Some Latin American cities have danger written all over them.
[This article drew a complaint from the Panamanian Ambassador to Japan, something I consider a real achievement]
For some reason it had seemed like a smart idea to catch the night bus to Panama City and thus save the money that we would have spent on a hotel room. However, Panama shares the love of tropical countries for arctic air-conditioning and so through the journey I kept waking up from nightmares of being buried in snow drifts or locked inside huge refrigerators.
I’d heard that Panama City can be quite a sketchy place and so me and Joe, an American guy I’d teamed up with since the Costa Rica border, sat on our luggage like vagabonds until the skies brightened outside.
At the first hint of light we took a taxi to the old part of town and were charmed as usual by the colonial facades that we’d seen so often through Central America. The rumours we’d heard about our chosen neighbourhood were quickly confirmed within minutes of our arrival though – as we gathered our wits in the park outside our prospective hotel, a disheveled crack-head crawled out of a hole in the wall where he’d spent the night in a broken-down courtyard. I owed it to myself as a writer to sneak a quick look inside. Rubble, broken bottles, syringes and rats.
“I think we’ve just found the cheapest place in town to stay.” Joe remarked from behind my shoulder.
Our hotel room looked out onto the park plaza and over the next half an hour a number of lost souls wandered around in a daze that had nothing to do with waking up. Ragged and dirty they staggered rather than walked and it seemed that their horizons stretched no further than their next fix.
The buildings around the square were tall and stately but had long been abandoned to ruin and decay. Tiles were missing, windows were broken and squatters conducted shady business from the back of these recondite dwellings. All day people filed in and out, throwing a watchful eye for the police as they did so.
I was cheered to see that even in the city the jungle was ready to reclaim its territory. Trees burst through the upper store windows, reaching for the sky and vines crept up and down the crumbling walls of stone. Had this place been a bit cleaner and better policed it would have been filled with backpackers taking photographs. But as it was I was quite glad of their absence for once.
Later that morning hunger overwhelmed the need to catch up on lost sleep. As the receptionist came over to let us out of the barred metal gate that served as entrance to our hotel, she warned us:
“Only walk down streets where you see other people – tourists are a target here.”
It was 11am. We climbed the stairs back to our room and hid our passports and money underneath a loose floorboard. Joe also pocketed his handheld self-defence – a tiny can of Mace. He grinned and told me:
“Man, let me tell you, I was once maced by accident and I was on the floor straight away, it was like hell on earth for twenty minutes – but it wears off pretty quick and you’re just left with the red eyes of an alcoholic for the rest of the day.”
We walked through the streets feeling pretty paranoid and Joe reached for his pocket every time we passed a group of young guys hanging out on a street corner. But then we came across the President’s Palace overlooking the harbour and soldiers searched us before giving us permission to pass. I wondered if the head of the country couldn’t have found a better neighbourhood to choose as his home.
We tried to look tough as we walked through the docks and we were damn sure that this was an area we wouldn’t be visiting at night. To each side people lay crumpled up on the floor, their faces swollen and their eyes red in an intoxicated stupour. Others called out for our spare change in lilting Caribbean accents and it seemed more like a suggestion than a request. Little tug boats pulled off from the wharfs and I guessed that a fair amount of contraband came in and out of these docks.
Even as we headed downtown the signs of delinquency were evident in their secondary effect – almost every house had steel bars across the window to make life that much harder for the local burglars. Most bizarre of all was the kid’s playground we passed, the fence of which was topped with barbed wire. That had us thinking all day.
Once downtown we saw all the other tourists whose guidebooks had warned them to satyr out of the old part of town. All of the familiar multinational chain stores flashed neon on the streets and the smell of money was everywhere.
As we waited for the lights to change a red convertible pulled up and a local playboy sat at the wheel in an expensive suit with a blonde at his side, burning the eyes of all that looked at her in a low-cut dress.
“She matches the car!” We laughed and then walked on feeling like two losers.
Panama City is the launch pad for South America and it was here that the cheapest tickets to Colombia could be bought. I got my ticket and then in an effort to kill the remaining time I let Joe drag me down to the Panama Canal. This strip of water connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific is the main reason that this country is on the map. It’s why the country uses the American dollar as it’s currency and it’s why the US invades fro time to time when they’re not happy with the local politics.
“Visitors to the Panama Canal are reminded not to take photographs. Please do not stand on the benches. It is not allowed to consume food or drink outside due to the risk of attracting bees and wasps.” I kid you not, the loudspeaker actually said that.
There was really nothing to do but watch some big boats moving very slowly and I slouched off early.
“What were you expecting exactly?” Joe asked me. “Well, you know, docks full of wise old sailors with tattoos and white beards, press gangs and stowaways, fortune tellers and bustling markets of exotic foreign produce, pirate flags and-”
“Well, that’s what you get for having an imagination in this world.”
On the evening before I left I still didn’t dare venture further out than the local coffee and cake shop where the old men sat playing chess. Three or four of them stood passing excited comment as the Panamanian put pressure on his opponent, the Chinese proprietor of the store.
Although China has rarely taken much interest in world affairs, the Chinese themselves have spread to every corner of the planet and have done very well for themselves despite the prejudice they’ve faced.
“Hey Chino!” Someone yelled, “Give me a coffee!” The lad in question was probably born here but will always remain a foreigner. The fate of the immigrant and the traveler.