I had no idea what to expect from the rest of Panama. As we were approaching the series of locks on the Pacific side of the canal, the tops of thin skyscrapers in Panama City peeped above the hills. Not your typical backwater town, I noted. Indeed! As we reached Panama City around nine pm, the skyline was lit up like lower Manhattan; and when we woke up the next morning in the predawn mist, the comparison that came to mind was Hong Kong. The thin city extends along the shoreline facing due south for something like 10 miles with rows of 50-60 story buildings that soon sparkled in the morning sun.
The Zaandam was anchored in a vast harbor dotted with dozens of other vessels, mainly large commercial ships and fishing boats. We were up early to begin our first excursion, which departed for shore via tender at 7:00, along with about 25 others in our group. The boat ride to shore was only about 15 minutes, taking us to a large, private marina with a whole bunch of million dollar yachts and a handful of large sailboats tucked away in floating slips that I calculated must experience something like 10-foot tidal variations. There our guide and our tour bus for the day met us.
We departed from the marina before eight and did not return to the ship until after four. It was a long day. We began by driving through the city with its mix of glistening new condos and office buildings and older neighborhoods with more modest buildings, many showing their age. Before we left the city the bus took us though the Canal Zone where the Americans used to live and which is now the most prestigious part of the city with many mansions and large homes. We then drove over the mountains and through the dense rain forests, passing by a number of small villages tucked away under banana trees and clearings in the dense forest where the houses were small and scruffy with tin roofs and cement block walls. Some had makeshift fences around muddy “pastures” containing goats and pigs and laundry drying in the warm, morning sun. Along the way our guide pointed out a few “informal settlements,” where squatters now lived but actually fewer than I had expected to see.
The sights and experiences of the day included a boat ride in search of wildlife on a secluded part of Gatun Lake, (We saw several monkeys, two sloths and a bunch of birds.), then a visit to a tiny, aboriginal village on the lake, and finally a visit to the new part of the Panama Canal, which we had not seen since the Zaandam made the passage on the old section.
The guide was excellent. Probably in his early or mid thirties, he looked to me a little like Cory Booker and was passionate and enthusiastic about his country. He was also honest, pointing out the resentment toward us Americans for controlling the canal for so long and how the treaty signed by Jimmy Carter giving the canal back to Panama in 1999 averted a full scale revolution. He did not shy away from gently pointing out the income, class and ethnic disparities that currently exist in his country.
The part I will remember most vividly is the aboriginal village. On a tiny peninsula in Gatun Lake, we visited a village of thatched roof huts where about 12 Indian families live —about 60 people including maybe a dozen kids. They have lived for a decade or so on Gatun Lake after they were forcefully removed from their homes in the rain forest to the south, which is now a national park. These people are no taller than four, at most four-and-a-half feet, and the men wear loincloths and the women colorful skirts and flimsy tops. The huts are elevated and have virtually no furniture. You can’t easily figure out how they survive.
Well, one way they survive is hosting tourists like us, putting on a show of dancing and music, selling their arts and crafts, and telling their stories (through a translator). It felt to me at times like we were guilty of exploitation. Certainly the small tribe we visited would not do this kind of thing unless they had to. Certainly it is not the core part of their life as hunters and fishers and subsistence farmers. Certainly the invasion of their privacy is not something they would wish for. But yet here they are. Is this how tribes like this survive into the 21st Century? They are part of a larger group of Panamanian aborigines estimated to number about 28,000 people. You can’t help asking how long they will last.
Part of the challenge of this trip will be keeping the countries straight. A day here and a day or two there. Before long a lot will be hard to keep straight. Was that in Panama or Peru? Argentina or Uruguay? This may not turn out to be quite as confusing as it might be because the central story of the South American continent is a shared story: Humans migrated here from Asia via the Bearing Straight several thousand years before the Common Era. Some of these ancient civilizations were quite complex and sophisticated, comparing favorably with what we know about what was happening about the same time in ancient, advanced societies like Egypt, Mesopotamia and China. Civilizations came and went in South America; and by the mid part of the 15th Century, three vast empires had emerged: the Aztecs and Mayans, mainly in what is now Mexico, and the Incas in the western part of South America. These civilizations counted their numbers in the millions. Many lived in cities with populations in the hundreds of thousands. Then in the mid 16th Century when the Spanish Conquistadors arrived, life changed forever. While the advanced weapons of the Europeans–and their horses–made the slaughter of the native population easy, diseases brought with them to the New World were the real killer, resulting in deaths totaling in the millions. The European invasion came close to wiping out an entire population.
Colonialism was the norm for the next three hundred years until the wars of liberation and nationalism of the mid 19th Century, which created independent countries for the first time. That is the essential history you need to know which affected all the countries that we will visit. Individual countries, of course, will have their own unique history and culture, but the engine that drives each one is the same: colonialism. They are still living with this legacy as they continue to chart a path forward. As we cruise to our next port, there are newspaper reports of violent protests in Ecuador, Chile, and Argentina; and Brazil is borderline lawless. Should be interesting….
So what else is important about Panama?
- It is mainly a rain forest. Over 140 inches of rain fall a year in many places, and that affects all of life. Without the rain in the mountains, there would be no Panama Canal. There would not be enough water to replenish the water drained out when all the ships pass through. Our guide warned us that it would rain on us; and that afternoon, the clouds poured out buckets. By late afternoon it was all over, and the sun peeked out just before it sunk below the Pacific.
- It is mainly jungle. The population of five million is smaller than that of the Washington metro area. Panama City accounts for almost half of that with over two million people.
- It is a very new country, not gaining its independence from Columbia until 1904.
- It has toyed with socialism and had its share of dictators, Noriega being the most infamous.
- The disparities between those who have and those who don’t stare you in the face with fancy cars, fancy yachts, towering apartments and gated residences in and around Panama City and lots of tin-roofed shacks in the jungle areas.
- International commerce drives the economy due to the canal, two large container ports, one on each side of the country, the world’s largest duty free shopping area, and tourism. Compared to many other South American countries, the economy is considered robust.
- If it has not already become apparent in this blog, the rain forest is spectacularly beautiful.
Now on to Ecuador!