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Colón 2010  

Take a trip on the Panama Canal Train and visit the Colon Free Trade Zone with the crew of Rose of Sharon



Panama Canal Train

by Sharon Kratz, s/v Rose of Sharon

I don’t want to go into history; I want to go into the Canal Zone.

--Omar Torrijos Herrera,
Commander, Panamanian National Guard

Question: How many Texas boaters are in Panama right now?

Answer: Enough to take back the Canal, if we want to.

The Panama Canal Treaty had many opponents, but really, it seems to be working out fine.

Joe and I continued to hug the dock at Shelter Bay Marina. We were waiting on a portable generator and a refrigeration part to arrive from Miami. Joe was trying to contract a man to put up a stainless steel pole for the wind generator that I had tried to throw away every year since 2005. It was moved from storage space to storage space each year and I think he realized that its shelf life, so to speak, had expired as far as I was concerned. He was almost afraid to leave me alone on the boat for fear I’d toss his unused wind generator overboard. So he was attempting have it installed and not having a lot of luck. The “stainless steel guy” was not answering anyone’s phone calls and messages, including the marina manager who was also requesting his services.

The winds and waves were not cooperating anyway. People coming into the marina from the San Blas islands – our next destination – reported winds and waves that were beating them to death, and the westward wind was in their favor. We would be traveling against the wind, so we wanted it to lay down as much as possible before D-Day (Departure Day).

So, we explored the area with gusto, accompanied and sometimes led by Paul and Mary Margaret on S/V AngelHeart.

Panama’s Shelter Bay Marina is located on Fort Sherman’s 23,000 acres. The fort was named after General William Tecumseh Sherman, not a popular man south of the Mason-Dixon Line. In 1911, the first US Army troops manned Fort Sherman’s giant artillery guns to oversee protection of the Panama Canal. From 1953-1999, Fort Sherman was a jungle training site.

Tour buses sometimes appeared at the marina for a jungle hike and lunch. The European travelers were usually dressed for safari, a noticeable contrast to the cruisers in beachwear and flip-flops.

Artillery bunkerJoe led us on a hike into the jungle to see one of the bunkers that housed the big guns that could distance enough miles to protect the Panama Canal from threat of invasion. That particular bunker was named after and dedicated to Major General Joseph A. Mower who sailed and commanded the East Texas District for the U.S. military.

The shade from the tropical trees protected us from the morning sun, which would become a blazing fireball in a few more hours. We stepped carefully along a faint path, weaving our way around busy ant colonies, scurrying single-file along their own jungle trails.

RoadtripWe then walked along the main road from the marina to the security gate, which is manned by Panamanian military. The airstrip is often used for young soldiers’ jogging and exercising, and we often wondered if they were housed in barracks adjacent to the waterway, the ones we could see in the distance. Other barracks we passed to and from Colón were deserted and crumbling. Still, security guards patrolled the area daily and checked us in and out.

By the time we finished our hike, we were sweaty, dirty and our leg muscles were alerting us to the fact that we were woefully out of shape.

JoeandSharonWe took the Panama Canal Train from Colón to Panama City. I’d ridden trains before but never a luxurious, comfortable train as this one. The train’s route parallels the Panama Canal, crosses a river that feeds into Gatún Lake and winds into and through lush tropical jungles.

While in Panama City, Joe and I spent a day with our attorney. We needed to go to Immigration to get one-year extensions to our visas. While our Pensionado (retiree) Visas are being processed, we are not supposed to leave the country, but our 90 days’ deadline was fast approaching.

When we entered her office, she took one look at Joe and said, “You cannot wear shorts to the Immigration office.” We knew that women were supposed to dress modestly, but it never occurred to us that Joe’s Hawaiian shirt and shorts were inappropriate. We walked quickly to a nearby department store, where Joe purchased a pair of khaki pants that were about 3 inches too long. Our abogado (attorney) pronounced them appropriate and off we went to stand in line for three hours. The Immigration office was packed with international families and what appeared to be one entire class of Hebrew students. A young U.S. couple took turns chasing after their just-learned-how-to-run toddler, who weaved in and out of the lines of patient visitors and finally ran headlong into a nun’s skirts. She patted his head gently and he continued on his way, followed closely by his cheerful dad.

