Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Old faces. New friends.
Next stop Panama City. Saying Panama, makes me think of that Van Halen song, to which I only know one lyric – Panama… Panama-ah-a-ah-a-ah! Are there any other words to that song? Probably not because, besides the Canal and Noriega, (which aren’t the sexiest subjects for rock lyrics), what do any of us really know about Panama? Despite, this lack of inspiration or expectations, Panama City was the next place we were headed.
We checked out of the hostel and headed to the bus station where we boarded a comfy air conditioned coach with a bathroom. Phew because this bus ride was over 7 hours and it was hot outside today. We kept ourselves amused with the badly dubbed c-movies on the bus’ tv and the bag of junk food that we brought on board. Soon we were crossing over the Bridge of the Americas at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. But before that even registered, we were shocked by the skyline of Panama. It looked like Miami, complete with multiple cranes and countless skyscrapers. My recollection of those newstories out of Panama did not prepare me for this or the gigantic mall-sized bus station attached to a gigantic mall-sized mall. Luckily there was a phalanx of cabs ready to take us where we wanted to go.
The hostel had advised us that it should only cost about $2 by cab so when the first cabbie told me $4, I walked away. Of course when the second one said $5, I realized the numbers were going in the wrong direction and went back to the first driver. Oh well, it’s the price you pay when you look like you just got off the bus. The hostel was a bit worn but clean and comfy enough. The staff were super friendly and helpful. Plus, it was nice to see some familiar faces. Way back in Granada, Nicaragua, we had crossed paths with a woman traveling with her two kids through Latin American (I know, crazy isn’t she). This time we actually introduced ourselves – turned out Stephanie was a fellow Canadian albeit from Edmonton. We caught up on where we’d been since the last time we’d spotted each other and figured we’d see each other again soon as she and the kids were off on a boat to San Blas and Cartegena the next day.
The next morning we were off to explore the old colonial part of the city, known as the Casco Viejo. Rather than try to navigate the crazy bus system we caught a $2 cab. The cab driver dropped us off in front of the Teatro Nacional so we could begin our little walking tour of the old city. In contrast to the Miami of the new town – this part reminded us of Havana. The only thing missing were the classic cars. Everywhere were beautiful old buildings in various states of repair: from recently remodeled and upgraded condos to shells of buildings that looked like they would blow over at any minute, including Noriega’s old hang out which looked like it was finally being renovated 20 years after the US invasion destroyed it. Just around the corner was a pretty ocean front promenade lined with Kuna indigenous women selling crafts. We passed the memorial to those who died during the French attempt to construct the canal and headed to the cathedral and onwards to the really good Panama Canal museum – are you seeing a theme here? Yup, Panama City is all about the canal. But it was easy to forget about the canal in the city. We were surrounded by lots of old churches and beautiful old buildings and balconies.
Before we got here, we had been worried about security in the city. I blame our out of date guidebook. Other cities have been dodgier and we’ve survived. But we got a quick reminder of what could happen as we walked up Avenida Central into a less touristy part of town. It was less polished and less pretty and we were immediately approached by an old man who kindly told me to put my flashy camera away just as a crack head approached me to demand money and an argument broke out between a drunk and two girls. The old man was Conrad and he was 73 years old. He spoke perfect English thanks to his education in the old American Canal Zone. So we left the police to deal with the drunk and an old lady to tell off the crack head and continued our walk down the local pedestrian mall with our new friend.
Conrad was glad we were Canadian. Not that he didn’t like Americans. In fact, he owed them a lot – they’d given him an education when he was a boy and a job when he was a young man. But they also owed him a lot he said. The invasion had cost him his house and his wife. He called it a love-hate relationship. Despite all that he said he wished that the US was still in charge of the canal. Nowadays, he said, the money the canal makes only goes to the wealthy and half of those are money launderers for the Colombian drug lords. In fact he said all those new buildings we saw on the skyline were mostly empty and built just to help launder money. He contrasted that with the area we were now in. It was just outside the protected old city but was full of equally beautiful buildings however, most of them were slowly disintegrating because no one wanted to put any money into this part of town. He explained to us that minimum wage was about $1.30 and with gas at $3 a gallon it was hard for most folks to make ends meet, yet everywhere there were cars and brand spanking new condos that sat empty. As we reached the Legislative Plaza we stopped and Conrad pointed just beyond the expressway towards some low rise buildings. Those projects were the real Panama City he warned us. Over there the drug lords have given 9 year olds AKs to fight the police who only have .38s. “Guess who’s winning?” he asked. I’d seen enough Law and Order to know the answer to that question. According to Conrad, Panama was nothing but a corrupt drug laundering front. When he found out we were considering taking a day trip out to Colon (the Caribbean side of the canal), he quickly stopped us. Colon was like the projects he pointed out, except it was the whole city. He wouldn’t go there and he’s a local. He gave us instructions on how us to take the bus to the nearby locks instead. It’s cheaper and a lot more fun he said.
Our impromptu tour with Conrad had been enlightening and educational. Not only did we learn that only tourists wore shorts, we also learned a lot about current affairs. Conrad hailed us a cab and as we got in we gave him $5. He didn’t ask for anything but his tour was better than any we could have paid for. On the way back to the hostel, the cab took us by the projects. We didn’t see any kids with machine guns but we did see some Mormons which was almost as frightening.