Where North meets South
Panama, as the name implies, is the link between North and South America, and is one of the youngest countries. Even geologically, it is not older than a few million years. Before it was created, the two American continents were not joined. Also as a nation, Panama is barely more than a hundred years old. Unlike all the other Central American countries, including Costa Rica, which used to be part of the Great Mexican Empire, Panama was part of Great Columbia, and then just Columbia, until the yanks instigated their independence to build the Panama Canal. Not surprisingly, the Canal is really what the entire country revolves around. Being the link between Atlantic and Pacific, it enjoys far greater importance than Panama itself, for being the land bridge between the Americas. In fact, the overland connection to Colombia can hardly be referred to as such. It's a mountainous region, followed by endless swamps, with no roads, but many fighting FARC and paramilitary groups, not to mention drug traffickers, and the constant threat of malaria, dengue, and yellow fever. Quite appropriately, it is hence referred to as the Darien Gap, where even the Panamerican Highway takes a break, only to continue a few hundred kms in Columbia, all the way to the southernmost tip of the continent.
So where do North and South America meet? According to my 7th grade geography teacher, the dividing line between the two Americas is the Panama Canal. Panama City, being located just across the famous bridge of the Americas, should be therefor in South America. I, however, would like to disagree. But to suggest that the geographic division was the artificially drawn border between the nation states Panama and Columbia would be equally wrong. Instead I'd say, not without irony, that North and South America do NOT meet. While trying to get closer in one sense, they also do anything to avoid each other as much as possible. The result of this avoidance-attraction is a country like Panama, with an ethnic and cultural mix of both sides. By having a canal of global proportions go right through it, you additionally invite the whole world, resulting in a city like Panama... located somewhere between the Americas.
The Singapore of Latin America
Panama City is unlike any other city or even capital in Central America. On one hand, it has a large number of flashy skyscrapers, shiney luxury cars, gigantic shopping-malls, and an affluence of Euroamerican standard, if not higher. It is ranked 65th on the list of the city with the most skyscrapers worldwide, which is pretty impressive for a city with about 1.2 million people. However, most of the office towers, luxury appartments and hotels are virtually empty. But who knows, they might not even have been constructed for occupation, as much as to make large sums of money disappear... money, that came without a doubt on the Canal. Still, all in all, there seems to be considerable wealth going around here. Most cars are nice, new, shiney, and luxurious. The malls are filled with merchandise, and especially now in the Christmas shopping season, with people eager to spend their dollars. I happened to come here just perfectly for the stressiest time of the year! Never mind, I can find a way to escape. Talking about money, the official currency of Panama is the Balboa, on a 1:1 exchange rate to the US dollar. In fact, the bills look just like the US dollar. They are even issued by the Federal Reserve Bank! Nevertheless, everyone calles them Balboas. Okay, whatever...
On the other side of the equation, Panama has slums, crime and misery, quite on the level of Nicaragua. Between its wealth and poverty, it is a typical world city, with folks from pretty much everywhere. It is way more international than Mexico City. On the pedestrian street Avenida Central, you can see Hindu women wearing saris next to native Kuuna women with their traditional bead work on their calves. There are turban wearing Sikhs, dreadlocked rastafarians, and black coated hassidic Jews, all of them with thick beards. Corner stores and cybercafes are owned by Arabs, and Chinese, kinda like in most places. Nevertheless, the culture is Latin, though there seem to be way more black and white latinos than in other places I've visited. Thus the culture is loud and the music turned up all the way. The music, by the way, also reflects the mixed culture. Salsa and kumbia, while being the most popular options, are usually mixed up with reggae and other Caribbean sounds, or also hip-hop, making Panama the (other) capital of reggaeton (along with Puerto Rico).
