A Panamanian Vacation
Yes indeed, there are four Panama Cities. Henry Morgan sacked the first in 1671. A monk wandered off and founded the second (never knowing that centuries later it would become a hippie/backpacker’s haven). The United States ensured the creation of the Canal Zone, a Panama City all its own, while digging the 8th Wonder of the World. And somewhere in between it all, the skyscraping, hustling, bustling, cosmopolitan Dubai of Latin America emerged on the shores of the Pacific: The Panama City.
Prior to an afternoon of watching the massive cargo ships pass through the Canal on our “tourist day” during this Panamanian Vacation, our tour guide Manuel lead us through these four Panama Cities. Despite his one detour to an “authentic” gold smithing (gold plating) workshop of ancient (molded knock-offs, government approved) trinkets, we hung on Manuel’s every word. As a transplanted Portuguese immigrant who spoke perfect French, English, and Spanish, Manuel is one of those tour guides that tells incredible stories, knows the ins and outs of the local culture, and willingly shares the many histories that create a country.
We didn’t get any time in the ancient city, (mostly reconstructed brick ruins . . . Lindsay and I do love these places), but Manuel painted a bold picture of Henry Morgan and his pirates attacking and conquering the city, along with many of their high-seas escapades. The seventeenth century must have been a fascinating era in which to live. You could pirate for years, and then return to Europe for a Shakespearean production.
We didn’t get any time to walk around the new city either. We drove through it and around it and under the building that looked like a tornado several times. But the traffic, according to Felix (our somewhat grumpy and distracted driver who loved talking on his cell phone, often over Manuel pointing out an important landmark), was too jammed to park, and we were already behind schedule. So it goes. But I’m sure glad we went to that goldsmith.
As the same pattern continued on the narrow streets of Casco Viejo (the 2nd Panama City founded by that monk in the 1670s), I grew worried that we wouldn’t have time to wander this section of town either. Fortunately though, Manuel convinced Felix that he was indeed going to stop and let us explore. Felix pulled over, hesitantly.
When Manuel first moved to Panama City over a decade ago, he lived in the Casco Viejo neighborhood, so our journey continued with his richness in storytelling. I learned more from him in that hour than we often do about entire cities in a full day or weekend on our other travels. At times we might reject such information saturation, but Manuel’s walking tour continued to captivate us.
Somehow though, Felix hadn’t quite heard Manuel’s instructions about where and when to pick us up. And while Felix clearly loved his cell phone, he managed to ignore Manuel’s calls for nearly a half hour. I didn’t mind. I found a corner near the main square of Casco Viejo and leaned up against the wall of an old church. With Manuel’s insights about Panama fresh in my mind, the Caribbean architecture surrounding me, and the Trump Tower rising up from the skyline in the distance, I did what I love to do most while traveling: watch the world go by.
Within the boundaries of the four Panama Cities, the whole of European-American history can be represented. From the massacre of indigenous peoples to colonial rule to the modern-era of extractive economies, unsustainable development, and the rogue industrial complex, on these Panamanian shores we come to understand the tragedies of globalization. Yet somehow, we still manage to be human beings: across the street from my corner perch, a father holds his son’s hand while buying an ice cream from a street vendor. The young boy looks up at his dad, smiling, grateful for the cool refreshment in the midst of the sweltering heat.