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Am not in the Pacific itself quite yet — technically I’m in the Gulf of Panama or the Bay of Panama, depending on which chart you’re looking at — but finally am on the right side of the Continental Divide.

Transiting the Panama Canal southbound was a two-day affair: first we went through the Gatun locks in late afternoon, then once in Gatun Lake motored a couple of miles east and took a huge mooring ball for the night. The Gatun locks lift you up (if you’re going south) some 84 feet in three steps (three separate chambers) from the level of the Caribbean Ocean to the level of Gatun Lake, formed by the dammed Chagres River.

The huge gates in one of the locks (Dan Shelley photo)


Then early the next morning we resumed the transit, motoring for hours before getting to the Pedro Miguel lock, which lowers you about 30 feet in a single chamber to the level of Miraflores Lake. From Pedro Miguel to the next set of locks, Miraflores, is only two or three miles. In the Miraflores locks you descend the remaining 54 feet in two steps to the level of the Pacific Ocean.


This transit passed without incident, thankfully — there are quite a few ways to get into significant trouble in the locks — and was notable only for two things.

The first was a comical cluster-fuck of a raft-up the first day with a sport fishing power boat full of Venezuelans who apparently didn’t know much about handling boats but had lots of opinions, all of which they expressed emphatically in staccato-fire Spanish with lots of gesticulating. We eventually got rafted up more or less satisfactorily (I was worried about only one of my cleats) and got through the locks without ramming the walls, which we came close to doing a couple of times (the other boat was steering). We wound up going through with our little raft tied more or less in the middle of the locks behind a huge container ship.

The second was the frustration of almost four hours of delay on the second day, lots of hurry up and wait, driving in circles, wasting time and diesel fuel, with ever-changing plans, watching big ship after big ship pass us by.  Eventually our number came up and we were center tied by ourselves through both the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks just ahead of a huge ship (not the same one as on the first day). Fortunately the big ship was under complete control, and its bow never got to within less than about 60 feet of our transom.

Somehow it’s Friday already and a singlehander I first met in Ecuador some years ago insisted last night over pizza at a cruisers’ get-together that I not leave port today. But changing anchorages is OK, so in a few minutes or when it stops raining for a while I’ll leave my mooring here at the Balboa Yacht Club, where I’ve been parked for the last couple of days while getting groceries and diesel fuel, and head down the causeway a few miles to the La Playita anchorage. That’s OK, it’s still a start, if a very modest one, on the path back to Mexico.

Approaching one of the locks, can’t remember which one, on a previous transit (Dan Shelley photo). Dig the two Canal workers in a little rowboat in there as well.

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Buga: a small city (pop about 120,000) about half way between Armenia and Cali, not exactly on the tourist track or the gringo trail. Has the El Señor de los Milagros (Lord of the Miracles) basilica, which draws hordes of people and a huge pilgrimage from time to time. Religion is big business in Buga: the main avenue is lined for several kilometers up from the main highway right on up to the basilica with shops selling religious relics, rosaries, icons of all sorts, and even religious day-glo images and postcards. In the museum associated with the church there are records of miraculous healings that have occurred.

Stefan, brewing beer

I stayed in a very pleasant hostel on the second floor of
an older building. The owner, a German guy named
Stefan who lived in Port Townsend for a while (so we
had lots of points of reference in common), makes
three styles of home brew, which he sells in the little
pub/restaurant built into the hostel (really good pizza
and sandwiches!). I was fortunate to have the dorm
room, which included a sofa and a couple of easy chairs,
entirely to myself the whole time I was there. Most
comfortable and relaxed. Got me interested again in
someday setting up a little brewing operation and trying
my hand. I haven´t brewed beer since the early ´70s,
when I bottled the stuff in champagne bottles.

One afternoon Stefan took me and another guy up the hill to see a Swiss guy who sells meat. To get there we rode on the roof of the chiva (essentially a big truck or old bus with the walls cut away and benches bolted across the flat bed), then at our stop clambered down across sacks of onions, bags of coffee, etc., and hopped off. Turns out the Swiss guy, Hans Müller, is actually a meat packer. He takes in hogs and cows and cuts them into hams, bacon, steaks, etc. I don´t think he kills them but rather takes in the dressed carcasses. His shop, which he built himself, is immaculate, completely organized, fully equipped (what else would you expect from a Swiss guy?). We watched him do a little work on some hogs he had hanging there, then adjourned to the porch of his house, where his Colombian wife Nancy had some coffee waiting for us.

Hans, a wiry middle-aged guy, is a work machine. He also built his house, which I´d guess at 2,000 square feet, very neat and trim with some flowers and shrubbery (I didn´t go inside). It sits on a hilltop set back perhaps 150 meters from the road and looks out away from the road over a small river at the bottom of the hill and across the river at other hills, lightly dotted with other farms and houses. Really a lovely and bucolic setting, picture-postcard stuff. But let the record show that Hans and Nancy have two very well trained and no-nonsense Alsatians and a stout chain link fence with a strong locking gate around the property. (The dogs were very friendly once they had been told that we were OK, but their initial rush when they first spotted us walking up the driveway was enough to turn my bowels to water.)

