Monday, 26 June 2017

NEST (Northern Europe & Scandinavian Tour) - Norway 1 - Oh my giddy aunt!

Without doubt the jewel in the Scandinavian crown. Norway builds upon the lush lowlands of Denmark, the heavily wooded of Sweden and then adds in mountains, fjords, craggy rocks, torrential rivers and pricing gone mad. £36 for 4 kilos of washing!!! It's true. Plainly we didn't pay it But the launderette place woman didn't even crack a smile when she quoted the price. Why would she? With chocolate bars at £2.50, 10 small cans of Heineken at £26 (in a supermarket) and pretty much everything requiring a mortgage to purchase this is the normal. So anyway let's talk about this beautiful country...

Day 1. We cross the border and within a few miles a huge moose lumbers out of the forest. Very exciting seeing one up close. Apparently the adult male weighs about 700 lbs and grows to 2 metres to the shoulders which leaves a whole load more to be concerned with if you count the neck, head and yearly renewed antlers (or paddles as they are know) which span nearly 2 metres across...... Good example of England crazy weights and measures system there miles/kilometres/pounds/kilos. 

We were going to stop in Trondheim and head up to the Artic Circle but the consequential loss of a week with a sick car would take up too much time and petrol  money, so we content ourselves with getting to within 300 miles and bank 4 days to keep our pace more leisurely to work our way down the west coast.

The trouble with driving long distances is that it becomes difficult to stop. You get sort of wrapped up in the drive and the need to cover miles so upon reaching Trondheim we decide to keep going until we eventually stop on a path to a disused quarry for the night. Quite pretty even if it doesn't sound it.

Oh yes. We are experiencing the weirdness of the  Scandinavian summer. Sunsets at something like 11.40pm, then it's a little bit darkish for a while then everything is bathed in light again 3.15am. It really messes with your head and times when we would normally hit the sack we are thinking shall we go walking or running or whatever.

The scenery becomes more and more impressive as we start to move south again and lakes and rivers, fjords and mountains are now always in sight. We stay on the marina in a sleepy little village called Vinjeora one night and just as we are about to go to bed - it's 11.15pm - some fishermen/towns folk start moving stuff about on the dock like its midday. Why not? It's bright enough. It's in this same spot that the next morning we spend some romantic time with with the sliding door wide open, looking out on the lake and do some post coital otter watching. two of them frolicking on the banks.

There are recommended tourist routes dotted around Norway. Driving or biking routes that take in exceptional scenery and from Kristiansund we take the first of these on our list. the Atlantic route. A beautiful drive where we stopped at pretty much every available pull in to click pictures and gasp a bit. The winding road twists and turns through land and seascapes. Trees and lichen covered rocks are reflected upon crystal clear water of lakes or the placid fjord waters from the Atlantic. Along the way there are numerous short hikes where you can leave the van and head off to get lost in stunning views across the ocean from a craggy height or over the water splashed land that is dotted with channels and ponds. Our drive meanwhile takes us through tunnels, over bridges and upon ferries - each slowly ramping up the charges we will have to eventually pay for all this loveliness. We finally park up for the night in Isfjorden (ice fjord) for the night and end the day with a bike ride up the fjord to look at the scenery - starting at 10.15pm.

Today we really put Crawlie through her paces by following the Trollstigen route that rises up and up and up through loads of hairpin bends to a magnificent theory. However once again theory spites practice and today it used the mediums of rain, mist and dark cloud to do so. 

No sooner had we set off the skies darkened and stayed darkened and moody all day. On the one hand somewhat disappointing but on the other it makes everything look menacing and foreboding. With everything bathed in half light and shrouded in mist it makes you think of trolls, Norse gods and Kirk Douglas as a Viking. This route has it all - steep drops, lush pastures, thick forests, ribbon lakes and tumultuous waterfalls crashing down hundreds of feet. Crawlie soldiered on, no complaining, slow and steady, up and down, on and on soon taking a long downward road where her brakes were overheating and the gears crying out for some relief. It's strange that you get so disorientated here. You feel you are near sea level because of the lakes and you suddenly come across a vista that shows you to be hundreds of metres up and similarly thinking we were still a long way up on this day we rounded a bend and are suddenly confronted by two huge cruise liners that are unloading passengers into a long string of coaches. Soon they too will have the magnificent views of cloud, rain and mist to enjoy..

