Explosions Overhead

Peregrina's Journey
Peter and Margie Benziger
Tue 12 Jan 2016 17:05

​09:18.9N  082:10.8W​

The ground shook as rocket after rocket ignited thirty feet in front of us. Overhead, the oxygen was sucked out of the air as explosion after explosion tore the sky apart directly above us. Our ear drums throbbed as high pressure blasts assaulted us.  We tried not to look directly at the blinding flashes but it was hypnotic; impossible to tear our eyes away.  Embers rained down upon us but, rest assured…this was not downtown Beirut.

Welcome to the 2016, New Year’s Eve Chinese Supermarket Fireworks Competition held on the island of Bocas del Toro, Panama.  The fireworks don’t explode way up in the sky…they explode right over the street!


First, a little background information and some observations concerning international commerce… 

Peregrina has traveled to 37 countries as we’ve circumnavigated the globe.  In that time, we have been amazed at the number of Chinese involved in retail business in every single country we’ve visited. They seem to have cornered the market in grocery stores, hardware supplies and internet cafes.  They assimilate into the communities where they set up shop and quickly become bi-lingual in the native tongue.

In Southeast Asia, for centuries, they have lived in what are called “shop houses” with the retail store on the ground floor and the living quarters above. The whole family works in the store which is open seven days a week, usually 14-15 hours a day.

We’ve also found them in backwater communities up the Maroni River, deep inside French Guyana, where their technological skills are put to use connecting residents to the outside world.

Here in Bocas Del Toro, the Chinese run all the largest supermarkets and the major hardware stores. They work hard.  But, on New Years’ Eve, we learned they play hard too!  On this night, there is a competition among the Chinese supermarkets see which one can set off the most spectacular fireworks. That’s important because the winners get “bragging rights” for the rest of the year!

This is a serious competition and it is done on the main street right in front of each store! Here is a partial view of the fireworks being unloaded from a large delivery truck in front of the Super Centro Christina.  All of these fireworks and rockets - and many more - will be set off just 20-30 feet from the sidewalk where revelers are celebrating the New Year.


Main Street, figuratively, becomes a war zone. 

Safety procedures are somewhat lacking.  You can see how close the party-goers are to the fireworks detonation points.  Margie noted that, “…in  America, this would be a lawsuit waiting to happen!”

Now, a little history thanks to Google.  (Please don’t arrest me for plagiarism!)

There is an age-old link between the Chinese and sky rockets.  In the first century A.D. the Chinese had a simple form of gunpowder made from sulfur, charcoal dust and saltpeter. Just for fun, they would fill bamboo tubes with this gunpowder and toss them into fire waiting for a big bang.  Often, the bamboo tubes ignited at one end and were propelled skyward out of the fire.  Thus, the idea of the rocket was born and, of course, the immediate benefit was in warfare.

The first reported use of effective rockets in warfare was in 1232, at the battle of Kai-keng when the Moguls were defeated by the Chinese with a barrage of "arrows of flying fire."

These fire-arrows were a simple form of a solid-propellant rocket. A tube, capped at one end, contained gunpowder. The other end was left open and the tube was attached to a long stick. When the powder was ignited, the rapid burning of the powder produced fire, smoke, and gas which escaped out the open end and produced a thrust. The stick acted as a simple guidance system that kept the rocket headed in one general direction as it flew through the air. It is not clear how effective these arrows of flying fire were as weapons of destruction, but their psychological effects on the Mongols must have been formidable.

Over time the Chinese advanced their experiments with rockets. Nearly all the uses of rockets were for warfare or fireworks but there is an interesting old Chinese story that reported the use of rockets as a means of transportation! According to legend, a lesser-known Chinese official named Wan-Hu assembled a rocket-powered flying chair. Attached to the chair were two large kites and fixed to the kites were forty- seven fire-arrow rockets.

On the day of the flight, Wan-Hu sat himself on the chair and gave the command to light the rockets. Forty-seven rocket assistants, each armed with a torch, rushed forward to light the fuses. In a moment, there was a tremendous roar accompanied by billowing clouds of smoke. When the smoke cleared, Wan-Hu and his flying chair were gone. No one knows for sure what happened to Wan-Hu but it is probable that, if the event really did take place, Wan-Hu and his chair were blown to smithereens!

Well, centuries later, the Chinese in Bocas Del Toro still respect their fireworks tradition. The fireworks extravaganza begins at midnight and ends a couple of hours later. Around 2:30am, long past our bedtime, we took the dinghy back to Peregrina to try to get a few hours of sleep before dawn. That was pretty hard since roving groups of celebrants were still setting off roman-candles, cherry-bombs and strings of firecrackers until the sun came up.

This was, definitely, one of the most memorable New Year’s Eve celebrations we’ve experienced.  Don’t miss the chance if you are in ever in beautiful, Bocas Del Toro. But, bring your ear plugs and make sure that your clothing is fire-retardant.

Peter Benziger

Peter Benziger

Peter Benziger