by Dave Hucker
November - December 2007
Exactly are where we?
It seemed we had gone through a lot after leaving the house at 6.30 am.
Gatwick was uncomplicated and we got on the plane easily. However, into the flight we realised the aircon knob was turned up to arctic max. It was a chilly flight.
Also I was starting a cold I could feel that metallic taste in the back of my throat. Damn.
Heading for Havana
The nine hours to our old friend Havana passed easily, I had scored with a purchase off the true crimes shelves at the airport bookshop. The Mammoth Book Of Bikers was a compendium of articles, archive, historical, and first person experience on both sides of the fence about the Hells Angels. It was an interesting read, which contained the original article about the Hollister riot that the film The Wild One was based on.
The legendary delay for immigration at Havana seems to be thing of the past as a full row of occupied boxes awaits you. No waiting at all, the tour operators had probably had a word with the government about speeding up immigration
We breezed straight through, now they have cameras in the booths to record passenger’s faces. That’s progress.
Out into the real world of Cuba and our names on a card. Loaded into a taxi we went down that familiar road into Havana.
The Hotel Sevilla is much the same. They have finished painting the foyer. But the lifts are being updated. So the service lifts are the only ones working, and one of those two lifts are out of order as well. This made life difficult for both the staff who had to shift big trucks of laundry around as the tourists waiting forever for get in and out. The lift seemed to have a mind of it’s own about which floors it stopped at. We were on seven and sometimes we resorted to the stairs to get down. Or get out on eight and walk down.
A Bucanero or two later we went for a pootle along the Malecon. The thing about Cuba and Havana in particular is that nothing has changed but lots has changed. Things are different. But people still live in those one or two room living spaces one of many crammed in one of those huge big seafront houses you walked under with trepidation as it looked like it was the falling down. The residents were using little electric pumps to suck water from a pipe out in the pavement to store in a barrel inside. The worn bearings squealed and a blue light from loose connections made the pumps flicker.
There are more mobile phones and cafes. I spotted a really adventurous modern one that had been built in the space of a collapsed building. I also spotted my first large capacity Japanese motorbike, a CBR600, There have always been thousands of 100/125 Suziyams. But a sports bike was very unusual. I was suffering with the cold, grrrr.
Breakfast at the Sevilla was the usual mix of foods and people. And the usual battle to find cups, butter, and bread. We decided to take a walk through Havana Viejo toward the Malecon. I find a bar I used to drink in when I was in Havana 10 years ago on the music trip. I show Kim the Hotel Lincoln where we stayed. It looks in even more run down condition; there must be an investment opportunity for some brave hotelier once Viejo gets tarted up a bit (if it ever will). Then the Lincoln will be in a good location. I am pleased to see where the new Casa De La Musica Central was near the Lincoln, but it is closed due to a building collapse next door. When we pass there are people coming and going, but it is still closed as a venue. There is an EGREM record store next door but that is also closed despite having a sign saying it was open. But I do not see any new music in the window.
We wait in the lobby for our taxi to the airport, it comes – we go.
At the airport we wrap our bags in plastic as Havana has a bad reputation for thefts from bags. We notice Cubana airlines has a free machine just for its own passengers but our wrapping costs $5 as we are flying on Copa (Panama’s national airline) to Panama City. It is a bit of a rigmarole to get the tickets to pay for the wrapping. You have to go to the Airport Tax counter, queue, buy the tickets and then come back and give them to the guys doing the wrapping. Then on check in we find that Copa gives out free plastic wrapping bags to its customers.
I buy a litre of rum at the duty free - $9 (£4.50) that’s the price it should be here.
We have a cheese and ham sandwich and a Bucanero while we wait. It is amazingly easy going through Security and Immigration compared to Europe. None of that 100ml bottles to be kept separate. In front of us on the plane are a couple of youngsters - probably honeymooners - who were getting all slobbery over each other. As soon as we take off he pushes his seat right back banging into my knees. I will not put up with that on a short flight. “Por favour senor - No hay espace para me” I say coughing my cold in his direction. He moves his seat forward.
Arriving in Panama City 2 ½ hours later the airport is one huge big shopping opportunity. Not the rubbish we have on sale in our airports, here you can buy TVs and everything, probably fridge freezers as well. Though how you carry them as hand luggage is beyond me.
Immigration is quick. A supervisor is chatting up the girl behind the counter. The bags have to go through a huge big scanner, we get through so obviously were not carrying any contraband.
Awaiting in the foyer was a card with our names on held by a scrawny guy from Eco Circuitos, the local travel agency that is looking after us and shifting us around. He has high cheekbones and is obviously an indigenous Indian of some kind. We jump into a mini van and head down a toll motorway into Panama City.
We drive past large tracts of social housing being built. The Panama City skyline hoves into view and what an amazing sight it is. A forest of vast huge skyscrapers. This is obviously a place with money. Lots of it. Many of the buildings are banks as Panama is one of those places that allows money to freely come and go without taxes or regulation. It is a Latin American tiger economy. The money generated by the Canal is vast. One million dollars a day profit. The traffic is also vast and very chaotic, as bad if not worse than London. It is made worse by a concert from an Mexican rock group at a convention centre near the Hotel.
