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The Denver Gang Comes to Panama

The Denver Gang come to Panama for a visit. Join them as they explore Panama City, an Embera village & see who among them turn out to be sailors.


Approaching Providencia by Sharon Kratz, s/v Rose of Sharon

Meticulous planning will enable everything . . . to appear spontaneous. – Mark Caine

The rainy season officially ended October 31, 2010 and I was happy to bid it farewell.  “This was my last rainy season in Panama,” I declared, and we altered our return-to-the-states plan accordingly.  We will return in the spring of 2011 and stay in the U.S. through the end of October.

“That’s really the smart thing to do,” said my Colorado daughter.  “Sitting in an RV during a blizzard can’t be a lot of fun,” she added.  I enjoy our RV as much as our boat.  I love sitting in my canvas chair by the campfire, surrounded by wooded darkness and grandchildren, but just like the rainy season in Panama, once I am driven indoors by weather I’m not a happy camper, so to speak.

“I don’t know if I can last a whole year without seeing our kids and grandkids,” I mourned, as we decided to stay in Panama from June 2010 to April 2011.

west marine “If I can pull off a visit for Dad’s birthday, would that help?” asked my daughter Kara.

“Yes!” I exclaimed.  “I would love to see Panama through new eyes!”

That’s how The Denver Gang came to visit Panama in October.  It took some doing.  Kara’s family consists of her partner (Dr. Jill), her partner’s adopted Chinese daughter (J’Lee), her partner’s ex-partner’s Chinese daughter (J’Nai) and our beloved Karson, Kara’s adopted Guatemalan boy.  The three children are always together and taking a family vacation without one of them was unacceptable.  But the youngest Chinese girl had incomplete paperwork for residency, so unbelievably, at the age of 10, J’Nai was still a Chinese citizen!

A lot of time was spent at Immigration and other offices before Kara finally had the entire family’s passports in-hand.  “Someone told me we also need special visas,” she emailed me.

“Yes, but you’ll get the forms to fill out on the plane and if they issue them, the ‘special visas’ are pieces of paper you put in your passport.  The only thing you need to be careful of is if your passport is due to expire within 90 days.  If it is, you can’t get into Panama.”

Our three Colorado grandchildren were born in other countries, but as far as they were concerned, this was their first time to travel outside the U.S.

“Don’t plan a lot,” my daughter warned me.  “I would really like to have a spontaneous vacation.”

“No problem,” I said, as I booked hotels, coordinated drivers, made agendas and created spreadsheets.  Joe investigated the possibility of visiting an indigenous Indian village.  We’d spent many months living with the Kuna Indians of the San Blas, but there are two other tribes who live in the rainforests of Panama.  This would be a travel experience for me and Joe, too!

I watched as our grandson ran to Joe at Tocumen Airport, and both of their faces wore the purest expressions of joy and delight at seeing each other again.  “Papa Joe, I brought my Star Wars cartoons!” Karson exclaimed and was already doing a good job of keeping The Secret (Joe would finally have the complete Star Wars DVD collection for his birthday and Karson promised Not to Tell.).

“I like Star Wars too!” said Joe, and Karson opened his mouth to blurt something, but remembered it was a Secret, and then showed amazing restraint for a 4-year-old.

“Let’s watch my cartoons now!” he said.

Meanwhile, I had negotiated a van to take our family to the Hotel Las Vegas and was easing our group toward the exit.  The ride from the airport was filled with happy chatter, laughter and excitement.  At the hotel, I had prepared a “spontaneous” hors d’oeuvres buffet that filled the bar and a side table in our room.  Our hungry travelers were grateful and Karson immediately stated he was sleeping with Papa Joe and Nappy.

I am “Nappy.”  When he was a baby, I would read to him constantly, wherever we were (Yes, I read Spanish books to him in Antigua, Guatemala during his adoption), and when I left Denver one time, he wandered around the house asking about “Nappy,” and they had no idea what he was talking about.  Eventually, they figured out that “Nappy” was that woman who read to him at nap-time.  Because the girls call me “Sharon,” Karson calls me “Nappy” sometimes and “Sharon” other times.  I don’t care what he calls me, I just love hearing The Boy talk.

And The Boy talked a lot.  “You can actually have conversations with him!” exclaimed Joe.  Most conversations had something to do with Darth Vader and guns, but, hey, we aren’t particular.

The next morning, we met for breakfast in the Pomodoro Restaurant, which is part of the Las Vegas Hotel building and one of Panama City’s finest restaurants.  Their fresh-baked bread and quiches are to die for.  Actually, the First Shift (me, Joe and Karson) had breakfast, then the Second Shift (everyone else) wandered down about 2 hours later.

