The World’s Best Shortcut Part 3

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‘The Titan’ Nazi Crane Near Pedro Miguel Locks  (aka Herman the German)

Fun fact: The Nazis contributed to the building & maintenance of the Panama Canal. True story. The crane pictured above was once used by Nazi Germany in the 40s, and during the Second World War, to move large, heavy objects such as ever-larger armament & munitions. It was used extensively in Germany to help build trains & railroads, and similarly weighty stuff. So what in the wide world is this massive crane doing ensconced near the Pedro Miguel Locks on the Panama Canal?

The Nazis lost the war, of course, and their loss was Panama’s gain, eventually. This crane, called ‘The Titan,’ aka ‘Herman the German’ and other assorted items of war booty were confiscated and shipped to various places across the world. The crane saw service in Long Beach California until 1996 when it was sold to the Panama Canal Authority for $1.00, with the proviso that it be used only there, and for the maintenance and fortification of the Canal. One of the crane’s functions is lifting the gates at each set of locks. Each gate on the old Canal weighs upward of 700 tons, and they must be lifted on a regular basis for cleaning, sealing, patching & replacement. Thanks to the Nazis, the task is somewhat easier. One would think such a massive device with all its functionality and hard metal would fetch more than a dollar, but that was the price, and that’s what it happened. Thanks Adolph Hitler, your service is noted.

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Most Famous Inmate? Senor Manuel Noriega

Speaking of notorious individuals, here’s the home of another rather infamous fellow, not quite equivalent in misdeeds to the Nazis, but reprehensible in his behavior nonetheless. The prison above is the current abode of a fellow named Manuel Noriega, one-time dictator of Panama and scourge of more than one U.S. president. (BTW, for a fascinating look at the Noriega years, and the violence and corruption extant in Panama then, read In The Time of the Tyrants.

Here are a few more facts about the world’s best shortcut: In 1977 the Carter-Torrijos treaty transferred ownership & operation of the Canal to Panama. According to the treaty, as of December 31st 1999 the U.S. ceased operating the Panama Canal, with the stipulation that in the event of a military emergency the U.S. would have full access.

Chief engineer for the American led Canal effort: George Washington Goethals.

Draft limit for ships: When Gatun Lake level is below 85 feet, draft is limited to 40 feet for all vessels.

Cost of the Canal: About $380,000,000, equivalent to nine billion dollars and change today.

Currently, Panama Ports Co. subsidiary of the Chinese company Hutchison-Whampoa Ltd. owns exclusive rights to operate both ends of the Panama Canal. Hutchison-Whampoa Ltd. is owned by Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-Shing.

Everyone loves pictures of ships, right? One reason to take a transit tour of the Canal, as we did recently, is to marvel at the ships and their tonnage passing through the channel alongside your own tiny tour boat. Here are a few of the mighty ships we saw, and information about them. These shots were taken January 14th 2017.

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MOL Bellweather: Hong Kong

The MOL Bellweather: Built in 2015, the container ship is listed at a dead weight of 120,000 tons. The Bellweather is registered in Hong Kong. At 1105 feet (337 meters) long, 157 feet (48.5 meters) wide it must use the new, wider locks. Today, as this is written, the Bellweather is located approximately 100 nautical miles east northeast of Ningbo, China.

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Maersk Bogor: Singapore

Maersk Bogor Singapore, built in 2009, is listed at 135,000 tons. At 730 feet (223 meters) long, and 109 (32 meters) wide, this ship, too must transit the new locks. Today, Maersk Bogor is in port in Algeciras Spain.

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CMA CGM Missouri

Built in 2016, CMA CGM Missouri is 103,000 tons. At 985 feet (300 meters) long and 109 feet (48 meters) wide the Missouri must use the new, wider locks. At this writing the Missouri was located 120 nautical miles east of Port Elizabeth South Africa, headed home to Singapore.

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Veendam: Rotterdam

Veendam, built in 1996 and refitted in 2012 weighs (just) 57,000 tons. At 719 feet (219 meters) long, 101 feet (31 meters) wide, Veendam is able to use the older locks. The ship carries a crew of 568, a passenger capacity of 1,350 and can cruise at 20 knots. At this writing, Veendam is located at Port of Spain Trinidad.

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Kaishuu

The Kaishuu ‘Hopper-Dredger’ is one of the smaller commercial ships transiting the Canal. Built in 2002, Kaishuu is 25,900 tons dead weight. The vessel is 518 feet (58 meters) long, and 92 feet (28 meters) wide, easily able to pass through the 110 foot wide older locks. Flagged in Luxembourg, the Kaishuu is currently located offshore at Buenaventura Colombia.

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Iowa Family with MS Island Princess behind. Gatun Locks 1/14/2017

 

Our transit of the Panama Canal just happened to occur on my wife’s birthday. No, I won’t tell which birthday, but suffice to say that we had a great time going through the locks, and we recommend the tour to anyone. We used Ancon Expeditions to secure a spot on a tour boat, and they took care of all details. The Ancon folks picked us up at our hotel, drove us to the boat at the end of the Amador Causeway and met us at day’s end there to return us to the hotel. Cost of full transit was $230/per person. One recommendation is to book a partial tour. The partial transit passes through both Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks, then passengers depart near Gamboa for a quick drive back to Panama City. Cost of this tour is currently $195/per person.

Refit in 2015, the Island Princess is 965 feet (295 meters) long and 106 feet (32 meters) wide. The vessel carries 2,200 guests and a crew of 900. Currently, Island Princess has transited back through the Canal and is underway to Puntarenas Chile. No details as to dimensions, speed or date of construction of the family etc., as this is proprietary information. Current positions: three back home in Iowa City, and two in Boquete, Panama.

