Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Lock It All Up and Collect the Toll

Finding the public transportation here to be lacking, we acquiesced by going to a travel agency to book a day tour to the Canal Zone and popular park. We met Oscar our guide and driver at the travel agent’s at 8:30 am. Oscar was a roly-poly jolly fellow who had excellent English as well as a delightful sense of humor. 

Oscar also had a booming voice. His last clients must have been from the deaf community. If I were running alongside the car, I would hear Oscar in through the exertion and as the wind was blowing past my ears. Before this became evident, Ron sat in the front seat. This was fortunate as Ron sometimes has trouble hearing others at times and me most of the time. When we made our first stop, Ron warned me we would take turns in the front seat. Oscar could be heard if you were wearing earplugs and were 30 feet underwater.

Our first stop was Miraflores, where the Panama Canal has the first major set of locks with viewing stations. Entrance for just the observation tower was $5 for me and $2.50 for Ron. We opted out of the museum and 3D movie. We had Oscar for questions, but he was a willing historian before we had a chance to start asking questions. If we ever covered the canal in history classes, I have significantly little memory of it. Finding that the French started the project was new information for me. I had no idea. They lost 22,000 men to diseases, while trying to create the canal as a straight shot through the country. It was only after this that the US became involved in 1904 to build it as it is today.

The length of the canal is 48 miles or 77.1 km running from the Atlantic, via the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. The locks lift the ships up 85 feet or 26 meter above sea level to put it into Lake Gatun, an artificially made lake with fresh water. The lake is filled with rainwater.  Currently, the locks are 110 feet wide or 33.5 meter. There are two lanes for ships to traverse in either directions at the same time. Ships going through now can carry up to 3,000 containers of cargo. The toll for using the canal runs from $250,000 to over a million dollars. 

Cruise ships get priority as they use the locks with greater frequency. There is a priority system based on usage, so remember if you want to take your yacht through, it is essential to book a slot well ahead. Get that checkbook fattened up. Before a ship starts to enter the canal, only a Panamanian crew with captain can operate the ship. Panama takes full responsibility for the safety of the ship while in the canal. When I get my photos up, you can see strange silver metal machines that run on tracks. Once a ship enters the canal, it is tethered to these machines in four points, two in each side. These machines assure that the ship does not hit either side of the canal causing damage to the canal, the ship, or the cargo. From start to finish, it takes 8-10 hours, depending on the size of the ship. Here is an appropriate palindrome: A man, a plan, a canal: Panama!

Our next stop was the Summit Botanical Gardens & Zoo. This place had two functions. One was to introduce foreign plants into Panama while at the same time housing animals that soldiers may encounter in the jungles; this was a way for them to identify the species. Oh, yes! This one can kill me. I shouldn’t try to pet it. Again, the LP book mislead us, perhaps due to the 3 year lag, but there was no tapir, few jaguars, and in the enormous harpy eagle compound, there was only one bird. She was a youngster. They live 60-70 years in nature and ten less in captivity. Oscar was with us the entire jaunt around the park pointing out the 37 different varieties of palm trees in the park, but even an experienced guide could not find a tapir. 

A sign on one cage stated in two languages, both of which I could read, stated that the zoo was for rescuing animals that have been pets or others that needed some medical care and rehabilitation. Oscar said that notion is old and no longer true. He has hopes it will be taken over by a private foundation to better serve the animals. When you look at my photos, you may notice blur marks. Most cages have two layers of fencing, when one would seem plausible.

Our final stop for the day was to be Parque Nacional Soberania. Said to be one of the most accessible rainforests, it spans from Limón on Lago Gatún to beyond Paraíso. After spending hours in the heat, with temperatures ranging in the high 80s and humidity running around 90%, Ron suggested to Oscar that we don’t do an overly energetic walking trail, but a mild one would be fine. Oscar A.) misunderstood (doubtful), B.) felt protective of us after taking inventory of our weariness (possible), or C.) wanted to get home fast and early for a siesta (probable).

He took us to a short trail that led to a waterfall. Along the trail, not much more than a path, we passed a wooden bridge that had been washed out by rain produced flooding, causing it to collapse. A short distance later, we reached the waterfall Oscar wanted us to see. Honestly, our rain shower faucet head in our Budapest bathroom has more power than this waterfall. I could pour a bottle of sparkling water with more gusto. Come to think of it, I personally have had greater gushers than this. Yet, for the umpteenth time, Oscar asked if we were enjoying ourselves. It would be lie to say no. His humor and volunteering the answers to so many of our questions before we had the opportunity to ask them, made the time with him enjoyable. The cynic in me knew these enjoyment questions were related to the tip at the end. 

During our ride, I mentioned to Oscar how appalled I was at the prices of groceries at the supermarket. He explained that there are not many local markets where people sell their goods. The one that does exist in the capital is the only ‘farmer’s market’ that he knows about. However, from where we are staying, it would cost us a taxi fare or hours on the bus to get to it. It is not central and there are no direct bus routes. 

Supermarkets are for those who don’t have a car or who don’t want to or don’t have the time to take buses to get to this farmer’s market. This is a major cultural difference I didn’t expect, but we heard it is different in the smaller cities. Oscar did stop at a fruit and vegetable store run by an older Asian couple. It was about 30 minutes from the city with no bus stops anywhere close. We bought enough fresh fruit and veggies for a few days and paid $12 for the lot. At the supermarket, this would have paid for 3 heads of Iceberg lettuce.

Returning home, the skies opened with the torrential rains once again. Oscar was kind enough to drop us off right at our door. Thinking the $220 fee for his services should cover the day, which really ended 2 hours shorter than anticipated, I chalked it up to our less than enthusiastic desire to hike the trails in the park. Oscar did get a Christmas tip. We did have a good time and he will go on my recommendation list.

After a short break, we went walking the neighborhood in a different direction. Oscar had said there were a number of restaurants on a street that starts one block from us. After recommending a particular restaurant, three minutes after we were out of the car, we had forgotten it. We walked the mile long length of the street checking each eatery, but nothing rang a bell. I have Oscar’s e-mail. Maybe I will drop him a line.
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