Wednesday, May 31, 2006

my last vacation: Panama, where I should be now.

Due to the cost of speech therapy, it would appear I will not be vacationing this year (apart from a week in a cabin at Camp Mather). I've been thinking about my last real vacation, which was a little over two years ago and utterly fabulous. Iris and I often discuss it, and frivolously I always buy Panama Canal brand ravioli in memory of our trip to Panama.

On the actual day of departure, I told Anton that if he didn't want to go, we could just stay home. (He'd been complaining about dreading the trip). We went. The trip there was not too bad w/the kids, as we took a redeye to Miami and they slept, but then we had a 4 hr layover in Miami (from 3-7 AM our time) which was exhausting.

We had no trouble once in Panama City, as everyone at the airport was friendly and helpful, and we took an hour-long cab ride into the heart of the Canal Zone, where there is a hotel in the middle of nowhere (the Gamboa Rainforest Resort). Gamboa is a gorgeous hotel with a lot of artistic touches, with this magnificent panoramic view of the river feeding into the canal and the hills, with no other buildings in sight. Just a huge, huge view of unspoiled jungle. We had a private balcony with a hammock, and there is nothing more relaxing than reading a book in a hammock and pausing to enjoy the view and listen to the birds.

One of the waiters was quite taken with Iris and Lucy, and he constantly brought them little cups of hot chocolate at meals. There were very few children at the resort, but the staff were highly congenial with ours.

The Canal Zone is one of the world's few remaining really large, fairly pristine rainforests. The reason is that when we controlled the canal, we forbade development of the area as we didn't want the canal disturbed or threatened, and now, after we've pulled out, the scientists have figured out & convinced Panama that the rainforest is needed to maintain the canal. A monstrous amount of water is needed to supply the locks, and the rainforest naturally collects and holds that water. So as there is an economic reason to preserve the rainforest, it will most likely be preserved, and Panama is the home to a couple of scientific institutes studying the jungle.

Gamboa had a nice swimming pool, with a swim-up bar in part of it, and the kids loved spending a huge amount of time down there. I always wanted to have a drink at one of those bars, but I decided they aren't such a good thing after noticing this guy who drank a whole pitcher of beer but never got out of the pool to go to the bathroom. We brought fins and water wings for Iris, and all she wanted to do was play in the pool. Lucy was also crazy about being in the water and insane for waddling around in Iris's flippers.

I got up and took an early morning birding tour, as we were near one of the world's most famous birdwatching places, Pipeline Road (a road put through the jungle to lay a pipe to supply the canal with petroleum, now no longer used as a road or for a pipeline, but controlled by the Smithsonian Institute to study the rainforest). It's so funny because around dawn, this area is swarming with earnest people in khaki shorts with binoculars. It was a good time of year to do this, because so many migratory birds are still wintering in Panama. We walked for about 2 hours, and we saw a ton of birds. The group was a bit tense and anxious, as well as the guide, until we succeeded in finding a toucan, after which there was a post-coital relaxation feeling in the air. The tension had grown, as we heard toucans but couldn't find them and then saw a toucan's butt in some growth before it got away, but if you don't see the bill, you don't feel fulfilled. At last we saw a Swainson's toucan, the rainbow-billed one like the cereal box, and it was gorgeous. Me and a dozen aging New Yorkers stood around, gazing happily with slack jaws through binoculars. The guide told us that toucans don't build their own nest, they murder another bird to take over that bird's nest, but the group's love and admiration for the toucan was unfazed.

We also, as a family, got a boat to take us out into the canal and along some little islands to look for wildlife, and we saw a family of capuchins, a caiman, sloths, a lot of iguanas, birds, etc... That was a really fun trip for us. It was just all in a day's work for our boatman, who located the capuchins for us by signaling another boatman and asking him in Spanish, "Where are the shit monkeys right now? I need to find some shit monkeys." (I didn't embarrass him by revealing that I understood Spanish).

The resort also had a few little free activities each day, and we took a guided nature walk where we saw a chestnut-mandibled toucan, which I found funny as we ran into it quite easily, while on the paid birding tour we had to slave to find one.

It was mindboggling hot and humid, but the beautiful surroundings, the lavish food, the lovely hotel setting, the pool made it relaxing. After several days in the Canal Zone, we flew up to the Bocas del Toro province on the Caribbean side. We were reluctant to leave the C.Z., as we loved it there, but our hotel was full up and we had no choice.

To cope with my fear of flying, exacerbated by having to take a small, commuter-type airplane on a minor foreign carrier, I took so many Ativan I felt like I was going to drool. This was very helpful, as the tiny airports were so slooooow moving and roastingly hot that I fit right in. It takes forever to get anything done in Panama, such as checking in for a short flight, and being drugged to the gills helps as long as you don't fall down.

It turns out that I can still speak Spanish, despite having let my skills atrophy for years (I studied in Madrid as an undergraduate and came home fluent).

We flew into the small city of Bocas del Toro, on Isla Colon, and then took a 45 minute boat ride out to Isla Bastimentos, a large island in the Caribbean with almost no one living on it. No phone, no internet, no television, no air conditioning. There is a small, small Indian village at one end of the island, which we didn't see, and a small number of hotels along the beach. We stayed at the Al Natural Resort, which is composed of a small number of buildings made out of native materials, with palm-thatchedroofs, no air conditioning, very rustic. There are six huts, which have no front wall and are open to the beach, and have partial walls on the other sides. The owners had a little net tent for Iris and Lucy to sleep in. The huts are spectacular and charming; they manage to make mosquito netting look romantic (long sweeps of gauzy netting curtaining big, soft beds). The beach was unbelievable, with silky sand and warm, warm water. The food was amazing, seafood, fruit and vegetables with a gourmet twist (for example, in a nod to some Japanese guests, one evening we had fish with a wasabi cream sauce). The meals were included and were served to everyone as a group at set times, with no choice or menu. Unbelievably, as I am one of the world's pickiest eaters, I ended up cleaning my plate at every meal.

