12.08.2009 - 18.08.2009 1 °F
Panama City. Miles travelled....(via Miami) 2326.
Panama…land of Contrasts.
Highly developed. Real estate booming. Beach resorts planted on the trendiest beaches. Yet, we couldn’t get money out of the atm or find a café with WiFi…! One taxi driver was kind and helped us out of a pinch at the atm, and another lied to us and tried to charge us 4x the agreed on on fare (more on this later).We saw the beautiful and amazingly engineered Panama Canal and yet saw garbage heaped on roadsides. Water is safe to drink, but your sidewalks have holes that small SUV’s could fall into. We ate a delicious and huge meal at the market for $3.00 and abottle champagne for $5 then we couldn’t find a dinner restaurant open that was for less than $15. Oh Panama …Panama.
Our first hours in Panama were traumatic. We had waited to get money until our landing in Panama so we could get the local money. Little did we know that the local money is the DOLLAR! Their atms would not cooperate and we could not leave the airport because we could not pay the tourist visa fee, which was only $10. We worked the phones and pleaded with the officials for several hours. We called the states numerous times to our bank. Finally, three hours later they mercifully let us leave the airport without paying the Visa. They helped us find a taxi driver willing to take us (with no money) to various banks until we could get a cash advance. He could have charged us any price at that point, but he only charged us a little more than the usual airport fare. He also helped us find a reasonable place to stay that night. Thank God for good people!
The next morning we walked to the Hotel Intercontinental on the beach! WOW! We used their business center to make calls and contacted our Panama hosts (via couchsurfing), Ronald and Laurys, and had a reasonable and delicious frittata. The staff was delightful and helped us overcome the previous day’s trauma.
We stayed the second through fifth nights with Ronald and Laurys. Ronald is a Venezuelan who lives in Panama and Laurys is a Panamanian studying Environmental Engineering. They have been married for about a year and have a Siberian Husky puppy named Leah. Cute, beautiful, and a little feisty. They had a spare room that they let us use and helped us learn to navigate Panama city’s myriad of buses and taxis. Ronald loves to talk economics etc so he and I got along great. He is interested in starting a batting cage business here in Panama (it is a big baseball country, but no batting cages!!). He currently works as an accountant in a supermarket. We shared some Chilean wine with them and helped clean up after the puppy!!
The rainforest of Panama is stunning. We caught the bus to the bus station to cut down on the taxi expenses. We asked the taxi driver if he knew where the park was. The first driver said no and left. The second called on the phone. While he was talking a third came up and said he knew the way and that he would take us for $5. I felt funny about this, but Sara was ready to go. We hopped in and he tried to take us somewhere else and say that it was where we wanted to go. A few moments later, Sara said she had a funny feeling and wanted to know if we should get out. I said, “na, it’s okay.” (Hint…always listen to your wife’s hunches.) When we didn’t fall for this he went inside to ask and came out rather downfaced. “It is much farther,” he said in broken English. “we thought so” we answered in Spanish. “How about $13” said Sara. “OK” he said and we were off again motoring into the jungled countryside past the canal. Finally, he pulled up to a building that said “National Park”—“Open” that was completely locked with no one in sight.
After a moment of conferring he said,” surely we had to go further in to another spot.” He kept driving until he finally pulled up in front of a gigantic resort. I asked to pay, and he said,” No, we’ll take care of it later. What time do you want me to come back?” We arranged the pick up, and he left Sara and I to our tour.
The rain forest trees tower into the sky and it rains almost every day after the heat of the day drives the humidity up. The diversity of animal life is dazzling. We took a small boat trip to the “Isla de Monos” --Monkey Island. Did I mention that Sara loves monkeys…anyhooo. We went there. We saw cappuchin monkeys, howler monkeys, iguanas, crocodiles, turtles, and various birds. It was truly amazing.
After a torrential downpour we met up with our “friendly taxi driver” again.
He took us back to the terminal. We gave him $40 figuring for the extra distance plus tip. He said,” No way. You owe me $60.” After a small conference, Sara and I left the cab and left him with our $40. We went into the nearby mall to cool off before taking the bus home. A few moments later we heard him yelling behind us. He caught up to us and said he wanted us to wait for the police. We said it was fine with us, but he had to get the police.
He disappeared, and we headed for the exit. As we prepared to leave he stopped us again and asked a security guard to call the police. Meanwhile he intimated, “This will take at least an hour for the police to come. Just give me $10.” “No ,” said Sara. “we’ll wait for the police. It’s okay.” “He will bail before we get to the station,” I said.
The police finally came, and he began badgering us again. The police warned us,” This could take several hours.” Meanwhile the taxi driver again whispered to us,” $10 and I’ll go.”
Sara responded calmly again, “No, It’s okay. We have time.” As we headed to the police station, he still tried to badger Sara, and I kept between him and her. The walk to the station was long, through the whole bus terminal and out the back door. About half way through he disappeared.
“He’s gone,” I said.
“He just needs to get his taxi moved,” said the police man.
We had a really nice conversation with the police men in the station. They reminded us to set a price before entering the taxi. We assured them that we had. The police were very friendly and courteous. Ten minutes passed, and then twenty. “He is not coming back,” I said. After thirty minutes the police said we could go and escorted us to our bus. WOW. That was a adrenaline rush.
We visited the Casco Viejo…the old part of the city…
which was founded about 100 years after the original city which was sacked by Henry Morgan…that is right Captain Morgan of later rum fame. Sir Henry Morgan to fans of the British Empire. The old city is charming and in a state of semi-renovation due to tourist interest. The beautiful buildings are painted different pastel colors which reinforce the Carribbean vibe. You can look in one building and see marble stairs and deluxe apartments. In the next building, which looks identical, a glance inside reveals only the sky above and a decaying staircase that leads nowhere.
The French embassy still inhabits the southern point of land near the French Plaza and the original Cathedral sits on the plaza of independence. A handful of completely forlorn ruins of churches and monasteries dot the rest of the old city. We ate in the local market to get our fill of rice cooked in coco water with beans. The pork chops and onions were fantastic and we spoke to one of the local businessmen who brought the pork to the market that morning.