Wednesday, November 12, 2008


My first major trip outside of the United States was a couple brief trips to Panama as a Navy Reservist in the early 1990’s when the U.S. Southern Command was still located there. My memories of Panama were of a rich earthy smell of fresh tropical rains, the gaily colored jumble of Fanta and Esso billboards with Spanish slogans, arterial streets jammed with funked up colorful school buses with chrome diesel stacks, the fading green Thatcher Ferry Bridge, and of course, the canal.
The El Panama Hotel was my first real experience in a foreign country other than brief forays into neighboring Canada and Tijuana, Mexico. This is one of the more prestigious hotels in the central part of the city with elaborate restaurants, expensive shops, and a 1920s steamship era atmosphere in the lobby. The lobby consisted of an extremely elegant reception area with marble floors, elaborate lighting, and well polished wood. The good looking young clerks wore sharp suits and spoke good English in addition to their native Spanish. Porters dressed in khaki work outfits and huge Panama hats wheeled six foot high brass carts around laded with baggage from all over the Caribbean and Latin American while the owners generously tipped with American greenbacks. I wondered naively if some of them might have been kingpin drug dealers. The lobby also included an expensive restaurant and a casino with roulette tables and blackjack dealers in addition to the rows and rows of slot machines.
In the evening the place shifted from a lazy air conditioned luxury oasis to a rather busy albeit rather laid back center for nightlife. Dressed up people arrived for dinner while others still lazed in the exotic aura of the aquamarine swimming pool flanked by palm trees and illuminated by submerged white lights while a pop band consisting of keyboards, drums, bongos, trumpets, guitars, and basses played a cross between Latin rhythms and jazz near the poolside bar. From the pool I could see bright rainbow lights flickering from the disco at the top floor of the El Panama Hotel as it gradually transformed itself from a cool dark watering hole for a handful of hotel guests to a thriving dance center crammed with young partiers in dark outfits.

Leaving the hotel for the streets of the central part of the city was a dramatic contrast between the artificial cool air of the hotel and the humidity outside. During all hours of the day I immediately felt the swelter of the humid heat of this tropical and swampy site on the edge of the Pacific. The area around the hotel was a network of busy streets with restaurants, stores, supermarkets, and bars, including the gringo filled Josephine’s strip bar. The atmosphere somewhat reminded me of pedestrian areas of large American cities, except for the tropical weather, the ubiquitous trash in the gutters, and the acrid smell of exhaust from the not so clean cars and buses that crammed the street. Panama utilized a fleet of old American schoolbuses that were repainted red, white, and blue and often were further decorated with airbrush designs and usually had chrome diesel stacks. Most of these buses were quite crowded, and they seemed to go everywhere. Since most Panamanians did not own cars, they heavily utilized these buses.

The numerous restaurants or delis offered relatively decent fare for just a handful of dollars (Panama actually uses U.S. dollar bills along with their own coins as currency). I especially remember pressed pork sandwiches at a deli in the bus station for just a dollar or two. This modern central area was filled with half constructed high-rises, parking garages, hotels, bank buildings, along with the shops and restaurants previously mentioned. The oldest part of town located on a peninsula housed the presidential palace and much older colonial style buildings.
There was a distinct contrast between wealth and poverty, which of course exists all over the world, but is more acute in developing nations like Panama. Intersections were attended by a flock of beggars, window washers, and peddlers who would circulate around cars waiting for the light to change. Often the window washers would immediately begin to wet the windshield of an obvious rental car filled with Caucasian or Asian passengers, assuming (rather correctly in almost all cases, save for the most shoe-strung backpacker) that they had plenty of money.

I had to rethink my notions of being broke after periodic trips to places like Panama. I remember the late 1970s and early 1980s when it seemed like all of my friends’ parents, as well as my own, were having a hard time finding work, and as a result we still had a black and white TV and a deteriorating used car, and we never got on an airplane to fly anywhere, but we had a home with clean running water, reasonable aging furniture, and a record player, and we had access to reasonable schools. I have been broke as an adult as well, which means that sometimes my checking account was overdrawn because I had a razor thin budget margin, but I still had money for beers, books, and cheap plane tickets and other such “necessary” staples for a graduate student. Certainly, we do see the occasional homeless person on the streets of Western cities on both sides of the Atlantic, but nothing to the extent of the very immediate and widespread poverty that existed in places like Panama. But there was a different mentality about it, including aggressive efforts at selling something to make a little more money and sometimes even outright theft, but also a sense of genuine gratefulness when someone did hand over a small amount of money. One time I handed a dollar bill to a small boy begging outside the entrance to a McDonalds, which of course was a paltry sum that couldn’t purchase much more than a small hamburger or a bag of fries from their menu. Nevertheless, as I left the McDonalds after eating my lunch, he smiled and waved at me as he munched on a small hamburger.

