion and allowed us to take a picture, before he lay back down.

Grandma Sleeping On Front Porch

The Man That Was In The Hammock With Food Bag
The family was thrilled to receive the gifts and seemed very happy living in this shack of a home.  For us spoiled gringo's it didn't look like much, but it was all they had and offered them a place to stay. If there's one important lesson we've learned from living in Panama, it's this.  Money absolutely, positively, without a doubt does not buy happiness.  Many Panamanians have little to nothing by our standards, yet they're insanely happy and content with life. They enjoy laying around, drinking a beer or some rum, spending time with family over a simple meal and living life by their terms. They have no mortgages, no car payments since they don't drive, no credit card debt and little need for much of anything.  Fresh fruit grows on trees in their back yard for them to eat. Chickens roam freely and when they need one for dinner they just kill it. They hustle some work to make enough money to buy a few things at the grocery store, which they either walk to or take the bus.

Blind Man And Kids

While we can't imagine a life so simple and free they can't imagine a life so complicated with bills, work schedules and other stuff. Perhaps one of the reasons we ended up here in Panama is to learn a few simple lessons about life.....along the gringo trail.

Monday, January 6, 2014

A Day Of Giving Back To The Community......

One of CASA's (Coronado Area Social Association) big events of the year happened yesterday near the little village of San Carlos. Each year CASA raises money to fill 80-85 bags with food and other necessities for families with handicapped members. The day turns into an event of gringo's giving back a little something to those in need. A local women hosts the event at her home and a nearby church provides food and gifts for the kids too. Live music featuring an accordion and bongos filled the air with festive sounds for all to enjoy. A friend provided a portable photo printer so after pictures were snapped of each child we were able to print them out and give them to the kids, for a nice keepsake.

Local Band Entertaining The Crowd

We blew up balloons and crowned each child with home-made paper crowns that made them feel like princesses and princes.  After the kids ate lunch I suggested to some gringo's that we go out and grab the kids to dance. If there's one thing that ALL Panamanians love it's music and dancing, and these kids were no exception. I think these kids are born knowing how to salsa since some of them showed me a few moves.  But I tired out long before the kids did since they were ready to boogie non-stop again and again. I teased one little boy about being, "my novio," my boyfriend.  Another little boy mastered the art of patting women's butts as they walked by.  At one point he told me that I look like a doll, or something to that effect.  So despite his handicapped he'd still managed to become a smooth talker and admirer of female bodies.

Terry Dancing With Two Of The Kids
JoAnn The Elf Entertaining The Kids

Just like last year the families were extremely grateful to receive the bags full of basics like toilet paper, rice, beans, pasta, canned goods, phone cards, fruit and more.  Each child was presented with a gift also provided by the church to bring a smile to their faces.

Princess Terry and Friends...
The Women In White Organized The Event With CASA

This year Clyde and I felt very comfortable integrating with the kids and their families.  It was fun to chat with them in Spanish, pull them up for a dance and ask for hugs and kisses after the dancing was done. Louise and her CASA staff do a wonderful job organizing the event and we're always honored to be a part of it.....along the gringo trail.

Queen Louise Head Of CASA And Friends

Below are all of the kiddos and young adults

Life In Portugal....At A Snails Pace....

Yesterday was just another day in Portugal when my dear husband Clyde said he was going to run to the pharmacy for a few things. Time passed...