PANAMA (part 1)

We arrived in Balboa (the town on the Pacific or south side of canal) late in the afternoon on November 6. 

We had to anchor here because the locks don’t operate at night. We’ve been warned not to go ashore, but Andy (our waiter) took Denise into town, and as he’s crew he should know if it’s safe. Chris and I figured we’d be ok too, as long as we stayed together.

Tim Roche recalls that we were all advised not to go ashore alone and to stay in large groups. “We were given plenty of other advice before disembarking,” Tim points out, and Isabel Saville agrees: “It was drummed into our heads!”

But like Chris and I, many others including Daphne Freke and her friends didn’t heed the advice, or didn’t hear it. Perhaps we took comfort in the fact that we were young and therefore immortal. What could happen to us?

Fortunately we all lived to tell the tale. “To be honest,” Daphne said , “we didn’t know it was dangerous!”

Chris and I bravely descended the gangplank with an after-dark tour of Balboa in mind. We only reached the bottom step when deck-hand Kiriarkos came running down behind us calling “no no no you must not go, you must stay, very dangerous, very dangerous!”

Kiriarkos walked us to the end of the pier and bought us bubble gum, drinks and stale cake in plastic wrappers from a vending machine, explaining in his broken English that if we’d gone into Balboa – two females alone at night – we might never have been seen again.

Linda Pape also remembers being told she would probably not be seen again if she went ashore. Alan Morrison risked it, but was turned back by a car load of US soldiers. “I may be wrong,” he mused later, “but I feel they controlled the centre of town. It all seemed quite exciting at the time,” he laughs, adding “we were naive and bullet proof, I guess.”

18 year-old Kay McEwen and a group of friends risked a night-time shore visit. They entered a club in Balboa, but didn’t realize at first that it was a strip club . Kay remembers watching “one tame partial strip and the rest of the acts were hilarious,  including a man miming at being on a typewriter to accompanying music.”

21 year-old Carol Stackhouse Morris and a crowd of friends also found themselves at a strip club. “There were lots of strippers,” she recalls, “and they did a routine where they started off naked then put their clothes back on. It sounds odd,” she added, “but it was very artistic!”

I’d like to have seen such a quirky striptease, but Chris and I were held captive for the entire evening, sitting on the docks with our guardian angel, Kiriarkos and talking about his home in Crete and his plans to become an officer. When he had to head back to work,  Rafael (the Italian drinks waiter) took his place. I was beginning to suspect the crew were taking turns to keep watch over two silly females who might be inclined to wander away and find themselves alone and friendless in dangerous Balboa … and perhaps live out the rest of their lives as white slaves!

Denise Gillyett-Marshall was warned that single women in Balboa were being taken as white slaves. We laughed it off at the time, but crew member Costas Veloudakis confirmed it years later in facebook:  “All women slaves were housed in a compound at the outskirts of the town and men had to pay an entrance fee. Then they would choose who they wanted.”

  When Denise and our waiter Andy hadn’t arrived back by 3am, we could only hope they were safe and headed off to catch some shut-eye. Our cabin steward, Dalos, woke us four hours later so we could join everyone on deck and view the exciting process of traversing the canal. Thankfully we found Denise curled up in her bunk, so left her to sleep off her late night.

Chris and I scrambled (bleary-eyed) up on deck to watch what – forgive me – we found to be a tedious journey through the first two locks. We didn’t have a passion for impressive engineering feats, nor did we find the jungle scenery particularly exciting. (Seen one jungle, seen ’em all, haha.) Besides, it was overwhelmingly hot and steamy, so after breakfast we headed back to bed and slept until early afternoon.

At the time, I was blissfully ignorant of how steeped in history the Canal was. Perhaps if I’d known, I might have shown more interest. For a start, I had no idea that the first European to discover this short-cut to the new world was Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa in 1513.

Approaching from the Atlantic and unaware that they had stepped ashore on a narrow isthmus and not part of a great land mass, Balboa and his men began fighting their way through dense and dangerous jungle.

Author Josie Dew gives us some idea of what they must have faced in her wonderful book, Saddled At Sea:

“thickly knotted mangrove swamps and hills and mountains carpeted in dense tropical jungle and astonishingly noisy with baboons and thousands of insects and colourful birds, ….giant white and electric yellow flowers blooming as big as dinner plates on the tops of some of the weirdly primeval-looking trees.” (Sphere Books, 2006)

Josie wondered how long she might survive if she was dumped in this jungle. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that Balboa and a few of his men paused to climb a mountain (a Peak in a region called Darien) so they could gauge how much more sweat and struggle lay ahead for them.

The famous “Peak in Darien”

Imagine their astonishment when — fully expecting to see miles upon miles of more jungle ahead — what they saw was a mighty ocean stretched out before them!

So surprising was this sight that today, when verifiable visions of other-wordly realms are glimpsed by people on their deathbeds, they have become known as Peak in Darien Experiences – a phrase made famous from a poem by 19th century poet, John Keats.

However, Keats mistakenly credited Cortez with this first sighting …

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Perhaps we can forgive the illustrious poet for getting his wires crossed three centuries later – there was no google in those days! Cortez didn’t arrived to conquer Mexico for a further six years (1519), and it’s doubtful he even stepped foot on Panama.

Whoever saw it first, and whatever they chose to call it, it’s difficult to believe that anyone in the 16th century could imagine what that narrow isthmus could eventually become. One did, however. An engineer in Balboa’s company recognized the immense value of linking the two oceans, and Balboa passed his suggestion on to King Ferdinand of Spain.

Not surprisingly, nothing was attempted for over 300 years. And when it was eventually commenced, it was a total disaster!

We’ll explore what happened next when I post Panama part 2, and also learn what other Chandris passengers did ashore … and what they thought when encountering guns, drugs, knives, muggings, and even a few grenades and machine guns! What fun!