Panama- A place of contrast!

Yesterday we wandered through the “ Zona Libre” or “Free Trade Zone.” Imagine a large outlet mall then double or triple it in size, add food venders selling full meals of meat/seafood, rice and beans a multitude of cabs- some legit, some not, beeping at you or shouting out the window- “TAXI”???. Include in your vision people wandering around with suitcases full of their purchases, latino music of various volumes, store fronts advertising any and all of the major brands you can think of and you might get an idea of where we’ve been. Oh, don’t forget the BIG security guys at the entrance point all sporting very big and very flashy watches as the slum outside the zone goes about the daily business of survival.

Back up a bit and consider how we got there- a bus from Panama City to Colon, the express version taking approximately 75 minutes and costing about $3.50 each. The seats were comfortable, the air-conditioning not too arctic and each seat had its own ornate head cover. There were pink silky curtains, a pleated pelmet, (in the same fabric) and the driver had the most plush red feather boa complete with huge red fluffy dice hanging from the roof. A large TV was mounted at the front, screening Guardians of the Galaxy and every seat was taken!

On disembarking the bus in Colon we were warned several times to be extremely careful, from a woman we’d offered a seat along the journey. We walked the short distance to the Mall entrance, only stopping once to let the kids go to the toilet in the supermarket, both of which had been busting before we’d even got on the bus. Seb was sulking due to his “almost exploding penis,” his words, not mine and the HANGRIES were starting to threaten!

We found ourselves a food vender and carbohydrate loaded for our busy afternoon! There were quite a few bees buzzing around where we were sitting…but more on that later.

Our purpose that day wasn’t to jump on the consumerist bandwagon but rather to catch the iconic Panama Canal Railway train. The Free Trade Zone was just a last minute stop to pick up a few things impossible to find from now on- some we found, some we can live without!

The Railway was built between 1850 and 1855, costing more than $8 000,000 and 10 000 lives. Today, the train is used by commuters travelling between Panama City and Colon and tourists. It takes a fabulous route through the jungle beside the Canal and over the Gatun Lake. The train is beautifully maintained with a glass topped dining carriage and plush comfortable seats and tables. Murray saw a crocodile on a bank and we all think we saw one in the lake, (“ logs don’t have spiky bits like that!”). We stood outside while we whizzed through the jungle and I was reminded of times spent long ago on Puffing Billy in the Dandenongs, (a mountain range about 45 minutes from where I grew up).

It was a fabulous trip but unfortunately Murray sustained a bit of an injury. I’m happy to say it wasn’t wandering the streets of Colon but rather whilst dining in the Free Trade Zone. He thought he had a fish bone caught in his throat and despite his best efforts, he hadn’t been able to shift it. We decided he needed to see a Dr, as our plan was to leave Panama for Las Perlas Islands the following day and we’d be further away from medical help if needed. He and I jumped in a cab requesting to be taken to a medical centre and Mike and the kids jumped in a cab back to the boat. I’ll cut a long story short, but we were dropped right downtown, (amongst the skyscrapers) in a pretty flash medical facility. I was able to help a bit with Spanish and the long and the short of it- Murray needed an X-ray then to see an ENT specialist, (Otorrinolaringologo). It turns out the specialists English was perfect and she was very nice. Murray had to have an endoscope to see down his throat, then one up his nose and down his throat. Sebastian during the canal transit liked to get Murray to open up his mouth as wide as he could and take a photo- he had nothing on what I’d seen.

The verdict? No visible foreign body but a lot of swelling on one side. Several hours and a hefty bill later we were heading back to the boat, Murray scheduled to see the specialist again the following day. If the swelling hadn’t responded to the treatment it was the OR for a clearer view of things- EEEEKKK!

And so I return to the bees. I was/am convinced Muz has swallowed one and it had stung him on the way down. When I was a kid and European Wasps invaded Australia I’ll never forget the warning posters of wasps on the inside edge of soft drink cans and the like. Anyway, we’ll never know 100% but the next day he was given the all clear, swelling subsided and no further pain on swallowing.

The two cab trips were pretty funny- the first one to the medical centre involved the driver and his wife/partner having a slightly heated but controlled discussion about a vaccination, in relation to their child I think but I’m still not 100% sure, after which he put on his Bruno Mars play-mix and sang along to 24K Magic and Uptown Funk, (quite well I might add). The trip back was funnier for me- we used an ‘Uber’ car and the guy driving was well into classic hits of the 80’s- in order and I kid you not, Air Supply- All Out of Love, Alphaville-Forever Young, Berlin- Take My Breath Away, Bonny Tyler- Total Eclipse of the Heart, Bryan Adams- Heaven and Celine Dion singing Alone by Heart! Ha ha ha, I wanted to stay in the car just to see what the next song was going to be!

We took the extra day to visit the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute again, (this time with Mike as he’d missed out on our previous visits) then enjoyed a fantastic Taco lunch in Casco Viejo, a wonderful part of Panama City going through a rebirth- the buildings being restored to their former glory and the streets being, (mostly safe) and interesting for tourists.

We visited Parque Metropol, the Biodiversity Museum and yes you guessed it, our fair share of supermarkets!

We’ve now been in Las Perlas for the last week. These islands are only about 40 miles from Panama City. It’s very different from the San Blas and we’re well into the wet season. Jellyfish and lice haven’t made swimming all that enticing but we’ve had some wonderful beach exploration and a very random encounter with some participants in a reality TV show program in the mode of Survivor. Can’t say more than that right now but it was pretty funny.

So where to next? Slice of Life is packed up and ready to take on the 8 or so day passage to the Galapagos. This is a dream for all of us and we are looking forward to arriving and seeing all that this wildlife mecca has to offer. We’ll be there for some time but I’m not sure when the opportunity will arise to post again. I hope I’ll be able to attach some photos to the previous posts but we’ll see… Till then, thinking of all our friends and family and sending much love.

Slice of Life standing by.


2 thoughts on “Panama- A place of contrast!

  1. That was adorable being reminded of Puffing Billy – we also quite thoroughly enjoyed that ride. Anyway, the “Great Adventure” continues, with stories of all kinds from some of the most colourful places we have ever (and never) heard about, especially in such interesting, journalistic style, from both generations of the family. 😄 😉 We assumed that it was hot way down there, but interesting to hear that it is also very moist/humid as well. The antics that all of you are getting up to continue to keep us in various stages of laughter and sheer panic, thinking of all that you must be challenged by, simply to enjoy the excitement of placing of one foot in front of the other through each new day, as it presents itself to you. So – Now The Pacific!!! OMG please be thoroughly prepared, as we are sure you are trying to be, but know that there are OOOOOOOODLES of safe transit wishes following you every kilometre along the trip. As Roy Rogers and Dale Evans used to say “Happy Trails To You” (which they did musically, of course) and enjoy the Galapagos adventure – we simply cannot wait to read your version of that part of your trip. Lots of love; be safe, happy and healthy.


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