Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Journey to Panama III - Land Travel

March 23

Arriving into Panama City was an assault on the eyes, ears, and nose!  It is a vibrant, energetic and colorful city - clean, dirty, modern, old, safe and scary.  Thanks to a great tip from a fellow cruiser we stayed at Hotel Casa Miller, run by a crazy Greek (his words which became ours) who had more stories and anecdotes to tell than time allowed.  The hotel was in an older section of town which we totally enjoyed.  We were within walking distance of the famous Fish Market, and Casco Antiguo, an area undergoing significant renovation.

Fish Market
Fish Market

Traffic jam in Casco Antiguo
Jim and I spent one day at the MiraFlores locks watching the boats come through and enjoying the four story museum set up to explain the history of the canal.  We saw a cruise ship, two tankers, and two sets of rafted sailboats come through as well as a Panamax "monster" boat come through the new larger lock.  That made up for the fact that it was not going to work out for us to be line handlers for Seth.
Mira Flores Locks

Rafted sailboats going through the lock

More rafted sailboats going through locks
Again, thanks to a cruiser we got a tip on a tour company that operated trips to the San Blas Islands and Chak and we booked one as soon as possible.  A two hour car ride to the coast (infamous for its pot holes and sharp turns), a 45 minute ride on a small boat and we arrived at Niadub, also known as El Diablo.  
Launch for boats heading out to the San Blas Islands

Canal leading out to the San Blas Islands

I think if you were to conjure up an island paradise, this would have been it.  Clean white sand beaches, thatched roof bamboo cabins, clear blue waters, lovely Guna Yala family to make sure you were comfortable, and two small "stores" where women were hand stitching molas and had a few displayed for sale.  We had nothing but time: to swim, read, relax, and visit with the other visitors who were primarily from France, Germany and Canada.  Jim and I were the only Americans.  
Our hut

The view from the back of the hut
The lounge and dining area

Chak checking out the baby turtle

Rooster mola

Fish mola

Trying a "coco loco" a dreadful combination
of coconut water and rum

It was quite primitive, the bathrooms were in an outdoor building and although they had flush toilets, they only flushed when the large tanks on top of the shower building next door had been filled.  When the tanks ran empty, the toilets didn't flush.  Showers were cold.  

Meals were sufficient and primarily fish and rice with an occasional choice of chicken. We got pretty good at getting the bones out of the fish.

Our typical lunch and dinner
There were daily optional trips away from the island: to the swiming pool which was a shallow area inbetween two islands, an uninhabited island and yet another island with a divable shipwreck at its shores.  

Famlies take turns running Niadub and income is shared among them.  School aged children go away to another island to attend school.  It is where their families live when not dealing with the tourists at Niadub.  Altho I had always known them as the Kuna Indians, their preferred name is Guna Yala.  
You cannot beat the sunsets
 After three nights we headed back to Panama, again to Hotel Casa Miller.  The three of us spent one afternoon shopping and then it was time to head out.  
Farewell pose of the three enthusiastic travelers
Jim and I took a 9 hour bus ride to Boquete in the highlands of Panama.  (Chak hiked in a local wildlife area looking for what he now believes is a "mythical" toucan! )  Boquete was a small mountain town that I had read about years ago and at one point thought it might be a good place to retire to.  (It would be)  
View of Boquete from our balcony

One part of the steep path to town

We were not disappointed.  Our hotel was up in the hills which while beautiful was too far to walk to town (except for a treacherous steep path which we tried once).  

We booked a private coffee plantation tour to La Finca Milagrosa (the Miracle Farm).  It is a small almost organic farm (5 hectares) and has won many awards world wide for its coffee quality. Keep your eyes open for their brand "Cafe Royal".

La Finca Milagrosa sign

A coffee tree with just a few red beans left on it

Beans drying naturally outside, but under cover

Three level of roasts from the homemade roaster

We learned about coffee growing, picking, processing, roasting and ultimately tasting!  And we learned about Geisha coffee, the third most expensive coffee in the world.  Of course we had to buy a pound...and figured that at $25 it was a deal! 

Waiting for the bus office to open in David
From Boquete we took a taxi to David, where we caught the  bus for another 9 hour trip to San Jose, Costa Rica where we caught a flight back to Florida the next morning.

We are now trying to get the boat ready for the summer hiatus and mentally processing all of the varied experiences and adventures we had this winter season!  

