Archive for the ‘Panama’ Category

The end of the road

9 May 2011

I left Panama City around 10AM on Sunday. The initial plan was to make it to Metetí in Panama’s Darién Province by 5PM or so, where the pavement supposedly ends. Then the following day I would make a dash to Yaviza, 50 kilometres further on (theoretically on a barely passable road) and the end of the North American part of the Pan-American Highway. (Is the Darién technically part of North America or am I already in South America? Hmm!?) After that, I would return to Panama City on Monday, if time permitted.

Unloading plantains and yuca at the dock in Yaviza. This dock is literally the end of the road in North America.

The Darien Gap starts on the other side of the river from Yaviza, a couple of hundred kilometres away from the nearest road in Colombia. There is no road, just some trails and potential rivers. The Darien is full of narcotraficantes, the remains of the left-wing FARC Colombian guerrillas, right wing death squads hunting the remaining FARC, and First Nations with poison dart blowguns and firearms pissed off at all these Europeans (they include the mestizos and the blacks in that bunch) fucking up their land. Not exactly a safe place to go unless you go with a guide and stick to the various eco-lodges.

What the Pan-American looks like in a large part of th Darién

Anyway, I got to Metetí at 3PM after a serious border police road block where I had to explain why I wanted to go into the Darién. I convinced them I was just a crazy Canadian on his male menopause trip from the other end of the Pan-American Highway who just wanted to get to the end of the road and would turn immediately back and drive 15,000 kilometres back home. I did tell them I just needed to go in the other direction, stay on the same road and that I live about a kilometre away from the Pan-American Highway in the North. (It’s true; I live about a klick away from the Alaska Highway which is part of the Pan-American system.)

Pick-up truck at the end of the road in Yaviza, Darién, Panamá

The guide books lie; the border cops told me the highway was in good shape and paved all the way to Yaviza. And so it was except for a couple of mud-gravel stretches, a couple of hundred meters each, and a few relatively short rough spots mainly before bridges. I had no problem keeping an average speed greater than 60 klicks, doing 80 most of the time except in the villages and at the few rough spots.

So the Pan-American Highway is now paved all the way from Delta Junction, Alaska to Yaviza, Darién. (The Dempster bit from Inuvik to Dawson City isn’t paved, but it is off the main road, although our new jack-booted religious fanatic PM has promised to finish it, whatever that means.)

Bug that liked my mud-spattered pants in the hotel room.

In Meteti, I got a room at the local high end hotel: $17.00 a night for an air-conditioned room with a single bed. No hot water of course, and the bed is a little hard. But the toilet is pretty newly tiled and the room smelt heavily of chlorine when I first walked in, generally a good sign in the tropics: it means most of the nasty bugs got killed. I ask how long it takes to get to Yaviza and everybody I ask says 45 minutes to an hour. “So,” I thinks to myself, “it’s now 3:45. I could pop there and come back before dark & get an early start to Panama City tomorrow”, and maybe stop in Itique where there are three interesting communities: Embera-Woonan, Kuna, as well as a “Colones” latino/mestizo/white community.

So I head out to Yaviza. The area and the town feels a lot more Caribbean than Central American: wooden houses on stilts and a mainly black population. I get to the river, the end of the road, where people are unloading produce (plantains mainly, but also yuca/cassava/manioc roots). I buy a slice of watermelon and a couple of oranges for 50 cents. I’m sure the shop owner thought: “Hey I did a good job ripping off this dumb gringo.” But I don’t really care, good for him. WTF, a couple of quarters.

Street paralleling the river in Yaviza.

House along the river near the pedestrian bridge, Yaviza.

Pirogas or canoes near the dock in Yaviza.

On the way back, I move to the right on a muddy/gravel stretch to let another vehicle move by. I was sort of wondering why there were no car tracks there. Well, whaddayaknow, I sink in the mud. It’s already in 4 wheel drive, but I put it in 4-low and try the old back and forth which usually works on snow and ice. Well, guess what? It only sinks deeper into the barro down to the axles.

