Friday, January 18, 2008

Dispatch 34 Panama Canal

January 12-13, 2008
Sometimes when asked about the spelling of our boat name I remind people it is a palindrome, the same forward and backward: QAYAQ (as opposed to the various spellings we get like Qayak, Quyaq) I tell them it is like another palindrome: “A man, a plan, a canal, Panama.” Now we are here in Panama and have had a chance not only to read about the amazing accomplishment of the canal but to transit it ourselves.

We both read the book The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough in which he details the history of the building of the Panama Canal from 1889 to 1914. The canal was begun by the French as a private enterprise and continued and completed by the United States government. It was completed ahead of schedule and under budget. It was an amazing engineering feat, and, to this day, some of the locks are still the original, most of the concrete work has survived and still functions after nearly 100 years. The dam which controlled the Chagres River and created the Gatun Lake is 800 meters wide at its base and tapers to 30.5 meters at its top. It has stood with no failures for almost 100 years. The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are joined here by 6 locks and a huge lake over the distance of only 50 miles.

We were invited to join a sailboat to transit from the Atlantic to the Pacific side of the Panama Canal. Word of mouth allows private yachts to find line handlers, at least 4 of whom must accompany them on their transit of the canal. They also pick up an “advisor”, a canal employee who guides and advises them and their line handlers through the transit. By picking up other boaters, they avoid paying professional line handlers, but, according to our hosts today, if the Canal Authority were aware of the casual arrangement, they could be fined.

We have our boat in Panama City on the Pacific side. Thus we took a bus for $2.50 to Colon, the Atlantic side, a 60 mile, 2 hour bus ride. There we caught a cab to the Colon Yacht Club and called our hosts. They brought us out to their boat on their dinghy and there we awaited our advisor to be dropped off. As it turned out, we had an advisor and trainee. We left at around 5:30 PM to transit the Gatun Locks, a set of 3 locks that lead up to the Gatun Lake, an artificial lake that covers 423 square kilometers (153 square miles approximately) created when the Chagres river was dammed. It took about 4 hours to drive into the locks, be lifted up 87 feet then drive onto the lake. There we were secured to a huge buoy for the night.

Our hosts were a generous and fun crew and we enjoyed our dinner and evening with them. We were up late telling stories, so, when 6:30 rolled around and the new advisor arrived for our day’s journey through the rest of the Canal, we were not, any of us, well rested. We were awakened by the ear splitting sound of the howler monkeys in the jungle around the lake. Good alarm clocks, those monkeys.

We set out across the lake, a 4 hour voyage (22.6 miles) to the Pacific side locks. This took us through the flooded highlands of the lake and through the famed Culebra Cut, the most vexing of the Canal construction issues. This is the cut through the spine of mountains in the center of the country. Despite excavating for nearly a mile in width to create the 213 yard wide canal, landslides continue to plague the area to this day during the rainy season. We saw evidence of ongoing dredge work as we transited the area. Our advisor and trainee were personable and full of information about the canal. In order to become an advisor, they need a college education and command of English. Then they work for many years building seniority. In the most senior phase, they transit the canal on huge freighters and can get a salary of 120K/year, a huge sum for Panama. Our advisors were bright and fun.

We lowered the boat through the Pedro Miguel locks and then through 2 locks at Miraflores before the gates opened to the Pacific. Another of the challenges of the locks is that tides are negligible on the Atlantic side, inches at most, and huge on the Pacific side, up to 20 feet. The locks allow the ship to be lowered to the current water level at the time of transit. While we didn’t see any, alligators and manatees live in the Gatun Lake (which did constrain our plan to swim when we arrived there…), they are reported to be in the lake by all 4 of our advisors. Also they told a story of a fisherman killed by an alligator a few months earlier while fishing from shore.

While in a lock, the boat is secured to the walls on each side by huge ropes and the line handlers (us) feed out or pull in the lines to keep the boat lined up as the water rises or falls. We were rafted to another sailboat boat both days of our transit through the locks. The first night, we followed a huge freighter through the 3 locks and, the second day, our two rafted sailboats were the only 2 boats in the locks. Very strange we thought as there were at least 20-30 boats waiting to transit on each side of the locks. We had an uneventful transit, the best kind and were safely back to our own anchorage with our new friends anchored nearby in the mid-afternoon of the second day.

We were both awed by the engineering of the Canal having read the story and appreciated the complexity. For anyone seeing it without the background, it was a rather uneventful passage through 6 locks and a lake. Still it boggles the mind that men thought to connect the 2 great oceans, completed the task and that the work done almost a century ago still functions nearly perfectly. Our hats are off to the many people who contributed to such an amazing human accomplishment. They also controlled yellow fever and malaria outbreaks to complete the accomplishment. Businesses are still required to fumigate for mosquitoes twice/year according to the owner of a tienda we visited where we saw the fumigation notice in the bathroom. The rest of the story is well worth reading so we’ll leave it to you if you’re interested.

