Wednesday, December 11, 2013

OUR FINAL BOAT TRIP

Yeah, this is not the boat we took. Ours is the sailboat in the top right corner...the Luka.
From the earliest days of this voyage, our luck with boats has been something less than stellar.

Early readers of the blog will remember the original Boat Trip From Hell, as we sailed/drifted for 12 days from Palau to the Philippines with two Germans on their small, not-exactly-modern sailboat. 

Forgetting those painful lessons learned on the Pacific, we tried sailing again months later in Madagascar, this time spending nearly 20 hours crammed into a narrow, dugout ocean-going canoe with a sheet for a sail and the entire Indian Ocean (but no privacy) for a bathroom.

More months and thousands of miles had passed. Surrounded by stunning seas, Panama was the final stop of the trip. The San Blas were some of the most scenic islands we'd ever seen. And we'd soon enough be land-locked back home for who knows how long. 

So yeah, you know where this is going. We decided to sail again. On a boat. Overnight.

But this time, we chose wisely.  


While eating fresh-baked bread and drinking strong Panamanian coffee at the only bakery in Potobello, we overheard three American twenty-somethings talking about a boat trip. From what we could hear, they would be sailing later that day, heading through the San Blas Islands and on to Colombia. 

Naturally, Liz leaned over and said, "Excuse me, did you say you're leaving on a boat trip?" 

Half an hour later, we had already met the Luka's capable, friendly, and honest captain, Bea, who was running around town like a mad woman provisioning the boat in prep for their five-day trip. We told her our plans (a one-night trip in the San Blas was all we had time and budget for), and she said, "Sure, you can have my cabin and we'll drop you off tomorrow somewhere you can catch a motor boat to where you need to go next." 


Like our captain Bea, we spent most of the day running around Portobello buying stuff for our trip. We also squeezed in time visiting the remains of the 400-yr-old fort, watching a soccer game played atop cannons hauled on Spanish galleons, and looking out over the deep bay, the supposed burial place of THE Sir Frances Drake, whose lead-encased body no one's ever found.


We did see an interesting liquor selection at one of the two stores in town that sold booze -- Abuelo rum, Night Train (really?), a fifth of Tanqueray gin for $10, and something called Kentucky Cream whiskey, none of which we tried.


If you do make it to Portobello, a quintessential but gritty sailor town Jimmy Buffet sings about in "Cowboy in the Jungle," you may as well try to meet up with Captian Jack. The pony-tailed, wanna-be pirate is a teller of tales and schemer of schemes who knows just about all there is to know about the surrounding area and far beyond. He also serves quality food, cheap rum and decent rooms if you don't mind bunk beds and a little noise. We loved it.

But the real reason you come here is to catch a boat to places further afield...and so we did. Less than 12 hours after we met our American friends and Captain Bea, we were sailing the Caribbean on a 52-ft ketch, sipping rum, seeing the sea and petting the Luka's official living mascot, Wacek, seen below.

After a peaceful night among a ludicrously starry sky, we shared a filling breakfast with our fellow passengers before disembarking at El Porvenir, a tiny strip of sand and palm trees that hosts a hotel, a recently-paved runway and the San Blas Guna General Congress. 

Here, we took a group photo with our fellow travelers as they departed for Colombian andKip had to go meet with the big boss (Speaker of the House?) to negotiate our motor boat back to the mainland. 


All in all, it was one heckuva way to spend some of the final days of our trip...and more importantly, to re-affirm our faith in sailing, not to mention in our decision-making abilities when it comes to boats.  

Big thanks to Luka, Captain Bea and the crew! 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

SAN BLAS ISLANDS II


There's so much to love about the San Blas Islands.

The stunning clarity and colors of the water that laps soothingly over the white sand beaches, which Liz could never seem to get enough of. The ubiquitous bead anklets and bracelets the local Kuna women wear to signify whether they're married or not. The lady below, preparing fresh fish for our dinner is married, as noted by the wide wrap around each ankle. 


The quality of food and accommodation varies from island to island. Since only Kuna people can run businesses in the San Blas Islands (no foreign-owned companies allowed...meaning the Hard Rock San Blas will not be happening there anytime soon), the hotels and accompanying restaurants are run by the same one or two families who inhabit whichever island visitors end up staying on. 

While this often means sleeping arrangements are rustic and meals can be culinarily-challenged at times, the overall experience is one that's becoming more and more difficult to come by.


