Maybe I should start with what we are doing here. Global Stewards Institute, a group we’ve been working with as it tries to re-create the Scholar Ship experience only better, sponsored a “proof of concept” trip from December 15, 2012 to January 8, 2013. The group has been on a ship since December 15, sailing to Cartagena, Colombia, then stopping at some Caribbean Islands, and spending a week in Cuba. We didn’t join them on the first part of the trip, but arrived on December 30 in Panama two days ago ahead of the rest of the group of GSI students and teachers. And so here we are in The City of Knowledge near Panama City, Panama, in a lovely Holiday Inn overlooking the Canal. The two silver lines just above the midline of the picture are the two directions of the Canal. You can’t see it, but right at the edge of the road there’s a train line with almost constant traffic–didn’t bother us, but some found it noisy.
Yesterday we got up at a reasonable hour, had a lovely breakfast at the hotel, and took off for a ride on the On/Off bus. It’s a British style double decker modified with a canopy roof so it’s comfortable to sit on top. We wanted to see the Casco Antiguo (Old Town) built in the 17th century after the pirate/privateer Sir Henry Morgan destroyed the former capital. Finally, after more stops and pauses than we had imagined, we arrived and got off the bus. But, wait, we hadn’t paid. The place to pay was the next stop, but as this was the last bus of the day (the schedule said it ran until 4:30 and it was now 2:30) we couldn’t get to the cashier. Much agonizing. Finally, we gave the driver $5.00 and went off into town. (Panama theoretically has its own currency–the Balboa–pegged one to one with the dollar, but we never saw a Balboa, except a few coins. Everyone decided it was just easier to use the U.S. dollar.)
rebuilt), street markets (rows of tables under awnings with colorfully dressed people selling red, blue and green molas (native Panamanian embroidered cloths), jewelry, small carvings, and ‘panama’ hats (made in Ecuador, of course)), restaurants and cafes, and ancient buildings of which only the four outside walls remain.
We wandered around for a while, and found that the Church of San Jose, famous for its solid gold altar, was closed. That’s a story. When somebody or other was attacking, the priest covered the altar with tar. The attackers missed it entirely (should have come with a tourist guidebook) although they sacked the rest of the church. And the houses and plazas still had some (very unconventional) Christmas decorations.
We went to see the Cathedral, but it too was locked.
By this time it was about 4, so we decided it was time for lunch. Right on Cathedral Square was a restaurant called The Fork that looked good, white tablecloths and all. We had lunch there, and it was better than good. Wonderful place. There was an (East) Indian family from Miami at the next table who had been in the city for a week, so we got into a conversation. A very pleasant dinner. Then we walked along the edge of the Pacific for a while and decided it was time to go back to the hotel. Caught a taxi and got home in comfort for only $10, which David believes was much more than the proper fare. The trick is that the driver asks you what the fare should be. I always answer while David is thinking and, so far, have made two taxi drivers very happy. Oh, well, it’s the season.
And we had been smart (we thought) and brought our European cellphones (unlocked) for which we bought local sim cards. Oops, didn’t work. Turns out that when Panama built its cellphone system, it went immediately to 4G, and our 3G phones couldn’t access the network. We checked at a phone store, and found very cheap 4G Samsung phones which did work with our chips, so now we are prepared until the next generation.
The next morning we got up too late to do anything but have a delicious buffet breakfast and wait for the GSI group to arrive. They did and were amazed and delighted at the luxurious hotel where they were to stay. Apparently, the one in Cuba had some problems–but who needs hot water in the tropics. Anyway, they were very happy with Panama.