Return to main menu
Volume 57: Sun April 24, 2005
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was Panama. And Amanda and I were flying out to see an annular eclipse, scheduled for April 8th. The idea had formed several months earlier when Amanda picked up a couple of free airline tickets for working through the winter holidays without taking any "sick time" that, it seems, many flight attendants are prone to do during the holidays.
So we had two tickets for free that could fly us anywhere her airline could carry us. And, as it so happened, around this time her airline announced a new route that would go to Panama City, Panama—an exotic local neither of us had ever visited. Combined with the fact that an annular eclipse would be passing through in April, we decided to go.
Some of you are probably thinking, what the heck is an annular eclipse? No, it's not an eclipse that happens annually, though you can be forgiven for thinking so. =) Since the moon travels around the earth in an elliptical orbit and the earth travels around the sun in an elliptical orbit, the distance between the earth, moon, and sun varies over time, causing the apparent size of the sun and moon vary each day. Usually, it's too small to notice with the naked and untrained eye, but this slight size difference makes the difference between a total solar eclipse and an annular eclipse. With a total solar eclipse, the moon completely covers the surface of the sun. These are the pictures you see in your high school science books and where movies end with a climatic ending. It's very dramatic and an awesome site to behold. I've been lucky enough to see two myself—once while sailing the ocean blue (or rather more ominously known as the Black Sea) and once from the plains of Africa.
The eclipse that would pass through Panama, however, is slightly different. In this case, the apparently size of the moon would be slightly smaller than the apparent size of the sun. What we would see is a the moon completely surrounded by a ring of light made from the surface of the sun. The sun's surface would be 99.8% covered, leaving us a measly 0.2% from a true total solar eclipse.
I'd never seen an annular eclipse, and I figured it would be fascinating to see how it compares with the total solar eclipse. Amanda had never seen any eclipse, so this was new territory for her either way. The stories I'd heard from more experience eclipse chasers was simply not to bother with an annular eclipse—it's nothing compared to the total solar eclipse. So my expectations were adjusted downward to compensate. Additionally, from a little digging around on the Internet, I learned that from any one point on the eclipse path, the chances of seeing the eclipse were a pathetic 40%—at best! Most of the eclipse path we could expect, at best, a 30% chance of clear skies for the eclipse. There would be a very, very real possibility we wouldn't see the eclipse at all as it passed overhead.
So we'd better make the most of our time in Panama, since we didn't want to come back with a T-shirt that said, "We went to Panama and all we got was this lousy T-shirt." =)
And thus began our trip to Panama. I had a few details to take care of before we left. Firstly, getting my passport in order. My previous passport that had served me so well in the past wasn't looking so good after going through the washing machine, so it was off to get a new passport. My first attempt at a passport photo didn't go so well with Amanda noting, "You look like a serial killer!" So I went back and tried again with better results. I learned a lesson: Never try to fake a smile for a picture. You just look like a serial killer when you do.
Secondly, I needed to find several sites where the eclipse could be viewed from. I wanted several options to choose from so that on the day of the event we could move to the site with the best chance of viewing the eclipse given the prevailing weather conditions at the time. I found an astronomy group on the Internet based in Panama and decided that hooking up with them might be the way to go. They not only would know the local weather patterns better than us, but they were planning a star party that night after the sun set. We could expect hundreds of high-powered telescopes to view the eclipse and the stars that other people would kindly bring to the eclipse site. =)
So I e-mailed the group and learned all the details of the big day—where they planned to view the eclipse from, alternative sites if the first one didn't look promising on Eclipse Day, if solar filters for viewing the eclipse would be provided, and other such details.
Fortunately, I got all this sorted out months ahead of time, because the week before our departure my grandmother had died and I quickly packed my bags for an unplanned and unexpected trip to Indiana for the funeral.
I won't say much about that except my grandmother was one of the most amazing people I've ever met. And while the circumstances for flying out could have been better, it was great seeing many of my relatives from my dad's side of the family tree that I wish I could have known better.
