Monday, 21 December 2009

Alright, even though it sometimes seemed like it, the Panama vacation was not only about family or wedding. There was another very important element. Sightseeing. Even in the limited time, my guide showed me a lot! Most important: The Panama canal. Seriously. If you ever go to Panama and have to decide between seeing your dying uncle and seeing the canal, ah, you better, ah, … never mind. But really, do trade everything else they might tell you is important for the canal. It is AWESOME! If you like big things you will never want to leave. You come across the canal pretty much with everything in Panama, but deservedly so. I don’t want to bore you with details, but just consider this:Panama December 2009 161

They have been thinking about a canal since 1523. The first who really gave it a go where the French in 1883, who, all said and done, could not make it happen (go figure). This was however not due to lack of effort. The guy they chose had successfully built the Suez Canal and in the 6 years they really tried it 22,000 workers died, mostly from malaria and yellow fever. Apparently it is a lot harder to build a canal through the jungle than through the desert. The French finished about a sixth of the canal.Panama December 2009 163

The Americans then gave it a go in 1903. Until they finished in 1914 it still cost almost another 6,000 people their lives. Overall 116 Million pounds of dynamite were used (KABOOM). Over 150 million cubic meters of earth were moved. That is a lot of dirt, if I may say so myself. The canal is 81 km long and shaves off about 20,000km of your journey compared to the voyage around the cape. You have to overcome an elevation difference of 26 meters between the 2 oceans and this is done in the giant locks. There is an own class of ships being built to the specifications of being able to pass the Panama canal locks. They are called PANAMAX ships and they can be have a maximum length of 295m and a maximum width of 32m. Most ships built these days are bigger than the maximum specifications, so since 2007 they have been working on expanding the canal (more KABOOM!). To go through one of the locks requires moving 197 million liters of water. To navigate the canal you have to have a Panamanian captain, which will usually be the pilot on board for the crossing. A canal passage takes somewhere between 8 to 10 hours, however, due to the heavy traffic it is now more like 12 hours on average. The price to go through depends on tonnage of the ship and is about $150,000 on average with the highest price paid so far at $317,000.  Panama December 2009 136

They have built a visitor center at the Miraflores locks and should I ever disappear and can not be located, give the viewing platform there a look. I’ll probably stand there with my mouth open.

Somewhat related to the canal are 2 bridges. Believe me, they know about bridges in Panama. They have the Bridge of the Americas, which for decades was the only roadway connecting North & South America. And then they have the far more recent Centennial Bridge which, most importantly, was built by Germans (feel free to contact us for any large-scale project you might have). Both well worth a look and crossing if you have the time!

This brings me to the next subject you need to be aware about: Driving in Panama. Take my advice: if you can at all avoid it, do so. If not, be aware of old, young, middle-aged, male & female drivers. Also know that in Panama, a car is totaled and fully depreciated if the horn does not work. I must assume that by law you are required to use the horn nonstop. Traffic lights are merely a colorful light display. If at all possible, drive a powerful, armored 4 wheel drive car. If given a choice, I would personally go for an M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank. Contact the United States Marine Corps for details. That should protect you of most things that can happen to you. It probably won’t protect you against the taxis, the hundreds of people trying to sell you stuff in the middle of the road and the buses (Diablos Rojos – Red Devils). Here I can only suggest prayer, repentance and wish you good luck at the pearly gates.

Should you still be alive, there is then a lot more to see. However, I will have to tell you about it next time. Have a good night.

Monday, 21 December 2009 01:48:00 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Disclaimer  |  Comments [0]  | 
 Friday, 11 December 2009

As you might have gathered by now, I am in Panama this week. The main reason for this trip was to attend the wedding of my girlfriend’s cousin Nereida and to also use this opportunity to meet the rest of the extended Beckford family. I had previously only met Marianela’s sister and her parents in Curacao.

Weddings work a bit different here and I guess I should tell you a bit about it.

When I had arrived last Friday after 16 hours of travel and was finally in the supposed safe haven of my hotel room, I thought this would be it for the day. Wrong. Not 3 minutes after having arrived and actually with my pants down, there is a knock on the door. Alright, pants back up and open the door to find: 5 more Beckfords welcoming me to Panama and asking me to join them upstairs in the suite of the wedding couple. This is all at about 10 at night.

Alright, change of polo shirt and up I go. In the suite, there is the wedding couple with a slightly unwell groom on the couch with a blanket around him, Marianela’s parents, the sister of the bride and her American husband (great! someone to talk about Sports with) with two small kids (who came from the US), Marianela’s sister (came from US), Marianela’s brother along with wife and small child (came from US), the cousin who now lives in Canada with wife and 4 kids ranging from 6 to 15 and various other individuals to numerous to mention. I was welcomed very warmly and 2 minutes after my arrival I had a beer in my hand. 10 minutes later I think I had “mucho gustoed” my way around the room and met everybody, had learned some new variations of my name (e.g. Wodka) and was desperately trying to remember who is who and how it all comes together. Most of this without Marianela by my side…

If you find it slightly odd that on the evening before the wedding the bride and groom are together drinking the time away in their hotel room with their family, trust me, so did I. Strangely enough, everybody in the room was in some way related to the bride and nobody was there related to the groom.