A little while later Hans came up and joined us; he and Stefan spoke a lot of German back and forth, but we also conversed in English and Spanish. We three visitors each bought some stuff: jamón serrano (a type of special ham, a delicacy), some other type of jamón, chorizo, and salchicha (basically, sausages of various types).

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Cali: Likewise, a huge, sprawling, traffic-choked city. If salsa dancing is your interest, Cali is the place for you. It´s not my interest; overall I found the city dirty and with kind of an ominous, threatening vibe. While walking around the Centro Historico looking for the old buildings I didn´t want to take my tourist map out of my pocket and study it for a moment because I didn´t want to take my focus off the streets and the people moving about me. I felt distinctly uncomfortable. At one point I sat down in one of the two Colonial-style churches, to rest and meditate a bit and sneak a peek at my tourist map. Within moments I had a ragged homeless person hitting me up insistently for money. Inside the church. I felt like using the famous line from the McCarthy hearings: “Have you no decency, sir?”

The tourist map of Cali includes three icons I had never seen before on a comparable document. One signified, “OK to walk in this area,” the second, showing two wide open eyeballs, signified, “Pretty risky – be very alert in this area,” and the third, with an unhappy face, signified, “Don´t EVER go into this area!”

I stayed in the San Antonio district, the oldest neighborhood, almost entirely very old smaller Colonial buildings, row houses almost, and some larger Neo-Classical buildings. It was very interesting and pleasant (and safe) to walk around there, and I very much enjoyed the beautiful, restored old Colonial church and convent that marks the site where Cali was founded some 460 years ago. But otherwise the historic buildings in the Centro Historico were few and not particularly noteworthy for their architecture or design. Modern or standard Urban Run-Down is otherwise what there is.

I did not go to the Zona Rosa, which is probably somewhat more upscale. Some friends did, for an evening of bar-hopping, and had a good time.

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I can´t quite put my finger on why, but I´ve found Colombia vaguely disappointing. Not in the people, because they are generally very sociable and open, quick with a smile, friendly. And not with the landscapes, although they don´t vary all that much from other places I´ve seen. Every country has its huge, dirty cities, its polluted and contaminated areas, and its natural, relatively unspoiled jewels.

Maybe it´s that Colombia is so expensive yet doesn´t consistently deliver on the quality-of-life stuff you would expect would be in place given the cost of living here. Maybe it´s the delta between the presentation of Colombia as a totally safe place where one can be completely carefree and the reality that the country is rather more unstable and dangerous than people would like you to think. Perhaps it´s that despite the successful efforts to quell the awful drug-related violenceof the ´80s and ´90s, drugs are everywhere, readily available, and cheap (no, I didn´t buy any).

Or maybe it´s me. My frame of mind still isn´t the greatest; I don´t seem to have the same energy or enthusiasm.

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I didn’t see President Obama’s speech tonight, in which he outlined his plan to goose our recession-bound economy. Reportedly he gave a dynamic, forceful, energetic speech. So maybe I was wrong in my previous post about the administration’s softness so far in the face of a lot of damaging hardball. I hope so.

Comments Off on Maybe I was a bit hasty Policy & economics rants, Uncategorized

Only eight or ten months after starting, I’m finally getting this blog on the air. With it I hope to make it easy for anyone interested in catching up on where I am and what I’ve been doing to do just that and, I admit, give myself a forum for some free-form writing and public venting.

Bear with me as I discover some of the subtler features of WordPress — I’ll do my best to refine this site over time. Feel free to suggest any hip or cool features you might know about that you think would improve it.

Am nearing the end of a ten-week visit to the United States, a trip Emmet first suggested in Panama last December, shortly after Margarita died, and the wisdom of which was reinforced by the intense heat and humidity of mid-year Panama along the Caribbean coast. I’ve greatly enjoyed spending time with family and friends and seeing the Seattle and San Juan Island areas at the peak of glorious summertime.

I leave, though, saddened by the sorry state of national government in this country and the politics that drive it. A small, radical group within the government ruthlessly practices vicious partisanship, doctrinaire strategies, and cynical manipulations in the interest of narrow, self-serving ends. And the current administration, whether because it cannot believe that “responsible” opposition in government could act so irresponsibly or because they simply are too weak, refuses to stand up to the political hostage-taking, identify the tactics for what they are, and act decisively for the great majority of Americans.

We have an economy in ruins, thanks to enormous overspending by the Bush administration (which started out with a balanced budget, a legacy of the Clinton administration), yet the ultra-conservatives put the political process in a choke hold to ensure that the government cuts spending just when it should be creating jobs and increasing spending. The government puts Wall Street executives and former executives in key economic management positions, when it was Wall Street that caused the economic meltdown in the first place. We have Republican candidates for president who deny the existence of global warming, reject evolution as a theory, and even challenge the validity of science in general. And on and on …

But that’s the way it is right now. Fuck it — I’m going back to Panama, and next year I’m going to take on some volunteer work, helping bring medical care and better public health to remote or disadvantaged people and villages around the western Caribbean. Lots more about that in the future, no doubt.

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