UK visit and back to Bocas
Right, time to get the Blog and us moving once more after a few months of inactivity. Our trip home lasted some five weeks but we were off the boat for almost six as we spent extra time in Panama City to relax after the ten hour bus journey from Bocas del Toro where we had left Ajaya safely tied to the dock in Bocas marina. In our absence we were having some Yanmar spares and five new house batteries shipped in from Florida to be there on our return.
Our first mistake on the long trip home was that we had the wrong bus departure time from Almirante. A God-awful commercial town on the mainland twenty minutes fast water taxi ride from Bocas.
200 horses pushing us and our baggage at sunrise Not the most pleasant of sights first thing & not the most pleasant of places either
The bus station was like the town itself, pretty ghastly with stray dogs (and people) wandering about. A visit to the conveniences around the back of the building was not for the feint hearted. We waited an hour for the bus to arrive and another forty minutes for the baggage hold beneath the seating area to be filled. Each bag had a receipt label attached with the counterfoil given to the owner. As the bags were flung into the hold many of the tickets fell off but our seats were right over the hold door we could see what was being unloaded at any time along the way.
Almirante Bus Station - not the most salubrious of places at 0700 but it did perk up a little later
The bus trip, in a reasonable Mercedes 55 seater complete with a rear toilet, was memorable for the lecture from the driver (in Spanish) before setting off that the loo was only for No 1's and not, definitely not ...No 2's!!! and then promptly proceeded to lock the toilet door with his personal key and walk back down to his drivers seat! This was presumably so that if you were in dire need of the conveniences whilst underway he could re-state the usage regulations before handing over the golden key. With frequent roadside stops throughout the journey we were mercifully not required to go through this humiliating process but as we were sitting towards the rear of the bus there were frequent visitations aft from key clutching passengers with weak bladders. This included a very large lady sitting right behind the driver that could only make her way to the back by putting her entire weight on each seat back along the way, meaning that those reclining seats with faulty ratchets mechanisms, and Phil's was one of them, gave under her weight pushing the seat and its occupant into the extended recline position. Quite how she was able to carry out her required functions inside the tiny compartment was anybody's guess. Eventually the toilet door burst open and back she came, only, this time on reaching Phil's seat her arm slipped off the seat back and the full force of her elbow followed by about twenty-two stones of body mass met with the side of his head and jaw. This is known in wrestling terms as a 'fore arm smash'. Muttering profuse apologies in Spanish she regained her balance and composure and waddled onward to the very front of the bus where she shared the double seat with a similar sized companion.
Over the mountains looking towards the Pacific side of Panama & over the Bridge of the Americas linking Central and South America
The bus arrived at the Albrook Centre terminus in Panama City by late afternoon and we took a taxi to the hotel where we'd booked a room. The Costa Inn had seen better days, could have been in a better district and could have had staff that smiled a warm welcome to travel weary guests. But it had none of those attributes. Although a roof top swimming pool with views over Panama City had us taking the elevator up to the top floor. It had more of the feel of a large sunken static tank that could be quickly emptied so as to flood all floors below in the event of a fire. It was watched over by a CCTV camera so we binned the idea of a few hours lazing in a cracked and decrepit sun longer being watched by the reception staff. Around the back of the roof were ominous cracks in the masonry reminding us that Panama does have the odd earthquake.
The rooftop 'pool' with views over the part of the city that has new and old mixes of development
We rejected the first room we were assigned on account of the air conditioning not functioning - a must in the August humidity but the room across the way wasn't much better.
Double bed each - strange! and the air-con system with ancient marble tiles - don't look at the wiring
City of contrasts.....
Breakfast in the Costa Inn was a case of survival of the fittest with the hotel trying to keep their paying victims pinned into a small breakfast room measuring about 20ft by 15ft. On each table was a notice 'suggesting' that the breakfast staff should be tipped by guests. At the end of the room in the middle of the wall was a huge flat screen TV which was set to Spanish news at maximum volume. Those guests unaccustomed to fighting for breakfast in a cheap hotel could be picked out by their frightened eyes and empty plates whilst the professional eaters elbowed and pushed their way towards the limited fare on offer. First challenge was to seek out butter or margarine which had a rarity value of Dodo eggs. That was because the staff kept it hidden and on request reluctantly handed over two or three small pats. And talking of eggs, there was some really nasty grey scrambled egg on offer for which the chef should have been fired for producing. This was shunned by the pro's and reluctantly scooped up by the more desperate. A dozen pairs of eyes were fixed on the empty scrambled egg container and when a new batch emerged from the kitchen guests erupted from seats to stake their claim to a fresh batch of Huevos Scrambles. The toast was also a challenge. To obtain any at all meant you needed to stand sentry duty by the toasting machines, half of which were not working with the other half barely warm at full heat. To walk away would mean the certainty of losing your toast, although with only Bimbo white bread provided this was probably a huge blessing. On the counter where the knives and forks were kept the eagle eyed Admiral spotted a long deceased cockroach.
Still, it was just for a few nights and the following day we took ourselves by taxi around to the peninsula at Balboa to look at some boats in the marina. A real touristy day. Between Balboa and Panama City itself the ride took us through a disturbingly depressing and presumably crime-ridden district as the driver made the point of locking all the doors as we approached the area of concern. Curiously, outside a lot of the concrete built slums yellow Panama taxis were parked just like the one we were travelling in. Presumably their drivers actually lived there! (or they were up to no good in their spare time). So of course they would know if it were a dodgy area or not.
