Cruise Junkies

I’ve written at some length about cruise etiquette (or lack thereof). You can find it in my blog, Thinking Allowed in the archives for Jan 20, 2009 at a post entitled Cruising at the Bottom of the World.   I’m now convinced that entire sociology texts could be written about this subject, and further I’m hereby positing that the social norms of any particular cruise are heavily influenced by the demographics of the instant cruisers. To wit: our recent ten day cruise of the western Caribbean.  Let me explain.

The demographics and the resultant on-board groupings are determined by several factors.  Obviously the cruise itinerary, including the ports of embarkation and debarkation are high on the list of things that may sway the composition of the cruisers.  For example, our most recent cruise departed from Barbados which retains its strong historical linkage to the British Empire; thus, our ship was chock-a-bloc with Brits who had just spent a few days in their very own tropical England away from the real England before boarding.  Odd thing about traveling Brits, wherever they go they tend to congregate at places pretending to be what they just left at home.  You know, the pretend pubs and eating establishments serving poor imitations of steak and kidney pie or bangers and mash.  Other Europeans, Germans and Italians, most particularly, tend to gravitate to this type of trip as well because, well, I guess it’s because they’ve had to live cheek by jowl with the Brits for so long, in good times and in bad, that they are more comfortable with them than say, Americans or Russians.

If you’re good at geography and history you’ll know that the various island groupings of the Caribbean were colonized and pretty well plundered by European powers of the day, and we still see the evidences of that particular dark part of recent history.  The French (St. Barts), the Dutch (St. Martins), Cuba (Spain), Barbados and others (UK), Aruba (the Portuguese) all still seem to maintain a curious form of proprietary interest and a feeling of home-away-from-home in these tropical enclaves.  Having said that, while, as I indicated there were plenty of Brits aboard, there was nary a citizen of Portugal in sight, even though Aruba was one of the highlighted ports of call.

Time of year also is a significant influence on who our shipmates will be.  This particular trip was in mid-March when there is both school holidays and an absence of sun in the British Isles and continental Europe. From my own time living London, I can assure you that anyone with two nickels or two euros to rub together was making a mad dash for a holiday in the sun.  The Algarve in Portugal and the Costa del Sol, the typical landing spots for these sojourners, were still evidencing the last vestiges of winter, and even North Africa, which the more adventurous European traveler might gravitate towards, did not have enough steady sunshine the get the highly sought after one week body burn.  So the Caribbean it is.

Certainly the $$$ of the cruise selects out or in certain of the economic strata.  With tariffs starting out high and reaching the nosebleed level very quickly, one is not likely to be confronted with the average punter from the corner pub.  As this particular cruise was offered by one of the “luxury” brand names and was “all inclusive,” both the net worth and the age of the guest tended toward the high end of the range.  The “all inclusive” in cruising lingo can have a myriad of meanings, but certainly they all convey the right to quaff all the booze you desire with no additional cost.  This, of course, leads to some interesting social outcomes.

Oh, I haven’t mentioned one additional factor which tends to have an out-sized effect on the dynamics of the crowd.  Singles.  While singles are discriminated against economically (they have to pay a fifty percent premium for their right to not share a room with a spouse or significant other), they also get some special treatment.  Every cruise that I’ve been on has escorts to entertain the ladies among the singles crowd.  You know…they chat them up during the single’s cocktail hours, become bridge partners with needed, and, most importantly, they dance with them whenever the band strikes up.  Which is pretty often.  I dunno what the single guys do for social interaction as there are no female escorts, at least none that I could detect.  We’ve actually met some delightful solo travelers along the way.  I remember fondly an elegant lady of indeterminate age whose husband had been a small town vicar, but had recently deceased.  She decided to see and meet the world and was doing quite well at it.

Then there are the smokers.  Yes, they are still here amongst us but, admittedly, in smaller numbers…except for the Italians.  Cruise rules are now pretty strict about where one can take a puff, but they do have their designated areas.  One table on the pool deck was entirely devoted to this pursuit and was dominated by a gaggle of Italians that created a haze of blue smoke over their area.  They smoked and drank wine and smoked…morning, noon, and night.  I never saw them do anything else or or off the ship.