And also, I'd like to say, Terre Haute is the single-most, pedestrian-unfriendly city I have ever been in. Even in Panama—Panama!—they have sidewalks on the major streets. Yeah, sure, there's open holes that drunks often fall in and kill themselves, but there is a space for pedestrians to walk and jump across holes. Terre Haute should be ashamed at their complete lack of sidewalks. I never did see a single sidewalk the entire time I was there. It kind of became a challenge for me—to find a sidewalk before I left town—but alas, I failed. Disgraceful. You'd think the town was designed and laid out by the auto industry. And if the lack of sidewalks wasn't enough, they even erected barriers in the form of chain-link fences strategically placed to discourage walking.
Anyhow, I digress.... While attending to family matters, Amanda picked up my task of arranging a place to stay upon our arrival and for the night before and on the day of the eclipse. I worried that the few hotels available near the eclipse path would fill quickly with tourists visiting to see the eclipse and wanted to ensure we'd have a place to spend the night that wasn't under the stars.
She didn't find anything for Penonomé, our intended based of operations for the eclipse, but she found us a room at the Hotel Marparaiso in Panama City for our first few nights in the country. Worked for me!
After returning to Seattle, that gave me about two days to pack and get everything settled before we'd fly out to Panama. The first day I spent catching up on e-mail, making sure Atlas Quest would survive without my close watch for the next two weeks, and checking the latest reports from the state department about anything we should know about Panama before we left. Like, for instance, if protesters might block a vital road that we wanted to travel on and what the chances were of becoming "essentially hostages."
Happily, as long as we avoided the Darien Province (which we had no intention of visiting anyhow), we could expect to die old age. Good news, indeed! =)
I also reviewed my knowledge of the country. Drinking tap water, I was shocked to learn, was actually considered safe! Money wasn't a problem, they didn't have any. Or, more accurately, they didn't have their own currency. The U.S. dollar is their currency (though they call it the Balboa, but do not be fooled, it's just the U.S. dollar), so we wouldn't have to exchange money.
Amanda rented The Tailor of Panama for us to watch as "research". It was an okay movie, though I don't think it contributed much to our knowledge of Panama.
Amanda, worried about how foreigners might treat us Americans, bought me a Canadian T-shirt and put Air Canada tags on our luggage in the hopes we'd get better treatment. I kind of rolled my eyes at that and suggested we should get our stories straight about where we were from and to remember to call our moms "mum" in public. Because if there's one thing worse than an obnoxious American, it's an obnoxious American pretending to be a Canadian. ;o)
Our flight out of Seattle would be a red-eye flight through Charlotte, so I spent that afternoon buying snacks for our bags and packing my luggage. After my disasterous attempt at bringing WAY too much junk on my first trip to Central America, I did the opposite and packed extraordinarily light. A handful of clothing, a couple of magazines for reading, food (which actually took up the most room!), and a few miscellaneous odds and ends.
Amanda spent the morning visiting the doctor—she woke up with a sore throat and feared she might have strep throat. Which was a significant worry for me because I certainly didn't want to get it, and if I did develop such symptoms it would be when I was wandering around in Panama. Not the most ideal place to look for a doctor, in our book! Even worse, I was already suffering from a runny nose, probably a result of the flight back from Indiana and not sleeping for nearly two days. Under the circumstances, not the best time to be flying off to Panama! But unless you can move the sun, earth, or moon, that eclipse was going to happen on April 8th in Panama, and we were going to be there to see it or die trying. Or at the very least infect everyone else on the plane with either a cold or strep throat. Sorry about that, in case any of you plane passengers ever find this journal entry. =)
A little before 8:00pm, March 29th, Amanda and I were on our way to the airport. Amanda dropped me off at the terminal with all our luggage while she drove to employee parking to park the car. Since only employees are allowed into the employee parking lot, I'm not allowed. Thus, the reason she dropped me off at the terminal and I waited until she parked the car and jumped on a shuttle back to the terminal.
