Friday, January 18, 2008

Dispatch 33 Panama City

January 1 - 22, 2008
Well, here we are at the big city, Panama City, Panama. The skyline rivals most large size cities with skyscrapers, lots of new construction. The Canal is being expanded, hotels are being built. To all appearances, Panama City is thriving. It is a traffic filled dirty city with almost any store imaginable including several American style malls. The people are really nice and proud of their country. It is one of a cruiser’s promised lands (in that boat parts, nearly anything, can be gotten here.) Getting to where you need to go, though, takes time and patience.

So here, for all of you who wondered, are 2 examples of what we do all day. Day 1 after the New Year holiday, we and friends went to find the French Consulate to get 6 month visas for French Polynesia which we had heard could “easily” be gotten here. Normally, one gets 1 month and can extend for a total of 3 months in these South Pacific islands.

Four of us took a taxi to drop off our laundry at a place 3 miles from the boat. First we turned down 3 taxis who wanted to charge too much. Then I had a haircut on the way to the YMCA to do internet. 15 minutes and $7 later, I was shorn to my satisfaction. After the internet, looking at the map, it looked like we could walk to Plaza de Francia, the site of the French Consulate—maybe 3 miles, we’re all in good shape. So we headed out walking. Our map didn’t correlate with the street names we were seeing totally, but we were assured we were going the right way every once in a while when they seemed to correlate. At one point, we asked whether we were on the right street of a military looking guy on the street. He promptly told us that this was not a good neighborhood and we should catch a cab. At nearly the same moment, a bus was coming by and the bus assistant stepped down to ask us where we were going, and told us we should take the bus for the same reason. When we said, it’s not far and we’ll walk, the bus assistant shrugged and the military guy offered to guide us for a sum of money. We conferred for a moment and finally jumped on the bus. The bus, during this transaction had slowed to a crawl to wait for us. When we got near our destination, the bus assistant told us where to get off, walking part way with us being sure we understood the directions and then returning to the slow moving bus, all this for 25 cents.

Then we had to ask 2 or 3 other people where the French consulate was and found our way there. Whew. We went up to the door only to find out it was ten minutes after closing—1:10 PM. Damn. They weren’t closed for lunch, they were closed for the day. Oh well, at least now we knew where it was. Then it was lunch time so we went to a “locals” type restaurant as opposed to the up-scale places we had seen once we got near the consulate as we were now through the bad neighborhood and into a very lovely colonial area of town. Lunch was $3.65 total for both of us and was delicious.

Then the four of us split up. Richard and I went back to the YMCA to buy the solar panel we had seen in the marine shop nearby and our friends went to a dive shop to have a regulator fixed. Then we carried the solar panel a half mile back to the laundry which wasn’t ready on time so we sat and waited for it to be done. Then we took a cab back to the dock, loaded our laundry, another cruiser’s laundry and our solar panel on the dinghy and carefully headed to our boat in 20 knots of wind trying not to get our clean laundry wet.

The next day, we headed out, confident now of our French Consulate experience. We took a cab to the place, marched in good and early and were made to sit for 45 minutes for no particularly explained reason being the only people in the waiting area. Finally a woman came out and took our two friends in and our friends found out all we needed to know, except, how long they need to keep our passports. We needed to fill out forms, get financial statements, bring copies of various documents, attach pictures, pay some money and, voila, we would have 90 day visas for French Polynesia. Whoa, we thought we could get 6 months, but, no, we can, a little more easily than in the Marquesas perhaps, score the same visa we could get by arriving there with no preparation. Hmmph.

Our next task that day was to get aluminum support struts for our new solar panel. The same friends wanted the same thing so, again, the 4 of us took off confidently to the Do-It-Center, a large hardware chain (yes, we thought of Nike and other things too) where we felt sure they would cut us a length of aluminum strut and we’d be on our way. We walked a couple miles first through the lovely colonial neighborhood, then through a seedier part of town (smell of urine on the walls) to the bus route, grabbed a bus with the help of a very nice local guy (buses are 25 cents each), got off near the Do-It-Center, had a quick lunch at a Chinese place nearby (Richard and I had unidentifiable beef parts in our stew-like lunch served over rice. After close examination, we decided we were eating intestinal cow parts and both of us subsequently focused on the rice and coleslaw leaving a pile of cow parts on the plate.)

The Do-It-Center looked so promising, but, no they don’t sell aluminum plate strips. They recommended an aluminum window fabrication place and even placed a dot on our map where the place was. We confidently called a cab, told him where to go, and debarked near the pharmacy landmark we’d been told. Then we walked for 45 minutes in every direction and were unable to locate the store. Most of the people we asked had no idea. Finally, a guy in front of his house figured out what we wanted. We had been dropped off at the wrong branch of the pharmacy landmark and, if we walked another mile, we’d find the store. So we did. We walked in, were sent around back to the fabrication shop and were promptly told they don’t make what we want. So we called another cab and asked to go to another place we had been told to look, Metallica Perez. Our map had that place marked so we told the cab where to go. When we didn’t find the place on the map where it was shown, this time we stayed in the cab and searched up and down the streets looking for it. This cab driver was incredible—called on his cell phone, got the business phone number, found out where they are and drove us there (not even close to where it had been marked on the map). We gave him more money than we had initially bargained for because he was so helpful.

We were ushered into a very claustrophobic office, made to wait a bit with no explanation and finally a very nice guy took our guys aside, found out what they wanted and it was made for us on the spot. By now, it was 4 PM. As we left to catch a cab back to the boats, we turned down a couple because of high fares. Twice we were approached by concerned people that we shouldn’t be in this neighborhood because it was dangerous. They were very anxious for us and relieved when we finally caught a cab. We stopped off to do more internet at TGI Fridays (!!) and finally walked 3 miles “home” from there dead tired.

Without further boredom, let’s just say the next day’s adventures to check in at Immigration, Customs, the Port Captain’s offices (part of which was accomplished by filling out papers on the trunk of the Port Captain’s car) then a trip to Pricesmart for provisioning were equally time consuming, frustrating and exhausting.

And that’s what we do all day when we arrive at “civilization.” I think that might also answer the “What do you do for exercise?” question we are often asked.

Another feature of this city is the indigenous population. There are at least 5 indigenous groups here, the most well known of which are the Kuna Indians of the San Blas islands. Each group makes its own unique crafts and live simply as they have for hundreds of years. Thanks to modern technology, though, sometimes we have the great paradoxical juxtaposition of traditional dress and lifestyle updated by the use of cell phones, for instance.

We are anchored just off the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. We wound our way through about 36 huge ships at anchor awaiting their transit time on our way here. As we sit in our cockpit in the cool of the morning or evening, we watch huge ships glide silently by on their way in and out of the canal. We can just barely see the Bridge of the Americas, the bridge that connects North and South America across the Canal. Many minutes after the giants slip by, a large wake rocks our boat to remind us of the traffic. We share this anchorage with, now, 25 boats and more are arriving daily. Everyone is taking this opportunity to replenish their supplies, repair their boats or prepare to transit the Canal. We try to take time to do some sightseeing between our tasks and did go to the Canal museum. Meanwhile, we look forward to completing our tasks, and taking off back to the islands.

Happy New Year to you all and hope you are all happy and healthy in 2008. Keep in touch.