So there you have the demographic segmentation of a spring cruise in the Caribbean:

  1.  The Americans, who are everywhere and, for the most part, behave fairly well.
  2.  The Euros (Brits, Germans, Italians, and a scattering of Scandinavians).  Who are eternally looking for someplace like home. Oddly, the French don’t often join the European gaggle.  It’s not that they don’t cruise, they just don’t cruise on ships where the predominant language is English.  So French!
  3.  The Singles (discussed above).
  4.  The Smokers (also discussed above).
  5.  The Gays.  More on them later.
  6.  The Lifer Cruisers.  These people have been everywhere and most places twice.  And love to tell you about every place they’ve ever been, and then tell you again.

I referred above to the gay demographic, who I must say, are always amongst the friendliest and most well behaved of all.  Indeed, on this sailing though the western Caribbean, S (my darling wife, Sandra) and I met and socialized with a delightful gay couple who owned and operated a retail bakery in Ohio.  The curious thing is, without an exact accounting, it always seems that their numbers aboard ship are disproportionate to their presence in society at home.  I know I’m on the verge of getting in deep sociological waters here, but I wonder if it’s that they like to travel more, have more money, or just that they have an innate sense of adventure.  Or, maybe they’re not different at all.

Come to think of it, perhaps it’s in the nature of cruise ships.  To be diversified that is.  And perhaps that’s what appeals to me.  Where else could one – meet and talk to the widow of a vicar from England embarking on her first trip abroad – inadvertently insult the private secretary to Prince Phillip (to which I plead guilty) by suggesting that the concept of a royal family was well past its sell-by date –  initiate a long term friendship with a compatible couple from Santa Fe – engage on the periphery of a Brit and American discussing heatedly the merits of warm vs. cold beer – enjoy watching an elegant, older Spanish woman dancing the tango with a ship’s escort – meeting a young Japanese couple who spoke no English enjoy strolling the deck hand in hand – or watch as a wheelchair bound octogenarian satisfies a life long ambition by having the deck crew lower him to touch his seventh continent.  It is a form of socializing by force majeur.  You are thrown together with a few hundred people from around the globe, and with whom you will share the next 7, 14 or 21 days in the luxurious setting of a sea-going vessel and visiting pre-selected sites that you will now share in common.

Oh, btw, one of our very favorite things to do is to take advantage of the maitre d’s capacity to seat you at a table of eight complete strangers, and enjoy (or not) ninety minutes of food and conversation that you would never experience anywhere else.

One last thought about the Caribbean in general and the western Caribbean in particular.  There are real people there, living or struggling to live real lives.  The glamor of the ship and the all inclusive resorts fades very quickly and not very far from the water’s edge.  That is both the charm and the sadness of the islands.

My favorite experience this trip was in a small port village on the north side of the Dominican Republic.  There was really nothing there, at least from a luxury cruiser’s perspective. No great native restaurants, no shopping for local designer goods, not even a good t-shirt shop.  But as the driver we had hired for a couple of hours was showing us what there was to see, I saw a small, somewhat dilapidated baseball stadium off the main road.  I asked the driver to stop.  There were a number of young Dominicans practicing.  I mean seriously practicing.  I walked over closer to the field with a camera and asked the nearest young man if I could take some photos.  “Si,” he said.  He spoke little English and my Spanish is pathetic.  But somehow we talked for a while about baseball, and he asked me what America was like.  I answered as best I could.  We shook hands as I departed, and I thought… Maybe this is why we travel.

 

 

 

 

Burma

If you are of a certain age, I bet I know the first thing that comes to mind when you see the word “Burma.”  Be honest now, I’m pretty sure it had nothing to do with Aung San Suu Kyi or the dreadful military tyrants that have had the country in lockdown for the last fifty years. Your first thought may go something like this:

“Does your husband, Misbehave?  Grunt and Grumble, Rant and Rave?                               Shoot the Brute…Some Burma Shave!”

I know you wouldn’t remember the exact words of the doggerel but, more likely than not, you would have thought of Burma Shave. That’s about where I started out as well.

Burma, or as the rest of the world knows it, Myanmar, was not exactly on my radar screen. I knew it was somewhere in Southeast Asia, but I’d have been hard pressed to put my finger on the globe and locate it.  I must admit that Obama’s trip there in 2011 and again in 2014 put Burma briefly in the news and in my consciousness.  Interestingly, Obama is the only US president to ever visit Burma; now twice in two years.  Every shop we visited had a photograph of Obama on one of his visits.  Indeed, I saw more of Obama in Burma than any other country we have visited.