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Journey to Panama II

March 21

Behind the Shelter Bay Marina was a jungle with some walking paths as well as the remains of Ft. Sherman which had been a major jungle warfare training location for the U.S.Army during the 60's.  I enjoyed several walks through that jungle while the guys worked on the boat.  (My electrical expertise is nil)  I saw monkeys playing and chattering in the trees and a coatimundi which took off across the path when I walked by.  Leaf cutter ants were prolific and from one day to the next their numbers increased dramatically.  Sadly, the sloths avoided me.  

I saw a variety of stairs to nowhere, walls covered over by jungle as well as a number of virtually destroyed buildings all of which I presumed were remnants of  Ft. Sherman.  The local story is that when it  was turned over to Panama in 1999, all of the barracks and army buildings were looted and in many cases destroyed. 

path through the jungle

church being devoured by the jungle growth
Stairs heading nowhere

stone wall, presumably remnants of Ft. Sherman

leaf cutter ants, next day the line was 10 times as wide!
Ft. Sherman buildings behind chainlink fence

there is a monkey - somewhere  - believe it or not

After a week in Panama, Chak, a friend of Seth's arrived.  He is a French Canadian professional photographer and had hoped to photograph his adventures sailing with Seth.  His first order of business, however was to help reposition the water generator. 

Chak and Jim running wires

Chak tested his submarine camera. (I don't think that is what he called it, but in short he and his son had built a waterproof case for a camera, which they could move through the water by controlling three small propellers with a hand held remote control connected to the vehicle by a cable.)  He had  hopes of using it around the reefs.

Chak and his submarine camera

A few electronic demons were still at work with the auto pilot and the charging of the batteries, but both the electrician and Seth were convinced that it would be safe to take off for the San Blas Islands!! We headed out of the marina and immediately hit heavy seas.  This time we were facing pretty much into the wind and had to motor sail.  It was again very rough and uncomfortable.  The bashing of the bow into the water was amazingly violent and the creaking and groaning of the boat was disturbing as I tried to rest down below before my watch. (It required hanging on for dear life trying not to be tossed out of the bunk.)  The smell of the diesel from the engine was making Chak sick and the motion of the boat was making me sick.  After being underway for a number of hours, Seth became concerned about the charging of the batteries so he and Jim worked on the problem for awhile.  They thought they had it fixed but then it resurfaced.  Finally Seth decided we should turn back.  So after 12 plus hours of bouncing, we arrived back at the marina the next morning.  At this point I think all of us were discouraged.  Plans were up in the air and time was moving forward and the canal crossing date was fast approaching.  

After consultation with the electrician, Seth contemplated trying again for San Blas.  However, time was so short that we would have had only two days there at best. Travel time would have been two days there and two days back. At that point, I had to admit that I was unwilling to face another ocean voyage.  Winds were still strong and the chances of them abating significantly were not good.  So at that point Jim and I decided that it was time to start our land based travel.  We would get to San Blas another way and then try to return to be line handlers for the canal transit. 

For a variety of reasons Chak also decided that this was not the adventure that he had hoped for and that he too was going to leave the boat.
packed up and ready for the taxi
The next day the three of us took a taxi to Panama City.  As it turned out, Seth did not go to San Blas, but instead to Porto Bello (about 1/3 of the way to San Blas) and had a lovely time exploring cute restaurants, fortifications and meeting someone who joined him on the boat for a while.

So, bottom line...are we glad we did it?  Absolutely.  We had an "adventure", we learned alot, we took a journey that I don't think we would have tried on our own.  Would we do it again?  I think not.  

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Journey to Panama in Three Parts - Part I

March 20, 2018

Our journey to Panama started off with a flat tire on our rental car before we had gone 3 miles.  Should we have seen this as an omen??  After it was replaced, which was handled very quickly and efficiently, we sped off to Orlando to connect for lunch with my cousin John and his wife, Joann.  After a lovely visit, they headed off to Disney Springs to buy some special chocolate, we checked into our hotel and then met up again with them, this time  joined by our son, Jeremy and his family.  Family get togethers are very special to me especially since our family is strewn far and wide. 
With cousins John and Joann Coppes
 The following day, we joined Jeremy and family for a day at Epcot.  I think Cy's favorite was Tech Trek where you get to design your own race car.  Much to his delight, his beat ours though ours had a better safety record!!  (Perhaps a reflection of the age of its "designers"!!)  It rained much of the day, and other than a very strong gust of wind that turned Cy's brand new umbrella inside out and our sloshing around in soggy sandals we had a great time. 
Slightly soggy, but still having fun!
The next day we headed to Miami to catch our flight to Kingston.  One of the complications when we arrived into Jamaica was that we were carrying a wind generator for Seth's boat.  The customs official felt it was necessary to charge us a huge sum of  money even though we were bringing the item to be installed on a boat that was in transit.  Did not make sense to us so we were able to store the two large items in quarantine to await Seth who had much more experience about such things than we did.

