February 27, 2008

Panama City and Bocas del Torre...Central America Part 2

Hello everyone.. webmaster Kay here.. Jacky had trouble sending this to the
egroup, so I am doing it for her. I also have just posted TONS of new photos.. I made a new
photo gallery for 2008 (there are new ones in 2007 and 2008).
I also have a new home page photo... can you guess where they are?

Now.. a few words from our Heros:

Three weeks of work in Costa Rica led to more and different work in Panama. Our
main purpose for traveling to Panama was to help our fellow church members from
Decorah Lutheran church. Panama can be divided into 2 different experiences: our time
in Panama City and then the time we spent in Bocas del Torro.

Getting to Panama was an adventure in its own right. Even though it is only 900
km away it is still a 16 hour bus ride. We could have flown and it would have only been
1.5 hours but... why? First, I (Ward) had to make reservations for the bus in San Jose.
It is always best for me to buy the tickets in person as my Spanish telephone skills are
lacking and getting on the bus was a must. I went the day before and did this. The bus is
a very economical way to travel in Central America. Only $23 U.S. each for a 16 hour
experience and 4 Kung Fu movies. These buses were very comfortable (much unlike our last
experience). They stopped every 3 hours for food and the air conditioning
worked so well that I bought a newspaper to serve as a blanket. We had to walk through the
Panamanian border about midnight. It was hot and humid. The small border village was
alive with music. Loose dogs ran all around and potholes were filled with the recent
rain. We are now even more in the tropics than we were before.

The bus left at noon and arrived in Panama City at 4:00 am. (the end of the
route). What is up with that? So, we hung out at the bus terminal until we could get into our
hostel. It is not easy to use the local bus system with all of our luggage. The bikes in bike
boxes and all our other luggage made the taxi our only option. Our hostel, the Hospedje
de Casco Viejo, was to be our home for the next 10 days or so...well at least for our
luggage and bikes.

Right away Panama City gave us a different sense of security. As we passed by
one area our taxi driver informed us that he will not go in that area to pick up or drop
off riders. Three taxi drivers were killed in that region. Word to the wise, when the taxi
won't go in, Jacky and Ward stay away. Our area of the city was very safe during the day and
night but...do not go above Calle 12. We had tourist police in many conspicuous
places that were very helpful with directions and suggestions for purchasing food and
supplies. The Casco Viejo area is the older part of the city and undergoing major
revitalization. Many buildings consisted of only the original facades. This is required in order to
maintain the historic character of the area. Present government incentives are in place to
help with this revitalization. I believe that the area will be especially nice in five years.

The Casco Viejo area was showing great change, but across the bay I counted 12
high rise construction cranes all building into the sky. It was simply mind blowing to
see this much building happening at one time. The majority of the construction was
condominiums, hotels and resorts. A small project would be a 40 story tall building. There
are plans for a 100 plus story hotel. Much of the money for these projects is coming from the
USA, Canada, Europe and Columbia. The investors are looking at the great climate,
the relatively low cost of acquisition and the cheap labor to build and maintain the

The Panama Canal has helped shape the entire country. The United States
presence up until 1999 is very noticeable. The roads, the fast food industry and the styles
of clothing all have a strong US influence. Presently the Canal is being expanded to
accommodate the larger vessels of today. There will be a third lock system adjacent to the
present system. It was a real treat for me to see the Canal as I had dreamed of that since I was
10 years old.

Panama City offered very reasonable food. We were buying fresh pineapple and
vegetables daily to cook at our hostel. We also found a local cafeteria that
had meat, chicken, rice and vegetables. It was very tasty and one plate was enough for
Jacky and I to share for only $1.70 U.S.. We did splurge once and ate at a local seafood
restaurant (I mean, we are at the coast). Again, it was very good and reasonable.

As we noticed in Costa Rica, Panama is a LOUD, LOUD country. The buses run
straight pipes. The car stereos make the cars jump. The jake brakes on semis are used
all the time. And, the emissions were even worse than Costa Rica. I think diesel means
"a vehicle that will spew out black exhaust to the point that your eyes and lungs hurt from
it". Jacky would scratch her legs and the exhaust dirt would fill her fingernails.

