Author Archives: The Traveling Hamsters

Are We Blowing off Christmas?

We’re skipping Christmas. Are we? I think that’s what we’re doing; I’m writing this to sort it all out. According to the calendar and Facebook, the Christmas season has been upon us (those that celebrate) since Thanksgiving. I saw the posts about skipping Black Friday shopping. My e-mail box has been full of ads for things I don’t need. I’m sure there are countless catalogs waiting to be thrown out at home. NORAD Santa Tracker has contacted me to let me know it’s almost time to track the jolly fellow’s route. “Jesus is the reason for the season” is popping up occasionally and Elf-me videos are making a comeback. Apparently, Elf on a Shelf is doing all sorts of hysterical things this year in his quest to become famous. So, if I take my cues from electronic media – the Christmas season is upon us.

Interestingly enough, there is no indication here on our island in Thailand that Christmas is near. I haven’t seen any Santas at the mall – because there aren’t any malls. People seem surprisingly relaxed. They are going about their business trying to make a living to put food on their tables. The kids are playing with strings tied around rocks; really. Those dogs at the shelter? They have no clue that Christmas is almost here; no one is dressing them up like Santa or a reindeer. They’re just glad no one put fish-hooks in their food when they were living on the street. That guy selling garden tools from his bike? I’m sure he’s headed home to his McMansion that’s wasting more electricity on that community Christmas light competition than his neighbor uses in a year. I guess the shopping frenzy will really heat up around the 24th. Yeah, I’m being sarcastic. It’s my mood today; full-on sarcasm.

I would be fine skipping Christmas this year; the part of Christmas where you buy stuff and have to go to a million parties or look like a schmuck. The problem is, we have an 11 year old. I still want her to see the magic in it all and there are some things I miss. The lights, the music, the time with family – oh, wait, we have to fly across the country for that, or at least halfway for Jim’s family – the time with friends who are now like family, the hot chocolate, the candy canes, remembering the real reason for Christmas, doing good for others, the tree and watching Lil and her friends decorate it while I sip something caffeinated on the couch – these are the things I miss and I know Lilly is missing. She’s watched the movie “Elf” about 5 times in recent days. I miss meeting a friend for coffee (if we can fit it into our schedules), I miss taking Lil and her friends to see the Christmas lights and doing goofy things.  I don’t miss having to make all the lists and the fear that I’ve accidentally skipped someone on my Christmas card list. Am I Scrooge? No. I’m seeing things differently now. By necessity, I am being forced to skip all the things I dislike about the holiday season. It’s refreshing. Christmas isn’t “in your face” here. It’s non-existent. It’s stress-free and I hope that somehow I can carry this thinking into next year as Christmas falls upon us back at home, hopefully without any weird social backlash.

This year, we will be spending Christmas in Hanoi, Vietnam. We’ll probably get a little plant (our “tree”) and make paper snowflakes. I’ve heard we can attend a church service and go to a traditional dinner. That might happen, might not. I’ll read “The Night Before Christmas” on the 24th. We’ll talk about what we’re grateful for (I know, this is a Thanksgiving conversation, but we’re a little behind). We will walk around and try and find some Christmassy things to look at, as I’ve heard there IS Christmas in Vietnam. We won’t be sending cards. Know that we love you anyway and we think of you all the time. I’ll get back on that bandwagon next year. There won’t be a ton of gifts under our Christmas plant. There may be a few things I pick up at local markets, but I’m guessing my budget will be about $20. Sweet. Maybe we’ll go to a rice paddy and see some water buffalo, or we can go into the tunnels that were used during the Vietnam War. Sound depressing? It doesn’t to me. It sounds like reality. Yes, I love Christmas – parts of it. I sure don’t love all the consumerism and the need to do so much and stay so busy and get so stressed.

