a unique perspective on this crazy world

Archive for November, 2017

the african country you’ve never heard of…

Unless, like me, you are fans of David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike and have seen A United Kingdom.  I meant to see it in a theatre but didn’t get there so was very excited when it was advertised and made special effort to watch it on television.

<We will get back to Panama but first a detour…>

It’s an inspiring story about tackling racism, establishing democracy, the evils of both apartheid and British colonial rule AND it’s a love story that will make you feel bad about your own life  because they are so cool 😉

When I was very young, I had penpals in Ghana so I knew a bit about Africa for most of my life.  In my twenties, one of my boyfriend’s best friends was really into Africa and humanitarian work so that really fed my interest.  Another friend had this dream of going on safari in Africa.  I thought that sounded like a great idea so I have now been twice and I think he has not actually set foot on the continent.

So I suppose you could say I am an Africaphile 🙂  When I married, I confessed to my husband my obsession with going on safari in Africa.  He confessed it was a shared obsession but he would only do a luxus tour (he’s German).  A luxus African safari sounded amazing so I started the research.

Lots of people go to Kenya or South Africa.  They have done the best marketing themselves… but I am supremely analytical so every decision is vetted through a rigorous process.  That is how I chose Botswana as our first safari destination.  (If you are choosing, I am also a huge fan of Tanzania).

getting too close to the hippos

I picked Botswana because it was a good place to see wildlife but I always like to understand the places I am hanging out so knew a little before I arrived and then kept asking questions.  It wasn’t all perfect.  At least then (over a decade ago) there were problems with AIDS and moronic old-fashioned ideas that prevented an easy solution BUT it was an African country that made you believe in the future.

They had never been a colony (instead a protectorate, which you will learn about in the film) and had discovered diamonds as an independent country.  They had embraced high end tourism and roads were not paved on purpose so that tour buses full of tourists couldn’t glide through the savannah.

It’s a magical place.  We stayed in three different regions – the first safari by water on the Chobe River, then elephants all the time at Savute Elephant Camp and finally the phenomenal Okavango Delta where I discovered CCAfrica (hello Tanzania!).

the view from my room

I cannot give proper coverage to Botswana in one post but this is just to get people thinking about it.  While I was travelling around Africa the first time people said, “Africa will get into your blood.  You will need to come back.”  Even then I knew they were right.  There are places that imprint themselves on your soul.  There is so little wilderness left on our planet.  I come from the western country closest to Africa and I grew up in wilderness.  My grandmother was eating berries in the same patch as a bear…

Maybe it’s because I had part of my eyebrows singed on a May long weekend as a teenager fighting a forest fire and hoping we were NOT between the mommy and baby moose we had just seen close up that I feel so at home in the African bush.  It feeds my soul and engages all my senses.  As the African king tells the English insurance clerk, “the stars in my country take your breath away.”  I’m not even sure that is the correct dialogue, just my memory of my own experience.

my first trip in a mokoro

A United Kingdom makes me want to go back to Botswana.  These are supposed to be “once in a lifetime experiences” but they can be a bit addictive.  Africa can be addictive.

Apparently I can thank Seretse Khama (and Ruth Williams) for that.  I knew Botswana was special.  It was Africa at its best.  Such an amazing introduction. What I didn’t appreciate at the time was the backstory and how important Seretse was to the prosperity of modern day Botswana.  He was certainly born with a lot of advantages most of us will never know but it seems to be a story of public service and leadership.

There is no question Botswana will blow your mind – potentially in several ways.  You will need to save your pennies to see it properly but it will reward the effort.  Every time people look at me blankly when I mention Botswana, I just say, “it’s because it’s an African country that WORKS.  That’s why it’s never in the news and you’ve never heard of it.  A perfect place for a safari?  Obviously!”

A good place to start is to contact andbeyond or wilderness safaris.