I curse and hope I can get the winch going, which did not work last time I tried. It worked perfectly when I left Canada in November 2009 but the tropics did their number on the wiring and connections. I give it a couple of whacks and the motor starts clicking when I hit the in and out toggle switch. A few more judicious whacks and the winch is working. Yeah! So I pull out the chain from under the back seat and tie it around a tree about 75 feet away on the other side of the road. A guy stops and offers to help me: Juan Corrado(??), a really good guy, bless him.

Stretch of muddy road where I got stuck. I took this picture on the way there to illustrate the two bad spots. Little did I know that I would end up stuck there, on the lft side of this picture.

Anyway, I ask Juan to get into the truck while I operate the winch. Stupid idiot that I am, I pull hard on the winch cord and pull off the cord from the connector. Fuck! Shit! Hostie de Chrisse de Câlice de Tabarnak! I now have to go inside the camper, find a small screwdriver and try to fix the connector. Sweating like a pig, I have to guess which wire goes in which hole. I do my best, but the motor just clicks as the winch cable is taut. I get pissed off, get in the truck to try some more back and forth, which loosens the cable. Juan offers to attach the cable to his truck and pull me out. We should have done that the first place, but the winch cable and chain were already positioned around the tree when he got there. Anyway, he pulled me out quite easily (with me assisting by steering and putting some power to the wheels).

I start off and then realize I forgot the chain around the tree. So I turn back, stop before the mud starts, go to the tree and drag the chain back. Of course, the chain, the driver’s side of the cab, the winch cable, the tailgate and the camper floor are all muddy, as are my shoes and clothes not to speak of the truck. I have a pretty big clean-up job to do.

Back at the hotel, there is no water in the shower. I tell the woman who runs the place who tells me she forgot to turn it on. I go for supper across the road, comida corriente with chicken guisado (in tomato sauce?), beans, rice and two slices of tomatoes. I have a beer and some bottled water. Nothing to write home about, but decent enough. I come back to the hole-in-the-wall room take a quick cold shower in the coldest cold water I have yet experienced in Panama, and start writing

Home in Panama City: my room in Pequeño Paraíso B&B.

Monday morning, it is raining and I head back to Panama city, to the Pequeño Paraíso B&B in Los Cumbres in Panama City’s northern suburbs. A wonderful place run by two Canadians: Richard from Montreal and Anita from Kingston. I think it has the best value for the money I have seen so far in Central America: $69 for what I consider pretty high-end accommodation, and friendly owners. I have to write a trip advisor review, but I can’t post it from here as they might think it’s fake.

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From Costa Rica back to Panama

2 May 2011

I am writing this on Sunday May 1st from the Cerro la Vieja Eco-hotel and Spa outside of Penonomé in central Panama. I arrived in San José on Wednesday April 27. Roberto Hernandez brought the truck to the airport from San Isidro de el General and had to immediately take a bus to La Fortuna where he had to escort some clients. I was feeling pretty tired, as I had woken up at 4:00AM instead of the 5:30 I had planned to catch the 8:30 flight to San José from Toronto. Had I bothered to check my itinerary, I would have realized that the flight was actually at 9:30, so I could have theoretically slept for another hour. But then would I have fallen asleep again?

Balconies at Cuna del Angel

Roberto suggested I might make it to Dominical before dark if I took the new toll highway, which is longer but would take less time than the Pan-American Highway. The road was pretty good, although it did go down from four lanes divided expressway to a regular good-quality two-lane road. I did make it to Dominical on the Pacific coast and started looked for a hotel. I finally stumbled upon the Cuna del Angeljust as it was getting dark.

Dining room at the Cuna del Angel

The Cuna del Angel was a wonderful resort, with excellent food. I wish I could have stayed longer. I had an excellent ceviche followed by a roast pork with pineapple. The morning breakfast buffet was excellent: the usual Costa Rican fruits (mango, papaya, watermelon, pineapple, cantaloupe), scrambled eggs and the ever present gallo pinto(rice & beans).

