The first foghorn we heard drowned out the sound of the howler monkeys that roared from the jungle around us. The second one scared us.
The morning mist had parted, lifting in lazy tendrils like smoke above the rain forest on either bank of the Panama Canal.
Our guide, Ché, a scrappy, stern Panamanian we’d met that same morning at a marina, looked concerned. He pull-started the ancient Evinrude motor on the back of his boat and it gurgled to life.
I had a fish on the end of my line – a plump, fluorescent-colored peacock bass that jumped occasionally and did belly flops on the water.
It was my first peacock bass, and I wanted to land him.
“You’d better sit down,” said Ché, who didn’t look so amused.
I turned back, and saw the bow of the 954- foot Korean Gio Quiang, a massive freighter ship transiting the Panama Canal, emerge in slow motion from behind a green hillside.
Mesmerized by the contrasting sight of a ship in this otherwise wild place, I hardly noticed the small tidal wave gathering steam off its hull, headed straight toward us.
I quickly landed my fish. My wife, Grace, snapped a picture, and we sat down. The wave shook our boat, the ship disappeared around another bend, and suddenly the foreboding sounds of the jungle returned.
Such experiences are commonplace in Panama – a place that seamlessly blends the old and the new, the wild and the civilized.
Our three-day trip to Panama City had included a visit to most of the usual sights: Casco Viejo, the Spanish colonial part of town, with its brightly colored homes and pricey restaurants; Parque Metropolitano, with its monkeys and abundant birdlife; the downtown market; and, of course, the CanalMuseum at Miraflores Locks.
The tourist circuit took us just two days to complete, but we were left wanting something more.We had a third day, and a limited budget. Fishing, it seemed, would be the perfect excuse to see the Canal Zone, in a way few others ever experience it.
Earlier in our visit, I’d struck up a conversation with a sharp young taxi driver named Alex, who’d recently bought his own van, a shiny new Chrysler, and wore khakis and a prim white shirt.
Fishing? He perked up at the mention. No, he didn’t fish, but he knew someone who could take us. Two hours later, in our hotel room, the phone rang. The next morning, we were on the water with Ché.
A local fisherman, Ché wasn’t a polished sort of tour guide, but he knew the Panama Canal because he fished it every day.
On the water, this was evident. He didn’t say much, but he pointed out howler and white-faced monkeys climbing through the trees, a pair of blue-headed parrots, a snake as green and slender as a garden hose, and four orange-streaked turtles sunning on a log.
At the CanalMuseum, we’d learned about the thousands of workers who’d died, victims of snake bites, disease and heat exhaustion.
But watching from the upper concrete deck as enormous, metal-plated ships transited the locks, it somehow seemed more like a tale from a children’s book than reality.
Now, as we bobbed on the surface of the waterway, we couldn’t help but understand.
The heat was unbearable in the sun. The air was humid, and weighed heavily on our shoulders. Our shirts were sticky with sweat.
A bee the size of a golf ball buzzed by my head repeatedly, reminding me that this was the jungle – and not the concrete kind you find minutes away in Panama City.
The fishing was slow. My first peacock bass, caught within sight of a passing freight ship, would be my last.
When we returned to the marina around noon, we were soaked in sweat, our mouths dry from thirst, our clothes stained from the boat’s wet, muddy seats.
Alex, our taxi driver, arrived right on time in his Chrysler, decked out in his usual attire, hair greased back as if fresh out of the salon.
“Would you like to stop by the mall on the way to the airport?” he asked, flashing a set of shiny white teeth.