The Amador Country Inn is pretty bland. It hardly gives an indication of which country we are in. Except when you look out the window and see the marina, the causeway and the boats queuing to get onto the Canal. When we open the doors onto our balcony the steamy tropical heat rolls in. Our comfortable room has a microwave and two packets of pre buttered popcorn you can microwave. The problem is we do not know how to work a microwave.
Next morning we have a half transit of the Panama Canal lined up. A nice girl from Eco Circuitos is waiting for us and off we go along the causeway which links the mainland to a series of Islands. It was built with rock excavated from the canal and prevents the canal silting up. We get dropped at what looks like the edge of a shopping mall on a place called Flamenco Island. There we get coloured wristbands which correspond with a similar coloured poster in the windscreen on a row of buses. We get on the silver one. Well, I say it’s grey not silver.
Today is one of the Panamanian Independence days. In this case independence from Colombia. So there are a high proportion of locals here for a holiday day out. Seeing the sights. A guy with yellow mirror glasses comes onto the bus and introduces himself as the guide, first in Spanish then the very (Latin) Americanised English that the Panamanians talk.
The buses set off back up the causeway, going past a boatyard with large boats of all kind kinds up on cradles being repaired and repainted. We head up through what used to be the US Military accommodation in the Zone - nice blocks of flats. Then past the old air force base - now the internal airport. We start to get into the hills. We climb round the side of the mountain that is the deepest cut on the canal.
Not wishing to go on to Colon we take a left turn passing the Botanical Gardens which look a bit forlorn. Then soon after we spot a sign for The Canopy Tower – an old radar station where we will be staying in a few days time. But the buses plough on further up. We pass a grim looking prison, then the French Cemetery. We cross a single-track bridge with just two sets of planks to drive on and then pull in on a little harbour and our boat ‘The Panama Queen’ awaits us. It is what I would call a pleasure steamer.
Four buses worth of people got on and off we set off into the Canal. Our bilingual guide keeps up a good pace of banter with many facts and interesting nuggets that generally have the right balance. After him a German guide does a commentary for the Germs (there only seemed about 4 of them). Two beautiful young women in very trad white lace Panamanian gear wander around obligingly having their photograph taken with all of us.
We are headed up the canal the wrong way, going down against the flow of traffic as the ships go east west in the morning and west east in the afternoon.
We go through the famous big cuts where large hills had to be forced through. In some places you can see the drill holes which have been packed with dynamite and blown out a big strip of rock.
In Panama City Viejo there is a Canal Museum which will be part of our PC tour the next day. In it is a great picture of a line of black guys each carrying a case of dynamite on their head. It is amazing how little it is taking to widen the canal at the moment. The blasting is still going on but it is in little plastic tubes inserted into holes and using fertiliser and diesel there days. A few large machines dredge out the resulting spoil dumping it into mega trucks which trundle off over the hill to somewhere. Probably down to Panama City to fill in more sea and build another skyscraper.
We come very close to a slab of car carrier, then watch as two tugs nudge a ship round a corner, one by pushing the bow the other pulling the stern. What looks like a Mayan temple on the bank side is only a terraced hill. It is amazing passing these huge big container ships laden with all the goods and chattels of the world going somewhere or other.
I must admit the Panama Canal is certainly one of the modern wonders of the world. Even the figures that are bandied around are world records in their own right. 30,000 people died building it, mostly from Yellow Fever and Malaria. The Americans bought the French canal interests for $40,000,000, then the largest priced land sale ever. The highest fee ever paid by a boat was $180.000 by a container ship. The tugs cost $3.000 each. The transit has to be booked and paid for in advance. If a boat is late and misses its allotted time, it has to go to the back of the queue of boats waiting to go through. And pay again
The locks are magnificent, huge big massively engineered machines that still work perfectly today.
We discover we will be called to the Buffet by our wristband colour.
We come to the first lock: Pedro Miguel and there is a scramble to get on the open top deck to see the whole process. It is very impressive close up. The water empties so quickly. Exiting the lock I turn to go back to return to Kim downstairs and see a Japanese bloke sitting there reading a book not paying any attention to the spectacle. When we go through the Miraflores Lock he is also reading his book. Weird.
Dumped back at Flamenco Island our minibus picks us up and returns us to the hotel to continue our adventure.
The question of food arises in the evening. There is a branch of “Thank God It’s Fridays” next to the hotel. They supply the room service. But we chose to visit the restaurant itself. It’s an example of the American branding that exists across the city. I had once been in a TGIF before so had an inkling of the horrors that await us. Kim had not so she is an innocent abroad. Her eyes are well and truly opened by the overwhelming UsofA ambience, especially the outfits worn by the staff: a waistcoat with lots of badges and very silly hats and fishnet tights (for the girls). The food is terrible. It takes a lot for a place that sells itself as a burger/steak restaurant to mess up such simple fare. Kim’s hamburger takes ages to arrive and my steak could have been used as a rubber substitute in tyres. We flee as soon as possible though it seems a popular destination for locals. That’s the problem with these hotels way out on the edge of town - you need to take a taxi to eat.