I guess I’ve come to the conclusion that we aren’t actually blowing off Christmas. We’re just having a scaled-down, ultra-light version. It’s the simple things that matter. Lil and I miss our friends so much…this matters. We miss our dogs…this matters. We get to spend time with Jim…this matters more than anything. Writing this cleared a few things up for me; I’ll be missing friends and family, the holiday spirit and certain traditions. Other than that, I’m good skipping everything else that’s on the long to-do list that is Christmas. Happy Holidays!

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Mahibadhoo – See You When I See You

One! Two! Mahibadhoo!

For days I’ve been trying to come up the words to describe our experience here on Mahibadhoo. Amazing doesn’t cover it; unbelievable is lame. I’ll figure it out and let you know later. We arrived from Sri Lanka and had nine nights on a little island in the South Ari Atoll of the Republic of the Maldives. Mahibadhoo is the capital of the atoll and has the hospital and schools for the atoll. There are approximately 2,000 – 2,500 people that live here, but we’re not sure where they all are. The island is 1.75 miles long by .75 mile wide. Our experience here was by far my favorite of the trip.

Another Ferry Mishap

After two rough ferry rides and the plane door popping open mid-air, I thought we had exhausted our “bad luck”. Never say never. We boarded our 47 passenger ferry for the 1 ½ hour ride from the capital, Male to Mahibadhoo. Before we left the states, we knew that ferries do not run at night here. Our flight was scheduled around this fact. Our ferry left at four, so we should have arrived on Mahibadhoo at 5:30. I am laughing as I write this, as the journey took much longer and we did arrive after dark. As we motored out of the harbor, there was a small problem with the engine, but it was fixed within a minute or so. We enjoyed our ride as the boat sliced through the Indian Ocean. We passed far-away islands and wondered about the sea life underneath us. There were some strange sounds and the captain looked back to the three outboard engines. We stopped. There was nothing around us. No boats, no islands, nothing. You have got to be kidding me. This is not happening, right? A crew member got on the back of the boat as we bobbed like a cork. He attempted to fix the problem. “Attempted” is the key word here. The crew and captain were on their cell phones more than I would have liked. Are they calling for help? Why do they look so worried? People started vomiting. I had taken Dramamine, so was happy to give someone my green plastic barf bag. The boat was rocking from side to side and I started getting nervous. Lilly looked at me and asked if we would make it by dark. “Of course we will!” I think. The sun was setting and another ferry came along. A group of guys on the bow seemed to be, no, they WERE, laughing at us. I’m wondering if this was such a good idea. I had my good luck necklace on and my good luck acorn was packed in our bags. This would surely be enough to keep us on the lucky side of things. A guy jumped aboard and worked on the engine while random vomiting noises were heard. It’s an interesting thing, vomiting. Some people are very quiet; some are loud belchers. The little girl barfing off the back had the right style; no bags for her, just straight into the water. The engines finally started and we headed towards our destination. I kept myself busy making random sarcastic videos on my phone. Darkness came and no amount of tapping the cover would turn on that running light. This is why the ferries don’t run at night. We limped along at a slower speed while the captain guided us over the waves that seemed to be getting bigger and bigger. I saw lights and knew we would make it to the island. The crew got on the bow and all of a sudden there was light – cell phone flashlights found the channel markers and we arrived in a harbor. Too bad it wasn’t our harbor. The lucky ones disembarked and the crew found a flashlight. We set off again into the darkness. In fifteen minutes we arrived at the harbor on Mahibadhoo. The flashlight found the channel markers and we pulled up to the dock at around 7:00 PM. Let the adventure continue!

A Muslim Country

The Maldives is a Muslim country. I didn’t know what to expect. I knew that I would need to cover my shoulders and legs (to knees) when we are on Mahibadhoo. Once we are out of the harbor on our boat, we can remove the cover and have our bathing suits on. Returning to the harbor every day, we needed to cover again. If we are swimming on a beach on the island (this happened only twice), bikinis are not allowed (not a problem for me!).

