Monday dawned bright and clear, and Zach, Clayton, and I hopped on a bus to Miraflores Locks, a museum and viewing station for the Panama Canal just north of Panama City. The journey was fairly smooth, though we did get off a stop early in our confusion. Only when we were off the bus did we understand what the bus driver had been trying to tell us, and why he shook his head as he drove off. Unphased, we set off to complete the half mile to our destination.
We traipsed up the hill to the museum that doubled as a viewing platform and purchased our tickets. We then tried to get to the highest viewing platform, and after several attempts and several staircases, (nothing can possibly be straightforward in Panama), we found ourselves on the fourth floor overlooking one of the wonders of the modern world.
The Panama Canal is a waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, is critical for international maritime trade, and is an extraordinary feat of engineering. The French were the first to try and build the Panama canal in the 1880s after their success with the Suez Canal in Egypt, but failed due to being unprepared for the tropical conditions. The US took over in the early 1900s, connecting large lakes throughout the isthmus to join the two oceans. Americans retained control until 1977, when it was handed over completely to the Panamanians, with much rejoicing on the Panamanian side. There are multiple lanes now, allowing for absolutely enormous cargo ships to fit through, sometimes with mere feet on either side. It takes about six to eight hours for ships to pass through, and midday the direction changes, so there’s a big time gap in the middle where you can’t see any ships go through as they wait for them to clear out. Ships pay enormous fees to go through the canal, the average being about $150,000, but some of the ships can pay a few million to get through depending on their size and what they’re carrying. And yet, the fees are peanuts to them. Capitalism!
We had arrived early, so luckily the viewing platform was basically empty and we could get good views of some giant ships passing through. We watched as one oil tanker slowly made its way through the lock. It was bizarre – everything seemed to move so slowly, but if you looked away for a second, the ship had moved into a lock and had risen by dozens of feet already. The power involved is incredible, but it’s all based on how the water flows back and forth with gravity, and the opening and closing of the locks. For something so spectacular, it is a wonderfully smooth process.
We meandered through the museum, learning about the history of the canal and how it was built thanks to well-thought out exhibits and a short film in a theater. We were even provided the option to steer a ship (!)…..virtually. We went out to watch a cruise ship pass through, but by that time the viewing deck was so crowded we decided to leave.
Back in Panama City, headed to Casco Viejo where we were to meet Victor, a friend of Zach’s that he volunteers with teaching children English in the Chorrillo neighborhood. Chorrillo is a neighborhood that borders Casco Viejo, and one of the poorer parts of the city. As we waited we bought some Geisha coffee at the American Trade Hotel. Geisha coffee from Panama is considered one of the best coffees in the world, and some varieties, depending on where it comes from, is the most expensive in the world. I paid $9 for a small cup, and to tell the truth, I didn’t taste much difference from a regular coffee. It tasted like a light roast with floral notes. Though I suppose this wasn’t one of the more expensive varieties. I guess I learned that if you’re going to shell out for Geisha coffee, you might as well pay more for the real deal.
Victor soon found us, and we began our tour. A long-time resident of Panama City, Victor is a fount of information on the surrounding area and Chorrillo, where he spends the majority of his time helping out the community. We walked from the central square of Casco Viejo a few streets over to enter Chorrillo. Victor pointed out the policemen walking up and down the street that bordered the two neighborhoods, explaining that they were there to stop “white people” from accidentally crossing over unawares. Because the neighborhoods were so close to one another, it was easy to wander over into Chorrillo, and they didn’t want unsuspecting tourists to find themselves in an area they may not want to be in.
The shift between the renovated, clean, and elegant buildings of Casco Viejo and the run-down, dilapidated, seemingly forgotten buildings of Chorrillo was indeed sudden, and the difference was like night and day. In the first block, we spied cock fighting, trash everywhere, and buildings literally crumbling before our eyes. It was at this time that Christine was able to join us, and Victor regaled the four of us with some of the neighborhood history. This part of town was caught up in the cross fires, quite literally, during the American ousting of Panamanian President Manuel Noriega in 1989. Troops came through and many people fled, and the end result was empty buildings with weapons left behind. For many years after, Chorrillo was rife with gang violence. Victor casually pointed out corners where there were shootouts and deaths, where one gang territory had ended and another began, etc. But things have improved quite a bit over the past few years, and these days it is much safer. Indeed, I felt perfectly safe walking through the neighborhood with Victor. The fact that everyone seemed to know Victor personally didn’t hurt – everyone called out greetings and seemed happy to see him. My first impression that Victor acted as a pillar of the community didn’t seem to be far off.