We finally obtained our temporary visa cards, which we showed proudly up and down our dock upon our return. S/V Sunrise of Houston, Texas was just beginning the process and it was fun to hear the energetic Susan’s tales of obtaining their Montgomery County police reports and other paperwork. She was much more knowledgeable and proactive about doing her and husband Bob’s paperwork; she said she wanted to have her documents translated by a friend instead of the attorney’s office. I didn’t even know all the documents had to be translated to Spanish to begin with, but of course, it makes sense.

S/V Sunrise is a Morgan 38. Bob and Susan left Clear Lake, Texas December 1998 and started on a clockwise circumnavigation of the Caribbean heading east towards the west coast of Southern Florida, through the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Leeward and Windward Islands and ended up in Trinidad for the hurricane season of 1999. After several years of sailing in the Eastern Caribbean and Venezuela they then made their way west through the ABCs (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao), Colombia and ended up in Panama.

They quickly discovered the financial benefits of applying for the Pensionado Visa. As Susan said, “Complying with Panama's immigration laws of leaving the country every 90 days gets to be time consuming and expensive.” I don’t know what their plans are, but like Joe and me, they are enjoying the Panama cruising grounds enough to want to be here awhile.

Panama City is dynamicPanama City was noisy and fun as always, but its downtown traffic situation was further complicated by construction workers’ opposition to a tax reform bill. They closed several streets, including a major thoroughfare. Riot control units rushed to Balboa Avenue and 50th Street, fired tear gas and used water cannons against the protesters, who were throwing blocks, stones and sticks. Over 200 construction workers were arrested, spent four days in jail and were fined $15 each. The government said the protests would not “impede free movement on the streets” of Panama City, but free movement was certainly impeded the rest of the day. Traffic was snarled, bumper-to-bumper, as drivers were re-routed around closed streets and the riot scene. There was no hope of getting a taxi anywhere that day, so we spent the afternoon relaxing and waiting for the frenzy to subside.

Shelter Bay Marina is the first Central American marina at which we have stayed for any length of time that does not have machine-gun toting guards walking the dock at night. That’s probably a good thing, because we suspected the petty crime that took place on the transient docks was, in fact, cruisers stealing from cruisers. However, it is my belief that the U.S. and British cruisers are honest to a fault and I’m working my way through some very negative feelings about Europeans from one particular country.

The marina is located near the city of Colón, and cruisers from all over the world agree the town is dangerous, dirty, and even my Fodor’s Panama book, an optimistic travel guide, indicated that Colón has little to recommend it to anyone.

Wikipedia was much kinder to the unpopular city, and Mary Margaret made a list of sites to be seen in Colón. We hired a driver, Rudolfo, for the day and began our Colón Tour!

Our first stop was registration at The Colón Free Zone. We would return after lunch to see the magnificent shopping arena. Passports are necessary to enter the Free Zone, which is second only to Hong Kong as one of the world’s largest free trade zones.

 The Colon Free Zone, with over 2,500 companies operating within its 450 hectares…is the one with the best, most efficient and fastest distribution facilities. It is served by five major ports - all within a few kilometers. The path of commerce is also smoothed by the fact that the US dollar is legal tender. The Free Zone handles more than US$16 billion in imports and exports each year. It employs more than 28,000 people with the best-trained bilingual work force in Central America. The Zone hosts 250,000 buyers, business people and tourists each year. Major imports are from Asia, Europe and North America.  Facts About the Colon Free Zone.

You gotta love cathedralsI always joke about my “death-by-churches” tours everywhere we visit, but Mary Margaret was cut from the same cloth. She determined three churches in Colón were worth a look-see. The first, St. Mary’s Academy Church of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, dedicated to Saint Catherine Laboure of France, appeared to be closed to worshippers but the property included an active school. Some kind of poster advertised a future date for First Communion.

Church by the SeaWe then visited Christ Church by the Sea. This Episcopal church is a national monument and was built in 1850 by one of the co-founders of the Panama Railway Company. We were not sure if this church continues to offer worship services, because the building is in such disrepair, and its external Victorian/Gothic architecture is now blackened with age.