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Administration Building, Gatun Locks

The Carribean side of the Panama Canal, and the Gatun Locks, center around the city of Colon, titled thus for a fellow named Cristoforo Colon, or as most Norte Americanos refer to him, Christopher Columbus. After a nine hour passage through the canal, we left the tour boat in Colon and were bused back to Panama City after a great day filled with Nazis, Panamanian tyrants, mega-tonnage container ships and much history of the world’s best shortcut.

More posts are pending on the great Panama adventure, and yet more as we prepare to depart Panama and move to Medellin, Colombia. Also, a name change is in the offing for this excellent addition to your travel reading pleasure. Soon we’ll be blogging at byallmeanstravel.com. Stay tuned.

Clean, Green Medellin

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Medellin Colombia by Night

One might think a city of 3 million souls would be grimy, noisy, confusing and generally dispiriting to inhabit. Medellin Colombia is proof that the opposite can be true. Disclaimer: we spent just five days in Medellin (pronounced Med-a-Jeen BTW) so we’re not experts by any means, but what we saw of Medellin enchanted us.

2 forms of public transport: World-Class Metro system; Free bikes (yes, free)

Please don’t tell anyone about Medellin, because we’re sure the Chamber of Commerce wouldn’t want the world to have this information and start a flood of immigrants, but this city does NOT match its reputation. And what is that rep? We’d heard the narrative: ‘dangerous,’ ‘drug-cartels,’ violent, anti-gringo, dirty, noisy, poverty-riddled etc. etc. Sure, there are parts of Medellin to avoid, especially at night, or drunk, or if your name is Donald Trump, or you’re soliciting for drugs and/or sex, or doing some other kind of criminal enterprise. Of course there are. So don’t do those things…duh! In fact, according to several websites, the homicide rate in Medellin has fallen more than 80% since the end of the cartel era. A fellow named Pablo Escobar and his minions were eliminated in the early 90s, and the turnaround in Medellin has been nothing short of remarkable.

Street performer in El Poblado; Parque de las Luces, ciudad central

City Parks have free WiFi…View from Envigado…Street Market Flowers

More street vendors & tiendas. Gotta love the ‘Super Todo Mickey Mouse’ market

The first thing we noticed about Medellin was how clean the city appears to be. Even in the poorer, more down at the heels estratos & barrios the utter lack of street litter and trash was remarkable. We were told that it’s partly a cultural thing, but mostly a point of civic pride. People tend to dress conservatively, (we saw no locals wearing shorts and/or sandals, for example) and there was no evidence of the slovenly apparel commonly seen in US cities. Also, many people told us the city is oriented around family & kids, with several initiatives, like the Parque Explora, and the wonderfully named Parque de los Pies Descalzos, (barefoot park). Proyecto Buen Comienza is a wonderful initiative that gives Medellin’s kids an early boost in education and self-discovery.

One reason the streets of Medellin are so tidy: street cleaners are on duty daily. Parking monitors help keep neighborhood areas free of abandoned and/or unattended vehicles.

Parque Explora, where kids can…be eaten by a T-Rex! Buen Comienza is there for ninos

So…what are the downsides to living in Medellin? Well, it is a big city, of 3 million people at last count. There’s traffic, including too many ‘motos’ to count, the motorcyclists that our taxi driver Carlos referred to as ‘hormigas’ or ‘ants,’ bikers that whip between cars, weaving like crazy people through stopped traffic and missing side mirrors by inches. Pedestrians often wander into roadways where Colombian drivers seem always to yield to them, and folks dodge other cars and trucks like an intricate ballet, often at top speed. Another challenge for expats is that Spanish is spoken in Medellin, and it is not an option. Very few Colombians we met and interacted with spoke English, so guess what? They expected us to speak espanol. It’s a novel prospect, I know, but an energizing one for us as we have every intention of learning the language. We consider it rude to expect them to speak English, and sad that we never acquired bilingual status in America! I’ll now step off my soap box, thank you.

The EPM Library in ciudad central…System map of the Metro…Mall SantaFe’

The EPM Library is a jewel of a resource in downtown Medellin on Parque de las Luces. The library is open to all, filled with books, magazines, newspapers from all over and, again, an entire section devoted to kids. From its reputation as ‘most dangerous city in the world’ in 1992, to 2014 winner of the Lee Kwan Yew award for city excellence, Medellin is a rising star in South America & elsewhere. With world-class infrastructure, a major symphony, Parque Botero, dedicated to the works of city resident and artist Fernando Botero, and the new Metrocable system built primarily to assist poorer workers of Medellin to return to their hillside homes, this city will enchant you, too. mde19

Metrocable system high above Medellin. This transport system was built to integrate all neighborhoods of the city, and to assist poorer folks returning uphill from work in the city. Most local people ride for free.

Medellin Colombia is a city that works for all. Just don’t tell anyone about it. Thanks.

World’s Best Shortcut Part 2

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USS Ancon August 14th 1914

The Panama Canal officially opened on August 15th 1914. The USS Ancon seen above was the first vessel to transit the canal, on August 14th, the day before, to test the locks’ operations. Since its opening to commercial traffic more than 100 years ago, the Panama Canal has seen the passage of nearly one million vessels, and today averages more than 14,000 ships per year, and 40 per day. Here are a few statistics:

Δ Finished by Americans in 1914 after a failed French effort begun in 1881

Δ More than 30,000 died building the canal, most from yellow fever & malaria

Δ 800,000 French investors were wiped out when their effort failed

Δ The Canal is 48 miles/80 Kilometers long & 600 feet wide at its narrowest point

Δ Alternative passage around Cape Horn: 8,000 miles/12,875 Kilometers

Δ Cost of the U.S. effort 8.6 Billion dollars

Δ Revenue to Panama one billion dollars per year*

Δ Excavated material: 15,950,900 square meters. (Most of this material went to building the Amador Causeway in Panama City)

Δ Amount of dynamite used: 60 million pounds

Δ 2016 Fee to transit: $72 per TEU. A TEU is a Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit

Δ Longest ship to transit: Marcona Prospector at 973 feet

Δ Highest fee paid: $840,000

Δ Time to transit: approximately 8 to 10 hours

Δ Ships wait on average 4 days to enter the Canal. Some request entry up to two years in advance.

