A Fantastic Journey: Part 2

Partial Canal Transit

Our EcoCircuitos driver, always on time, came by for us at 9:30 AM to take us to our Partial Canal Transit. All those going on the boat met at Flamenco Island to board buses that would take us to Gamboa. The boat had transited from the Pacific to Gatun Lake the day before, so now it was on its trip down to the Pacific. The old Gamboa one-way bridge is still there and it was quite a nostalgic experience to cross it. I had never given any thought to the fact that this bridge goes over the Chagres River. As our guide explained, on the way to Gamboa, the Chagres is on the right hand side of the bridge and Gatun Lake on the left. Wow! The town of Gamboa, of course, hardly exists now, although the dredging division is still headquartered there and some of the houses have been brought up to date and look rather nice.
We boarded the “Pacific Princess” along with some 400 other travelers looking for the most beneficial spot on the boat to see as much as we could. The boat was full, but it was a comfortable boat with an air-conditioned cabin and a gift shop, for those needing respite from the sun. And the sun was shining very brightly, so I took the precaution on placing a handkerchief under my cap, hanging down over the back of my neck and ears. It was not a very fashionable look, but it worked.
We had to wait a while before we got clearance to proceed to the Pedro Miguel locks. But as soon as this was secured, we reved-up the engine and, with the noise of boat horns, we slid away from our mooring and proceeded into Gatun Lake. In no time at all, we were in the Pedro Miguel Locks with a large schooner sharing the locks with us. We tied to the side of the locks and the schooner tied up next to us. As the water was let out of the locks, a process that took only 8 minutes, the lines holding us against the wall of the locks were released until we reached the level of the cuts and Miraflores Lake. I had expected to feel some downward movement, but felt none. As a matter of fact, the only way I could tell we were going down was by watching the sides of the locks. It was really surprising how fast we went down.
What an experience! I had never taken this trip and I was as excited as a young kid on Christmas. With cameras on hand I was taking photos at a speed that rivaled a movie camera. I, as well as Gene, could not help but to be in awe at the grandiose work done by American engineers without the help of computers . . . only their brains and a slide rule at best.
Entering the cut, we proceeded at a good clip towards the Miraflores Locks. We passed several large container ships in the process as well as a special short ship carrying automobiles. This sort ship required the assistance of a tug to facilitate making the turns. During this portion of the trip they started serving lunch, but I was not about to give up my front space on the boat. Looking at the sides of the cut, one can only wonder how hard these people worked, with the tools of the day, to dig and haul away all that rock and dirt. It just baffles the mind if one stops to think about it. The trouble is that most take everything for granted never realizing what others have done for us in the past. It was an incredible feat then and, in my book, it still is one of the great accomplishments of the world, including the present.

While going through the cut, we passed under the beautiful new bridge spanning the Canal. I have heard nothing but criticism about this bridge, but I found it to be beautiful. The access roads are not finished yet, but work is going on at a good pace. We saw evidence of this on the road to Gamboa as well as on the way to El Valle, on the other side of Chorrera. The roads to the bridge should be finished by the end of the year. It will help with the traffic coming from the Atlantic side going to the interior.
As we entered the top lock at Miraflores, I felt a strange sensation when looking at the next lock in front which was, of course, down to the level of the Pacific. It looked as a huge hole in front of us and I could not help but be amazed at the strength of these gates that have been serving without failure for some ninety-two years! I have a photo of my father standing on one of these gates back around 1915-20 when he was still a Christian Brother!
Not until we had entered Miraflores Lake and gone down the two Miraflores locks and I had again taken a bunch of pictures, not until then, did I give up my place in front of the boat and went down to the Air Conditioned cabin to get my buffet lunch. It was delicious, consisting of rice with guandu and coconut, sautéed chicken, salads and another dish which I by-passed doubling up on the rice. There was also dessert and beverages.
Having gone through the locks, we continued towards Flamenco Island at a good clip and passing under the Bridge of the Americas, circling the island until coming to our pier. This is the area which is now full of shops and excellent restaurants and on which a couple of expensive yachts were tied up. ECOcircuitos was right there to get us and return us to the hotel.
As you may know, not counting the tremendous efforts by the French, it took the United States 10 years, the labor of more than 75,000 workers, and almost $400 million to complete the job. Like the French, the builders faced landslides, the complexity of massive excavations, the unprecedented massive use of concrete on the locks and other hurdles never faced before. Their biggest advantage over their predecessors was the discovery of the causes of malaria and yellow fever and their eradication. I could feel all this history as I went through the locks and cuts. After 19 years of living right by the canal, I had finally transited it and it was a wonderful experience.
That evening, we walked over to the El Panama Hotel and had a very good dinner, relaxing by the pool in an open restaurant that allowed the cool dry season breeze to go through. By the time we walked back to our hotel, around 8 PM, the crowds had thinned out both on the streets and the sidewalks. I was a bit apprehensive at first because of all the tales that had been sent to me by family and friends, but we were perfectly safe and soon felt at ease walking on the streets around and near our hotel. We made several trips to Via Espana during our stay there without any problems. During the week, the traffic and the noise were atrocious, but on Sunday, there were very few cars on the streets and hardly any one walking. It was almost a ghost town.
The El Panama, which had been such an outstanding landmark during my school days, is now hardly visible among all the buildings that now surround it. The grassy hill with acacia trees in front has been replaced with tall buildings. The hotel is so tightly surrounded that I had trouble finding its tiny entry on the street leading to the parking area in front of the lobby. Such are the changes in Panama that I never knew for sure where I was.