All of this loveliness all blends into one. And , since I wrote this daily in rough at the time, I realise I may be over stating or repeating my feelings. this is something you will have to forgive. As I have said before. These blogs are to capture our thoughts and feelings and memories so we can look back at them one day and relive it all again.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

NEST - Sweden - Land of trees

I'm not sure if I mentioned it before but the Netherlands is flat, Northern Germany is pretty flat, Denmark makes Essex's rolling countryside look like the Alps. We did think that Sweden may offer us some relief, although concern for Crawlie's capabilities up hills was also at the back our minds. But unfortunately the bits of Sweden we saw were not exactly mountainous. There were winding roads and forests. Lots of forests, lots of Lupins, and of course, lots of Volvos. The highlight was definitely seeing a Moose...crossing the road in the forest near some lupins. 

We stopped off in Gothenburg as I had been there a few years ago on a girls weekend and remembered having a fantastic time. But seeing it not through drunken beer googles was a bit different. It's a pretty enough city, with trams and a river but after the diversity of Denmark's buildings everything here looked like a bank. 

The outdoors eating and drinking, even in the cooler weather wrapped in blankets, is something I remember and is really sociable. Unfortunately long term travelling means you have to think about the costs and Sweden is pretty damned expensive so we didn't wrap up in blankets with glasses of red wine, shame. We had to make do with the cheap Pinot Grigio we'd bought from Lidl in Germany while looking at the forests from our van window.

We did stay in a couple of interesting places in Sweden. One night was on a lake front in a little town called Mariestad. That day was National Sweden day so everyone was out picnicking and enjoying the good weather but the lake was cleared by about 9pm. We put our black outs screens up, it's light till stupid o'clock, and nodded off only to be woken by squealing of tyres and the boom boom of music from a couple of boy racers at 2.30aM in the morning! It as like trying to sleep in Sainsburys car park in Braintree on a Saturday night but prettier. 

Our final night, as we decided to leave the forests of Sweden, was spent in a closed ski resort. We pulled in hoping they might have somewhere for us to stop and the woman on duty was so kind, she gave us keys to the toilets and showers and said the electric was on all the hook ups so go wherever you like. And when asked the cost, she replied that as it was technically closed not to worry. One word here on the Scandinavians, they have all been incredibly friendly and helpful. So in true pikey style, we filled our van with water, we had long hot showers in the evening and the morning ( a true luxury), we charged up all our appliances and did a few loads of washing in the shower block sinks then strung it all up to dry on the guard rails of the terraced chalets

One last really funky thing that we've never seen before...a hands free lawn mower! Yeah, I know. It's like the vacuum cleaner you can get that just wanders around bumping off of trees and bushes but it cuts the grass. Brilliant. 

Oh yeah! I got breathalised on a lonely forest road by a friendly Swedish policeman. Lucky for me it was only 11.00am and as those of you who know me I never start serious drink driving in forests until 11.15....Phew!!

So Sweden was a little bit more than forests but what there is you can't see for the trees.

NEST - Denmark

After our delay we were ready for our jaunt into Scandinavia proper and Denmark was waiting. So we went whizzing across the border, Crawlie purring the whole way. We decided a big of coast might be a welcome change so went to Rømø, a little island off the south west coast of Denmark.  It was raining and a bit grim and we really wanted to be uplifted but the tension, and cost, of last week was taking its toll. So our first night wild camping in the only spot we could find was a bit bleak but we woke the next morning to brilliant sunshine. The bikes came off the rack and we cycled round the island, oohing and aahhing at the huge, flat, wide beaches full of kite surfers and land yachters and a quaint little, white church filled with all things boat related! 

Spirits lifted we continue to another fantastic sight I'd found in Esbjerg called 'Man at Sea'. Giant white sculptures that I imagined in the sea, randomly dotted around but...this 100kms diversion to a nondescript town led us to a line of four huge, white men looking out to sea on a grass verge all in a line. A little underwhelmed. Shame really cos had the town been a bit more inspiring we might have stayed for a Rock festival that weekend featuring Mel C and Ronan Keating, especially after a lovely Danish man tried to lure us with lots of beer!
Brief mention of our next stop simply for the kid in us, because it was a place called Middelfart. Heehee. We actually stopped in a service station and got chips and ice cream from Burger King, lush.  

