Hello Panama City!!  We arrived in the late afternoon on Thursday 22nd February and having left home at 4.30am where it was very cold and about 2C, the warmth of Panama at 31C was very welcome.  We arrived with Jamie Carter the photographer and met Ronald Vetters and Ann Putts off the same plane and had last seen them in Norway at the end of the Slartibartfast last September, so it was a happy reunion!

We were dropped at the Intercontinental Hotel and our room had a wonderful view of the sea, the marina and the coast line.  John and Fiona were there to meet us and in the bar were some of the participants;  Jose and Maria de Sousa, Frank Bird and Don Cleveland, Serge and Jacqueline Bertier and Manuel Enes and Alexandra Pombo.  Some of us went out to dinner at a Lebanese restaurant called Al Basha and had a delicious selection of mezes or ‘mesa’ as they call it here before collapsing exhausted into bed.

At 10am the following morning, Toby and several other drivers set off for the Port to collect their cars.  They returned mid afternoon but Roland and Ann’s car, a 2004 Chrysler PT Cruiser, became slower and slower on the drive back, and Toby could smell the brakes and saw smoke coming from the front wheels.  They all stopped in three lanes of heavy traffic, causing chaos, and established that both front brakes had locked on, the engine management light had some on and the engine had gone into ‘limp’ mode.  Things were not looking good! 

At the hotel Toby stripped out the brakes and found the brake pads rusty and shot and the caliper’s seized.  New brake pads would have to be found but we would have to wait for tomorrow when Hernan, one of our ‘fixers’ who is from Argentina, would be here to help with the lingo!

John and Fen Aird, who we had also last seen on the Slartibartfast, had arrived a few days earlier and had visited a bird sanctuary yesterday and today visited the old City. In the afternoon, Stanley and Angelika Illman and Theo and Esmarie du Toit arrived and in the evening Adrian and Barbara Shooter.  Jacqueline had a spell in hospital as she was not feeling very well and after a blood test and scans she was put on a drip and told she had viral Bronchitis! She returned armed with antibiotics and warned anyone who came near to stay away!

That night Gerd and Birgit Buhler also arrived.  Their plane had been grounded by a leaking coffee machine and they had been diverted to New York and finally arrived after a 36 hour ordeal!!

On Saturday morning we all collected our rally bags and Toby spent a few hours sticking the map stickers and rally plates on to everyone’s cars in the increasingly hot sun!  Now they looked like rally cars, all on the same rally!

A local mechanic turned up at 8.30am to have a look at Ronald’s car and was useful in telling us where new brake pads and discs could be found.  Hernan and Ronald set off to find them and John and Fen found a car wash which had water – yesterday all the car washes were closed due to the water company digging up a mains pipe, which deprived most of Panana City of water!!  They cruised into the hotel in their gleaming metalic turquoise (with matching tourquoise trim) 1965 Chevrolet Impala – the exact car John bought and drove whilst at Harvard University in 1965!  Happy memories! 

A locksmith was found and ‘Ronald’s mechanic’ was charged with taking several sets of car keys to the locksmith to get some spare sets cut and then John set off in his Impala to get the airconditioning regassed but sadly the garage had closed.

Meanwhile Toby found that Ronald’s caliper’s had seized so they were given to the local mechanic who took them to his workshop for a rebuild.  Toby then found he had  a flat tyre and went to the Lube Centre and was happy to catch up with the delightful proprietor, who two years before had allowed us to use his ramps and workshop, late into the night, even leaving us the keys to the workshop and asking us to lock up when finished and to hide the key.  All in all it was a busy day for everyone. 

I caught a taxi to the Multicentre to buy another pair of the Cuban healed leather ankle boots, which I had bought on the last Maya, and was most disappointed to find the shop no longer existed.  I then went to the Old City, Casco Antiguo, and spent an happy hour wandering the narrow streets and enjoying looking at the local artisan crafts.  Many of the stalls in the market and the shops sold the same sort of crafts but I loved all the colourful masks of toucans, monkeys, horses and other animals.  I can see a purchase and some serious haggling on the horizon.  Just don’t tell Toby!

At 7.30pm we all gathered for a briefing from John and the team before having a delicious dinner with cerviche, smoked salmon, beautifully roast vegetables and several hot dishes.  It was both Birgit and Fen’s birthdays that day, and a cake with two candles was presented and an enthusiastic rendition of Happy Birthday was sung by all.

Sunday brought another beautifully day and we all gathered at 10am in the lobby for the bus to the Panama Canal about 20 minutes drive away in Miraflores.  We arrived at the Canal and made our way up to the platform and were just in time to see a ship at the far end, exiting the last lock, being towed by the unique rope handling trains on either side.  There were no more ships scheduled to pass through in the next hour or two so we went to see a 10 minute film on the history of Panama and the canal.

It began with Vasco Nunez de Balboa crossing the Isthmus of Panama in 1513 and this route later became the gold route. In 1821 Panama achieved their independence from Spain, there was a gold rush in 1848 and in 1880 France started work on the Panama Canal.  After 10 years of hard work they abandoned the site due to malaria and yellow fever which killed over 22,000 people.  In 1903 the support of the USA helped Panama achieve independence from Columbia and Panama granted the USA sovereign rights over the interoceanic canal and that would be built over the next 10 years.  It opened in 1914 but it was not until 31 December 1999 that the ownership of the Panama Canal was transferred to Panama. 

The Miraflores lock lifts the ships up 16 meters and it takes 8-10 hours to reach the north coast. It would take 22 days to go round by sea.

The new canal was begun in December 2007 and completed on 26 June 2016 and the locks are 40% longer and 60% wider than the older canal locks and the depth is the equivalent to a 10 storey building.  The fees to use the new canal range from $500,000 – $1,200,000.00 but then a large ship can use £3 million of fuel to take the long way round so going through the canal is quite a bargain!

The next ship to come through was scheduled at 4.30pm so having looked round the museum we returned on the bus, dropping most people off at the old city for lunch.  The rest of us returned to the hotel and Jamie, the photographer, asked reception to find out and confirm when the next ship was passing through and this time the answer was 2.30pm.  So he jumped in a taxi and stopped at the Mercado de Mariscos, the fish market, for a few photos of the market stalls and also of the pelicans and vultures outside, which were standing in rows along the roof tops, waiting for the scraps to be thrown out. Jamie then returned to the canal and was lucky enough to see two ships pass through.

Tomorrow we set off on the rally, so there was not much partying that night!