[060507; 1643 UTC,
[Balboa Yacht Club, Panamá City, Republic of Panamá,
N 08 degrees 56.31’ / W 079 degrees 33.51’]
¡Lo sentimos! We haven’t forgotten to write an update, it’s just that life has been hectic here in the big city. Hectic, (you say—ha!), we’re just leisurely cruising, right? We often wonder how we ever had time to work for a living, keep a house AND keep a boat ship-shape. Our “to do” lists always seems endless. Then we realized; it IS endless because so many items on it are maintenance and everything takes more time when you are in a strange city and don’t know where you are going or what you will find when you get there.
When we last wrote, we were anchored off Isla San Jose in the southern Perlas Islands of Panamá awaiting a weather window to head to Isla Contadora, one of the northernmost Perlas Islands and where we would find some desperately needed fresh food provisions. We then planned on heading 39 miles into Panamá City to the Balboa Yacht Club at the south end of the Panamá Canal. As you can tell from our current position, we made it.
Arriving in the city, and at the canal, and especially seeing the spectacular and expansive skyline of brilliant, modern skyscrapers was a milestone for us. It was almost difficult to believe…Carina, at the PANAMÁ CANAL!
We are now moored at the Balboa Yacht Club. When you think of a “yacht club”, you would not imagine Balboa. The clubhouse burned down many years ago, though a new clubhouse is promised soon on a site above and north of the old foundation. A makeshift outdoor restaurant/bar under a tin roof serves as a social center, while the office is in a small elevated building on the end of the pier. Services consist of moorings with old automobile tires as floats; a 24/7 water taxi service of old, though serviceable, diesel driven lanchas; a WIFI setup that delivers (at least most days) internet to your boat; small marginal showers and bathroom facilities; and access to potable water, diesel and gasoline.
The yacht club bills itself as “at the crossroads of the world”, and its location is truly its finest asset. Our mooring sits 200 feet off the Panamá Canal channel that leads, after passing under the graceful Puente (Bridge) de las Americas, to the Miraflores locks, the first set of locks on the Pacific side. The club also sits at the edge of the old Amador military base (much of which is now a park) and there is a malecon that leads from the yacht club pier along the water (about three miles) to Flamenco Signal Station on Flamenco Island that serves the canal and port with radio communications control.
From our mooring we watch as ships begin their passage to the Atlantic and others spill out into the Pacific as they finish their southbound transit from the Atlantic. These are ships of all sizes; from 30 foot sailboats to the huge “Panamaxes”. These ships barely fit the locks; their sides only one or two feet from the concrete lock walls. For an idea of the comparable size of these giants, go to our website (http://www.sv-carina.org ), click on “Our Pictures”, and then click on “Panama”. One of the photos near the caption, “Panama City” shows a container ship heading up the canal. Carina is the itsy-bitsy sailboat immediately visible from this perspective as directly in front of the ship’s bow. To get more information on the Panamá Canal visit the canal website: http://www.pancanal.com or read David McCullough’s enthralling book, The Path Between Two Seas, a history of how the Panamá Canal came to be.
We’ve been very, very, very busy since we arrived here in the city. We’ve been working daily to repair and maintain Carina, including a haul-out on the tidal rail system, an insurance survey, and repacking of our life raft. Here in the “Emerald City”—as Panamá City became known by fellow cruisers who were six-plus months in transit from the last urban supply center—we have also acquired many needed boat parts and supplies; attended to medical and dental check-ups for us and vaccinations for Jake. We’ve also fallen into the Panamá cruiser’s social scene, such as it is.
Panama IS truly a crossroads of the world. Yachts from all over the world (Finland, Israel, Japan, Australia, Scotland, etc.) congregate either at the Balboa Yacht Club or the nearby anchorage, La Playita Amador (little beach). The megayachts and the well-moneyed folks are just across the causeway from La Playita at the Flamenco Marina. Most of the US boats here are ones that have traveled in the same general direction we have, some all the way from Mexico. This is pretty much the meeting place for boats before they transit the canal northbound or head to Ecuador, the Galapagos or points farther west. A few cruisers, however, seem to “get stuck” in Panama and find it difficult to leave. Some have put down semi-permanent roots and have purchased condos or other types of property, either to occupy or to use as an investment. Roosevelt, one of the taxi drivers we’ve used frequently, tells us that the duplex houses that were used to house US military personnel can be purchased “though they’re pretty expensive, man – like $75,000!”
Because living expenses are reasonable (and the government is encouraging retirement here), Panamá “boasts” a sizable US ex-pat population. (Panamá will apparently grant permanent resident status to anyone who can prove a monthly income of at least $500.)
Tony, another English-speaking taxi driver told us that retirees can live quite well here on a monthly income of only $1,500 to $2,000; a married couple “like kings” for ~$3,000.
