Monthly Archives: July 2014

Plundering, Protecting The King’s Gold And Pirates: Fort San Lorenzo

San LorenzoBy the map it’s only eight miles west of the Caribbean port city of Colon, Panama to the UNESCO site of the colonial Spanish fort at San Lorenzo on the northern border of Panama.  However, this abandoned citadel hidden away at the end of a two-lane road through dense jungle is a world away from the hub-bub of the Canal Zone of which it was once a part.  As with many things Spanish in Central America, San Lorenzo represents conquest, exploitation, untold wealth in precious metals and empire.San Lorenzo on the bluff overlooking the Caribbean Sea

The remains of the crumbling fortress, perched atop a bluff eighty feet above the Caribbean Sea and further protected by a dry moat on the landward side, provided a clear vantage of ships approaching to attack or to blockade the mouth of the Chagres River.Facing the Chagres River

This ability to protect was a vital necessity, for the Chagres River was the eastern terminus of the wet season treasure route that funneled gold and silver from the Incan empire in Peru down through Panama City and across the isthmus and, eventually, to the royal coffers in Spain. Old cannon, some with insignia still visible, litter the site lying awkwardly in broken cradles or sprawl about near crumbling fortifications no longer capable of defending the interests of the crown.

scattered cannon

At one time San Lorenzo was a player in the game of international wealth. The initial fortress was a battery built at sea level. But starting in 1560, shortly after its construction, pirates began to assault the lucrative target and the trail of gold stretching back to Peru. The attackers were persistent and in 1670 Henry Morgan, the Welsh privateer, brigand and English admiral, defeated and leveled the original fort. Using it as a base, he provisioned his troops and took his motley assemblage of buccaneers across the isthmus and sacked the mother lode – Panama City.San Lorenzo facing towards the Chagres

The old fort destroyed by Morgan was abandoned and the current fortress that commands the heights above the River Chagres was constructed by the Spanish only to be attacked anew by pirates and adventurers as well as by the English navy.  When the Spanish fort at Portobelo, further east on the Panamanian coast, fell to Admiral Edward Vernon, San Lorenzo was left the preeminent military garrison on the Panamanian coast.  However, the decision by Spain a few years later to ship its booty around the tip of South America at Cape Horn left the bastion on the Caribbean headland bereft and inconsequential.San Lorenzo

San Lorenzo’s star faded quickly. It was used as a prison for over a century.  Undoubtedly an ignoble death awaited as age claimed the deteriorating brick, wood and stone structures. As a part of the agreement with Panama in 1903 the lands containing the fort and those adjacent to the Chagres River were folded into the Canal Zone administered by the United States until December 31, 1999. But little was done by the Zone administration to conserve the structures that they had acquired in the transfer and the decay continued virtually unabated.San Lorenzo

In 1980 UNESCO designated San Lorenzo a World Heritage Site. There is much to be done. The fortifications at San Lorenzo remain in a state of ruination. The mosses, grasses and plants grow in profusion on a majority of the buildings allowing the eradication to continue day by day. The unabated destruction of the site is almost palpable.San Lorenzo

However, Fort San Lorenzo is a visually engaging site awaiting the attention that once brought it to prominence as a guardian of the riches of the new world. It now needs to be resurrected as a custodian of the history of a world long since passed away.San Lorenzo

By Richard and Anita, July 2014, Panama

 

In The Zone: The Panama Canal

Panama CanalWe left Costa Rica on the Tica Express Bus at midnight for what turned out to be a sixteen hour bus trip from hell (think freezing cold air conditioning and the passenger in front of us lying almost in our laps).  However, we were on our way to Panama City and a visit that we’d dreamed of for many years:  the Panama Canal.  Several years ago we’d watched an impressive documentary about the building of the Panama Canal and, since then, seeing the Canal had been one of our big bucket list items.Locks closed

A waterway between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans had been a dream since the explorer and conquistador, Vasco Balboa, first claimed the western sea for the Spanish crown in the 16th century.  However, by the turn of the 20th century it appeared to be more of a fools’ delusion as the French had lost a veritable fortune and an estimated 20,000 lives between the years 1881 to 1884 attempting this folly.  But less than twenty years after the French catastrophe, science and technology had progressed sufficiently in divergent fields to allow this ambitious aspiration to become a fully functioning engineering reality.