Suffice it to say that Burma is a country in the throws of a transition that may never be complete. Unfortunately, it has more than a little of the political character of Cuba or North Korea, and the consequences on civil society have been equally disastrous.  In my readings before our trip, it was reported that the average income per person is around two dollars a day.   I’m always suspicious of such data from third or fourth world countries, because their ability to gather and report economic data is virtually non-existent – but in this case, based on my own observations, much of the rural population is in a day to day struggle to merely survive.

A little about the history of Burma.  I’ve always thought it easier to understand the present if I had some knowledge of the past, but don’t worry, I won’t make this a tutorial.  In fact, in some ways Burma’s history is pretty simple.  I’ve laid it out in five eras.

Pre-Colonial Era (13,000 BCE to 1824)  I’m sure this was an important era if you lived there then, but other than fairly constant wars and the forming and un-forming of various dynasties, not much of interest to our current understanding happened.  I guess that the beginning of recorded Burmese history when the Puy people began to settle in the Irrawaddy River Valley in 2000 BCE should be noted.  It took roughly four thousand years for the competing forces and dynasties to resolve themselves into a unified entity, which then lasted barely 125 years.

Colonial Era (1824-1948)  The Brits did the typical colonial master thing in organizing then plundering their colony, all the while looking down their noses at the native peoples. The only legacies preserved from this era are a lingering hatred of the English and driving on the wrong side of the road.  If you want to know more about how the British behaved and how it impacted the Burmese, the best descriptor of this period is none other than George Orwell, who is best remembered for his novels about dystopian societies.  In 1934 Orwell’s novel Burmese Days was published.  This book exposed the worst of the British and Burmese character.  It was subsequently banned in Burma until only recently.  His later books, Animal Farm and 1984, while not mentioning Burma directly, are said to be based in substantial part on Orwell’s experiences and observations in Burma.

The War Years (1941-1948)  Yes, I know there is some overlap here, but that’s the way history presents itself.  While this era is the shortest of my Burmese eras, it sets the context for much of what was to follow.  Suffice it to say that the Burmese hated, and I mean hated, their colonial masters, the English.  In fact, this hatred manifested itself in behaviors that are hard to understand from today’s viewpoint.  Aung Sung, who is the father of recent heroine and Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, and is considered to be much like the George Washington and Tom Jefferson of Burma, made the tactically understandable but strategically disastrous decision of initially allying with the Japanese.  He, of course, was driven by (one might say blinded by) his hatred of colonialism and the British.  By 1944, Aung Sung saw the writing on the wall and reversed course, dumped the Japanese and flew to the not-so welcoming arms of the Western Powers.  I won’t try to give you the details, but to say at the least he had created an environment of distrust that lasted well beyond the war years.

The Era of Burmese Independence (1948-1962)  This is perhaps the most confusing of the eras.  In a period of only fourteen years, the much beloved leaders of this newly independent and resource-rich country with a promising future mucked it up to the point where they were displaced by a military coup that lasts to this day.  Their first president, Nyaung Shwe Sawbwo Shwe Taik (now you see why Obama may have had trouble with names while he was there), romanced and then denounced a budding communist movement, and made a few other disastrous decisions, which ultimately led to his demise.

The Era of Military Tyranny (1962-Present)  The military coup that took place in 1962 has not yet ended, although lately there have been some promising signs.  Certainly the Obama administration believed that to be the case when they offered the olive branch of reduced sanctions in return for some civilized behavior on the part of the current Junta. Sadly, the people of Burma have suffered while the military elite and their fellow travelers have prospered.  There have been paroxysms of violence along the way.  In 1988, a naively hopeful citizenship led by a consortium of monks, students and pro-democracy advocates – along with the now famous Aung San Suu Kyi – marched, protested, demonstrated and generally pestered the military rulers to try to convince them to proceed with some long promised democratic reforms.  You guessed it, the results were not good.  In fact, they were really bad.  This brief insurrection is now likened to the Burmese Tiananmen Square. An estimated three thousand citizens were killed, mostly students and monks.  A deft journalist recorded on film the deaths of five hundred of these in front of the American Embassy.  When this film was distributed to international news bureaus, the world finally became aware, in this awful way, of the consequences of this oppressive tyranny.

