Sandra and I had previously been to Panama. During my days as a travel writer, I
had provided stories for newspaper travel sections as an invited guest on a small cruise
ship. The concept was a high-end travel experience. In fact the number of crew surpassed
the number of passengers on that cruise; the boat was less then 100 feet long and did not
require all the paper work of a regular boat crossing through the canal. When you are less
then 100 feet in length they just slip you into the locks with the big ships and you are
tolerated as a necessary annoyance. (At the time of writing this chapter I have not yet
completed the Canal chapter but I promise it will be found elsewhere in this volume.)
The canal was a significant piece of engineering when completed in the early
1900s and doubling the size a century later was no less significant a feat. No trip to
Panama would be possible without featuring some aspect of the canal, and this one was
We were on a larger cruise-boat than our first trip; the number of passengers was
increased by a factor of 600, from 20 on the first trip to 1,200, which is still small by
cruise boat standards. This time we did not enter the canal but docked in Panama City to
make our land excursions.
I find any ocean port busy and am in awe of the goings on, but Panama City has a
few score or more extra ships biding their time to get into the canal. Ships have a
scheduled time to enter the locks and do not want to incur the cost or the time lost if they
miss their allotted slot. So the ships arrive in port a day or two early; it is far less costly,
spending a couple of days there than missing the allocated time.
For a prairie boy exploring the size and type of ships in this port could easily
occupy a day, but our tour was off to see the jungles of Panama.
We did not have a lot of time in harbour and I had set my heart on a Panama hat
as a souvenir. I am past the days of buying 20 tacky t-shirts and knickknacks to clutter
my desk. I am now at the point I purchase one good item with which to mark a trip—this
one would be a Panama hat. I did the homework and knew these hats were not and never
had been made in Panama but rather Ecuador. However, since we were leaving the cruise
for a side trip to the Galapagos I would have limited time in Ecuador and thought I best
make my purchase in the country they were named for.
Ecuadorian hat makers had immigrated to Panama in the 1850s when the hats first
became popular, and Panama had a much greater international trade presence. I had
justified it that way, done my research and found they sold for a wide range in
price—from nine bucks for the Chinese-made knock-offs to just below two grand for the
very best ones. Tempting as it was, I knew I was not going to get the best; I set my price
range to top at $350. I wanted a good hat but did not need the best.
In our few minutes at the dock, which was also a marketplace of all things
Panamanian, I found a shop that sold hats in the $30 range. The salesman was everything
you can imagine, loud shirt, loud voice and lots of gesticulating while exhibiting the near
indestructibility of said hat. He did not convince me. I wanted something of better
quality, even though his demonstrations showed this hat could leave nothing to be
It was time to board the bus to our tour of the Mango Glide and I left my purchase
for another time.
The Mango Glide tour dock was a short bus ride away, and we were provided
with stickers for our assigned boats. It was drill like precision and I expected to be
handed a yellow rope to hold on to—like my grandson gets in daycare. The organizers
were masters of crowd control, down to warning us about there not being bathroom
facilities on the boats and it would be a three-hour ride. We got to the loading facility and
the stampede to the washrooms was the fastest I had seen these people move since the
time there was a fresh display of shrimp on the buffet.
Desperate people do desperate things and faced with the possibility of missing the
boat, so to speak, some women decided to use the men’s facilities. I must say it was a
memorable moment for one of the gentlemen when he finished his business at the urinal
and turned around to see a couple of women lined up inside the door of the washroom.
Not all places are right for a camera, but I wish I had captured that.
We were ushered on to the two boats and set off on the Mango Glide; things were
a bit slow from the beginning so I started to take pictures of the people on the other boat,
which provided for some very amusing facial expressions.
The captain of our boat provided entertaining dialogue and kept in touch with the
second boat, explaining that they were communicating in code so that boats from other
companies would not understand them and descend on the area.
“There is a pair of shoes on the shore round the bend on three,” meant that there
were actually two crocodiles on the shore. It was a diversion but I had trouble believing
that the crew from other companies could not crack the code. It did however add to the
The whole afternoon was a demonstration in crowd control and what you can do
with a bit of amplification of the human voice. The crew not only had everyone go to the
washroom before boarding the boat, they had everyone behaving like a bobble head doll
with just a few comments about the monkey to their left or their right.
It was not until the bus ride back to the ship that we happened upon a sloth, the
slowest moving animal in the world. Our driver was kind enough to stop and allow
people off the bus to take a few pictures. Again I split my time between the sloth and the
people. Apparently this animal only leaves its tree once a day to go to the bathroom,
which amazed many of the people on our bus.
Panama City is the country’s capital and has a population of 1.3 million. It is the
centre of banking and industry for the country and boasts a beautiful skyline. It also has
some of the country’s poorest slums. It is obvious the wealth from the shipping trade has
not trickled down to the country’s poor.
On the dock it was time to make our way to the ship when the hat salesman spied
me and made a final pitch.
“You might not get another chance,” warned Sandra, “We don’t get a lot of time
in the cities in Ecuador, if you want the hat . . .” I worked the guy down to an even 30
bucks, and in a grand finale, he showed me how the hat could be rolled and passed
through his wedding ring. I paid attention knowing I would have to pack it for the trip
home. I kept it out of the suitcase until the last day. Packed it carefully and upon our
return home opened my suitcase to find a flattened misshapen mat of straw that no
amount of steam or shaping will return to hat form. It still adorns a hook in my office.