A Trip Back to Panama
by Bill Eldredge - BHS '63

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I want to apologize ahead of time to anyone that I might offend with my comments. These are my opinions, experiences and perceptions during my visit.  I went on this trip with a positive attitude; however, I am only human and experienced mixed emotions. So what I am going to say is the good, the bad and the ugly. The folks that went on the trip were my mother, sister Anita Ermish BHS64, sister Clara Gilder, nephew William, my sister's friend Amy Lugo Diaz BHS64, her son Michael and myself. Seven people and we are still talking to each other after the trip. Unfortunately, my wife and son didn't go due a scheduling conflict.

We all met at Dallas DFW airport for the direct flight to Panama. While we were waiting for the flight a guy walked by who recognized Amy. He looked familiar, but I didn't remember him at first. Anyway, it was Frankie Woodraska ... a Cocoli boy who also ran around with some of the Curundu maliantes. The last time I saw him was about 36 years ago. He was taking his teenage daughter and son to Panama for the first time ... wanted them to see were he grew up. We had a great time talking ... filled us in on what he had been doing all these years. For those of you that remember him, he is doing very well. I have his address somewhere if anyone is interested. What a small world!

The flight to Panama was about 3 hours and 50 minutes. We arrived in the evening and the view of the city was spectacular as we approached Tocumen. We hired two taxis to take us to the Las Vagas Hotel, which was up the street from the El Panama Hotel between Via Espania and Via Argentina. Once we were settled in our rooms, I decided to go buy some bottled water for us. The desk clerk told me that there was an El Rey market down the street on Via Espania. My walk down to the store was an eye opener. There were Hookers everywhere and was propositioned a few times. That is a nice area of Panama City and don't ever recall seeing Ladies of the Evenings working the street when I was younger. Oh well, times have changed.

The next day I rented a Minivan from Avis, which was necessary to transport the whole gang. Amy's friend, Awilda Thomas, whom she had not seen in over 25 years came over and became our guide. Thank God ... because I had forgotten how to get around. First we went to Curundu which was a depressing experience. When I visited the old neighborhood in '92, it was just as nice as in the 60's. I wasn't prepared for what I saw. The grass was about a foot tall and everything was overgrown. The house I lived in was vacant and looked like it had been trashed. I couldn't get out of the Van due to my emotions. Amy wanted to see her old house which was in a little better shape because a family had just moved in. Everything in Curundu looked so small and depressing to me. I couldn't get out of there fast enough.

We next went into Fort Clayton which was still as I remembered. Everything was orderly and well maintained. Think I can settle the argument regarding the photos of Fort Clayton and Fort Davis. I stood on the parade ground between the buildings and have a mental image. I'll have to look at the photos again ... can't remember where I filed them. Drove over to Miraflores Locks to see the ships going through. I really wanted William and Michael to see how the ships transit the locks. I had explained it to them before, but this time they saw it with their own eyes. While we were there a large container ship was going through, which was very impressive. To this day, I am still amazed at the whole process. The men that designed and built the canal are number one in my book.

Next, Awilda took us over to Gamboa. The drive by Summit Gardens and through the Forest Preserve brought back many memories. Gamboa was another matter, it was sad ... a waste of time. Here again, I wish I hadn't gone. I remembered Gamboa as a beautiful townsite when I was a kid. Got out of there as fast as I could. Diablo wasn't much better either ... very sad.

Then we went over to Albrook which was a very different story. The runway has been made operational again and a new terminal is being completed for commuter aircraft. This makes a lot of sense for Panama City since it can handle larger planes. As a pilot, I would much prefer to land at Albrook then Paitilla. Albrook AFB was always a pretty base as I recall. I believe the houses were built back in the 30's and 40's and are solid as a rock. They could withstand an 8.5 earthquake. Anyway, the houses have been sold to Panamanian families who are remodeling them and turning them into mansions. I was impressed with the creativity of the designs. One would never have thought that they were military houses at one time. The entryways and the landscaping were beautiful ... very impressive.