I tried sea kayaking for the first time and did a lot of it, but the water is so calm there that it was more like lake kayaking or even swimming pool kayaking.

We only had booked two nights stay at this hotel and then had to leave, as it was prebooked for a night, but we so loved it, we arranged to come back after one night away. We then took a boat to Isla Carenero and checked in at another resort, which I ended up disliking (we stayed in a weird little house mounted on a center stalk, and I constantly felt seasick because when anyone walked around, the whole house would sway and shift. If four year-old Iris can make a building bend by walking around, I don't think it's well-built). This island is a lot more developed. We did end up walking around much of the island, passing through a small town, and taking a boat over to Bocas town and exploring there, so it was interesting, but we were relieved to go back to the smaller, quieter island the next day.

When we were trying to hail a water taxi to go to Bocas town, we ended up picking our way across a raggedy pier which was in the process of being disassembled. There were rotten boards and missing boards, and we were trying to carry Lucy and Iris and sort of toss them down into the boat. I think this was the least safe thing I ever did as a parent, knowingly. A friend of mine at the time who was very safety-conscious and proper came into my mind, and I knew she would never, never have stepped onto that pier or allowed her child to go on it.

There's a restaurant far from any of the islands, thrown up on a few piers by a coral reef, famed for its snorkeling (you eat, drink, snorkel, then take a water taxi back to where you're staying). We went out there and Anton and I took turns snorkeling, and it was like a dream. I went into a daze; it was literally psychedelic. I was drifting over the reef, getting into the midst of schools of gorgeous fish. Unfortunately one person could snorkel while one person watched psycho Lucy and Iris (made psycho by the heat), plus and another, older kid, whose parents weren't paying attention to him and who glommed onto us, poor neglectorino. So one of us was in heaven, floating in perfect water and gazing at insanely weird and beautiful fish, while the other arbitrated the disputes of three small children and prevented them from drowning. Meanwhile, it was all in a day's work for our boatman, who properly sat apart from us with another boatman (although I invited him, in Spanish, to join us).

We were very sad when the time came to leave the Al Natural and its island. Iris said, "I want to live in Panama when I grow up." She wanted to either run a restaurant like the one at Al Natural or be a travel writer (I was interviewed by some visiting travel writers while there,who were working on a book about Romantic Panama).

For our last night & day in Panama, we stayed in Panama City, at some suites where we could launder some clothes to wear on the long flight home & get cleaned up. Anton went out and visited some casinos (Panama City is full of small casinos, also prostitutes; you can see the shipping influence; there is also a lot of poverty there, as well as a lot of fancy new skyscrapers). We had yet another fabulous meal at a nearby restaurant (I'm telling you, Panama is the land of great food). For our last morning, we got a cab to take us around, and we went out to the actual canal and watched a large ship go through the Miraflores locks. Once you get through the security (there's quite a bit post 9/11 security, as the canal seems an obvious target), you can sit in open-air stands with a view of a couple of locks, and there's a charming announcer giving a blow-by-blow of what's happening in English and Spanish. The process of closing the gates, filling them, floating the boats up, guiding them with little tiny trains, moving them into the next lock, and so on is oddly fascinating. I could have stood there all day and watched.

In general, Panamanians are very friendly to Americans. Giving the canal back bought us a lot of goodwill there. A couple of people mentioned to me that they thought the U.S. had been rather over-the-top in its bombing when capturing Manuel Noriega. The opinion seems to be that the U.S. was a bit of a drama queen and did unnecessary bombing to make the whole thing seem like a bigger deal than it was, but since we gave the canal back, they're willing to let it go. (it's so embarrassing to meet people who have personally been bombed by the U.S., especially when you can hardly remember that we did that).

I love Panama. It's now one of my all-time favorite places. I highly recommend it as a destination.

The one major thing we didn't do, that I would like to, was to stay in the mountains, in the Chiriqui province, where coffee is grown. It's supposed to be really beautiful up there. However, travelling with little kids is hard, they hate changing hotels, so you just can't cover as much ground (also with a significant other like Anton, who loves his work and hates to relax, you can't take too long a trip). Also, I would have liked to have stayed at a particular hotel in the Canal Zone which is built as a sort of tree-house, at canopy level, but for safety reasons, no children were allowed there. (Actually at many, many resorts in Panama, there is a rule against children, including at the one I disliked which we stayed at in Bocas. There I divulged we had children, and the resort broke its own rule in booking us in, but our kids were the only ones there).

My big success as a parent was that before leaving, I bought a bag of books and toys for the children, and I managed to keep it hidden and unrevealed until the long flight home. I had also, with Iris, packed a carry-on of toys and art supplies which was their official source of toys for the trip (I locked the secret toy stash in various hotel safes to avoid little prying hands). I knew the big challenge of the trip would be coming home, as there was no red-eye available, so I couldn't expect them to sleep, and little kids are not good at sitting still for half a day (our trip home was 12 hours, what with getting to the airport, flying to Miami, going through customs which was a ridiculous, crowded hassle, then flying to SF). "Why do you get me and Lucy such good presents, Mommy?" asked Iris. So you'll sit still and shut up, sweet little Iris.

1 comment:

Green said...

Next time you go on a vacation, if it's someplace with air-conditioning, I would like to apply for the position of being your Girl, as referenced in the ballet post above.