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A Fantastic Journey: Part 1

by Luis R. Celerier


A Dream Fulfilled

Since my retirement several years back, I had been wanting to return to Panama, the place where I was born and spent the wonderful years of my youth. I wanted to return to the places which had been a part of those growing years and I wanted to see other locations I had never visited before.

Each time I tried to put together a trip, I was frustrated in my attempts by one reason or another. All this time, my relatives in Panama thought I was crazy for wanting to make the kind of trip in my dreams … to head into the interior away from the city. In 2002 I found the Panamanian Institute of Tourism (IPAT) on the Internet and they immediately responded with a large packet of information. Encouraged by this data, I began to formulate an aggressive itinerary covering all I wanted to do and see. Searching the IPAT website, I located several local tour companies and one met all my needs and goals. This was Ecocircuitos. Next, a fellow retired co-worker, Gene,  stated he would like to go along and the plans were immediately put in the works. The pieces fell into place and on March 2, 2005, we began our Fantastic Journey which would last until March 21. Allowing for two days of travel, we would be in Panama a total of 18 full days.

Wednesday, March 2

Our trip began at Shreveport, Louisiana, an hour by car from Longview, where we boarded a Continental flight to Houston. In Houston we changed planes and went on directly to Panama taking 4 hours in the process. Arriving at Tocumen at 6:45 PM, we were greeted by the EcoCircuitos representative who drove us to the Marbella Hotel on D Street, El Cangrejo, about two blocks from the old, but still somewhat majestic, El Panama Hotel.

The Marbella fit our desires for a hotel exceptionally well. The rooms were ample and clean with telephone, TV and AC, dresser, table, closet, etc., it had its own restaurant with excellent Panamanian food and the personnel were friendly and helpful. We would stay there 7 nights and would return for two more nights at different occasions. By the time we left for the last time, we were being treated as family.

Thursday, March 3

On this day, my cousin Luis Carlos picked us up at the hotel taking us to the offices of Ecocircuitos so we could meet the company’s owner, Annie Young, and pay the balance of our fee. From there we went on to meet with some relatives and to a wonderful Panamanian lunch at Luis Carlo’s home. During this time, we introduced Gene to Marañones (cashews), from which the cashew nuts are harvested, even drinking a glass of chicha de marañon, made from the fruit itself. As some of you may know, the fruit is edible, being sweet and tart but very good. The juice from it is excellent and appears to have blood pressure reducing qualities. I need to check this out further.

That evening we went out again with cousins and their spouses for dinner at a fine restaurant in the new filled area next to Flamenco Island. This area is full of restaurants and shops. From here, the sight of the city of Panama at night time is just as outstanding as it is by daylight.

The causeway leading from land to the islands has been widened, a two-lane concrete road has been built, as well as a nice sidewalk with landscaping, which is now widely used by people walking, jogging and riding bicycles.

I had a good day visiting with some of the relatives and seeing the tremendous changes that have taken place.

