A country that connects two oceans

August 9, 2020

Situated at the crossroads of two continents, Panama City is a true metropolis with its upscale cafes, a growing skyline and unruly traffic

Panama City skyline.

Valentina had told me to meet her at the spot where she set up a stall selling handmade necklaces, bracelets and other trinkets every afternoon. In the unfamiliar old quarters of Panama City, I somehow managed to guide the taxi from the airport to the location of her stall without getting lost in the maze of Casco Viejo’s streets.

I recognised Valentina, as she did not look different from the photos she had put up on the Couchsurfing website through which I had initially connected with her. She was wearing the same long dress in a floral print that I had seen her wearing in one of her photos. She had laid out her merchandise on a table with folding legs in a corner created by a bend in the road near the beach. The tablecloth was embroidered with shapes of elephants and other Asian motifs.

Behind her stall was the Pacific Ocean. It was my my very first encounter with it. It did not look any different from the other oceans I had seen. Waves rushed to the shore and hit the rocks beneath the old town’s ramparts, just behind Valentina’s stall. It seemed like every time they came with the will to climb that wall but retreated, not due to lack of strength, but a change of mind.

She welcomed me with her reserved smile and asked me to come along with her to see the apartment that I was supposed to be staying in. Luckily I had arrived just in time as she was packing up her shop. My small wheeled suitcase bumped on the cobbled streets of Casco Viejo as I pulled it along, walking towards Valentina’s apartment. In a little while, we reached a tall building which did not have the facility of an elevator.

The apartment was on the seventh floor. But I don’t have any memory of a trouble I faced climbing up and down the elevator-less building to the seventh floor as I do of the building in Dar-es-Salam where I stayed some years later. She asked me if I had brought any sleeping bag because all they had was a hard floor with no mattress or bedding. I had not brought a thing assuming my host would have warned me in advance, had these basics necessities been missing. It was too late to fix the situation.

In the apartment, we were greeted by Valentina’s husband, Matias and their eighteen-month-old son, Naim. Matias had a thick beard and a thin frame. On learning where I was from, he told me that his ancestors had migrated from Syria to Latin America a hundred years ago and had set up home in the Argentine countryside. Matias and Valentina were a bohemian Argentinian couple, travelling from country to country. Their current base was Panama City. Matias told me he had given his son an Arab name to honour his Arab ancestry. He didn’t know a word of Arabic though. Naim was a good-natured infant greeting me with the same pretty smile whenever I looked at him.

I looked around in their bare one-bed apartment. The only pieces of furniture were a double bed and a table. That night, I made myself a bed by spreading out my clothes – my rolled-up towel serving as a pillow.

Sunrise in Bocas del Toro, Panama. — Photo by Camilo Pinaud

The old town of Panama City, called Casco Viejo, is a fascinating place with streets laid out in grid-like fashion, forming blocks of buildings in between them, typical of most Spanish colonial cities of Central America. It does not have the charm of Guatemalan Antigua, or the mystery of Nicaraguan Leon, or the vibrancy of Colombian Cartagena, but it is a pretty colonial city nonetheless. I walked through the streets, appreciating the architecture of colonial buildings, and admiring the open plazas with statues of war heroes in their midst. At Plaza de la Independencia, I stopped to observe a group of girls swirling in their traditional pollera skirts. They were performing the Tamborito folk dance.

In poorer parts of the old town, the buildings and streets were not in a great state of repair. Occasionally a glance through the open doors or windows would reveal the sight of a housewife in her living room watching TV, or of cooking pans emitting smoke in the kitchen. I remember a narrow street wet with flowing water. Perhaps someone had just washed their car there. A buff man in a white vest sat on a rickety three-seat sofa, which was probably his throne, for he looked nothing less than the neighbourhood don. He eyed me with interest as I passed. As he addressed me in a tone in which I perceived a hint of a threat, I faked a confident swagger and greeted him. As he extended his hand for shaking, I noticed him looking at my wristwatch appreciatively.

“Give me this watch”, he demanded.

“No, no,” I replied laughing as if he had made a very funny joke. The handshake was getting uncomfortably long, and the expression on his face looked menacing. “I am on my way to Iglesia de La Merced. Is this the right way?” I asked the question just for distraction.

