Panama Travels

Panama — Part 1: Like a Tourist

For years I neglected my people because when vacation time would roll around, trekking all the way to Panama from either North Carolina or Phoenix, required stops in random places. Those stops ate away at my precious days off. Also, if I was going to drop big bucks on a plane ticket, I wanted to go somewhere new, places I hadn’t visited. Finally, now that I’m in Los Angeles, I can do a non-stop flight to Panama City, and I can find some great deals on plane tickets.

Iglesia del Carmen: I remember going there to church as a kid, and their sound system was so awful you could not understand what the priest was saying. I had the perfect excuse to not pay attention during the sermon. Paty=1, Hell= zero.

Pizzeria Italia: a favorite of my parents. But damn, it’s gotten expensive. Everything has gotten expensive in Panama. I was shocked at the amount of money I was dropping on eating out — $20, $30 at some places. That’s expensive here in Los Angeles!

Tio Andres: doing what he (and everyone else) does best. That and be shirtless in the Cosway. He likes that too.

Looking back toward the city from the Cosway.

One of my favorite hills: I remember my friend from elementary school, Fatima, used to live around here. Out there in the distance, you can see El Tornillo. I think it’s formally called Revolution Tower.

Going by it up close in Calle 50.

Popular Intersection by El Dorado and Tumba Muerto. You’ll see La Casa Redonda to the left. A staple of Panamanian culture for all your cake, ice cream and juice needs. I was always more a fan of Momi for my cake needs. Sure enough, I stopped by Momi after a little shopping trip to Felix B. Maduro. I took a Diablo Rojo there because I didn’t have any ones for a taxi (the drivers tend to not have change for larger bills so they can conveniently not give you change), and the new Metro Bus requires some fancy card that I didn’t have. Also, apparently the Metro Bus doesn’t stop at the corner of my street even though that unofficial stop has been accepted by the people for generations. It even shows up in Google Maps!  No matter, I had a quarter, so next thing I knew I was on board a Diablo Rojo packed like a damn sardine, standing next to a drunk, as the driver warned me: “Cuidado mami, ese man ta medio volado”.

Diablo Rojo: Here we can have an up close dissertation of a Diablo Rojo. First, notice the familiar shape of an old American school bus. Then on the left hand side of the driver’s window we have a cursive font that appears to read “Yuli” (a girlfriend or lover of the driver — has YOUR boyfriend spray-painted your name onto the side of public transportation?) with Smurfette. Correlation? To be determined. Then two windows back, we have both Lil Wayne and Snoop Dog indicating the driver is a learned and avid music fan — and he’ll more than likely play their music at deafening, uncalled-for volume; then a random stoned-looking dude ‘Chilin’, clearly an indication of the welcoming, bilingual atmosphere of this bus, over some nice flames. And very nice art of a bear-like creature about to attack a castle. There’s a deep metaphor somewhere in there.

All that aside, I’m saddened that these buses are slowly being taken off the streets. For good or worst, some are fantastic pieces of art and culture.

La Academia de Matematicas y Comercio Jose A. Zambrano: Former elementary school, and where I learned most of the English I know today. Nowadays it’s home to some Christian Academy. One time, we took a ‘field trip’ down the wide, muddy trench that would eventually become one of the Corredores (freeways) — for years we could hear from our classrooms all the tearing down trees and digging. I’m not sure what the excuse of this excursion was (maybe trying to find rare monkeys in the rainforest?), but it’s astonishing to see what it has become, and how the little school now sits on the shoulder of this massive freeway. I have all these snippets of memories from La Academia, like when the strict, no-nonsense Directora and owner of the school would come by. She was already this frail old woman, long since dead, and all the children would tremble in fear. She was the widow of founder Jose A. Zambrano — her name was Angela, I believe. I remember on the days we had gym, how we would run and sweat, and then have to dress back into our uniforms —  white shirts and ugly light brown jumpers — and we would all huddle under the ceiling fans, uncomfortable under the stifling, humid air. Only one classroom had AC, the computer lab. How we would rejoice when we had computer class.

When class let out, we’d jump into our respective busitos, and on some Fridays the driver would make an unscheduled pit stop to the McDonalds by El Dorado (now a ‘McCafe’ with Wi-fi, thank you very much). And we’d all order crappy burgers and jump around in the jungle gym with the plastic balls that smelled of feet and sweat. There was no asking for permission from the parents, just an impromptu ‘hey, who wants to go to McDonalds!?’ In Panama, most schools don’t provide transportation, so parents sign up their kids with private busito drivers that frequent that school. Back in the day, some busitos would have mad tinted windows and crazy sound systems (do they still? Not sure). Those were actual selling points for the parents/kids. “No mom, I want to ride in the bus with the blackout windows and purple undercarriage lighting”. I still remember one driver in particular who REFUSED to believe my name was just Patricia — he insisted it was Ana Patricia, and every month he wrote the bill to my parents with my name as such. You’d think my parents would correct him, right?