Scientists, among them Dr. Walter Reed, established that malaria was transmitted by a mosquito and, through an aggressive campaign on many fronts, effectively halted the pestilential killer during the construction.  New earth moving machines such as drag-line shovels and moveable dredges made mass excavation possible on a scale previously unimaginable.  And concrete, at the time a novelty for heavy civil construction, was used as the predominant building material. All of this newly acquired knowledge, scientific components and machines allowed the work to begin in earnest.closed

But perhaps the most phenomenal aspect of the canal was the elegantly simple notion to use gravity to raise the ships from sea level through a series of locks over the continental divide and then return them to sea level on the other side of the isthmus. Sir Isaac Newton would surely have been proud.lock gates opening

For the better part of two days our venues were the Visitors’ Centers, first at the Miraflores Locks on the Pacific side and subsequently the Gatún Locks on the Caribbean side, gaping at the massive ships as they transited the canal through the system of locks and lakes that comprise this international waterway. Call us hicks but this was one show for which we had both been eagerly awaiting; it was bigger than the big top at the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus we’d attended as kids.entering the canal

We were still struggling with the concept of gravity as the main character in the live drama before us when we realized that a very large container ship, the MSC ELA, was actually sinking into the center lock at the Miraflores. It wasn’t really sinking; the water was being equalized with the adjoining chamber so that when the gates opened the ship would glide towards the final lock gates. This commercial behemoth was being held firmly in the center of the canal by eight mechanical mules (locomotives) with their sixteen hawsers. ship going through

What was even more astounding was that there were approximately eighteen inches of clearance between the sides of the ship and each canal wall.   These last gates would open, when all was stabilized, and the MSC ELA would be free to resume her voyage to the Pacific side of the American continent.almost through

That this entire operation was one hundred years old in 2014 was a staggering thought. The lock gates, forged in Pennsylvania a century before, were performing magnificently. The major modification occurred in 1998 and changed the forty horsepower motors which drove the bull gears, the massive ratio-reduction system of cogged wheels, to a pneumatic system.  But ultimately the key to the longevity was rigorous maintenance and that was evidenced all around us as we watched the ships transit north and south though the canal.done

So much of what we saw was attributable to the efforts of individuals on a regular and recurring basis. This was true from the surveyors who shot the original grade to the laborers who manned the shovels and dredges; from the men who operated the Canal Zone as an American enterprise until the transfer on December 31, 1999, to the country of Panama and the Panamanians who now provide this vital service to the world.Through the canal

By Richard and Anita

 

Do You Know The Way To San Jose?

view from the Cultura de PlazaThe capital city of Costa Rica, San José, gets very little press in the guidebooks and, like most travelers, we had used the city as a place mainly to get from here to there as it is located in the center of the country.   This was our fifth trip to the city and, aside from the Tica Bus station and some quick food restaurants around our hotel, we didn’t know doodley about the capital except that it was big and hectic with traffic and pedestrians scurrying about.  Like all of our previous visits the weather was chill and gloomy; gray, overcast and frequently raining regardless of whether the rest of the nation was in the wet or the dry season.   However, unexpectedly, we found ourselves with a full day to see a bit of the city as our bus for Panama City did not leave until midnight of the following day.Rosa del Paseo

We did know a good deal about our lodging as, despite our travels, we can be creatures of habit and kept returning to a charming little hotel we had discovered during our first visit. The Rosa del Paseo is housed in a turn-of-the-century Victorian private home and was built 115 years ago by the Montealgre family who made their fortune exporting coffee. Rosa del Paseo It is reputed to be one of San José’s most charming stucco homes and is located near the heart of the city on Paseo Colón. The Rosa has kept pace with the times, undergoing regular upkeep and upgrades yet is nevertheless surprisingly evocative of 19th-century Costa Rica.another staircase It has the traditional central courtyard and is graced with period furniture and oil paintings. Beautiful details are spread throughout the hotel, including transoms, ornate stucco door frames, original tile floors, polished hardwood and parquet floors, gleaming wainscoting and a collection of antique sewing machines on original tables scattered here and there.  In the midst of the frenetic movement of the modern capital city of San José, the Rosa del Paseo retains its dignity and composure.