I left around 9:00AM for a relatively uneventful trip to the border. The coastal highway started out as excellent, but when I reached the Interamericana, it turned into the usual bombed-out state of Costa Rican highways. Imagine! A country that would rather spend money on social programs and medical care instead of highways! What is this world coming to?

Anyway, I got to the border and dealt with the inflexibility of the Costa Rican bureaucracy. I first went to the customs office, the “Aduana”, to see if I could get an extension for my vehicle temporary importation permit. No way! The cute Tica customs officer told me I had two days left, and if I left the country, I could come back and stay in Costa Rica for two days, no more. Otherwise, I would have to wait 90 days before my truck would be allowed into the country again. Broad hints about other possible arrangements met with a flat refusal; there was no way to do it. Don’t you just hate honest civil servants?

I also asked what would happen if I came back and stayed for more than two days, not that I would ever do that, I told the customs officer. This did make her smile rather broadly, not that she had been unpleasant before. It turns out that for the first eight days I might get away with a fine of $150, depending on my reasons for overstaying the permit, which I would have to document. More than eight days, I would have to pay the taxes, which I had previously estimated at about $3,000, as well as a $500 fine.

Then I had to go to immigration office to get my passport stamped. Unfortunately, the immigration officers were all in a meeting, so we all had to wait for over an hour before they came back and took the 30 seconds to examine & stamp the passports. Can’t say they were inefficient or slow once they showed up. Back to the customs office and got the paperwork on the truck, which was already prepared.

Then to the Panama border for another rigmarole. The immigration stamp went fast, but the importation permit took a while. I already had insurance for the truck & though I had photocopies of everything (passport, registration, driver’s license), but after waiting 15 minutes, a customs officer told me I also needed a photocopy of the insurance policy and then get it stamped by the transit police upstairs. I went upstairs, but there was a sign saying they were out to lunch. Oops, I meant out for lunch. I went to the other side, decided that I would go for lunch too as it now was past 1:00PM.

Then this guy said he would help me. I was somewhat wary, but he took me upstairs, took the police stamp and stamped my insurance document. This is one of the “helpers”, not a government official, who has access to a traffic police stamp and can use it with impunity. Welcome to Panama! I then had to get another stamp, I forget for what for, and I stopped the helper and asked him how much he wanted. He said: “Anything I wanted to give him (“lo que quiere”).” I said bullshit, just tell me how much you expect. I felt like saying: “How about 10 cents?” He insisted “Anything you would like to give me.” Then the woman official at the desk piped up and said “ten dollars”. I asked him if that was satisfactory. So then I went to pay for the fumigation spray, closed the windows in the camper. A customs officer then came and checked out the camper and the inside of the truck. He also asked me if I had any firearms. I said: “No tengo armas. Soy canadiense, no soy americano.” He laughed but I still had to show him practically everything. He missed the compartment behind the back seat of the truck & I opened it to show him my spare parts.

Old wooden building in David

Then to David, the first major town along the way and the capital of Chiriquí province. Stopped for lunch at the grossly overpriced TGIF ($3.00 for the lousy American-style Panamanian beer rather than the more usual $1.00) restaurant at a mall on the highway, where Marilyn and I had stopped before. I tried getting my bearings. (Panamanian beer is pretty lousy, tastes just like American beer, i.e. it is just like making love in a canoe. At least Costa Rica has Bavaria Negra which is more than drinkable. No local dark beer or ale in panama, just the pissy dishwatery American-style so-called “lager”.) I was parked in a mall parking lot next to a taxi stand. When I went back, one of the taxi drivers jokingly asked me if I wanted a taxi. I said, “Actually I do. I’m looking for a hotel, can you show me some and I will follow you.” He suggested the Best Western and Hotel Ciudad de David. I said: “OK, I’ll follow you into town.”

Cathedral and Parque Cervantes in David

I stayed at the Best Western there, pretty cheap at $55.00 for a relatively small but clean room with air conditioning and internet. I needed a new mouse (forgot the old one on the Vancouver-Toronto flight, I think) and a Panamanian chip for my cell phone. The Costa Rican chip doesn’t work in Panama and neither does my Blackberry, which is a piss-off. I am paying $25.00 per month for “Latin American coverage”, but Bell does not seem to have an agreement with Panamanian cell phone providers. No problem with the state-owned ICEin Costa Rica. Is this one more example where state-owned companies are more efficient than the private sector?

