Friday, March 17, 2017


The World’s Greatest Palindrome:

Panama – “Just The Facts Juan”
It’s fitting to begin this tale with the history of the Panama Canal. It is, after all, the reason this country exists in the first place.
The French started the canal in 1880, and in typical French fashion they surrendered. Disease (note the paltry figure of 22,000 dead), the jungle, mud slides and the enormity of the project got the better of them. The US took over in 1904. Why 1904? Good question. Let’s look at the birth of a nation.

Panama got their independence from Spain in 1821. That's a little deceiving because they weren't really a country until 1903. That’s the year they seceded from Columbia when Teddy Roosevelt propped them up with a human puppet because he wanted that canal to happen.

The canal took the US 10 years to complete, so in 1914 the first ship passed through. The locks raise the vessels 86 feet above sea level, and then lower them 86 feet back to sea level once on the other side.

They call their currency the "Balboa" but it's the US greenback dollar. Not a facsimile - the exact bill. They've been using it since 1904. They have, for some confusing reason, created their own coins though. They are exactly the same size, weight and value as ours but with a picture of Balboa on them. However, our coins are used too, so both are in circulation. It’s a little silly.
Elsie goes to Bocas Del Toro

Now, Who Is This Balboa Guy And Why Is He On A Coin?
Vasco Nunez de Balboa – In 1501 he “discovered” the Pacific Ocean (I think building statues to him and putting his image on coins is tantamount to the American Indians praising Columbus. I guess the locals identify more with the Spanish then the indigenous people? That’s strange when you see the faces and realize there is very little Spanish blood in Panama). He sailed for Spain, and he slaughtered lots of natives, and they stole tons of gold and silver from Peru and it all passed through Panama.
I should never have taken Elsie to Bocas Del Toro

We Have Gold, Silver, A Thin Isthmus And Lots Of Mariners Ready To Take A Chance. Yep, That Means PIRATES
In July of 1668 the English Pirate Henry Morgan took all of Portobello
Portobello today
which was the Spanish stronghold on the Caribbean side of the Isthmus. He held it ransom and threatened to burn it to the ground unless the Spanish in Panama paid up. They paid up. 

Then in 1671 he marched with his Pirate army across the jungle from the Caribbean side to the Pacific side and defeated a Spanish army of 1600 soldiers. Then, through torture and every other means conceivable he extracted enough silver and gold to load 175 mules as well as capturing 600 prisoners. He marched it all back to the Caribbean side and sailed home to Jamaica & a hero’s welcome.
Who remembers Alex Dorsey from our sailing days? He's back in Panama after crossing the Pac and now on a bigger boat

As for Panama City; he super sacked it. Torched it to the ground. Gone. In fact - Panama Vieja is where the city used to be (Cool archeological site). When they rebuilt it, they did so miles to the west, at a place now called Casco Viejo.
Authority figures agree that drunkenness is a valid excuse. I plead it when they try to make me leave in the night. "Pero Senor, estoy borracho" Armed robbery is my only real threat. I'm rather buttoned up, and I have a strict cowardice strategy of total surrender. 

Casco Viejo is one of the most interesting neighborhoods here. It thrusts it’s bull neck out into the Pacific with its ancient Presidio walls. It used to be dangerous and half deserted, now it’s only slightly sketchy and filled with boutique yogurt and coffee shops, but the reward for walking its streets are glimpses into the far and recent past. It’s some of the oldest that the new world has to offer.

Oh the roads I've driven
Let’s talk about Noriega – that pockmarked narco non rocker. The US came in here (Misnomer cuz we were already here. It was 1989. We controlled the Canal remember, but they love to call it an invasion so who am I to spoil their history) under the catchy slogan “Operation Just Cause”, with guns blazing and smart bombs exploding. We cornered him in the Vatican embassy and then played Van Halen and Metallica for 40 days and 40 nights and it broke his will to traffic cocaine and commit murder. In fact, he surrendered after 10 days. Latinos have zero appreciation for guitar driven rock n roll.
Bamboo Carwash

But sometimes they pay off . . . 
Party like it’s 1999! – In that year the US handed the Canal over to the Panamanians. Carter signed off on it back in ’77. They recently opened a whole new canal to handle the increased size of the world’s ever growing cargo ships. It’s rather impressive.

3rd World Mustache
Most of my time in Panama was spent wearing a ridiculous mustache. My post doc dissertation is on the correlation between mustaches and third world prominence. I needed to get into character.

My Thin Cruel Lips
Food - It’s a pleasure common to all human’s. Dining is a simple unifying action. Everyone is proud of their national food, and I’ve found that sometimes, as a foreigner I get samplings and special treatment that a local wouldn’t be given because the people are boastful of their cuisine. In Korea – I never ordered a thing and I was never better served. I simply sat down, smiled and shrugged – they took great care of me. The guy literally cut our meat for us, and the food was over the top wonderful.
Top Roping in Boquete

Since I am now safely out of Central America and with no intentions of returning for years I can now ask the following rhetorical question in complete safety: “How many Central American restaurants have you ever been to?” Really? Can’t think of even one? Not even in a major world city like Paris or London or Tokyo? You’ll find Mexican restaurants everywhere and you might find an El Salvadorian restaurant selling pupusas but you’ll never find a Guatemalan, Belizean, Honduran, Nicaraguan, Costa Rican or Panamanian restaurant. 