“I thought we would visit Casco Viejo today,” my daughter said, as she contemplated an omelet the size of a loaf of bread.

“Good idea!” I replied, because it was exactly what I had planned.  Joe was on the cellphone, finalizing next day’s plans to visit the Indian village.  Spontaneously, of course.

I love Casco Viejo, Panama City’s “old Panama.” It isn’t the original Panama City, which was destroyed by pirates; it’s the second Panama City and reflects Spanish Colonial and French architecture from the times when both of those countries were in control of and/or a major presence in Central America.

P1030299Casco Viejo is the historic center of Panama City.  It is a quiet, charming district of narrow streets overlooked by the flower bedecked balconies of two and three-story houses.  At its tip lies French Park, a monument to the French builders who began the Panama Canal.  At the San Jose Cathedral a few blocks away is the beautiful Gold Altar, intricately carved of wood and gilded with gold.  Another beautiful building in the Casco Viejo is the Presidential House.

I told the story of the gold altar of San Jose, and how an ingenious priest convinced the pirate Morgan that the church had already been looted and burned – by painting the gold altar black.  He then solicited money from Morgan to help build a new altar.  As Captain Morgan left the church, he turned back to the priest and said, “I’m not sure which of us is the greater pirate.”

Presidential White HouseThe second story I tell visitors always cracks me up, because it is so typical of our sometimes-sensible, sometimes-silly U.S. fears.  The President of Panama’s residence is called “The White House” or “The Heron Palace,” because since 1922 it has been guarded by two beautiful, majestic herons.  Visitors love to take photos of the herons when they are in the main foyer of the president’s home.  In 1977, in anticipation of President Jimmy Carter’s visit to Panama to sign the papers returning the Canal to Panama, our White House security detail sprayed the Panamanian White House steps with disinfectant and killed the herons!  The ensuing panic to sneak another pair of herons into Panama City under cover of darkness to replace the murdered ones would make a good “Wag the Dog” type movie.

Unfortunately, there was another special ceremony when we were there scheduled and all streets to the White House were blocked.  So we visited a popular restaurant for food and drinks.  I took Karson to the restroom, which was clean but had a bit of a sewer odor, and upon his return to the table, Karson loudly announced, “The bathroom is dirty!  We went to a dirty bathroom!”

We hoped our waitress spoke no English as Kara tried to explain different countries and bathrooms and that they weren’t really “dirty.” I don’t think Karson bought it.

Navigating shallow watersThe next day we went on a jungle safari!  Our friend and driver Roger picked us up at the hotel and we drove almost 2 hours to the mouth of the Chagres River.  We were met by two young men in an ulu.  The ulu had an outboard engine and as we traveled upriver, it struggled against strong currents.  I wondered how in the world they’d ever traversed the river without their Yamaha outboards, but we know they did.  The ulu was the traditional boat:  hand-made and carved from a single piece of wood with room for all of us in its dugout interior.

I assumed the Embera Indians would closely resemble the Kuna Yala Indians, but they differed in several ways:  the Embera traditional clothing was beaded and ornate and their villages have a very organized system of government.  Each village has a chief, a secretary, and an accountant.  They have several committees, and each committee has a leader.

The Embera people originally lived in Panama’s Darien province.  While many tribes remain there, living in virtual seclusion and maintaining their traditional lifestyle, others were driven away by Colombia’s drug trafficking and dangerous guerillas.  The Pan-American Highway that runs from North America to Panama, ends at the Darien Province.

It was 1975 when the first Embera settlement was established on the Chagres River.  The settlers that followed formed other tribes, and now all of the ex-Darien people live in the Chagres National Park.

Our guides took us to a shallow spot and we disembarked and began our trek into and through the river and the tropical rainforest, climbing carefully over water-slick stones and navigating ankle-twisting, rocky gaps in the riverbed.

Sea Eagle 330 -- The Go Anywhere Kayak For 2I had told Roger that I couldn’t tolerate cold water and probably wouldn’t swim at the waterfall . Guess who was the first person to jump in the water?  Its cold felt wonderful after our hike, and the strong current swept me away from the pool and toward shore almost immediately.

Everyone went for a swim and while the adults watched the children very carefully, I noticed our two guides watched all of us, ready to rescue any swimmer in trouble.  It was a dangerous place to swim and I struggled to work my way around boulders, getting closer to the waterfall.  My daughter followed and said she was slammed into a boulder by the strength of the rushing water, and briefly was pinned under water.