The Ticos with whom we had spoken had highly endorsed both the Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) and the Museo de Jade.  Our map was a bit sketchy as to the exact location of the museums so we opted for the most obvious solution and hailed a cab to the Plaza del Cultura.the Gold Museum below Pigeon Plaza

And there, residing below the Teatro Nacional (National Theater) was our goal. But to get to the museum we needed to navigate our way through a plaza full of pigeons which refused to be flustered by our passing. Indeed, they moved leisurely out of our way delaying just long enough to make certain we were not bearing gifts of food.view from the Plaze de Cultura

The gold museum contained an amazing assemblage of Pre-Columbian gold pieces ranging from raptor broaches and clasps to warrior breast plates and collars and included numerous animal figurines for ceremonial use.Gold ornaments

Maybe subconsciously we’d assumed that, after the depredations of the Spanish and the centuries of interminable grave-robbing and looting, the pieces remaining would not be so numerous or would be of lesser quality. Fortunately we were proven wrong and we were astonished and impressed by the quantity and wealth of treasures assembled in one place.gallery

Coming back into daylight brought us to the National Theater, a magnificent building that is a monument by, for and to the 19th century coffee barons. Performance room in the National Theater

The theater was modeled after and imitative of only the best of European architecture and was built with European marble, windows and chandeliers and decorated with European paintings, silks, brocades and crystals. The barons lobbied the government agreeing to assist financially in its construction but, in the end, 94% of the costs were raised by a general tax overwhelmingly borne by the common population, the non-coffee barons.  And, without a doubt, the masses might have appreciated the century old Steinway and Sons baby grand piano which the maestro graciously limbered up for our enjoyment.San Jose pedestrian walk

As the afternoon waned, we hoofed it a few blocks over to the Jade Museum, a five-story building of modern design tastefully filled with a wealth of multi-colored jade objet d’ art.  Again we marveled that this quantity of masterful work had survived the last centuries of pillage and plunder. We were well pleased with the museum even before we encountered the overwhelming and astoundingcouples coupling collection of ceramics, a massive number of pottery pieces in pristine condition. Tucked away on the fourth floor was an unexpectedly large exhibition of ceramics and sculptures of Pre-Columbian indigenous erotica  which displayed an avid interest in sex, sexual roles and childbirth.  Our close examination was interrupted by the announced closure of the museum which led to our hurriedly breezing through the remaining floor before exiting into the tumult of the city and ending our cultural expedition.

We can’t say that we are a great deal wiser about San José but we learned that beneath the exterior of hurried consumerism and anonymous architecture there are true jewels to be found. The beauty contained in the museums and National Theater made us glad that we had spent a little more time exploring San José.

By Richard and Anita

Housesitting: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

Tineke sTwice a day flocks of brilliant green parrots flew by overhead, sometimes alighting here and there among the verdant trees on the property and sometimes continuing on to the neighboring trees.   They screeched and gabbled and the air reverberated with their riotous cacophony. Like clockwork, at dawn and dusk, the air was also filled with the guttural calls of the howler monkeys.  A few iguanas lived on the property including one dignified male who measured at least two feet long from head to tail.  Butterflies, in a profusion of patterns and hues, alighted briefly on the flowers and we rushed to take pictures before they fluttered away.Magpie jays

A variety of other birds visited us from time to time including the beautiful and regal Magpie Jays who squawked like shrewish crows in a deafening shriek.  And hummingbirds, always there were hummingbirds flitting among the flowers.  Tiny frogs hopped about along with enormous toads, both of which occasionally wandered into the house and had to be scooted back outside gently. variegated squirrel

During the day, one of our favorite visitors, the variegated squirrels, would climb down from the trees, sprint in a funny little run-hop a few feet to another tree and climb back to a safe perch.  And at night there were a multitude of stars spread across the firmament, lightning bugs blinked randomly about and, to the north and east heat lightening arced in brilliant flashes.Tineke s house

We housesat for several weeks on a property six miles outside of Tamarindo, Costa Rica on a parcel of land approximately one hectare (2.5 acres) located at the end of a long dirt road that branched here and there as it delved into the countryside.road to Tineke s

The homestead had a variety of palm, banana, mango, lemon and bamboo trees, as well as several enormous trees which spread broadly providing welcome shade. Flowering plants and bushes were scattered about the property which was fenced all around and secured with a gate half of which hung drunkenly, twisted and totally useless.