I will admit to having skipped a lot of stuff in this abbreviated and much edited history, but I hope you got the drift.  I’ll add to this picture some of my own observations and questions that arose in my brief but enlightening exposure to Burma.

The National Army pretty much owns everything of value in the country, and nothing works, so it ought to be easy to conclude that the solution might be to get rid of the Army or at least the pervasive power of the Army.  Easier said than done.

The monks (and Buddha) pretty much control every thing the Army doesn’t, and what they control doesn’t work very well either.  To wit: they have a million or so pagodas (basically shrines to Buddha) painted with gold leaf at great expense while their children are dying from malnutrition and drinking polluted river water. The Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon is said of have tens of millions of dollars of gold leaf decorating its various shrines.  I always presumed Buddhism to be a religion of personal awareness and peace, but that’s clearly not the case either.  Burma is home to some of the most oppressed ethnic and religious minorities in the world.  In fact, the Rohingya Muslims in Western Burma have been more or less terrorized since 1947, and are said by some to be the most oppressed national minority in the world.  Go figure.  Not only does the pervasive Buddhism of Burma not prevent violence to others, it seems to actively promote it.  I can only surmise that Burma’s Buddhists are in the good company of other religiously dominated countries in turning a blind eye to the violence that is often perpetrated in their name.

Burmese names.  It’s long been my theory that our perception of a people is directly related to the difficulty we have with their names.  Take the Burmese name “Win” for example.  It’s not complicated to pronounce or remember, but there are just too damned many of them. It’s more common than “Kim” in Korea.  It seems like every third male has Win some where in his name. Fully half of the male crew members on our river cruiser were named Win.  In order to distinguish, I renamed them Big Win, Little Win, Young Win and so on.  And then there is the length of their name.  I’ve already mentioned their first president, Nyaung Shwe Sawbwo Shwe Taik.  There’s not a single American that could remember, much less pronounce, the name of this very important Burman.  Complicating the names further, there is the matter of pronunciation. Remember the Nobel Laureate that I referred to earlier whose name was mangled by Obama.  Her name is Aung San Suu Kyi. Okay, Aung San is her father’s name, and Suu seems fairly simple, but Kyi is unpronounceable.  To me, it sound like something between “chee” and “kee,” but I’m glad I don’t have to try it in public.

My final thought is that the Burmese people deserve better.  It is said that Alexis de Tocqueville observed that “…people get the government they deserve.”  While that may be true in a democracy and over time, in Burma that clearly is not the case.  The people are intelligent, kind, and hard working.  They are proud of their country even while their leaders have oppressed, and even murdered them. They want and deserve the freedom that civilized peoples deserve.

Buddha, Buddha, Buddha

You may not know that S. and I just completed a ten day journey in Burma (as the US State Department insists on calling it) or Myanmar (as the rest of the world calls it).  I can’t quite figure out why we insist on using something as arcane as naming conventions as a means of conducting foreign policy…remember ISIL vs. ISIS in another area of the world.  Back to our journey.  The first question that comes to mind when one discovers our travel intentions, is “why in the devil would anyone want to go to Burma.”  Let me tell you now there are no crisp answers.  In part, I guess, it’s because we haven’t been here before, part because there is a shroud of mystery about it due to the military dictatorship that’s lasted for fifty years and more, and partly because of the recent media attention paid to Aung San Suu Kyi, the famously popular daughter of that man accredited with the founding an independent Burma.  In fact President Obama, in his recent interview with Steve Inskeep of NPR, cited Burma and Suu Kyi in his discussion of areas of the world where things seem to be going right for a change.  They both deserve more attention from me, but later.

I have to admit that I was attracted to Burma, at least in part, due to the fact that Burma is a thoroughly Buddhist country. When I say thoroughly, I mean thoroughly as in through and through.  Think small towns in the South with a Baptist church on every corner.  Think the diamond district in NYC with all the Hasidic Jews in their odd clothes, top hats and long curls manning their diamond counters. Think any Middle Eastern country with the women covered in burqas My thinking was that Buddhism seemed, well, peaceful and not personally threatening.