*As of 2015 prior to the opening of the Super Panamax locks

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Map of The Panama Canal aboard Pacific Queen

Many people don’t realize that transiting the Canal from Pacific to Atlantic (Caribbean) side, a ship is traveling Northwest. When we moved to Panama we had a lot of getting used to the idea that it’s an East-West country, not unlike Tennessee. The chart above shows this orientation very well.

1-Locks at Miraflores; 2-A car vessel in the locks (this ship held more than 5,000 cars);3-The same vessel; 4-Miraflores Locks visitor center & museum.

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Alejandro our Captain

No vessel, regardless how small, may transit the Panama Canal without a canal captain. The fellow above was captain of the Pacific Queen. He had to board a canal captain to accompany him through the passage. The fellow (named Felix, and not shown) mostly watched Captain Alejandro during our transit. Alejo had more than 14 years at the helm, and ‘more transits than I remember,’ he said.

For an in depth understanding of the Panama Canal, its construction, political & economic impact, engineering & administrative staff and the various challenges and difficulties encountered, read David McCullough’s definitive work, The Path Between The Seas. In the book, McCullough refers to the biggest challenge facing the French, the obsession of its chief engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps to build a sea-level canal. Messieur de Lesseps was the hero of France for pushing through a sea-level canal at Suez. He saw no reason the same thing wouldn’t work in Panama, and he was not to be dissuaded. De Lesseps scorned those who insisted on a series of locks, blindly pursuing his sea-level vision. In the meantime, disease was ravaging construction crews. At one point in the late nineteenth century the French team was losing 40 men per day to yellow fever and malaria.

1-‘Mules’ guide heavier ships; 2-The Canal employs 5,000 full time; 3-In Miraflores

Ships transit the Panama Canal under their own power. The so called mules, special trains with guide cables as show above, do not tug or drag ships along. They assist the canal captain in keeping ships aligned in the canal.

More numbers:

Δ Each lockage uses 52 million gallons of fresh water, all of it from Gatun Lake

Δ Existing locks are 110 feet wide, thought to be double what might be needed when the canal was proposed. New locks on the Super Panamax side are 160 feet wide. Ninety-nine percent of the world’s existing commercial fleet can use the Super Panamax Locks.

Δ Material is still dredged daily from the canal. This material is being distributed throughout Panama City and Colon for additional earthen levies and pedestrian causeways

Part three of The World’s Best Shortcut will arrive soon. Look for yet more astonishing numbers, weird facts about the Panama Canal (including a Nazi crane, and a two hour passage by hydrofoil!) and the background of its existence and future use. Thanks for reading.

 

 

The World’s Best Shortcut Part 1

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Holland America Line’s Veendam transiting Miraflores Locks

The Veendam, one of 40 ships per day, on average, that transit the Panama Canal. Built between 1904 and 1914, the Canal was finished by the U.S. after a failed French effort. The Panama Canal has been called one of the wonders of the modern world. I call it the world’s best shortcut. This is part 1 of a series on this marvel of engineering, a vital link in the world economy, responsible for fully 5% of all goods shipped around the world, and 10% of all American shipping.

In the shot above, The Veendam is in the Miraflores Locks, the first set of gates on the Pacific side of the Canal. In Miraflores, ships are raised or lowered a total of 54 feet. From Miraflores, ships travel a short distance to the Pedro Miguel Locks which raises (or lowers) them an additional 31 feet for transit into Gatun Lake which is 85 feet above sea level. The numbers explain why the French effort failed; French engineers were determined to build a sea level canal, a simple excavation cut through the country, similar to the canal they built at Suez. The chief engineer in that effort, Ferdinand de Lesseps, dismissed the need for locks at Panama, and his determination essentially dictated the French failure in the latter days of the nineteenth century.

1- Ships awaiting transit, 2-Princess Cruises ‘Island Princess‘ 3-Under the bridge of the Americas, 4-Entering the Miraflores Locks

We followed the Island Princess for our tour of the Panama Canal. This ship is a good example of the canal’s utility and purpose. Launched in 2003, Island Princess is 965 feet long with a beam of 106 feet. Each lock chamber is 110 feet wide, so the Princess, like most ships, have been built with those dimensions in mind. As she passes through each lock, Island Princess has exactly 24 inches of clearance on either side. Until the new Super Panamax locks opened in 2016, with chambers of 161 feet wide and 1,201 feet long to accommodate so called Panamax ships, dimensions of the Panama Canal determined how wide and long a ship could be built if users wished to transit from ocean to ocean.

1-Flag of our tour boat, the Pacific Queen, from Ancon Tours in Panama City 2- Safety is paramount in Canal operation, 3-Car carrier at Miraflores, 4-Derricks offload containers for trans-isthmus shipping by rail.