I misunderstood the directions given by the hotel clerk and ended up walking all over town instead of getting to the “Hong Kong” electronics store two blocks away. It seems that all the electronics stores—as well as many of the small groceries, not to speak of the classic laundries—are owned by Chinese immigrants.

I went for supper at what was supposedly the best pizza place in town at the Gran Hotel Nacional and casino. Not very good, although it was nowhere near the abysmal depths reached by a pizza joint in Holguín Cuba. I also checked out the casinos. Rather sad seeing all these people playing the slot machines. I was tempted to join one of the cheap blackjack tables, but avoided the temptation rather easily. There was also a karaoke contest, with some pretty good singers. After a G&T and listening to a few songs, I went back to the hotel to bed.

Truck next to cabin at XS Memories RV Park, Santa Clara, Panamá

Next day off to XS Memories in Santa Clara, the only RV Park in all of Central America. I went there to find out about shipping the truck to South America. The owner gave me a lead to a new to me agency, Norton-Lilly, which apparently could ship it to Ecuador. A number of Germans RVers had just used it. The alternative is to use Barwil Agencies and go through Colombia, which I am not anxious to do. However, it was then late afternoon on a Friday before a long weekend (May 1, Labour Day in most of the world except the US and Canada. This is because May 1 commemorates the massacre of workers by police at Haymarket Square in Chicago in 1886, an event the North Americans authorities would rather that people forget.) I stayed there that night in one of the air-conditioned cabins they have; it is just too hot to stay in the camper. Supper was pargo (red snapper?) with salad. Quite good!

The room in the cabin at XS Memories

I didn’t know what to do after that. I couldn’t do much research as the internet was down at XS Memories—along with the phone system so they could not do credit card transactions or answer enquiries. I thought of staying in central Panama and going either to the Azuero peninsula with its traditional colonial towns or to the Penonomé area in Coclé province, with cooler mountains and rainforest in the Omar Torrijos National Park. I decided on the Penonomé area and I ended up staying at the Hotel Dos Continentes in Penonomé as they were the only one with internet in the room.

I went for a little drive into the countryside up to La Pintada looking for an artisanal market. Then back to the hotel and got my cell phone which had stopped working. The Chinese girl at the cell phone shop told me it needed a new “flex”, whatever that was and it could only be got in Panama City. So I bought a new phone as a temporary measure.

Prancing Andalusian? horse

I got lucky as they were celebrating the 430th anniversary of the foundation of Penonomé in 1581. There was a major parade with children and dancers in traditional costumes as well as prancing horses, Lipizzaner or Spanish School style dressage. The traditional dress women wear is known as a pollera while the men wear a traditional Panamanian peasant hat (sombrero pintao), which is quite different from what we know as Panama hat, actually made in Ecuador. The procession/parade was kind of neat and should was followed by a traditional dance show. I ate street food, including some great barbecued chicken (pollo asado). The woman selling it convinced me to also have some rice with it. $2.00 for an excellent ¼ chicken with rice and potato salad.

Queen of the fiesta in her pollera

Penonomé, the start of the parade

This is what it's about.

Costa rican style road in Panama on the way to Cerro la Vieja

That night, I also decided to go to Posada Cerro la Vieja eco-lodge (TripAdvisor reviews)north of Penonomé instead of the National Park where I would have had to camp, and called to make reservations. Saturday morning I was off to the supermarket to get some drinks (water, Belgian beer—as the Panamanian stuff is like making love in a canoe—and Gatorade) and snacks. Then up to the Cerro la Vieja for lunch on a Costa Rican style road and a couple of days of total relaxing dolce far niente.

View from my room, Posada Cerro la Vieja

Nice room with nice view, good food and I am staying here until Tuesday morning when I will call the agency in Panama City and figure out what next. I think I’ll go for a massage now. I just hope no right-wing cop anonymously accuses me of doing something illicit.

