Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

Hats off to Panama

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!)

Porridge-free zone

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..

panama panorama

..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.

Miraflores Lock (and hotdog station)

Miraflores Lock (and hotdog station)

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!

whale 1

First the hump…

Whale 2

Then the bump…

whale 3

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…

UNDP training madness

..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.

Screen Shot 2013-06-30 at 11.02.01 PM

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..



Silk ropes and serendipity

I checked into a hotel over easter that offered silk rope acrobatic classes.  What a brilliant idea! Though sadly in my current state the most I could do was to wrap  a strand around me and hang upside down for a while, like a rather folorn silk worm dangling off a mulberry tree. But it’s really quite a peaceful pastime. Yoga is so last decade – this is the new mind and body stretch that we all need!  I recommend trying it for moments when you have a lot on your mind. All the blood goes to your head and clears the blockages. The ‘man in the moon’ pose is my next goal after I’ve sorted the minor inconvenience of 2 slipped discs.

Easter week in a deeply Catholic country is either one to hide from frantically or to participate in fervently, depending on your spiritual predilections. I chose the former, and set off for the sea to seek my own personal form of renewal, in the little coastal town of Santa Teresa – my one concession to the religious moment. Casting an eye down the rather un-saintly, dusty little high street you wouldn’t have imagined that this would be the place where the likes of Giselle and Mel Gibson had chosen to buy holiday homes, but  it sort of crept up on you. Quiet, understated tropical paradise in all its glory – but plenty of guts too. At one end, everything a surfer dude might want (pizza, tattoo parlours, Bob Marley) and at the other, everything a wannabe superstar might be seeking (infinity pools, fresh mozzarella, mango bellinis..).  Somewhat conflicted, I ended up somewhere in the middle and indulged in a bit of both.  And while on the subject of that gorgeously sensuous and succulent fruit, the mango, I had no idea that it worked so well together with jalepeños, tequila and ice..truly the most exciting organoleptic explosion I have experienced for some time!  🙂

my mango magic

In fact it was my mango marvel that led me to the nice man with a syringe. A man on who I was to become dependent, and for whom I was to undo my trousers for the next five days in order to get my daily fix.

He was the man from the Red Cross. Apparently even men from the Red Cross have nights off to drink mango margaritas.  Until then I had been wondering idly how I was going to inject myself with my latest drug over easter with all the pharmacies and doctors clinics closed, but here, in a mad mango moment, was my saviour reborn!  And he proved true to his word every day, with the exception of one, when he got distracted by his home football team losing on telly and left me up-ended in a damp bikini on his stretcher for far longer than was decent, while he roared his outrage at the screen, shaking his syringe-filled fist. The rage had not quite worn off by the time came for my jab..It was an angry one..and I have the bruise to prove it!

From mad Mango Man to Californian Queen.. my second serendipitous encounter in Santa Teresa was with Jenny, a tall, slim, bendy pilates teacher, who had fallen in love with a local boy and moved her life to this dusty little town on the Pacific. She introduced me to her Cadillac, a purring, sophisticated stainless steel device with straps, springs and furry handcuffs that stretches bits of you you didn’t know you had….It was a classy piece of kit that would not have looked out of place in either a torture chamber or an erotic sex den..

It was while I was entangled in the Cadillac that she casually mentioned that Santa Teresa was rife with a highly contagious disease called Staph (or Staphylococcus Aureus – from the Greek staphyle, meaning bunch of grapes, and kokkus, meaning berries). Personally, I’d say rather more like some rather sour-looking grapes and a couple of cinnamon sticks…

Pretty deadly grapes

Airborne, gangrenous in nature, you could have a mild skin infection one day and  your leg chopped off the next. If that didn’t work, you could be catapulted into toxic shock syndrome and die of a heart attack. ‘It’s everywhere right now.. particularly bad this summer.’ she said, casually.

Things to avoid if you don’t want to end up  gangrened, limbless or lifeless : dust (as we watched swirling eddies of dust spin past the window..), damp towels, and public places..Marvellous. Time to find Mel Gibson’s secret villa in the mountains, methinks. (I wonder if Mel knew he had bought a villa in a flesh-eating town?)

I learned later that the Catholic church widely propagated the belief that that those who had not been to confession lately were more susceptible to staph. Dirty souls =  diseased bodies..! Time to say three speedy hail Mary’s and head back to the relative sanity of relatively urban life!

I arrived back home grateful and disease-free, and tuned into BBC Radio 4 – my source of equilibrium when all the world around seems slightly mad.  Tuned in just in time to hear that Pliny the Elder (generally agreed to be the author of the world’s first encyclopaedia) believed that tying fox genitals to one’s head was an unbeatable cure for a headache…Well, madness is all relative I suppose. [I subsequently discovered that given that the slang word for ‘fox’ means ‘prostitute’ here, the sharing of this particular factoid unintentionally elicits more than your average snigger in Costa Rica..]

And finally – we’ve had a run of illustrious old geezers lately in this neck of the woods..which makes a nice change from Ricky Martin. First Elton John, next up Bob Dylan, and then Bill Clinton, speaking on, of all things, Sustainability and Happiness…! Please. I think I’d rather hear Elton John sing on the subject in his 8-inch sustainably sparkly wedge heels. Or Bill’n Bob with their combined age of 140 years doing a duet perhaps..knock, knock knocking on heaven’s door…

OK, time to escape to the Dominican Republic for more sunshine and leave the geezers to it. Next report from the first ancient capital of the Americas…where Colombus was alleged to have tasted his first banana.

Such a serious chap to be eating such frivolous fruit