As we entered Miraflores Locks, we saw a series of derricks to the east. Our operator explained that these are to offload cargo containers. If a shipper wishes to send only a few containers across the canal, they offload them here, then they’re shipped by rail to the other side by the Panama Canal Railway. It’s all about efficiency: if only a few containers must transit the canal, there’s no need to send the whole ship through. It’s about cost as well. The reason the canal exists at all is threefold. One, the cost of shipping. Modern container ships typically guzzle more than $100,000 dollars per day of fuel, not to mention crew, maintenance and insurance costs. By transiting the Panama Canal they knock off 16 days on average between oceans. Not only does this save $$$, it allows them to carry more goods instead of fuel. Number two is safety. Rounding Cape Horn is always a risky proposition, especially during the winter season when hazards include, ‘…strong winds, large waves, and icebergs drifting up from Antarctica,’ according to Globalsecurity.org. ‘Rounding the horn’ has caused the loss of many vessels and their crews, thus the Canal’s usefulness for lowered insurance costs for shipping. Number three, increased usage of vessels, since those ships can be used more often.

1-A ‘mule’ along the Miraflores Locks, 2-in the chamber, 3-the Island Princess in the east lock as we transit the west and 4-one of many tugs that assist larger ships.

Vital details of the Panama Canal: All raising and lowering is accomplished by filling and emptying the locks, in other words, by using water and the ships’ buoyancy. No electric or hydraulic power is used, except to open and close the gates. Each gate weighs 700 tons, and water pressure against them causes the lock to seal so no water is lost. No ship can transit without a pilot from the Canal Authority aboard. No exceptions are made as to size, crew, type of ship or cargo etc., every ship must carry a canal pilot. We came alongside one of the Canal boats, slowed to a crawl and allowed our pilot to board. The fellow’s name was Felix, and he accompanied our boat to the final lock at Gatun. Each lock uses 52 million gallons of water, all from Lake Gatun, and all of it fresh water for each fill. For this reason ships are carefully scheduled into the locks. For example, our tour boat shared the locks with five other vessels, to maximize the use of the lock, and to decrease time of transit for each boat. It’s not unusual for ships to wait for passage for up to ten days, though the average wait is three days. The Panama Canal Authority employs roughly 5,000 full time employees, and an additional 8,000 part timers, and it operates 24/7/365. The Canal delivers nearly 1.5 Billion dollars into the Panamanian economy yearly, partly for those employees salaries, partly to fund infrastructure and educational efforts in Panama. The cost of transit?

On the left, a car carrier. On the right, a container ship.

The car carrier above can transport as many as 5,000 vehicles. Typical cost to transit the canal for a vessel like this is upward of $500,000 dollars. The container ship on the right, seen exiting the new Super Panamax lock adjacent to Miraflores, will typically be charged more than half a million dollars as well. The fee is based on weight, length, type of cargo and equipment needed for the transit. Every Supermax ship, for example, requires a tug at both ends to navigate each lock at a cost of $3,000 per hour per tug, times the two new Supermax locks. Time from ocean to ocean is typically 12 hours. Because of the length of the vessel, Supermax ships require two canal pilots, one forward, one aft. All boats transit the canal under their own power, with tugs and mules simply keeping them centered. To date, the biggest check written to the Canal Authority which administers the Canal was $840,000 for the transit of a Super Panamax ship in 2015. The lowest charge ever for a transit was 36 cents paid by a fellow named Richard Halliburton who weighed in at 150 pounds, and swam the length of the canal in 1928.

1-A canal worker at Miraflores, 2-Each lock uses 52 million gallons per operation, 3-Tugs must be used fore and aft for the new Super Panamax ships.

More later in part 2 of our Panama Canal post. Read about the men and women who built it, operate it and rely on it every day and more amazing facts about the world’s best shortcut. Thanks for reading.

Hasta Luego 2016

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Last Boquete sunset of 2016

One more trip around the sun, so always a great time to reflect and consider. The Romans gave us January, named for Janus, their god who looked both directions. Here’s what Janus might have rendered about the year just past:

On the good side—we saw The Chicago Cubs break a 108 year dry spell to take it all in The Fall Classic. As life-long Cubbie fans, we were pretty darned excited, especially since we were able to witness the final outs of game seven at O’Hare International. The concourse was alive, and in total chaos. Even White Sox fans were elated.

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108 years is long enough!

(Photo Matt Slocum/AP)

Our LGBT friends & neighbors saw major strides this year yet again, as several countries abandoned long-held oppressive laws and restrictions on their freedom to be who they are. Italy became the last European country to bar LGBT people from civil marriage.

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Simone winning…everything
Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP-Getty Images

Simone Biles stole many hearts and many medals at Rio, four golds and a bronze for the 19 year old phenom, arguably the greatest gymnast who ever lived. Happy 2017, Ms Biles, and thanks for the thrills!

Hamilton Smashed every record

(Photo: Evan Agostini/Invision via AP)

Pandas bounce back

(Photo: Reuters)

Other good happenings in 2016: The giant panda is no longer threatened; Hamilton is setting records on B’way; the U.S. and Cuba are on course for a much better relationship; women made political history as California Attorney General Kamala Harris became the first black woman elected to the U.S. Senate; Ilhan Omar first Somali-American lawmaker in the U.S; Catherine Cortez Masto first Latina senator in Nevada; and Pramila Jayapal the first Indian-American congresswoman in Washington state. Our large neighbor to the south gave us astonishing news. After 52 years of constant bloodshed and terror, Peace at long last may be arriving in Colombia after the government and the FARC met and came to terms. Felicidades, Colombianos!

A fragile but awesomely beautiful airplane named Solar Impulse circumnavigated the earth–without hydrocarbon fuel. Using only solar energy, Bertrand Piccard pilotd Solar Impulse around the globe to bring attention to alternative sources of energy. Bon travail, monsieur Piccard!

Fuegos artificiales Boquete 2016/17

Panamanians love their fuegos artificiales, regardless of the holiday and/or occasion. These were right outside our window, and waaaaay loud!

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Fireworks of London: Welcome 2017!

You’re wondering about the bad news from 2016? I’ll let some other blogger post that, hope yours was not too disappointing. Prospero ano nuevo everyone, and here’s hoping 2017 is an awesome year for everyone.