The grip of his hand loosened as he started explaining the directions. I pulled out my hand gently and walked on steadily without looking back.

Matias and Valentina were vegans but not of the ordinary kind. They were raw vegans, which meant they would not eat anything processed or cooked in oils or preserved with chemicals. Even their eighteen-month-old kid was on a raw vegan diet. He didn’t look deficient in energy. Matias was very passionate about his diet and lifestyle and spoke about it often. He showed me the video of a man in his 50s, very lean and muscular, who had been on a raw vegan diet for decades. Matias said that all the amino acids we need for our muscle growth can be acquired from plant sources. Valentina was busy creating innovative raw vegan recipes and was hoping to get a contract from a restaurant to supply them. Never had I seen anyone subscribing to such a restrictive diet before.

The new and the old cities of Panama are a world apart. At night, by the promenade in the old city, one could see the skyline of the new city, full of skyscrapers sparkling in the distance. Some months later, I saw a similar contrast in the old town and the new city of Cartagena, when I visited Colombia. Panama has received a good amount of foreign investment and is more prosperous than its neighbours. It is the only country in Latin America that has adopted the US dollar as its legal tender. Given the long United States occupation of the Panama Canal Zone and other American influences this small country had experienced, I was surprised that English was still not widely understood or spoken.

Panama City has a purpose-built mosque with a green dome topped with a crescent and two minarets. The mosque was locked when I visited it at night, but looking through the window, I could see a kurta-clad man praying. He seemed to be of Indian descent. When leaving the country, I met another Indian Muslim donning an embroidered skullcap, who ran a shop at the Panama City airport. He told me about a community of Indian Muslims settled in Panama for three to four generations. They were mostly from Gujarat or Bombay. He informed me of the existence of an Ahmadiyya place of worship in the city. This was the second Ahmadiyya place of worship in Central America that I had learned about. Earlier I had seen one in a remote city of Guatemala. I find it fascinating that such communities are formed by immigrants, who have left their ancestral lands thousands of miles away but continue to hang on to the culture of that land for several generations.

The new and the old cities of Panama are a world apart. At night, by the promenade in the old city, one could see the skyline of the new city, full of skyscrapers sparkling in the distance.

Speaking of native cultures, I think of the indigenous Emberá people who still live far away from modern civilisation in villages dotted along the banks of the river network of Panama in between thick forests. I went with a small group to tour one of the Embera villages. We drove in a van for two hours and then took a motorboat for another hour or so to reach the village. The boat meandered its way through a tortuous river with thick forestation on both sides. The water was peculiarly muddy looking, with reddish-brown hues. The boat looked unstable and the water very deep. We could hear unusual sounds of birds chirping in trees and at places saw turtles slowly climbing on to the bank. We stopped at a waterfall before reaching the village. The boatman encouraged me to go stand underneath the gushing water and get refreshed. But I preferred to enjoy the magnificent sight from a distance while listening to the soothing sound of splashing water.

A group of young Embera girls welcomed us as we reached their village. Embera people do not believe in covering their bodies too much. Both genders leave their upper bodies entirely free of clothing. They wear some loosely hanging items on their lower bodies to cover what must be covered. They use jewellery made of beads and shells and tattoos to beautify their bodies. Our guide walked us through the village and taught us about the Embera lifestyle. Emberá people live in open-air dwellings raised on stilts, having thatched roofs made from palm leaves. These houses are typically round in shape and are large enough to hold all the members of an extended family group.

The villagers offered us lunch that consisted of scrumptious fish and plantain. Afterwards, they started playing their traditional drum music and danced in a circle. Having danced to our hearts’ content, some of us proceeded to get ourselves tattooed. I got one on my upper arm, which stayed there for a good three months before fading away.

Even though tours to Embera communities are organised in a semi-commercial way, with the whole village enacting their day for the tourists, it’s an insightful experience for outsiders and a good source of income for the community. After eating their food, dancing to their music, and inscribing their designs on our bodies, we got back into our boats. The Embera men, women and children waved at us to the beat of their drums, as we resumed the return journey through the riverine network of muddy waters.