Then another diversion to see some spectacular white cliffs. We cross three little islands and head down to one of the most southerly points of Denmark passing sweet little cottages with thatched roofs and wooden tops. Mons Klint, the reason for our being here, were down 600 steps to a 3 foot wide stony beach. Literally 3 foot wide!!! We looked up at these white cliffs and both said, "not as impressive as the White Cliffs of Dover". But we walked a 5km loop along the beach and through the forest, it was pleasant enough but that's about it!

And finally, Copenhagen. What a great city. Different architecture, cobbled streets with a cafe culture, spectacular churches and cathedrals, street performers and the Danes like to party. We saw several party buses cruising around and groups of hen and stag parties all on bicycles with the hen/stag in a basket at the front being pedalled around. The area around Nyhavn was particularly interesting with the canal boats taking groups cruising and a picture perfect street of multi coloured houses. Apparently this area was regenerated in the 70s by some hippies but it actually felt quite cool, maybe I'm a hippy at heart?! 

We also saw the other obvious tourist attraction, the little mermaid. Another underwhelming sight that was completely over powered by so many tourists clambering over it for their photo opp. 

While we were in Copenhagen we stayed in a marina and had our first experience of motorhome racism. Maybe a bit harsh but the big old wagons certainly have some disdain for us smaller vans, even to the extent of being plain ignorant about double parking and not wanting to move to allow other vans in or out. But  we managed with our English charm and the help of some Germans in a little bitch VW and a friendly Portuguese couple in a slightly bigger MH.

We decide to take a bit of a short cut and head north in Denmark to Helsinborg and get a ferry over to Sweden. It saved us paying the €56 for the Øresund bridge and a few hundred kilometres of driving. Incredibly easy, 40 kms drive from Copenhagen, literally straight on to the ferry, last vehicle and 20 minutes later we're in Sweden. Let's see if Sweden is actually just the forest that we've been told it is. 

Sunday, 4 June 2017

When good Crawlies go bad!

The plan was hop, skip and jump through northern Germany and get stuck in to the adventure proper. So why are we still in Germany nine days later? That's the unfortunate story for this blog, it would seem our luck finally ran out!

After spending a fantastic evening with Aalreike and Arian in Rjissen in the Netherlands, we decided to try and get as far as Hamburg. Doesn't sound too bad. About 250 kms. We took it easy, sailed across the border. Which I might add at this point was a dreadful let down after crossing the borders in Central America. No one to try and con you out of a few dollars for a completely unnecessary piece of paper. No one asking questions about where we've been, where we're going, how long are we staying, do we have a flight booked out of the country, have we any drugs in our bags. Then we hit the autobahn. Crawlie was very appropriately named. We were plodding along at 60mph with the lorries and everything, including other motor homes, whizzing past us at god knows what speeds. But we stopped for the night by a weir near a town called Ottersberg. We were there by three the afternoon and I was introduced to Backgammon which we played whilst drinking our tea and watching the German dog walkers arriving and leaving. Only dog walking, no dogging, before any of you make any comments! 

Outside Ottersburg
Next morning we wake up to glorious sunshine and are ready for the next day's drive of about 250kms across to the north east coast to a town called Flensburg. Still no signs of bad luck, I hear you cry. Hold on, it's coming!

On the way we need to refuel so we stop in a garage which has about five different types of fuel. Being the tight arses that we are we put in the cheapest, which is something called Super E10. It's got super in the name, it's unleaded, should be ok. But almost as soon as we pull away Crawlie feels different. She's struggling for power and is making a tinkling noise. She's always been a bit slow and a bit noisy but something is wrong. Not having much mechanical knowledge we just carry on regardless. Taking it real slow and hoping that it's just a minor sickness. You know, like a tickly sore throat. As soon as there's room for more fuel we top up with a better quality petrol and hope that might help. But the tickly sore throat is still there. We make it to our next destination and find a motorhome parking spot along the river just outside of town. No facilities but lots of other MHs and they were still turning up at 10pm that night! 

Note on Flensburg here. Really lovely town just about 15kms from the Denmark border. On a river with a cobbled pedestrian high street and a dead posh Marina. It's also famous for Flensburger beer.  