The last word to Omar Torrijos: "the more one consults, the fewer mistakes one makes". This is for Jack who will hopefully be Prime Minister soon.

Do you know the way to San José?

28 April 2011

This is not about Dionne Warwick’s original San José in California, but the Tico version, which I think is older. I must really know the way to San José, as this is the third time I go there: the first with the pick-up, the second in a rental car and now by plane from TO.

Anyway, there must be a bazillion San Jose/Joseph/Giuseppe/Josep throughout the Western world. I have a special affinity for Saint Joseph (as did my cabinetmaker/carpenter father), as he was a carpenter and the patron saint of woodworkers. When my mother broke her arm falling down on a step in Saint Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, my father cautioned her that she should to obey him more as next time Saint Joseph, listening to the prayers of his fellow woodworker in solidarity, might do worse. I think my mother’s response to that, in Italian of course, had something to do with doing something in the nether end of my father’s intestinal tract. Those who know at all anything about the Italian language will understand exactly what I mean.

Enough digression about Saint Joseph, whose feast day (March 19, a holiday in Italy, as it should be in the rest of the world to celebrate all the wonderful things wooddorkers have done for humanity. (Christians should remember that God was a carpenter and should abstain from buying termite puke furniture made by Chaiwanese—not that there is anything wrong with traditional Chinese cabinetry and joinery, it’s pretty amazing craftsmanship, just the modern export “quality” crap—and Southern US slave labour factories and order it from their local cabinetmaker/carpenter.) We “celebrated” Saint Joseph’s feast day by eating spaghetti with breadcrumbs and walnuts, salt fish, and oranges slices with garlic and salt.

The first time on the way to San José was driving from Panama. Marilyn keeps a diary and here is faithful reproduction of my reading the diary using the Nuance Dragon Naturallyspeaking speech recognition software:

On the way to San Jose. On February 2 we were kicked out of and in and of funding the hotel just outside of Sudan anda, in Costa Ricana0. A rooster woke us when we were sure ready for breakfast in town after no dinner. The February. If you go down A to send Ysidro and hang out. After a good faith we hit the highway with Marilyn and I stating the driving countryside was glorious. Lots of comfort we felt comfortable driving the River Valley we’ve seen before in rainy conditions. He turned left towards sudden seasonal and son José instead of right for somebody and Wilson conical. Is the ongoing physical central period of Sunday’s seasonal and opinion. We caught this on a seasonal and part next to the Cathedral and walk in the park. There was a funeral going on in the Cathedral and we found a funding are. We had lunch salad for Marilyn and are there and Luigi have taken special needs loan so the the main salsa. Copies special coffees are good as was the son. A we were looking for tell, the something or other. We ran into a guy, so you and your e-mail was running towards him, Costa Rica and was involved in coffee growing and in C- to a different hotel than the one we were going to which was Schieffer and equally as. The vessel also successfully parking lot which was next to a really interesting farmers market … Again I might suffer from chronic queen-size futon, she’s.

I can’t figure out that gibberish either, as I don’t have the diary in front of me. The software either needs a lot more training or it is garbage. I did spend many hours reading into the software and training it last November/December when I was laid up in the hospital with a serious leg infection, but it still doesn’t understand me. Might be the remains of my French-Canadian/Italian accent, but I though I had lost most of it. It does seems to work well for my good friend and former gentle-innocent-forest-creature-murdering and still current wine-making partner Rick Buchan, but he’s a lawyer and probably the software was afraid of a lawsuit if it didn’t work. Rick is a really good lawyer and actually won a case before the Supreme Court of Canada—we’re not talking about your average ambulance chaser here.