Contrasts & Cultures

Inequality? Or just cultural contrast?

Here in the mountains of Western Panama it’s easy to see the cultural differences between people. While Panama does have an emerging & dynamic middle class, and its economy surges every year, there are still pockets of deep, abiding poverty and squalor.

Okay, let me back up with a bit of personal history and illuminate the previous statement. Once upon a time I’d aspired to be a missionary priest. Immersed in Catholic orthodoxy growing up, (Remember the milk cartons for collecting coins for foreign missions?), I saw my future as the intercessor arriving to eliminate just such ‘poverty & squalor.’ Doing altruistic, benevolent work in a far-flung field defined my future. I’d been convinced by the nuns & priests that ‘those poor people’ were ignorant, dirty, illiterate etc. And they yearned for the precious light and religious conversion I could bring to them. The condescension & judgment wrapped up in that belief never occurred to me. Like Nathan Price in The Poisonwood Bible, I was determined to save as many of those poor wretches as I possibly could. And as Elwood Blues said, I was “on a mission from god!”

This is something many gringos, my wife and I included, have had to address after moving to Panama. The ‘poverty’ she and I see around us is likely not what Panamanians see or interpret as such. The top pictures are an obvious exaggeration of the differences in habitation. The structure on the left is home to a local family not far from Boquete. I’m not sure how many people live there, but people live there! The home is alongside a river, far off the main highway and has zero amenities–no electric, inside water supply, no sanitary or laundry facilities and little protection from the elements.

The structure on the right is where we live. Our place has all the modern conveniences, plus a few totally unnecessary items such as garbage disposal, cable TV, an elevator, covered parking, etc. etc. There are (count them) three balconies and a large patio that enable us to partake of the natural setting–if we choose to. Or we can slide the glass doors shut and watch the HD TV, weather, insects, predatory critters outside be damned.

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Radio antenna
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Home Sweet Home

When I think of what my life as a missionary might have been, I cringe at my once simplistic & condescending attitude. Did the people I wanted to help really want my help? Do the people living here? Does anyone appreciate the voluntary helping hand that may or may not contain items they truly need? There are too many existential questions involved there, and it’s too easy to get, no pun intended, off in the weeds on a travel-based blog post. So here are more pictures.

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Hiking is energizing & educational.
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Poverty? Or reality?

The minor amount of research I’ve done about social services in Panama reveals a system that is, in many ways, similar to that in the U.S., for example. A governmental entity called MIDES, Ministerio de Desarollo Social, or ministry of social development tends to Panama’s Seguridad Social, among other things. The short version is that Panamanian workers both private and public pay into the system, and can expect benefits from it at 62 for men and 57 for women. Employees pay in according to the number of Balboas earned per month. Also like the U.S., though perhaps not as extreme in Panama, the wealthiest 20 percent of Panamanians control more than 50 percent of the country’s wealth, while the poorest 40 percent control 12 percent.

The upshot of all this, for purposes of this blog, is that folks living off the grid in Panama contribute nothing to this system, and receive nothing in return. The only exception to that is the government’s distribution of monetary compensation for those people for the childrens’ education. It isn’t much; “about $20 per month,” according to Eduardo, my Spanish teacher & an amigo. Others tell me the same, the dilemma being this: Children must work alongside the family, so the education funds often go to other necessities. Education is compulsory in Panama, for kids between 6 and 15. That doesn’t mean the mandate is enforced.

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Indigenous people often suffer malnutrition

Among the poorest in Panama are the indigenous native peoples, who make up about 8 percent of the population (194,000).

Home for our groundskeepers

The groundskeepers here at our complex live rather more humbly than we do. Are they happy with the arrangement, and the contrast? Define happy, I guess. It’s the age old problem of wealth alongside poverty and want: Do we gringos stream revenue into the local economy? Yes, we do, not a sizable amount but not negligible, either. The unemployment rate in Panama is about 3%, and in a service economy that has to reflect more people spending dollars.

Home…For us.

Is ‘poverty’ a relative term? Is ‘wealth’? Certainly. The challenge we have as expats here in Panama is to recognize the disparity. Since moving here we’ve become more conscious of how much we truly have. We’re careful to avoid overt displays of our wealth and affluence. We don’t show wads of cash, not because we’re concerned about theft, but because local folks don’t have much of it, and there’s no reason to flaunt what we do have. We avoid overtipping, and over paying, not out of selfishness, but because doing so can be its own signal of social superiority & facility, its own brand of insult. We’re not poor, and there’s no sense attempting to appear so. But we try to keep the riches we have from becoming a wedge. It demands a bit of finesse, and a constant awareness that cultures and social expectations differ, and must be observed.

Backyard Birds & New Cameras

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Benjamin Button aka Backyard Bird

This post is for the birds. It’s just a short, simple addition to our blog to show off a few of our feathered neighbors, and to demonstrate our newfound amateur photography skills. We named the fellow above Benjamin Button, BB for short. He (she?) spends the entire day at our Hummer feeder surveying his realm, keeping close watch on ‘his’ food supply. He’s an old, tired aviator & hover-lover, kinda like yours truly. BB is all scruffy and disheveled, with a bit of a ‘tude to go with his raggedy appearance, so a lot like me, actually. Mariah and I greet BB at dinner on the lanai, and watch him scatter the other Hummers away from the nectar. Mariah took this shot with the new Sony pocket digital.

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BB my fellow hover-lover

Rufous-Tailed Hummingbird (we think)

On occasion BB rouses himself from his perch and drops down for a snack. When the feeder empties he’s not shy about letting us know. (He and I do have a lot of similarities, see what I mean?)

