Free-wheeling, fresh, dynamic, deprived, old, new, shady, sophisticated….Scratch beneath the surface and you can find what you seek in Panama. The hats are, frankly, old hat. Sun and secrecy have lured many a scoundrel and adventure-seeker to this skinny little isthmus that links the Old Americas with the New. Many a gamble has been made and lost in the pursuit of hopes, fortunes and even Scottish independence.. (Interesting historical side-nugget: Remember that mad-cap folly in the 1690’s by the Scots to colonise the isthmus, call it New Caledonia, and make enough money to keep the marauding English at bay? Result: it bankrupted itself and lost its independence in the process. What where they thinking? A less porridge-and kilt-friendly climate than Panama one could not possibly find!)
In a bid to shake off its shady past/present, Panama is keen to remind us that its country is home to the most species of birds in the world (900 they say), and its city to the most important shipping lane in the world. The reality is contrast and contradiction, a somewhat confused identity. Look one way and see Miami and money laundering..
..Turn the other and see pre-Colombian art and endangered tree frogs. My trip to Panama was in search neither of hopes nor fortunes. Just a whiff of adventure, a few migrating whales, and some security training with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). And for adventure, you can’t beat the Canal for starters.
Considered one of the world’s greatest engineering triumphs, the unlocking of the 83 km gateway between the Atlantic and the Pacific.. but at what price? (Impressive statistics to follow:) 300 years, 3 failed attempts (Spanish, Scottish and French), 60 million pounds of dynamite, 27,000 lives.. (and that’s not counting the tree frogs). Apparently nobody seemed to have done their homework on basic geology, hydrology or health and safety. It finally took Uncle Sam with his big diggers and dynamite to finish the job. Enough earth and rubble removed to bury Manhattan by 12 feet, said the museum next to the famous Miraflores lock. (The same museum also pays passing tribute to human – and frog – lives lost in the endeavour). As I stood next to the now happily malaria-free canal eating a hot-dog in the sunshine, a proud Panamanian with microphone shared a few less contentious canal facts: 4% of world trade (16% of US trade) pass through it per year, a ship from NYC to San Francisco saves 7,872 miles it would have taken to go round Cape Horn, and 3 million gallons of water rush through the locks per minute. And with all this water rushing about, what about the poor fish? Well, apparently they don’t know whether they are coming or going… because they are in a permanent state of coming and going..
Now, the humpback whale would never be daft enough to get tangled up in a man-made lock.
On a balmy day 2 miles off the coast, a small bobbing boat of us shared a private family moment as mum, dad and baby whale came out for a sunday roll as they migrated south…
Fabulous, majestic animals!
First the hump…
Then the bump…
And there she/he goes…! (hard to tell from this angle)
Not content with just a viewing, we then eavesdropped on their conversation with the help of an underwater microphone. High pitched, excited squeaky one (‘look mum, I can do a double roll without getting dizzy!’), measured long-suffering mum tone (‘yes dear, now don’t tire yourself out, we still have 2,650 miles to go’), and deep, sonorous, mournful dad tone (‘pesky humans are eavesdropping on us again..’) And then off they went, flipping, flopping, slapping and splashing into the distant horizon.
Nothing like a whale sighting to remind you of your own insignificance in the grander scheme of things.
And then it was back to land to take on another large endangered species. The UN.
Nobody is allowed to work for the UN, (even mere part timers like me) unless they have gone through almost 2 full days of online security training. If you can get through all 24 modules without losing the will to live, you clearly have the right sort of temperament to work for a UN organisation.
It’s all about scenarios and testing how you might cope in life-threatening situations.
Some of my favourites: How might I plan a convoy in a warzone? What activities should you NOT do after night-fall? A chapter on ‘Dealing with hijacks and explosives’, and top tips like: do not wear sunglasses or jiggle your keys at checkpoints’, and ‘never take pictures of child soldiers’..
I scored 86% on ‘How to anticipate a threatening individual’ (growing up with a brother may have helped) a bit less on ‘dealing with hostile crowds’ (growing up with 2 brothers did not help) but now know how to ‘Build a safe haven for emergencies.’ (large heavy objects and tins of fish are key)
Helpful cartoon aids were at hand to ease the learning process…
..and anticipating that the stress of working for the UN might just tip you over the edge, there was a note of caution against what they called ‘maladaptive coping strategies’..: ‘Alcohol, caffeine, sex, and eating in excess are addictive and problematic. Spend time with friends. They can improve your mood and reduce stress.’ Not sure about this. I have friends that are both addictive and problematic, but then that’s another story..
Finally, certified to be let loose in a warzone…all I’m missing now is my blue helmet.
I can’t finish my Panama chapter without reference, and deference, to the dearly departed Rare Golden Frog, unique to Panama and now officially extinct thanks to an evil fungus spreading fast and furious through the frog world.
It was no ordinary croaker. Rather than just ribbit like everyone else, it chose instead to wave, slowly and elegantly – at friend and foe alike. This is a frog that believed actions speak louder than words. Females would wave aggressively to test a partner’s resolve. Males, to fend off rivals. A weak wave, like a feeble handshake, would instil little confidence and consign our frog to the dark and desperate corner of the jungle dance floor, alone.
But for a fine act of firm waving, check out this Golden wonder..