Panama!

PANAMA!

Some say that you have to be at the airport a full 3 hours before departure. Well, even though airlines & airports tell you that, it isn’t actually true. One of my previous entries was about getting to the airport about 20 minutes or so before scheduled departure and skedaddling O.J. Simpson-style through express lanes in both check-in and security. Now, I certainly don’t recommend doing that, but in a crunch it can be done.

Buy sometimes there are advantages to getting to the airport 3 hours prior.

I schlepp up yo the Copa airlines desk. “Hi. Checking in for the 5:20 flight to Panama City.” This is about 1:30.

The very cute clerk says, “Meester Feesher, we have a flight leaving at two thirty. Would you like that flight?”

Well, I’m all for chatting up cute clerks in the airport. I ask, “What’s the extra fee?”

She smiles. I think she likes me. “No extra fee, Meester Feesher.”

“I’ll take it. Thanks!”

“You’re welcome Meester Feesher. Enjoy your flight.”

Yep, she definitely likes me.

So I got to my hotel, the El Panama, hours ahead of time. (After some nonsense by the baggage handlers. If you’re flying into Panama City, take carry-on luggage only. Trust me on this.)

I wasn’t really sure what to expect, frankly. Last time I heard anything substantive about Panama was when Noriega was turfed out and thrown into a Florida jail.

Turns out it’s a pretty cool place. Panama City only has a population of just over a million, with the whole country less than 4 million.

Lots of wildlife parks too. My guide, Franko, and a boat captain (whose name I don’t recall, sorry) took me out to a freshwater area behind the famous Panama Canal to introduce me to one of the wildlife areas in the country. The park teems with life, from many kinds of birds and monkeys to maybe even some jaguars, rarely seen. The sound of the howler monkeys freaked me out until I learned what it was.

I like this place. Traffic’s a nightmare but that’s nothing new. Even a non-Spanish speaker like me found it pretty easy to get around.

One negative is a restaurant named Maranello, after the Ferrari factory.

The.

Food.

Sucks.

Maybe I just got them on a bad night but the food was truly awful.

Later that evening, there were a cluster of soccer fans hooting it up and carrying on. Sounded like they were having a good time, nobody got stupid or out of line, everyone’s there just enjoying themselves.

And MAN did they make some noise!

Next morning I got to the front desk and meniton in passing to the clerk, “I guess their team won last night.”

“Oh, no, Meester Feesher,” she said, “That game isn’t until tonight.”

Going to be a loud night!

Franko and I and my 25 extra pounds of bellyfat

Franko and I and my 25 extra pounds of bellyfat

Lots of interesting birds flitting about

Lots of interesting birds flitting about

Freaky looking monkey

Freaky looking monkey

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Wild sloth

Wild sloth hanging out

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Of Volcanoes and Distant Families

The Arenal volcano in Costa Rica is one of the few volcanoes on earth that are almost perfectly cone-shaped. Mount Fuji in Japan is another one.

Alas, you’d never know it, or even know it’s there. Low cloud and a persistent drizzle has all but shrouded it entirely.

It’s not active at the moment. According to those who know about these things, it’s in the middle of a 12 year cycle, so nothing is expected to happen for another 5 or 6 years.

There are lots of other things to see. Amazing wildlife, interesting flora (normally I don’t give a rip about flowers and such, but some stuff here is totally cool), neato geology and really interesting people.

Like Shayna and her husband Ryan. They’re from Texas, though they don’t have that Texan drawl.

“We got married last year but never took a honeymoon.” Shayna, Ryan and myself are in a big hot tub.

And Shayna’s bathing suit is only barely holding itself together.

She’s pretty nicely proportioned.

“Izzat so?” I ask, using much of my inner resolve not to look where I shouldn’t.

“Yea,” says Ryan. “We spent a TON on the wedding but now have the time and bucks to take a trip like this.”

I ask them what they do. “I’m a sign painter,” says Ryan, “and have just started a shoe-painting business.”

“Shoe painting”? I ask. Don’t look don’t look don’t look.

“Cowboy boots mostly.”

“I’m a massage therapist,” says Shayna. Of course you are. How could you be anything different? Don’t look don’t look don’t look.

It’s cool. Everything’s cool.

