Jan
27
2009

Panama City

Having made it to the metropolis of Panama City, I feel much better. I think it’s because of the anonymity – in a large city, I don’t stand out, so I don’t get stared at (much). Plus, the diversity – of shops, restaurants, people, things to do..

The city is fairly spread out, so I’ve been doing a lot of walking. I prefer that to haggling with taxi drivers all day who end up trying to upsell you to take a tour or something. There are poor slums and rich neighborhoods. The latter remind me a bit of São Paulo, the way restaurants and shops are integrated into residential blocks. Jeremiah is always (rightly so) going on about the importance of this kind of zoning.

As I walk through these smog-filled traffic jams, I’ve also been thinking what a wonderful world we would live in if the internal combustion engine had never been invented. Or, let’s just say the automobile. Imagine.. if fields and forests had never been paved over with asphalt. Looking at old European cities that were built before cars existed is one example – everything is within walking distance. But one can imagine more contemporary designs. I’m thinking of modern, clean transportation like mag-lev and segways. I always think of Dean Kamen’s manifesto when he introduced the Segway – pointing out that cars are complete overkill for the short distances they’re mostly used for – for getting around the 2-10km range, why not use something smaller and easier? No need to get in those dreadful machines that spit out heat and exhaust and make us so crazy we lean on the horn incessantly. For one thing, millions fewer people would be maimed and killed if we got rid of the damn things.

What if cities were designed for humans, instead of for cars? What if there were grass paths to walk along, and moving sidewalks and outdoor escalators for steep hills (see Hong Kong). What if they weren’t concrete and asphalt wastelands, but instead beautifully landscaped communities we wouldn’t want to escape from, thereby decreasing our need for cars even further? What if there were no need for interstates  and truck stops and mechanics and parking lots and gas stations and all their attendant ugliness and waste of natural resources, but instead massive large-scale public transportation (like mag-lev trains) that were clean, efficient, and pleasant to ride?

It’s sad to me that most of us simply accept the status quo and don’t envision, let alone strive, for an radically different (better) world that could so easily be ours. In the end I suppose it comes down to money, greed, and those other nasty human traits.
It’s nice to fantasize, anyway. But back to our regularly scheduled program…

Panama City wins the prize hands-down for best transformation of old American school buses. Beautifully rendered air brush artworks, phrases in detailed scripts, funny attachments like fins and enormous hood ornaments. They’re called Diablo Rojos (red devils), perhaps because of the noise and black smoke they belch. Oh, and the crazy drivers that try to run you down – being only 2% of the vehicles on the road, they are responsible for 14% of the accidents. But the portraits on the rear doors are stunning – Jesus (of course), Elvis, soap stars, Mexican wrestlers, ghosts and goblins, whatever the drivers fancy. Unfortunately (or fortunately), they’re going the way of the dodo, for economic and other reasons.

The city is undergoing a massive building boom the likes of which I haven’t seen since Miami. Just in the four years since I was last here, the skyline looks completely different. There must be 40 new skyscrapers (all condos) in one area of town. A new Gehry building is going up along the causeway, which should be pretty cool when it’s finished. Other parts of town are as they were 50 years ago.. there are still the old markets and such.

Casco Viejo is the old area of town, very reminiscent of the French Quarter in New Orleans. 19th century French balconies overlapping classic Spanish architecture with a Carribean vibe in the street. There has been a lot of restoration undertaken recently, but thank goodness it hasn’t become Disneyfied (yet) – there are still a lot of beautifully crumbling buildings, peeling paint, and people who have lived here their entire lives. One such man I met hanging out next to the President’s house, which has guards around it 24/7.

The good thing about traveling solo is that I’m very approachable. This guy struck up a conversation, and he lit up when I told him I was from New York. He (can’t remember his real name, but everyone calls him Bobby) lived in New York for 10 years. He is half Panamanian, half Italian (Sicilian), has a Jewish wife, and kids in the States. He’s probably about 67, and looks like a salty old dog. Bobby has a wonderful spirit, and took it upon himself to show me around the hood. Having lived there all his life, everyone knows him. He’s like the mayor of this area of town. Every shopkeeper, craftsman, street thug, businessman in three-piece suit, busker, they all stopped to say hello and pay their respects to him. So it was wonderful to be in his company going around to all these places. I shot more photos here than I had in weeks – the architecture is so rich. At the end of the day he asked me for money to take his wife to the movies, which I thought was a bit tacky, but worth it for the tour.

The next day we met up again because the National Theatre had been closed the day before, and I really wanted to tour that. Unfortunately it was still closed (even though they told us to come back the next day!) Bobby insisted on buying me a touristy t-shirt which will be a nice re-gift further down the line. That day it was Chinese New Year’s, which was crazy fun. 10% of the population here is Chinese (from the building of the canal), they own most of the corner stores throughout the country. There is a small Chinatown we wandered into and held our ears as the dragon made it’s way from store to store. Each shopkeeper would hang a long string of firecrackers in front of their shop which would get lit as the dragon did a dance out front and drums were beat. It was very dramatic and loud and not at all safe. Traffic is going by, children are playing next to the explosives, and I don’t know how anybody had any hearing left after all that. I imagine it took most of the day for them to “bless” each store, we only stayed for a bit of it. I then took a taxi out to the convention center where there was another celebration going on that I had read about. This was more sanitized, but worth the visit.

Bobby recommended a walk at sunset along the causeway, a long strip of land connecting small former islands. It was alright, really just a place where rich people park their yachts and admire each other over $20 martinis. In another area, homeys were having a war between their car stereos – a big parking lot filled with boomers all going full tilt. Good fun. But the real fun came when I decided to walk home. It looked doable on the map, but sunset turned to night, and I found myself walking first alongside a freeway, then into what might have been a rough neighborhood, even though they seemed neighborly. Still, I thought, better not risk it with all the gizmos I’m carrying. So I stopped by a police station and asked where I could catch a cab. Now you have to picture these police – they look like military, replete with dark green fatigues and rakish berets. And lots of cool stuff strapped to them. The guy cops left it to the one woman cop to help me out, and I gave her the card to the hotel so she could tell the driver. After we finally flagged down a cab, she hands me back the card, with her name and phone number written on the back! Now this may lead you to think that I was flirting with her (which would be a great story if true), but on the contrary. It felt like I was being interrogated the entire time we were “conversing”, which is a stretch of the word, since I could hardly understand a word she said, and I’m not sure how much she understood me. Huh.

Another day I toured Panama Viejo, the really old part of town, from the 1500’s. It sounds neat, but is actually not that interesting if you’ve ever been to Rome or other big ruins.
There is a mosque down the street from my hotel and a Hindu temple in another part of town. Neither of which I’ve seen thus far in Central America. I also found a wonderful vegetarian vaguely Indian restaurant, another thing I haven’t experienced in months.
Panama City is not cheap, so I need to be careful. It’s about on par with a normal U.S. city.

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