Here are some examples of what goods and services can cost:
Doctor’s visit $20
Veterinarian exam: $10
Teeth cleaning (sterile facilities and US trained hygienist): $30
Dental X-rays $5 each
Taxi ride; 5 miles: $2
Huge bouquet of fresh basil: $0.60
One month’s supply of prescription drugs: $25 (versus $125 in the US)
Cappucino Royale (topped with cream and cinnamon): $1.07
Surgery (based on a friend’s experience): follow-up care, anesthesia, biopsies, medicines and operating room < $1,000.
We may have mentioned this before but we weren’t prepared for what we have found in Panamá. The natural beauty of Panamá is stunning: uninhabited islands, steaming jungles, wild rivers, lots of wildlife and volcanoes. We’re coming to believe that our lack of understanding about Panamá is not uncommon, and may be the reason why Panamá doesn’t have the popular appeal as a vacation destination among Americans. Panameños are particularly warm and friendly people and seem comfortable with themselves and the significance of their country’s assets to the world. Here too, there seems to be a greater mix of races and ethnicities, resulting in a beautiful spectrum of skin-color and features. The indigenous cultures (Kuna, Emberá, Wounan, etc.) remain strong while many European, Asian, African, East Indian and West Indian peoples represent significant factions that have blended together and produced a unique mezcla (mix). Here, handsome and beautiful features are more frequently stunning and exotic, especially with women.
Panameños seem to especially value US citizens. We’ve been told repeatedly, by particularly those in the working class, that Panamá was in much better economic shape when the US controlled the canal and when the “Zone” was essentially US soil. These people lament both the job losses and the perceived opportunities for political malfeasance and misappropriation of funds that they believe resulted from the pullout of the USA.
Not planning to transit the canal ourselves, we jumped at the opportunity to volunteer as “line handlers” and therefore transit the canal on another cruiser’s sailboat. Bob and Cheryl on New Passage asked us, along with Marsha and Rick of She Wolf, to make the transit with them. This was a remarkable experience spread over two days; many hours of waiting that was interrupted by periods of exhilarating activity. Our host boat was a lovely, comfortable, pristine Valiant 40, and our hosts and fellow crew were experienced, witty and fun to get to know. Sadly, both Bob and Cheryl and Rick and Marsha, our new friends, are on the north side of the isthmus and it is unlikely we will cross paths again while cruising. Such is the cruising experience—friendships are made quickly and can be close and intense, though time together is most often ephemeral as we embark to follow our own paths across the seas.
Each sailboat that transits the canal does so under the guidance of a canal “advisor”, who boards your boat from a pilot boat and travels with you during your entire passage. The quality of the advisors varies from individual to individual, though all are professional mariners with maritime academy training and, in many instances, years of maritime experience. A shortage of advisors is a problem for the canal and seems to be the most common reason why transit waiting times for yachts are currently three weeks or more. This problem also resulted in a delay of one day for New Passage and the belated departure on the day of transit.
During our two day transit we actually had two advisors (yes two, one for each day) assigned to New Passage. These men were personable, involved and interesting to talk with. Since we started our transit late in the morning, we were unable to make the transit in one day and had to spend the night in Lake Gatun tied to a monstrous, car-sized, orange, rubber mooring ball. The first advisor (Rene) left us that night and we had another one (Frank) come aboard the next afternoon for our final leg, down-locking at Gatun Locks into Limón Bay and into the Atlantic Ocean.
Perhaps the most compelling experience we’ve had in Panamá was the day we spent visiting the Emberá Drua, indigenous people who live in the Parque Nacional Rio Chagres. Our opportunity to visit these intriguing people came as the result of the intervention with a cruiser’s friend, named Sarah, who lives in Panamá, speaks perfect Spanish (and English) and used to visit the village when she worked for the embassy.
The Emberá people live primarily in the Darien, though Emilio Caisamo, an Emberá, relocated with his sons to the Rio Chagres (east and above of Gatun Lake) in 1975 in an attempt to find a home where they could live and prosper without suffering from activities of Colombian guerrillas who had made their home lands unsafe. (They located their village at the site of a Panamá Canal weather station and still report the status of the river to the Canal authorities via an incongruous satellite telephone housed in a modern telephone booth in the center of the village.) As the village became established, more families joined the village, and even now, Emberá from the Darien relocate to join this village.
The Emberá Drua village on the Rio Chagres consists of 105 individuals (about 45 are children), is located miles up the Rio Chagres from the nearest road, about an hour’s drive into the hills above the city. Access is by enormous cayucos, carved from a single tree, that hold eight passengers and two highly-competent village crew. The Emberá live simply in the jungle in raised palm roofed homes, though they utilize some modern implements, like outboard engines to propel their cayucos upriver against strong currents and through rapids. Protective of their autonomy and the preservation of their culture, many continue to speak Emberá, though they are educated in and mainly speak Spanish.