Friday, March 4
The Ecocircuitos van picked us up at the hotel at 9:00 after we had consumed a big breakfast. Our first stop was the locks at Miraflores, where an observation building with an observation platform has been constructed. This allows a perfect view of the operations of the locks as ships are taken through. After watching several ships go by, we toured the excellent exhibits in the building beginning with many photos and models of the equipment and processes used during the construction days. Included in the exhibit area was a simulator that allows the visitors to observe the transit of a container ship through the locks from the view point of the helmsman, including movement and noises. Unfortunately, the view from the windows of this ship’s bridge does not show in the photos I took. Only blank windows appear, but this is misleading as, in reality, one can see the locks and the cut as if on was standing on the bridge of a real ship.
From Miraflores, we went to Quarry Heights driving through the Officers’ Quarters area. The houses are being sold to private individuals and remodeled to suit individual tastes. Also, Edgar McArthur, nephew of the late Charles McArthur, has gone into partnership with another fellow and they are buying some of these quarters turning them into a hotel. I met Edgar at Santa Clara several days after we had visited Quarry Heights.
Then we went up to the top of Ancon Hill. The road up is a single lane hardtop requiring a guard at the bottom to contact a guard at the top for clearance before letting us go up to prevent meeting another car coming down. I had never been to the top of this hill and the view was magnificent. The crest of the hill, where the flag flies, is fenced and a policeman is on duty at the locked gate to prevent anyone from going there. I don’t know why this is so. But it felt good to be there and see the area as I had never seen it before. I could remember stories of my uncles about the hill as my grandfather used to take them there occasionally on a Sunday when they were small children and lived nearby.
The next area of exploration was the Casco Antiguo around Cathedral Plaza, The Plaza de Francia, Las Bovedas, the Presidential Palace and several other streets. This area is very quiet with little traffic and not many people in the streets. It is also very clean, as is most of Panama City, with the exception of the slum areas which are filthy. Some of the old homes are being renovated and there are efforts to revitalize the area as a tourist attraction. The results are outstanding and very beautiful. Many homes and buildings have already been renovated and it makes a good place to live because of the quiet and peacefulness away from the hussle and bussle of the rest of the city.
My old elementary school building at Plaza Bolivar, where the La Salle Christian Brothers school was located, is still standing and seemed very well kept. I do not know what is located in that building now. I went there for two years before transferring to another Christian Brothers school closer to home at the old Miramar Club, by the sea, at the end of Federico Boyd Avenue by the Urraca Park.
Being behind schedule by now, we made a dash to Old Panama to visit the ruins of the city burned by the infamous Henry Morgan. Years of neglect have taken their toll and now desperate attempts are being made to save what is left. Unfortunately, someone decided to use brick made in the fashion of
these times to replace missing pieces of walls around windows, etc. As you may remember, the original buildings were made of stone and the decision to use brick for repairs makes for an awful contrast. While in Panama, the Star and Herald ran an article criticizing this decision.
That night we went to Las Tinajas Restaurant for dinner and the folkloric show which has been promoted so much up here by other tour outfits. Briseida “Bris” Fuentes Lopez (51) and Susi Hammerschlag Marmorstein (51) met us there. We, the Panamanians, found the food adequate and the entertainment not truly Panamanian. The foreigners, who have never seen Panamanian folklore dancing, though the show was great. All we could hear was loud drums and no music and the dancing had little resemblance to “tamborito” and other local dances. It was so loud we could converse very little. I guess that as long as no one else provides real Panamanian folklore dancing and show (as in the Lucho Azcarraga days) this will have to pass as the real thing. We were disappointed, but since all others were having such great fun, we shared in their happiness and enjoyed ourselves. We really did enjoy the “polleras” when they came out dancing because they are always so beautiful, as you can see in the photos. By the way, Briseida’s husband was very much involved in the Flamenco island developments and the Paitilla area developments, but sadly passed away about 6 months ago. At Las Tinajas, we also met Ann and Bill Willoughby and Gay and Henry Pridgen.
As a whole, this first day of site-seeing in the City was very enjoyable and exciting. More exciting days were to follow.

Each Monday, we will be sharing another piece of Luis R. Celerier’s account of his journey to rediscover his country. Subscribe for blog updates, or follow our Facebook page to make sure you don’t miss anything.