Maybe I can summarize it. After getting kicked out of Panama, we stayed in Ciudad Neily and then San Isidro where we met Roberto Hernandez of MTTCR. Then we headed to San Jose on February 5th to meet Lars for the weekend. We stayed with Lars until Monday. I did manage to damage Lars’ roof with the camper as I got way too close to it. Lars was not happy and I spent a sleepless night worrying about it. Anyway, Lars found a good carpenter/cabinet maker who had no problem repairing it. I also got the carpenter to make me new steps for the camper, as the old ones were getting rather wobbly and were showing sings of rot. We had a couple of good meals, with Lars and Keny, his Mayan colaboradora (Tico word au-pair girl) for first at an Argentinean restaurant (excellent pickled beef tongue and steak) and then at an Italian one the next day. We tried going to the Museums on the Monday after the carpenter and his finisher buddy finished, but we got there too late. We had to content ourselves with wonderful churros in the main square in San Jose. We then headed out to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui.

The second time in San Jose was when we were leaving on March 15. We rented a car in San Isidro which Roberto was to bring back. We headed out to San José on March 14 and visited the Jade and the Gold museums. Both with a lot of pre-Columbian First Nation art, quite interesting ad well worth the visit. We also visited the currency museum: reiterating the origins of all our American currencies, dollars, pesos and all their local variations an permutations, including the Costa Rican Colon—renamed from Peso in the late 19th Century— and the Spanish Peseta and now the Euro, all come from the original Spanish Peso, mined and minted in Mexico, Bolivia and Peru from the 16th to the early 19th centuries.

This time, the plan is to retrieve the truck & camper, head immediately to Panama to Santa Clara RV park. My temporary importation permit expires on April 30th and I need to get the truck out of the country. In Panama, I hope to figure out ways of shipping the truck to South America. If that does not work, then back to Nicaragua and visiting Chris again.

3Ms — Panama’s good side

28 February 2011

In my last post, I excoriated Panama for being a dishonest place and I could have mentioned a few other things, but I wish to protect the guilty. But Panama was not all bad. There are three things that are better than just good; they are great: Molas, Maito and Mitch.

Molas

Kuna woman selling Molas in Casco Viejo (the old colonial town), Panama City

Molas are a fabric art form made by the Kuna women of north-eastern Panama, in an area formerly known as the San Blas Province but now officially referred to as the Kuna Yala. The Kuna are a First Nation people still living a more or less traditional lifestyle in the home area. They had a revolution against Panama in 1925 and defeated the Panamanians, so managed to keep their autonomy, political structures and culture intact.

Molas are made by stitching several layers of different coloured cloth and cutting out designs and then sewing the cut-outs to the lower layer. They are traditionally part of Kuna women’s clothing, but are now also made and sewn for sale, including large one with various designs of birds and wildlife.

Marilyn with Kuna woman in traditional dress, in Casco Viejo, Panama City

Marilyn totally fell in love with them (She is a textile art freak after all, went crazy in Guatemala and also has a trunk-full of antique Canadian quilts from the Maritimes). When we were in Panama last May, Marilyn bought a large one which is hanging in our hallway and a whole bunch of small ones which she framed or turned into pillows. This time she again bought many of the smaller ones. I have to keep on telling her: “You like it, buy it!” whenever her Puritan instincts start taking over.

Luigi talking to two Kuna men selling Molas in Boquete in May 2010. Marilyn bought $400 worth of Molas from them. I think they liked us.

Maito
Maito is an absolutely great restaurant in Panama City, one our best dining experiences on this trip, probably second after Izote restaurant in Mexico City. If you go to Panama City, go eat there. We had a fabulous meal and I wrote a review of it on Trip Advisor.

Mitch

Mitch doing the pizza thing, a familiar sight to many Yukoners. But this was in Panama. No, Yukoners, the drum is not a weird barrel stove, it is a Panamanian pizza oven. They don't need heat in Central America.

Actually, it should be Doug and Mitch, but Mitch fits better with the M theme of this entry. Whitehorse residents will be familiar with Mitch née Cormier now Dupont who founded the best pizzeria North of 60, Bocelli’s Pizza in Whitehorse. She sold Bocelli and opened a boutique hotel B&B in Chame Panama. They are also opening another resort B&B on Tagish Lake in the Yukon. So winter months in Panama, summer in the Yukon.