Next morning we decide to hit Denmark. We take the scenic route to give Crawlie a chance to warm up and cross another border. Well, we actually limp across and again, don't get stopped or asked any questions. But at this point we are both terribly uncomfortable driving the van and decide we should get her looked at as it must be more than a fuel problem. So 33kms into Denmark in the middle of nowhere is a Citroen garage. We stop. A mechanic looks. He tests. He looks. He tests again. He says sorry, it's broken. Two of our four cylinders are not working.  We are a little shell shocked to find out Crawlies sore throat might be pneumonia and could be life threatening. What to do? It's now Wednesday and the garage explain that they can't do anything until Monday because, guess what? It's a national holiday Thursday and Friday. Ok, let's go back to Germany, they don't think it's a holiday in Germany. So we limp very slowly back to the nearest town in Germany. 

It's broken!
Note about Niebull. A tiny town but it has all the stuff you need. Three cheap supermarkets, Lidl, Aldi and Netto. A few cafes and restaurants, a swimming pool and a fair is in town.

We call our breakdown cover out and a big friendly German man arrives who spends a couple of hours testing Crawlie before making us follow him back to the workshop. He looks. He tests. He looks again. He says, it's Kaput! We need a new engine! Then he continues to tell us that it's a holiday in Germany tomorrow. So no hotels available, no hire car. We feel like Mary and Joseph with no room at the inn. So Heino, we're on first name terms with the mechanic by now, says we can stay in the carpark of the workshop. He even leaves the toilet unlocked for us. Bless him. And so there we stayed for three nights. Making lots of calls to the breakdown insurance company, local garages looking for a new engine, even phoning England for advice. Eventually, with the help of Alan as translator, it's explained to Heino we are just poor peasants and Crawlie is our home, can he help us avoid the €3000-4,000 we are being quoted for the new engine. Unfortunately this all happens late on Friday and we have to wait until Monday before Heino can look at her and see what the damage is. We have a nail biting, excruciatingly painful wait of almost three days before we know. During that time we drank and ate, and ate and drank, got some washing done and became Backgammon masters whilst we stayed in a chocolate box thatched cottage hopefully paid for by the insurance company. Then good old Heino steps up to the mark. He works his magic and gets her going with parts from Germany and Denmark and a much, much cheaper bill. He is happy (Job well done crate of beer and lots of his favourite fags) We are happy! And so is Crawlie with her new timing belt, head gasket, cleaned, smooth cylanders, water pump, fresh oil, coolant and plugs.....Vrooom!

So here we are one week later than we would have liked and we have crossed the Danish border for real. Let's see if Scandinavia is all that we've been waiting for.

Monday, 29 May 2017

North Europe and Scandinavia Tour (NEST) - The Netherlands

So here we are again. This time, after a lengthy visit home, we are on a Northern Europe and Scandinavian campervan adventure in our recently acquired little motorhome. Officially named "Crawlie". Originally a rubbish suggestion by our friend Dr Vic who offered a confusing naming option of "The Crawling Condor - 'Crawlie' for short" and adopted by us on account of the tremendous speed she attains with a good wind behind her.

We won't bore you with details of our buying decisions or the copious miles we covered going hither and thither up and down country to find our perfect van. But rest assured both were plentiful. Therefore. Having bought, insured, cleaned, added to and stocked our new small home. As well as overstaying our welcome and exhausting the hospitality of our family and friends. We have hit the open road for a 6 weeks run through the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Time will tell how that goes and whether Crawlie is up for the bigger, longer and more arduous European Tour shortly afterwards .....

Ready for the off
Our Northern Europe adventure starts with a smooth crossing from Harwich to Hook of Holland and straight out onto the most clearly marked roads we've seen. Driving in the Netherlands (interesting fact we picked up about Holland/Netherlands. 'Holland' is a province within the Netherlands and only includes Amsterdam and its surrounding area in the west of the country. We didn't know this!) is so easy. Road signs are clear with plentiful arrows on the roads and even road bumps separating lanes around roundabouts. Their provision for cyclists is absolutely fantastic, it's no wonder there are so many cyclists and cycle paths And - its flat! As if that's not enough, this prosperous, middle class, highly developed country boasts beautiful cities with extraordinary architecture and is peopled by tall, blond, blue eyed, healthy, good looking bunch of of liberal minded, coolly dressed, generous folk.