Fort Amador is history. It is being turned into condos , hotels, marina, and docks for Cruise Ships. A lot of construction going on now and the plans look impressive. Drove to the end of the causeway which also brought back fond memories. The view of Panama City was awesome. The Balboa Yacht Club was a sorry sight. The building looked like it is going to fall into the water. I remember spending a lot of great times there with my Dad. He and his friend Archie Turner owned the sport fishing boat "Yankee". They would drink, cuss, argue and have a great time fishing. They were "Men" like the characters in a Hemingway novel.The wonderful fishing trips to the Perlas Islands and Pinas Bay ... fishing for Marlin, Sailfish, Wahoo, Dorado, Grouper etc.. I can still hear him yelling at me to hang on to the pole when I caught my first Marlin. I must have been 14 at the time. Unfortunately, I didn't have the time to do any fishing on this trip. One of these days I'll go back with my son and show him what real fishing is like.

While I was Yacht Club, I ran into a PC employee who was having a few beers with some other Zonians. I will not mention any names, but one of the guys was from my class. It was depressing listening to his story. He has worked for the Panama Canal Company for over 30 years and he is being offered a $25,000 buyout, which he is going to take. He doesn't have a clue what he is going to do after that. If he plans on coming back to the States, he is in for a big shock ... rent, mortgages, taxes, utility bills etc. Sounds to me like he is getting a raw deal after all those years of service.

We visited Mi Pueblito located along Ancon Hill which I would recommend seeing. It is a multi-cultural attraction with a typical Panamanian village, Afro-Antillian Village and a Indian section. Very well done ... nice restaurants, music and many shops.The traffic in the city was terrible ... don't believe there are any rules. My mother was in the back seat praying the Rosary and my sister put her Jesus statue up on the dash for protection. (Just kidding) Drove down Avenida Balboa which is nicer then I recall. Paitilla and El Cangrejo also are very nice areas. The lights and Christmas decorations along Calle Cincuenta were spectacular. Eventually, we ended up at Napoli for dinner ... food was excellent.

The next day we made plans to go to El Valle. My mother decided that she wanted to stay and visit her friend Senora Arrocha ( widow of one of the Arrocha Pharmacy founders.), which she hadn't seen in many years. I was concerned about leaving her because she doesn't get around as well as she use to. Anyway, I was reassured that she would be alright.

Over the Bridge of the Americas and the along the Pan-American Highway we went in our rented Van. We nicknamed it "La Chivita Parrandera" because it took us everywhere. What a difference from the dangerous two lane road the I remember. The Pan Am Highway is now a four lane highway as far as Capira. A lot of construction going on and I was told that eventually it was going to be four lanes as far as David. In less then an hour we were at the road that goes to El Valle which was well maintained and very scenic. The weather was great! The mountain air was clean and crisp and scented with the smell of flowers. The decent into the valley was like going into a Garden of Eden.

As it was a Sunday, the Indian Market was open. All kinds of fruits ... papayas as big as watermelons, flowers, food, crafts etc. were for sale at reasonable prices. I recall as a kid, we could buy 100 oranges for a dollar and the Indian woman would always throw in an extra 10 ( called a napa ) so that we would come back to her again. She would get upset if we did accept it. Was told that they don't do that anymore. Too bad ... I always thought it was a nice custom. I had to have Agua de Pipa ( Coconut Water ). Picked out a coconut and the man chopped the top off with his machete and gave me a straw and I was in heaven. Only cost me a quarter. Of course we bought all kinds of things to take back to the States. Drove around and saw all the beautiful homes and gardens, La India Dormida, Piedra Pintada with its rock carvings. Went on a hike into the rain forest to view a spectacular water fall. Then went to see the Golden frogs and hiked up to see the square trees ... yes they are square. Everywhere you looked there was an abundance of Hibiscus (all types), Oleanders, Roses, Angel Trumpets etc. I can't remember them all.

It started getting late so we needed to find a place to spend the night. Talk about luck, we found this wonderful hotel called "Los Capitanes" that had a large beautiful suite for the six of us. It had a huge bathroom which the girls liked. The price was very reasonable. The food in the restaurant was excellent; however, the service was slow and you may or may not get what you order. But whatever you got was very good. Anita ordered shrimp and got Corvina; Amy ordered chicken and got shrimp; and I was lucky and got the Langostino which I ordered. The owner of the hotel is a retired German Sea Captain who found this place a few years ago, fell in love with the location and decided to settle there. I can see why. He did admit that he had a hard time getting good help. The Indians have two speeds ... slow and slower. He has to be careful how he talks to them because if they feel offended they  just walk away and quit. Actually, we didn't mind the slow service because we were enjoying the moment.