 Our next stop was another of Panama’s noted historic sites, a cathedral, and every visitor there said the name was “Catedral.” Its name is, I believe, Cathedral of Immaculate Conception. As with all Central American Catholic cathedrals and churches, the architecture inside and out was as ornate as possible.

The entire city is a testament to a time when it was prosperous and a good place to live and work, which is no longer true. Even the most road-wise traveler will not discount the danger of walking the streets of Colón. I appreciated our driver’s diligence; he kept a watchful eye on the four of us as we strolled around buildings and viewed the always fascinating Panama Canal boats in transit.

Great design featuresThe new Washington Hotel was built in 1913; I believe the word “new” was used to distinguish it from the original two-story frame building named Washington House or Washington Hotel.  We stood in its lobby, mouths agape as we examined the beautiful hotel. I was photographing the décor and some of the antique pieces of art as fast as I could, as if it might disappear within minutes.

Vista Hotel WashingtonBuilt of concrete and cement blocks, it is constructed in a modified Spanish Mission style that makes it cool and comfortable at all times. Its public rooms, from the main lobby to the dining rooms, from the ladies' parlor to the telephone and cable rooms, from the barber shop to the billiard room, are large, airy, and most attractively furnished. Its ball room, opening on three sides to the breezes borne in from the Caribbean, is a delight to the disciples of Terpsichore, while its open-air swimming pool, said to be the largest hotel swimming pool in the world, affords ideal facilities for those who otherwise would sigh for the surf. Persons who have visited every leading hotel in the New World, from the Rio Grande southward to the Strait of Magellan, say that it is without a superior in all that region and, perhaps, without an equal except for one in Buenos Aries. Here one may find accommodations to suit his taste and largely to meet the necessities of his pocketbook. The best rooms with bath cost $5 a day for one, or $6 for two. Table-d'hote meals are served at $1 each, while those who prefer it may secure club breakfasts and a' la carte service. Anyone who has visited the Hotel Washington, situated as it is on Colon Beach, where the breakers sweep in from the Caribbean Sea, feels Uncle Sam is no less successful as a hotel keeper than as a builder of canals.  History of the Hotel Washington.

At the Washington Hotel, Rudolfo’s protectiveness paid off big time.

We entered the graceful dining room for a nice lunch and as Paul later said, “I knew we were in trouble when the waitress did not know the words, ‘Bloody Mary.’ ” Mary Margaret and I ordered tea and lemonade, which were prepared to perfection, while the guys received a tomato sauce slushy. It was sweet and tasted very, very bad. And it was a slushy.

 We were taking our time, studying the menus, when two men began arguing at a far table. Then other men at the table joined in the argument. Rudolfo eyed the table warily and then stood up, but I motioned him to sit, it was okay. It was not okay.

 The men became louder, screaming with many gestures, pounding the table, and growing more and more agitated. Rudolfo did not take his seat nor take his eyes off the men at that table, then he turned to us and said, “Now. We leave now. Get up. We must leave.” No one hesitated. We stood and exited the restaurant quickly.

Later, Rudolfo said when he heard one man threaten to kill another, he knew it was time to get out of the line of fire. We sat in the lobby, nervously listening to the shouts of the angry men in the restaurant. Then a riot squad, or the equivalent of a SWAT team began running through the lobby, heavily armed and wearing protective headgear. A hotel employee directed them to the restaurant.

You know me. I couldn’t stand it and had to go peek. As I stood up, I said to Joe, “Don’t try to stop me; I have to look.” There was a time when he would have grabbed my hand and tugged me down to my chair, but we’ve been married almost 40 years and my insurance is generous. He nodded and frowned.

I joined a businessman from Ecuador and his youngster. We listened to the melee, then I edged past him closer to the restaurant and tried to peek in a window. The man put his hand on my shoulder. “You cannot stand there. It is too dangerous,” and gently eased me away from what might have been a good place for a stray bullet to wander. Meekly, I joined our group in the lobby. Rudolfo was perched on the edge of his seat, ready to propel us out of the hotel at any time.