There is no alcohol allowed on the island. For me, this was refreshing. The restaurants serve a variety of juices, sodas, coffee and tea. For once, I found a drink menu tailored especially to me. I am usually limited to the few “Mocktail” offerings that seem to be hidden at the end of a menu in non-Muslim countries. I didn’t once smell my drink to see if I was accidentally given the wrong one. No one was hung over in the morning and I never saw a drunk motorbike driver. Our crazy fun time happened the natural way.

Dogs are considered unclean and there are none here. Seeing as we have befriended a dog in almost every country, I thought this would be a challenge. Lilly quickly took to our hosts’ parrot Richie and the missing dog problem was solved; more on Richie later.

One of my favorite parts of being in a Muslim country is hearing the call to prayer. Although I couldn’t understand what was being said, I found the sound of the voice so soothing. I knew the stores would close and the men and women would be praying. Friday is the Holy Day here; the weekend starts on Friday and is two days long. On Fridays, the men go to one of the Mosques while the woman prepare the meal.

DC, California and Singapore

The other guests staying at our lodging were from the US and Singapore. I didn’t realize we would be spending most of our time with the other guests of our small five-room guesthouse. I’m not one to choose to share my vacation with random strangers (hence the reason I will never go on a cruise). What if we don’t get along? Are they going to have weird or annoying habits that distract from enjoying our little piece of paradise? Who are they? Do I need to keep my child within arm’s reach the whole time? Will they be judging? Yeah, I shouldn’t care about that anyway…who cares if they judge. What if they have no sense of humor? Do they even like to laugh? Will they be annoyed if I get excited about seeing a dolphin? Will I need to “behave”? Crap.

How very wrong I would have been if I hadn’t embraced our time together. Our fellow guests included a couple on their honey/baby moon, a gentleman from Washington, DC and two girls in their mid-twenties from Singapore – hence “The Singaporeans”. We did everything together; we ate, we snorkeled, we decided who we would eat first if we became stranded on our deserted island. Our group was diverse and fun. We talked about traveling and learned about places we haven’t been yet. I couldn’t imagine staying on Mahibadhoo without them. I wasn’t the first to make dolphin noises when we saw our first pod. I wasn’t the first to scream when we jumped off the safari boat. We went together to see a football game and brought boxes of freshly made French fries to share. Two of the guys went to get drinks and returned with the ever-elusive ice cream we had been searching for. When it came time for DC and the Singaporeans to leave, Lilly cried and cried. Who was going to embrace her sarcasm? Who would play on the paddleboard with her? It wouldn’t be the same making a sand man alone or even with Mom or Dad. We waved our goodbyes from the pier as they made heart shapes with their hands and sailed off to their next adventure. We’re keeping in touch and we may just see them again one day.

Amazing Noovilu Guesthouse

I first read about our lodging in a blog. We were looking for reasonably priced accommodations in the Maldives and found it. Paradise isn’t cheap, but we found an inexpensive rate for a priceless experience. For $130 a night, we found heaven on a small local island. We were served three fantastic meals a day. They didn’t hate me when I told them I don’t eat fish. I mean, we’re on an island for crying out loud; fish are everywhere and part of the diet. Every day we went on an excursion. We snorkeled with manta rays, went searching for whale sharks (no luck, but Lilly did chase down a pod of dolphins with a baby), hopped from reef to reef seeing new coral and fish with every swim. We spent the day on a deserted island; seriously, it was us and the island. We watched the family launch their safari boat and got to jump off it with a yell of “One! Two! Mahibadhoo!!! The “Team”, as our group of hosts was called, became like friends. There was a level of kindness that exceeded anything we had hoped for. They were very open to discussing any questions we had about island life and their religion. We learned so much. Because many of the guys had worked in resorts, they knew how to make sure every detail was taken care of. They knew I was interested in boats, so took us to two huge buildings where boats were being built. Our room was comfortable and spacious…with a soothing green trim on white walls. We had an outdoor bathroom, which was our first for the trip. At night we listened to music in our outdoor living room and shared pictures and movies from the day.

