Situated just south of Costa Rica in Central America and joining the two continents of North and South, Panama is a true crossroads, joining Pacific with Atlantic, North with South, and tradition with modernity As I’m visiting Panama, I’m not sure if I could have chosen a country of greater contrast in Latin America to visit after Cuba. It’s almost a Dickensian ‘Tale of Two Countries’ – one which eschewed capitalism and American domination, the other which (seemingly) gladly accepted life under American aegis as a neo-colony, selling it the canal zone (a 5-mile swath of land on either side of the canal) and accepting unlimited American troop deployment in exchange for independence from Columbia. (The canal was returned to Panamanian control in 1999, to note.)
The result? I’m typing this from a Starbucks next to my hotel as a case in point. (There’s nary a Starbucks, or any chain outside of foreign hotels, to be found in Cuba.) Panama City has preserved its old colonial section – which, incidentally, reminds me a lot of Havana’s architecture. But unlike Havana, it seems that the government is working to actively renovate most of the older buildings. Panama’s Old Town is beautiful, and not in the wistful ‘what used to be / could have been’ sense.
Panama also has an amazing downtown full of high rises that put most American cities to shame. Stretching out along the coast, it reminds me a bit of Rio – a Manhattan in the tropics.
Yesterday I got to go on a wonderful tour of the city – walking around Old Town, then visiting the Canal Museum, where we got to watch the painstaking process of a ship traversing one of the many locks in the canal. The movement is so slow that it’s hard to perceive that it’s happening. The museum has a sped-up video of a ship crossing, and it’s actually comical to see the accompanying trains that guide the ship dart around like tiny beetles, when we had barely seen them move at all.
I was truly impressed with the canal engineering. Apparently the French had originally tried to build the canal in the 1800’s, but they’d chosen to dig a trench down to Ocean level – their first mistake, as the ground is too soft to support it. Their second mistake? This is hilarious – they had a habit of eating cookies in bed. Which led to sugar ants joining them in bed. In order to get rid of the pesky ants, did they stop eating cookies in bed? No! Much cleverer, they put bowls of water under each leg of the bed to stop the ants. Which invited mosquitoes. And – yellow fever and malaria. Which put a real damper on the canal works. Thousands of lives were lost to disease in that time before the mosquito was identified as the vector.
Americans, in a sense, got lucky – right place at the right time (after mosquitoes were targeted for elimination), and with better engineers. They decided to use the big lake in the middle and a series of locks to have the ships travel over land rather than cut through it. The system they built back in the early 1900’s is still in operation today.
After the canal, we visited the Smithsonian (yes, that Smithsonian – a holdover from the time when America owned the canal) nature reserve. I got to see sloths slothing around in trees (little fur-balls amongst the leaves), sea turtles, racoons, starfish, and a host of other tropical critters.
I just had one day visiting Panama, which I realize now is not enough. There’s a monkey island that I didn’t have time to visit on one of the lakes, and there are numerous islands off the Pacific side that are worth visiting as well. I have to admit – Panama would have never been on my list of places to visit, except for that it’s one of the few places that one can fly direct to Paraguay from. I’m so glad I stumbled upon it – the history is fascinating, and the nature is far more beautiful than I’d imagined.