Beyond the Canal

“Not houses finely roofed

or the stones of walls well builded,

nay nor canals and dockyards make the city,

but men able to use their opportunity.”


I journeyed to Panama to see the canal, and ventured upriver as well. I flew to Panama City with a small University of Texas group, plus my daughter Jessica. We visited all three locks at various times — day and night. The canal never sleeps. Aboard a low vessel built for J. P. Morgan, we followed a huge container ship through Pedro Miguel Locks. At the Gaillard Cut, we crossed the Continental Divide.

Smaller boats ferried us up the Río Chagres, a river the color of café con leche. Through dense vegetation on little islands, an iguana waved its fringe. Our guide tossed a peanut. Swiftly the rainforest rained capuchin monkeys all over us. A crocodile slithered away.

From atop Panama Viejo’s fifteenth-century watchtower, Jessica and I saw edgy isthmus architecture: Frank Gehry’s Biodiversity Museum, Alfonso Pinzón Lozano’s Revolution Tower, and Eduardo Saravia’s Trump Ocean Club.

I bought a Panama hat.

More boats transported us down the Chagres to an Embera village. Seven-year-old Saroya took my hand for a tribal dance.

A Kuna from the San Blas Islands, stitching an intricate mola, told me it takes a week. Her eyes looked tired.

Red Devils, independently owned former USA school buses retrofitted as hot rods, raced by. City bus fare: $1.25. Red Devil fare: 25 cents — your life as collateral.

La rana dorada is a golden frog now extinct in the wild. Legend says the sight of one brings good luck. I saw two.

At Playa Blanca, four men on horseback galloped by on the beach.

We picked up gorgeous shells resembling marbled endpapers on antique books.

Next we headed to El Valle, an inactive volcano cratering a village.

First a water protest halted our bus, then a sloth lumbering across the road. Someone extended a stick and the animal grabbed hold. Then the man helped the sloth to a tree by carrying the animal on the stick.

We watched women wearing the pollera perform the tamborito.

Later I saw street art depicting this national dance of Panama.

I discovered a new bubble tea — chicheme, a Panamanian drink of milk, cinnamon, vanilla, and cornmeal bits.

I sipped from a coconut, ate passion fruit, saw brilliant mimosa blossoms, drank great coffee.

Panama is so much more than the canal.

Copyright 2012 by Elaine F. Tankard


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