Arrival in a Narrow Country

Flew from Miami to Panama City, Panama yesterday.  While sitting in a comfortable leather seat aboard an American Airlines 757 and eating a filet mignon lunch, I looked down at Cuba.  Supposedly they have everything to which we Americans aspire, i.e., universal health care and an excellent public education system.  Yet Cubans are dirt poor and it is we ignorant and infirm residents of the United States who designed and built the 757.  The comparison isn’t quite fair but really you’d think that the Cubans, being so well educated and blessed with a large and fertile country, would have done better for themselves.  Perhaps politics do matter, a sobering thought as Election 2004 sweeps across the U.S.

Graham, a Kiwi flight instructor from, picked me up at the big international airport here (PTY) and, after a brief stop to change into shorts, we went to the small domestic airport and preflighted a Robinson R22 helicopter, removed the doors, and, with the Pacific Ocean at our backs, took off north along the Canal.  A moderate rain, unseasonable this time of year in Panama, pelted my bare skin though the gaping holes in the sides of the machine, now approaching its 100 mph (160 kph) cruising speed.  Soon the rain ended, however, and we were abeam the magnificent Miraflores Locks. After skirting the airspace over a prison and a rainforest resort we dropped down to 500′ over the jungle bordering Lake Gatun, the heart of the Panama Canal.  A few minutes later we were coming up on Colon, the big city and free trade zone at the Caribbean end of the Canal. After a quick glance down at the collapsed rusting rooftops of downtown Colon it is not hard to believe that this is the unemployment, poverty, and crime capital of the nation.

“… children run about in rags and the city’s largely black
population lives in rotting buildings.  … If you walk its streets,
even in th emiddle of the day, expect to get mugged.  It really is
that bad.”

— Lonely Planet guidebook (this is a publisher that thinks
   Columbia is a nice safe country to visit!)

Cruising at 80 mph west from Colon, 50′ above the breakers, we reached the mouth of the Rio Chagres, whose prodigious flow in the rainy season stymied the Canal builders.  This is the river that the pirate Henry Morgan used in 1671 to gain access to the original settlement of Panama City.  On the cliffs above the sea is the ruined Fuerte San Lorenzo, built to protect the Spanish gold trade from guys like Henry Morgan.  Adjacent to the fort is a partially fenced grassy area. Graham decided to put the R22 down there.  We walked around the fort for a bit, looked at the rusty cannon, and then fired up for the return trip to Panama City, landing just at sunset.

Then it was back to the hotel for a shorts-and-T-shirt dinner at a table outdoors, on a patio overlooking Canal-bound ships going underneath the Puente de las Americas.  The helicopter pilots talked about their jobs on the tuna boats here.  The 200′-long tuna boats carry a light helicopter so that the captain can go up and coordinate the action of little speed boats that collect the nets.  When the work is done the pilot has to land on a rolling metal deck, often spread with a net to provide friction.  “Sounds like landing on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier,” I observed.  “Oh, it is much harder than that,” the pilots noted.  “Remember that this is a very small ship and it goes up and down with the waves a lot more.”  Tuna boat helicopter pilots tend to be young and unmarried.

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