“Well Shayna, we’d better get to our massage appointment,” Ryan says. We say our good-byes and they’re gone.

Then there’s the couple from Arkansas, travelling with their two daughters. “We’re in Costa Rica for a month, then back home,” says the dad. (For the life of me I cannot recall their name.)

What about school for the kids?

“We home school our children with teachings from the bible and through the word of our lord Jesus Christ.”

“My my, look at the time,” I say and beat a hasty retreat. I should introduce them to my driver, Sammy.

Lastly there’s Henry, server at the onsite restaurant. He doesn’t have much time for idle chit-chat but he makes a few moments to tell me about himself.

“My family is in Zimbabwe,” he says. “I work here to get money to bring them here.”

“How many in your family?”

“Seven,” he says. “I need to work a long time.”

Yes you do, my friend. I cut him a healthy tip. I sincerely hope it works out for him.

And, not for the first time, I realize that I’m far from family too. A short email exchange with a nephew has me looking forward to seeing him and the rest of the family.

Believe it or not, there's a volcano in there.

Believe it or not, there’s a volcano in there.

Sammy is Very Happy

Sammy is one happy guy.

Why so happy, you ask?

We’ll get to that shortly.

Sammy was my driver between the capital of Costa Rica, San Jose, and the Arenal Manoa resort that sits in the shadow of the Arenal volcano.

But let’s back up a bit.

Yesterday I boarded an A320 in Lima, Peru that took me to San Jose.

It was not an easy flight.

Colliding warm and cold fronts plus wacky winds that result from mountain ranges made the flight uncomfortably bumpy. Now, I know that planes aren’t disastrously brought down by turbulence. Planes aren’t disastrously brought down hardly at all. Full stop.

But I don’t care how used to air travel you are. A flight like that would give the most seasoned traveller a sphincter factor of 9.5. Probably leave a new pucker in the seat cushion. I did end up with half a cup full of Coke in my lap, fizzing away.

It’s not pleasant, don’t try it on purpose.

So it was with no small relief that we landed – HARD – in San Jose.

I was met at the airport by a Camino Travel rep who took me to the Costa Rica Marriott. Swanky place.

For some reason, I was upgraded to – get this – the Presidential Suite.

The Presidential Suite. For me.

It’s huge. Cavernous. It echoed. I don’t know what the square footage might be, but I’ve owned houses that had less square footage on one floor than this suite. I could invite a dozen friends and their wives/husbands/partners for the night and have plenty of room left over to put the empties.

Next morning I was met by Sammy, my driver and guide who was to take me to the Arenal Manoa resort. “The drive takes 2 to 3 hours,” he said. “First part straight, second part like this,” and he made wavy gestures with his hands.

It seems like my turbulent ride on the plane was to be followed up with a turbulent ride in his taxi.

“I’ve been driving this road for seven years and one accident only,” he grinned. He didn’t elaborate. I didn’t ask.

So why is Sammy so happy?

“I have been saved by the lord Jesus Christ!”

Oh no. This is going to be a long drive.

The living room.

The living room.

The office.

The office.

Fully stocked bar.

Fully stocked bar.

The bedroom.

The bedroom.

Thank you, South America, and Farewell

January 30. Time to leave South America behind.

I liked the people and travelling in both countries. They have problems to tackle, like an expanding underclass while the rich enjoy little or no taxes, and corruption at every level. But things appear to be improving, though slowly.

Both countries enjoy a moderate climate,  spectacular countryside and interesting histories.

Something else I like: Service is a recognised profession. Wait staff in restaurants aren’t Todd who’s working his way through school and suddenly wants to be your very best friend. These guys dress formally, are personable without being intrusive and are all, “Yes sir”, “Very good sir”, and “Right away sir.”

Suddenly, being called “sir” isn’t so bad.

Another thing I noticed is that traffic seems insane but nobody gets all bent out of shape if someone cuts in front of him. Maybe a toot of the horn but that’s it.

Road rage just doesn’t exist.

All that said, in this case the traveller’s maxim is true: I enjoyed visiting but I wouldn’t want to live there. It truly is time to leave.

Next stop, Costa Rica.

Ever seen a nun riding passenger on a motorcycle? Well, you have now.

