Published: November 7th 2005November 2nd 2005
November 1, 2005 (Panama City, Panama) Sean:
I’ve wanted to come to this country ever since I first heard Van Halen sing that refrain. I never understood the connection between the lyrics and the chorus though. But they were Capital B-I-G Rock and Roll stars and I was some punk kid listening to my cool, older brother’s cassette tapes, so who was I to question these powerful and all knowing gods? It must’ve meant something otherwise why would anyone listen to a bunch of grown men innocuously stringing words together and then periodically - for still
no obvious discernable reason - yelling out the name of a random Central American country. It didn’t make sense, but then again it’s not like the members of the band were going out and buying my
albums. And that was a long time ago (the year quite easily remembered) before Sammy Hagar, before Gary Cheron, and way before Diamond Dave stole grooming tips from Einstein…with a better tan, of course.
Either way, at least we can give them credit for expanding my knowledge of western hemisphere geography and the role this small country has played in the center ring of
the Geopolitical Big Top Circus.
My first note about the country of Panama has to do with money. If you rush out and do a little research you’ll learn that their money is officially called the “Balboa”. Abbreviated like this: (B/.). Everywhere you go, as in every city, you’ll see adverts for goods and sales proclaiming “Everything Under a B/.1.00” or “Now only B/.5.99”. You get the drift. The interesting thing is that the Panamanian government doesn’t print “Balboas”. In fact, they don’t print anything here. It’s a unit of paper currency in name only. The only place that prints “Balboas” is in Washington, D.C. and when they’re printed, and before they leave the United States, they’re called “Dollars”. The fact that this country runs completely on US greenbacks came as quite a shock as we didn’t read this part of the guidebook very well. Usually we just hit the cash machine in whatever country we’re in to pull out the local currency. So the heroes of this tale are pleasantly surprised to have a pocketful of Washingtons, Lincolns, and Jeffersons to tote around this foreign country. They actually do mint their own coins (well, they’re actually minted in
Philadelphia) in the same denominations of coins that we have, but I’ve been given both Panamanian centavos and US cents as change with about the same frequency.
The problem is that even though Panama is a bit more expensive than Guatemala, it’s so much cheaper than the States. And since we’re using our native currency for all transactions we’re constantly comparing things only to America. So when I think something is wicked cheap because it’s posted in dollars, when I convert it into quetzals (Guatemala) it’s actually not that great of a deal. ¡Que Confundido!
November 2, 2005 (Panama City, Panama) Shannon:
Sean and I arrived in Panama City yesterday. We’re staying in the Casco Viejo section of the city, which is the oldest part of the city. The guidebook warned us that this part of the city is fairly rundown and dirty, but we decided to stay here anyway. In the end, I’m glad we did. The majority of the historic sights in the city are here in this neighborhood, and though it is rundown, it has character. It reminds me so much of the French Quarter - narrow streets, historic buildings crumbling with decay
- but without the tacky tee-shirt shops. And, truth be told, living in New Orleans prepared us fairly well for visiting places like Panama - it was the finest third-world nation we’d ever lived in. We feel quite at home.
I am disappointed to report, though, that moving to Panama didn’t improve the shower situation any. In Guatemala, you basically had two options - cold water at a decent pressure, or semi-hot water coming out as a dribble (and I’m sure you are all fondly recalling Sean’s exciting “hydro-electric” adventures). We came to believe that showering in Guatemala is an unappreciated science - how to turn the knob just perfectly to reach that balance between freezing torrent or warm spit. I had high hopes from the airport at Panama City - automatic flush toilets! - that Panama would be a bit more advanced in the shower arena. Alas, just as in Guatemala, they saved themselves the expense of running hot water piping, but now we don’t even have the excitement of exposed electrical wires or a heating element, just cold water. It sure wakes you up in the morning. Though on later reflection, I must say that I’ve come
to appreciate the honesty of the situation - at least I don’t spend 10 minutes trying to dial in Tokyo with the shower valves hoping
to find hot water - it’s a foregone conclusion before I even get there what the water temperature will be.
