Panamania

Driving in to Panama City, the Panamerican highway didn't remotely resemble its other half back in Colombia. It was, at first, surrounded by jungle. But not lush, inviting, green forest, but thick, tangled, inhospitable wilderness. Civilisation imposed itself in the straight flat motorway, and the occasional functional building. The place had the feel of a forgotten US army base, which is in many ways exactly what it is.

Approaching the city, white skyscrapers shot upwards, and at street level we passed malls, Subways, KFCs, and more alien inventions: Taco Bell, Dunkin Donuts. The sides of the pavements were painted yellow, and a palm tree-lined boulevard - the Costa Cintura - accompanied the highway along the coast. We could have been in Miami.

Reaching Casco Viejo - the old town - the ghosts of the Spanish loomed again in the form of colonial churches and balconied houses. This was no carefully preserved Cartagena however; side by side sat lovingly renovated buildings containing hotels and high-end artisan shops, and empty shells and dilapidated, shady apartment blocks. On one street corner was a gourmet ice cream shop, on the next a whole family sat around their crumbling doorway watching a TV set made in the 60s.


"This is going to be a Starbucks soon," remarked a Panama-hat toting shopkeeper, pointing at the boarded-up building behind us. Standing, as we were, on the road running in front of the President's Palace, we didn't doubt him.


Between these two areas of the city - the modern and the historical - lurked the commercial centre, and China town. It was here, in the early 20th century, that the influx of foreign workers settled, in wood-clad, tin-roofed apartments. Thousands of West Indian, and some Chinese, labourers immigrated to Panama, to earn 80 cents a day building the canal. Their white overseers and colleagues earned twice as much.

Sitting somewhat incongruously in between tall concrete buildings, the Afro-Antillian museum is housed in a grey, clapboard church. Inside, two elderly ladies sit in the corner, and black and white photos comment on the history of their ancestors. In one picture, a West Indian man dons a mask and wears a large steel drum on his back; part of the mosquito fumigating team, seeking to eliminate the deadly tropical diseases which had thwarted the French government's attempts to build the canal in 1889. In another, 20 or so young, pinafore-clad black schoolgirls pose outside their classroom - a separate one from that of the little white girls.


Life in Panama City still seems divided. White expats and well-dressed mestizos sit drinking cocktails in the plazas of Casco Viejo, whilst black families sell lottery tickets and fish in the market, and Chinese families run corner shops.



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