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june 16, 2005 -> playing both sides: Panama

On Thursday, we snorkeled in the coral-rich waters of the Caribbean.  On Saturday, we watched the waters of commingled oceans lift giant vessels like playthings.  On Tuesday, we dove a hundred feet deep in the Atlantic.  One is never far from the coast in Panama.  On our flight from Panama City to a remote airstrip in San Blas Province, we briefly saw both oceans.  Our plan was to play on both sides of the isthmus. 

The San Blas Archipelago lies in a quiet corner of the Caribbean, between the Panama Canal and the wild coastline of the Darien Gap.  The Kuna Indians govern the islands, having won their autonomy in 1925.  Near the mainland, Kuna villages smothered entire islands in wooden huts.  They appeared idyllic from the air, but squalid on foot.  Crude outhouses sat at the end of rickety piers, and instead of coral, the defiantly clear waters revealed decades of discarded rubbish: beer cans, tires, metal drums, and appliances.  The Kuna had protected the islands from outside development, while they polluted without remorse.  Even the remote islands had necklaces of trash encircling their beaches. 

Ignoring our travel budget, we had chartered a small catamaran to go island-hopping in the San Blas Archipelago.  Our captain, Fernando, was relaxed, but efficient.  “Where do you want to go?” he asked.  While Fernando set a course for the most distant and uninhabited islands, we stretched out on the bow.  That afternoon, we anchored next to island inhabited by a single family.  The islands started off beautiful and progressed to ridiculous.  We saw a small island with a dozen palm trees, then a three-palm island.  On our last day Fernando left us on a trampoline-sized island with a single palm in the center.  The coral and fish life surrounding the outer islands was astonishing.  We snorkeled for three to four hours every day.  Each evening, we sipped wine and watched the lightning illuminate the storm clouds.  Yet we were only rained on once, briefly. 

The Kuna women supplement their income by selling molas, squares of cloths appliquéd with geometric patterns or cut-outs of birds, fish and animals.  Every time we anchored the catamaran, one or two canoes of Kuna women would paddle out to offer molas.  Though simple, they are unique and beautiful.  Molas traditionally cover the bodices of Kuna women, but they sold as wall hangings or cushion covers.  After the Panama hat, they are the most popular souvenirs for visitors to the country.  Pat bought at least a dozen. 


We were in seafood paradise.  Often, Kuna fishermen pulled up to the boat to offer their catch: lobster, crabs, conch, and snapper.  We had a great arrangement with the island family: Fernando bought (or caught) the seafood, and they cooked it up for us.  Then we kayaked or swam to shore and dined under a little thatched roof.  For lunch on the first day, we devoured roasted crabs served with coconut rice.  On the second day, Fernando and I left the ladies on the boat and took the dinghy about beyond the reef to do some fishing.  I soon landed a massive barracuda, easily the biggest fish that I have ever caught.  The meat was so dense that the fillets tasted like chicken breasts.  On the third day, Fernando bought three big lobsters, grilled them on the boat, and served them with butter. 

Only the sandflies marred an otherwise delightful cruise.  Almost invisible, they lifted unnoticed from the beach and attacked bare skin, leaving tiny red bites that itched for weeks.  My hairy legs fared better than the ladies' bare ones; they had been ravaged.  Pat spent the rest of the trip slathering Tiger Balm on her pockmarked limbs. 

Perhaps no other country has been more a product of its geography than Panama.  The narrow S-shaped isthmus holds back the world's two greatest oceans and links two continents.  Just eighty kilometers wide at its narrowest point, and with an original elevation of only 95 meters, it was destined to be severed.  In 1903, the US backed Panamanian independence from Colombia in return for perpetual sovereignty over a sixteen kilometer strip of land stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  Ten years later, the Canal opened just in time to play a major role in World War I.  Once built, the Canal assumed a military and financial importance that guaranteed eighty years of US meddling in Panamanian politics.  On the eve of the millennium, and despite the objections of many US senators, Panama took control of the “Big Ditch” and its own destiny. 

Fresh from his success in building the Suez Canal, Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps planned a similar sea-level canal for Panama.  He underestimated the ruggedness of Panama's mountainous spine and the deadliness of its malarial lowlands.  Twelve years later he gave up, his company was bankrupt.  Long jealous of the project, the US stepped in to buy the rights to construct the Canal.  When the Colombian Senate rejected the back-door deal, the US pushed Panama into independence, the first of numerous interventions that would characterize 20th century Panamanian politics.  

The Chinese crew of the Hei Jin waved at the tourists gazing down from the observation terrace of the Miraflores Locks.  Theirs was a “Panamax” ship, designed to squeeze through the Canal with barely a meter on either side.  The doors of the locks closed behind it, the water beneath the ship began to roil, and slowly the Hei Jin rose.  The Canal still astounds observers – an impressive achievement for an engineering project nearing its 100th anniversary.  The US engineers had built a system of locks that gently lifted and lowered vessels twenty-six meters; a watery overpass that would avoid years of digging.  Here, men truly moved mountains, and in doing so cut months off the sea journey from east coast to the west coast of the USA. 

On the geographic flip-side of Panama, we joined a scuba trip leaving from Santa Catalina, a tiny village on the Pacific Coast.  Coiba island is surrounded by a marine reserve and has recently been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Coiba is famous for its big fish and large schools, as well as sharks.  Though visibility wasn't great, we enjoyed five wonderful dives – all about an hour each.  For the first time since my near-death experience in Papua New Guinea, I felt relaxed underwater.  We saw seahorses for the first time, lemon-yellow oddities with their long tails curved around coral fingers.  Frogfish tried to hide amongst the coral, a feat made impossible by their bright yellow and green colors.  Schools of trevally, surgeonfish and fusiliers encircled us, and the rocky sea floor writhed with several species of moray eels.  Life was interesting above water too.  We slept in guest rooms at the ranger station on Coiba, which was teeming with wildlife, including iguanas, agoutis (like a smaller capybara), a gluttonous deer, and a crocodile that chomped a new ranger's leg when he unwisely waded into the water to dump out food scraps.