Pain in Panama
So this is the place I'd get to enjoy while hanging out in bars around the harbor, mingling with sailors, and trying to find a boat. Or so I thought... because first thing after my arrival, I was struck with a hellish pain in my shoulder, running down along my elbow all the way into my little finger. It got worse and worse up to a point where I could not even lie down without going out of my mind from pain, making it unable to sleep. So I spent all day sitting in one spot, finishing the 600 page book I had bought for my ocean voyage, before even getting on a boat. And at night I was dozing in the same sitting position. How miserable and disabling a pinched nerve, or an inflamed muscle can be? I took some ibuprofen which gradually got me back to normal, went to see a cairopractor who cracked my neck, and got a massage of the walk-by type in the mall. After a week it had gotten a bit better. By that time I was very much at home in the Casco Viejo, more specifically in the hostel Luna's Castle, supposedly the best one in town:
During the first week at Luna's I was pretty much in constant pain, so I did relatively little. Once I felt better, I was more happy to participate in everyday life at the hostel. For example, I was offered to write about line-handling for The Book, a collection of info for visitors about Panama. From talking to sailors and people in the yacht clubs, I became sort of an expert on what most guide books refer to elusively as the best way to see the Canal, but rarely offer clear info on how to do it. And since people kept asking about it, and the receptions knew little to suggest, I wrote a nice info page about line-handling, adding to the services of the hostel. Anyway, it was worth a free night. Continuing along these lines, I also accepted to decorate one of the planters in the courtyard with a tile mosaic, also for free stay while I was here. Of course, just as the entire Casco Viejo, the hostel is under construction. So the yard will not be fully utilized until everything is completed. But then again, I had a chance to contribute and eternalize myself.Casco Viejo
The actual old part of the city, Casco Viejo is not to be confused with Panama Viejo, which is simply a bunch of ruins on the other side of the city. What happened was, in 1671 the famous pirate Captain Henry Morgan looted and burned the old city. The final destruction, however, was completed by the people of Panama themselves, who took the remaining stones down to the peninsula, where the Casco Viejo is today, to rebuild their city. They made sure to fortify it with a big wall, on which much later the house was built that eventually became Luna's Castle. The story is old, but the wall can be still seen today.
Throughout the years, the Casco Viejo went through many ups and downs. What used to be the cultural and economical center of the country soon gave way to the worst type of slums, while the newer and more modern glass palaces were built along the bay. About ten years ago nobody would have considered staying at a hotel here, unless they paid by the hour. Recently, however, many buildings have been renovated, all in a classic colonial style, raising the value of the properties considerably, and attracting rich people, tourists, and even the president, who decided to place his residence right on the waterfront. At the same time, there is still a great number of delipitated buildings, literally patched up with tin and driftwood, with reports of concrete slabs falling down and killing people. Eventually, the residents will be driven out by developers to look for another slum on the outskirts of the city, but until then Casco Viejo will retain its unique charm.Panama Police
From the Casco Viejo it's just an hour's walk down to the causeway, where the Balboa yacht club, the Flamingo marina and the Playita anchorage are located. The causeway is the place to be for anyone connected to sailing and the yachting community, or those who want to be. To get there, however, is not as easy as it sounds. First, you have to get through the most dangerous part of the city, which means getting past the cops. There is an incredibly large police force present in Panama, always friendly and polite, to us tourists at least, reminding us of the danger we are in if we happen to walk down the wrong street, and not letting us go until a unit in a pick-up picks us up and takes us to where we want to go. Then they give us a lecture about crime, rape, murder and robberies, make us promise never to be walking down that area again, and eventually dismiss us with a smile. It's a great alternative to taxis, as long as you don't run into the same cops twice. That's how I got down to the causeway, from where it was easy to find a bus back to the Casco Viejo.
Looking for Boats
While talking to pretty much anyone I ran into at the marinas and yacht clubs, I put together the bits and pieces of info, which pretty much verified everything I'd heard or read about passage making: Many yachts need at least one or two additional hands on board, depending on their size. Quite often, the most important job is keeping night-watch, to avoid close encounters with large cargo vessels that are too big to notice small sailing boats. Many boats, however, don't need anyone as they are sailed by couples who value their privacy. Others, on the other hand, have to have more than three people on board for insurance reasons. One good way to get connected into the network of cruisers is by offering your help as a line-handler through the Canal. By law, each vessel is required to have four line-hands on board, and cruisers are more likely to take an English speaking foreigner, especially if he does it "for the experience" that is without monetary compensation.
Finding a boat is not hard. The only thing you need is time and timing, patience and persistence, and of course a little luck. In the right season (from late December through April, when it's not too rainy) you will find many yachts heading through the Canal, usually East to West, as the trade winds blow. Once in the Pacific, these boats keep going in all directions: North to Costa Rica, Mexico and California, South to Equador and Peru, but most often to the islands of the South Pacific: Tahiti, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Tuvalu, etc. There, they will most likely hang out until the weather is nice enough to head down towards New Zealand.