Sunday dawns, have we really been away four days? Today we have another half-day tour, this time of the City. Our guide is there but there is a little glitch with transportation and it takes a few phone calls and 15 minutes for our minibus to arrive. We head for the Cultural Centre Museum which charts the history of Panama pre and post Columbus. We find it very interesting. The indigenous people who had lived there for thousands of years (25-30 at least) were divided into three groups. The northern one had very simple pottery; the central sophisticated pots painted with geometric patterns; and the southern had pots that were plain coloured but had highly worked decoration by moulding and impressing.
The museum also has models of Panama City in the Spanish time and lots of archaeology. Having learned about the history we head over to the ruins of what was the colonial centre. With a large tower and stone buildings, paved streets, it was all very impressive. We see the room where the gold and silver that was shipped up the coast from Bolivia and Peru was stored before being shipped overland by trail and river to Portobelo where it was then put on the boats to Cuba and Spain. There is also quite an extensive shopping opportunity of stalls selling mainly the usual tourist stuff. We opt for fresh coconuts – although it is cloudy it is still tropically hot.
Heading over to Panama City Viejo we engage the guide and driver in conversation, I explain I am a Salsa dj and soon everybody is big friends. I say I am looking for music by an old musician from the 70’s & 80’s called Francisco Bush and his two groups Los Magnificos/Sonido Nuevo. This passes the guide by who is too young but the driver, an old guy named Marco, knows who I mean and says the only place might be two records shops in town and he offers to take me there tomorrow. I score extra points when he put a CD of Salsa piano player Larry Harlow on the car stereo and I say I saw him live in London the previous Saturday, with Adalberto Santiago on coro, Yomo Toro on quatro and Nicky Marrero on timbales. Marco just whistles.
Like many of the old centres of Caribbean cities Panama City Viejo has deteriorated a bit. There are the empty shells of colonial buildings with no roofs but, as in Havana, renovation is under way. We drive in through a Chinatown (they came to Panama as indentured workers to build the railway) and visit a few squares and a church which is inlaid with gold and has a congregation made up of some of the poorest people in the city. Then we spend time at the Canal Museum, which is fascinating. We go past went past Ruben Blades house then out passing through a poor area on the edge of the old town. A very interesting little tour all in all.
When we get back to the hotel the tropical rain is beating down but by the time evening comes it is fresh and balmy again and it’s Food Decision time. TGIF is more than a no no. We would rather eat grass. So we ask down to the desk where and are directed to a seafood place called Mi Ranchito over on the causeway by Flamenco Island. We grab a taxi. We want to be dumped and allowed to make our decisions of where to eat. The driver seems to have different ideas and is driving us to some ritzy place. Eventually we get him to turn round and drop us at a horrible mall and then we walk to Mi Ranchito which is right on the waterfront with thatched roof tables, music and friendly people. It obviously is a big family night out and it is packed. We get seated and ordered the Corvina (sea bass). It is lovely, proper food, fresh, well cooked. And with a nice bottle of wine and postres it only costs about £16 for the two of us. A taxi back to the hotel costs £2.50.
In the morning I had arranged to meet Marco at 10 to go shopping. I sit there in the lobby till about quarter past when one of the guys come over and says, “Are you waiting for Marco to go and buy some music? Well, he has to go and work so has asked his friend Rafael to take you instead”. So off Raphael and I trundle up to the north of the city. First shop, Discos Sophy, is a proper record shop and it has a wide selection of different musics appealing to many interests.
“Soy buscando por musica viejo de Panama - Francisco Bush Y….” The guy behind the counter thought a bit but shakes his head. I ask where I can find it – he just looks blank. But we head over to his old music display and I buy a few things by people I have never heard off before. Muchos gracias all round and we are off to the other record shop which is not actually a record shop but an electrical store. They have nothing old but I hit their Reggaeton shelves heavily. The floor assistant I have been dealing with takes the CDs down to girl behind a till. Doing my bill she asks me for ID for my credit card. I say I do not have any with me. Who does she think I am? Some local card thief? Or a gringo with bad Spanish buying $60 worth of Reggaeton CDs? She obviously decides that I am the latter. Then I am passed to a counter where the goods are checked by hand against the invoice, and the invoice stamped before said goods are put into my hands.
Back to hotel at 11.30 to get our midday transfer to Gamboa and The Canopy Tower. When I arrive Kim says EC had rung up at 11 and said were we ready to go? Kim points out that the pick up time is 12. And at 12 we go down and get into the minibus. We stop at the local supermarket to stock up on nibbles as we will be out of shop range for a few days.
At The Canopy Tower
Forty minutes later we get off the main road at an old military checkpoint and start climbing steeply through the forest. We see a few coati mundis feeding on the edge of the road. Then after a steep turn the old radar tower appears. It is blue and tall with a big yellow bobble on top. A notice on the gate says it is US Military property and forbids admittance to unauthorised persons.
We are welcomed and shown to our room on the second floor. The doors are louvered to aid air circulation and there are notices saying noise carries in this building so please respect others. A couple of floors have been inserted for the accommodation, so 19 people max. The top floor is the main dining/relaxing room with large windows giving a virtual 360-degree view of the tree canopy. There is a Library of birding/nature books. The kitchen is squashed into a space under the stairs that lead to the observation platform round the yellow bobble. It is a very good view over the forest into the hills and on one side down into the canal. On our first venture up to the platform and we get a sloth pointed out to us.
