My friend Michelle visited a couple of weeks ago. She sent us an email along the lines of, “Hey, are you guys going to be around for the next eight or so days if I were to fly down?” And after we replied in the affirmative, the next email had flight dates and times. Right on! We picked her up at the Panama international airport where she was NOT arrested and thrown in prison for smuggling in Meyer Lemons (OH. MY. GOD.) packed in a large high-quality ziplock freezer bag (I was also stoked on the bag; this is because I am a huge dork) and I spent no less than three days smelling them and generally freaking out over the brilliance that is a Meyer Lemon. They just don’t care for lemons here, did I mention this? It is a shocking oversight on the part of Central America if you ask me.
[Aren’t they beautiful?]
So we spent a week relaxing (i.e., not running around town in the blasting heat trying to find a DC potentiometer or somesuch, which doesn’t exist here) and playing tourist.
First in order was to introduce Michelle to the Panamanian Night Scene, which involves an inordinate amount of beer and confusion as to where to go now, where to go next, where to go for ‘el arranque’ (last drink), and where to go for all subsequent arranques. Thankfully cousin Tito was there to help us with the logistics.
Jet lag ingeniously staved off by a hangover the next morning, we headed down to Cinco de Mayo where we caught a bus on to the Miraflores Locks museum and visitors center. Here you can view the big ships (and sometimes the little sailboats) going up and down in the water. It’s really terribly exciting. We wandered around the museum which was fairly educational of course but my favorite parts were the vitrines of butterflies and other freaky bugs typically found in the area and a simulated bridge of a container ship with a wide screen that makes it look like You are the Pilot going through the locks. So you can push buttons and flip toggle switches and bark out orders on the fake phone until someone else comes into the room, and then you stand around quietly, trying to look intelligent until you finally say, “huh,” and move on to the next display.
Out on the observation deck we watched a car carrier and a large tanker full of something that may have been flammable, that is, if the Danger Orange paint job and ten-foot lettering advising you to NOT use cell phones or monkey around with naked lights was any indication. After watching the ships go down to the Pacific, we went back into the freezing air conditioning to watch a bizarre educational film on the canal that was edited like that Will Smith movie where he is being stalked by a bunch of computer geeks (Enemy of the State, maybe) with a Matrix soundtrack.
[We went with Tito inland towards the deserted former Canal Zone town of Gamboa and on the way stopped at a botanical park and zoo. Here is Tito frolicking amongst the bamboo.]
[Baby two-toed sloth. He was so adorable I thought I would keel over on the spot. Exceedingly lucky people in the know (Tito) can find the sloth-keeper dude and actually get to hold him but today he was sick (poor guy!) and so we could only peep at him in his crate with his teddy bear and try not to die of cute overload.]
[One must always be careful not to hit pokey-nosed beasties with wide blunt whiskers.]
[God Loves Tourists in Gamboa, but evidently not Gamboa itself, which looked like it hadn’t seen a tourist since the late 80s.]
The next day we stocked the cooler with ice and pulled anchor to head out to Isla Taboga for the day. The sail over was exceedingly mellow, as opposed to the last trip out to Taboga with Tito and Rachel when it blew like snot and the seas were choppy and ugly. Then it took us about a billion years to anchor since it was a weekend and all the power boaters were floating all over the mooring field where the only quiet anchoring spot lies. “Oh, you mean it’s not always like this?” asked Rachel after we finally anchored out in some major chop. Lucky for Michelle who has a history of seasickness, it was calm and there were no power boats in the anchorage; we chucked the anchor overboard only minutes before we were able to jump over ourselves.
[Michelle in Taboga.]
[Cathedral in Taboga, which has a plaque explaining that the original foundations were constructed shortly after the village was founded in 1524. It did not mention when the Vegas remodel took place.]
Taboga is a pretty little island with a history full of pirate-sacking and lacks only a decent anchorage. There is a small colorful town nestled on one side and more footpaths than roads. We wandered around town in the blazing heat until we wizened up and found a shady trail around the northern side of the island where there were a bunch of old WWII bunkers, collapsing with age and covered with vines and jungly overgrowth. Michelle was completely fascinated with the ruins and spent an alarming amount of brain power trying to figure out what the series of ditches, covered sunken areas, and culvert-looking things could have been used for. I stood around geeking over the preponderance of enormous morphos, among other gorgeous butterflies and wondering if it was possible to catch them (it’s pretty much not). The morphos on Taboga are particularly awesome—extremely large, opaque, and more violet blue than usual. Joshua found about a hundred leetle froggies and spent probably twenty minutes trying to get a good photo of the guys, who moved like lightning.
[This was the best one.]
We went to Casco Antiguo and wandered around the barrio looking at the nifty buildings and the Kuna women selling their molas and seed jewelry on the sidewalks. They always tell introduce you to the “mola” like you have never seen one in your life, and you walk another fifteen feet and there is another woman with molas. “Molas,” she pronounces carefully, sweeping her arm over her display. It’s an interesting area of town with slummy buildings that look like they would surely fall down if they were not held up by the buildings on either side, which might be totally renovated and decked with varnished wooden shutters, flower boxes, and ornate iron balconies. Or it might be an empty shell just waiting force of gentrification to catch up with it.
Michelle did not resist the temptation of the mola. We had fun. I hope she did too.