Apparently, we can thank Seretse.  I wish I had known more about him when I visited but back then, if google was a search engine, it was not THE search engine…  I used dogpile! Why I should probably do a follow up trip 😉

 

not teddy roosevelt’s panama

Casco Viejo has a long history.  It was first built in 1673 when pirates destroyed the first settlement, Panama Viejo.  It was declared a World Heritage site in 1997.  Panama City was founded in 1519 and taken down by the notorious pirate Henry Morgan.  The new city was on a peninsula surrounded by the sea and defensive walls.  Panama Viejo is the oldest European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas.  It is a mix of French, Spanish and American architecture and ancient city planning.

Like so many cities, wealthy people starting moving to the suburbs in the mid 20th century and it became a neglected neighborhood eventually rife with rival gangs.  It’s not a place for a naïve tourist but it’s easy to navigate and hotels will supply you with a map that tells you where NOT to wander.  I spent almost a week there and was perfectly safe.

casco upgrade

If you are an idealist like me, it is gratifying to be supporting positive social change.  The revitalization of Casco Viejo is a model in development.  From what I’ve read, you can thank a corporate lawyer.  HUH?  His name is K.C. Hardin and apparently he moved to Panama to surf and accidentally fell into real estate development.  The company is called Conservatorio and is redeveloping Casco Viejo using a business model that is a model in many other ways.

The American Trade Building is four stories high and was built in 1917 to profit from the new Panama Canal.  By the time that Conservatorio got involved, it had been abandoned and was headquarters for a gang.  It’s hard to imagine that now, which is to the credit of the sensitive restoration and Conservatorio’s inclusive attitude toward development.  Gang members have been turned into entrepreneurs!

The American Trade Hotel is definitely a great pick if you can afford the tariff.  I went for lower prices but did

it lured me in…

indulge in a night of jazz at Danilo’s Jazz Club and highly recommend it.  The American Trade Hotel has created a revolution (of the peaceful kind) in Casco Viejo.  Across the street is Casa Casco, which also has four stories.  It is definitely the new Panama and one of my favourite hangouts during the trip.  Each level provides a different experience and cuisine.  The rooftop is lovely but the food selection is a bit bizarre.  It advertises itself as tapas but the selection is more sandwiches and pizza.  One level does Japanese food so decided to go for sashimi.  Really wanted tuna AND salmon but bizarrely that was not an option so went for tuna.  I had to eat it in the dark and there was no rice but the tuna was outstanding, far better than my recent food in Japan…

I went again and tried the third floor, which was Mediterranean.  Had an Instagram-worthy creative modern lamb dish.

Tantalo Hotel was also a great place to hang out.  There is a bar and restaurant on the main level in addition to the rooftop.  My food on the rooftop just OK but

head to the roof

the downstairs restaurant packed so likely worth trying.  There is definitely a lively scene on the rooftop and it is an excellent place to hang out.

The hotel staff were very welcoming.  I got a free drink in the bar upon arrival and they booked my birthday dinner in a sister restaurant called Caliope, where you get a discount as a hotel guest, as well as getting me VIP access to Teatro Amador.  Not everyone speaks English so communication can be a bit challenging but it was a wonderful day.  Got to spend my birthday evening in the VIP section at the Tantalo Rooftop and even got a piece of cheesecake with a sparkler in it just after midnight, when my birthday actually began.  Jose was amazing and took me through the staff entrance so that I could put it in the fridge in my room to enjoy as breakfast on my birthday 🙂

You will need to beware of the touts preying on tourists.  They are Latin so very charming and convincing.  The places they steered me weren’t bad but you can likely do better.  Probably my best meal was at Aki Sake Bar and Japanese Kitchen.  A great cocktail and outstanding sushi rolls for an incredibly modest price.  Casa Sucre is very good but not cheap.  Do go for a drink at sunset on Plaza Bolivar – there are several options.  The atmosphere is the main component.  Do have at least one Balboa beer but, if beer is your thing, check out La Rana Dorado, especially during happy hour (the Hop on Hop Off bus happened to drop me off at just the right moment 🙂

If one of your guilty pleasures in life is all versions of ice cream, you will need some steely self-discipline to avoid spending your entire time in Panama at Granclement.  It was just as well I didn’t find it until the end of my visit. I love ice cream but this is the first time I went twice in the same day!  I did walk a lot between visits…

Casco Viejo is a capitalist Havana.  It’s a fascinating place full of history and promise.

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