There are a party of six American birders who have been there for a few days and a couple of dumpy Canadian girls, who seem to spend all their time playing Scrabble. They were surprised we did not rush out on an afternoon trek as soon as we got there. But I explained we were on holiday and wanted to take things easy. Rushing around ticking boxes in our I-Spy bird book was not on our agenda. Also we did not have an I–Spy bird book.
That night dinner was a barbecue on a platform built over the foundations for the fuel tanks that used to power the generator for this radar site last used for tracking planes coming up from Colombia in the “war on drugs”.
Next morning up at 6am for breakfast. It had rained heavily - bucketed it down in fact. The view from the platform was amazing as the cloud and mist slowly burned off from where it had settled in the valleys.
We head off for a walk in the rainforest with guide Jose who susses us out quite quickly. “We are not birders” we say. He knows exactly what we mean. To him at least it means he can show guests other things than birds, like little frogs and big cockroaches.
Returning we find the North Americans sitting outside with their bags waiting to go and two new North Americans to replace them. They were two gay women from San Francisco who were probably a bit older than us and they had travelled extensively including Africa. They were very funny and we got on very well with them . One was a vet the other retired but she was a learning how to do the whole sheepdog-training bit. All very One Man And His Dog. In California it was actually a sport and they were going to go to the World Sheepdog trials in North Wales next year.
We did not do any more trekking that day, preferring to laze around letting nature come to us, which it did with Eagles floating around and little birds dropping in to eat the flying ants. Later in the day an English birder turned up who had a nightmare 33-hour journey to Gamboa which included being stuck at Heathrow and Miami. It made our Havana journey look like the very best possible option. He was a typical birder, not having great social skills, being monomaniacal, ticking boxes and living in Yorkshire. He was a nice enough bloke but wouldn’t say boo to a goose.
The weather generally in Panama and in particular here in the rainforest was rain every afternoon. Sometimes it was a tropical downpour from midday-ish to three or four. Sometime it was heavy rain or just drizzle. But it always rained.
It was a Sunday and the Tower was a bit of a ghost ship and the majority of the staff were off as it was the other Panamanian Independence Day, this time from Spain. And then the Welsh arrive, I was idly looking out and a mini van pulled up and two elderly people painfully emerge. It was left to one of the kitchen staff to show them to their room opposite us. I heard them huffing and puffing up the stairs “Don’t you have any rooms lower down?” whined a voice I would have in my mind for a long time. “No” said the kitchen man whose English was just about good enough for serving food. But explaining how the room worked and where everything was, was a bit beyond him. The Welsh couple were of the type that believe if you speak loudly and slowly in a kind of Pidgin English then non-English speakers will understand better. “Water – drink!? Water ??” They asked, if they had bothered to read the notice in the room they would have seen the water was from a borehole under the tower and totally drinkable. They seemed less than overwhelmed with the room and welcome. Had they not researched this place and saw it was a tower, or had their travel agent neglected to tell them?
But some kind of peace offering came with one of the guides and Mrs Welsh went over all a cooing.
At dinner Mr Welsh’s opening conversational gambit was a totally appalling sexist “joke” made at Kim’s expense to a table that just looked on in horror and with tight lips. The Welshies were from Car-diff and they told us they were bird-ers.
They were a bizarre couple. She was fat and puffing he had a comb-over. Hearing them arguing after they had arrived turned into a morning of despair for me next day. During the night I was woken up by his snoring. By 4 am they started talking to each other loudly as if they were at home and no one could listen in to their bickering. At one point we were so annoyed with them we started whistling loudly. This did not make any impression on them. When she asked him what he was going to wear next day I said loudly “I don’t know what I’m going to wear tomorrow”. This still did not register with them. 5am looms and they are still twittering away, Kim says to leave them as we are going to get up at 6 anyway. Our alarm clock goes off and Mrs Welsh says “Oh I can hear some body’s alarm clock” Yeees.
We scuttle up to breakfast I hardly have time to get a coffee when Mrs Welsh heaves into view. “Where’s the tea? She asks. “In those little bags” I feel like saying, “you chew on them and take sips of hot water” But I didn’t and escaped to the observation platform to meditate on beauty before I returned to the beast. I made some mini bacon sandwiches and sat down. Mrs Welsh got up and announced in that rolling twang “Time for my pills”.
The rest of the table sat there goggle eyed and slack jawed at the whole encounter. You could not make it up was the general opinion with us. On hearing they were Welsh the SF’s were originally keen to talk about sheep dog trials to them. But I think the will to do this was ebbing. We hope to hear from the gals how they got on with the Welsh. Her name was Marg–a-ret, She never uttered his name so we called him Tommy. We were leaving that morning and watched them struggle into the pick up to go walking. How on earth were they going to manage it? Marg-a-ret was a very demanding person. I can imagine her asking the guide to carry her over muddy bits of the trail.
It was time to leave the Canopy Tower. Sad but other parts of Panama awaited.