Blue-Grey Tanager                   Palm Tanager (Thx, Lin Hall)

Anyone who knows what species of birds we’ve pictured here, please jump in. We’re not birders, and our photographic skills leave a lot to be desired and learned as well. Also, we believe there are several species migrating this time of year, thus they don’t appear in our guidebook. Here are a few more shots:

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Baltimore Oriole

(Cornell Lab)

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Tropical Kingbird (Thx again, Lin)

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Clay Colored Thrush

(Courtesy Audubon)

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Squirrel Cuckoo

(From Wikipedia)

This big bird visits almost every morning as we enjoy breakfast on the lanai. It’s nearly a foot long, with more than half that length comprised of its tail. Very skittish & antsy, it stays in the tree by our balcony for three or four seconds, then flits off somewhere else, thus the fleeting picture.

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Gartered Trogon

(per Scanlon Gallery)

This fellow dropped by yesterday morning and stayed close, eyeing us with a degree of interest. As you can see, the rains are still with us. Even though the light isn’t the best, pictures still capture the beauty and tropical appeal of this place. We’re fortunate to be living here, interacting with nature and immersed in the exotic adventure that’s life in Panama.

Orange-Bellied Euphonia

(Cornell Lab)

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Purple Honeycreeper

(Cornell)

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??? Woodpecker?

The birds above were spotted at the Boquete Bees, where we volunteer every Wednesday.

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Lingot Bird: Latin name, Owless Duolingess

(Duolingo Home Page)

The little green bird above is one of our favorite feathered friends, and most common visitors. I’ll take this opportunity to congratulate my spouse on her recent accomplishment in reference to Senor Lingot. Just recently, Mariah passed 365 days of uninterrupted Duolingo exercises. One full year of daily Spanish lessons! Woot! says the Lingot Owl. We’re determined to learn Espanol, as well as several bird species here, and passable camera skills as well, determined to give a hoot, in other words.

The variety and proliferation of birds isn’t the only reason we acquired new cameras, but it was one of them. Boquete, like all of Panama, is very photogenic, even in the wet season. We’ll keep throwing pictures up on the site, and continue displaying the natural beauty we see around us. Enjoy the pictures, and if you care to correct and/or add to our limited avian knowledge by identifying the birds for us, by all means do so. Thanx!

White-Water Adventure, Panama style

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…or, another (fun & exciting) way to soak the gringos*

Invited by good friends John and Susan, or JP & Suds as they’re known to others, Saturday last I set out on my first ever white-water adventure, a (not so lazy) trek down the Rio Chiriqui Viejo in Western Panama. I booked my trip with Boquete Outdoor Adventures, a high-quality firm in beautiful downtown Boquete.

I should mention that this was a solo trip for me, as Mariah opted, in an abundance of caution around her too recent injury, to skip the jerking, wrestling and plunging of a trip on the wild and wooly river. It was a good decision. You can see from the shot above that our little ship was in trouble from the time we launched. Two indications of this: One, we’re all smiling; two, we’re (relatively) dry and comfy. This would not last.

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Ten minutes into the trip

The astute reader/observer will now notice a few changes: Yes, we are still smiling, that is true. However, yours truly is no longer quite so dry, and I have indeed changed places in the boat. The reseating was not, dear reader, a rearrangement of weight to add stability to our little craft. No, it was because I’d just fallen in the %$!@ river and been hauled back aboard by my shipmates. Notice I’m now soaked to the skin, as anyone who falls into the Rio Chiriqui Viejo might expect to be. Hey, what doesn’t kill you makes you wetter, I suppose.

The other difference is a bit subtle, but readily visible by those with or without glasses. That’s right, I’m not wearing any. My gafas del sol are now (and forever) part of the ever sweeping waters of the river. When I washed overboard I did, however, manage to remember a priority item that had been drilled into me years ago in Hawaii during my outrigger canoe days. ‘Never let go of your paddle!’ Well, my experience with the Koloa Outrigger Canoe Club served me well on the river. Despite my dunking in the turbulent water, and my time tossed around by its boiling currents like a log in a freshet, I held onto that paddle for all I was worth.

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Yours truly takes a dip in the Rio Chiriqui Viejo

That’s me in front of my shipmate, as we coast along without benefit of a boat. I lost my glasses, but managed to keep my paddle. Yes, the fact that there’s no lifeguard in the gene pool did cross my mind. Thank goodness, and the gods who watch over old but still slightly buoyant gringos, for flotation gear and helmets.

A bit of culture, wildlife, history…and politics

I should take a moment to mention our professional, courteous, very funny (and fun) staff of river guides. Pepito was our particular rafting captain, and though he sounded like Captain Ahab at times–Forward! Back! Sideways! Duck! (without glasses, I never saw the duck) Pepito guided us through every channel, mogul and dip in the river with an expertise gained from 11 years, and ‘mucho’ tours down this very river. I even practiced my Espanol a bit with the very patient Senor Pepito. In reference to my lost glasses, I speculated with him that ‘un pez lleva ahora les.’ After that feeble attempt at linguistic humor, I figured it might be best to pipe down, lest Captain Pepito toss me back in the river.

Along the Rio Chiriqui Viejo, we were exposed to a bit of Panamanian culture. A number of folks fished along the way, some on holiday with their ninos splashed and cavorted in the river and evidence of past attempts to harness the flow of water for personal and/or commercial purposes was evident in places. And there were critters. My goodness, iguanas, spider monkeys, birds of all descriptions and of course fish. (one of which is wearing my glasses!)