What sounded just perfect at first glance, eventually turned out to be far from it. You need time, I've been told, and I thought I had enough... But as it turned out, I'm not very likely to reach New Zealand before late October, even if I leave now. Nobody wants to sail South of the 30's while the winter gales blow. Instead they cruise around the tropical islands until October. That would be springtime in the South, and just the right season to start a year of work and travel, which I'd still be eligible for. However, as my current plans are, I want to be in London at that time: just in the wrong season for everything! Still, the idea was to get to NZ by April, then work for half a year, and in September go to London. But I'm getting ahead of myself here...
So eventually I changed my entire plans. I took down my info signs from the marina message boards, I had beautifully created, with flashy letters, printed on colored paper, carefully laminated, and placed in the most visible location. I replaced them with even better ones, saying that I'm looking for a passage to Mexico. Originally I also included an offer to handle lines for free, but that just made the locals remove them almost as fast as I put them up. Nobody likes free competition. So I crossed out that part with a black marker and advertised myself through word-to-mouth. It worked like a charm. Even though nobody was going my way, or they weren't interested in my offer as deckhand, they were more than eager to take on my help as line-handler.
Going through the Canal can take up to a whole day. Both times we left the yacht club in Colon, on the Caribbean side, at around 4pm, making it to the Gatun locks by dusk. Going up through the triple locks is the most difficult part of the crossing, where the turbulence would be worst not only from the water rushing in from below, but also from the big propeller of the cargo ship that is usually placed right in front of the yacht. That's also the only time the line-handlers have to be active. First we have to catch a messenger line the lock workers throw us from the side of the locks. There is a weight tied into the end of the rope called a Monkey Fist, which can cause bruises if you get hit by it. However, you have to make sure, by all means, not to let that line drop into the water. If you do, you'll get yelled at from all sides, probably the worst thing a sailor could tell you: "Boy, you farmed it!" So once you catch the messenger line, you tie it to your line and feed it up to the lock worker. He ties it to the side, and you have to make sure it stays tight. That way the yacht, or yachts rafted together, stay in the middle of the lock while it gets filled up with water. When you hear the whistle, the worker unties you and you pull the line in, making sure the messenger line stays on it. The boat gets moved on to the next lock, and you repeat the process.
Once you're through the three locks, the work can be considered done. You are on the massive Gatun lake, 26m above sea level, as high as you will be on your trip through the Panama Canal. By that time it was dark, and we tied up to a buoy and enjoyed beer and dinner, and whatever else the host captain would offer us. The next morning we were treated to an amazing sunrise over the lake, and once the official pilot arrived we continued our journey. Most of the day was spent driving over the lake. First we took the Monkey-Banana Cut made for small boats, then along the Charges River (which is supposed to replenish the more than 200,000 cubic meters of fresh water drained from the lake each time a ship passes through), and the town of Gamboa, where the crane TITAN stands, built by the Germans in WWII to lift submarines out of the water, and taken to Panama as spoils of war. Eventually we pass the Continental Divide through Gillard Cut, also known as Culebra (=snake) Cut. Our pilot liked to point out all the different features of the Canal along with its history, for example how many people were killed digging the cut, and how the most difficult part was named Gold Hill, raising a rumor that there might be gold, just to make the workers dig harder. After Gold Hill the journey was almost over. We passed under the Centennial Bridge and went through the single locks called Pedro Miguel into the comparatively small Miraflores Lake, followed by the double Miraflores Locks. That is also where you can wave to tourists on the observation deck while handling the lines. Going down is a piece of cake. There are no turbulences, and if we are lowered with a container ship, it is placed behind us. Once we were through, we congratulated each other for having reached the Pacific, passed under the Bridge of the Americas, and went up to the marina or anchorage where the captain has made reservation.All in all, being a line handler was the best thing I did in Panama. So far I've crossed twice through the Canal, and I want to do it a few more times. If nothing else, it provides a great way to see the Canal (much better than from the observation deck at Miraflores), a good suntan, and of course an opportunity for networking. Not to mention, it provided a great way to escape the Christmas stress. Now I just have to find a boat up to Mexico.