Feb 20, 2011

Another tour of the Panama Canal

The first time I saw the Panama Canal, it was on a half-day transit trip on a tourism ferry.  I enjoyed the tour that time.   But because Barbara's arrival date and visit duration precluded taking the same tour again, we improvised and saw the canal from two different viewpoints .  On Day 1 we explored the canal up-close on a small launch that included an eco-tour of Lake Gatun and some of the small islands therein.  We kayaked to a waterfall,  lunched on a river barge, visited monkeys, and petted iquanas, crocodiles and boa constrictors. 

On Day 2, we visited the Miraflores Locks,  watched large ships enter and transit through them, and toured the 4-floor Canal Museum.  For me, seeing the operation from above and afar was much more informative than being on one of the boats transiting through the locks.   This time I could see the forest, so to speak.  The last time I was too close for an overview.

Although I'm still unclear regarding much of the physics and technology of the canal, I did understand that when passing from the Pacific to the Atlantic (Carribean), the ships are elevated a height of 28 meters, in two stages, and then lowered back to sea level on the other side.   Water utilized to raise the vehicles, currently is lost into the seas. 

The canal expansion project, which includes construction of new, larger locks, will have a system to recycle the water utilized for this process.

An Embera Indian Village

My sister, Barbara, and I took a day tour from Panama City to visit an Embera village established approximately 60 years ago along the mouth of the Chagres River not far from the canal.  It's a small community that continues to struggle against the effects of progress and modern civilization.  Solar panels seen in the above photo, however, are examples of one beneficial influence brought in from the outside world.   

The village has been adversely impacted by regulations against farming, hunting, and fishing that went into effect when the area was converted into a national park.   The government provides some educational and economic assistance, though,  to help  the community convert from their traditional lifestyle into a current adaptation brought about by forced tourism and the sale of artesan products. 

Our guide relayed that the transition has not been an easy one.  The community was reportedly better off living in their traditional manner.  Present day sales from baskets, beading, and carved items drops during the low season, and even the income earned during high season  is insufficient to support the community's needs.  Product pricing is marketed as reflecting one dollar for each day's toil.  In other words, an article priced at $20 supposedly reflects twenty days of Indian labor to produce. 

Prices charged in the village were significantly lower than similar items seen later in Panama City markets and souvenier shops.  I regretted not having purchased more items during the trip. The villagers admited, however, that many of the  materials used in their modern day crafts are purchased in Panama City,  as opposed to being obtained and prepared from plants and vegetation in the surrounding environment.  A matter of convenience as much as environmental preservation, I suppose...

The village spokesman told us they continue to employ their own health care practices, utilizing botanicals and traditional medicine.  But they also have access to public health care in Panama City, and do utilize these resources at times.

Traditional dance is supported by male musicians who play flutes, tortoise-shell drums, and sing and chant.   The women of the village dance in lines that circle, with movements representing animals, such as hummingbirds and monkeys.  

Transportation is by dugout canoes utilizing power motors, and then by public buses where roads exist.

It was more than an hour's drive from Panama City to the boat launch rendevous point, and then another 30 minute boat ride from point of embarkation to the actual village.  The villagers were hardworking and friendly, and fed us a very tasty lunch of fried tilapia wrapped in banana leaves, accompanied by patacones and fruit.  We were also taken to a remote spot where we treked a short distance to a refreshing waterfall with a deep natural pool at it's base.  There we were able to swim and cool off from the hot mid-day sun.  It was a thoroughly enjoyable and unique way to spend the day.

Feb 8, 2011

Golden Frog Transportation is less than golden

Upon the recommendation of Lee Zeltzer, in one of his  blog posts, I contracted Jose Saenz of Golden Frog Transportation, to pick up my sister at the airport.  The arrangements were made several weeks in advance.  They were confirmed by email 24 hours before arrival.   I then double confirmed them by phone the date of her arrival.   I triple confirmed them by phone one hour before she was scheduled to land, when their vehicle should have been at my hotel  to take me to the airport. 

The driver never bothered to notify anyone she would be delayed.  Mr.  Saenz  checked with her following my frantic call and advised she would be there in five minutes.  She arrived twenty five minutes later, while my sister's plane arrived 10 minutes early.  It had already landed by the time we got to the airport.  Once I located my sister and we were ready to head out, the driver announced she had locked the keys inside the car.  (Actually, she said the keys had fallen inside the locked car....In Spanish, it's never the fault of the speaker.... Objects fall from people, the person doesn't drop them.   She was translating directly, because her English was poor.)  We were told we needed to wait for someone to bring another set.   While waiting, I was of the impression Mr. Saenz or one of his delegates were bringing the keys.  But then I learned it was the driver's mother who would be bringing the extra keys.  I subsequently surmised we were traveling in the driver's personal auto rather than  a Golden Frog company vehicle.   This concerned me. 

After additional unfortunate communications with the driver,  who, as already stated, was not bilingual, I employed my fluent Spanish to arrange conveyance with one of the official airport taxis for five dollars less than what Golden Frog was charging me. 

I had especially contracted Golden Frog for my sister's pick up because I was travelling into PC from Boquete by bus and wanted to make sure someone would be able to pick her up if, for some unknown reason, I didn't arrive in time.  As it turned out, had I not been there, my sister would have been on her own.  The driver brought no materials to make a sign, my sister speaks no Spanish, and the driver spoke little English.   

The experience with Golden Frog was infuriating at best.  At worst, the operation may have been employing questionable business practices.  Who knows what type of personal insurance the driver carries?  I cannot comfortably recommend Golden Frog Transportation as a reliable alternative for picking up loved ones or pets from Panama City when unable to do so yourself.