We were welcomed into their home (where 24 people – soon to be 26 – lived) and watched their mother make roshi. There are three pets living in the home, Rio, Leo and Richie. Richie was hatched on the island (it’s illegal to import parrots) and is an important member of the family. He had a run-in with a ceiling fan and is now blind in one eye. During our stay, he took his first flight since the accident. One day, while showering, I heard Richie calling from a nearby palm tree. I called for him, but fortunately he let me shower in peace. After a quick adventure in the sky, Richie returns to a shoulder and snuggles up against his owners. Leo and Rio were just as fascinating and tame, but Richie stole our hearts.

Island Life

So, you’re the only non-Muslims on the island. You’re not wearing a hijab. How does that feel? A little disconcerting at times, as I felt like I wanted to fit in. I wanted to buy a scarf and wear it; not to play dress-up, but to be a part of the community. The children would look at us and laugh. People avoided us occasionally. We became so comfortable after a few days that when we saw the ferry drop off two tourists, we asked why they were allowed on “our” island.

A group of kids lived near our lodging and I played a little football with them one day. This made them laugh too. Rana, our favorite island character, is a girl of maybe 5 or 6 years. She would wave and say, “Bye” over and over; up to 20 times. Her family embraced us at the end of our trip and once called us over for some fresh coconut juice. The father took a machete and chopped the top off of the coconuts and gave them to us. We gave Rana a blow-up globe we had and she carried it around for hours.

There was a wedding celebration on the night of our arrival. The street was filled with well-wishers carrying presents wrapped in shiny paper. The bride and groom had a long line of islanders waiting to get their picture taken with them. Someone got a tube of Pringle-like chips wrapped as a gift. A large hall in the school was decorated with green paper lanterns and all the seats and tables were covered in white. There was a wedding celebration on the next night as well – must be wedding season in the Maldives. They get married here at a young age, usually in their early twenties. Divorce is common, they think due to the young age at marriage. The men here are allowed to have multiple wives, I heard between three and five. None of our hosts had more than one wife.

The stores (too many to count) were open for a few hours and then would close for prayer time. They would open again and close again. The final opening was at 8 PM. Most of the stores we went in had the same basic items; shampoo, candy, snacks, toiletries…etc. There was a bakery that DC bought some banana bread in for us to share at the soccer game. We had pizza from the same bakery and it was tasty. There are three pharmacies located right in a row. They are very small. I guess the competition keeps prices down. Residents from other islands would come to Mahibadhoo to spend the day shopping or going to the doctor and getting medicine. We never saw many people around, or at least not what I would expect from such a highly populated island.

Lilly the Mermaid

Lilly has always been hesitant with snorkeling. She was scared. Here, in the Indian Ocean, she has completely changed. From day one she embraced the turquoise waters and all they contained. The guys can free dive up to 16 meters or so. Lilly loved seeing how far she could go and would challenge herself to go deeper. She followed them like a fish. I always knew where she was thanks to her florescent pink surf shirt and her pink flippers. We snorkeled with the fish and she pointed left and right. When we were snorkeling off a reef in waves, looking for mantas, her eyes lit up at our first sighting. Those green eyes said so much. After spotting a pod of dolphins, she jumped in first and took off after them. I couldn’t keep up and missed the baby, but she and Ahmed followed them and she got to see it all. Swimming in 50 meter deep water – no problem. Now, she wants to take diving classes. All I ever hoped for is that she would have a love for the ocean. She doesn’t just love it now, she’s embraced it and feels comfortable enough to challenge herself and explore. Thank you Maldives!