Back in Panama City, I stood underneath the building where Matias and Valentina lived and shouted their names as loud as I could, so my voice would reach the 7th-floor apartment and they would open the door for me. This was the protocol I was told to follow by the Argentinian couple because the building was not equipped with doorbells. Later that day, Matias set his camera on the table with the timer on. Valentina, Naim, Matias and I stood in the camera’s shooting range to be photographed. The photo was posted later by Matias with the title Con Amigo De Pakistán (With a friend from Pakistan).

Since a trip to Panama warranted a visit to the famous Panama Canal, I dedicated half a day to paying my respects at that marvel of naval engineering. I witnessed gigantic ships coming from one direction, entering the lock where the level of entrapped water is raised, gradually lifting the enormous ship with it until it reaches the level of water on the other side. The opposite gates of the lock would then open to let the ship cross over between two massive oceans through this manmade link. One felt overawed by the unbelievable human ability to conquer the mighty forces of nature. The feeling soon gave way to boredom: how long can one keep watching ships come and go? I took a cab to Amador Causeway, a 6-km long stretch of road that connects the city to four small islands. I rented a bicycle and rode it along the causeway’s track, making several stops to take in the views of Panama City’s splendid skyline while enjoying dulce de leche ice cream bought from one of the many lorries.

My last stop in the Panama sojourn was at the island of Bocas del Toro (literally, Mouth of the Bull). It is a group of gorgeous islands in the Caribbean Sea. How it got its name is something I have yet to find out. The plane I took from Panama City to Bocas was the smallest I had ever travelled in. It had less than twenty seats. It flew low, offering a stunning view of the land and water below. My hotel was only two blocks away from the tiny village airport, which I reached by ten minutes of walking. In the streets, I walked past houses painted in bright colours, some with tin roofs.

View of Casco Viejo (Old quarters of Panama City). — Photo by Angel Lopez

I saw domestic chicken pecking in the streets. It was the eve of Christmas but the village lacked any festive feel. The weather was pleasantly warm. I stayed in that night, sitting in a chair in the patio overlooking the street, observing the odd pedestrian passing. I imagined that most people would be at their homes with their families on Christmas Eve. The hotel manager kept my company until the wee hours talking about random stuff about my country and hers.

Early next morning, I took a motorboat from the Bocas pier to visit other surrounding islands. The wooden motorboat jumped on the splashing waves violently, giving a thorough shake to my internal organs. The surface of the water looked hard, fierce and threatening. In half an hour, I reached Bastimentos island, where wooden buildings extended into the water, built on stilts. People lay about in their hammocks sipping drinks or reading books. Everything about the place was idyllic. I recognised a man who had been in the plane with me the day before. He waved at me from his hammock. I got out of the boat and took a path leading up the hill.

During my trek, I came across a sign for a café named Up in the Hill. Following a path through the heavy vegetation up and down the hill, I continued following the arrow signs for that café fixed on to tree trunks. The café finally appeared at a strategic spot on the hill from where one had delightful views of the surrounding scenery. The place was also the owners’ residence. The doors to all the rooms of the wooden house were wide open. Shelves in the verandah were stocked with books, handmade trinkets, lotions, oils and fragrant homemade soaps for sale. Chicken were plucking about. A toddler played on the floor with no adult to watch over. I soon realised that circumstances had assigned me the duty of watching over him, as he was slowly crawling over to the muddy sloping path. I had to lift him and bring him back to the veranda. The baby seemed to be cool with strangers. But as soon as I brought him back, he wanted to crawl back to the muddy path.

His mother finally appeared. She took my order and without verbalising the arrangement, left me to my babysitting duties while she made coffee in her kitchen in a side building. I would have liked to sit in that veranda for hours, looking at the surrounding hills, watching over that baby, leafing through the paperbacks, sipping coffee and munching on brownies made from cocoa grown on the same hills, but I had to be back in two hours to pick my bags from the hotel and run to the airport next door to catch my onward flight to San José, Costa Rica.

The writer is a finance professional based in London and a prolific traveller. He occasionally writes stories about his travels that he shares on his Instagram handle @shueyb1

A country that connects two oceans