She checked us in on the supposedly "fast" kiosks that, we learned, wasn't so fast if you were traveling internationally. We had to type in our names, passport numbers, flight itinerary, and answer a small essay question on the first ten amendments. Okay, maybe it's a slight exaggeration with the essay question, but we spent quite a while at that kiosk entering all the information it wanted!
Finally, we got our tickets and headed to our gate. Amanda is well-connected on this particular route, and we got ourselves bumped up to first class. Yee-ha! I'd never ridden in first class before, so it would be an adventure for me. Even better, because the plane was so full, we weren't able to sit next to each other. This, let me remind you, was a good thing since as far as we knew Amanda had strep throat so I wasn't very anxious to spend much time in close proximity to her, and I was suffering from a cold so she wasn't particularly anxious to be very close to me either. We'd rather infect everyone else on the plane than each other. =)
The flight went well. They fed me something they called food, though I'm not sure what it was. But I went to sleep soon after and slept most of the way to Charlotte.
In Charlotte, Amanda dropped by a newly opened Jamba Juice at the airport—our last meal in the states for the next two weeks. Amanda tried to push the Cold Buster on me, but I decided on the Orange-A-Peel and added an immunity boost choice instead of the usual vita boost that I usually get to appease Amanda's concerns.
The next leg of our trip was a short, uneventful flight to Fort Lauderdale. At The Fort, as I like to affectionately call it, Amanda lost her temper when she learned that we'd have to leave the security area to get to our next gate. We had something less than an hour to get to our next gate, but it was on the other side of the airport and would require standing in line to make it through security. Normally, these types of things don't bother Amanda too much because, being a flight attendant, she can cut to the front of the line and never has to wait. I, however, do not have that benefit and she grumbled at me the whole time in line about how stupid her airline was and it's amazing that everyone doesn't miss their flights having to go through security this extra time to change gates, and... well, she was cranky, so say the least.
I patted her on the back and told her, "Welcome to the real world!" I've had to do this type of thing many times before and yes, it is annoying but no, you can't do anything about it.
I'd also like to point out, with the exception of having to leave security to go back through it at another point, Fort Lauderdale has a very nice airport! It's very tastefully decorated and I really enjoyed walking through the airport. =)
We caught our connecting plane to Panama City with no additional hassles. Amanda knew the LODO on the flight. For those of you who don't know what a LODO is, that's the Spanish-speaking person on every flight to Spanish-speaking countries so at least one person on the plane can speak to all of the people on the plane who only speak Spanish. Amanda knew the LODO from previous flights she'd worked to the Caribbean, and he made sure we were put in first class. YES! My second time in first class in 24 hours! It was my lucky day! =)
Our flight took off, flying south. I could see the Miami airport out my window, and I waved to George and Suzi (Amanda's dad and stepmom, respectively, who you met in a previous adventure) since we knew they were at the airport waiting for their flight to Buenos Aires.
Then our plane banked right and followed more-or-less over the Florida Keys. That was pretty exciting for me. I could see Highway 1 connecting all the little islands. The coral reef offshore was very obvious from the air. And there was Key West, way off in the distance.
But what I was most excited about—Cuba—I knew should be visible from the windows on the other side of the plane. I really, really wanted to see Cuba. Turns out, our flight would take us directly over Cuba. I saw the large landmass and immediately knew it had to be Cuba—no other island was anywhere near as big in that area—and we entered into Cuban airspace. I was in CUBA!!!! I'd never been in Cuba before, and I was thrilled. I figured the only way I'd ever see Cuba much less get to BE in Cuba was illegally, and here I was flying around in Cuba and it was all perfectly legal!
I had Amanda take a picture of me in Cuba, with a soft drink in hand. I almost wanted a glass of alcohol to celebrate this momentous occasion.