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.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Dispatch 32 Panama

December 2 - January 22, 2008
Panama has been a blessing after our Costa Rica experience. Mostly, the weather has been so much more pleasant from the very beginning. We rounded Punta Burica into Panama and immediately, the humidity seemed to drop, the light breeze seemed more cooling, the land showed a little less of the fecund tropicality we had just left in Golfito. Initially, it rained less, but then we had a couple weeks of absolutely nightly rains. We treated these as opportunities and filled every water container each night so we could shower in rain water and rinse our snorkel gear. We learned to leave the bathing suits hanging out on the line. They were rinsed and, in the morning sun, dry by 9 AM, ready for the next snorkel.

And boy, have we snorkeled. Usually, if we find a good spot, we snorkel twice/day with lunch and a nap in between. Our favorite spot has been Isla Granito de Oro just off the coast of Isla Coiba National Park. This tiny island is surrounded by reef and the variety and volume of fish are amazing. Each day we’ve seen turtles, white tip reef sharks, eels and thousands of tropical fish. We have 2 Moorish Idols who guard the area around our mooring buoy for us (Moorish Idols are the most gorgeous fishes and if you watch Finding Nemo, it’s the black, yellow and white tough guy in the fish tank…)

What do we know about the country? Nothing yet. We’ve both read Passage Between the Seas by David McCullough which gives an encyclopedic review of the process by which the Panama Canal was built. It is a fascinating story and we can’t wait to transit the canal ourselves after reading the story. We plan to do that on someone else’s boat as line handlers. Qayaq will stay in the Pacific. We’ve met few Panamanians as we have been cruising quite independently in these uninhabited islands. Those we have seen have been friendly—a wave from a fishing boat. There are many darker skinned people here than we saw in Costa Rica—perhaps a vestige of the workers on the canal from the Carribean islands who settled here and had families.

As we approach Panama City, the Pacific entrance to the Canal, the tides have become larger. On Christmas Day, the tide will be 18 feet. That makes for some very familiar squirrely tide rips amongst these Eastern islands, Las Perlas. We worked our way here and intended to go to Panama City before Christmas, but, it is just too nice to go to the big city and we have stayed in the islands. We have now been 3 weeks without stopping at a store and so we stopped at a resort island here, Contadora. The supply boat comes once/week, Fridays only. The lady at the store told me that she doesn’t know what time they come, sometimes morning, sometimes afternoon. We walked to the store on arrival which was Thursday and decided to return early afternoon the next day hoping to stock up and leave to meet some friends on another island for Christmas. We saw the supply boat off-loading on the beach when we walked by on the way to the store. They hand carry every box and crate onto pick-up trucks that take their loads to the various stores. It is a cumbersome and time-consuming process and, when 3 hours later the store had barely started to re-stock its shelves, we gave up, returned to the boat and vowed to come back in the morning. We did have a much better time of it the next day-welcome to provisioning in Central America. We have connected with some friends from cruising in Mexico and met some new friends who have been cruising for years. Typically, any collection of cruisers results in a party if there’s an event to celebrate. So, Christmas will probably bring a party to the six boats anchored here at Isla Espiritu Santo. It should be fun.

We have written some stuff to reflect our experiences here in honor of Christmas. Christmas in the tropics is always an interesting thing, but the cruising fleet usually decorates their boats and takes it seriously. To that end, we were inspired by one day’s binocular scanning of the shore. While looking to locate the howlers monkeys we could hear roaring in the trees, Richard found an iguana, a very large one, perched in a tree, about 40 feet off the ground. There has been no recent tsunami of 40 feet and we did see one lizard in Manuel Antonio park jump onto a bush and climb to eat some leaves, but this defied the imagination. So thinking about all the things we see almost daily that we doubt our friends and family will encounter in this holiday season, we wrote our own version of:

The 12 Days of Central America Christmas
(sung to the tune of 12 Days of Christmas)

On the first day of Christmas, my true love showed to me:
An iguana in a palm tree
On the second day of Christmas my true love showed to me:
2 moorish idols and an iguana in a palm tree.
…and so on
3 vultures
4 rainy nights
5 moray eels
6 howler monkeys
7 jumping mantas
8 squawking parrots
9 crabs a crawling
10 sargeant majors
11 dolphins leaping
12 pelicans flying

We wish all of you the best in this holiday season, whatever you choose to celebrate. We hope you have good health, loved ones nearby and enjoy warm company. We know whatever company we have will be warm here in Panama.