Above, Liz stands in the doorway of our hut. Amenities include one naked light bulb hanging from the palm roof, one thin mattress resting on cross-cut palm trunks, and a hammock for when the bed filled with sand. After lights out, the darkness is profound, as are the starry skies and the sounds from the waves nearby and the palms overhead. 

For families or groups, there are larger huts with multiple hammocks.



But the main attraction can only be the islands themselves. Picture perfect, whether from a distance...

Or frozen in yoga pose atop one...

Or closing business deals just next to one.

If you have time, the San Blas are so worth a visit (or two). While you're there, take some time to enjoy the scene, learn about the locals, and consider a volunteer activity such as  a beach cleanup.

And of course, don't forget to take dominion over your own palm-crowned private island. It's as unique a place as we've seen on the trip and will definitely be making our Top 10 list, if we ever get around to putting one together. 


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

FUNNY MONDAY: PALM TREE JUMP


From live volcanoes to high bridges to the Taj Mahal, for some reason we like having our photo taken while jumping in the air. Tourists.

So when we saw this reclining palm stretching out over a beach in the San Blas Islands, we went right to it. More or less.

At least the sand was a safer landing than the one Kip would've faced if he missed this jump in Thailand...or if this jumping cat crash landed in a monastery in Burma. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

FUNNY MONDAY: LIZ LOVING LOBSTERS


The closer we got to the end of the trip, the more we felt we needed to spend a little more time on a beach. And Liz could spend more time with the fresh lobsters some passing divers delivered to the little island we were staying on. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

PANAMA SPECIAL OLYMPICS VOLUNTARIOS


We never really thought we'd spend a weekend bowling in Panama City, Panama. Never say never. 

We were resting up after our daily afternoon stroll between the fish market and Casco Viejo, when we heard two people talking animatedly about an upcoming sporting event. We soon figured out they were discussing a bowling tournament, of all things.

Interest piqued (Kip's a closet bowler, for real), we leaned in closer and soon learned that the Panama Special Olympics would soon be hosting its national bowling championships. 

Yes, we introduced ourselves immediately. Then, of course, we asked if they could use some free help at the tourney. 

Lucky for us, the two were helping organize the event, and soon enough, we were signed on as "voluntarios" for the big games. As volunteers, we would be doing everything from serving as guides for the participants to keeping order during the games, coordinating scores, and generally doing whatever anyone deemed necessary during the event. 


Working at a bowling tournament may not seem like the funnest way to spend a weekend in Panama. 

But think about it -- when would you ever get to sit front row at a national championship of anything, AND get to hang out, slap high fives and generally just have a good time? And do it in Central America with the amazing athletes from Special Olympics?  


Yeah, we had the best time ever. That's us below in the center, hanging with 'our' team just behind us and getting a hug from Pedro. 


Between frames we got to talk with the athletes. They told us about all the work they'd done to get where they were. They taught us how to say "strike" and "turkey" in Spanish. One girl told Liz she was going on a date with a guy from an opposing team, but that we couldn't tell anyone or her teammates would get really mad. 

We learned a lot that day -- both about bowling and about life as a Special Olympian.

As the bowlers rolled their final frames and the medal ceremonies ended, we realized we had been a part of something very special indeed. 

And we owed it all to volunteering and to the amazing athletes and people we met with Special Olympics Panama


Friday, November 8, 2013

PHOTO FRIDAY: GIRL IN PORTOBELO


Liz poses against a wooden column of the four-centuries-old Customs House in Portobelo, but a curious little girl strolls by and steals the show.

Monday, November 4, 2013

FUNNY MONDAY: DO NOT DISTRACT THE DRIVER


The photo above is noteworthy, not only because of the speed at which we were traveling when the shot was taken, but also for the four words at the top center of the image: "No Distraigas Al Conductor."

Translated into English, this means, "Don't Distract the Driver."  

Based on the cornucopia of oddities in direct view of this determined driver, however, we must assume there is an alternate translation -- perhaps some sort of mantra to St. Christopher, the patron saint of bus drivers?

For good measure, let us count the potential distractions in view:
  1. Fuzzy dice (4)
  2. Feather boas (2)
  3. Air fresheners (2)
  4. Windshield wiper improperly stored
  5. Coin changer
  6. Odd mirror contraption on our left
  7. Hanging fan to the left of that
  8. Various decals
  9. Two little men holding signs that say "#1 Dad"
  10. One stuffed monkey above the two men
  11. One orange siren, lit
  12. Two electric stars
Guess we can't complain though, since the driver did get us safely to our journey. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

NAKED TRASH CLEAN UP


No, we didn't get naked to clean up a beach in Panama's stunning San Blas Islands. But a little helper named Christopher, seen here, did.  