It didn't take long to fly over Cuba and we were soon flying over miles and miles of open water, affectionately called the Caribbean. We knew Panama was getting close when the plane started its decent, though we still couldn't see any land below us. It was partly cloudy, unlike over Florida and Cuba where the skies were exceedingly clear, and I tried spotting a landmass through all the clouds.
And finally got my first site of Panama, home to the legendary Panama Canal. In fact, there was a huge ship apparently resting in the middle of the landmass! It was a bizarre looking site seeing this enormous ship that looked completely landlocked. Of course, it was sailing through the Panama Canal, along a narrow channel that, from our angle, wasn't actually visible. So it looked like an enormous, land-locked ship.
As we continued our decent, we finally got a good look at the canal filled with several, huge ships. A large, impressive looking bridge crossed it—The Bridge of the Americas, we assumed, though later we would learn that assumption was wrong. We never did find out what the name of that bridge was, but then we didn't really try very hard either. It was an impressive looking bridge, however!
Our flight landed. The captain told us that the temperature was a horrible 93 degrees outside. Welcome to Panama!
Amanda chatted with the other flight attendants about what they were planning to do during their layover and how stupid they thought their airline was. The usual kind of stuff flight attendants talk about.
Having come from first class, we were the first people to get off the plane and we rushed to customs and immigration. We didn't want an entire plane load of passengers getting in line in front of us! As it was, we weren't the first in line—other planes had already landed—but we weren't at the end of the line either.
The customs guy waved us over. We were next. We handed over our passports and paperwork. He asked us how long we would be in the country. My Spanish was a bit rusty, and he spoke funny, and it took awhile to figure out the question, but we finally broke the communication barrier when he spoke a couple of key words in English. I told him, "Catorce días"—14 days. He looked at me like he wasn't sure I could be trusted, or at least like my Spanish couldn't be trusted. "Sí, catorce días," I nodded. Deciding that I knew what I was talking about—or more likely, didn't care if I really knew what I was talking about—he continued with the paperwork and entering our vitals into a computer.
At least until all of the computers shut down. The customs guys started yelling back and forth at each other asking what had happened and what to do. Amanda and I stood around and waited, wondering how much longer our wait would become because of the fiasco. I could see the "Uncaught Exception" error on all the monitors. Damn, Microsoft. They were making life in Panama difficult too!
All the computers were rebooted and the customs guy reentered all of the information on me that had been lost. Fortunately, he didn't actually have to ASK me the questions a second time around since he remembered all of my answers from the first time around.
We made it through customs, then immigration with no additional problems. At the exit, a man stood holding a sign with Amanda's and my name on it. Wow! I'd never been greeted at an airport with a sign with my name on it before! That was kind of exciting! =) Usually, I had to find my own transportation to my ultimate destination.
The man walked us to the curb outside and told us to stay while he pick up the van. He left, and I wiped my long sleeve across my brow. When flying at discount prices on Amanda's airline, you have to dress "nice." So there we stood, in 93 degree temperature in the shade with long-sleeved clothes. It was awful.
The van came by and we jumped in. Thankfully, it was air-conditioned. The ride to the hotel was about 20 miles away and we watched the sights, dodging through traffic on a remarkably well-maintained road by Central American standards.
The highway passed by the ruins at Panama Viéjo, or Old Panama. Our guidebook explained that Panama Viéjo is the original site of Panama City, a thriving town of about 30,000 persons, until it was ransacked and destroyed in 1671 by the English pirate, Henry Morgan. The Spanish decided to rebuild Panama City about five miles to the southwest where they felt it would be easier to defend from future attacks. Today, Panama City has grown to a thriving town with a population of 700,000 and completely encompasses Panama Viéjo, which oddly enough, would make it one of the newer additions to Panama City. The ruins left by Henry Morgan, however, still remain over 300 years later and now make a popular tourist destination.