Anyway, the Panayukana hotel in Chame was absolutely wonderful as were Mitch and Doug and their daughter. If you go to Panama, you have to stay there. While I worked, Mitch took Marilyn to the beach in Santa Clara, we had great meals by the pool, and just a great good time. Their slogan “Come as a guest, leave as a friend” certainly applied to us; we had known Mitch through her restaurant but we were never close in Whitehorse. This all changed and we look forward to seeing them in Whitehorse and Tagish this summer. We were also planning to go to the San Blas islands in Kuna Yala together, but my disgust with Panamanians after getting tossed out of the country sort of put a kibosh on that plan. I am not sure I want to go back there again.

I should add that, last May, Mitch did offer to let me leave my truck and camper at their place, but the camper is too high to fit through the entrance. She’s great! If you go to Panama, you have to stay there! Remeber Pananyukana: the http://www.panayukana.com/

Actually, there are other cool things in Panama, like Boquete in the North and the Casco Viejo old colonial town in Panama City, which is now being restored. And there is the Panama canal, which is extremly impressive, even for someone like me who was taken to see the Saint-Lambert and the Côte Sainte-Catherine locks in operation many times on lazy Sundays while I was growing up, or Marilyn growing up not far from the Welland canal. Plus, I have to hand it to the Panamanians who are running the canal more efficiently than the Americans ever did, putting more ships through and earning more money. Panama will also be adding a third wider “lane” to the canal, which I have no doubt they will manage to do well.

But I still don’t like being lied to and bullshitted repeatedly.

Pirates of the Caribbean … and of the Pacific.

26 February 2011

We are currently in Costa Rica, in Liberia to be precise where the party (the annual fiesta) is starting. I just finished a couple of work reports so can now resume the blog without guilt. We stayed in Panama about a month ago at the end of January and the beginning of February and have been in Costa Rica since February 3.

Panama city skyline. Where does the money for all these skyscrapers come from?


I have a serious problem with Panama. I rarely I find myself disliking people or a country. I like to assume the best of people and I am not often disappointed. However, in less than a week in Panama we had four experiences with dishonesty, which seem to be rife in the country.

We’re not talking about crime here, which is everywhere in the world. Or about petty corruption of officials, which is endemic in poor countries where civil servants have low pay. Or the high level corruption even our Canadian governments are guilty of, whether it’s the Tories under Mulroney and Harper or the Liberals under Chrétien and Charest. We are talking here about a more fundamental dishonesty, lying for the sake of lying, even in petty things. It reminds one of the old joke, this time applied to Panamanians: “How can you tell a Panamanian is lying?” “His lips are moving.”

Our first experience of dishonesty was at the car rental place at the airport. We had a reservation from Dollar rent a car for a car at $20 per day, unlimited mileage, etc, through Expedia.ca. But at the counter, we were told there would be a charge of $US18 per day for insurance. And that was only for third party liability as I declined the other insurance. This almost doubled the cost of the rental. This was particularly galling as the next day I got third party liability insurance from an Italian insurance company for my truck for $US116 for a whole year! I felt pretty ripped off, but I figured what the hell, bad apple and all that. But it turns out the barrel is rotten.

Doug & Mitch & Luigi in the kitchen at Panayukana in Chame.

Our next experience was a petty one in Chame. Doug Dupont and I had a few beers with a couple of Panamanians while my truck was getting washed. Mitch and Doug are wonderful people and run an absolutely first class boutique hotel in Chame (Panayukana, more on a later post when I talk about the good sides of Panama).

One of the guys asked us to give him a ride home which he said was in the next village over & — Bejuco. Well it turned out that he lived two villages away in Santa Cruz. Like who cares, why don’t you tell us you live six kilometres away instead of three? Like what’s the big deal? Why do you feel the need to lie?

Number three was one we witnessed. Someone has a firm price contract where they have to pay half the cost up front. No problem. Half of the contract price is counted out in front of one of the contractors and he signs a receipt. The next day, the guy claims that he was $1,000 short when he went to deposit the money at the bank. The problem, though, is that you can’t afford to piss them off because they can take revenge. We were told a story of some expats who pissed off their contractor, so they raped the wife and wounded the husband. Not even drug dealers operate that way: a deal is a deal.

