Thursday, April 14, 2011

Panama: 1985 (Part 2)

Panama City - low tide

Tides have such an extreme control over beauty.  Muddy flats low tide and cloudy waters high tide on Pacific side of the isthmus, and crystal clear breathtaking reefs on the Atlantic side.  Mosquitoes ruled the evenings...those little black nightmares came out of hiding each night if I ventured a bit from the center of the city.  Outdoor dinner parties were more than people parties...those ominous little insect helicopters were already invading before I could even put that first tidbit of scrumptious food between my teeth, and probably more time was spent watching and swatting mosquitoes than talking to dinner guests.

Old Panama City area

Cats were everywhere downtown!  Let me rephrase that...multitudes of sick hungry cats were a permanent part of the downtown landscape.  It was heartbreaking and gruesome.  Dogs fared well if the rich owned them, fared not so well if the Americans bought the ones sold by the poor at the post entrances, fared hellish if they were served up on the dinner table.  Rats managed the most lucrative business of all.  Panama boasted about the quality of pure water in the city (due to the US), while rats grew huge eating the garbage on the streets.  The poor lived in six foot wide apartments lined in rows on the back streets, almost every one of them sporting a television antenna.  What a sight to behold...such contradictions or perhaps odd priorities.

Browsing through a shop in the old section of Panama, my San Fran buddy and I were making our selections when abruptly the front of shop roller bar pull down barrier slammed shut with a crash of metal hitting concrete.  Yelling came from various locations on the street, and our Panamanian guide left us to see what was actually happening.  We tried not to think of him never coming back, but eventually he did return, quietly taking us to our parked car and whisking us away.  Election time violence frequently erupted on the streets, and all smart people managed to vanish quickly.  I was fortunate to visit many sections of the city that no American should ever go alone if money, camera, and perhaps life is of value to ones self.  I could do this accompanied by a male Panamanian, as he was my safety net, and no one bothered me while he was in the picture.          

Old Panama City extremely small apartments

Old Panama City street vendors

Street vendors, black market vendors, lottery ticket sellers

San Fran buddy and I met a variety of Americans at our hotel, and a chance meeting in an elevator with some strange comments flying our way, led to an invite to an embassy party later that week.  We considered this guy's remarks oddball in the kindest sense, and after being clued in on what goes on at those embassy parties, decided to sit it out in our rooms watching gibberish we couldn't understand on the televisions.  Bored...we joined a trip to the San Blas Islands on the Atlantic side.  Flew over the isthmus in a 12 passenger plane...just big enough to not feel like we were gambling our life away on a game of chance. 

San Blas Islands - Atlantic Ocean

Boarded a boat from that postage stamp landing strip to the 'hotel' on the largest of the islands, stopping at little islands here and there to take short walking trips into the villages where authentic original hand stitched molas were still being sold to the tourist.My Panamanian friends had already instructed me in the art of picking out quality molas...mostly by buying the old ones that were originally the front and almost matching back of clothing that was later cut out and sold as art to rich tourist.  If you collected, you bought the pair, not just the front or back.  And it was all about bargaining.  You were expected to bargain.  You were a bit of an idiot if you didn't, and the island Indians were just that much richer.

Kuna Indian of San Blas Islands -
enterprising individuals...
For each photo I took
I had to pay the subject or subjects
of the photos one dollar each

Kuna Indian Mola

What an eye opener, our 'hotel'...primitive was a gross understatement!  A huge pond was in the courtyard full of lobsters that would be our dinner.  Late afternoon had this thing plopped across my plate hanging over the edges staring at me with dead eyes.  My San Fran buddy and I had an interesting messy comical time trying to figure out where the hell were the parts you could actually eat on a lobster.

The hotel room was wood slats with one half inch spaces between them of pure air, so privacy was a joke.  Bathroom water was pumped right out of that salty ocean, so not much washing was done, except sea water and tooth paste...uckarooie!  No electricity...sundown was bedtime, hahahahaha!  Breakfast found us sitting with a couple and their children, the ambassador and his family from the Netherlands.  The minute their knowledge grew to include that we were US government employees, we were viewed as spies...I suppose working for the CIA.  We could not shake this attitude for the remainder of our stay at this 'hotel', and we vowed never ever any time sooner or later in our lifetime in Panama to tell anyone anything except that we were tourist from the US.  Paranoia seemed to be quite normal here.

