Back to the future

Trip Start Apr 21, 2010
Trip End Jun 29, 2010

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Flag of Panama  ,
Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Since arriving in Bocas del Toro, it was clear to us that Panama is no longer the struggling country it once was. Panamanians enjoy a comparatively high standard of living to many of their Central American neighbours, and their economy is going nowhere but up, due to the booming real estate in David (thanks to mostly American retirees) and Panama city, the return of Panamanian control over the Panama canal, and growing tourism industry.

But much of Northern Panama is still rural and citizens live modestly in small concrete houses and sell wares in the market or work on a farm. So nothing could really prepare us for the culture shock of Panama city, where at least 19 skyscrapers are being built as we speak, there is a casino and an air-conditioned theatre on every corner, and KFC and McDonald´s have painted the streets red and yellow.

So, we took a break from "getting in touch with the real Panama" and gave into our North American cravings full-bore. Our first night we went to see Robin Hood in English at a huge air-conditioned and sparkling new theatre complex, complete with over-priced popcorn and pop (although the tickets were dirt cheap at 2 dollars each). Then we took a taxi to Casco Viejo, the old colonial part of the city that is being taken over by trendy ex-pats, and went to see a jazz band in a funky American-run bar and drank red wine by the bottle. Turns out that although the band was advertised as "jazz", it was more like a jazz drummer, bassist, and guitar player, and a folky and very cheasy lead singer who essentially made the whole ensemble sound like bad karaoke. Oh well, the wine was delicious at 20 bucks a bottle! Then we went to a brand new fancy casino and promptly lost a day´s travel budget (50 dollars) before deciding we should probably leave.

The next day we wasted two hours trying to figure out how to mail home the presents we bought for family and eventually gave up. Then we hung out in the hostel before heading off to the Panama canal at the Prime viewing hour of 3 oclock, which is the best time to see the big freighters go through. I must admit, I kind of thought this would be a boring activity more suited for the Chris Schweers` of this world who understand and appreciate the secret workings of huge machines. But it was actually really really cool!! We saw three HUGE freighters going through the Miraflores locks, and one of them was a massive car carrier carrying approx 5000 cars!! It costs a ship this big about 300 000 dollars to use the canal, although they apparently save about 7 million dollars and 30 days by not having to navigate all around the South American continent, so I guess its a bargain! It seemed like a really efficient and surprisingly quick process and we took a million pictures. Apparently the American government reliquished control of the canal to the Panamanian government in 1999 and drained the country´s economy at the same time. But the Panamanians, depite much skepticism, have done a superb job of running the canal, including a much better safety record than the Americans. In addition, they recovered more than all of the jobs lost when the Americans left, and are in the process of expanding the canal to increase volume. All in all, definitely something for the country to be proud of.

We went back to Casco Viejo for dinner, which truly is a beautiful part of the city. Many of the old colonial buildings have been completely restored as luxury condos that rent out for 2000$ a month. But many of the old building remain as ruins and are homes to Panamanians poorest-the squatters. Now it might seem like these people are living illegally, but because Panama does not have a real welfare system, they feel, and most Panamanians agree, that they have every right to live in these decrepit buildings for free. Regardless, this is their country and these are their homes and they are systematically being kicked out as foregin investors "clean up" Casco Viejo. Seeing gorgeous restored colonial buildings with beautiful french door balconies and hanging flower baskets next door to buildings that look like they have been shelled and a whole family living in one concrete room with no windows or doors, no water and no electricity is interesting to say the least. Casco Viejo was easily my favorite part of Panama city. Funky, trendy, beautiful, historical, and sad.

We began our final day in Panama city with a nice two hour walk in the city park, where we sweated lots and gotten eaten alive by mosquitoes. Once again, we decided to forget trying to uncover the natural beauty of Panama and explore a jungle of another kind--the mall. Now, the Albrook mall is not just a mall. It is a SUPER MEGA HUGE shopping mecca. To walk the entire circular building on one of its two floors without stopping to do any shopping would take about an hour. It is MASSIVE and ultra modern. It has a huge cinema, at least 5 huge department stores, 3 main gigantic food courts and coutless smaller ones and a whole lotta stores. Some are bargain basement and some are ultra ritzy. Anyways, we ended up spending almost 7 hours in this mall and bought almost nothing except some presents for the family and 2 t-shirts (we were quite proud). Finally, we decided to try and find some medium sized cardboard boxes to send our souvenirs home in. I put my Spanish skills to the test and asked one of the bag-check guys at a dollar store if they had any empty boxes in the back that we could have. He said he would take me to look in the back storage room, and after I found a couple that were more of less the right size, he started bargaining with me!!! For empty used cardboard boxes in a room full of hundres of empty cardboard boxes!! Anyways, he only wanted 50 cents, which I also thought was quite amusing and I happily agreed. So I went to walk back into the store to pay for the boxes at the cashier, but he quickly stopped me and explained that they were HIS
boxes so I would have to pay him for them...Ahem, did I mention that he was the
bag check guy? The whole notion of doing a backroom deal over 25 cent cardboard boxes was too much for me and I couldn´t help but giggle as I forked over the 50 cents.

The next morning we took our hard-won cardboard box to the post office and sent our souvenirs back to Canada. Then we caught a bus to the airport and arrived 50 minutes before our international departure...Oops! They weren´t too concerned though...

Anways, off to rejoin the gringo trail in Cusco!


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Mom on

Love your stories & pix...keep'em coming (when you can)!


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