Our minibus took us back to Panama City and the internal airport at Allbrook, this was a former US airbase. You could see some huge decrepit old aircraft hangers behind a massive shopping centre. After three days cut off from civilisation the airport seems all a hustle and a bustle. A troop of what look like soldiers with camouflage fatigues and camel back water pouches but are actually the National Police, check in their machetes. A girl breast-feeds a baby behind us. We got a hand search of our luggage – what fun, how traditional!. They are very interested in my bottle of Havana Club rum (not sold in Panama as far as I could see). We are heading north up into the Mountains and Volcano’s near the Costa Rican border and a place called Boquete. But here in Panama City we are still in the centre of the country with a mix of different faces. The northern faces are more rounded, the middle quite angular and the south well, there were quite a few women from the San Blas islands in wonderful trad gear which included brightly coloured leg warmers and scarves on heads plus bright red dresses. But what was most striking was their faces, they looked exactly like Mongolians, with those high wide cheekbones.
Up in the mountains at Boquete
We catch a 44-seater turboprop to David where we bump into two fellow Trips Worldwide travellers, they had been on the road for 6 weeks through Central America and had just come from Costa Rica. The luggage came off the plane and through a aperture in the wall. The baggage handlers called out your number and you presented a little ticket and got your bag.
We all squeezed into a pick up truck for the 40 minute ride to Boquete. I always like the routes around airports because they frequently go through industrial areas. David had a beaut, even including a prison where the inmates were playing some kind of sport. There was a table with three sets of trophies. So this obviously was a game of some importance. We were on the InterAmerica Highway which is the road that goes all the way to Alaska so you can drive virtually non-stop to Alaska if that is your problem.
We turn off the InterAmerica into a nice middle class area. The large houses were all well kept one even had a huge big Santa and Reindeer display. Most houses had white sparkly Christmas lights hanging down from the eves. These looked like icicles at night. Then it got a bit lower middle class and then the city disappeared. The land started to look different as we climbed toward the 13.000 feet high Volcano Baru. The rocks were all black volcanic and the field stones had been made into dry stone walls. We passed carpenter shops making doors and windows, their stocks of wood seasoning in a big line. The hills got bigger and we stopped at a Mirador to view the river that ran through the valley.
I got accosted by a guy from the souvenir shop who said “You know hoole jen?” I was a bit confused and showed it. He said again “you know hool egen” and pointed to the German football shirt he was wearing, ahh it all made sense to me. So we had a few words in Spanish about football hooligans. I said “El Allemans contra La Franceses, Hollandes contra el Italianos y los Engles contra todos. He thought that quite funny.
We head onto our home for the next two nights. Boquete certainly looked a nice little farming town (coffee and cattle) and had a gentle rough edge to it. Our hotel the Panamonte Inn was originally built in 1946 and still looked like it most of the time. The restaurant was excellent and the bar had two roaring log fires in the evening as it did get a bit chilly up there. It was a major watering hole for all and sundry in Boquete both tourists and locals.
One day there was an American who bumped into other Americans.
“Hey where you bin” they asked him.
“Well Maan I bin down in Argentina ’n’ Uruguay eating some of the best steaks ever man,” he drawled back.
“What’s the prices down there” he was asked.
“Cheap maan, but hotels expensive. Hey what projects you guys working on?”
Breakfast at this place was another big meeting point. One day a local was having breakfast with some people and he had an amazing deep rounded voice with a beautiful timbre. Listening to the conversation I heard him say his family had originally come from France to work on the canal.
The Panamonte Inn was a very pleasant place to spend a few days and the scenery was very pretty. It drizzled one day but we got burnt another when we went for a explore of the town. We went into the Municipal Market which sold vegetables, had a cruise up the main street, looking in various shops. I was looking for a Guyabera which is a type of shirt. Kim bought a notebook for us to write the journal in.
We walked out of town to a extraordinary garden called Mi Jardin Es Su Jardin (My Garden Is Your Garden). It had started out as private garden which had obviously spiralled out of control. Then the owner, the octogenarian former head of Panama’s electricity company Gonzalo Gonzalez, just opened it up to the public. When we arrived a couple of School buses were disgorging pupils for a visit. They were very polite saying buenas dias or hola to us.
The garden was certainly very eccentric or would mad be a better description? It was comprised of formal type plantings with lots of coleus. Along with blocks of more wild planting. It had a water channel that ran through the garden and fed ponds that contained goldfish. There were also fibreglass cows and a My Little pony horse. Metal cut out figures of girls watering the plants and odd sculptures lurk around.
The formal planting was fantastic. There were circles of very red coleus with white daisies or cannas. In fact the garden at the Panamonte had big groups of the same green and red coleus that I had such a good display with this year. I wish I could grow them all year round like there up in the mountains. Mi Jardin Es Su Jardin was certainly one of the craziest gardens we have seen in many a moon. And it was free!
Heading for Bocas del Toro
There was supposed to be a 6am pickup for us to get to the Bocas del Toro islands over to the right on the Caribbean side of Panama. 6am came and went. At 6.20 Kim rang the EC offices in Panama, someone answered the phone! Soon after the EC local person rang back (very sleepily) saying there had been a problem with the car. We think the only problem with the car was someone i.e. him, had not booked it. At least it gave us time for a little breakfast to fortify ourselves for the forthcoming journey.