The Denver Post newspaper has a popular travel section and prints photos of local travelers holding a copy of the newspaper’s Travel section.  Kara had brought her newspaper section, and the family posed in front of the waterfall, proudly holding up their newspaper for the photographers.  The newspaper section was carefully wrapped in a plastic bag and the journey continued.

Welcoming committeeAt the jungle village, the natives greeted us with music and smiles, shaking each person’s hand as we climbed up a well-defined slope from the river to the village.  Their musical instruments were hand-made flutes, maracas and drums.

The chief gave a speech in his language, which our Spanish/English interpreter translated for us.  He explained the history of his tribe, their traditions and said that their planting and many important decisions were based on the moon’s cycle.

He showed us examples of their beautiful wood carvings and a young woman demonstrated basket-weaving.  The chief explained how the dyes were made for the basket threads.

At 12 years old, J’Lee is in a highly challenging school and is often overwhelmed by the demanding educational facility.  She whispered, “These girls don’t go to school!  They just sit around all day weaving baskets!  I want to join this tribe!”

a_TattooKarson wanted a tattoo like the natives wore and was quickly accommodated by the village artist.  The black dye was called “jagua.”  After he got his tattoo, Karson insisted everyone else get one too, so we did.

The women performed a ceremonial dance, unique to the Embera.  They wore tops designed with beads that had ornamental collars made with coins.  Afterward, we were served fish and plantains.  A hollowed piece of wood held fresh water and eucalyptus leaves in which we rinsed our hands.  As Kara began selecting souvenirs for their family, she encouraged me to put my souvenir with hers.  “I think I can get a better deal if I lump it all together,” she whispered to me.  I put my hand-carved snake cane with her pile and slipped her a twenty.

Craftsmanship“Good luck,” I encouraged.  Later, when the total amount of purchase was being tallied, the native women gathered excitedly around the table.  It was looking like a good day’s income for them, and Kara discovered the women weren’t barterers.  Prices were firm.  Kara handed over her hundred-dollar bill with resigned good spirits.

As we returned to civilization, I said to our group, “You know, they were very organized.  I bet they are having a committee meeting right now and someone is saying, ‘Okay, you were a little late bringing out the monkey.  Get the monkey for them 20 minutes sooner.’ ”

All of us agreed the Embera people were amazingly attractive and intelligent.

Now that they had seen Panama City and experienced the beauty of the jungle, it was time for them to get a glimpse of our lifestyle in another kind of Panama.  We had seriously considered spending their entire vacation in the San Blas but rejected the plan as being too ambitious for our pampered grandkids.  The only hotels in Kuna Yala are bamboo huts with sand floors.  Toilet facilities and showers are usually available to island visitors at a ratio of one bathroom for 30 people.  Seven people on our boat would be uncomfortable as soon as the novelty wore off.

Rose of Sharon was docked at Shelter Bay Marina.  The marina was going through some kind of management transition and had problems, not the least of which was the water main had broken during road construction and there was no water for boaters and very little water for people in the hotel.  It was not a marina water main, but it caused the marina problems.

Later, I learned that the reason the hotel is not called “hotel,” is because hotels must have staff available to its customers 24 hours a day, every day and the marina did not offer that. Indeed, when the room card/key did not work, Kara had to get a card from the dockmaster.  It was a key that would unlock every door and at 10:30 p.m., a frazzled man appeared at our boat.  He was locked out of his room, so Kara went with him to open his door.  Another couple arrived at the marina around midnight and had to sleep in chairs in the lobby.

Upon our arrival in October, we were told we owed the marina $180 in “shipping charges” from the previous March!  Cruisers and boaters were angry about increasing costs and fewer services.  The restaurant had gone from bad to worse, as far as food and beverages on-hand.  Half of the menu was not available.  The staff had been reduced to 4 servers.  “Be a good place to have a restaurant,” patrons remarked.

The laundry room had three working washers but only one working dryer, and boaters competed with the hotel staff for the one dryer.  Most of us hung our clothes on our boats to dry, but it was the rainy season and it rained every day.

One cruiser who came in to replace his alternator left angrily when he was told that to live in his boat in the work yard would cost $10/day and did not include the cost of the ladder he would need to climb up and into his boat.

Meanwhile, no one envied the new marina manager, who was charged with the task of turning a profit for the marina owner.  Joe was in the office one day when the owner called.  The owner said the marina was losing money and prices needed to be raised again.  “Do you know what the prices are now?” asked the manager, and the owner admitted he did not.  “Well, then, how can you tell me the prices aren’t high enough if you don’t even know what they are?!”