In Burma, unlike most other largely Buddhist countries, Buddhism is pervasive.  It slaps you upside your head and keeps on slapping.  In a country roughly the size of Texas and with a population of sixty million, they have over a million pagodas (roughly equivalent to our church) and an estimated half million monks (not including the little kid monks and lady monks referred to as “sila-rhan” which means owners of virtue.  Most people just call them nuns.)  Collectively these groups are called the sangha or the monastic community.  To give some perspective on the relative size of the monastic community, realize that in the United States we have about six hundred thousand clergy men and women for our population of three hundred million.  If we had preachers in the same proportion as Burma has monks we would have…..?, well I can’t figure out the numbers, but it would be pretty crowded with bible thumpers.

If you’ve paid any attention at all to past postings, you will know that I have a somewhat, even outright, cynical view of traditional religions.  In fact, I’m pretty cynical about all religions.  I’ve written several pieces that touched on various aspects of the Abrahamic faiths, and I’ve even explored Hinduism and Jainism due to our past travels in India.  Of course, I’ve touched on Islam, as it is hard to ignore today.  But nary a word on Buddhism which is the fourth largest and fastest growing religion (if you want to call it that).  There are those that opine that beliefs that are not god-based fall short of being a religion.  I’ll let you be the judge.

For all of us on this side of a very large pond, Buddhism is to us a completely  mysterious piece of business, but you should know that Buddhism is not small potatoes elsewhere as it dominates most of Asia.  Its adherents are divided roughly into two piles…the Theravada and the Mahayana. Geographically, the distribution follows a north-south fault line, with virtually all of the Mahayana in the north of Asia…China, Korea, and Japan; while the Theravadas are in the south…Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Sri Lanka.  I’m sure that to them the theological divide, as between the Shia and Sunni and the Catholics and Southern Baptists, is terribly important, but I must admit that I could not discern any understanding of these differences, except, perhaps, with respect to the fervor of the various believers.

You will be forgiven for thanking whomever you care to thank, that I’m not going to try to cover the ins and outs of Buddhism; however, I don’t know about you, but I grew up a Southern Baptist where things were made pretty clear at a very early age.  It was all about sin, and what one needed to do to expiate that sin.  If you did all the right things and kept on doing them, the sins would be forgiven and you, sooner or later, wound up at the right hand of god, or some such place.  Not so with our friends the Buddhists.  With them it’s all about suffering.  Yep, I said suffering.  They believe, as did Siddhartha Gautama, now known as the Bhudda, that man is born into suffering and that one’s life, as well as future lives, should be about expiation of that suffering.  Indeed, the Buddha lays out a pretty concrete plan of action that would get the job done.  Unfortunately, it takes him, and his followers, about 10,000 pages of “teachings” to explain.  These teachings are from various sources and in various forms, but collectively are referred to by those of Theraveda leanings as the Pali Tiptaka.  As far as I can figure out, much of what the monks do, other than chant and ask for money, is to study these teachings with a view towards reaching the enlightenment which they call Nirvana.  Up until this trip, I always thought it was the name of an acid rock band from California.

The basics of Buddhism are simple.  Just remember 8,5,4.  Eight is the Noble Eightfold Path which describes the aspects of life that are important for relieving suffering; five is the Five Precepts which are necessary for good, ethical living; and four is the Four Noble Truths which provides a framework for everything else.  Well, it is a little complicated.  Frankly I like the five stuff better because it’s more familiar to me.  1) No killing, 2) No stealing, 3) No sexual misconduct, 4)  No lying, and the toughest one No alcohol.  These might be a little familiar to you too, if you’ve ever read Exodus or Leviticus  in the good old King James bible.  Yep, you’re right.  They come right from our ten commandments…or at least four of them did, except that Buddha came first, I think.   Maybe Moses and Buddha were in cahoots somehow.

But the heart of Buddhis is the Noble Eightfold Path or what they casually call “The Middle Way”.  It’s a pretty good prescription of how one should live one’s life.  It’s all about having the Right: Understanding, Intent, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness, and Concentration.  Yes, I know.  These require a lot of definition and I guess that’s what the ten thousand pages are all about.