We arrived at our hotel, Hotel Marpariso, and checked in. Our room was boiling—the air-conditioning is left off while the room isn't being used to save electricity, so we quickly kicked on the air-conditioning and started checking out our options on the television. Surprisingly, we discovered that they have the Playboy Channel in Panama. Even more surprising, it seemed we were able to get the video feed for the station, though the sound was missing. We settled on watching Passenger 57, dubbed in Spanish, instead.
Afterwards, we decided to take a walk and see a bit of Panama City. I decided we'd make a loop, hoofing westward towards the Cinco de Mayo Plaza where several of the main bus stops for town were located. I wanted to check out the local transportation system and get a feel for how to get around in the city. Then we'd head south until we reached the Pacific Ocean, then follow the shore eastward until we could cut back up a street back to our hotel.
So off we went. The buses are quite amazing works of art. Locally, they're known as diablos rojos, that is, the red devils. They're still old school buses from the states, like you find in the rest of Central America, but these have far more elaborate paint jobs than you'd find in other Central American countries. Most seemed to be themed with Loony Toon characters such as Yosemite Sam or Tweety Bird. Occasionally, we'd see a bus decked out with neon that would not look out of place if it was driving down the Las Vegas Strip.
Oddly, a surprising number of buses and taxis would stop long enough for us to dart across the street. Towards pedestrians, they're actually very friendly! Among vehicles, however, they were ruthless cutting each other off and weave between traffic or honk the horn if the car in front of them isn't going as fast as they'd prefer.
Amanda started feeling more nervous the farther away from the hotel we got. She had read in our guidebook that this part of town wasn't safe to walk around in. Or rather, that's what she told me. In actuality, it said it wasn't safe to walk around on side streets at night. Seeing as we were on a major boulevard and it was still daylight, I wasn't especially concerned. But I did want to make it to the bus stops and check out the area before it got dark, even if for no other reason so I could see where I was going and what was going on.
Eventually we reached Cinco de Mayo Plaza, a bustling area with a bewildering number of busses traveling in every direction. Well over half the vehicles on the road were buses, in fact, one right after another. Honestly, I was kind of intimidated at the idea of trying to find my way through it all.
While heading towards the shoreline, Amanda found a shopping plaza that she just had to stop at. She followed the shops down a dark, almost empty alley. Funny how much better she felt about her safety as soon as there was shopping to be done. =) She ended up getting a few postcards.
Finally I pulled Amanda away long enough to get us to the promenade along the Pacific Ocean, a refreshing area. It was significantly cooler walking along the ocean with a slight breeze to cool us down. Since we walked along the ocean, we didn't have to dart across the street at intersections which also helps reduce the stress level. And laying just offshore we could see dozens of large boats and container ships lined up waiting their turn to get through the Panama Canal.
Walking eastward, we could see the large skyscrapers making up the business district of the city.
"Yeah, Amanda," I said authoritatively, "those are called the cocaine towers." I based this solely on the fact that's what they called the skyscrapers in The Tailor of Panama, and if it was in the movie it must be true, right?
Amanda didn't seem suitably impressed with my deep knowledge of the country, however.
We walked down as far as a large statue of Balboa, standing on the world. Balboa was among the first Europeans to explore Panama and established the first successful European settlement on mainland America in 1510. While searching for the Inca empire—the locals told him about their wealth, gold-producing civilization—Balboa scaled the mountains of Panama and became the first European to lay eyes on the Pacific Ocean claiming it and the lands it touched for Spain.
Unfortunately for Balboa, he was beheaded in 1517 by Pedro Arias de Avila, a man that our guidebook explained is also remembered for "ordering attacks against Indians, whom he roasted alive or fed to dogs." Which sounds pretty interesting, but we still don't know why he felt he could, pardon the pun, get ahead of Balboa with an old fashioned beheading.
By now, dusk was fast approaching so we cut up Calle 34 Este (34th East Street) back to our hotel where we watched more television and planned out our itinerary for the next day.
Despite the odds, we survived our first day in Panama.
Return to main menu