Papa and The BoyThis strengthened my resolve to not store our boat at Shelter Bay in 2011, but to return to Bocas Del Toro.  Joe was still not convinced, but I was pretty sure when he was faced with our one-month’s bill of over one-thousand dollars, he would change his mind.  My only reason for wanting to be at Shelter Bay was the swimming pool, always pristine and always available.  It turned out to be a major grandkid magnet and when he wasn’t eating or asleep, Karson was in the pool.

Our day sail would be a good experiment, we said.  We would be able to see which members of our Denver Gang family were sailors and which ones were not, and spontaneously plan future vacations accordingly.

Kara worked with Joe to ready the boat for dock departure, and 10-year-old J’Nai read the posted Departure Checklist.  She would read an item and someone would respond, “Done!” but when she came to Item #9, she paused.

“Make sure the wheel is on?” she questioned.

“Don’t ask,” I replied.  “To make a long story short, we actually tried to leave a dock with our wheel velcroed to the bimini frame.  This is not something most people would do.”

Kara praised me and Joe for our obvious teamwork efforts when boating and asked, “How did you decide who does what?  I mean, why do you drive the boat and Dad is on the dock?”

“Well, I seldom drive the boat,” I replied.  “I take her in and out of docks.  Actually, I’m not all that good at that, but something had to be done.  Your Dad would start the engine, put her in reverse, jump to the dock, throw off the lines, jump back in the boat . . . every time we went out we looked like two yayhoos at a goat-roping!  So, now, I steer her in and out and he mans the lines, which is more physical anyway.”

After I got the boat out of the slip, Joe returned to the cockpit and took the helm.  I then walked around the deck, tidying lines and lifting fenders.  Our passengers were in high spirits.

The Panama Canal was busy with transiting tankers and crew boats scurrying in and out of the breakwater.  We held up for 15 minutes, waiting for a large tanker to exit, then followed carefully across the Canal ship channel.

It began to rain.  Again.  Then it began to blow a bit.  The two girls lowered their heads on their knees and Kara requested Bonine for seasickness.  Karson was terrified.  I took him down to our bunk, where he refused to get off the floor and into the bed.  “I don’t like the way we’re moving,” he said.  “Make it stop!”

And there you have the fundamental difference between sailing and RVing.  In a motorhome, when the weather gets bad, you can stop.

Kara was now grateful that I’d advised no breakfast for anyone, but she threw up anyway.  Twice.  The girls were miserable and Karson, finally coaxed into our bunk, fell asleep.

“We’re going to duck into the anchorage at Isla Naranja and not go any further,” Joe said.  As we pulled into the quiet anchorage, the rain stopped, the sun reappeared, and the seasick people were calmed.  The only member of the Denver Gang who was sailor material was Dr. Jill.  She loved it, did not get queasy, and as soon as the anchor was set, she was ready for a swim.

For lunch, I advised ramen noodles or egg drop soup, but the now-rejuvenated crew wanted hamburgers, sandwiches, chips . . . and I warned them they might regret those food choices on the return trip, but they ignored me.

Joe had advised the group not to wear bathing suits because we had spontaneously planned to go to Portobelo, where we would explore the historical town.  The anchorage there is too dirty for swimming.  But Isla Naranja’s waters were clean and inviting on this day.

“We don’t have bathing suits,” fretted the girls. (Karson had no such worries and was happily being strapped into a lifejacket wearing only his underwear.)

All about water“Girls, skinny-dipping is a Family Tradition, started by Joe’s mother in the 1970s,” I related.  “Or maybe before.  Every woman in this family swims naked every chance she gets and you should take advantage of this opportunity to become skinny dippers!”  With that, I stripped and jumped overboard.

Joe tossed me a line so I could test the current and there was none.  I dove down into the refreshing Caribbean water and heard splashes above me.  One by one, The Denver Gang was abandoning civilized modesty and going for spontaneous excitement!  There were shrieks, giggles, and Karson stood on the swim ladder yelling, “Catch me!  Catch me!”  (Karson is more of a jumper than a swimmer.)

The return sail was, in fact, a sail.  You know how it is – sailing is more motoring than anything else.  With the wind and the waves more favorable, Kara and Jill manned the lines, tacked, jibed, pulled, wenched, and had a terrific time doing it.  The boat heeled and no one was concerned.  We may have some sailors in this family after all!

Then I said, “Listen!  You’re going to hear the sweetest sound in the world!”  And Joe cut the engine.



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