w r i n k l e d
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
We let each child pick one location. If you're a birder, you know all about the birding mecca that is the Pipeline Trail so you can guess which kid picked Panama. According to Isoo, it was, hands-down, the highlight of our trip. People often ask how Isoo got turned on to birding since neither Chris nor I can ID a sparrow versus a bulbul. Nor would we ever choose a hobby that forces us to rise at the break of dawn to stand for hours in a parking lot in glamorous Zion, IL. We like to place the blame for Isoo's love of birding squarely on Chris' parents, Dick and Deedee's, shoulders. Joking aside, while I like to let Isoo write about his birding adventures on his own blog, www.traveltobird.com, I do want to say how much he's matured as a person and as a birder this year. As some of you may know, Isoo is on an unofficial Big Year, a year dedicated to seeing how many birds he can add to his life list (new species count). Halfway through the trip I told him that we would not hire (expensive) guides just to "spoon-feed" him birds to add to his life list. Since then, he's spent countless hours researching birds of whatever region we happen to be in. If you ask him, he'll say he's disappointed that his overall count is lower than anticipated, but I'm proud that he's truly earned much of his bird list the old fashioned way - with lots of research, reading and careful observation. That said, he was thrilled when his grandparents arrived in Panama. Not only did he have in them equally passionate birding companions, but great mentors and teachers with whom he was excited to "mop up" Panama.
Now comes the tricky part. What to do when you have two grandchildren, one with whom you share your greatest hobby, the other, who has zero birding interest and is a very physical 8-year old to your 70-something year-old self? How does one not seem to play favorites? Moreover, how does one keep up? We were all a tad worried about the potential for hurt feelings and the juggling of divided interests. In the end, we did some things together, some things separately, and all of us managed to have a great time. Isoo racked up 100 new birds to his life list and Oona exhausted Grandma with endless games of UNO and swimming. Most importantly, we all felt lucky to be able to make memories together that spanned three generations.
As for Panama, we stayed in a "resort" at the edge of the Pipleline Trail. While this made for some decent bird sightings and gave us a taste of the country's famed natural offerings, I regret not joining them on a birding trip to see the birders in action and get a true sense of Panama's wildlife. But we did take a fun ariel tram tour (twice) that literally, gave us a great overview of the jungle, and stomped the UNESCO appointed Casco Viejo to glimpse the crumbling ghost of Panama's French colonial influence. But the most impressive sight? The man-made wonder that is the Panama Canal - a fascinating homeschool subject that managed to capture everyone's attention.
We took an ariel tram up to get a look at some of Panama's indigenous plant and animal life.
As soon as we disembarked and climbed to the top of the 10-story Observation Tower the sky opened up and let out a torrent of rain.
We threw in the (wet) towel when the thunder and lightning started. Sadly, we didn't get to see much, but the guides let us return the next day.
From the distance we could see barges transporting cargo along the peaceful Panama Canal.
Our hotel was over a rickety one lane bridge which, we later learned, was closed for maintenance twice a week. A tad inconvenient, but the laid back locals didn't seem to mind.
Beyond the thicket of bamboo, the jungly resort, home to a wide variety of birds, iguanas, monkeys and many, many agoutis, a rodent that resembles a giant rat.
At the Orchid Garden in Gamboa.
See! Birders love parking lots!
Despite long, humid days in the heat birding, Grandma made sure to conserve some energy to go swimming with Oona. Chris could't remember the last time she got in the pool. Oona was beyond thrilled.
And of course, they had fun playing cards.
As for Panama City, color, heat and crazy traffic abounds. The outrageously painted Red Devil busses add to the mania.
I love the contrasting architecture of Catedral de Panama in the Casco Viejo. The tops of the twin towers are encrusted with mother-of-pearl from the nearby Pearl Islands.
Once the city's center, after the burning and looting of the Casco Viejo in 1671, it was left to commence a long, slow decline with the population relocated to the nearby peninsula. In recent years, the area has been enjoying a resurgence, but the renovation is slow going. In the meanwhile, color abounds and the city retains much of its dilapidated charm.
What's the difference between a good Panama hat and a bad one? A good one is woven so tight it won't split when rolled and packed. And a true Panama hat comes One Size Fits All - the ribbon should not just be decorative, but able to be tightened. After a while, the wearer's sweat will shrink the straw to fit snuggly on the head for a truly custom fit.
The indigenous Kuna tribespeople of Panama.
The defunct trolley tracks of the Casco Viejo. I'd love to see this come back once the area's renovation is complete.
The Panama Canal was one of those things I'd always heard about growing up, but until this trip, I didn't really understand why it was important or how it worked. Before it's creation, goods needed to be shipped down the Atlantic Ocean and then crossed by land over the Panama isthmus and reloaded onto a ship waiting on the Pacific side or, worse, endure the dangerous and lengthy trip all the way down and around Cafe Horn off the tip of Chile before heading back north.
A strip of the Panama Isthmus was basically blown up and then excavated until it could accommodate a ship. Then man-made Lake Gatun was harnessed to flood the channel and a series of three locks created to control the water level so that ships can be elevated and then lowered to meet the water height of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It takes about 8-10 hours for a ship to clear the locks (in addition to a 14 hour queue time). In total, 24 hours, but way faster than going around South America.
The creation of the Panama Canal transformed the shipping industry and made the world more accessible. Since the handover of the canal to Panama, the country has started plans to create a larger lock, which means bigger boats (in the form of cruise boats touring Central and South America) and lots more revenue. A great thing for Panama and perhaps, for our future travels!