Monday, May 11, 2015

The Hemingway Experience: Out On the Water, Into the Jungle

I was up and out the door before 8am - the first time it has happened in a long time, much less on this trip. It was the perfect day to get out of the city - Saturday morning means little to no traffic on the way up to the boat launch, and the heat in the city is anywhere from 5-10 degrees hotter. Great day to get into the trees.

The bus was picking me up for the day trip out to the man made islands in the Gamboa area. These islands were created not as piles of dirt dropped into the lake, but rather they are the highlands of the area that remained when the canal and Gatun Lake were created.  

Our guide, Ross, was a Zimbabwean that moved to Panama three years ago. After travelling all of central america, this was his favourite spot.  With a dozen people or so in our group, it was going to be an interesting day. With more than one Canadian in the bus, the talk almost immediately turned to hockey. Some stereotypes exist for a reason. 

To get to the islands, we had to use the Canal as transport - specifically, the “middle bit” that is the highest part of the canal. It was cool to see the huge cargo ships up close.

The Titan, a former German U-Boat crane, now retired and lifting shipping containers once in a while.

A rare sight - two ships passing. For 12 hours the ships move from the Pacific to the Atlantic, then the reverse for the other 12 hours.
I can't put a caption on videos, but here's Mike Mulligan dredging the lake.

Hard to tell from this photo, but I swear this tanker is the Ernest Hemingway.

Close boat is close.
The boat was essentially a tin flat bottom. Not a complaint at all, as it allowed us to get right up close to the trees. Egyptian geese, a ton of snail kites, egrets, baby crocodiles, basilisk lizards, capuchins, howler monkeys, and Geoffrey’s tamarin. We may have lost out to the heat in terms of seeing more animals, but we wouldn’t have known otherwise: life was everywhere. In fact, one of the islands in the lake has a Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute - the only Smithsonian institute bureau outside of the United States. The island was chosen because this one island has 250 species of ants, and more flora diversity than all of America.

Photo dump warning.

Baby crocodile, centre of the shot.

Fun fact: you can make howler monkeys get ornery by revving an outboard motor.

I'm just now realising how terrible this camera is.

After the islands, it was the Indigenous Village of the Wounaan people. These people are a semi-nomadic group that signed an agreement with the Americans in the 1950s. Essentially, it was “We’ll teach you how to hunt, fish, and identify medicinal and toxic plants, if you let us live here.” Here being the Soberania National Park. With around 40-50 inhabitants in this village, it really is an experience. They speak their own language, with Spanish as a second language. They can no longer hunt (it is still a national park) so their main protein is the Peacock Bass, an invasive species with no natural predators. You can fish as much of them as you like - one of Ross’ favourite pastimes is fishing in the canal. An average day brings in 30-35 fish, and you can take home as much as you want. So, the Wounaan use that for protein.  We did a quick 10-15 minute wander into the rainforest. The actual rainforest. Leaf cutter ants, a leaf frog, the national butterfly of Panama, the Blue Morpho, a brilliantly blue insect. The plants were almost more interesting because they can’t run away from our group of 15 making noise in the jungle. Craig, a fellow Canadian, had just finished his residency, with a special part of the exam in poisonous plants, so he was able to enlighten us specifically HOW the Candle plant kills you. It was awesome.


Ross, our guide, translating life in the village.

This is the same tree.

After a brief lunch, we were taken back to our drop off point. I was the last picked up, so I was the last dropped off. It was cool to shoot the shit about politics and oppression of minority with a guy from Zimbabwe. He also explained (when I noticed that there didn't seem to be any teenagers at the Wounaan village) that there was a lack of interest by that generation, and a real worry from the elders that their culture might be gone within 50 years. Makes sense - teenagers all over the world are bound to rebel, especially in this case with the western influences all around them. The children go to school in the city, so the opportunities they might feel like they're missing out on are right in their faces. We agreed to meet up that night because Casco Viejo is the place to be on a Saturday night.

Holy hell, it was nap time. 

I had a couple of beers in the fridge, so after I slept, I sat on the balcony and watched the night unfold. I’m 95% certain I watched the most ingenious drug deal, when my neighbour across the street descended a basket from a long piece of twine to the street from his 5th story window, and a man on the street put something into it. It wasn’t down there 2 seconds. I toasted the man from my balcony, and he laughed. This really is a different place.

Unfortunately I didn’t find Ross or his friends, but I coasted around the neighbourhood for a while. I finally found Relic and honestly I wish I hadn’t. It's entirely because I'm a career bartender, but it rubs me the wrong way when I see a bar being run like shit. Relic originally wowed me: a hidden courtyard that I never expected to be there inside Luna hostel. The club inside is that little bit grimy to make it feel like you're part of the secret. But when I wait for 10 minutes with 3 bartenders "working", I feel like something's fucked. I can see my beer, I know how much it costs. Why should i tip when I can run that bar by myself? And it wouldn't be the busiest I've been, either. I saw one cocktail shaken in that 10 minutes. Thankfully there was a patio bar, but the two female bartenders saw me and finished their conversation before one of then took my order. It's like they didn't get that I was trying to give them money. I stayed for one there, and realized - Saturday night! Miles Davis! Danilo’s had a $5 late night special instead of their usual $15 charge, so I went and checked that out before I went home.

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