Sightseeing along the Amador Causeway On the way to the airport - this twisted building took our eye
The trip onwards went smoothly all things considered. Our flight from Panama across the Caribbean to Miami rewarded us with some wonderful views of convection cloud activity that is so prevalent during the summer months in the tropics. Florida is one of the thunder and lightening capitals of the World and our approach to the airport dodging active storm cells was edge of the seat stuff.
Lots of convection activity with some very juicy thunderheads on the left - thankfully we were flown round such obstacles into Miami
Back on terra firma, Miami airport was bearable but only just, as the immigration line for 'aliens' snaked around and around for hundreds of yards. It was still that length when the 'residents' queue officials had long since cleared their vast section of desks leaving the 'great unwashed' to mutter and mumble under their collective breaths at such a slow system for the 'aliens'. The officials, in an act of humanitarian kindness, then decided to break open the barriers at the back of our queuing numbers and allow those that had just joined to scatter like grateful sheep for much greener pastures (or the now empty checkpoints) causing even more muttering and mumbling amongst those that had now been queuing for forty minutes and were getting in sight of the desks themselves. This is all very exciting when you have a connecting flight and still have to collect your baggage which by now would be giddy from sitting on the baggage carousel for so long. We then had to re-check everything just in time to go through the awesome task of clearing security 'Miami style' before climbing onboard the BA flight to Heathrow. Phew. But we got home and it was so great to see family and friends after two years absence but a shame that both Mum's had been or were admitted to hospital during our stay for various reasons but both are now doing fine once more. We walked Lee on Solent seafront to Hillhead, Southsea Common and the Downs in Guildford several times. After a lousy summer the weather was actually very good.
Never far from water and boats and a nice cup of tea
On the culinary front it was nice to get back into Indian curry and Chinese cuisine again. Our thanks to Mary, Ray and Chris for putting up with us over the visit and hope we weren't too much trouble. To those we didn't get to see we will try and put that right next time.
The trip back to Panama started with the cancellation of our BA flight from Terminal 5 for 'operational' reasons (not enough passengers!). Our policy of arriving very early for flights paid off and we were able to transfer across to an AA flight which arrived in Miami earlier. This meant we could relax a little in that long long immigration queue on arrival! Unfortunately the check-in for American Airlines is situated in historic Terminal 3 so having to catch the Heathrow Express train to get there was a new experience for us. With our 'close to the limit' hold baggage full of food, goodies and spares and the nowadays equally heavy cabin baggage we just made the next train to leave T5. On arrival in T3 our approach to the American Airlines check-in desk was barred by a line of 'everso friendly' well trained American officialdom that asked a series of questions that some would consider to be privately intrusive. The reward though, having been switched from the BA flight was to be assigned legroom seats, those most hallowed of flat surfaces that most airlines charge extra for. Was this a policy of AA to lure loyal BA customers over to AA perhaps? Anyway, they were most welcome and even the food seemed better on the return flight. The flight from Miami back to Panama City also provided us with legroom seats - a real bonus. We arrived in Panama to face another travel hurdle, the Hotel Courtesy Bus. Under calculating the number of pick-ups meant there was insufficient room for all persons and their luggage. Fortunately we had bagged seats and our baggage was thrown unceremoniously into the rear. The bus then set off out of the airport down some muddy road to a locked yard guarded by ferocious dogs where two bus officials struggled to attach a large luggage trailer to the rear of our vehicle. It was then back to the airport two miles away to the pick-up point where an argument ensued between the bus driver and the bus rep after which we then drove back to the ferocious dog pound where the trailer was unhitched again and we finally got underway for the hotel.
The next morning we had to go to the Albrook Shopping Centre where the bus terminal is situated so as to purchase our bus tickets for that nights journey to Almirante. Albrook is vast. We know because we spent five hours walking round the place window shopping and people watching. Every designer outlet shop you can imagine has at least one and in some cases two shops and we were leg weary by the time we returned to the hotel to have a quick meal and then return to Albrook with all our baggage.
That's what you call an Emperor Penguin eh? This mall is so big that it never seemed crowded - except the eating areas - they love to eat!
Phil failed miserably in the task of flagging down a passing cab as the only one he managed to stop was probably the smallest taxi in operation around Panama City. The boot was so small that only one hold bag could be fitted inside with the other on the front seat with all the other bags sandwiched between the two of us in the back. In the UK it would long since have been consigned to the crusher but in Panama it will keep going for years to come!
The return bus trip to Almirante left the bus terminus at 2000 hrs and would travel through the night to arrive just as dawn broke in the Bocas area. We were warned by other cruisers that were veterans of this service to wrap up warm as the air-con would be set on full blast. This was probably to avoid the likelihood of the driver falling asleep on some mountain road with dire consequences. To make doubly sure there was a co-driver to share the driving and poke his colleague if the eyelids fluttered in a downward direction. Behind the driver it seemed that sleep would be far from easy as the video screens burst into life as we exited the terminus. With the bus half full of indigenous Indians accompanied by their tired children and a few other tired souls as well, a blood curdling action packed DVD (in Spanish) assaulted our eardrums as the bus cleared the outskirts of Panama into the dark night. About an hour into the film the blood letting, rape and decapitating disappeared from the screens and we could finally sleep for a few minutes - until we found we were sitting across from a young Panamanian with an awful lot of friends wanting to speak to him on his mobile phone. This went off about every 15 minutes with the ring tone endlessly bleating away whilst he fumbled deep inside his clothing each time to retrieve it. We almost cheered when he got off the bus at Santiago. Oh! the frustrations of public transport.......
As dawn broke we could make out the Bocas del Toro archipelago across the water and catching the first water taxi out of Almirante we were back onboard Ajaya by 0700. She seemed none the worse for our six week absence, so time to fit those spares and go cruising again.