Ever seen a nun riding passenger on a motorcycle? Well, you have now.

Sea life flourishes along the coast and coastal islands.

Sea life flourishes along the coast and coastal islands.

Yes, they really do eat guinea pigs here.

Yes, they really do eat guinea pigs here.

Goodbye, South America. Time to go.

Goodbye, South America. Time to go.

No Space Aliens Here Either

When I was an insufferable little kid I remember seeing a TV program based on the writing of Erich von Daniken. The book was called Chariots of the Gods, and theorized that much of human history included contact with extraterrestrials. It was this contact, and some help, of aliens that allowed our ancestors to build things like the pyramids, Machu Picchu and other massive structures.

The book also theorized that some lines carved into the earth which could only be seen properly from the air were also due to aliens.

Balderdash.

As much as I’d like to think that space aliens visited earth in our distant past, it just doesn’t add up.

I wanted to see for myself so I booked a flight over the Nazca plain. I shared the 8-seat Cessna Caravan with an Air France crew that was taking a few days off: two 777 pilots and five attendants.

The entire flight took about 90 minutes – 30 minutes getting there, 30 minutes over the plain and 30 minutes getting back.

The pilot wanted to make sure that everyone got a good look at the lines which meant for some wingstands and some sideslips which made for an exciting ride. Good fun!

It’s widely held by the scientific community – those who study this stuff anyway – that the lines and representations of animals were simply copies of what these people thought were astrological symbols in the night sky.

To account for their size, it’s not much of a stretch that the representations of birds, monkeys etc. were made in small size first, then scaled up and carved into the ground.

So why are there straight lines everywhere?

Beats me. But just because we can’t figure something out doesn’t mean our space buddies did it.

So, sorry everyone. As much as I’d like to think that our ancestors had some extraterrestrial input, of just didn’t happen.

Probably.

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If there’s something that’s of interest to you travel-wise that I haven’t covered, by all means let me know. I’ll help if I can.
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Nope, No Space Aliens Here

People think dumb things sometimes.

Some people believe the earth is only about 6,000 years old, and caveman Og shared the planet with T-Rex.

Others thought that the earth was going to end last year because of some mysterious Mayan calendar nonsense.

And some failures of the education system still think that space aliens helped build structures like the pyramids, or Machu Picchu.

Well, newsflash. Space aliens weren’t needed, at least in building Machu Picchu. Incas of the time were pretty handy folk, thankyewverymuch, and were totally capable of building the stone city high in the Andes.

You get to Machu Picchu starting from Cusco, then a 3 hour rail trip to Maccupicchu town followed by a 20 to 30 minute bus ride to the entrance gate.

My guide for the morning, Marco, has been guiding visitors to Machu Picchu for 7 years. He suggested we get the tough climbing out of the way first.

First of all, this is no easy climb. I mean, that warning shouldn’t stop anyone from going, just be aware that you’ll break a sweat. It’s also over 2400 meters above sea level (almost 8000 feet to the metric-challenged like me) so there ain’t as much oxygen up there, folks. You step, step and rest. Step, step and rest. All the way to the lookout.

So how did the Inca get those huge boulders up the mountain without Marvin the Martian helping?

Leverage. Tough, but doable leverage. That, pluses rounded stones that acted almost like ballbearings under the granite slabs, and good old muscle power did the trick.

You can find those rounded stones on the site, and there has even been a huge piece of granite found with those stones underneath it.

These folks were pretty ingenious.

Now, I remember what Ankgor Wat was like. Crawling with tourists (me included). I had thought Machu Piccu might be the same.

Well, yes and no. Marco told me that in high season the citadel hosts up to 4000 pairs of tramping feet per day. Rainy season is about half that.

Thing is, Machu Picchu is such a large site and spread out over such a large area that it doesn’t give the appearance of bring overwhelmed.

Day 2 at the site had Marco and I climbing to part of the site called Sun Gate. It’s about a 90 minute climb, and I wasn’t sure if I’d make it, but I did. Marco and I stopped for about half-an-hour, then I made my way back to town and an industrial size lemonade.

My Peruvian adventure is almost at an end, but first I’m off to see the Nazca lines from the air.

Safe bet that there aren’t any space aliens there either.

Photos to come.