More about monks.  Monks are a pretty special set of characters in Burma.  They spend their whole lives trying to live the good life, studying the teachings of Buddha, asking for alms, and generally trying to get enlightened so they can get to Nirvana.  I asked how many had made it, and the answers were vague to non-existent.  I think the old Buddha may be the only one that ever made it, and he was the one who was making up the rules. BTW, that’s what reincarnation is all about.  When you fail to get enlightened and reach Nirvana in your first life, you get another shot at it in another life, and on, and on, and on.  It was a little of a downer to find out that no woman has ever made it, and is not likely to, because the only ones that have a realistic shot at it are monks and there are no women monks.  Go figure.  I guess that means there is no cohabitation or procreation in Nirvana.

I know all of this sounds a little odd at first blush, but if you were an alien someone tried to describe Christianity or Judaism  to you, you would probably think exactly the same thing.

So my bottom line is  that Buddhism is probably okay as long as they keep it over there, and it’s a big plus that the people seemed pretty nice, although the dictators have been pretty mean for the last fifty years or so.  Maybe they weren’t good Buddhists.

The only thing  I really don’t like about it is that they let all the monks get on the airplane first, even before first class and frequent fliers.  It’s just not right.

 

 

 

The Mystery of the Longyi

S. and I have just returned from traveling in Burma, now Myanmar, for the last ten days or so, and while recollections are still fresh, I hope to give you some of my observations about a country that has only recently opened to foreigners after fifty years of seclusion.  This first piece deals with an aspect of their culture that is central to their life style and my inability to adapt it to my own use.

The longyi (pronounced lawn-gee) is the foundation of the national costume of Burma. Roughly described it is a piece of cloth three and a half feet by six feet with the ends sewn together to form a wide tube. It is the same for men and women except for the color and design of the fabric. The women, of course, get the more colorfully designed pieces and the men are stuck with  muted colors and very simple design.

During a slow time on our recent river cruise on the Irrawaddy we were offered a lecture and demonstration of the purpose and uses of the longyi…of which, as it turns out, there are many. I should say now that it was rare to see a man or woman in the rural areas who was not wearing the aforementioned item, but its use in urban centers, Yangon for example, is diminishing in favor of denim trousers for men and skirts for women. I’d have to say though that they would be well served to stay with traditional garb.

In addition to providing the bottom half of one’s daily attire, it is used for a broad array of functional activities including, if folded properly, a base for carrying baskets or other items on one’s head, a cradle for carrying the wee ones, a privacy curtain for doing one’s business when there are no other facilities available, a laundry bag, a picnic blanket, a table cloth, and many others that I can’t remember. They also wear them as a cover up when bathing in the river. More about bathing in the river in a later piece. It is used one and all by girls, women, boys, men, old and young alike. And they are cheap. The ones I saw in the market were two to four thousand Kyat, (pronounced chat) which in real money is around three bucks. When they are too tatty to be useful as personal attire, our guide said they are cut up in used as rags.

All of this would have been interesting, but not rise to the level of a separate posting, except that the overly clever social director of our cruise had decided it would be “fun” to have a longyi cocktail party wherein all of the guests and staff would wear a longyi. Ok, I know this is pretty hokey, but it’s the kind of thing you do when there are a bunch of 60 + year olds thrown together, too much time to kill, and free booze.

As we were dressing for the event, S. threw hers on as if she had been wearing one her entire life. You may say it should be easy. Just step into the tube and tie it, or pin it up. Trust me, it doesn’t work that way. S. and I struggled for fifteen minutes trying various strategies to get my longyi to stay in place. There is a technique that we had been shown, and I looked it up on You Tube as well, proving once again that you can find anything on the internet. Alas, nothing worked. Several knots we tried would attach it to my misshapen body for a moment, but it would quickly start to slide. We gave up, and I sought professional help from the young Burmese men at the front desk which was right around the corner from our room. One, two and then three tried to dress me in the longyi to no avail. At one time there were no less than four young men in a huddle around me tugging and pulling in various ways to make the dratted thing stay in place. We finally reached an accommodation which seemed to work with the longyi pulled up to chest level and the corners tied in a kind of square knot.

I called out to S. and we proceeded up two flight of stairs to the party. Alas, on the second flight, I stepped on the floor end of the longyi, and it all came a cropper. It dropped to my ankles exposing a colorful pair of jockeys I was now wearing for the second day. I grabbed quickly and clutched it up to protect my nether regions and hid behind the bar until I could get the attention of Win Myuint, the most senior of the guides and the one who had promoted this party. He smiled broadly at my predicament and announced with authority that my mistake was trying to go over when I should have gone under, my belly. With proper placement, below my belly and above my hips, and a few sure tugs I was at last presentable and proceeded to abate my shame with a few G and T’s.