Several beers and hours later most people retired, but being eager and stupid, I joined the groom, Mari, her brother & Jared from the US to go to the casino where I swiftly departed with a sizeable sum of money. We eventually retired to our room to get some sleep for the next day.

The morning was I guess a relatively relaxed affair and during the course of the morning we meet the groom again to find he is still there on the couch with his blanket not looking too fit. Still, bride and groom are together. Again, if you are wondering at this point you need to know that the church wedding ceremony was scheduled for 7:30pm. This way everybody has all day to run errands, phone each other in panic and generally to get ready and dress up. In the early afternoon Mari went off to the hairdresser. Being a guest with no errands or phone calls to make, being able to dress myself in relatively little time and with comparatively easy hair to style, I took a nap.12436_201141906921_521381921_3678610_6222049_n

Starting in the evening you would think that it gives people enough time… The wedding actually started on time with all the main participants, but trust me, if you’re from my part of the world you can only marvel at how many people showed up late for the ceremony. The priest was an old rather strict looking dude who I think did not exactly approve of that either. The ceremony was in Spanish of course so I only had a rather limited understanding of what was going on.

When it was all said and done, having no intention to boil in 30 degree celsius in a suit outside the church and also due to a minor shoe emergency we headed back to the hotel and let Mari change her shoes. Even with that detour, I think we were among the first to arrive in the restaurant. By now it is after 9pm. The room fills only slowly. God only knows where the people went in between church and party. Not being used to these kind of wedding proceedings, I had severely misjudged the whole situation. I did have lunch, but nothing since then and by 9:30 pm I am considering to eat the flower arrangement on our table.

We use the time to introduce me to 3 dozen or so more relatives and I personally use the time to try to calculate the probabilities on whether the breasts of the bride’s hot friend are real or not. Unfortunately, the research related to this is not being met with the scientific acceptance I had hoped for from Marianela. Neither are all further attempts to assess the situation later in the evening, so I cannot present you with a proper finding.

Eventually, the wedding couple arrives, there is a toast and then the buffet opens. I would at this point like to praise the Marriott in Panama for an excellent location and great food as well as and especially our server Roger, who outdoes himself in an effort to get everybody properly intoxicated throughout the evening. Panama December 2009 098

At this point the band is playing and there is no more delaying it. I will have to dance. I am one of maybe 10 white guys and I’m certainly the new guy, so there is at least 50 pairs of eyes following my moves. It is not so much the dancing. I can dance with Marianela no problem. It is the music. Those of you who have been exposed to Latin music will know that all of these songs are about 13 minutes long and this is my problem. It just does not stop. Be that as it may, it turns out that my dancing skills are approved and I have to dance with Mari’s mum and various other ladies. This goes not quite so well as with Mari, but apparently still well enough for a non-Latino guy.

Well, there is not much more to it. Marianela does not catch the bouquet and I do not catch the garter. The restaurant where the party is held is also the breakfast room and I start to worry that they will not be able to reset the room. Being told to leave the worrying to others, we eventually go to bed. No casino required today.

Thank you Nereida & Alfie for letting me participate, felicitationes and all the best for your future!!!

Friday, 11 December 2009 14:16:00 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Disclaimer  |  Comments [1]  | 
 Thursday, 10 December 2009

As you might or might not know I come from a pretty small family. Apart from my parents I have 2 brothers and one uncle and that is pretty much it. My dad has some cousins and there is one sister of my grandma left. My uncle is not married and has no kids and neither my brothers or myself have any children.

As such, our family reunions are pretty civilized undertakings usually going some like this…

Me: ah, you again brother.

Brother: Yes, me.

Me: All said then, let’s eat. Formula One race starts in an hour…

About one hour and five minutes later we’re all fed and asleep on the couch with the TV on.

As you’ll probably gather from this, my social skills are somewhat lacking in this respect, especially where small children are involved.

All this is a bit different on Marianela’s side. Since Friday I have met more uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces etc. than ever before in my 34 years on this planet. I used to be really good at remembering names, but that again seems to be a thing of the past. I try to memorize the more important characters like real aunts and uncles, the godfather etc. but it is not easy. Moreover, these relatives come in all sizes and what is a bit worrying to me is that they are all doctors or of some other reputable profession. Fine, there is a lawyer too, but there usually is a black sheep in every family.