Gouda cheese shop
Anyway, first stop Gouda. Just a short drive of about 40kms and we find an overnight parking place with electric hook up and water that's free between 9pm and 9am. We love the Netherlands! We do pay €8 for the next day and head off on our bikes to explore. We cycle like a couple of teenage kids on school summer holidays along a cycle path to Oudewater. A quaint little town that apparently used to think skinny women were witches and would put them on some scales with cheese on the other side for the weight. If they were less than the cheese they were a witch. I agree, skinny birds are witches, burn them all! Oh, forgot to mention the Gouda cheese. Tried some in a shop in the town and they flavour it with all sorts of stuff; lavender, paprika, horseradish. Absolutely delish.

Trademark of Amsterdam
Next stop...Amsterdam. We are lucky enough to know Peter and Natasha in Amsterdam and were directed to a free parking space out of town to leave Crawlie and Peter met us there on his bike. We did the ducks and drakes thing and followed him very closely to their apartment in the west of the city. 

Rachel Natasha and Peter
They are a cultured couple, and still friends with us, Natasha has an online gallery for modern art jewellery and works for an art gallery and Peter is a paper restorer and managed a department at the highly prestigious Rucks Museum. They were very generous with their time and their home and showed us the sights and fed us traditional Netherlands food. Basically sausage, mash and gravy. So not only do the Netherlands share their sense of humour with us Brits but also their love of comfort food! We cycled and walked around the confusing mazes of streets and canals, had history, architecture, art and the finer points of the red light district explained to us.

Deventer Town Hall 
From Amsterdam we head west to Deventer, a town recommended to us by Peter and, sure enough, it is absolutely beautiful. As we cycle along yet another incredible cycle path following the river the spires of the churches dotted around the city come into view. We arrive in a very pretty square and tourist information gives us a map of the old cobbled streets to wander round. We spend a pleasant couple of hours here and cycle back to our campsite which on a farm about 14 kms away. It's here we meet a friendly Dutch couple, also in a campervan, who almost immediately invite us to their place for dinner the next day. We had a kind of plan to leave the Netherlands and get across Germany to start the Scandinavia adventure proper, but you know us, never say no to an invite. So the next day we toodle over to Aalreike and Arjan's small holding and B and B. 

New world  champions for Speed Dinner Invitations
We receive yet more Dutch hospitality. They make us feel so welcome, giving us a place to park the van, some where to shower and plug us in for electric. We're starting to kick up a bit so the shower is rather welcome and from their faces is probably necessary. As we are sit down for dinner their family of three children introduce themselves and we all sit down to eat a delicious spag bol together. They are absolutely delightful and feed and entertain us, that is when Chris gives them chance as he is enjoying a new audience to regale with our stories! We leave the next morning feeling all the love that the Netherlands and its people have given us. 

The next leg is across the border into Germany and driving over 500kms in two long days of slow driving...possibly a little too much for Crawlie?! See the next instalment to find out....

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Land of hoes and glory

When we came back to England on 23rd March - deliberately travelling over the 22nd March and thereby allowing me to ignore my 56th birthday - we decided that on this visit we would try to view the place through the eyes of the traveller. Over the years we have spent away we have oohed and aahhed lyrically in our blog about many places but never about the country we left behind. It is an exercise I urge you all to undertake. Not only with places you are returning to but with people, experiences, and perceptions. Try hard to cast aside what you thought you thought and and actually see what is before your eyes, what you are hearing with your ears and what you are feeling now rather than what you think you should be feeling. It can be quite surprising

So the first three or four weeks after standing on our native soil we literally basked in beautiful sunny days and our spirits soared. All Brits will recognise that tingle on the skin, that shift in ourselves and the feeling of lifting of our souls when we turn our faces to the sun and feel warmth after months of ..... Not.

Well this is what we felt as we looked upon budding trees, vibrant new grass shoots and saw the rich greens of rolling fields or shady woods filtering the sun through their leafs. The sounds of birds, the smells of flowers and cow muck.  A fine countryside to rival anywhere

We have long argued the dominance of London as the best city on earth and this point of view was strengthened by re seeing the incredible architecture, the diversity of its people and the plethora of its entertainments both astoundingly pricey and amazingly free. But forget not those other pockets of England where flint, cobblestone, yorkstone or aged brick mingle with wooden beams, thatched roofs and country gardens. 