At 6.45 a yellow van stops outside. It has the number plate ‘Doggy Style’. Our driver Max apologises (not for the number plate) and we head off, to the petrol station. We ask about the route to Bocas because the map seems to suggest you have to go back to David to get over the mountains. Max says there is no need to go back to David and soon takes a left that follows the Caldera River as it leaves the valley, hits a plain and cuts a canyon. We keep climbing through very rural farmsteads. We pass over a dam and lake and start getting into one of the best mountain rides we have ever had.
It just kept climbing with switchbacks passing little communities scrambling a living on the side of the mountain. You looked back and it was huge big landscapes of hills and hollows, very green indeed. The view is 25-30 miles and is stunning. In the rolling landscape the agriculture was mainly cattle. You would pass these little houses on stilts, the poor only had palm fronds on the roof and walls. Slightly better off had hand hewn planks on the walls. Next step up was machine-sawn planks and finally if you had a corrugated tin roof you were rolling in it.
The scenery was totally spectacular as was the road surface. It was sort of like Switzerland but tropical. The different sides of the spurs of the hills showed different plants. On the western side there was more bright green ferns, while on the eastern side it was more mixed vegetation. An oil pipeline follows the road over the summit. We get into the clouds and I thought we must be near the top soon. Indeed we start to descend. Soon the scenery starts to change it seems to get a bit hotter. There were palm trees.
We turned left at big junction off the mountain road and pulled up at a very important watering hole. A petrol station, cantina and toilets. It was a major refuelling place and it was heaving. Three buses seemed to arrive just after us. Kim found a posse of girls hopping around waiting for her cubicle as she left.
Food was long counter of bog standard Panamanian carbohydrate stodge: Rice and Beans, Rice, Potatoes, Corn Fritters. Various meat and fish bits in gravy all woofed down quickly. Steaming trays made their way out of a hole in the wall. Our driver had his breakfast, that he had probably missed at home because of the mess up. A little kid was cleaning shoes going around from table to table carrying a battered wooden box. An old toothbrush was his polisher. This stop was a rewarding experience a zillion times better than the average English motorway service station. I went to the Callaberos.
Fortified we hit the ground heading for the coast. We pass through more and more lowland until we get down to the coast. We then make a right and head through Almirante where we get the water taxi to Bocas.
The road goes into a dirt road that gets rougher. There were railway tracks but they soon disappeared under the mud. We turn into a creek we can see various boats tied up. We are directed through a ticket office into a wharf. There is a woman and child sitting on the wooden seat. She goes off to take a mobile phone call. I looked out over the creek where there was a jumble of old wooden buildings. The privies were perched over the water on jetties. I looked around at the detritus floating around, a mental note struck me, try not and fall in the water.
We sat and watched, more people came through the ticket office and sat around. The small speedboat came in, its passengers got off and we just hopped in. It started to reverse out, as we were about a foot from the wharf a guy charged down the steps and leaped onto the boat. Went through the gap in the middle of the windscreen, threw his bag on the floor and sat down next to the captain. He wore a baseball cap lots of gold jewellery and super large sneakers. The captain pulled shut the window to close the gap in the windscreen and we set off. On one side old boats were sitting among the mangroves and you could see little huts a few yards in. And of course the privies.
It is a 15 or so minute ride to Bocas. We get out at a seafront that is a hive of activity. Max has to ask where the wharf used by our next place, Al Natural, is. We troop along the seafront. Bocas looks like a Caribbean frontier port. It is also on the backpacker route so is full of young American surfer dudes with locks and baggy shorts.
We find the place where Al Natural co owner (Belgian) Michel has been building himself a big house and office on the wharf. All wood and very modern looking, this construction is a major job.
Michel explained the boat would be there soon, when they had finished doing the shopping. Also present here was the “manager” at Al Natural his name was Aaron and was twenty something American. He had been away to visit his family in Seattle for thanksgiving. As we turned up his girlfriend who ran a backpackers hostel in town appeared. So we left them to get all lovey while we watched the fish.
Going Au Naturale
The boat pulled in we boarded and we went round the corner and loaded several cases of beer, well that’s me ok for the next few days then. Boxes of provisions, a large fish and bags of various other things. We left the port and headed out through large clumps of mangrove towards Bastimenti Island one of a series of islands sticking out into the Caribbean here. Halfway through the 20 minute journey we stop at the “gas station” a hut on stilts next door to a bar & restaurant also on stilts. We stock up on large yellow plastic containers of petrol.
We progress round a headland we see out sea two small islands, the Zapatillos. To the left a large bay stretched around us and in the distance could see shapes in the beach. One was a pontoon. We docked and a bunch of Americans lying in the hammocks said hello. There was a large open restaurant and bar area and the 7 cabins are strung along the beach. It looks like our kind of rustic place. Aaron shows us straight to our room. It is a wooden platform on stilts at the waters edge, completely open. There was a thatched roof, some planking to chest height at the back. The bed was in the centre with a mosquito net round it and the toilet and shower were next to it in a separate thatched bit wrapped around a tree.
I was looking out of the rear of the hut and spot something moving in the tree a few feet away, it is a pair of very colourful Iguanas. They view us with curiosity and pose for a few photo’s.
The eating at Al natural is communal as was the drinking beforehand. Aaron made very strong rum cocktails (Naturalistas, made with lemon grass, lime, sugar and Rummmm) with added extra rum. We fed bananas to the little monkeys that come to the restaurant area at night. They are called Night Monkeys are black have big eyes and wonderful little hands. The trick was to stand next to the platform they congregated on with a piece of banana just far enough away so they had to grab your fingers with their hands. The Americans left in the morning so we had the place to ourselves.