Want to start a busito business? Here’s one for sale.

Heading toward the Bridge of the Americas. Yes, traffic was a nightmare. The entire city is a construction site. But as far a gridlock and amounts of cars, Los Angeles is just as congested. The difference is that Panamanians don’t care at all about following traffic laws. They cut thru lines by driving on the shoulders and medians, they don’t stop at stop signs — they don’t even slow down at all, they don’t use turning signals — even if you use them, no one is going to let you in. Also, lanes are barely marked or not at all, so as far as drivers are concerned, a three-lane road is really just one super wide lane. Drivers in Panama love to create their own parking as well. Think of places where you shouldn’t park a car such as medians, shoulders, sidewalks, turn corners of parking structures, the middle of the street blocking traffic, and you’ll find a Panamanian parked there.

I also noticed that Panamanians have created their own traffic signaling systems, my favorite one is: say you’re driving down a main thoroughfare and you see a car coming down a side street up ahead, you do a quick two-beep honk to indicate that “hey, I see you coming down the side street, and just so you know, my foot is firmly on the gas pedal and I’m not stopping.” It encourages them to reconsider the no stopping / slowing down at stop sign tendencies previously mentioned. Every person that I drove with did it, so it’s clearly something widely embraced by the driving populace.

As you can imagine then, Panamanians are often involved in traffic accidents, and they repair their vehicles with skills bordering genius levels of ingenuity.

Above we see clear tape being used to hold together the back of a car. Note how Tweety Bird (aka Piolin) is still visible through the tape. I took that picture on the way to El Casco Viejo with my friend Emma, who I met online after semi-stalking her blog about moving to Panama for a teaching job. I read on her blog she had also lived in Arizona, and come to find out we lived at the very same apartment complex in Phoenix only a few months apart. Damn small world.

Since it was nightime, I don’t have any good pictures from El Casco. The iPhone can only do so much. But it was incredible to see how, what once was one of the more impoverished sections of Panama City, a place where we would’ve never gone to while I was growing up, has slowly been turned into blocks of nice hotels and luxury condos. What’s even more fascinating is to see that mixture of poor and rich, literally on every doorstep. One building might have been turned into a luxury condo, but right next door there is still a Panamanian family living all together in a one room dump that hasn’t been maintained since it was built in colonial times.

Inclement weather: Ah, yes. It rains almost every day, around the same time, for about the same length of time, and with the same god-all-mighty fury. People believe fiercely in umbrellas, and carry then around even if it looks sunny and bright. My cousin Alessandra had no less than two umbrellas in her car. The photo above is from when we stopped at seemingly endless Albrook Mall so we could go to a store called Running Balboa (damn, how we love that man!). She tells me that the ‘cool’ thing in Panama these days is to run, which really doesn’t sound all that healthy since it’s always 90 degrees and 100% humidity. That said, I also have fun memories of running at the Parque Omar with my mom when I was little. I guess we were ahead of the trend? Here’s a picture of my prima trying on some shoes…

Shopping appears to be as much a Panamanian hobby as it is American, if not more. The Multiplaza Mall has a Hermes, Givenchi, Cartier, Carolina Herrera, Jimmy Choo — the whole time, I’m thinking who can afford this stuff here? If I hadn’t been with the Mezquitas (my family on my dad’s side), I wouldn’t have dared walk into any of those stores for fear that ‘poor’ would show in my face. This is the same country where students from the University will riot when there’s an increase in bus fares from $.10 to $.25. Well, the answer appears to be that everyone can afford it, because the malls continue to grow in size and magnitude all over the country. Albrook Mall is such a ridiculously huge mall, it extends for miles and miles and they’re still expanding it. I thought we had arrived at the mall only to see my cousin drive for a solid 20 extra minutes just to get to the area of the mall we wanted to park near.

Also, there are shuttle services that go from mall to mall, as if the malls themselves were Theme Parks that you jump around. As an aside, I had completely forgotten that in Panama, whenever you walk into a store you have to turn in your other shopping bags or book packs at a Paquetera. Essentially you walk to the Paquetera stand, give them your other bags, and they give you a number — a piece usually of old cardboard with a hand-written number on it, laminated with the best clear tape (also used in car repairs, see above) for longer durability. They place your bags into storage bins, and when you’re done shopping or looking around the store, you gotta go back to the Paquetera to get your stuff back. Think if you went to the mall here and you had to do this at EVERY store you went to. What a pain, but Panamanians don’t seem to mind — I certainly didn’t mind when I was growing up there.

Damn perspective, you ruin everything.

I’m going to stop for now because this is getting long. Part 2 coming soon-ish.

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