And yet, for all that, seeing Britain in snapshots as we do showed us jealousy, ignorance, lack of respect, unnecessary anger and other selfish traits that surprised us. Driving is scarier here than any place....I mean any place (even those with no rules) I have driven in. Personal space whilst walking through a town is guarded to such an extent that it is easier to move through Tokyo than most cities. And what's with giving the streets over to the young, self concerned and drunk most evenings. There is little pleasure walking in the town centre after dark and deffo not a place for families or the elderly and sadly I felt I fitted that second category. It is a shame but i guess this is complex country that is still finding its way towards Utopia

And here lies the fundamental dilemma we face daily. In that environment of both glory and disappointment are our families and dear, dear friends. People close to our hearts whom we think of daily. So for you - please accept our apologies for running away and for our continued absence. As they say "It's not you It's me" 
Please accept our invitations to come and visitt To meet us in far flung parts of the world and please please please keep communicating with us. We love to here your news ad general chit chat.

Thank you for making our stay wonderful.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

More to Panama than hats part 2

So heres the last few days in the lovely Panama City

Monday – Planned as Movie Monday and a chance to rest – turned out to be less about watching movies and more about looking on the internet at my new porn obsession – camper vans! In case we haven’t mentioned it we are planning to buy a campervan and explore a bit of Europe although its looking increasingly like that will include some Nordic travel and Eastern European countries. Anyway, I have been sucked in to this seedy world of swivel seats, leisure batteries, fold out beds and cassette toilet fittings. I find I have been staring at various seating arrangements or comparing the benefits of pop-tops against fixed high roofs. I am thinking mileage versus outlay versus practicality and am pondering this for hours and do not even realize the time. I am trying to wean myself off of this because I am not so far down the rabbit hole that I can’t see how it will all end- breaking into caravan parks, molesting virgin T6 campers in showrooms, jail time and therapy.

Today we decide to walk, cycle and shop a bit and start by walking half way across the city- through the business district, nice residential areas, landscaped gardens and on through virtual slums with a very different sort of citizen on display than those in the tourist areas. Its funny how the radar goes up when in these areas. Not because the folk are threatening, or treat you any different. It’s just those irrational scaremongering stories that keep us fuelling the expensive tourist traps rather than spreading the wealth in little corner shops or cafes. People in these areas are generally just poor – nothing else. But traveled as we are we do still go to Amber alert just in case and it makes me angry at myself as we have never had a problem anywhere in the world – irrespective of where go.  Anyway. Eventually got to the start of the Amador Causeway picked up a couple of bikes and pedaled out to the islands at the far end. Here you see moored tankers awaiting their turn to enter the canal, astounding super yachts in the harbor and duty free shopping where stuff was more expensive than in the city and we bought a very expensive Bounty Bar.

The Panama Bio Museum - Funky!
The government is really trying to do things right with all these new developments and the Causeway is another case of good planning with wide roads, walking paths and bike tracks all running side by side so no one gets forgotten. We dropped into the Smithsonian Museum on Noas Island and wandered along its diminutive trail which, even so, produced a sloth, raccoon, vultures, pelicans, hummingbirds, a terrific iguana and some small displays housing frogs, sleeping sharks (I thought they had to move but these two were definitely cuddled up and stationary) and a collection of frogs.

Iggy the iguana at the Smithsonian
Fairly tired by now we waited for a bus. I then irrationally ran back to the museum to get a drink and as soon as I was gone the once an hour bus came so we had to walk further…..grrr. Eventually another passes us and takes us to Albrook Mal. A behemoth of a place whose dimensions I cannot even guess at but in excess of Bluewater and Lakeside put together (These are big malls in UK for those not in the know). We were tired and lost in shopping land and only wanted to get home but every few steps Rachel was assailed by shop staff proffering free samples of soap, nail polish, hair treatments, free make up and anti wrinkle creams. I have never seen her looking so dejected and undermined. I certainly feared for the shiny, bubbly young gay man who without thinking asked what she did for her eyes? I won’t comment further on that note.