So you see the life of a traveler in foreign climes is not as easy as it might seem.

More later.

 

Panama: Summing Up

I like Panama.  I really do.  Although I might not be willing to suffer Miami International Airport to get there again, I’m glad I went this one time.  As you may know, this was one of our “Twelve Year Old Trips”.  No, it’s not a trip we take every twelve years.  It’s a trip we take when each of our grandchildren reach the age of twelve.  It’s lost in history who came up with this idea, but it has been a really, really great one.  Panama, at first glance, was not an ideal choice for such a trip, as it had little of the sizzle as some of it’s predecessor trips (Galapagos Islands, Paris, London).  About all it had going for it was the Canal, one of Central America’s longest zip lines, and lots of birds.  And the fact that I’d never been there.

Panama has a population of about 3.6 million about half of which live along the Canal corridor from Panama City to Colon, the first and second largest cities.  The GDP of Panama is almost sixty billion dollars and in 2012 grew at a pretty amazing 10.6%.  We were told that unemployment is effectively zero.  That is, everyone who wants a job can get a job.  Just looking around though, there seemed to be a fairly large number who either had a lot of days off or who didn’t want a job.  The services part of the economy is the largest and most highly developed comprising almost 80% of the total.  Banking is the largest segment of the services part of the economy, and there are literally, banks on every corner as well as financial institutions of all stripes populating many of the skyscrapers that have been built in the last ten years.  I saw reports referring to Panama as a “tax haven”, but these same reports left the definition to one’s imagination.  The high GDP growth rates of the last several years and the proliferation of services business have not led to equality in economic well being for its citizens.  Indeed, the UN reports that Panama has the second most unequal income distribution in Latin America.  As you might imagine, that is not a particularly good, sustainable model.

Panama is divided not only by the Canal, but by a ridge of mountains which makes up its own continental divide and stretches from the eastern border adjacent to Columbia to the western most border with Costa Rica.  Yes, Panama runs east and west, and the Pacific ocean is to their south.  It confused me too.  One other divide is important, and that is the divide between the highlands and, well, I guess you would call it, the lowlands.  Even thought Panama is about six hundred miles from the equator, it is climatologically, an equatorial country.  That is to say that the temperatures in any one region are relatively constant throughout the year, and the highs and the lows do not have a very large spread. What this means to you and I is that Panama City is pretty much always hot and humid as are all the rest of the coastal and low lying areas of the country.  The highlands, on the other hand are pretty much always more moderate with humidity and temperature about fifteen degrees lower.  It rains a lot everywhere.

Seven days isn’t long enough to develop a very credible sense of a country and its people, but that won’t stop me from telling you what I think.  We divided our time fairly equally between Panama City (including the Canal) and Boquete which is in the Chiriquiri highlands near the border to Costa Rica.  There were the sharp differences one would expect between urban and rural, highland/lowland (sea level vs. 1500 meters), and big business vs. tourism/agriculture.  I won’t dwell on the differences, but I would like to generalize about the similarities, both good and bad.

1.  Basura.  Trash.  Garbage.  Litter.  What ever you want to call it.  It was the first thing I noticed.  It was every where.  In the streets, in vacant lots, and even in the country side. It wasn’t as bad a India, but it pretty much disfigured what was otherwise a very pretty place.  I can’t figure it out.  I asked Ivan (our guide and tutor in all things Panamanian).  He said that it was indicative of a far deeper problem.  That got my interest.  He said that Panamanians, in general, do not have a respect for those behaviors that are for the good of the community or society as a whole.  They tend to separate those behaviors that are in their own personal interest and those that they judge to be good for others.  To wit:  they take care of their own space, but care little for public space or the space of others.   Hmmm.  The fellow traveler of indiscriminate littering, is graffiti.  It’s every where.  On old buildings, new buildings, bridges, fences, etc.  I’m sure there must be some deep sociological scar tissue somewhere in their society, but I hope they get over it.  They will never realize their potential until they do.  Even the Chinese have figured this out.

