Hello all. Things have gone quite smoothly in Panama City Panama. Having to pay $300 excess baggage for 3 drum bags on the way to Panama did not feel all that good on my soul. Even with JAL footing the bill, my frugal "jazz lifestyle" thinking tells me that it is simply wrong for an airline to charge a passenger more than the actual cost of a airline ticket for 75 pounds of drums. Upon arrival in Panama I made the big mistake of taking a giant swig of water from a water fountain. Lucky for me I was relieved to hear that the water is ok in Panama city because the US set up its water facilities for that particular city. Still not a good habit to get into as the Inka Shminkas can get you most anywhere down here if you drink tap water.
That said we arrived in Panama last Wednesday evening to participate in the Panama jazz festival headed up by the maestro or as I call him the mayor of Panama city, Danilo Perez. You may know him for his work with Wayne Shorter or with his own bands; he is doing fantastic things down here. Danilo and his foundation have built this festival from the ground up with the intention of spreading jazz music and educating young under privileged youth from the Central America/South America regions. Some of these kids have only one chance at music education per year and it is here at the Panama festival. In many cases it is a life changing experience. This year is a historical year as the Panamanian government has just recently committed substantial funds to the festival as well scholarships for jazz musicians from Panama to study abroad! This festival has quickly become on of the great prides of Panama along with the famous Panama Canal.
The line up at the festival included jazz groups from the Monk institute, NEC Jazz conservatory, Tia Fuller’s Quartet, Stanley Jordan, The Caribbean Jazz project and Catherine Russell, daughter of the Jazz artist Luis Russell just to name a few, all which were fantastic and well received. There was a fantastic grand finale outdoor concert in the old historic part of Panama city which featured all of the bands from the festival as well as a few others. My personal favorite was a Panamanian group of original Congolese descendants that performed the traditional music and dance from the Congo. Their concert was so killing! Just hand drums singers and dancers. The final concert was free free to the public and was attended by approximately 10,000 people.
At the end of the concert Danilo set up a fantastic dance party for all the staff and performers with a burning local salsa band. I didn’t dance much but did manage to get a much needed dance lesson from one of the locals.
The 2 days following the festival we hung out in Panama for a few days off. On one of the days we went to the Panama Canal, which was just amazing. It is difficult to fathom the Panama Canal until you see a full sized rig go through one of the locks. Paying up to nearly a quarter of million dollars per boat to avoid the costly and time consuming trip around South America, these boats are just awesome in size and clear the canal by just a few feet on each side. These ships are guided by weighted trains with cables attached to the vessels on each side to prevent them from smashing into the sides of the locks. The ships travel through a series of canals that are linked to several lakes that at the highest point end about 85 feet above sea level for a journey of nearly 50 miles via 3 sets of locks. As you can imagine, thousands and thousands of people spent many years building this canal. It is estimated that 27,500 people lost their lives by the time the canal was started by the French in 1880 and finished by the United States in 1914, to give some scope of the project. The canal was for many years operated by the United States but since January 1st 2000 been run by the Panamanian government, thanks to the efforts of president Jimmy Carter and of course inspired by the protests of the Panamanian people.
After the canal tour we hit a cool wildlife preserve. I was amazed at the wildlife from cool looking Parrots, eagles and weird long nosed wild bore looking characters, to white headed monkeys; one of them even managed to slap a can of 7 up out of my hands and share it with its pals. I guess I need to work on my reflexes.
The next stop was an eco hotel in the jungle near the canal. We grabbed a quick espresso and decided to bail on the idea of an over priced tour. Our driver decided we should take matters into our own hands. We took one of the 50 dollar per person tours on our own and drove up to a place called pipeline road. I should have figured that when our driver parked blocking the gate to the entrance road we would be causing trouble but we started walking up the road into the jungle anyways. Sure enough after 10 minutes of walking a parks dept truck cruised by. When the truck came back the other way I humorously asked our driver “ did you block the gate?” He jumped in with the rangers and copped a lift back to the car and caught up with us later.
We walked for some time saw some really cool vegetation and what not but no real action. At some point Laura Johnson, who is the executive producer at Jazz at Lincoln Center and all around good person, mentioned that it was getting dark soon and we should return. I don’t think it was five minutes later that one of our band members noticed that she was getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. Of course we left our highly recommended deet spray in the van. On top of that Panama city is of the two places in Panama that has the highest risk of Dengue fever which there is no vaccine or preventative medicine. I will keep you posted on the bands dengue fever status, as it takes a few days to take hold. Thank goodness we were not in Malaria country yet! At least for a few more days, that is. On the way back the driver, John Hansen and I discovered some of these Pig looking animals cruising the jungle so I broke out the big lens for my camera (the donkey). I eventually ended up off the road in the woods chasing some pretty big sounding creature only to be ambushed by a pack of monkeys up in the trees above. I have to say they are pretty humorous creatures. At one point they started launching some pretty big branches at me so I bailed on the off road safari idea. The driver managed to spot them from the road so I got a few pics of them. About 15 minutes had passed and the mosquitoes were even starting to bug me a bit when Laura came running towards us yelling “hey come one were locked out of the van and their eating us alive” ooops…..so we ran back with her to rescue Kelley, Nathan and John. We then headed back to our posh hotel on the beach, “The Miramar intercontinental”. It’s defiantly a nice hotel but to be quite frank, I like more of a bed and breakfast vibe that gives you a chance to mix with the locals. These big “safe” hotels are very wasteful and lack the character that I enjoy not to mention you can’t hardly walk through the lobby without spending money. Eating at these fancy hotels is about 2 to3 times more expensive and not usually as good as local restaurants.
Lessons learned in Panama:
If a concerts starts at 12pm it really means 2 pm
Wear your Deet in the jungle (I know it’s toxic but dengue fever doesn’t sound too pleasant either)
Panama city water is safe to drink
There is no Malaria risk in Panama City
Columbian Hookers are present in most bars
Stay tuned, our next stop is Nicaragua that promises to be quite a ride. cheers Jon Wikan