Kandooma

We have since moved on to the resort island of Kandooma in the Male Atoll. Yes, it’s beautiful. The grounds are perfectly manicured and there are no mosquitos nipping at our ankles. The service is good, but impersonal compared to what he had on Mahibadhoo. The beach is cleaned daily of leaves and footprints are raked from the sand. There is western food to eat and a spa for those needing to relax. Here’s the problem: There is a small local island about 1/8 mile away. I can see it from the second floor of our villa. I find myself looking over to the island and wondering what they’re having for dinner. Every now and then I can see kids playing by the shore. I want to be there. I want to share a meal with them and walk their streets. It is so sterile here on our perfectly groomed resort island. Most people come to the Maldives for the experience we are having right now. I want to be back on a local island learning about the culture and laughing with the locals. It seems so unnatural; I miss Richie’s call.DSC06120

Quito, Ecuador – A Pleasant Surprise

9/14-9/18

Quito was supposed to be a quick stopover before we headed to the Galapagos. I chose Quito because my oldest brother said it was worth a stop. He was more than right. First, it’s so much cleaner than Panama City. I was really looking forward to Casco Viejo and not so much to Quito. My expectations were completely opposite of what we actually found. Quito has an amazing Old Town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I could spend several days in that part of the city alone. I had read about pick-pockets, but heard they are no worse than any large city. I felt much safer in Quito Old Town than I did in Casco.

We visit Old Town on September 15, the Day of Independence from Central America. It’s a big deal. We stepped out of our taxi and headed toward la Plaza de la Independencia. My heart sank as I saw more police than in Casco. Was this the norm? Crap. We walked to the middle of the square and saw a display of flowers. A policeman told me they were preparing for the Changing of the Guards. Wow, there sure are a lot of cops around for that. We decided to stick around and see what would happen.

I heard someone speaking English, so I asked him what was going on. “The President is supposed to make an appearance at 11:00.” “SHUT UP!” He gave me that look they all give me when I accidentally say, “shut up”. Ugh. I’m working on it. Progress, not perfection. Anyway, we found a spot right in front of the police line and waited. During our wait, the “street vendors” offered us a myriad of items – gloves, umbrellas, coca leaves, coca tea, coca candy, scarves, baked goods…etc. We opted out and kept our eyes on the goings on around the plaza. Chairs were being set up; I especially liked this guy’s idea – why put them on a dolly when you can do it this way?

Yellow tape was put up around the gardens, more police filed in and my favorite guy started testing his lapel mike. “UNO, DOS, TRES…UNO, DOS, TRES.” His voice was so deep I could see why he was the announcer. Schoolchildren filed in and walked past in their sharp uniforms. I’m hoping Lilly will complain less about her uniform after seeing these kids. Various people (I’m assuming they must have been very important) started showing up on the balcony of The Carondelet Palace (the seat of the Republic of Ecuador and the residence of the President). A soldier with a few machine guns was posted on either side of the balcony.

The announcer finally introduced several people as they appeared on the balcony. I wish I had recorded it to listen again – I’m sure they were super important. Finally, President Rafael Correa appeared and the crowd cheered and clapped. The ladies next to us were especially enthusiastic. The President did not speak, but we got quite a show. There was a marching band, soldiers parading on horses, a flag raising ceremony and singing of several national songs.

What a treat to be in Quito on Independence Day! After the ceremony, we walked around exploring the area. I could have spent hours peaking in the stores. Each street had a specific type of store. I loved the colors of the sewing stores. The “party store” street was full of piñatas, toys and party decorations. On each street, there were stands selling sweets, eggs, vegetables…etc. We had to end our visit to Old Town after about half a day because we all were getting headaches and nausea – thanks to altitude sickness.

On day two, we took a 45 minute taxi drive through winding roads to get to El Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World) monument in San Antonio parish. It was pretty cool to walk with one foot in the Southern Hemisphere and one in the Northern Hemisphere. There’s a problem with the placement of the monument…it’s about 240 meters south of the actual equator. Maybe GPS is wrong. Either way, it was fun to explore this touristy place. There are tons of shops, restaurants (I did not order the baked guinea pig) and a few playgrounds. Lil had fun in the playgrounds; I may or may not have gotten too dizzy on the rotating swings. We did witness the mating of llamas. No one I know can say they’ve seen llamas mating at the equator. At first we thought they were making sounds to warn us…after taking a video and doing a little research, it has been confirmed that they were mating. Awesome. Here are some during and after shots…

We mostly ate in here in Quito to cut down on spending. The grocery store here was just like home…although finding “taco mix” was next to impossible. Tortillas were difficult to find too. We finally found several packets of spices that smelled and looked like taco mix. At 33 cents each, we got them all and found one that worked. We had breakfast one morning at the Radisson next door – it was a treat.

