15 August 2010
I am on the bus, having just crossed the border into Costa Rica, a process that took about 3 hours. Apart from queuing in the dark until the border opened, and the usual passport checking, each bag had to be individually checked by hand (twice!). We also had a dog sniffing for drugs. Hardly surprising really, in this part of the world.
Now let me tell you about my tour yesterday. We visited both sets of locks on the Pacific ocean side. I suppose what I didn’t realise was how long the canal is – around 50 miles. It links a natural lake with the coasts. To take advantage of the lake, the locks raise the ships about 26 metres. It takes 22 hours to transverse the canal, and only Panamese pilots can do the navigation. The idea for the canal was first proposed by a Spanish king in the 1500s, but it wasn’t until the late 1800s that the French began construction.
Mostly, the labour was brought in from the West Indies and many thousands died of tropical diseases. The Americans took over after the French gave up, from about 1903 until it was completed in 1914. It was then owned and operated by the Americans until a revolution (by students) in the 1960s, after which there was a sharing arrangement. However, it was only in 1999 that the Americans finally gave the canal back to the Panamanians. As far as i can tell, this is when the country started to prosper, and probably accounts for all the ‘bamboo-like’ apartment blocks and hotels that have shot up.
There are a few things I grew to love about Panama in my short time there. It is such a colourful culture. For example, lots of the public benches are painted with bright scenes by the school kids. And then there are the psychedelic public buses, each unique and painted with fantasy and superhero montages (dragons, knights, cartoons, etc.). Some of these turn into disco buses at night, with flashing lights and music pumping. It made me laugh, seeing all these people dancing in the aisles (and no, I didn’t get on one!). What else? Ah yes, fresh mango slices with salt, pepper and vinegar. Yumm!
Looking out the window now, we are unmistakably in the tropics, a green mosaic of palm plantations and natural forests – my kind of paradise (except for the things that buzz and bite! I saw some humongous specimens at the Panama Canal museum yesterday).