Though, as my dear husband pointed out, it is
rather sad to imagine the millions of people living in these countries who have no idea what a good, hot shower feels like… Sean:
As Shannon was saying, the Casco Viejo (Casco Antiguo) section is very similar to the French Quarter (lots of narrow streets, French colonial architecture, balconies galore, it’s hot and humid, etc.). Unfortunately, it seems to be (at least from my limited knowledge) the Quarter as it was 40 years ago - poor, dirty and horribly in disrepair. And the interesting thing is that the Panamanian President lives in this neighborhood. Yep, their version of the White House (and it is white, too) sits right in the middle of a neighborhood of buildings that, though once beautiful, are currently half-empty and inhabited by what appear to be some very poor residents. He, of course, has a nice house that’s not rundown,
but when he wakes up each morning there’s no doubt that he catches the stink from the “Panamanian dry-dock” (see the picture) across the way. It’s just surprising because - even though it’s a small country, the Casco Viejo neighborhood is small like the Quarter - so it’s kind of weird to think the head of a country lives here.
Thankfully it’s not unsafe anymore. I guess it used to be a higher crime area until they posted “Tourist Police” on every corner (I’m not exaggerating…every corner). You can see a few people have begun the long slog to gentrification, though. There are a few nicer restaurants popping up, some of the properties are being renovated, and there is a large emphasis to make this a bigger attraction. They should because, architecturally, it’s the most interesting area of the city and they’re sitting on a gold mine. It’s got the character and history of the Quarter - minus Louis, Louis, Dr. John, Professor Longhair, Pete Fountain, and, of course, Chris Owens - including the French influence, the Spanish influence, lots of pirate lore, and Carnaval. Needless to say, we love it and you can imagine Shannon salivating to get
Balboa Glimpsing the Pacific
He is given credit as the first European to view the Pacific. He claimed all the land that it touches belonged to Spain.
her hands on one of these rundown buildings to fix up. Unfortunately, since we relinquished control over the canal, there just isn’t a call for a couple of talented Gringos such as ourselves. Shannon:
Sean and I were reading this morning, getting ready for our day, when we were unexpectedly treated to a small parade outside our window. We are staying on the 2nd floor of an old building, with huge windows overlooking the street. All of a sudden we could hear a marching band down the street (again, it reminds me of New Orleans). Panama’s Independence Day is November 3 - the date they officially broke with Colombia and founded their nation (backed by the US, of course, who had been denied permission by Colombia to purchase the rights to the canal construction from the French after their attempt was unsuccessful.) Though today is November 2, it appeared that the parade was somehow connected to tomorrow’s festivities. It was a small parade, but they sounded pretty good, and the owner of the hostel told us that the President of Panama was in the parade (we assume he was sitting in the car following the parade - it wasn’t clear and we have no idea what he looks like.)
The remainder of the day was spent exploring the Casco Viejo section of the city. We walked to the promenade at the southern tip of the peninsula (less than 5 minutes from where we are staying) - from here you can see the ships waiting to enter the Panama Canal. It’s pretty amazing to see these massive ships lined up waiting for their turn. We also gave ourselves a self-guided tour of the Teatro Nacional (National Theater), which is a beautiful old theater, built in 1907 and restored in recent years. We slipped the guard $2 and he was happy to let us wander at will. (Sean, in typical fashion, got up on stage and was climbing on the stage props - I was sure we were going to get kicked out - but I guess we didn’t make enough noise to rouse the guard.) We also tried to get into the Museo del Canal Interoceanico (Panama Canal Museum) but it was closed (it appears they closed early for the holiday). It is supposed to have some really good exhibits on the construction of the canal, so we will try again.
November 3, 2005 (Panama City, Panama) Sean:
Gandhi is still spreading the word in Panama.
I saw this store and just had to say something about it. It’s nice to see that the good people of Panama have not forgotten about Gandhi, but I wonder if he would be a little dismayed to know that “Casa Gandhi” is in the business of retailing furniture, mattresses and domestic appliances. I picture Gandhi as being the antithesis of materialism, but he seemed to be a live and let live kind of guy (except where colonialism was concerned) so maybe he wouldn’t be too upset at this particular aspect of his legacy. I wonder if this shop has commercials along the lines of “Gandhi was willing to starve, but now you don’t have to thanks to this big sale on new Kenmore Refrigerators.” Or “During your hunger strike, don’t be uncomfortable, come to Casa Gandhi and pick up this new living room set”. Or even my favorite “He frowned on eating beef, but that doesn’t have to stop you from getting a new roasting oven.”