At one end of the poverty scale was the El Chorillo district of Panama at the base of Ancon Hill where flocks of people loitered along a wide one way street that cut through run down dark buildings with empty black holes for windows and kids who swam in streets flooded with muddy (and probably sewage laden) water following a tropical rainstorm. Many of the poorer residents lived in soaring pastel high-rises with open-air windows filled with the gray hollow bricks that I’ve used to build makeshift bookshelves. Others presumably were homeless, or perhaps squatted in abandoned warehouses or other such structures.

At the other extreme of the poverty scale were numerous high-rises that were home to upper class families or offshore banks. I noticed a substantial increase in the number of high-rise buildings between my first visit in 1991 and my second visit in 1994, and most of them were adorned with satellite dishes and locked parking structures filled with BMW’s and Mercedes. I also saw separate luxurious houses surrounded by heavy iron gates and high brick walls topped with shards of glass. Some of the more luxurious places were hotels with air conditioned rooms, swimming pools and bars, a direct contrast to the cheap hotel rooms without air conditioning that were in the older colonial section of Panama listed in my Lonely Planet Guide.

The prime attraction that Panama is known for is, of course, the Canal, a major late nineteenth and early twentieth century undertaking. The French tycoon Ferdinand DeLesseps, the financier of the successful Suez Canal, initiated the project, intending to build a water level canal without locks, similar to the Suez. Since Panama was more mountainous and rugged than the Nile Delta area, that approach resulted in a disastrous failure that cost thousands of lives. Eventually, the United States government instigated a revolution that separated the Panamanian isthmus from Colombia to facilitate a U.S. effort at completing the canal, especially since the economic and strategic advantages of such a canal were increasing in importance as the United States rapidly expanded to the Pacific Coast. The canal opened in 1914 and eliminated the need for sailings around South America for all-water travel between the American coasts or to Europe and Asia. The canal was administered by the United States government until 1999, when the 1977 transfer agreement between President Carter and Omar Torrijos was enacted.

I visited Panama before this transfer, so the Canal Zone and several military bases were still under U.S. control. Essentially the Canal Zone was a territory of the United States with movie theaters, housing developments, and schools, essentially an "Americatown" in Latin America. People born within the Zone (including John McCain) are considered to be citizens. In the last decade, the canal has been placed under Panamanian management and has thrived, posting record ship transits as it remains a major nexus for trade between Asia, Europe, and North America. The increasing sizes of container ships, the increased use of railroad landbridges across North America, and the use of larger military ships like aircraft carriers have threatened the canal with obsolescence. However efficient Panamanian management, plans to widen the locks, congestion on North American rail landbridges, as well as the continuing importance of ships smaller than the Panamax size have ensured the canal’s vitality for the foreseeable future. A common sight at both ends of the canal was dozens of ships moored in the roadstead, awaiting their turn to pass through. Apparently it cost about fifty dollars per twenty foot container equivalent (TEU) for a cargo ship to pass through the canal, so if the Panimax ship carried over 4000 TEU’s, it would have to pay about $200,000. I imagine that there are other schedules for breakbulk carriers, military ships, or personal yachts.

Panama was a blend of international banking institutions, ocean transportation, colorful craft markets, beggars, intersection peddlers, colorful commuter buses, a jungle of half constructed highrise buildings, and the light blue sea in the distance. However, the volitile tropical climate often interuped this colorful street menagerie with violent downpours. The vivid streetlife would fade to soft approximations as frequent tropical storms moved through the area, pelting streets, windshields, pedestrians and palm leaves with hard drops of rain while the sidewalks became burgeoning rivers. Then, as abruptly as it began, the intense cloudburst would pass, allowing the streets to slowly drain while the city came to life again, much like how waves impacted tidal pools and reefs within the surf area.


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