Moving oh soooo slooooowly

By Clyde Wills

I have never been a hyper person. Some people think I move very slowly, or just amble along. So where could I go to see something that moves considerably slower than I do. The answer is, Panama, and the thing is a sloth.

Back in January my wife, Carolyn, and I signed up for a trip to fly to the country of Panama and explore it by bus. We wanted to see the modern Panama City but also the canal and the rain forest area.

 I had never thought much about the country of Panama, or its history, except for the very important Panama Canal. I knew that the Isthmus of Panama is a connecting point between North and South America, and that’s about all. So here are some basics I learned very quickly while visiting the country.

Contrary to what I envisioned, the Isthmus of Panama runs east and west, not North and South. So the Pacific Ocean is actually on the south side and the Caribbean is on the north side. I was also confused into thinking that Panama City would be on the Caribbean coast where the Spanish explorers first landed. The explorers did build there, but crossed the isthmus to establish Panama City on the Pacific coast. They then claimed the entire Pacific Ocean for Spain.

It was only a few years after Columbus sailed into the Caribbean that other Spanish explorers established Panama City. Of course the main reason for establishing and fortifying areas in Panama was to find gold Indians had mined, and it was then back to Spain. For the next 200 years much of the gold taken from the indigenous people was shipped through Panama.

Jumping to present time, we were quite surprised at the modern Panama City. There are skyscrapers all up and down the coast. In fact, we were told Panama City ranks fourth in the number of skyscrapers in all the world’s cities. Many of the skyscrapers are banks, which serve South America and up through Mexico. There are also many very tall buildings for condos and apartment houses.

On our tours we started with the old fortifications built in the early 1600s. Most of what is there are partial walls of the fortifications. But there is one multistory tower which can be climbed. From the top of the tower, one can see what’s left of the old walls, and the skyscrapers on the nearby coastline.

A newer area, but still 200 years old, is the old city which has been partially restored and houses restaurants and shops. A restaurant where Carolyn and I ate had great food and then dancers in native costumes.

After exploring Panama City we headed for the Gamboa Rainforest Resort. A portion of the resort was once the officers’ quarters for soldiers stationed along the canal. Officers in that area were apparently living ”large.”

While the resort is close to the canal, it is surrounded by the rain forest, which actually has more hills than I expected. In the daytime we could see iguanas wandering around the lawn. On a night trip in a large open vehicle we saw capybaras, which look like hogs, but are large tailless rodents. We also spotted wild parrots roosting in the trees.

And now for the sloooow part. One afternoon the bus stopped and the driver said a sloth was crossing the road. I assumed the sloth would soon be off the road and into the woods, so I just sat. But, after a few minutes of waiting, I decided to go see what was happening. The sloth was still crossing the road.

I have never seen anything move so slowly and be so ugly. It looked like a big clump of dark fur with chimpanzee arms sticking out each end and long claws for fingers. Some may say that sloths are so ugly that they are cute. I think that is a stretch, but then I have never seen a baby one.

That night, a naturalist gave a lecture on sloths and had a smaller one on display. It was not quite as ugly as the larger wild one.

The highlight of the trip was a visit by boat to an Embera village. In a large hut with a grass roof, the chief told the history of his people and explained how they live. The women and children displayed their dancing and offered handmade items for sale. I could not refuse when a three-year-old girl held out her hand asking me to join the dance with her.

Later I took a picture of three preschool-aged children. I turned the camera around to show the children their picture and was astonished when one of the children put his thumb and finger on the image to enlarge it. Apparently the young ones even in primitive villages catch on very fast to equipment used by the tourists.

The older children do attend school by taking a boat to a place where they can get on the bus.

The Panama Canal, which is now owned and operated by the Panamanians, is one of the three most important economic engines in the country. The other two are the actual shipping of supplies in and out of the area, and tourism.

Just like in the United States, parts of Panama are booming yet in the rural areas, there is still much poverty. We saw some horrible living conditions.

Like most places we have traveled, a visit is great but I would not want to live there.