This is our last day and we’re laying low to get caught up on laundry and homeschooling. I’ll be glad to ditch the headache and nausea, but I’d like more time to explore. We head to the Galapagos tomorrow…yeah, I’m a little excited.

Isla Isabela – Island Life at it’s Best

9/23/14

Waiting in the deserted airport is as good a time as any to write a blog post. Our flight has been delayed for an hour and a half and there is no one here but another couple and the three of us; a perfect time to reflect. Here’s what’s great about traveling with our little family; it’s so darn easy. No one is complaining that we have to wait or that they’ll be hungry later. It is what it is. We’ve got a bottle of purple Gatorade for crying out loud; it’ll last us for a few hours at least.  The only downfall I can find is what appears to be a certain lack of hearing that necessitates the locals playing their music (on their cell phones) loudly. The older couple sharing our airport space have their cell phone cranked; first to a medley of oldies and now to “Happy”. I’m OK with that. It gives us something to listen to. So, let’s see what I can come up with about this beautiful island.

They all left for lunch after our flight was delayed for 1.5 hours.

They all left for lunch after our flight was delayed for 1.5 hours.

Isla Isabela, the largest of the Galapagos, has been our home for the last five nights. Our trip here from Quito was a series of small simple steps:

  • Cab to airport
  • Plane from Quito to Guayaquil
  • Plane from Guayaquil to Baltra
  • Bus from airport to little boat
  • Boat across channel
  • Taxi (truck) to ferry in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island
  • Ferry-taxi from dock to Ferry (this is an awesome way to make 50 cents a person)
  • Ferry (more on this later) to Puerto Villamil on Isla Isabela
  • Taxi to hotel

The “Ferry”. When I think of a ferry, although I know it’s not right, I think of a big boat with seats and a snack bar and lots of opportunity to relax and enjoy the journey. This did not happen. None of it. Fourteen of us put on our life vests and set out on a two and a half hour journey that is the reason we are sitting in the airport today. There was no way in hell we were getting back on that boat. I’ve gotten really seasick once in my life that I can remember – and that was on a 83ish foot boat. We all took Dramamine and shared some with our new Australian friend Cara. I’m sure I said, “Keep your eyes on the horizon” about twenty times before we arrived. The waves were bad; we’re guessing 10 feet at times…maybe bigger. The boat was about 20-25 feet long. Occasionally the three outboards came out of the water as we went over a wave. I’ll give the captain credit – he was amazing. His “first mate” didn’t seem as confident. The boat travels between the island of Santa Cruz and Isabela twice a day, so I’m guessing their used to it. I made a plan with Peter, Cara’s husband, to get Lilly to safety should anything happen. It was that scary. The three of us started seeing fish jumping (didn’t happen), whales breaching (nope) and various other exciting “hallucinations” after staring at the horizon for so long. A woman and her boyfriend moved to the bench in the stern so he could barf if he needed to. He didn’t, but she did. Jim just said, “don’t look, it’s contagious.” As we arrived in the harbor, we were treated to Blue Footed Boobies and a shark. Worth the trip.