They are a very artistically expressive country. The old school buses that were
used for local transport had jacked up fronts and were creatively and beautifully
decorated. They were so colorful. It was such fun to see the different buses go by.

We met some great people at the hostel who gave us tips for enjoying Panama and
we used their suggestions for food and sites. However, our own exploration brought
us to the Carnival float building area. We soon made new amigos and would stop at the
end of each day to see their progress and enjoy a Budweiser with them. Panama City was
a very enjoyable place and would be worth returning to.

Part 2 of our Panama Adventure: Off to Bocas del Torre.

Our primary reason for going to Panama was to do mission work with Pastor Bryan
and 3 other members from Decorah Lutheran church (Robert Pietan, Glen Barth, and
Bernie Ramlo). We were to go to Bocas del Torre and install water catchment systems in
remote native Indian homes. This, we did.

Logistically it was simply easier to meet the Decorah group in the Panama City
airport and all fly together to Bocas del Torre. It was a very small airplane which gave an
extremely turbulent ride. The wheels of the aircraft were not very round any more either.
Bocas had one runway that also served as the taxi runway.

We were met by David and Joellen Jeffers. They started the mission in the Bocas
area four years ago. Bocas is an island that is being developed by northern investors at
a very fast rate. Its sort of a "Gilligan's Island" with T-shirt shops. It was a 40 minute
boat ride out into the Caribbean to a small island which would be our home for the next week.
Thank God the waters were calm and the skies were clear. Our island was truly a
"Gilligan's Island". Before David and Joellen constructed their home on stilts in the water
the island had nothing. After 4 years of hard work from the Jeffers and many mission
groups there now exists a chapel, a house for the pastor of the mission, a bunk house for the
mission groups and a toilet.

The island was primarily an interwoven coconut root system that had somewhat
silted in. The ground was always wet and very spongy. Mosquito heaven! 100% deet and
mosquito nets at night were a must. We were surrounded by water but only the water
caught from the roof was used for the daily living; drinking water and showers. We prayed
for rain to keep the water catchment tanks full. Our electricity was photovoltaic and stored
in batteries. Lights were used only as an absolute necessity. We had it good
compared to the native Indians of Panama.

As a group we installed 2 water catchment systems and did some repair around the
mission. We started making concrete pilings for a building to add to the mission complex.

The water catchment systems were 4 inch PVC pipe cut to attach to the drip edge
of the roof with a 550 gallon heavy plastic tank at the end. If you catch the rain
water you don't have to drink from the hole behind your house. The stagnant water from the hole
contains many crazy little bugs that make you ill including Malaria. Sounds simple,
right? Remember, we are on an island. Everything happens by boat and canoe.

One installation we did was deep in the jungle. We had to transport the 550
gallon tank, the three 20ft sections of 4 inch PVC pipe, three 10ft step ladders, small hand
tools and an assortment of PVC pipe fitting. It was at least a 2 mile walk through the
jungle. We went up and down valleys, through small streams, over fallen logs, through boot
sucking mud swamps and, all in only 90 degree heat. I did say jungle, didn't I? Sometimes
the path was not 4 ft wide or didn't have enough clearing to make 20ft pieces go through.
And yes, the slopes were steep, wet and slippery. So much for fun. But when we finished
the installation on the home the family was tremendously happy and we knew their
health would surely improve. Jacky was also able to help in a different manner. The
mother of the house had uncontrolled diabetes and Jacky was able to use her dietetic
knowledge and help her with her diet. Many missions accomplished.

We left Bocas very much like we had left Rwanda. Very glad to help and that we
probably learned more about their lives and the people of Bocas than we thought.

Jacky and I decided that we were more land lovers and a Gilligan's Island is
really neat temporarily but not some place we could live long term. It was great to spend
time with Pastor Bryan and the rest of the group. We will look for other opportunities
down the road.

Now, off to Brazil....

Adios Amigos!
Jacky and Ward