Panama

Welcome to Panama! | The arrival, the canal, and … a beauty contest!

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You cannot imagine what a full and splendid day today was. I was looking forward to return to my hotel, the fantastic Riu Plaza – which is situated in Panama City centre and which offers one of the most wonderful views I’ve ever had from a hotel room – in order to describe what went down today! I am now sitting on the small desk in my room, looking at the skyscrapers out of the window, while the sun is playing hide and seek with clouds, and my fingers are literally on fire over my keyboard! You can now get a taste from what my eyes are seeing right now.  Come; travel with me!

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Before I talk about today’s experiences, let me say a couple of words on how I got here! On Friday August the 7th at 3 am I departed Athens, took an intermediary stop in Madrid and finally reached Panama City. Here it is then! The flight from Athens to Madrid was 4 hours long, and the flight from Madrid to Panama City took another 10 hours (this flight I timed!). Add an extra 8-9 hours in delays and waiting in Madrid and you can see that it took about 24 hours to reach my hotel’s entrance which is about 20 minutes from the airport.

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I flew with IBERIA throughout because it was the most economical choice for the specific dates.  The truth is I wouldn’t suggest IBERIA for such long flights, since it provided zero entertainment, something which really gets on your nerves after the first three hours. For those of you who haven’t travelled far, you should know that in aircrafts of companies like EMIRATES, there is a screen in front of every seat, where you can watch movies, listen to music and play games! That’s all about the trip then! Now come and ‘walk’ with me to one of the most famous «miracles» of modern world!

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I am talking about the Panama canal! We woke up today at 5 am, not because of jet lag, but because we had to leave the hotel early to take the small boat and travel through part of the canal. The canal gates do not open for a small boat like this though. We would hence travel through the canal at the same time as a larger boat which happened to be under a Greek flag – the Kinaros Piraeus! We hopped on the boat and off we went. I wanted to have the best view possible so that I could enjoy this experience to the fullest, so I approached the captain and asked him whether I could join him in the cockpit. Not only did he allow that, he even let me stand behind the wheel. I got the chance then, to ask and learn a lot of things about the history and the function of the canal!

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The captain, who has been in the profession for 20 years now, was particularly enthusiastic for meeting someone from Cyprus and started bombarding me with questions about the Cyprus problem and life on the island. When I answered his questions, it was time that he answered mine! I therefore found out that the canal is 151 kilometres long and up to 50 ships and boats can travel through it daily! It links the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans and passes via a lake which is 100 meters over the oceans’ level. People hence created tanks based on the principle of communicating vessels.  These tanks raise or lower the boats in consecutive levels. The tanks are about 33 meters long, that is why only boats of specific length and depth (called PANAMAX) can fit the canal. On each tank’s side, there are «trains», which, as you can watch in the video, attach on boats and help them stay steady and navigate successfully through the canal. The captain tried to explain these as simply as possible, given my very limited knowledge on such topics!

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I also learnt more information about the involvement of Greeks in the history of the canal, such as that 3000 Greeks lost their lives in building the canal (because of diseases like malaria and tuberculosis) while the first boat that travelled the canal in 1914, had a Greek captain! They even changed his name from Nikitas Mavrakis to John Costantine, so that it would not show that the first person sailing the canal came from another country!

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If you happen to find yourselves in Panama, travelling the canal should definitely be in your ‘must do’ list! If people suggest that you only travel as far as Miraflores to watch the boats sail by from an observatory they have built there, say no! the observatory is full with tourists and is in no case the same with actually travelling through the canal and experience this first hand! Of course, if you are able to, you can do both! But you definitely need to experience the canal! The only thing you need to do is inform your hotel’s reception and they will let you know when you can visit. The canal is about 20 minutes away from city centre. On the clip I’ve created for you, you can travel the canal through my eyes!

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From the 5 tanks that are there, we travelled through three of them; that took us 6 hours! To travel through all 5, you need about half a day, depending on the size and speed of the boat. Kinaros Piraeus for example, is a light boat but also one of the widest ones in the canal, and takes about 11-12 hours to travel through all 5 tanks. You can take a look at the pictures I’ve taken and you may think that it is stuck in the canal!

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We returned to the hotel around 2.30 pm to get some rest. Unfortunately the weather was not ideal but that did not affect us; we decided to visit Ciudad del Saber, translated into ‘City of Knowledge’. That is where the local university is located.  We also found out that there would be a festival taking place there, organized by the indigenous Kuna. It was mostly an art festival, but would also offer food, traditional dancing and music! Bullseye! We managed to get a taxi even though it was pouring rain.  The taxi drove us there and waited to get us back, all for 7.50 dollars per person. Taxi drivers in Panama do not use a taximeter. You let them know of your destination and you can bargain with them over the price! You also need to know that when you call for a taxi in the street, you can have as many as five or six taxis pulling over! You can then get the best price. Not many people know English but even as a Spanish speaker, I found it difficult to communicate, because of their accent!

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So we get to the festival and pay 2 dollars each to enter. We walked about the festival site – you can see more of that on the video clip. We came across a painting and photography exhibition showcasing life on the islands, a painter who was portraying a beautiful native girl, a bazaar with handcrafts and jewellery made by the indigenous Kuna, body painting using something like henna, and a show! When the sweet girl who had henna all over her body (like every single native there) called for me to get closer, I knew that I would end up with a large tattoo on my arm. There you have it! You can take a look at the result! Not bad!

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The best part of the festival though was … the beauty contest! This is something I did not expect! Young, petit Kuna girls started walking the catwalk! The crowd clapped incessantly and we anxiously waited to see the coronation.  Unfortunately this took too long and we had to leave before the contest was over. Having experience this, too, we visited the art exhibition where a young native really surprised us with his painting skills! Then, it was time for dancing! This is what I’m talking about! Men, women and children started dancing while I was struggling to stay still so that I wouldn’t mess my video clip! When I had had enough, I started dancing myself. «It should be fan at the San Blas islands tomorrow!», I thought to myself! «As long as there is dancing!»

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We left the festival at around 5.30 pm. We felt full of energy even though we had been up since the wee early hours! If the first day in Panama was so wonderful, I can only imagine how the rest of the days will be! We’ll take it from there then, full of enthusiasm, and get ready for new adventures at the San Blas islands! 

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