Panama is an exercise in educating the ignorant. Me being the latter. I don’t know when I decided to fly down, but it might have been somewhere between the two-week requirement of Cuzco and the brewing civil unrest in Caracas. Being the waistline of the Americas notwithstanding, Panama doesn’t exactly beckon with swaying hips and suntanned shoulders. All I know about it is the huge, man-made canal and its Floridian sister who is never sober during spring break season.
Getting in at night, I am impressed at how solid the infrastructure is. My cab driver whisks me away from the airport in a tollway that runs past high rises, palmettos, stadia and malls. This feels like Miami without the art deco. I am pleased and nervous at the same time. I had wanted to bask in exoticism, and if modernity were what I’d wanted, I should have just gone to Miami. Jorge tells me all these have gone up in the last decade, a little after the Americans handed back the canal. He says after its first year, the canal earned twice as much and that since then, the wealth has trickled down to the rest of the marginalized Panamanians. My head hurts from either the relative turbulence of the Copa flight, or the realization that the US Bases handover back home has not afforded poor Filipinos as much.
I ask him if Panama City were like this everywhere. Just before he answers, he disgorges me and my trusty backpack in front of a kooky looking hostel named Luna’s Castle. It is not modern at all.
There are people of all colors and shapes streaming out of the arched and barred doorway. The basement is a club, apparently, and everyone is wanting in. It’s only a thursday. Thankfully, there is no room so I end up in a hotel/motel/hostel hybrid a block south which looks new and clean enough. Someone cooks a huge spaghetti meal and I share it with some of the nicest folks from Uruguay and Argentina who have been backpacking for several months, and having said my spiel on the Philippines–where it is on the map, and where it is in the larger scheme of things–I crash like a log. Four AM, I hear crazy. Not just throbbing club music but people fighting and glass breaking. Being that all my life experiences are referred to in the context of musical theater, I look down from my window and see a scene out of West Side Story, with at least one person holding a broken beer bottle. I run downstairs to find the front desk guy watching this Discovery Channel special on bivalves and coyly tells me it’s a brawl from the after party. Happens every night. Wait, what? Our hotel/motel/hostel happens to also be an after-party club that opens at three AM till sun-up.
The next day, I walk back to Luna’s Castle to beg for a bed. I’ll take the regular party, not the after-party, please. And that night, I decide to be a participant rather than a grumpy bed spacer who can’t sleep because of the noise.
Morning comes and after eating some bananas and pancakes served by the Luna girls and enjoying some random artwork scattered all over, I head out to Casco Viejo, the old part of the city. There is a sense of victory one feels when, during a colonial fort city’s gentrification, the restored buildings of the frivolous martini bars and the buddha lounges stand shoulder to shoulder with the decades-old ramshackle barber shops and local digs called Cafe Coca-cola, or the national flag next to hanging laundry. An Intramuros with a better budget, I walk through cobble-stone streets that resemble alleys, and alleys that resemble crevices, occasionally popping into a museum, a church or an overpriced Panama hat shop.
The smell of frying food brings me to the Mercado de Mariscos, a mile’s walk through shoe cobblers, makeshift car and junk shops, hardware stores, and old spreads of found objects like talismans, wristwatch knock-offs and VHS cassettes. The seafood market is where the day’s catch is served fresh from the Pacific. There is a tiny restaurant on the second floor from whose vantage point you can see your fish being chopped and weighed by the vendor down below. It smells fishy but clean. And when you spoon that ceviche pulpo or that awkward specialty, Get Up Lazarus, into your mouth, you forget you have a hang-over.
There is an even older colonial settlement than Casco Viejo called Viejo Panama. Today, this is nothing more than a collection of ruins from the different Catholic orders that took root in the southeastern part of what is now Panama city. Dioramas and markers display an impressive grid with roads, markets and cathedrals. Until James Morgan came along and pillaged the place to kingdom come.
I take a subway ride and a diablo rojo (converted, pimped-up jeepney-looking bus) to the Panama Canal. Nothing beats a $1.25 ride to one of man’s greatest feats. On the bus, a guy talks to me in Spanish, telling me he knows exactly where I am staying.
In Panama, there is an odd penchant for putting bands around tourists’ wrists to identify they have paid an entrance fee, they are billeted at a certain hotel, they are part of a traveling group, among others. Much like the below-18 identifiers of US clubs and bars, this procedure allows you to not have to flash your passport or ID all the time to gain access. On your second day in the city, you will have typically acquired several wristbands.
He tells me I am staying at Luna’s Castle, I was at another hotel before that, I partied last night, been to some museums and was on a trip to the Kuna Yala. Great. Nothing screams moving tourist target than these wristbands. Some CIA agent this guy.
When I get to the Canal, I am surprised at the absence of pomp. Perhaps because I alit from a completely unglamorous Diablo Rojo with one other person late for his shift. I walk with him in silence about twenty minutes to the main building and still see no sense of ceremony except for some signs pointing to the viewing area and some warning about crocodiles lurking around. Besides the welcome center and the instant coffee shop, the Panama Canal is a straightforward, working, no-nonsense lock and dam. It’s hard to imagine this human achievement caused the deaths of over a hundred thousand people and so much political turmoil in the not so distant past. I bask in the thought of being able to educate myself, if only for a bit. The canal is humming and whirring and opening and closing and ebbing and draining. In these parts, that is the sound of money and trade and freedom. I digress. In these parts, that is the sound of just in time delivery from your dependable East Asian factory.
(All photos ©M. Sanchez)