"I'll be playing the Noriega compound
 in the American zone from
 the 14th to the 21st.
Bring your narco dollars and don't forget to tip your waitress"
Why is that? It’s so simple – it’s because their food is freakin awful. Sure, you can get it down and it’ll quell the hunger pains, but it’s not worthy of replication. So this begs the question: When every country in Central America can grow and produce the same food and ingredients that the Mexicans have, why can’t they match their cuisine? The Mexican’s make some of the most sought after dishes on the planet (usually in the top 3 list of popular cuisines) and their neighbors produce boring unimaginative starch & gristle atrocities that you can barely push past your lips. Why? I don’t have an answer and I’ve spent way too much time thinking about it. Let me know when you get your heads around that one.
When you just really want average food best described as "Typical"

Tenedor Porfavor:
Their food hovers just above awful, but how great is it that total strangers say “Bon provecho” to each other?

I Get Paid In Sand Dollars
Here’s my Life in Elsie: Time to leave / The shelf goes up, pack away all that will fall, disconnect power cord, close all windows and hatches, warm up diesel engine, the surfboard moves from the truck cab to the floor of the camper, check tie downs, fill tanks, Check pressure in airbags and tires, do a walk around, plug in and mount phone. Then I pick a new location on the navigator app and the next adventure begins.
What you can't hear is the cacophony of frogs that sound like a Japanese video game being played by the all-time high scorer
3 Levels of Cooling”
Boondocking – I use my 4 / 12 volt fans. I run them all night. They barely pull any amps, but they barely provide any cooling.

A step up from that is when I’m plugged in for elec but the amps or volts aren’t high enough to run the a/c unit on the roof of the camper. Then I break out the 110 volt 10” fans, put them on high and redirect them as I move about. 

"If I eat here, can I park for free?"
The height of decadence is when I’m plugged in and they have solid clean electricity and I can run the a/c non-stop. I have my own generators, and I do use them, but the thieves would take them away if I were to leave them out and go to sleep.
Like surfing, only smalller
They are perfect for what I call a mandatory siesta from 1-4. After 4 the shadows are longer, the rays are less intense, and the sunset is only a couple hours away. Congrats, you made it to the evening cool down. 

My mother and brother flew into Panama City.

That sweet Birdy Mae made a new friend
I put Birdy Mae on a forced march up this trail and she was mad at me for 2 days. She went home and had hip-replacement surgery.  I'm carrying around an extra 40 pounds of guilt these days. Good thing seamstresses are cheap in the 3rd world. I had to let all my shorts out.
Vent over my fridge. I ripped it off when I hit a low cable. Good training.
Skinny - The brother with the good hair
I picked them up and drove them around the entire country and I’ve got the pictures to prove it. First I dropped off our mother, and a week later I dropped off my brother.  
Skinny lives in Tokyo and plays Frogger all day in real time

The Friedmans: There are only 3 in this small immediate circle and we live on 3 different continents. I’m certain it isn’t what our mother thought she was signing up for, and it makes for some sad goodbyes.

A Return To The BYC
I parked on a familiar street.
BBQ, awning, mini low height table. I love my set up
That’s a first. I ordered some buffalo wings. I cracked open another ale. There was a 2 piece band playing innocuous favorites in the corner. It all came rushing back to me why I used to enjoy this place. The Balboa Yacht Club! I lived here for 6 months 10 years ago while I waited for the weather window to open and for Suzi Roberts to arrive from England. It was from here that we set off across the Pacific Ocean.
BYC - A few of the same remain
This time around, instead of stumbling down the stairs and walking the long dock out to the pontoon to catch the shuttle to Barraveigh, I moseyed back to Elsie who was parked in parallel with the other Overlanders. Full circle baby.

Hey sailors - look familiar?
Earlier Overlanders jury rigged a street light to grab power

The Darien Gap
The Pan-American Highway extends from Alaska all the way to the bottom of Patagonia. However, there is a missing link. The distance is only 60 miles as the crow flies. The road stops at Yaviza Panama and starts again in Turbo Colombia. Why the gap? Most think it is to stem the flow of drugs headed north to the US market, and there is certainly truth to that but the largest factor is that the 60 mile natural barrier stops foot and mouth disease from spreading into North America.

Overlanders Ship Their Vehicles
What did it cost? $1537 USD and mine went Roll-on-roll-off, which is more expensive then sharing a container. Elsie’s ego is too large to fit in a container. It won’t be contained. She is a Freedom Machine damnit. All that money and hassle for 60 miles.
It's not free and easy, it's actually expensive and lots of work

Elsie gets a lot of stares. Mostly they are accompanied by thumbs up and big smiles as the people reflect on the freedom that my machine represents. However, that's not always the case. Sometimes the expression is one of complete bewilderment. Why would a rich guy from the US (and by comparison we are all rich in the US) want to live in that? The real question is: why would the locals camp? Most of them are abjectly poor and their normal lives are only a scratch above camping anyway. Camping, as we in the first world know it, is just a lifestyle counter measure to our pampered first world existences. When you are still living in a cave you don’t collect kindling for fun.

Goodbye To Elsie, Hello To The Sea / DJ And Fun Without My Rig
I handed over my key, shuddered, and walked away from my Freedom Machine. That was hard. I paid a very expensive taxi to once again cross the Isthmus of Panama from Colon to Panama City to meet a friend from S’Mish
DJ Birnie as Pippy Longstrom
who was flying in to sail with me to Colombia. We drank way too much, stayed up far too late, met way too many great people and sweated more than a fat kid at wrestling practice.

You’ll have to tune in to the next episode to read about that.

I’ve flown to Panama, I’ve sailed to Panama, and now I’ve driven to Panama.

Your Man On Point,

Capt Bobby Blacktop

1 comment:

B and L said...

Awesome read, thanks for sharing your adventures. Always a pleasure to read your posts. Cheers, Linda


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