Thursday, July 9, 2009

A man. A plan. A canal. Panama.

That should really read: A woman. A birthday. A canal. Panama. Of course that wouldn’t be a palindrome but it would be a better description of our day. Indeed it was my 36th birthday, but rather than celebrate today we decided to delay it one day and celebrate in the San Blas Islands. We booked our two night getaway through the hostel and then booked our flights for Cartegena the following Monday. There was some back and forth over the bookings as I the only requirement I had was a non-sand floor which was harder to come by. Eventually the staff found a place that met these high standards. San Blas is an archepeligo of hundreds of tiny islands off the Caribbean coast of Panama. It is an independent territory governed by the Kuna indigenous people who live there. So this birthday getaway was going to be cultural but also a little bit a paradise as the isolation has meant the pristine beaches have stayed pristine.

But today for my actual birthday, the itinerary was far less exotic. We took Conrad’s advice and decided to head out to the Miraflores locks just outside of the city. On our way to the catch the bus we went searching for a breakfast place but after 30 minutes of wandering around we gave up and headed to the ginormous mall sized bus terminal. Thanks to the weekday traffic it took ages to get to the terminal on the local bus (compared to our 5 minute ride in). But we finally arrived and set out to find the bus to Gamboa. We walked the entire length of the terminal and couldn’t find it. Or so I thought. When I asked at the information desk, we were directed to the very last platform, #62, which was on the other side of the food court at the end of the terminal. The bus there said it was going to Paraiso, not Gamboa. I asked a man sitting next to us if the bus was going to Miraflores and he nodded. But it then occurred to me that there might be a section of town called Miraflores far from the locks. So we asked the bus driver. Although not knowing the Spanish word for canal or lock, we used English and hoped it translated. The driver nodded and then took off.

It was a very quick ride because we were heading out of the city (a good sign). And soon the driver was motioning to us to get off. We were joined by a Kuna couple dressed in full Kuna gear who told us in English that they were also going to the canal so we could walk together. This was their first time to the canal.
“So today you are tourists?” I asked him.
“Yes, today we are tourists” He laughed realizing that in their traditional clothes, they were normally the tourist attraction, "just like you."
Well, not quite just like us. We walked the 500m to the canal visitor centre where we discovered that not all tourists are created equally. While we forked over $8 each, these strangers in a strange land were let in free. While the couple began their tour, Adrian and I immediately made a beeline for the restaurant. It was afternoon and we were starving.

The restaurant was one of those places with linen tablecloths and napkins and lots of forks. And the price tag was a whopping $24 for the buffet and view of the canal (photo above). It was pricey but when we saw the spread just beyond the maitre’d stand we caved. There were fresh fruits and vegetables as far as the eye could see – well not quick but after our diet of chicken (fried, roasted, sandwich, filet, breast, leg, etc) and rice it felt like it. Plus it was my birthday. Adrian and I spent two hours pacing ourselves at the buffet while watching the huge cargo ships navigate the narrow locks. Adrian was like a little boy getting very exciting as progressively bigger ships went through and demanding numerous photos every five minutes. I had three servings of at least 5 different salads, almost a whole bowl of olives and a good helping of every cheese (after vegetables the thing I miss the most, foodwise, is cheese). Adrian gorged on five different types of meat. But we both ended the meal with three different types of birthday cake. Stuffed but not nauseous, we then pulled ourselves away from the foods to check out the displays. We were here to see the canal not the buffet after all.

Our first stop was the theatre where we sat through a very rah-rah-Panama film about the benefits of the canal, and in particular it being under Panamanian control – quite the contrast to Conrad’s opinion yesterday. Once our heads were full of propaganda we were set loose on the 3 floors of displays related to water and the canal. The Panama Canal Museum in Casco Viejo was actually more informative but it was still worth it, especially since there was an interactive display where Adrian got to pretend to be a canal pilot (what they call the people who steer the ships through the locks).

We headed back to the bus stop as it began to drizzle. There we were greeted by taxi drivers who tried to convince us to take a taxi. However, there pitch was old news (You missed the last bus! It will be full! There is no bus!) and we ignored them in favour of our 50¢ bus ride. While we were waiting for the bus, we struck up a conversation with the other gringo waiting. Matt was another Canadian. Unfortunately I don’t remember what we talked about because I was too busy swatting mosquitos. In the 20 minutes we waited for the bus, I got swarmed. Just I was beginning to think the only escape was a $10 cab ride, the bus pulled up and saved me. At the bus station, Matt asked if we wanted to share a cab but we decided to venture into the mall to pick up our supplies for our trip to San Blas the next day. We said goodbye and then ducked into the grocery store and discovered that replacing our backpacks with our shopping bags took $2.50 off the cab ride back to the hostel. Instead of the $4 we were charged when we first arrived, this time we only paid $1.50 – and the driver was much nicer too.

When we arrived back at the hostel, there was a couple relating their horror story about their trip to San Blas – rats, lack of food, stranded on a deserted island for hours, etc. I started to panic but Hugo at the hostel assured us we were at a nicer place. But I lowered my already lowered expectations and set off to pack for the trip. I guess we’ll find out tomorrow.


Katey said...

Happy birthday - for a month ago! Still enjoying the blog and counting the pennies and days until we set off on our own trip.

liz and adrian said...

Thanks Katey, I have lots of updates coming (once I can get back on wifi). Hopefully they will be inspiring.