Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Panama, Take Two

After a few days of exploring our options, we decided to stay in Shelter Bay and rebuild our engine. You've already seen from John's slideshow what a job it was. The guys took it apart as much as they could while it was still in the bilge, then we used a block and tackle to haul it up out of the bilge and onto the floor. The men dismantled the engine piece by piece while I labeled little plastic baggies for the bots, nuts, washers, and miscellaneous small pieces: “Bell Housing Bolts,” “Transmission Bolts,” “Manual Oil Pump,” etc… Everything was covered in a layer of shiny black grease that made for a dirty job. Oh, and did I mention that this all took place in the middle of our kitchen?

That's the oven in the background.

Once it was sufficiently disassembled, we enlisted the help of three dock neighbors (one of whom was a linebacker for Joe Montana’s 49ers) to get the thing up and out of the boat. Dang that engine was heavy! Even with all that help, we still had to use a system of 2x4s and pulleys and remove our lifelines in order to get the engine block onto the dock.

We took the engine to Taller Alfreddo in Panama City to have them clean it up and repair the bearings, while we painted the bilge, cleaned the bolts and treated them for rust, fixed the wiring and the radar, etc, etc, etc...

All in all, Shelter Bay wasn’t such a bad place to be stuck. It’s on the other side of the Panama Canal from Colon – a bustling city known for drug violence – so a walk into town wasn’t really an option. We rented a car and drove into Panama City a few times, which is on the Pacific coast, and the drive usually only took about an hour and a half. The shopping in Panama City is great, especially compared to the rest of Central America. One can find pretty much anything there.

The marina is a half hour drive through jungle from Colon on an old US Army base called Fort Sherman. We went exploring in the jungle behind the marina and found all kinds of old bunkers and concrete structures slowly being consumed by foliage.

On our trips into the jungle we saw both capuchin and howler monkeys, toucans, a sloth, agoutis, tree-cutter ants and even a giant hermit crab scuttling around on the jungle floor. There are butterflies flitting around everywhere you look, including the famous big blue morpho butterflies. The best time to see wildlife is early in the morning or in the evening, when the temperature isn’t too hot and the animals are active. We have been told by many locals not to go walking around alone or at night because there have been many jaguar sightings. Apparently the Baird’s Tapir is also common in this area, although we didn't get the opportunity to spot one.

Not far from Shelter Bay marina is Fort San Lorenzo, a centuries-old structure that the pirate Henry Morgan famously captured and from where he staged his invasion of Panama City. We took a break from engine work to visit it one morning and had the whole place to ourselves:

Near the fort there were these interesting birds that made hanging nests in the trees and they had a very peculiar call:

When the engine block came back from Taller Alfreddo the guys rebuilt it in just three days. By this time we’d been in Shelter Bay for a month and were itching to get on our way, but the sea was not cooperative. We took El Tiburon out in the bay for a sea trial and watched huge bursts of white spray crash over the breakwater. We were relatively protected from the swell in the harbor, but as we approached the entrance, the magnitude of the waves became all too apparent. Even just the few waves that snuck through the opening in the breakwater were so big and steep that El Tiburon’s prop came out of the water. We promptly turned around and went back to the marina. indicated we’d have to wait another five days for a decent sea-state, so we rented a car and drove to the Pacific side to go surfing. After six hours in the car, we came to the tiny town of Santa Catalina. We stayed at a little hotel called Surfer’s Paradise that was own by a Brazilian guy named Italo and his son, Diego Salgado, who is Panama’s national surf champ. The break was right outside our door:

There we met Ellis and Taylor, a fun couple from Virginia who’d been traveling around Peru for a few months. Ellis was like a Crocodile Hunter with a southern accent. Following him around at night we found land crabs and a coral snake, and went spider hunting.

There was a steep grassy hill near the restaurant that had hundreds of little holes burrowed into the side of it. We had assumed there were little crabs living in the holes but Ellis showed us how wrong we were.

Here are his instructions:

1) Stand on the top of the hill at night with a flashlight. Hold the flashlight close to your face, so the beam is as close to your line of sight as possible.

2) Slowly skim the top of the grassy hill with your light.

3) Look for little tiny beads of light on the grass. Those are spider eyes.

4) Keeping your light on the spider eyes, approach the spider slowly, being careful not to make the ground vibrate too much.

5) If you are lucky you’ll get close enough to see the entire huge hairy spider hanging out in the grass before it runs back into its hole.

6) If the spider runs back into its hole, shine your light in after it and sometimes you can still see one or two thick, jointed, hairy legs.

John and I found one spider in such a condition, just two fat legs hanging out at the bottom of the hole. I found a piece of dried vegetation – a long stem with a dried bulbous flower on the end – and moved the flower around gently by his hole to see what he would do. No reaction from Spidey prompted me to stick the flower into the hole and wiggle it around some more. Within seconds the piece of grass was jerked from my fingers with remarkable force as the spider had determined he’d had enough of my teasing. I leapt backwards and shook off my heebie-jeebies, then decided I was done spider hunting for the evening.

When we got back to Shelter Bay three days later, the weather was perfect for our long-awaited venture into the Caribbean Sea.

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