That evening we ran into a American named Pete who was running a river tubing and rock climbing business. He talked the boys and me into white water tubing the next morning. After a wonderful night sleep, we showed up for our river adventure. Pete took us down to the Rio Anton and we put on our life jackets and helmets. Got into our special inner tubs with handles and proceeded to drift down the river. The water was cool and I was feeling lazy as we drifted by the trees. I remember thinking that it sure was stupid having to wear a life jacket and a helmet. After awhile I was drifting a little faster, then I was in some small rapids which were fun, then I started going faster and faster and the rapids got meaner until we got to the James Bond Shoot. Now I realized why the helmet and the jacket. I was hanging on for dear life as I was bouncing over the rocks and went into the shoot. I hit a rock and bounced out of the tub, hit the wall with my right thigh, got my left foot caught between some rocks which ripped my sandal off. I went flying over a small water fall like a Hollywood stuntman into a deep pool. My nephew thought I was pretty cool. My left foot was in pain, my right thigh had a bruise the size of a basketball and I had scratches all over my legs. But I proved to the boys that I wasn't a chicken. The walk back up to the Van was hell, but I wasn't going to let them know I was in pain. When we got back to the hotel, my left foot was black and blue and swollen up. Pete put an ice pack on it which really help with the swelling. I think I'll pass on white water tubing for awhile ... think I'll try skydiving. My legs are still sore and having the flu doesn't help.

Our next adventure wasn't quite as exciting. We drove to Santa Clara beach and enjoyed laying on the sand and swimming in the ocean. The beach is still as pretty as I remembered; however, there is more development. Feasted on shrimp, patacones, fried yucca and drank Pina Coladas. The area that really impressed me was Coronado, which was down the coast. I remember going out there with my buddies on motorcycles and sleeping on the beach when nothing was out there. Now the place is a first class resort with a golf course, Condos, Hotels, beautiful homes along the beach -- very nice.

The following day we went to Taboga, which was always my favorite place to go as a kid. It is still the same. We took the 8:30 am launch from Balboa. The boat was old but seaworthy. The trip over was uneventful and brought back wonderful memories. The island always had a lot of flowers, but it seemed to me that there are more now. Even though my legs were sore I wasn't going to miss anything. Ate Corvina at Hotel Chu and drank Pina Coladas at Hotel Taboga. Relaxed on the beach and enjoyed the weather and view. Going into the water was therapeutic for me. My legs didn't hurt as much when I was in the ocean. I met an older gentleman on the beach who was from Missouri. He was visiting his son-in-law who is a canal pilot. What he said stuck in my mind. He said " Panama is the best kept secret in the world. The people don't realize what a paradise they have." This is from a person who has been all over the world. I think he is right. The trip back to Balboa was very smooth. I counted over 35 ships in the outer anchorage as we passed by. Hundreds of seagulls were flying next to the boat and eating food out of people's hand. They had no fear of humans.

One big disappointment on this trip was not being able to find any good empanadas. We ordered empanadas and what we got were not the same. The ones we got were made of some kind of corn dough with some meat inside and deep fried. Not good! We looked everywhere. I went into a nice bakery in El Cangrejo and was told that they don't make those anymore. She offered me a Argentine empanada which was more like an English meat pie. Where have all the good empanadas gone?

I was in for a surprise when leaving Tocumen. Panama has a $20 per person airport exit tax. I have been to many countries around the world and don't recall a exit tax that high. They will not accept travelers checks or credit cards. I had to stand in a slow moving Banco National line to cash another travelers check. Got that taken care of and cleared security. Went to the Duty Free Liquor store and bought 2 bottles of Ron Cortez and 1 bottle of Carta Vieja ... was a happy camper after that. That should last me 5 years or less when Zonians come to visit.

Will I ever go back to visit Panama? YOU BET! IN A HEARTBEAT! The Canal Zone as I remember it is history. Like they say, the only thing constant is change. Yes, there are problems, but the positives outweigh the negatives. Panama is going to do just fine in the long run. I didn't want to leave so soon. Five days was not enough. I am now trying to work it into my schedule so I can go back and stay longer. There is so much that I want to do and see. The weather here in Texas is in the low 30's now. Sure would be nice recuperating on the beach on Taboga.

Presented by CZBrats
January 15, 1999
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