Panama City / Panama · 2014   clothesline and skyline

  

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   It isn’t a border that separates Panama from Colombia; it’s a frontier. One of the last. To cross the Darién Gap, you don’t need a passport. You need a machete and you need to be possessed by the ludicrous spirit of a 1600s frontiersman. And looking at it from Rio, you are looking at crossing the entire Amazon to boot. A plane then; for the first time in two years. Touchdown in Panama City. Cement wilderness, but much like the other one, this concrete system feels like one large organism. Change is constant and fast. Money ships in by the containerloads via the canal. The skyline rises as fast as everyone else is left behind. Nature has been exiled outside the city limits, where she is fairing very well.

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a glimpse

Renovated house next to run down house - gentrification in Panama City

 

glimpse: GENTRIFICATION | An old town, truly, by the looks of it, Casco Viejo is a living witness to Colonialism and the origins of Panama City. It might be in decay – on its deathbed really, architecturally speaking – but it’s alive with people that descended a long line. Many of them are dwellers, who’ve occupied the brittle buildings for generations informally at no charge. But their eviction is imminent, wherever it hasn’t happened yet, ever since Casco Viejo became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The fame ushered in foreign investors and a swarm of tourists, so now the old town is getting a facelift to house fine hotels, chic restaurants, boutiques and frozen yoghurt parlors. The gentrification of Casco Viejo is supposed to be in accordance with a framework of guidelines, leaving some room for locals and their culture, and supporting those being evicted. But if you ask around, if you look at the banners and demonstrations, the bottom line is that many are forced out of a place they call home, no matter how rotten, or how much better off they might be elsewhere. I’m dizzy from seeing the same pattern on repeat: yesterday’s colonialist halfheartedly disguised as today’s capitalist, still subjugating those who belong.

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The rainy season washes out most tourists and leaves behind an empty Eden for the taking.
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Bluff Beach, Bocas del Toro / Panama · 2014   alone in Eden

 

 

 

 

 

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places / stories

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Panama City / Gentrification, Live

historic houses in Panama City's old town Casco Viejo with skyline in the backdrop


Panama City / Panama · 2014   what was and what will be



 

It’s the rainy season, but those vehement cloudbursts do nothing to the heat. Looking around one of Casco Viejo’s old plazas like a carousel, someone offers me a conversation. I take it. We sit down on a bench, and he rolls up his undershirt to let that belly breathe as he melts into the backrest with an air of elegant routine. You can see that he was a handsome young man a minute ago. Now he is growing horizontally and older, but not in a rush. He tells me about that fire that consumed an entire block of buildings and people just because a bird got grilled on the overhead powerlines. He tells me all about the gentrification of Casca Viejo, volunteering an inside story to an outsider who can listen with ease but hardly relate. Everything he says is happening live, right there before our eyes, half the old town’s buildings still in their wrinkly colonial skin, the other half facelifted to tourism’s taste. I try to care as hard as I can before I get up to get some froyo and be part of the problem.



 

untouched and renovated historic buildings in Panama City's old town Casco Viejo


Panama City / Panama · 2014   facelift



 

man sitting in front of historic houses in Panama City's old town Casco Viejo


Panama City / Panama · 2014   still here



 

Bed or couch? Same old question the slim-wallet traveler wrestles with. No wallet, actually. Just a bunch of coins and bills and a credit card without much leverage cuddling in my not-so-deep pocket. I guess that’s how I will lose that credit card in Costa Rica about a month from now – it will just fall out and blend into the road to never be seen again. Bed or couch? Couch! Rafael’s couch, thank you very much!



 

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Panama City / Panama · 2014   Rafael lives right on the border of Casco Viejo, Panama City’s gorgeous old town, and El Chorillo, a neighborhood so troubled that even the police avoid it. There had been another murder just some days prior to my stay with Rafael, who hosts Couchsurfers semi-permanently. Rafael lives humbly but shares generously. He likes taking pictures of his travelers, which he collects in an actual photo album that is yellowed enough to tell a few stories. This time he ended up on the other side of the lens.