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Launch! A Hydro Plant Provides the Ooomph

For our historico-political edification, the recent history of western Panama includes a tale about the very hydroelectric project that made our trip down the river possible, the dam system that provides the ooomph that gushing water gives to teeny, tiny boats such as ours. It seems that the power project bids were let to insiders of a recent presidential administration, those infrastructure projects designed to make Panama a kind of primary electricity source for surrounding countries. The idea was to harness the flow of rivers like the Chiriqui Viejo onto hydropower turbines, then sell the resulting ions to surrounding nations like Costa Rica, Colombia and others. Outdoor adventure companies like BOA got a boost into the bargain, and all is well. The trip we made down this river may not have been possible during the dry season. But now, with the added contribution of water from the damming system, white-water rafting goes happily along.

In no particular order: Cruising down the river

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Lunchtime alfresco

After a light lunch of cold cuts, fresh fruit, drinks and assorted veggie delights, it was back on the river for another hour or so of dodging moguls, dips, channels and holes in the water. All things considered it was a fun, stimulating and energizing tour of a waterway. One of the best parts of the trip was interacting with the guides, watching their expertise as they steered us safely along the otherwise treacherous course. There were bumps, grinds and jolts aplenty, but we made it through and celebrated with a brew or two at the end. Highly recommended if you’re looking for a way to spend an otherwise boring, lazy and/or dry afternoon.

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Paddles up! The end is in sight!

We made it. All boats, all crews accounted for and safe. Not counting a pair of glasses and a tiny tidbit of sunburn, this was a good day spent with friends, and stretching the envelope, the comfort zone that’s way too easy to inhabit. Thanks BOA, JP & Suds and Captain Pepito for a grand adventure.

Mini-Guide to Stress-Free Travel

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This a short post on how to reduce the stress of air travel. The content is taken from my latest addition to ‘Next Avenue C’bus’ a feature offered by The Ohio State University’s WOSU Public media for which I’m a regular contributor. This particular post is from October 11th 2016. For many more essays on the ‘third-third’ of life, and lots of useful retirement tips, check out Next Avenue

As recently retired expats, my wife and I are intent on doing as much travel as possible from our new base in the Republic of Panama.  Stress is a big consideration in any travel endeavor—the packing, planning and pre-plane airport chaos. We’ve discovered shortcuts to get us through TSA lines faster, and to minimize the uncertainty and irritation of modern travel. I focus on air travel here because that’s the preferred method for most people to get where they want to go beyond 500 miles.

 

Expedite travel with TSA-Pre-check

You’ve arrived at the airport with plenty of time, you think. Then your heart sinks as you see that the security line stretches into the parking lot. A better option? TSA Pre-Check, a great way to move through the line faster and easier. In addition to the prospect of a shorter wait in line at the airport, as a ‘TSA-Pre’ customer you don’t need to check laptops, liquids or belts, and you can wear your light jacket and shoes. The TSA-Pre Check program costs only $85.00 for a five-year enrollment.

Avoid checked bags

Using only carry-ons minimizes the headaches and the expense of air travel. The days of free checked bags has gone the way of the corded phone. Airlines charge for every pound of weight that burns aircraft fuel and charging customers for their bags is one way they recoup that expense. Unless you acquire a premium credit card with the airline, or have some other perk that allows free checked bags, prepare to pay extra. We have an “advantage card” that provides many perks, including a number of free checked bags. For shorter trips there’s no need for a closet full of clothes, so acquire clothing that can be worn again and again, then hand washed and dried overnight. High-quality recreational-items stores have a wide selection, and such apparel is surprisingly fashionable these days. A word of warning: if the airline offers to check your carry-on, remove passports, medications, car keys, cash and/or travelers checks and anything else you can’t afford to lose.

Global Entry Program

U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP) offers several programs to expedite air travel. One is called Global Entry. Once your ‘Global Entry’ status is official, your Known Traveler Number, KTN, becomes part of every airline ticket transaction. The KTN announces to TSA & other security personnel that the holder has priority. My wife and I acquired Global Entry status a short time ago. On our recent arrival at Tocumen International in Panama City we zipped through customs and immigration far ahead of fellow travelers. The time difference was noticeable. Global Entry status costs $100 per person, lasts five years and is worth every penny.

Fly when the airport is quiet

Don’t fly when everyone else does. Retirees often have the luxury of traveling whenever they wish, so stay away from the airport on the following days: Christmas and Thanksgiving, Spring break, high-season at your destination and Sundays. According to airfarewatchdog.com, the best (and cheapest) days to fly are Tuesdays and Wednesdays, with Saturdays next in line. People typically return from vacation on Sunday, so airports are crowded and fares are higher.

Go hi-tech

When booking tickets, take advantage of the mobile app for the airline that alerts you to flight and other info. No one wants to arrive at the airport to learn of a cancelled or long-delayed flight. Download the airline’s app and use it.

Go low-tech

Try these low-tech tips: For long layovers, find a quiet spot at the airport and take a nap, read, do yoga or just people watch. Most airports have a ‘meditation room,’ or small chapel you can use. Eat snacks brought from home—cheaper, and likely better. Disappear into your iPod. Take advantage of airline-offered lounges. Find a dog? Yes, some airports now offer ‘therapy dogs’ that roam the concourse looking for stressed-out travelers. Another tip: make a habit of using hand sanitizer posted at airports, and pack one or two small bottles of it in TSA acceptable sizes. Also, take a minute to swab the tray tables and armrests on the plane. Getting sick is a real stressor, and clean hands help a lot.

Take advantage of what’s offered

One last tip. Don’t be afraid to use such things as early-boarding perks, traveler-assist offerings found at every airport, and the use of the ubiquitous golf carts to get between gates. Especially with close connections, such courtesies are a real stress reliever. And remember, as stressful as it may be, don’t be afraid to ask for upgrades, cheaper fares, vouchers for late flights and free baggage check. You worked hard all your life; you deserve to travel stress-free.

Bon Voyage!

When in Rome, do as… the Panamanians?