I actually have no clue what my brothers do exactly. One of them sells hoses and the other insurance I believe. Both are semi-professional gamblers. I then work in hotels in some remote location nobody has ever heard of. Nothing to brag about I guess. Where does that leave me with these people?

Here there are pneumologists or whatever lung doctors are called, gastro-enterologists or whatever stomach doctors are called, gynecologists, dentists, urologists, surgeons, pharmacologists, nose/ear/throat doctors or whatever they are called and god knows what else. At least I guess it is a good place to get sick…

The other somewhat worrying thing is that there are children (and lots of them) from about 1 to 15 years. Since moving to this side of the world, I have grown used to seeing tons of children. Everybody over here seems to start at about age 20 and then keeps going for 3-6 rounds. As this had never interfered with me in any way, I just took it for granted. That all changed a little bit. On Sunday we went to Tio (uncle) Tony’s house and he has 10 grandchildren. I believe they were all present. I’m okay with the ones from about 10 onwards, especially if they understand my language. The fact that I apparently have a funny name helps too. I can endure all the interrogation etc. The smaller ones leave me feeling uncomfortable. I have no skills that help me relate to them and they have no skills that I find interesting. I guess I better learn some magic tricks or how to let milk run through my nose or something if this is to work out properly.

I shall leave you with this thought and I will be back soon reporting on the miracle that is Panama!

Thursday, 10 December 2009 14:47:00 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Disclaimer  |  Comments [0]  | 
 Wednesday, 09 December 2009

And so, after a long wait and lots of planning, it was time last Friday to get up early (yawn) and make my way to the airport to find my way to Panama.

To avoid spending hours and hours in Miami Airport, I had chosen a somewhat indirect route via Puerto Rico. This also enabled me to get up half an hour later.

Well, after buying some St. Lucia souvenirs for Marianela’s parents, I boarded an half empty American Eagle turbo prop plane and true to their usual standards, American Airlines had equipped the plane with 2 very experienced flight attendants, one of which was more than just the AA brand standard grumpy. In fairness, the other one was quite cheerful.

The flight was uneventful and not quite 2 hours later we were in San Juan, Puerto Rico – Home of Bacardi. After enjoying the thrill of passing US Immigration, I strolled through the rather unexciting airport marveling at the price of alcohol before boarding the next flight to Miami, this time on a jet.

This flight was packed and it even had a movie, so the two and a half hours passed fairly quick. The one thing of notice is that like many other airlines AA now charges for checked luggage. As a consequence people try to bring the most outrageously oversized luggage into the cabin. One person who, judging from the size of her bag, was either carrying a dead donkey or maybe an ice-hockey goalie outfit, got into an argument with the senior (and when I say senior about an AA crew member I DO mean senior) flight attendant, so we all had something to watch before the movie…

It was the first time I arrived in Miami without having to go through Immigration and this is quite a nice experience. The airport as such is the same old. Endless corridors and you’ll be hard pressed to find 10 people who work there whose native language is English. I’d say a fifth of the workforce does not speak a word of English. Be all that as it may, the nice people at Google are sponsoring free internet for the holiday season. Everybody and their neighbor got this to work on their laptops, I, of course, did not. Instead I purchased what might very well be the world’s smallest pizza for $8,99 - I inhale more insects on a typical day in St. Lucia than there was meat on that pizza…

Well, I had about 4 hours to pass and luckily I had my noise-cancelling headphones and some house episodes, so no problem there.

After 4 episodes it was time to find the gate for the flight to Panama and here is a neat trick for all you vertically challenged people like me. If you want to look tall, go to the airport and find the gate for the flight to Bolivia, most likely to La Paz. All of a sudden you will be the tallest person in sight. I reveled in that for a few moments and then proceeded to my own gate to be immediately surrounded by Harlem Globetrotter types again.

This flight was also packed and there was a young lady next to me who I suspect was calling everybody she knew to tell them that she is now on the plane. I have no proof for this but from the increasingly erratic phone conversations I would guess that she eventually ran out of people to call that she knew and so proceeded to just call random people. Just when I was about to suggest a few numbers for her, she informed us that she would move to the back where her friend was sitting who presumably had a few more numbers in her phone.

This gave me some more space and I enjoyed the movie Up, which, in case you have not seen it already, I suggest you go watch as well. Very nice story.

We eventually landed in Panama where they kept us taxiing and holding for a while before being let to the gate. I managed to understand and answer the one question the Immigration lady had for me in Spanish which made me feel somewhat confident. And so, 16 hours after I left the house I was in Panama where Miss M and her friend were waiting for me. I could have been in Dubai faster, but then there would not have been a Miss M.

I will tell you all about Panama next time. Hasta Luego!

Wednesday, 09 December 2009 14:28:14 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Disclaimer  |  Comments [0]  |