After breakfast, the ambassador invited us to join them in a trip to one of the nearby islands for a day on the beach.  While twiddling our thumbs was an optional exercise we could chose that day, we ultimately decided to join the Netherlands ambassador, who knew we worked for the CIA, on his little family outing.  I swear that hired boat and boatman took us twenty miles out into the ocean and dropped us off on a bit of land and disappeared into the horizon.

Not wanting to be grilled any longer about our mission to the isthmus, we separated from the ambassador, my San Fran buddy and I, staking out our own little portion of the beach.  There are things out there in that forever spans of ocean that munch on humans, so I am strictly a beach person.  What a crock...we were twiddling our thumbs anyway with sigh after sigh after sigh.  Okay, a walk around the hour later we were back at point one.  The island was void of life except green stuff...if that boatman didn't return we were toast.  Not to worry, the ambassador was our insurance of an eventual return.

The next two nights we tried to avoid everyone - after all, since we were CIA, they would just think it was part of our mission.  Thank goodness for books we brought, and conversations between the two of us on that covered veranda with the ocean lapping at our feet, and flying fish popping out of the green clear water once in a while.  My San Fran buddy enlightened me in one of those conversations of his being stopped four times so far in his travels outside the city, and paying $20 bribes each time.  I guess I was the lucky one (no bribes), as this was an all too common practice from enterprising police and military.       

San Blas Islands Hotel and houses

Army base jobs for my San Fran buddy and I were extended into four month - gorgeous flute player boyfriend said I was deliberately trying to sabotage the affair and flew out of my life, and my San Fran buddy found a boy friend and totally abandoned me.  From day one, my mornings started with a lovely cup of cappuccino, REAL cappuccino, and usually a heart attack breakfast.  I read Scientific American in those days, had it laying on the counter of the hotel restaurant as I ate before driving to work; and was picked up with a line something like 'I notice you're reading Scientific American, and I am so tire of talking with bubble headed women, may I take you out to dinner tonight?'  It worked, and I had a disco dancing partner for the remainder of my Panama days, a contractor who during the daytime installed radar sites.  

A Bit of Jungle

Ask me if I miss driving where rules do not apply, where at a left turn to cross a busy intersection two cars line up beside me to cross over at the same time into one lane...if I miss dry cleaning my blue jeans because the Panama laundries cook clothing to death, and hand wash never ever dries in all that humidity...if I miss a cicada's song drowning out the conversation of the person standing right next to me yelling to drown out the cicada song...if I miss starving on all my tour trips cause we aren't allowed to eat the fly infested beef roast that has been sitting on the carving board in that open air stand in 90 degree heat for the entire day, so it's just lunch of soft drinks with the cap popped off and rim wiped extra clean...if I miss being told to keep all parts of me safely tucked into the two passenger canoe, cause it's white shark territory we're crossing......not on your life!  It was a different experience, did that, saw that, took photos of it all.  Would I do it again?  Actually, I did do it again, but that is another time and another story; and if I had had a choice, I would have shouted out at the top of my lungs...NO NO NO!!!


  1. I really enjoyed reading this - about a place I've never been to - feeling I've gained some insight with all your quirky details.

  2. Oh, Clipped Wings, I am shouting YES YES YES!
    This reads just too well. I can feel the blood flowing, of course you did it again and I bet there is a part of you that would do it tomorrow! Great story! Nice setting for a Travis Mcgee novel! There is more to this mystery, I know!

  3. I loved reading this. What an adventure. And your words and photos describe it well!

  4. Totally absorbing post to read. THANK YOU for sharing.

    Hugs, Sandra

  5. Beautifully written and gorgeous photos! Loved every bit of it.

  6. Great post. Beautiful blog. I haven't done my Friday Blog Hop yet but I'm working on it. I wasn't sure what to do. I guess everyone does their own thing. Doylene

  7. Great post about your wonderful adventure!

  8. What a fantastic shot. I have been to Panama city many times and few parts of the city. But the true side you have captured is very saddening.

    Beautiful pictures.

  9. Panama is interesting and beautiful!

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  11. Love your blog!
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  12. oh thanks for sharing and it brings back memories when i was in Romania! they had hundreds and hundreds of dogs everywhere....

    and thank you for putting a sweet comment on my post!

  13. Wow. What a nightmare, so well described. Unbelievable trip. Thanks for the journey - I am glad I know about it from the comfort of my own home.


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