2.  No one is in a hurry.  I suspect this is both a good and a bad thing.  If you’re trying to have lunch in less than an hour and a half, it’s a bad thing.  If you want to smell the roses, so to speak, it’s good.  We had lunch at a charming small restaurant at Finca Lerida coffee plantation.  Their were five of us and only one other table was occupied.  We ordered the standard stuff, nothing fancy and forty-five minutes later, after I had gone back to the kitchen twice, our food started to dribble out…one dish at a time.  This scenario repeated itself, more or less, every place we ate.  Our trips to Mexico have acquainted us with the mañana houses. You know, the houses that they start to build but never finish.  When asked when it will be done, it’s always, “mañana”.  In Panama they have mañana meals.

3.  Everything costs less.  Houses, food, hotel rooms, clothing, taxes, and most importantly, beverages.  By beverages, you surely know by now of my Gin and Tonic Index.  I have measured virtually every country in the civilized world, and some not so civilized, on this index and found that the higher the price for a standard G & T the less I like a given place.  For example:  S. and I were whiling away an afternoon on the terrace of a lovely spot in Venice, and I thought to indulge in a cool beverage while watching the gondolas float by.  I placed my order, and after in inordinate wait, was presented with a glass with two small ice cubes, a tiny tankard of gin (of unknown origin) and a miniature bottle of Schweppes finest tonic water.  The tab (converted to American dollars) came to roughly $32.00.  Twenty buck for the gin, ten for the tonic, and I dunno, maybe the other two bucks was for the ice. I swore at that moment, that Venice would never have the pleasure of my company again.  So you see how the index works.  For reasons that will become apparent, Panama now ranks number one on my list of top, low cost gin and tonic places.  Up in the highlands, in a very charming bar at the best hotel in a small village, my libation of choice set me back only $4.34. Don’t ask me about the $.34.  At the best hotel bar in the best hotel in Panama City it was $5.49.  And this for a man sized pour.

4.  The people are really nice to Americans.  Maybe  because they had to fiddle so long with Americans related to the Canal, they are more tolerant of our idiosyncrasies.  Surprisingly, only fifteen percent, or so, speak english, but they’ve all studied it in school.  They are proud of their culture and proud of their history, much of which includes gringos of all sorts, including Americans.  I suspect that they also like it that a lot of us Norte Americanos park our money in their banks.  I would say it definitely is an American friendly place.

5.  It’s growing.  The economy is good.  GDP growth in 2012 was over twelve percent and has been consistently in the high single digits.  Their infrastructure still needs work, but it looks like they will have the money to invest.  The Canal is a strategic asset and they are using it to good effect and making necessary improvements to remain competitive.  They have a growing wealth gap that they must address, but we are facing the same situation as well.  The skyline of Panama City looks like Singapore or Dubai, so they have the look of success.  The danger is that without further growth and investment, it could become little more than a Potemkin village.  A facade for wealth and a healthy economy that may not be sustainable.

6.  The food is good.  Anyone who travels very much or very far, knows how important this is.  We all know about the Ugly American (actually there are several versions) who, upon arriving in Korea complains about the garlic and wants to know why his Quarter Pounder doesn’t taste the same as it does back home.  My theory has always been to try it.  Spit it out if you can’t get it down or hide it under a lettuce leaf.  In Panama, that’s not necessary.  Their’s is a unique cuisine among latin countries.  Their main dish is rice not corn or corn based foods.  I’ve heard lots of theories why, but none of them make much sense.  It’s just one of those things.  Beef is not a big thing in their diet, although it seemed to be on every menu.  I ordered it twice, and both times, the waiter told me, “we are out of it today”.  Fish and other forms of seafood abound, and it’s really good.  I had cerviche with every meal.  Well, not with breakfast, but every other meal.  I guess one of the reasons why I liked their food so much is that it has incorporated something from all of the cultures that have been a part of Panama’s history.  West Indian, African, Spanish, Asian, and American.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

On the whole, I see Panama as one of the good guys in the family of countries.  It’s a little like the teenage boy who’s growing six inches in a year and still has a few zits popping out when he least wants them.  Ivan, our guide, kept stressing that Panama is not yet a developed country, but it is developing fast.  I may not have the time or energy to revisit Panama in the future, but if you haven’t been there, put it on your bucket list.  It’s worth the effort.