2 months down and the Central American leg of the journey comes to an end. Tomorrow we fly to Peru in search of the Mysterious Cities of Gold. We have travellend the length and breadth of Central America ticking off the full list.... except for El Savador...something that may now bug us for the next 10 years.
However, much to update you on since you last left us in the company of Nana-ma and Papa-ma. The the rest of the world may be worrying about a financial melt down and what to do with their savings, but Panamanians have had their own tough decisions to make: namely how to register votes for the final of Latin American Idol - The final being between Margarita Henriquez of Panama and Maria Jose of Costa Rica. If you thought X-Factor was big then you have no idea how important this was to the country - think England in a major sporting competition. The inter-country element definitely adds spice to the show. It has been the top story on the news for the last week, school kids were allowed mobile phones on at school so they could vote and the show was preceded by an address by the President of Panama urging Panamanians to vote for Margarita. Correct me if I´m wrong, but I don´t remember Tony Blair in his tenure as Prime Minister ever mentioning ´Chico Time´in dispatches. Mama-ma had invited the neighbours over, coloured her hair and put it in rollers for the big event, and so the scene was set for one of the most remarkable nights in Panamanian history and the strangest evenings of our lives. After each competitior sang 3 songs...which to my untrained ear all sounded out of tune, the entirety of Latin America was left to vote overnight. The next day, we settled in for the results show, Mama-ma still dressed up to the nines and Papa-ma rocking ever so slightly quicker than normal in his chair. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife - I have never felt so much energy in a room. When the result finally was announced all of Panama rejoiced and scenes of jubilation, flag waving, beeping of horns and dancing in the street were witnessed all across the country. Honestly, you would have thought they had won the World Cup. Mama-ma was ecstatic and in her words ´Panama necesita esto´or `Panama needs this`. As Mama-ma received calls from ecstatic friends and family, and Papa-ma rocked so quickly in his chair that I was sure he might catapult himself dangerously across the living room, I couldn´t help feeling sorry for Panama`s Irving Saladino whose monumental achievement of winning the Gold in the long jump at the Olympics a mere 7 weeks ago has been forgotten by the exploits of a slightly chubby 17 year old in a reality show.
Sadly it was time to leave Nana and Papa-ma. Nana had exhausted her repetoire in the kitchen and her insistence of adding condensed milk to everything was playing havoc with my cholesterol. Before we left Nana and Papa (she blessed us both by the way and gave us a packed lunch), we enjoyed a few of the sights of Boquete. Not least, Paradise Gardens, run by staunch Right-Wingers Jenny and Paul from England. In the brief conversation we had exchanging pleasantries they managed to mention their dislike of what Blair had done to the country, how it was good that we weren´t in the country and how they couldn´t stand immigrants. I felt an opportunity had been missed by failing to pack my ´Illegal Immigrant´ t-shirt. To give credit where it is due, what they have achieved in creating a sanctury for endangered animals that allows you go in and play with some of the guests (see the pics) without funding from the Panamanian government is one hell of a legacy for a couple who had come out here to retire...and get away from those bloody immigrants.
We hit the road for Panama City via Santa Catalina on the Pacific Coast. Unlike the Caribbean Coast, there are waves here and Santa Catalina is supposedly one of the up and coming spots for surfing just off the Gringo Trail. On arriving you realise that the description up and coming may have been somewhat hasty with barely a shop and any accomodation to find. Fortunately we managed to find someone to give us a bed for the night and the next day we set off to tackle the surf. In the match up between the Santa Catalina waves and me, I came a resounding third and my efforts to replicate World Surfing Champion Kelly Slater were more reminiscent of one time Queen Vic Landlady Kat Slater. Kirsty succesfully chose the right option and just lay on the beach reading forsaking a battering by the waves. Nonetheless, for the 3 seconds I was on the board...I looked real cool.
And so you find us in Panama City as we write this edition, by far the nicest city we have visited on our travels. The city blends the ultra modern, high rise bulidings with the beautiful Colonial quarter of Casco Viejo (location for the filming of the Pierce Brosnan film ´The Tailor of Panama´). Casco Viejo is stunning and is one of the prettiest areas I have ever had the pleasure of walking around. It´s just a shame it is located right next to Panama´s equivalent of Hackney´s Murder Mile and one wrong turn and you appear to have arrived in Soweto. On asking a local policeman whether this was the direction back to the city centre, he promptly called over 3 of his colleagues, who escorted us to the nearest taxi and sent us on our merry way. I wonder what made us stand out as tourists?
One of the highlights of Panama is undoubtedly the Canal. now it takes a lot to get me interested in feats of engineering being a man whose work bench is still up in the garage as he hasn`t worked out how to put it down, but this is truly one of the wonders of the world. Travelling the 50 miles along the banks of the canal by train all the way to the Atlantic Coast has been one of the highlights of the trip (each sleeper on the line represents a worker who died over the many years of construction) and viewing ships passing through the gigantic locks is awe-inspiring. Well worth the visit if you ever get the chance.
So it`s good bye Central America and your sub-standard plumbing. One of the wonderful idio-synchrosies of this area is that you can`t flush toliet paper. It needs to be deposited into an adjacent bin. The whole act has been gentrified by the act of wrapping a clean bit of paper around the used piece. Armed with our new skills we have successfully applied for holiday work as Xmas present wrappers at John Lewis and you can all look forward to spectacularly decorated gifts that aren`t quite as impressive once opened. So will we ever return here? Proabably not with so much more of the world to see, but it is wonderful part of planet with some incredibly beautiful scenary, welcoming people and a fascinating History and Culture. Would these countries be in a better state were it not for the interventions of Spain, England and latterly America? The answer is `yes`, but there is no doubt that much of the architectural beauty and many of the advances in living standards have been down to the invading foreigners, but was it worth all the blood shed and scars that these nations now have to bear?
So next time we write we will, with any luck, have scaled the dizzying heights of Machu Picchu....and looked at yet another set of ruins.