The cook was a guy called Calypso and he asked if we wanted to go on a tour into the mangroves and Saltwater Creek then visit the Village where we could do a nature trail. Sounded OK to us so off we go in a boat and troll through the mangroves, very interesting. We get to the saltwater creek and he spots a sloth in the trees. So we stop and watch, it is a family unit mum, dad and a baby. Do not believe it that sloths only move slowly. When they want to they can shift very rapidly. We watched as one of them lost its footing and went crashing down, managing to grab a hold of a small branch with one hand. The other sloth went to its aid. It zipped along a branch and got close to the other one and put out its hand for the other one to grab. Quite amazing.
We then went to Calypso’s village, his house was quite big and had a gaggle of children hanging around including one who was sitting on a large pig that was lying down. The kid started kicking the pig and the pig got up grumpily. I suppose the pig will be slaughtered at Christmas.
We went and bought some necklaces from his table in the community handicraft shop. Then we went off through the mud on a nature trail where we saw some more of the little monkeys. Then a pond with a family of Caimans (alligators). There was not a huge amount of wildlife if you exclude the ants and poison dart frogs. (You catch these and boil them em down to make the poison for arrows and blowpipes).
At dusk there was major feeding activity in the sea. We were sitting on the pontoon at Al Natural reading our books and watching some pelicans fishing. They would fly low over the water looking for the shoals. Then climb up to get a better view, tip over and dive in, often very close to us. The bigger fish predators started moving in and suddenly the water would start to boil and little fish would come flying out of the water. I saw one long garfish type skip about 20 yards out of the way. When the small fish were trapped near the surf, which always seemed to occur right in front of our hut. It was an incredible sight as the water churned for 30 seconds and the backs of the big fish broke the surface.
At monkey feeding time I notice there are bats swooping by the bananas I am holding up.
That night we had a big storm it rained and blew a strong wind. It in fact blew our mosquito net loose. I suddenly woke up with the whole thing flapping in my face. We had to get up and secure it again. In the morning the beach was covered in sea grass loosened by the storm.
We laze around most of the day except for a wander up the beach. Then more guests arrive. First up are the two English people we met at David airport and who also stayed at the Panamonte Inn. Then two Portuguese people turn up later in the afternoon.
At monkey feeding time I try something different and hold up a banana just for the bats, they come and take bits of banana out of my hand. That was something special, bats eating out of your hand. Wow.
The English guy works for Waitrose and is combining business with pleasure. He wants to meet someone probably a supplier or agent at a bar called the Pickled Parrot over on one of the islands.
Our last night there and the table is set for 9 people. Tonight we are joined by Belgian owner Vincent, his wife and baby and two Americans who have a house up the bay. The meals were always very sociable affairs and the food was mostly very good. There was a honesty book for the drinks. The cooks would have a local radio station on playing Cumbia and Merengue, when Aaron put music on at night it always seemed to be “lounge” music of some description. I am reading a book I have been keeping for this environment. Extreme violence always sits happily with total peacefulness. “Tin Roof Blowdown” is the latest James Lee Burke Dave Robicheaux novel. This is a very angry book set during Hurricane Katrina. The average JLB/DR novels show a healthy disregard for the politicians but this is scathing in extremis. JLB is obviously well pissed off by the US government and it’s destruction of New Orleans.
We have to leave in the morning I have a shower but Kim goes in and says it is not working. I think the water system had been overwhelmed by so many guests! Yesterday it had got overwhelmed with just us there! The water was collected off the restaurant & kitchen roof and stored in large butts. Then pumped up into a tall storage tower, or would have done if there was any petrol in the generator to work the pump. I go over to Calypso and say No hay agua el la casa. He is in the middle of breakfast so is not happy. Aaron had yet to show his face. He always seems to drag himself out of bed quite late looking very rough. Eventually someone comes and looks at the shower, the culprit was the shower rose that was blocked. I had noticed some large lumps of black stuff in the water. So obviously I had emptied the bottom of the barrel.
We say our goodbyes and get on the boat. We drop in on the petrol station and return an empty and get a new container. Half way to Bocas we stop for a chat with another boatman. I could not catch what they were saying. Near to Bocas the guy sailing the boat scrabbles around and hands us two lifejackets and puts one on himself. Then we see why, a coastguard boat comes into view. They probably would have given him a hard time if we did not have them on. We then dock at Michel’s dock. Our next place Punta Caracol will be along in a while to collect us. So we go into town and get some money from a ATM machine and hit a deli for nibbles because Punta Caracol is quite remote and going to the shops is a little difficult.
On the Water at Punta Caracol
We jump into a taxi to go to the Punta Caracol dock. I get caught out by the local dialect on the simplest most basic question you could get asked. The Taxi driver says something I say “Como” he replies “Como se Llamo” which means what is your name. It was a very rough dialect almost Jamaican. We speed out to Punta Caracol in a small water taxi - the boat guy doing his best to drench a local woman passenger who does not appreciate the action.