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There are no ATMs on Isabela, so we came prepared with cash to last throughout our stay. What we weren’t prepared for was the hotel bill that was only guaranteed with a credit card. Oops. I told Jim starting out that I was bound to have made mistakes. We’ll deal with them when they happen. I knew that there were about 2 places that we could not pre-pay for. Murphy’s Law states that one of these places MUST be on the island with virtually no access to cash and no credit cards accepted at the hotel. *#$@&*%!   We had enough to pay for the hotel and found a few restaurants that would accept our debit cards. Jim offered to take the ferry back to Puerto Ayora to hit up the ATM with both our cards, but after the grueling ferry ride, there was no way I was letting him do that. I felt like a drug dealer as we sat in the room that night pulling out our hidden money to see what the total was. In the end, all was fine. You don’t need much money here except for food and we had that covered. We were even able to take a tour and rent bikes. Living small has not only afforded us the opportunity to take this trip, but also the wherewithal to function in less than perfect conditions.

Lilly and I usually wake up early, so we headed out for a walk. Lil was swinging at the playground on the beach when she noticed a sea lion coming out of the water. Not bad for our first morning. He (or she) scratched his head on a lava rock wall, sat in the road for a minute and headed back in the water. We found marine iguanas (the only marine iguanas in the world live here) and their babies (born this year between January and April) sunning themselves on the pier. Frigate birds, pelicans and other birds flew around. We eventually ended up snorkeling with sea lions and a penguin, visiting a giant tortoise breeding center and riding our bikes to the marsh where the flamingos hang out. We took a tour to an island that reminded me of the beginning of life. The volcanic rock had lichen growing on it, which would be followed by moss. Moisture would collect on the moss and grasses or other plants will eventually grow. As it is, I felt like I was on the moon. Amazing and raw. No one would snorkel with me, so I ventured alone to see what I could find. I stayed away from the shark-seeking group and found lots of fish without big teeth and scary fins. We did, from the safety of land, get to see white-tipped reef sharks sleeping. This was the deal breaker for Lilly to snorkel with me.

The food here is exceptional – and I’m not a foodie. I was forced to try different things because they would inevitably be out of whatever I wanted for the night…meat one night, tempura another. We tried new things and loved them all. Like Panama, ceviche is the dish every restaurant touts.   Octopus, shrimp, lobster, calamari and fishes of all kinds made up the ceviche offerings. Seafood will never be on my menu, but Jim has enjoyed it so far.

9/27/14

I wrote that before our big adventure on the plane. Funny how you never know what’s coming. I know this is long, so I’ll stop for now and write a brief post on Santa Cruz in the next few days. We leave for France tomorrow; will arrive the morning of 9/30. Until then…

NOTE:  After losing WIFI several times trying to post more pictures with the post, I have given up.  Will make a photo post when I have stronger WIFI.

Casco Viejo and Panama City Pictures – Part 1

Casco Viejo, Panama

Let me start by saying that I have postponed writing this because being in Casco wasn’t what I thought it would be like.  I have dreaded writing about it. In the end we were comfortable, but the first few days were depressing.

Casco Viejo was a big and scary change from our time on Isla Taboga. We arrived around lunch time and were shown around our apartment by the kind Adrianna. We dropped off our bags and headed to lunch at our (new) favorite restaurant “Feeling”. The waitress Julieta quickly became our favorite person in Casco. In the first few days, she was really the only highlight to our day. This was our first visit to a UNESCO World Heritage Site (WHS) and I was excited to explore the area and see the architecture.

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Because Casco Viejo is a WHS, I naïvely assumed it would be in pristine condition. It’s not. There is a mix of squatters (living in abandoned buildings not yet bought by foreign investors), families living in a few rooms in dilapidated buildings and families living in apartments. On every block there was construction. Many of the buildings have been bought by foreign investors and are being restored. Our host on Taboga told us he wished he had bought property in Casco before it became expensive to do so. There is a mix of colonial, French and Spanish architecture. The layout of the streets hasn’t changed since the area was settled in 1673 (after the destruction of the original Panama City in 1671 by the pirate Henry Morgan). Casco is built on a peninsula and is completely surrounded by walls to protect it from attacks. Navigating it was difficult for the first few days and we stayed close to our Plaza.