We spent a couple of relaxing days in  a hotel with a beautiful view, but situated in a residential area with nothing but homes in the neighborhood, one restaurant, and nothing else within walking distance. 
View from the Jamaica Inn
After trying to find something to do in Kingston, we decided the most interesting things in Jamaica were to be found far from Kingston - with one exception - the Bob Marley Museum. 
Bob Marley Museum

Statue of Bob Marley in front of Museum

An early picture of his family

His former home has been turned into a showcase for family fotos, his platinum, gold and silver record awards, notable achievements and a photo journal of his remarkable yet very short life.  All visitors must go through the museum as part of a group with a tour guide.  This limit to one's wandering around at one's own pace is well counterbalanced by the knowledgeable guide we had who clearly enjoyed sharing fun anecdotes and stories while singing bits and pieces of Marley's music!

Serendipity at Sea arriving in  Jamaica
After our two nights in Jamaica, Seth arrived in the evening at the Royal Jamaica Yacht Club and we were there to greet him on the dock.  However, he had not cleared immigration so he couldn't get off the boat and we couldn't go on it!! We had a nice visit and then the next morning after the formalities had been completed we were allowed to move onto the boat.

And here begins our official "adventure".

An "adventure" is defined as  "an unusual and exciting, typically hazadous experience or activity, often involving the exploration of unknown territory"  Yes, indeed!  That about sums it up!   I am guilty of using the word "adventure" a little loosely, so I plan to be a little more cautious and circumspect in its use and my desire for one.

Seth's boat is an Island Packet 38, named Serendipity at Sea.  It is a very solid, seaworthy boat that is nicely laid out inside to make it feel much larger than 38 feet.  It is also very well equiped with redundant systems in preparation for a round the world trip.  En route to Jamaica Seth had determined that the engine was not charging the batteries consistently so by the time we arrived at the boat he had already contacted J.R., the resident electrician for the boatyard to sort that problem out as well as assist with the mounting of the Hydrovane water generator that we had brought with us.  (Seth was able to get it out of Customs with no problem!)
J.R. and Jim installing the hydro generator
And so began our week in Kingston - working on the boat.  Jim worked as J.R.'s assistant, Seth was both the boss and the one who had to drive all over Kingston getting parts.  (No West Marine in Kingston!  The closest thing to such a store was an old house that a wise old sailor had converted to a storehouse of boat parts.  I wish I had taken a picture because it was a maze of rooms, shelves, nooks and crannies and was always filled with both customers and visitors.  And he had almost everything we needed and more amazingly yet he or one of his helpers could always find it! )

Finallly on Feb 15, the boat seemed to be ready altho it still had a few electrical quirks which we hoped could be sorted out  in Panama.  The next five days were brutal.  Winds 20 - 25 knots from the aft quarter, confused seas with waves from 10 - 12 feet, but worst of all 15 foot swells coming at us from the side.  Not only were we bouncing up and down, but the swells were flinging us to the side.  Even holding on to the handrails inside the cabin I was flung off and landed head over tea kettle.  Other times I held onto the ceiling hand rails and when a swell came my feet were lifted up and I was swinging from the rails.  Jim and I were both sick the first two days (despite the fact that I was wearing a patch and then took Stugeron)  Needless to say it was a very long 5 days (2 half days and 3 full days).  An adventure!? Getting into Shelter Bay Marina just north of Colon was a wonderfu relief!!  Seth is clearly a very stalwart sailor - no sea sickness for him! 

After a visit from the Panama Canal Transit agent and a trip to Colon to go through immigration and shop for some various parts for the boat we were ready to tackle the continuing electrical problems on the boat. Seth was able to make contact with an electrician who with Jim and Seth as helpers went to work to sort out the electrical issues.

And so began our week in Panama at Shelter Bay Marina - working on the boat yet again.

Seth and Stuart working on the boat