 

Panama City's skyline seen from Casco Viejo


Panama City / Panama · 2014   capital catapult



 

The shower is a bare cement closet, but it has a very generous window. You can see the vicinity from there – mostly grey and in decay – and then the sea, and then the glassy skyline dominating the faint distance. We eat fried plantains in the dim living room. It’s all more than sufficient, but there is no internet and while I can live without it, I cannot work without it. Some she-dragon is breathing fire down my neck to do what I’m paid to do. Freelance is only ever an approximation of freedom. I will clash with the she-dragon soon enough, but for now I need her silver. Rafael is trying to hotspot me with his phone, but the connection is weak as a worm. His uncompromising hospitality dictates that he has to try everything to make me stay, and the more he tries, the ruder I have to be to reject his perfectly fine invitation and efforts. There is an unspoken obligation that comes with the free couch – you have to take your host’s feelings and wants and plans into consideration. Paying a hostel bunk is paying your way out of that. And there is internet there. And so I go.

New hostel, new friends. One is an outlier like me. It's her third year of travel too, and she's only made it from
Mexico to Panama. I remember our conversations to be as long as they were meaningful, but I don't remember a single word, not even her name. It was what it was until it was gone, until we were gone, headed opposite ways.




 

woman looking at Panama City's skyline from across the bay


Panama City / Panama · 2014   outlier



 

Sometimes, the rain turns the patio into a pond. There are about ten people in my dorm, anything from passer-throughs to permanent residents. One is a local tattoo artist who uses the dorm as his studio whenever a traveler needs a dose of ink and whenever he's not out in the streets, tattooing people under even less sterile conditions. He does one on my arm, in the dorm, but he doesn't like the result enough to take a photo of it.

Alonso works security or runs errands or does something at the hostel. He's lived all his life in the
US but moved down for some twisted family matter. Now he's stuck in Panama City. One morning he shakes me out of some fine sleep, standing in front of my top bunk with his cataract eyes glowing like marbles in the dark dorm. He hands me an Opinel knife and one of those plane blankets. Found them. I know he stole them from another guest. But I can use them well and he can use a few dollars. Sometimes we go out for lunch, and I pay forward some of the sharing and caring I've received from others like Rafael. One time he shows me the dormant lot where he used to sleep before he got the job at the hostel. A few days later they fire him. Probably something about all those things disappearing.

And then there is Claire, first friend for a month, then friend for years, and now the friend whose Parisian apartment I am living and writing this in. 




 

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Bocas del Toro / Sammy

Wizard beach during rainy season, Bocas del Toro, Panama


Wizard Beach, Bocas del Toro / Panama · 2014   drowning in rain



 

After a month in Panama City, Bocas del Toro was a fit reminder that the city might be convenient, but, more importantly, that nature is extremely inconvenient. Certainly not trying very hard to accommodate us. And with all that rain I could barely give her two stars. To get to our first beach, Claire and I had to wade barefoot through shin-deep mud for an hour or more if you can believe that!



 

picknick at Wizard beach during rainy season, Bocas del Toro, Panama


Wizard Beach, Bocas del Toro / Panama · 2014   grapes and ketchup



 

Not a single soul there. We were all alone in Eden, a seasonal paradise that was but a bunch of sand and clouds just then.



 

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Playa Estrella, Bocas del Toro / Panama · 2014   Sammy



 

One day we made friends with a stray dog whose name was without a doubt Sammy. Loyal as a dog, he followed us around all day and made it very hard not to encourage him. It was one of the most heartbreaking goodbyes of my life when we took off on our bikes. He ran after us and first we couldn’t shake him and when we saw that, we didn’t want to shake him anymore and so the whole thing dragged on and on, but the more he ran, the more the playfulness that had lit his eyes faded into a dim and sad disbelief and finally we mustered all that courage you need to hurt someone for their own sake without them knowing or understanding and we paddled faster and faster until he was gone that Sammy.



 

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Playa Estrella, Bocas del Toro / Panama · 2014  Claire & Sammy



 


Playa Estrella, Bocas del Toro / Panama · 2014   Claire & Bike



 

surfer jumping in Bocas del Toro, Panama


Bocas del Toro / Panama · 2014   surf & fly



 

Thick Caribbean yolo vibes clung to the air around Bocas del Toro, and in many places you felt like on American turf. It was a fitting prelude to Costa Rica.

 

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elsewhere

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in Central America