These small and physically-fit, warm, friendly people continue to dress traditionally in small bits of light cloth perfectly suited for the rain forest jungle climate of their home. We perceived during our visit that there may have been a few subtle changes to their dress to ensure modesty. Women and girls covered their chests with lavish beaded necklaces—some with heirloom silver coins adorning them—which we noticed were beginning to come off as we began to depart. Brightly colored cloth, paluma that was in earlier times constructed of a soft tree bark called cocuá serve as skirts for women and (brief) coverings for men. Thin but wide silver bracelets are handed down through families and worn constantly.
The political and social structure of the village is quite complex with committees set up for various functions such as coordinating tourism activities, etc. Education is provided by the government, though once a child reaches age ten, they must leave the village and live with a host family to continue to attend school.
Our thrilling all-day visit to the village commenced with greetings from teams of men who had brought three cayucos to the road at the muddy banks of Puerto El Corotu to meet our taxis. Giving us orange life vests (which most of us immediately removed once we were underway), they helped us to climb into the heirloom log cayucos before one fit young man climbed aboard the bow with a long pole while a second one sat on the stern and controlled the 50 hp outboard engine that pushed us through the rapids and shoals upriver. The men continuously communicated in brief singing whistles as the lookout watched the water intently for rocks, logs, shoals and rapids and signaled the pilot to accelerate or slow as we progressed slowly upstream. Coordinating poling to keep up pointed upriver with bursts of speed from the engine, our cayucos generally traversed shallows easily, though twice hombres in our party were asked to jump overboard and help push us off the rocks.
Arriving at the village, set high on a hill at the bend in the river, we were greeted by villagers playing traditional instruments. Others, women, men and children scurried across the gravelly beach and greeted us warmly in Spanish, taking our hands in welcome. After we were all ashore, we followed the villagers up a steep, stepped path into the packed dirt central plaza that was dominated by a palm roofed, open, communal meeting hall with a raised floor made of seemingly-fragile bark of the palma jira (sp. Socratea durissima). Access to the main level was via a log into which steps had been chipped.
Once we were seated on log benches, we were given a presentation of the history and life in the village by a young man who is the grandson of the founder. He explained how palms are critical to their homes and tools and crafts and that their beliefs dictate that products of palms are harvested solely when the moon is full. Others, included tattooed Marilena, explained how the beautiful Darién canastas (baskets) are made from harvested and dyed portions of the palma negra (palma chonga) dyed naturally with pigments derived from such things as cocobolo wood, achiote pepper, teak leaves, etc, gathered from the surrounding jungle. We were also introduced to the spectacular, fine and richly-glowing carvings done in cocobolo wood and the carvings of the large, white, ivory-hard seeds of palma taguá. Sitting around the perimeter of the room were women watching, listening and working on baskets, who would shyly talk about their crafts to anyone sitting nearby. Philip was especially intrigued by the work of one lovely young woman named Andrea (see her photo on our website) who explained that a (12”) basket may take her a month or more to complete if she is only able to work on it during the evening hours. For this basket, she expects to earn about $30 for her family ($1 per day is the pricing). If she sells it to an intermediary, she can only ask ~$10 for this same month’s work. We wanted to buy all of her baskets, but settled upon a magnificent representation adorned by a bright tortuga (turtle), palomas (butterflies), patos (ducks) and her own family’s unique symbol. Later, after music and dancing presentations by the village and while Philip sat for a temporary tattoo by a village artisan, Andrea and her tiny boy sat with us and simply chatted about her village and her life.
Another highlight of the visit we a short hike with the extremely fit, eighty-four year old medicine man of the village. Dressed traditionally (what little there was) and barefoot he took us up, up, up the hill into the jungle and then down into his botanical garden where he showed us plants used for everything from headaches, to snakebites, to contraception, to enhancing male virility! Patient with our questions, he showed us the plants used for baskets, roots used for dyes and even a tarantula’s nest by the trailside!
We could write volumes about how delighted we were to meet and share some time with these warm, welcoming people and would encourage others to take the opportunity to visit and learn of them and their fascinating life in the jungle, preserving their traditions in an encroaching modern world. A couple of websites offer more information and photos to augment our own (www.sv-carina.org , click Our Pictures and then click Panamá); these are: http://www.nativeplanet.org/indigenous/embera/emberadrua.htm and http://trail2.com/embera/ .
Our time in Cuidad Panamá is beginning to come to an end as we continue to push the beneficial season for traveling south to Ecuador. We don’t however, feel that we’ve had the chance to explore this país (country) and its people fully and thus our plan—at this moment—is to return to these shores next dry season.
Sus amigos del velero, Carina
Philip, Leslie y el gato supremo, Jake
Balboa, Republic of Panamá