November 4, 2012

Exploring Panama

The Panama City skyline

The Panama City skyline

There are always so many things to say about this experience, I get a little overwhelmed trying to decide what to include in this blog. But I will begin with our experience in Panama because it was memorable, to say the least! Panama is a very beautiful country, full of rolling hills and green fields. The water in the ocean is a mixture of turquoise and deep, rich ultramarine blue.  And the palm trees are everywhere, solidifying that now-familiar feeling of being in ‘Paradise’.

Yep. It’s gorgeous.

As gorgeous as Panama is, we experienced our first run-in with political unrest last weekend, the moment we arrived. After meeting up at 3:45 AM, getting on a 6:00 AM airplane flight, and arriving in Panama around 8:00 AM, we were all exhausted and excited to get to the hotel and take a nap before heading off for a tour in a neuroscience facility with an ex-colleague of our psychology professor and trip leader, Susan Basow. Instead, the man who picked us up at the airport told us that we could not safely drive into the city because there were strikes going on. We were dropped off at an enormous mall outside the city and told to wait there until it was safe to drive into the city.

Confused and exhausted, we sat in a café and began trying to figure out what was going on. We found out that, due to recent legislation that had been passed about land ownership in another part of Panama, there had been strikes and riots going on for the past few days. The day we arrived was the day that the rioting moved into Panama City, and the streets were a dangerous mess. We spent some time in a traffic jam on the way to the mall and there were painted buses full of people, hanging out the window, yelling, and waving flags. So, we proceeded to spend the entire morning wandering around this enormous, gorgeous mall, waiting for our bus driver to return and take us somewhere else.

It was frustrating at first to have the plans switched and to realize that we would miss out on our chance to see the neuroscience facility, and we were all in serious need of some sleep. I seriously considered finding a mattress store and spending a couple hours doing some mattress test-runs! Our time at the mall ended up being very relaxing and nice, though, and I bought a copy of Fahrenheit 451 and had a great conversation with the lady at the bookstore about our dogs and how much we love them. (In Spanish of course!) We finally were allowed to go to our hotel in the early afternoon, where we immediately took naps.

Image of a mall in Panama

Here is the mall that was our home for a morning.

By Friday night, the riots seemed to be over for the most part and it was safe for us to walk in the streets and buy food. I’m not sure exactly how the riots were stopped, but I do know that there was a lot damage and a few deaths and injuries. I’m just extremely thankful that we were not caught in the middle of it.

By Saturday, the city seemed to be back to normal, and we headed off for an interesting but scattered tour of churches, markets, stores, and other places around Panama City. And then, highlight of the week, we ended the tour at the Panama Canal!  What an amazing and fascinating feat of engineering! After looking around the museum and getting some history about the canal, we were taken to a balcony from which we could watch the canal in action. It was incredible.

I won’t get too deep into details, but the Panama Canal is made up of a series of locks that alternate between filling up with water and emptying back out, allowing ships to travel from sea level, up to 26m above sea level, and then back down to sea level on the other side. It takes a ship between 8 and 10 hours to make the trip. It’s a long and slow process for the ships to go from lock at lock, but the alternative is making a two week trip down around the tip of South America. So, the canal is essential for ships to save enormous amounts of money and time. I would highly recommend doing a little research on the history and workings of the canal, because it is fascinating stuff.

The Panama Canal

The Panama Canal in action!

Sunday, we toured some more, saw more beautiful ports and ruins, and finally ended up at a beautiful beach on Isla Grande, where we swam and romped around for a few hours before heading back to the airport. A lot of people in our group commented on how much they loved Panama City and the entire country and expressed how much they would like to go back and spend more time there. Three days is nowhere near long enough to get a real feel for a country! It was a very cool place to visit, though, and we all learned some lessons in patience and going with the flow.

A beach in Panama

And of course, beautiful beaches.

This post is already getting long so I will have to do a follow-up one soon. I’ve realized that I have not commented very much on San Jose itself and my experience living in the capital of Costa Rica and studying at Universidad Veritas!  My roommates and I spent this past weekend staying in San Jose because we were in dire need of some rest and relaxation. So expect more about San Jose and good old every day life soon!


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