We just returned from a trip to the country of Panama — where Central and South America meet. I had read the tour information twice. There were strong warnings not to agitate the Capuchin monkeys: not to feed them, not to laugh at them because they consider that sound to be one of aggression. They bite.
So, a real Kodak moment came when one jumped from the trees into the motorboat at our feet.
I was the only tourist who screamed.
We explored rainforests, sandy beaches and met friendly native Indians living in the jungle. The warm, humid weather remains the same year-round during the two seasons there: rainy and dry.
Old Panama City was founded by the Spanish in 1519, as a gateway for gold from the Inca Empire. The old city was burned by the pirate, Henry Morgan in 1671, but ruins remain.
Panama City was rebuilt, and is now the home of a million and a half people. It has more skyscrapers than all our Texas cities combined.
It is a poor choice of words to say that Vasco Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean. He was the first European explorer to view it. The Indians were already there.
Today, Panama’s official currency is named for the Spaniard.
The country is in the midst of continuous, massive public works projects made possible from the billions of dollars in fees generated each year by the Panama Canal.
When the Panama Canal was completed by the U.S. in 1914, it split the two American continents and completed the shipping circle around the globe.
Why are locks necessary to raise and lower ships? Why couldn’t a canal just be dug across the isthmus of Panama to connect the two oceans?
That’s what the French thought they could do, as they had successfully completed the Suez Canal in 1869.
But in Panama, instead of sand, they faced hard rock, mudslides, a jungle full of poisonous snakes and mosquitoes carrying yellow fever and malaria. More than 22,000 workers died. The rainy season flooded their efforts.
Ten years later, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt pushed Congress to approve plans for the canal.
U. S. Army doctor Colonel George Gorgas had read about the relationship between malaria and yellow fever and mosquitoes. He oversaw the cleaning up of Panama and preventing the disease, but during the American construction more than 5,000 men lost their lives.
“Sea level is sea level,” we were told. The Pacific and Atlantic are equal, but there is a difference between their low and high tides.
John Stevens convinced Roosevelt of the need for locks. The Chagres River was dammed up, creating the huge Gaton Lake, surrounded by mountains, that requires ships to be raised 85 feet. The power needed would come from generators built into the dams, plus natural gravity.
The Panama Canal Zone, 10 miles of land bordering both sides of the Canal, was under the control of the United States until 1977, when President Carter signed a treaty to return the control to the Panamanian government. Wreaths were laid in the two cemeteries where remains of workers are buried who died building the project.
To travel through the locks by boat gave us an inside view. They still operate as they have for almost 100 years. A widening of the locks is under construction, to be completed by the 100th anniversary of the Canal in 2014.
Getting to know the people
I was eager to visit with Panama’s people.
We visited an Embera Indian village called Katuma, built on an island across the Chagres River. Their founder, Antonio Zarco, trained NASA astronauts in jungle survival skills as an employee of the U.S. Government. A well-known medicine man, Zarco shared knowledge about plants.
Twelve Embera families now live there. Most are Zarco’s descendants. Each family had jewelry, palm fiber baskets and carvings made from tagua nuts and the cocobolo tree for sale. I looked at one table and told a little girl I liked a necklace and that I would come back. Later, she came to me twice with the necklace, making sure I didn’t forget. The “king” of the tribe was introduced, and his son, who narrated through our tour guide as interpreter, announced that he hoped to be the next king. The 16 children were out of school for their vacation during the dry season.
In the crater of an immense dormant volcano, we visited the town of El Valle. The rich volcanic soil produced beautiful foliage, vegetable, fruit trees and flowers.
The Kuna Indians proudly displayed their colorful mola embroidery at market in Panama City. If you buy at their booth you may take their photograph; otherwise, you must pay a dollar.
At a farewell dinner for our tour group we were entertained by Panamanian dancers. The women wore polleras; the men, mundillos, their national dress. The traditional dances have been unchanged through the generations. The costumes are sewn by village women and take a year to complete.
The pollera, with its full skirt, is accessorized by necklaces, belts, and shoe buckles made of gold. Special security is required, as each costume is valued at $20,000. A hair ornament that appears to be a golden leaf is actually a knife for the dancer’s protection.
In the ladies room I saw the dancers doing their makeup. I asked if anyone spoke English.
“I do,” said Lorena Romero, an attorney who practices law in Panama City. “Performing the traditional dances of Panama is my passion. I love it. In the Miss Universe contests when the contestants wear their national dress, Panama’s is always the most beautiful.”
She said the most elegant dance requires the woman to wear a Pollera deGala.
“The dress has cross stitch, Spanish lace and appliqué,” she said, as she carefully held up the fabric for me to see. “It is known as the traditional wedding dress of Panama.”
Romero’s grandmother and mother were also dancers.
“I’m teaching my three children the dances, as well,” she said proudly. “My son is 15, and I have two daughters, 11 and 10.
“A few days ago they danced with me before 160 tourists from Puerto Rico and Washington. One of my daughters wore a dress of mine that I wore when I danced at her age.”
Our tour director, Oniel Valdes, a native of Panama, said, “We are very proud of our appearance in our country. You may have noticed that no man wears shorts in Panama. Even though the weather may be very hot, he would not be admitted to a bank, for example, wearing shorts. Sometimes we wear sandals, but it is possible that we might be told, ‘Come back to do your business when you are better dressed.’”
Asked if a tourist would be turned away because of their clothing, he said, “Absolutely not. We want everyone to feel comfortable and welcome in our country.”
And surely they do.
Travel information from Caravan Tours.
Larue Barnes may be reached at email@example.com.