 

A very small part of our Spanish educational initiative

Caution: This post will sound a bit self-righteous & boastful. It’s not our intention, really. We’re struggling to learn Spanish, and consider it muy importante. If anyone reading this post has a different opinion, no problemo. De acuerdo que esta es su derecho. In that case, read this as light comedy.

Here’s the thing. We think it’s a shame that folks come to Panama, or any ‘foreign’ country, and shield themselves from the people and culture by avoiding second language skills. I’m the first to admit that learning Espanol is hard, hard work. Especially at our age, learning anything tougher than Old Maid is strenuous and discouraging. But we’re not tourists here in Boquete; we’re residents, and we happen to think that making the effort to learn Spanish is crucial to our success, and to the way we’re accepted in the community. Back in Ohio our neighbors from Ukraine brought their parents to live in America, to escape the instability and peril in their embattled country. Sadly, in our opinion, the elders made no effort to learn English, stumbling along and hiding from enriching daily encounters. Their example spurs us to learn the language of the culture we now live in. When in Rome…

As I say, this may read in a self-righteous, or self-congratulatory way. It’s not meant to at all. We’ve encountered expats, some of whom have been here for many years, with no interest in learning Spanish. We think that’s sad, but it’s their choice. There’s comedy in our efforts, that’s for certain, and here’s some of the light comedy parts. The pix below show just one of mi carina’s many mechanisms for aprendiendo Espanol.

Back in 3rd Grade

Remember the flash cards that Mrs. Ruble, your third grade teacher, pasted everywhere? Well…here at the condo it’s like we’re back in 3rd grade again, and Ms R has post-its for us everywhere we look. There’s no escaping the little note cards: want to fix a snack? Check out the note on the door of el refrigerador. Need to thaw el pollo por cena anoche? Don’t miss the note on the congelador. Ooops, there goes el electricidad again, better light una vela, it’s right by the note, next to the encendador. Necesitas un leccion en pronunciacion’? El abecedario es en el respaldo de la silla. Que hora es? Ve’ase la nota del reloj. See, isn’t this fun? And while we believe it’s all or nothing, that we either learn to speak Spanish or stick with English, we’ve learned that Spanglish is okay, just a stepping stone along the way to being Espanol-conversant, if not fluent.

No need for wallpaper

There’s nothing in our lease prohibiting wall decoration, so mi esposa has filled every nook & cranny with training aids. There’s no escaping her little notes. We can’t fix dinner, use el bano, take a shower, watch TV or leave the house without a Spanish lesson. Other methods of instruction include the following: Counting each step as we descend or ascend from our 3rd grade…I mean 3rd floor walkup. (There are treinta y seis escaleras, por cierto.) We chat with each other as much as possible en Espanol, read road signs as we drive along, try to write our journal to each other in Spanish and share palabras nuevas todos los dias.

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Van los Cachorros! Go Cubs!

We’ve begun watching el television en Espanol as well. We’ve heard that the simple act of listening to the tone, timbre and timing of a language can facilitate learning it. So we listen to Spanish radio, pay attention to public conversations and use our vitally important ‘Mas despacio, por favor,’ when engaging with mas rapido Spanish speakers, trying to make every encounter a lesson. If last night’s TV session, Cubs over the Giants, was any indication we’re on our way…as are the Cubbies. Yes, this might be the year! Van los cachorros! Ellos van ganar hoy!

We’ve enrolled in Habla Ya, Spanish language school as well, and lessons are proceeding apace. There are numerous options close by, language teachers & multi-lingual folks willing to help us learn, some for a fee, many for free.

Immersion is the key

The best way to learn any language, of course, is to immerse oneself in the culture, hanging out with people who speak that language. For example, Erick, the little guy above, is Mariah’s maestro favorito. In la biblioteca de Boquete, Erick listens to her con mucha paciencia as she struggles with his native tongue. (In the scene above, he explains that his hermano es mas viejo!   In the other scenes Mariah makes a purchase at BCP’s Tuesday market, tries out her Spanish with fellow bus riders from Albrook Mall Panama City and visits the vegetable stand, all great opportunities to learn a word or two, or three.

In her blog, Let The Adventure Begin, Holly Carter mentions other ways to learn, such as listening to the carpenters, as they work on the house she and husband Scott are building. Cindy Crawford Thomas in Loving Retirement writes about group lessons, another useful path to fluency. In their blog, The Panama Adventure, Kris and Joel Cunningham mention on-line language acquisition. A fellow named Jared Romey on speakinglatino.com even writes about how not to learn Spanish, in this case by, among other things, ignoring the gender attribution/agreement issue that often trips up students. Is it La dia, or El dia?  Los caballos, or las caballos? Los? …the hell! But they’re girl horses! Romey’s focus is, as he states, ‘Functional Spanish.’ Lindsay Dow in Lindsay Does Language offers an in depth collection of language-learning opportunities such as her blogs, vlogs and YouTube offerings.There’s no shortage of resources available for anyone wishing to learn a language. The only real dilemma is deciding which one is best, and that depends on time availability, method of learning, age, access to those resources and temperament. Plus motivational level, I’d say.

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The Friendly Duo-Owl

A free application for language acquisition is Duolingo. My wife has been an avid Duolinguist for a long time. In fact, one of the features of this free service is its tracking of students’ time & progress, and Mariah recently surpassed consecutive day number 325 of daily Duolingo attention.Woot!  Duolingo offers language training and simple vocabulary/verb/grammar exposure in several languages, all for free.

All the post-it notes, textbooks, shared new words and shortcuts in the world won’t result in fluency. So we try to dive in and use whatever fluency we’ve acquired. It’s not pretty, but folks seem genuinely pleased that we’re trying, and they immediately assume the role of maestros quien son felices ayudarnos.