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The heavy police presence was a big change from the laid back atmosphere in Taboga. Police = Danger, right? Well, yes and no. Our apartment shared a square with government buildings and that was part of the reason. This eased my mind a bit. There were several different types of police in Casco – Army police in their red berets, the NIS (Panama’s equivalent to our Secret Service), Tourism Police and regular old city police. The Palacio de las Garzas, the official residence of the President, was on the block next to ours. It’s the white building in the picture.

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The narrow roads were often cordoned off for various unknown reasons. Cars “por uso oficial” were everywhere in our little section of Casco.

On our first day, we were directed to a grocery store in the area known as Santa Ana. It’s one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Panama City. We had no clue. We took a taxi and he dropped us off a block away from the store. That one block walk was terrifying. Jim walked confidently ahead of us and I kept Lilly close. The homeless population in Seattle or Bellingham has nothing on Santa Ana. Shifty eyes glanced at us and the police presence did nothing to ease my mind. We passed six police at the door to the grocery store. Police or security were stationed at every turn in the store. We got what we needed and left – but not before dry heaving in the milk section. I couldn’t walk close enough to get what we needed. When we got back to our apartment, I googled the area and found out how dangerous it was. I really felt lost in Casco, unsafe and disappointed. How were we going to spend five nights there?

We got out of Casco on day three and headed to the Armador Causeway. It’s a super touristy group of small islands connected to the mainland by a causeway. The causeway was built with rock from the Culebra Cut of the Panama Canal and it’s the entrance to the Panama Canal. It was clear and hot when we left but raining by the time we tried to get a taxi back home. We had lunch, walked around in the shops and attempted to visit the marine science center run by the Smithsonian. There were school groups visiting and the ticket-seller suggested we visit another day because of the crowds. The Smithsonian has its Tropical Research Institute on the Amador Causeway – we walked by each of its buildings on our way to lunch.   After taking some pictures of the crazy buses the kids rode in, we headed back home.

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The next day, we headed to the Biodiversity Museum: Panama Bridge of Life. It was designed by Frank Gehry, which was my main reason for wanting to visit. It’s not finished yet, but when it’s done it will be quite the museum. Our $55 got us entrance into 2 exhibits – a little disappointing. The exhibits detailed the history of the people of Panama and the biological history of the Isthmus of Panama. History of Panama homeschool lesson – check. Science of the isthmus – check. I felt like we should go through twice just to get our money’s worth, but that never happened.

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Our last full day in Panama was the one I’d been looking forward to – the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal! I had read to get there between 9-11 a.m. in order to see some ships going through. Bam!

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I can’t tell you how exciting it was! The guys on the ship looked like toys. The train-like contraptions that guide/pull the ship zoom around like rollercoaster cars when they’re not “working”. The lock fills with water quickly – I thought it would take hours. We got to watch two ships go through and it was worth every second. We waited until the restaurant opened and got the BEST TABLE.

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Are you kidding me?? That was our table!  Tourists kept coming up to our table and taking pictures; it was annoying. They should have waited like we did.  Smart tourists…that’s what we are (in this exact moment).

2014 is the 100th anniversary of the Panama Canal. It was pretty amazing to go through the museum and learn about the construction, history and politics involved in building the canal. They are currently adding new locks to shorten the wait to get through and to allow for larger ships. The current wait during a busy time is approximately one week and the average cost for transit of a container ship carrying 4,500 containers is $450,000. Almost 70% of the ships passing through the canal every year are headed to the US. Do we need ALL that stuff?

Each afternoon we explored a little more of Casco and started to enjoy it.  I think we became more comfortable and were able to explore new streets that had great architecture, restaurants and history.   The stray cats and dogs looked as if they were waiting to die. Our apartment was the highlight. The Arte Deco lamps and chandelier were beautiful. There was a small rooftop pool that we enjoyed when it wasn’t raining. It was our own private oasis. The only downfall was the baby scorpion I found in the bathroom on the day of our departure. I wouldn’t visit Casco Viejo again, but I’m sure grateful we got to experience it this once.