Punta Caracol is just a series of about 8 huts on stilts out in a clear lagoon. They are linked by a wooden walkway which connects back to dry land on one side. The water and sewage system are suspended from the walkway and you can see starfish, stripy fish and sometimes huge garfish gliding by. It is very nice looking, the houses are fine – on two levels each with their own deck over the water with hammock. The upstairs bedroom is open to the elements at the front. It’s just a bit cramped on the stairs for tall people.
There is a weird food system here where you have to choose all three courses for dinner at breakfast. And the food was very hit and miss. The breakfasts were OK and lunch was fine. But dinner was pretty way off. If they had continued part of the lunch menu - i.e. meat into dinner it might have worked. One day I had Corvina (Sea bass) it was just that with a small baked potato. No bread. No salad. Next day the choices were a seafood medley (Kim had it and said it was just using up what was left over from the last few days). I had pig and it was inedible. I could not even cut it with a knife. Again no vegetables, bread or anything else. Also I think you could go stir crazy there very quickly. Once you had exploited all of the things to do like snorkelling or kayaking.
It was raining when we left after our two nights there. The boat dropped us at the dock and we squeezed into a taxi and we went round the corner to the tiny airport which was in the centre of town. We got inside and it started to bucket it down, a real tropical downpour. I thought it was impossible for a plane to land in this weather, the visibility was zero.
But by the time the plane was due the rain had finished. The plane landed, it looked like a bus. It was of 1970s vintage and built by Shorts in Belfast. Any idea about the flowing lines of classic Shorts Brothers planes like the BOAC/Sunderland flying boats - forget it. This was a twin turboprop STOL bus with wings. Slab sides, stubby front. We clambered inside. It had been repainted, many times and by hand. Where the doors frames met the vinyl decoration they had just brushed round with it no attempt to mask the vinyl. The ceiling panels looked they had been taken on and off daily for 30 years, the edges all gnarled.
We go to the end of the runway and the pilot runs up the engines to maximum. The whole plane was shaking and groaning, vibrating everywhere. We seem to hang there for a while then off go the brakes and we trundle down the runway and take off. Above us a air-conditioning fan squeals painfully. Ahh the delights of vintage aircraft.
However we get to Panama City as planned. We get shifted over to our hotel a huge big “international” place called the Miramar. It is very efficient and very expensive. The captive audience –us - pay through the nose.
We spot the EC bus in the morning and are quickly on our way to the airport and to Havana.
Dancing Back to Havana
At the airport check in line there are police with dogs sniffing each bag and passenger. Cocaine is the problem here.
We manage to get through and into the vast shopping area. Kim went and bought some makeup then we bought some new sunglasses.
The Copa flight to Havana was fine just like a bus service. At Havana again no wait for immigration. But in customs more dogs giving a good sniff around and customs officers standing looking. We scraped through again I’m sure they were after me. I could see one woman looking at me.
The Sevilla awaits us again. No major progress on the lifts. I had checked on the Internet in Panama about which bands were playing in Havana on the nights we were there. So I know what the options are.
We go for a walk down the Prado to see what food options are available. The restaurant upstairs at the Sevilla had what they described as “messes of caramelised pig” on the menu, which we passed on. There was a nice new restaurant that had appeared at the bottom of the Prado. It was quite full of locals eating (always a good sign). The food was very good well cooked in the kitchen at the end visible behind a glass partition, their fish was very good. One day there was a bony fish next time was a type of swordfish. About £13 for a two course meal and wine for two people.
We needed to stock up on energy because we were heading out to the east of Havana and Casa de la Musica. Bamboleo are playing tonight. It is a $10 taxi ride out there. We arrive too early and hang out at a bar next door. Once inside we sit behind a table of German tourists who think they have made a big mistake. The band comes on (at about 1.15am) and we have a good time. At about 2.30am we leave. There are lots of taxis waiting for fares and soon we are back at the Hotel $10 (£5) lighter.
We have been having good luck with the lift in the last two days and we have not had really not to wait to wait that long compared to last time when we were on the 7th floor and the lift refused to stop on that piso. At least 8 worked most of the time if it did not stop at 8 you go up to 9 and it stops on the way down.
At breakfast Kim suddenly turns around and says hello to filmmaker Jeremy Marre, he says he is doing a four part series on Latin music for the BBC. He is having problems with the Sevilla. It does not work well for someone trying to work.
Havana is a very infuriating place. It is also one of the great cities of the world. It is always changing and moving in a different direction. I think it will show its power again, when it is free from American and Socialist repression. It’s trying hard to work as a capitalist free market economy in a place that has limited empirical knowledge about such a process. Now the multitude of taxis on the streets mean movement is easy as long as you have the money. Though there are two prices for locals and tourists.
Back to the airport again. I get messed around by the ticket vendors for the baggage wrapping. So the wrapping guy rushes up to the window and demands that the ladies give me the ticket. We pass though into the non world. Our plane is late. The scrum at the gate is building. We drift toward the premium economy fast track. We are standing waiting to get in with the queue and a woman comes up and says “Are you Dave Hucker who plays the music?” I did not recognise her at first but she was a manager who replaced Colin upstairs at Ronnie Scott’s. We had a good chat about how Ronnie must be turning in his grave these days . It is funny who you bump into in Havana.
Next stop cold England.