We shouldn't have been surprised--the kid rarely wore clothes both times we stayed on his island, a tiny teardrop of sand not much larger than a city block. Of course, considering he lives a Blue Lagoon-like lifestyle surrounded by swaying palms and clear blue waters, who could blame him. 

While the San Blas Islands look and feel close to paradise, the Kuna people who live there are facing critical problems with clean water, sanitation, and trash.


Thanks to the steady stream of tourists and a growing local population, there isn't enough potable water to go around. In addition, all those people are producing lots of waste, which isn't being disposed of properly, leading to polluted oceans, contaminated drinking water, and trash in the water, wrapped around starfish, and dotting the beaches, which we did our best to eradicate with the help of little naked Christopher. 

We even convinced some fellow travelers to join us on the clean up. Together,we walked the beaches, crisscrossed the island, and snorkeled the surrounding waters picking up trash. 

If you do visit the San Blas, make sure to carry out everything you carry in (and more if you have room), and before you book, ask if the island you're on has properly-functioning toilet facilities. If it doesn't, stay elsewhere.



And of course, if you see garbage on the beach, recruit some fellow travelers, and take the time to clean it up. You'll be glad you did, and you might make some new friends in the process.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

THE PANAMA CANAL

A cargo ship passes beneath the Bridge of the Americas as it exits the canal en route to the Pacific Ocean.

Historian David McCullough in his book The Path Between the Seas wrote this about the Panama Canal:

"The creation of a water passage across Panama was one of the supreme human achievements of all time, the culmination of a heroic dream of over 400 years and of more than 20 years of phenomenal effort and sacrifice. The 50 miles between the oceans were among the hardest ever won by human effort and ingenuity, and no statistics on tonnage or tolls can begin to convey the grandeur of what was accomplished." 

As McCullough writes, mere statistics don't do justice to the marvel that is the Panama Canal. 


But let's give it a shot anyway, shall we? 

By the time the United States bought the rights to the canal from the French in 1904 following their decade-long failed attempt to build the waterway, $287 million had been spent and thousands of workers (20,000+) had died, mostly from yellow fever and malaria.

After 10 more years, millions of dollars, and thousands more lives lost, the canal finally opened to commercial traffic under U.S. control. 

A few stats:
  • Construction cost in 1914: $375,000,000 (not counting the French attempt)
  • Cost in 2007 dollars: $7.4 billion
  • Number of workers to build: 56,000+
  • Lowest toll paid: 36 cents paid by Richard Haliburton, who swam through in 1928
  • Highest toll paid: $375,600 by the cruise ship Norwegian Pearl in 2010
  • Time to cross: 1-2 days, depending on traffic; if a boat enters on time for her early morning appointment, she can make the passage in 8-10 hours, typically
  • Boats per year: 1,000 (1915); 14,000+ (2010)

One of the canal's 3,000-ton, five-story tall gates closes behind a cargo ship.
For more stats, check out this page or the official page of the Canal de Panama. 

The Canal truly is a wonder of the modern world. If you ever get to Panama, you gotta head out to the Miraflores Locks and Visitors' Center and watch this feat of engineering in operation. 

It's so worth it. 
Liz on the radio in the control tower of a ship passing through the canal.
OK, maybe it's a simulator in the Canal Visitor's Center.
View from the visitor center.
The view from the bar of the Balboa Yacht Club. Great place to enjoy a sunset.

Monday, October 21, 2013

FUNNY MONDAY: KIP FEEDS LARGE RAT


OK, so the animal is called a coatimundi, and it's not actually alive. But Kip couldn't pass up a photo opp with this larger than life mural on a concrete wall in Panama City's Casco Viejo. 

(No animals were harmed or fed in the taking of this photo.)

Friday, October 18, 2013

PHOTO FRIDAY: "FACES AND PLACES" EXHIBIT IN WASHINGTON

Bridge Crossing in Burma
Since it's Friday and last night was the opening reception of our first-ever photo show, Faces and Places, above is the first print that sold--a shot of two novice monks crossing a handmade bridge near Lake Inle in Burma. 

Thanks to everyone who made it out and helped us open the show, which will be running through Dec 1 at the upstairs gallery in Shaw's Tavern in Washington, DC. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

INVITATION: PHOTO EXHIBIT IN WASHINGTON, DC


We have a confession to make--we're a few weeks behind on the blog, geographically speaking. 

In reality, we just got back to Washington, DC, and we're having our first ever photo exhibit, Faces & Places, showcasing a few of our favorite shots from the trip. 