Victor took us to a training gym where famous boxers trained and pointed out houses where famous soccer players came from. It was beautiful to me how the community seemed to focus on the heroes – despite the struggles the neighborhood is facing, it is clear that the positive role models are incredibly important and instill a fierce sense of pride in the community.
Not long after Victor showed us where he and Zach taught English at the community center, we turned down a side street and Victor was immediately rushed by a group of beaming children. He was drowning in hugs and shouts, and the sight was so pure it almost moved me to tears. And before I knew it, for some inexplicable reason I was being hugged by all the children too. The young girls especially took a liking to me, and as we continued down the street, they all seemed to want to hold my hand. The children took us to a soccer field in the neighborhood and asked us to play with them. We obliged, despite the midday heat.
These kids were good. Like, I-was-embarrassed-to-play-with-them good. I don’t pretend to know the first thing about soccer, but being about fifteen years older than most of them falsely led me to believe I could get by without making a fool of myself. How wrong I was. I reverted back to my school-day tactics of hanging out wherever the ball wasn’t, while somehow looking like I was always running towards it. It’s a method perfected over many years. What can I say, I was a rower – land sports aren’t my thing. In any case, I was impressed, and I can tell that many of the kids see soccer as a way to get out of their current situation. I hope that the socio-economic situation in Chorrillo can continue to improve so that it’s not their only option, especially since it appeared that there weren’t any neighborhood girl’s teams (though Zach did give Victor the idea to start one up, so perhaps that will change in the near future).
After saying goodbye to the children (and after patiently explaining to some young girls that no, I’d prefer not to give them my class ring), we stopped for lunch at a restaurant closer to Casco Viejo. Victor ordered our lunches, and Clayton and I shared our delicious dishes of rice, fish, chicken, and plantains. We thanked Victor effusively for the informative tour. It was truly an honor to have met him, and I ardently hope that he can continue to make the positive progress he wants in the area.
After enjoying some paletas in Casco Viejo, Clayton and I struck out on our own. We hoped to go see Panamá Viejo, historic ruins that are what is left of Old Panama City, the original capital. We nervously hailed a taxi, well aware that between us we had about three words of Spanish. We did manage to communicate where we wanted to go, and we were soon off through the streets. I observed how driving was done in Panama City with wide eyes, knowing full well that I would need to drive a rental car out of the city that very night. As I watched cars swerve and honk, I was not comforted.
Sadly, when we arrived at Panamá Viejo, we found out that it was closed for some reason hastily explained to us in Spanish. The taxi driver asked where we wanted to go next, and fearing an astronomical ride charge, we asked to be dropped off at the nearest bus station. Our driver took us to the next closest one, explaining in broken English that the neighborhood the first one we saw was in was “no good”. We were dubious this was true, but didn’t have much choice. Finally, it was time to disembark and pay.
Taxis in Panama are unmetered, and it’s generally understood that you’ll haggle a price at the end of the ride. This is much, much easier when you speak the same language. Unfortunately, many taxi drivers will take advantage of non-Spanish speakers and charge exorbitant fees. For example, we’d be asked for $15 when we’d taken a $5 ride. We’d been warned against this, and told to stand our ground. Although it’s considered normal, I was really uncomfortable haggling with such extremes. Ubers are clearly a lot easier for tourists to deal with since prices are set by the app, but recently the taxi drivers in Panama lobbied against Uber and won. The ensuing strict rules for Uber drivers resulted in a sharp decline of availability. It’s a shame that tourists are made to feel so uncomfortable, and I admit it left me with a more negative feeling than I would have liked.
In any case, soon enough we were on a bus back to Zach and Christine’s apartment, and Christine very kindly came with us to pick up the rental car that would be taking us to Valle del Anton. The process for picking up the rental was a lot smoother than I had anticipated (mostly due to Christine’s patient translations), and suddenly I was behind the wheel in Panama City during rush hour. Driving in Panama was an experience in and of itself, so I will be dedicating an entire post to the ordeals.
The day ultimately ended with Zach, Christine, Clayton and I all safe in Valle del Anton, (though I was about twenty years older due to the stress of getting us there). Clayton and I were staying at a quaint bed and breakfast that doubled as a sloth rescue, but given it was dark, we wouldn’t be able to see much until the following day. Exhausted, we collapsed into sleep.