Two tankers going through the Mira Flores Lock on the Panama Canal
 The Panama Canal. So construction was started in 1881 by a bunch of French people including the guy who was responsible for the Suez Canal and Monsieur Eifel of tower fame. But 20,000 Panamanians died of yellow fever and accidents and costs ran away with themselves and the company went bust. The Americans step up and buy the bits and pieces for a third of what it had cost and finish the canal. It's a huge success and big money maker but Pres. Carter eventually signs it back over to the Panamanians who in 2000 take control and have made a healthy living ever since. Recently they have had to expand the operation to build adjoining and bigger locks because ships have outgrown the existing provisions. Up until now the locks have been 304m by 33.5m and could take a ship measuring (unbelievably) 294m x 32.3m. That's 400mm spare on each side of these huge tankers!!!! The canal makes a shed load of money – Various amounts are quoted but its between $1 billion and $1.2 billion dollars a year. Why? Because it's the only way to avoid the 8,000 mile journey circumventing South America . It can take 8 hours to get from the Caribbean to the Pacific. Do it by sea and its two weeks. Even the $58,000 average tanker cost is small change when held against two weeks of fuel, wages, delivery times and dangers in rounding the Horn.

There’s a visitor centre at the Mira Flores Lock. This particular lock drops the ships by 26ft and is very impressive. Big doors that could hold King Kong, Millions of gallons of water being pumped hither and thither. All sorts of machinery doing stuff and a viewing platform for us observers to watch it all from. It is impressive, unhurried and smooth running. It is no mean feat to move these massive ships. But move they do. One after another after another – 40 each day.

View of Panama from mirador in Metropolitan Park
More days walking about and drinking in the sights and sounds of the city and walking all the trails in the Metropolitan park – 2.5 hours and saw two butterflies and a lizard – Rubbish! 

Now this is strange! One night we thought we would go watch a rooftop sunset have a cocktail and get a pizza. We debated height of roof versus happy hour offers and settled for 8 storeys and $10 open bar for 3 hours at 1400rooftop. We arrive at 6.30pm just as the sunset disappears but resolve to enjoy the still glimmering light over the rim of a Margarita. Man! These were strong. Unlike most happy hour offers where the mix seems watered down these seemed to be alcoholed up. We had another. Then three huge Cuba Libres. So not a vast amount  of drinks in theory considering we can normally drink 3 Rum and Cokes of an evening. At 8.45 there is a loud bang and the lights go out. (We find out later that it's the city’s main station overloaded and plunged the city into darkness for 5 hours and gave rise to looting and other unsavoury goings on that had not been seen for 25 years). We, in the meantime, were already feeling giddy from the loud music booming out to us and the other desperate money saving couple 4 tables away. So decide enough is enough and leave. However, the moment we stand and start to walk to the exit the full force of the alcohol hits. We have to walk down the emergency lit stairwell and end up a bit lost in what might have been a restaurant or basement or both. 

Hang on Rachel
Rachel is constantly lurching and laughing and gabbling on about peeing whilst putting expletives between every other word. Something she is prone to do whenever she drinks more than a lady should. I am hardly any better but think it fun to record some of our antics (not very well) and by doing so can light the way with my phone flash. The few bits that are watchable are a testament as to why older people should not loose control. It is not agreeable but can be accepted in the young. For those who consider themselves within the middle spectrum it is undignified. F**k it! It was still fun.

In précis. She falls over in reception, I film her having a pee from above (I was lighting the toilet for her but this was an added bonus). We stagger down stairs, lay down on a pavement, fall in a bush, laugh our tits off the whole way, cross a busy 6 lane road, zigzag and zagzig our way up roads, get lost, get found, find Jesus, rest in a church doorway and eventually stagger back to our own room. It took 1¾ hours to complete a 20 minute walk.

We had great plans for the Saturday – We WERE going to go to a village on the Caribbean coast to watch a festival about devils and masks. Rachel however spent 24 hours throwing up, moaning, holding her head and swearing the most commonly broken oath that she would never drink again… I give her three days!

And so we are coming to the end of our time here. We have had one final mammoth walk about the town and along the front. We had Lobster Ceviche and chips at the fish market overlooking the Pacific Ocean then watched Kong from the front seats in a very busy cinema where everyone talked all the way through – and this is after they have queued for 30 minutes to get tickets.
Tomorrow we start our monumental journey back to England with a 15 hour bus ride through Panama to San Jose in Costa Rica to start us off.

So. By for now. Hopefully see you back here for our adventures from in Europe . It’s been a blast!