Continued from yesterday — Needless to say, from when we first saw the cruise ship, it was only a few more twists and turns in the road before the jungle abruptly ended and there was a massive concrete structure in front of our face. The light was red for us, so we stopped at the intersection. On our right, the cruise ship in the canal was creeping towards us ever so slowly, until it came to the barrier marking the edge of the lock and stopped. The portion of the canal the ship was about to be lowered into was directly in front of us, but the buildings and bridge blocked any view of the waterway we may have had. We wondered if a ship was in there right now, having just been lowered. Probable, considering we were stopped.
The light turned green and we moved forward onto the bridge, a little awed by how absolutely massive the lock is. The walls and gate are enormous. And we were even more awed by how old these locks are. Are they really 100 years old? Everything is well maintained and in good working order. If we didn’t know better, we would have guessed maybe only 20 or 30 years old, not 100. To this day, this canal and the lock system is still viewed as something of an engineering marvel, and we can see why.
Once on the other side of the canal, we were definitely on the outskirts of a town. You know what we mean”¦ a lot of undeveloped lots, some of them still jungle, some of them cleared and ready for development. A few random buildings here and there, some houses, some industrial. Most of the houses are bungalow style with metal roofs, and many are up on stilts. Tall stilts. We did pass a couple of complexes that looked like they were former USA government property. One looks to be completely abandoned, the other looks to be partially used by the Panamanian military or police. We also passed what looks to be a brand new American style gated community track home development. Several houses were still under construction.
We arrived at an American style strip mall, complete with a Pizza Hut and a Payless Shoe Source. This complex was definitely built for the Americans that worked on the canal. Victor dropped the rest of the passengers off at the grocery store and we continued on. The strip mall turned out to be on the edge of Colon proper. From there on in, it was an urban city. Within a few more minutes, we were at the city center. We passed the bus station. All the busses are old school busses, the kind we used to ride when we were kids, that have been repainted with beautiful artwork. Every bus is different.
A couple blocks from the bus station, close to the waterfront, Victor stopped the bus in front of a Citibank. He escorted us in. There were a lot of security guards, all wearing bullet proof vests. He pointed us to a window in the far corner and told us to go there. The lady behind the counter took one of our passports and the paperwork our measurer had given us, then made a phone call. After a few minutes, she came back and collected our cash for the transit fee and charged the credit card for our deposit. She said that we could call to make an appointment to transit after 1800.
We went straight back to the shuttle. Victor needed to run an errand a few blocks away. We got to see a couple new streets before stopping, and while stopped, got a good look around. When Victor got out of the bus, he locked us in so that no one could open the door and attack us. He was only gone for about three minutes.
Colon was originally established in 1850 as the Caribbean terminal for the new railroad line about to be built. At first Colon flourished, but within 20 years had deteriorated to being small, dirty, and rough. A few entrepreneurs catering to the transients and some railroad workers lived there, but most people passed through Colon as quickly as possible. Sickness and disease thrived there due to unsanitary conditions. When the French arrived to start on the canal project, they were so horrified that they built a separate city very close to Colon to base their operations out of. They wanted no part of Colon. In 1885, a revolutionary burned Colon down in an attempt to start a revolution. The revolution went nowhere at the time, but it gave Colon a fresh start. The city was entirely rebuilt to be as beautiful as Panama City, and became a pleasurable place to live. The city became wealthy, largely from income somehow tied to the canal construction. When the construction was completed in 1914, unemployment in Colon skyrocketed and the local economy disintegrated almost overnight. Colon has never quite recovered.
As we looked around, we saw that most of the buildings are 2 4 story. The architectural style varies, but judging by the fancy appointments, many buildings look like they were glorious when they were new. Of course, they are all about 100 years old now, and it looks like many have never had any maintenance or repairs ever done to them. They are in scary shape, many looking like they are beyond needing to be condemned. Several are abandoned. Instead of simply boarding up the abandoned places, they actually have bricked in the windows and doors to ensure that squatters cannot get in.
Even though it is run down, Colon doesn’t have a third world feel to it. Usually third world countries have a lot of half built structures. Fully built structures often vary wildly in quality of construction, with a mansion next to a shack. There also seems to be little zoning regulations in third world countries, so you’ll have an auto shop next to a house. Third world countries often have open sewers and don’t smell the greatest. No, this definitely feels like it was originally built in the first world urban style, but has been neglected.
There were a lot of people walking around, and judging by the amount of foot traffic, you would never know it is unsafe. We didn’t see anyone who looked scary. Most people looked like your average guy/gal, with no one looking particularly wealthy or poor. Victor said the locals know how to handle themselves and that tourists stick out like a sore thumb. So, while it is relatively safe for locals, tourists are targeted.
When Victor returned, he asked us if we wanted to stop at the best bakery in town. Of course, we said an enthusiastic yes. We drove a few more blocks, all looking similar to the streets we had just seen, then he pulled over and escorted us inside. He made it clear he needed to be with us at all times for our safety. Everything in the bakery was so cheap it was unbelievable. A loaf of bread is only 35 cents. Cinnamon rolls were probably the most expensive item at an outrageous 75 cents each. We loaded up on bread and sweets, then Victor took us back to the grocery store to pick up the rest of the passengers.
It was 1430, and the shuttle wasn’t scheduled to return to the marina for another hour. We ran into the grocery store and did some shopping. It is a humungous American style store, with zillions of mostly American products on the shelves. Most Americans would be thrilled by this, but unfortunately, Christi can’t digest many of the common chemical additives and hormones put into American foods. We spent most of the time reading labels and hadn’t gotten much into the cart before the time was up. These chemicals and hormones don’t seem to be used much in the rest of the world, and this is the first place in the world (aside from the US) where we have had to put back item after item because they contain the wrong ingredients. We’ll have to take the bus back tomorrow to complete our food shopping.
In Panama, they use the US dollar as their official currency, and it was a treat to not have to mentally convert prices to US dollars in our heads. Prices are comparable to what we pay in the US for the same thing, so this must be an expensive grocery store by Panamanian standards.
On the way back, we again were stopped at the locks to wait for a passing ship. This time we had a great view ahead of us and got to see the whole process from beginning to end. There is a little locomotive train on each side of the waterway. The train pulls the ship to the edge of the lock. The lock lowers. The lock doors open and the trains drive down a steep ramp. Once the locomotive is on the same level as the ship, the train pulls the ship forward to the edge of the next lock. Very cool. We are glad that we now have a visual idea of what to expect.
Back at the marina, Eric went to the marina office and made an appointment to get fuel. Rather than a fuel dock, here in Colon, fuel is delivered via a barge. The barge goes out to the tankers in the bay, and would come here to the marina tomorrow to fill us up. The owner of the 57 happened to be in there trying to send a fax. He had chosen to use one of the bonded agents. His agent had told him to fax or email in all his paperwork to them and he was having problems getting both the fax and the email to work. He was really aggravated. It was conformation that we had definitely made the right choice with Victor.
At 2000, Eric called Victor and found out that the measurer had not turned in our paperwork yet, so we can’t make a transit appointment. Sigh.