Have you lived in or visited Panama? Tell us about it!

Panama – March 2017 —  I lived in Panama off and on when I was stationed at Howard AFB in the 90’s. The short time I knew the region surrounding the Canal, I discovered a culture with rich history but a hard dividing line between the haves and the have-nots. I visited there on temporary orders for two weeks at a time. I did this many times as a member of an aircrew. When time allowed, we visited Panama City and the Canal region around the Gaillard Cut. The city was very cosmopolitan in places and had an active night life. When we went there to eat, we found a wide array of foods available…likely as a result of the variety of trade passing through the Canal…and some exotic locales. I remember one restaurant, the name is lost in my foggy memory, that featured a lush garden setting in the outdoor dining area with an assortment of inexplicable large plastic animals throughout.

It’s one thing to put out a few wildlife specimens that live in the area, but I was at a loss to explain the rhino and giraffe figures. The portions were generous and the price of the meal was quite reasonable. Gaillard’s Cut is an area that is remembered for the engineer who supervised the construction on that section of the canal because the area was very difficult to work. Another name for it is the Culebra Cut. We would take some beer and food to picnic tables set up there and watch the traffic on the Canal. I must admit it was fascinating to watch the long transport ships navigate the waters in that area and clear the narrow turns with feet to spare on each side of the ship. I understand the only pilots that are responsible for the canal navigation are specially trained and board the ships before they are allowed to enter the first locks on either side. They can make a good living in a country that has few jobs outside of the Canal area. When we drove to and from the city and along the Pan-American highway to and from the other area military bases, dozens of people were on the side of the road selling everything from cheap souvenirs like postcards and small trinkets to wooly llama rugs of all shapes, sizes and designs.

However, the entire country depends on the income from the ships passing through the Canal. People may live in cardboard boxes…which I saw in many places along the highway area…, the country’s government may collapse, but the Canal will be dredged and open at all times. When I was stationed there for a longer period in 1989, Manuel Noriega was acting up and causing trouble for the American bases there. He decided to show his machismo by holding up the Sunday newspaper coming in from Miami on Father’s Day. Mail and cargo shipments to the military were delayed while the State Department worked the issue. As a result, my car That I’d shipped on a military Transport coming in from Florida was held at the Port of New Orleans.

I had to rent a very expensive car from a local Hertz for over a month. My uniforms and clothes were delayed and I lived out of a suitcase for about three months. It was a very stressful time an was nothing like I’d experienced before. To return to the land of the all night hamburger and stress-free driving along a well lit road was a relief and welcome relaxation. When the U.S, had decided to intervene forcefully and capture Noriega on drug charges, they sank his three yachts, They were named, “Macho 1”, “Macho 2” and “Macho 3”. I’m not kidding. Look it up. Overall it’s a beautiful area with wonderful people. However, the area outside the highway is dense jungle with dangerous snakes and the occasional jungle cat, including jaguars. The place is so wild that the U.S. Jungle Survival school, affectionately called “Snake School”, is located here. The aircrews and Green Berets headed to Vietnam trained there. In addition, the Canal brings in merchandise of every description from around the world, both legal and otherwise. It’s best to travel around only the the inhabited areas and ONLY in large groups.

I can’t stress that enough. I was told to steer clear of the city of Colon , the northern part of the country, and the area around Lake Gatun in the north. The port city is a breeding ground for crime and desperation…so I was told by official channels, but I’ve never been there.