The Panamanian accent is a rapid fire Caribbean and if you think that Mexican Spanish is fast—holy shit!—Panamanian Spanish is super fast, quite possibly speed of light rapidity. Words come out of their mouths so fast that five have already passed me by and I’m still trying to untangle the first one. The city, Panama City, that is, clings to a narrow ribbon of cultivable land between the water and the mountains—the Cordillera of hard, black, sharp volcanic rocks. When the tide is out you can see the land just below the water is igneous and the mountains are green and misty.
The old town, Casco Antiguo, is tipico Spanish colonial. Looks colonial. Feels colonial. Reminds me of Singapore a bit, except more hills in PC—Panama City. Not many hills in Singapore, a place that will sadly drown, mostly, once the ice caps and Greenland melts. But PC has a touch of the decadent, French Quarter, iron railing, long communal balconies, curved buildings with rounded corners, few hard angles. Easy on the eyes. Whereas new Panama City is just another global agglomeration of rebar, concrete and blue glass.
True to Mann’s “1493” thesis there is a Chinatown in Casco Antiguo. This surprises me more than it should. It’s a confirmation of Mann’s entire “1493” work—especially in the creation of the world’s first truly global trading matrix. The silver was shipped up the South American coast to Panama from Lima. In Panama it either crossed to the Caribbean or was shipped East, bound for the China trade and the China fleet based in the Philippines. Hence, Chinatown in Casco Antiguo.
The people—the people are a mix. They run from white as day Spaniards, hardy from the Estremadura to black Africans from the the Ivory or Gold Coast. The big bulge in a common distribution curve would lean heavily towards African however. It’s the most Africanized place in Central America I’ve yet seen. My guess is the income distribution would be in inverse proportion to skin color, as it pretty much is everywhere, sadly.
Few American cars on the road. This, for all intents and purposes, a former American colony, with no American cars on the road. Let that sink in for a moment.
There are lots of feral cats in the old town. Why do I always notice cats? Trolley tracks from the late nineteenth century or early twentieth run in front of the Ministerio de Gobierno, and they’re building a subway here. Why can’t we get subways in Texas? Panama can do it but America can’t? Christ.
Clearly an enormous amount of money flooded into Panama—the entire country as I would find out later on the drive across it—during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Lots of it from Columbia. Some from America.
I saw the canal. It’s fascinating, but I’ve sailed a container ship from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Chennai, India and ships and ports and canal-type engineering marvels, while fascinating, I don’t find terribly compelling. I’m glad I saw it. I can see why Teddy Roosevelt made such a big whoop-de-doo about it. Big stick, soft voice and all. Too bad he got followed up by Woodrow Wilson, pretty much the first loud mouth American.
Anyhow, strange digression there. Our driver from the canal was an interesting man. A large, powerful man of African descent who had lived in Jersey for many years with the last name of MacKenzie took us to the canal and answered all our questions. He was kind and patient and what is always wonderful in a driver: he didn’t talk too much. Nothing worse than being cooped up in a car with someone and your don’t want to talk, just want to let the road roll by and see country.
We got lucky in David, where the bus dropped us too, with Homero, a kind father of two and part time photographer, who drove us to La Frontera: the border with Costa Rica.
The country side was beautiful and moderately prosperous. The golden arches of globalization were everywhere. Mostly new cars on the roads and a seemingly abundant source of energy from the vocal chords of the entire country moving at the speed of light until we hit the border at ten at night and crossed into Costa Rica. Things slowed down very quickly then.
Nota bene: The full set of photos can be found here. Newest photos start here and move forward.
(Consider a tip if the mood strikes you.)