Curiosity: forget “Cherchez la femme” (Look for the woman.) “Cherchez l’histoire.” (Look for the story.)
Last November, three sisters and a couple of our spouses agreed to come to Naples, FL, in late February of this year to celebrate the 90th birthday of the last surviving member of the previous generation of our family, our mother’s younger brother Dick.
Given a starting point, my husband Gary set about planning an extension of our stay in warm, sunny climes. He chose Panama because it’s not far from Florida; it’s very warm; and it figures in the historical novel that I’m writing about my extended family. We had a wonderful time with Uncle Dick; who was deeply moved that we arranged this small reunion in his honor. He’d lived in Panama as a young teenager, when his father was stationed at Ft. Randolph from 1939-1941. My parents met there in 1940: my father was assigned to my grandfather’s searchlight battery.
The connection to Panama goes back even further:Greg, the middle child, Dick’s older brother, was born when my grandfather was stationed at Ft. Sherman from 1922-25.
Gary booked us at the Radisson in Colon–which turned out to be in a small shopping center adjacent to the duty free zone and new cruise ship terminal.Although Colon is in the midst of re-developing itself, cruse ship passengers and hotel guests are strongly discouraged from walking outside the enclosed shopping area. Ignoring the warning of Aldo, our friendly concierge, we ventured out one afternoon. We were dismayed by bars and grates on windows and doors of all houses and apartments and razor wire on the tops of garden walls.We’d gone only a few blocks when we encountered a couple of policias touristicas, who strongly encouraged to turn back. I’d already locked away my earrings, necklace and bracelet, but one policeman tapped his wrist to indicate that I shouldn’t wear my watch either.
Aldo helped us hire a driver named Rigo to find what’s left of Ft. Randolph and Ft. Sherman, the two US Army Coast Artillery posts built in the 1920’s to guard both sides of the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal.
As it turns out: not much. The part of Ft. Randolph, on the south side, that was administration buildings and military quarters is now a container yard that’s closed to the public. The rubble you can see right behind the fence is all that’s left.
Studying satellite images on Google Earth, I’d expected to be able to drive past the container yards and poke around a bit in remnants of the searchlight and anti-aircraft gun emplacements that face the open sea, but the entire area is fenced off and the security guard would not let us in.
This would seem to be a recent development, ‘XuXu from Shanghai’ was able to explore the area in 2012 and posted photos on Google Earth of exactly what I expected to see.
Ft. Sherman, on the north side, isn’t part of the commercial port. There’s a marina for long-distance cruisers, where we had lunch and admired some really big yachts, mostly catamarans. Rigo said that a couple of developers have considered renovating the remnants of the old officers quarters as vacation rentals. They’re directly on the beach–but nothing seems to have come of it so far.
It’s easy to see the similarities between the decaying structures that remain
and a photo taken in 1920, shortly before my grandparents were stationed there.
Rigo took us to the new Panama Canal Visitor Center, adjacent to both old and new locks.
The monkeys are coming, honest–but we went further back in history the following day, Ash Wednesday; driving ourselves south to Porto Bello, discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1502, on his fourth voyage. It’s a well-sheltered port where the Spaniards brought gold and other merchandise overland from the west side of South America to ship back to Spain and imported European goods to sell. As you can imagine, pirates and privateers were quickly attracted by the valuable cargo and the Spaniards built a couple of forts to defend the port by crossfire, rather than constructing a walled town. There’s more left of the old Spanish forts in Porto Bello than the 20th cen. US forts near Colon.
The first was built in 1596;
the second in 1758.
The former customs house is now a small museum; where we learned that the mix of cultures in Porto Bello resulted in a unique religious practice called “Congo,” which we saw as we were leaving.
Masked and costumed boys and young men, accompanied by loud music with a strong Caribbean beat, collected donations from tourists passing through town on Ash Wednesday. The big wet lump on the pavement was an alligator. Real or fake? I’m not sure.
Thursday we drove west, toward Gamboa, a small settlement built to house the workers on both the Panama Railway and the Panama Canal. There’s an attractive resort hotel and marina where the Chargres River meets Gatun Lake. We tried to sign up for one of the sightseeing boat tours, but they were fully booked. Gary drove back across the one lane bridge to the boat ramp where one could hire boats for fishing and–as it turned out–looking for monkeys.
Our private tour cost less than the group tour with a young boatman who was a skillful boat boat handler and knew where and how to find a monkey. He shouted something and then whistled in a special way. It seemed that the monkeys were taking a siesta the first place we stopped; but at the second he found a Capuchin.