Saturday, November 19, 2011

Cosmo Central America

While in Panama, we sandwiched in a couple of visits to Panama City. Our first trip was after a couple of days in El Rincón and was all business. We rode the bike into the city (about a 3 hour drive, and before we found out that the charging system was wonky) on the Panamerican and luckily did not learn the hard way that there were cops with speed traps everywhere. Panama City is notorious for being difficult to navigate and we ended up driving around for a good hour once we were in the neighborhood of the hostel. Dana made reservations for us in a hostel right downtown where a lot of other Peace Corps volunteers stay. It was supposedly one of the cheaper places in the city, but was still $30 for the both of us to stay in dorm rooms. Jill tried to arrange the rooms, but the hostel had somehow lost our reservation, so after a confusing 20 minutes, Jill called in Mike to take care of it. Apparently, 2 other gringos had showed up earlier in the day and decided not to stay, so the hostel had arbitrarily decided that the couple was us and crossed us off the list. The hostel had filled since then. Eventually Jill was able to get a dorm room and Mike was able to get a bed in the laundry room for the first night.

The main purpose of the trip was for Jill to get all of her paperwork done for her Peace Corps Response position. Our first stop was the US Embassy, as the Embassy had to send in the documents needed for her to get a second passport that they will put her Suriname visa into. The US Embassy is located in the Canal Zone, which was run by the United States until Panama took posession of the Canal in 1999. The embassy is massive and looks like a military compound. The taxi was not allowed to drive us all the way to the building because of security issues. We passed through a metal detector and took a number. Everyone waits in the same large room for their number to be called. There were about 15-20 windows, most of them servicing Panamanians wanting a US visa. When I was finally called, the person at the window claimed she could not help me at all and that I needed to go to the Peace Corps office, in direct contradiction to the instructions I had. After another long wait, I got to deal with another employee, who knew what was going on and took care of the paperwork right away. I also needed to be fingerprinted and was referred to Erik, a security worker who we have coincidentally been in contact with by email. He rode his motorcycle to his position in Panama from Virginia in two weeks and is a friend of a friend of Dana´s. Erik made sure that I was able to be fingerprinted and we were on our way, after about 3 hours.

Our next mission was to mail the paperwork to Washington DC. We needed to mail the documents through DHL as they were time sensitive. About the time we started trying to find the office, it started downpouring. We jumped in a taxi, who was driving through sometimes door height water in the street (drainage in Panama City is definitely lacking) and he had to ask several times where an office was. Finally we found it. But, we needed a copy of my passport. Whoops, that was back at the hostel. Fortunately, there was a copy shop next door and I had a copy of my passport online. Problem diverted. Back to the DHL office. The total cost to send an envelope to the US - $56. Whoops, we don´t have enough cash and both of our credit cards were at the hostel. The office was closing in 30 minutes and the woman working could not even commit to being there that long. So, we made a mad dash in the rain back to the hostel, grabbed my card and ran back to the office. We made it just in time and were able to send the package before the weekend, as we wanted to go back to El Rincón the next day.

Before leaving the next morning, we went to the Brazillian embassy, as we will pass through a small section of Brazil on our way to Suriname and are required to have a Brazillian visa. The Brazillian Embassy, in harsh contrast to the US Embassy fortress, was on the 2nd floor of an office building, we just needed to sign in and sit in comfortable chairs to wait to be called. There was only one person in line in front of us and the one security guard was about 70 years old. Everything went very smoothly as we had all the paperwork required. We had to go to a nearby bank to pay for the visa, which took about an hour because there was a large line with only one window operating for normal customers, one for VIPs and one for retirees. Finally we paid and back at the embassy, everything was good to go except we had to leave our passport with them to be processed and they needed the passport for at least 2 days. We planned on being in El Rincón for the next week, so the embassy gave us a stamped copy of the passport. This made us a little nervous, but it ended up fine as we never needed to use our passports during the next week.