You're all invited to the opening reception on Thursday, October 17, at the upstairs gallery of Shaw's Tavern (520 Florida Avenue NW), an awesome neighborhood spot about three blocks from our house.

Since we left Panama, we made a quick stop off in Colorado to see Liz's folks (and volunteer!) before coming back to Washington to move back into our house and also continue volunteering. It's been an entertaining, if not always easy, transition to the non-traveling life. More on that later. 

For now, we're going to continue updating the site with stories and photos from Panama City, the San Blas Islands, more Panama City and then back to the U.S.A via Colorado. 

Planning is underway for what's going to happen after we finally get caught up, but keep reading and stay tuned. We promise it's going to be a fun ride. 

And if you're in Washington, DC, anytime soon, look us up and/or drop by Shaw's Tavern and check out Faces & Places! 

Friday, October 11, 2013

PHOTO FRIDAY: PANAMA CITY SKYLINE


Central America's modern capital, Panama City and its towering skyline offer a striking contrast to every other part of the country. One of most dramatic examples lies just across a shallow bay and along the cobblestone streets of Casco Viejo, the city's colonial heart and former city center whose construction began in the 17th century. 

Though the old city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, modern Panama and its vertical architecture are edging their way across the water, particularly with the help of a new ring highway built over open ocean and surrounding Casco Viejo, seen under construction above. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

TOWN CLEAN UP IN PEDASI

Some of Liz's little helpers, who gave her a hand (and a smile) separating recyclables at the Pedasi town cleanup.
In case you missed our last post, we'll sum it up: we love this place.

A quaint town of 2,500 of some of the friendliest people you'll meet in Panama, Pedasi is a place where city folks go to slow down and old folks go to die, slowly and happily.

Quiet streets, gorgeous views, quality bakeries and restaurants, a short bike ride to wide, empty beaches--no wonder U.S. News recently named it one of the top places in the world to retire.

Who knows. Maybe we'll be back in a few years...
If you see trash, pick it up--that's what the mayor said.
Hanging with Pedasi's Mayor Ricardo Barrios
While many of the people who live there take pride in keeping their community clean, a few holdovers and passers-through haven't gotten the message, as noted by the cans, bottles, food wrappers and other kinds of trash littering the ditches and empty pastures along the roads. 

But, this being a great community with very active citizens, they were doing something about it. A local Spanish school, together with the mayor's office and the local Girl and Boy Scout troops, was holding a volunteer town clean up while we were there (we found out by googling "volunteer Pedasi," as outlined in our Tips for Volunteering).  And of course, we were only too happy to join in and happily demonstrate our expertise in the area of trash clean-up. Plus, we got to meet the mayor!

Perfect opportunity for a little 1 of 7. 
The entire Pedasi clean up crew.

Monday, October 7, 2013

PEDASI, PANAMA

There are certain places in the world that just feel right. 

Maybe it's a deserted beach, sometimes a tiny town, or maybe even someone's backyard. On our way down the Azuero Peninsula to sleep in the jungle at Eco Venao, we passed through one such place. Unfortunately, we were on the last bus of the day and couldn't hop off to explore, but something about Pedasi made us want to return.

Kip walks in front of one of the pretty painted buildings along Pedasi's main street.
And return we did, just a few days later.

We somehow missed the giant billboard paying homage to Mireya Moscoso, Panama's first female President, who was in office from 1999-2004. She was also born in Pedasi, a fact that local residents mention often, and which explains why nearly every street bears her name.
Mireya Moscoso still watches over her hometown of Pedasi.
Politics aside, there are so many reasons to love this small town. We liked it so much, that we came for one night and stayed for a week.

Not only are the surrounding waters full of tuna, making this area a game fishing mecca, you can also see whales breaching from the beach, or take a short boat ride to Isla Iguana to snorkel in the wildlife refuge or relax on the white sandy beach.
Kip bikes on a deserted beach in Pedasi.
As if that wasn't enough, the beaches are pristine, and seem to go on forever. At least that's how Liz felt when we rode our bikes through the sand. What was supposed to be a 15-minute ride turned into 45. But another great thing about Pedasi is the friendly town folk. 

This family was only too happy to throw our bikes on the roof, take us for a spin around town (which oddly enough involved a poker game with a seven year old) and drop us off at our hotel.
Our heroes!
They even took Kip surfing with them the next day, and kindly returned Liz's purse that she'd irresponsibly left in the car the day before.

Like we said. Beaches, whales, and strangers taking care of us. What's not to like?