About ten minutes later, the now-quiet men were escorted by the police out of the hotel. One of them saw me filming and glared at me. It was nerve-wracking, but I didn’t stop my moviemaking. Another leaned into my camera, smiling, and said, “Sorry!” We returned to the dining room, but between the tomato sauce-sugar-slushies and our completely distracted waitress, the overpriced meal was not as we’d hoped.

It was an argument about workers, and unions, and agreements, and the Panama Canal, I believe.

I got SLAVE in me. I can feel it.Still, we persevered and pushed on, tourists to the end. Mary Margaret wants to create her own windscoop for her boat and Joe hopes to be able to use her sewing machine to re-upholster our Captain’s seat at the nav station, so our next stop was a store called Textilindo. The examples of African clothing were exciting, and I bought some handcrafted necklaces for my daughters.

And then, Joe wanted a widget or a wodget or a thingamajig for something, so once again we visited hardware stores throughout the city. At one store, the street stench was almost unbearable.

“Do you think the smell is fish?” I asked, hopeful.

“I think it is many things,” Mary Margaret replied.

She and I stayed in the back seat of the taxi while the guys went to the counter of an open-front hardware store. Rudolfo stood on the sidewalk between the taxi and the store, and when a man who was obviously under the influence of drugs tried to lean in the back door window, Rudolfo quickly moved him away from the car. When Joe, Paul; and Rudolfo crossed the street to visit another hardware store, the man was still wobbling on the sidewalk near our car. I retrieved my pepper spray from my pocket and turned the nozzle to the spray position, then palmed it.

“If that man comes in on you, I’m going to spray him,” I said to Mary Margaret. “You need to know that.”

 She nodded. “I’ll cover my eyes.”

Did I mention she is a woman of Louisiana and Texas? Knowing that, you know she’s a “steel magnolia.”

This time, Joe actually found what he was looking for, a 1/8 millimeter brass thing that looked like a bolt with a hole in it.

We were starting to tire out and I was feeling grubby from the street dirt. We stopped at a grocery store and I bought 12 cans of chicken spread, something I would never eat in the U.S. but is just fine when cruising, and then went to the Colón Free Zone.

Shopping in Colon, PanamaI could not believe this incredible shopping area was located near the financially-challenged Colón, Panama! Famous logos and brand-names swirled past us as Rudolfo wove in and out of the traffic, which about the most non-challenging traffic we’d seen all day. When he understood we didn’t have anything particular for which to shop, he took us to a store that had a little bit of everything. Mary Margaret bought some toothbrushes for the Kuna Indian children to offset the damage that might be caused by the candy whistles I bought for them. The prices were impressively low, except Joe’s favorite cologne was $50, the same price as in the U.S.

We shopped ‘til we dropped at that store and then fell, exhausted, back into the taxi. My knees were up to my chin, balanced atop shopping bags. When my leg cramped, I eased one ankle up into the front seat near the passenger window and hoped no one outside the car noticed.

Still, we had one more sightseeing site to see, the Melía Panama Canal Hotel. En route, Joe and Paul filled gasoline cans with $2.10/gallon fuel as opposed to the marina’s $4.00/gallon gasoline. At this point, we were grimy, exhausted, the car’s trunk reeked of gasoline, and we’d had about as much togetherness in the cramped car that we could handle.

LandscapingWhen we saw the grounds of the Melía Panama Canal Hotel, we bounced back with enthusiasm. Its external architecture was attractive but unremarkable. However, the interior was plush, classic elegance. The grounds were perfectly manicured but did not disturb the natural balance of tropical flowers and plants. A bird was chirping so enthusiastically, I wondered if it was like the movie where the eager home-sellers whispered, “Cue the deer! Cue the deer!” so that a beautiful deer would leap across their snow-covered lawn for prospective buyers.

“Do you think there’s someone with a microphone broadcasting that bird?” I laughed. “That’s the happiest bird I ever heard!”

Lovely vines spilled off the balcony railings; carefully lit alcoves housed interesting pieces of art. We sat in the bar to enjoy some refreshment, but the televised soccer game was too loud and, in my mind, a corruption of the mood the hotel’s appearance had set for me. I left the noisy bar and sat in a comfortable chair off the main lobby, wondering how in the world I managed to be so blessed to be in this place and in this time.


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