After a relaxing week in El Rincón, we caught the bus with Dana back into Panama city. This time Jill needed to get all her medical work done. We had been recommened to a doctor at a very nice medical complex. He was able to do the required physical. He referred me to another doctor to get my flu shot and TB test and another doctor to do all my blood work. It was great because I was able to get everything done in one place. The bad part was that Peace Corps only reimbursed $165 to get all that done and it ended up costing me about $280 more than that out of pocket (quite a bit given our travel budget). I would hate to think how much it would cost in the States to do the same. After having to come back in the next day for another blood test they forgot to do the day before, my medical was done and my paperwork was completed.

The next day we went back to the Brazillian embassy to pick up our visa and see how long they had given us in Brazil. Theoretically, US citizens are able to get a visa to Brazil for as long as 5 years for up to 90 days total. We were hoping for at least a year because we will need to enter Brazil again after we leave Suriname and did not want to have to pay $140 each for another visa. Unfortunately, there is some sproadically enforced rule we did not know about that says US citizens getting a visa from outside the US are not able to get a visa for more than 90 days from the date the visa is issued, meaning we only have 3 months from October (date of issue) until the visa expires. Disappointing because we will have to pay again and go through the hassle of going to the embassy again on our way out of Suriname.  Not much we can do about it now, though.

With all of our paperwork and embassy running out of the way, we were able to explore Panama City better. The city really is quite cosmopolitan with a large skyline and big banking district.

(coming in along the Cinta Costera)

The city is right on the water and there are beautiful views of the harbor.

Dana took us to the pier where they have very tasty ceviche (raw fish cooked in various types of acidic sauces) for $1-3.

We also went to Casco Viejo, "Old Helmet" directly translated, where we went to the very informative Panama Canal museum (even more so than the one located at the Miraflores locks).

(In old town specifically, there is a vast contrast in the condition of building from house to house. Many buildings are beautifully restored and some haven´t been touched since they were built. Many residents are now fighting the government, who wants to build a highway through the historic area.The sign says: Priorities Education, Health, not Highway Cinta C3.  "Cinta C3" refers to the extension of the Cinta Costera road that would come through the historic area.)

And of course, no trip to Panama City is complete without a trip to the Panama Canal.

In Panama City, there is access to just about anything (expect motorcycle parts, it seems), including food from all over the world. It is a huge contract to El Rincón and most of the rest of Panama, much of which is still struggling for basic provisions including clean water and sanitation.

After a week of hemorrhaging money in Panama City, we spent the rest of our time in El Rincón, until we made our third trip to the city just before boarding our sailboat to Colombia. Our friend Erik (the security guy from the Embassy) was gracious enough to invite us to his house for the long weekend. He and his wife Beth live in a very nice house in the Canal Zone. Beth is an animal lover and they have two dogs and a cat inside and as many cats as she can feed outside. We were able to relax in an air conditioned house for several days and very much enjoyed Erik and Beth´s stories about embassy life, living in Panama, and how they ended up there. We also enjoyed being able to watch football on cable. Erik took us out to an Italian dinner and we got to meet other Embassy employees and see a Jimmy Buffett knockoff band, equipped with a white guy speaking in a Jamacian Rasta voice wearing a Hawaiian shirt (ahhh...memories of Costa Rica already...).

(Erik, Beth, Rocky, Jill & Mike)

(Erik and Beth´s house. Seriously, how do we luck into meeting such nice people?)

On our last day in the city, Beth drove us to the Peace Corps friend of a friend´s site so we could meet them and see where they live. Sarah and Shaun are friends with both Dana, and Erik and Beth, and involved in similar work that interests us, so meeting them seemed fitting.  Even though it was only an 1.5 hour drive, they have no running water and apparantly just got a street light in the past week or two. Unfortunately, they were not at home, so we were not able to meet them, but there was a dog that Beth has been keeping an eye on because it is so skinny. When we went to check on the dog, he was looking even skinnier and Beth knew she had to take him with us to help him, so we loaded the dog into the truck and got him to the vet that night. The drive was beautiful and we agree that the dog would have died soon if he would not have received help, so the trip was more than worth it.

(Kids were playing baseball in front of the school)

(House where Sarah and Shaun, the Peace Corps volunteers, live)

(Loading ¨Slim¨ into the truck)

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