Learning While Out And About In Central
And South America
PART I (see pictures below)
by Donna Miller
A first-hand view of the Panama Canal and its locks had reached the top of my husband’s list of places he wanted to see. Now, that is something that required we leave the car behind and travel by water.
Actually, we didn’t leave the car behind totally: we drove to southern California, left the car with one of our daughters; flew to Fort Lauderdale, Florida; boarded a cruise ship that was going through the Panama Canal and ending its trip in San Diego; retrieved our car (and our daughter) and spent five days in Oceanside, California; and drove home. So, by land, air, and sea, we completed our viewing of the Panama Canal.
The first stop of the cruise was Cartagena, Columbia. We opted for a shore excursion - the first of many - to see this very old city of South America. The parts we saw were beautiful. Houses from the 1500s, some dating to the time when the Spanish first arrived, are protected by the Colombian version of a heritage preservation society, and their exteriors could not be changed. They were of white or mustard-colored stucco, complete with hanging flower baskets.
A huge fort on the hill, erected in those early years, protected the local population from pirates. My South American history knowledge is almost non-existent, and I was shocked to learn there was an active slave trade from West Africa happening here many decades before it began in the United States.
This was the first of our several shore excursions which included stops at local markets where we could purchase hand-made goods. And bargaining is definitely the way to do it - and expected. Many in our group found this uncomfortable, but I found it came quite naturally. After years in the antiques and collectibles business, one gets used to the fact that many, if not most, prices are negotiable.
Hand-made articles, including baskets and woven items, are nicely done and very inexpensive. I was especially interested in the man sitting on the sidewalk, painting pictures on pieces of glass. It took him only about two minutes, using just his thumb, to do a completed picture, seemingly just by smearing the paint around.
The jewelry vendors, who tended to chase tourists along the street, were most persistent and could be very annoying. However, I felt I had to try the hard-core bargaining at least once and sticking to my set price, I got my necklace and earring set for $10. It’s probably worth at least $5! But the process was interesting and fun.
The day following our stop in Colombia, we entered the Panama Canal about 6:30 in the morning, and reached the first of the 6 locks about 8:30. There are 3 locks(Gatun) and one (Pedro Miguel) that together raise ships about 85 feet to Lake Gatun, in the middle of the canal.
This year is the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Canal, and the operating parts are all original. They clearly were built to last, and so they have. The main issue today is that the width of the canal locks limit the size of the ships that can use them, and ship builders would like to have more width. The phrase used is “Panamax,” to describe the maximum width available. So, an additional set of locks is now under construction.
Since we did not land in Panama, the handicrafts of the country were brought to us aboard the ship. The embroidery work known as mole (say mo-lay) is probably the most well-known of the crafts and parrot motifs are colorful and common. Each item had a tag stating that it was made for us by “friendly hands inside the Panama Canal Rain Forest,” so naturally we did our part - and am currently deciding where at home I should put my carved wooden 12” parrot - perhaps close to the brightly colored mole pillow cover with a parrot on it that Ron bought. We’ll remember they were made by friendly hands.
A shore stop on the Pacific side of Costa Rica took us first to - surprise, surprise - a place that sold handicraft items. There was some nice pottery for sale there, as well as some colorful fabric pieces and some interesting wooden carved vases. I haven’t seen this particular type of pottery, mostly in muted brown tones, showing up at markets in our area yet. But perhaps, now that I know where they’re made, I’ll be more apt to notice them.
Coffee is a main export item for both Colombia and Costa Rica, and in Costa Rica we took a visit to a coffee plantation, the Doka Estate, in the mountains at the 5,000-foot elevation. The coffee grown here is Arabica, which is a bushy type of plant. Why do my notes say “$3 for a basket full of beans”? I think that may have been how the workers were paid.
We were informed that the top five, in order of importance in the Costa Rican economy, are tourism, Intel computer chips, bananas, pineapple and coffee.
We left Costo Rica to head north up the Pacific Coast, along the western side of Mexico and, eventually, home. I’ll save those ports of call for the next issue.
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