Friday, August 20, 2010

Bienvenidos A Panama

July 29th to 31st

The plan is to beat the rush at the border crossing so we overnight in Sixaola in sight of the 'International Bridge' that forms the frontier between Costa Rica and Panama....

Unfortunately it's a popular plan, and at the 7am opening time when we hit passport control there are already 40 people queuing ahead of us at the one and only window. Processing is slow....

When a couple of coaches turn up, the queue grows and with it people's frustration at the long wait. Inevitably impatience gets the better of people and the orderly queue disintegrates as people start to push in. Normally my British reserve prevents me from commenting in these situations, but to see people marching boldly and without shame directly to the front is too much. After 40 minutes waiting we are moving backwards and my stiff upper lip crumbles and starts to give way.

I would therefore, like to take major personal credit for what follows....

I begin to protest loudly and start to physically prevent any more people pushing past me. Seeds of dissent are sown and others around me become emboldened. It's like fanning a spark and then watching the flames grow as more and more people begin to express their anger.

Suddenly everyone is pushing. It's become a free for all! I'm amazed at some people's cavalier disregard and lack of respect for the people in front of them. One woman is ramming me in the back and trying to drag me out of her way like clearing out a ruck around a rugby ball. I calmly explain to her that she is a vile individual who has no respect for others and she equally calmly tells me 'You gotta do what ever it takes' whilst clawing at me. So, I agree with her and push her back into the melee.

It's all getting so silly it's almost comical. Sue is remonstrating with one guy who is shoving her and he calmly takes any verbal abuse she dishes out until she puts an arm across his path. Then he explodes in anger 'Take your hand off me!' She explains if he joins the back of the queue she won't be able to reach him to touch him.

Something has to give, and it's the patience of the passport clerk who sits with head in hands and refuses to process anyone. It's bad timing as we had finally got to the front and he actually has my passport in his hand. The border is closed! He makes a phone call and now the police are on their way....

It's just incredible watching a woman being forcibly dragged away by burly policemen whilst still protesting and trying to push her passports through the window. She seriously thinks she can still get a passport stamp whilst holding off armed police!

The mini riot is finally put down! Order is restored, the passport clerk removes his head from his hands and our passports are duly stamped. It's taken us nearly two hours, but at last we can enter Panama as 'La Policia' remain behind to keep order....

Being responsible for closing the border is an interesting and entertaining way to enter a new country...

Our map shows the road meandering along the Panamanian coastline. There are no contour lines and we are expecting an easy ride through flat rainforest. Wrong! The land never climbs enough to break a contour, but it is far from flat. The border delay means it's hot and the dense forest keeps humidity close to 100%. We are permanently drenched in beads of sweat that sit in the clammy air and do little to cool us....

Immediately we reach an unsigned junction and the locals fall over themselves to help us and point us in the right direction before we even have time to ask. Time and again in Changuinola locals cry out greetings and wish us 'Buen Viaje' (have a nice trip) and we get an instant good vibe about Panama. It's a Saturday and the main road is blocked by a good natured procession of hundreds of school aged boys marching in team colours to a baseball tournament. Baseball is a national obsession in Panama!

The day has got away from us after these delays, so we decide to stock up on supplies and stop in the next town Almirante. The currency here is the American dollar, a legacy from the building of the canal when the country became so inundated by foreign nationals from all over the world, it was easier to adopt a more international currency. It is the dollar, complete with pictures of another country's president, but they still call it 'The Balboa'.

Another legacy of the American involvement in the canal is the availability of foodstuffs we haven't seen in ages. We are like kids in a toy shop staring at rows and rows of well stocked shelves in an air conditioned supermarket. After the sweltering mini-marts of Nicaragua and the Caribbean coast, it's a revelation.

Weighed down with a cyclista sized feast of food, the decision to stop in 'Almirante' is a good one as the road is a scorching series of steep undulations.

The next day is worse as the road reaches for the sky in what looks like a launch pad to put cars in orbit...

It's a beautiful ride past a beautiful archipelago - 'Bocas del Torro'. Many people take a boat across to this island paradise, but we're visiting the San Blas islands further south so we just enjoy the view from the mainland...

The scene is authentic tropical rainforest and indigenous people live in wooden huts raised on stilts to avoid frequent floods and ever present insects....

It's a Sunday morning and the world is still. There is absolutely no traffic on the road and the only sounds we hear is our own harsh breathing as we climb, and then the swish and fizz of our tyres as we descend...

Until your ear re-adjusts in that is....
Then you realise there is a cacophony of noise all around you.
It's like tuning a radio into different frequencies and suddenly hearing a range of stations that are normally drowned out by deafening mechanical sounds.
A bird call here...
Over there a frog chirruping and burping...
Cicadas starting up their buzz saws...
And once you learn to hear properly, sounds is everywhere, and suddenly you want your tyres to be quiet so you can pin point more.
The trees are talking to you...
It's a surreal experience as you feel yourself drawn in to the jungle and all it has to say!

Interrupted by the crash of a pannier that escapes Sue's bike on a dangerously fast and bumpy downhill....

Another tough but sublime day's riding through nature's wonders gets us to Chiriqui Grande and it's that odd jolt again as you emerge from the green and once again return to the world of straight lines and man-made objects.

We turn in for an early one, for tomorrow; we climb. The road along the coast ends here and the Pan American Highway is on the other side of the continental divide! Riding into town we come under the shadow of the 'Cordillera Central', peaks scraping the sky at over 3000 metres (10,000 feet).

Tomorrow we tackle the mountain!


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