The fourth was with Panamanian customs (motto: purportedly “Servicio y honestad” but in reality “Incompetencia y corrupción“). The day after I arrived, I went to the customs office in Panama City to find out what I should do about my truck as the temporary importation permit had expired. The customs officer I spoke to told me that there would be a $250 fine and I had to get the truck out of the country ASAP and then come back after 72 hours. When I asked her if I could make the arrangements right there in Panama City, she told me no and that I had to go to the Paso Canoas border post where I had entered the country. OK so far. So after spending a great weekend at Mitch and Doug’s place, we head out north to the Costa Rican border.

About a third of the way – at a small dorp1 not on the map call Divisa – we are stopped at a road block by the police and a customs officer who asks for the truck papers. Well, they keep us waiting for four hours, charge us $411 instead of the $250 as the customs administrator claims the law allows him to charge up to $500 dollars or even to seize the vehicle, so I should count myself lucky. All with strong hints that we can get out of it with a bribe. Well, he got his kicks by keeping us waiting and by insisting that a customs officer escort us to the border, like the nasty criminals were. I almost kissed the ground when I entered Costa Rica and had the usual helpful and pleasant interchanges with the Costa Rican customs officials. A tour guide I met in Costa Rica told me that he routinely gives the Panamanian customs guards $20 just so they won’t give him a hard time.

This is very different from the attempted shake downs by police in Honduras and Mexico State, where eventually they gave up after trying it on and we parted with smiles when it became clear that I was not going to give them a bribe.

My theory is that this dishonesty is rooted in the country’s history. It started with collaboration with English pirates – like “Sir” Francis Drake and William Morgan – in the 16th century. Panama was then used as a land route where the Spanish loot from Peru was brought from the Pacific to waiting ships in the Caribbean. Before that there was Balboa who supposedly “discovered” this part of the world, and ended up beheaded after a lot of chicanery among the Spanish conquistadores.

The Peruvian loot was used to fund the Spanish takeover of Italy, the Netherlands and the German Holy Roman Empire. The English buccaneers and French flibustiers stole some of the loot while their monarchs successfully resisted and eventually defeated Spanish hegemony in Europe. We would be speaking Spanish today instead of English and French if had not been for the success of these pirates. But, I digress.

The creation of Panama was another less than honest act. Panama was part of Colombia, but the US did not like the terms the Colombians were imposing on eventual canal builders. So Teddy Roosevelt and co. used gunboats and a few locals to orchestrate the independence of the isthmus and massively bribed the Panamanian ambassador (who wasn’t even Panamanian) to the US to give them the Canal Zone.

There are other contemporary political aspects to that dishonesty. Panama invented the idea of “flag of convenience” for ship owners who want to avoid all forms of regulations, whether it be safety, seaworthiness, or labour and environmental standards. Quoting the unimpeachable wikipedia:

Flag-of-convenience registries are often criticized. As of 2009, thirteen flag states have been found by international shipping organizations to have substandard regulations. A basis for many criticisms is that the flag-of-convenience system allows shipowners to be legally anonymous and difficult to prosecute in civil and criminal actions. Ships with flags of convenience have been found engaging in crime and terrorism, frequently offer substandard working conditions, and negatively impact the environment, primarily through illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

Panama also supports criminals and terrorists through its banking secrecy laws that rival those of the Cayman Islands, and are certainly more liberal than that European den of tax evasion and criminal refugees known as Switzerland. If you want to launder your ill-gotten gains, Panama seems to be the place to go.

view from our hotel room

What I found particularly strange is the large number of high rises under construction in Panama City. One wonders where the financing for all that real estate comes from. And much of it seems to be empty, including the wonderful hotel we stayed in called “Esplendor Panama”, where a high-end one-bedroom suite only cost us $100 a night.

1 Dorp is Marilyn’s term for a really small place, originally applied to places like Upper or Lower or Middle Hainesville, New Brunswick.