And here begins the first story, this one about the marauding cows and horses, who visited several times over the course of the first few weeks, trying their best to graze on the thick grass and delectable, flowering edibles.edible grazing for cows

We would tramp about, with Yippy barking enthusiastically but ineffectively in his unaccustomed role as a cowherding dog, and finally funnel  them back out onto the road.  Not especially fun during the day but a whole different game when this had to be done two times in the dead of night with only the light of the stars and a couple of travel flashlights.  We would peer around the property here and there at looming shapes that would suddenly break into slow trots, urged on by Yippy’s hysterical barking, in any direction but where we wanted them to go! A couple of nocturnal bouts of this entertainment led us to the inelegant but practical idea of closing the working side of the gate and driving the car into the breach left by the inoperative side of the gate.  And once again, our nights were undisturbed and the problem was temporarily solved.Yippy I-O

And the car…we had agreed to rent the car for a nominal sum so that we could run errands, grocery shop and visit the beautiful beaches around Tamarindo.  We were looking forward to the experience as we hadn’t driven a car since we left the States in September of 2012.  It was a nice looking Nissan with 4-wheel drive and … two totally bald rear tires.  In Costa Rica the roads are in notoriously bad shape:  paved roads have no shoulders, abrupt drop-offs and deep potholes.  And the dirt roads?  They are washboarded, rutted, and fissured with fractured stones working their way up to the road surface. Tire life expectancy of a tire is none too long in this part of the world and so, you guessed it … a flat tire.   Jorst, a highly esteemed German expat and tire fixer extraordinaire, arrived within fifteen minutes of our distress call – we were told later that this was not common – but we were duly impressed! He performed the requisite tasks for the nominal fee of $20, an astonishing price for roadside assistance.  Of course, we were a little leery of driving unnecessarily as we still had one American Bald Eagle on the driver’s rear. So, after some back and forth with the homeowner we sprang for two new tires ($175).  Problem solved.

Our housesitting gig included looking after the property and house, maintaining the swimming pool (which started out a bit murky but which we coaxed into a sparkling blue) and the animals.  The four pets were friendly, well-natured and very mellow. 3 outta 4Yippy, the inept cow dog and wanna-be watchdog (also not a successful occupation), was the alpha animal. There were two cats; the younger cat, who we nicknamed Queen Calico, was regal and rather stand-offish except with Yippy with whom she had a rather strange fixation;Strange bedfellows! flirting and rubbing herself sinuously around his legs, curling herself around him seductively when napping and lavishing his face with licks and laps.  Actually, we enjoyed watching this strange affair! The second cat was a tabby we called Fat Cat or Big Mama and she would scold us with long plaintive meows first thing in the morning and throughout the day if her food dish was empty.

And the last player in the ensemble was Dolly, a sweet, golden-colored medium-sized matron with a cataract clouding her left eye and comical ears that flopped over at half-mast. Dorrie - Dolly

It was easy to imagine her in a nursing home, inching her way behind a wheeled walker in a confused daze, peering about with no clue as to where she had been going. It was not her age but her hygiene that created the initial issue; to put it mildly, she was highly odoriferous!  We looked at each other the first night of our arrival with a “How are we going to make it through five weeks with this reeking creature?” expression on our faces.  And, to further add to her unimpressive introduction, the next morning we found out she was incontinent as well. The following week we ended up taking her on the first of four visits to the vet after the hair around her tail and rear end fell out in big clumps almost overnight and the skin became angry-looking and inflamed.  She received a giant dose of antibiotics ($100) to treat a massive ear and skin infection, parasites and the ticks that she had hosted.  And (oh praise Jesus!) an antibacterial bath!   We were instructed to bathe her twice a week with the medicinal shampoo, a ritual that transformed her into a soft and sweet-smelling critter.  As for the incontinence problem?  Since the house was open aired with only grills and gates that covered the doors and windows we moved her bedding (freshly laundered) about ten feet to the covered porch so that her ancient bladder could awaken her at night and she could totter off into the darkness to relieve herself.  Another problem solved.

butterflyAnd so, we finished the last days of our home and pet caretaking gig sitting on the covered patio, watching the birds, listening to and enjoying the fresh scent of the rains with Dolly stretched out dozing on one side of the big work table, Yippy underneath at our feet and the two cats curled on pillows napping on the chairs; our little adopted family.  We’d had a Costa Rican rocky road this housesit and solved even more problems than the ones we wrote about here but we’ll miss this place with all its downsides because, it turns out, there were a lot of upsides, too.Bananas flowering and growing

Note:  The homeowner, a lovely Dutch lady, reimbursed us fully for all expenses incurred during our stay.

By Anita and Richard