You are bragging on Instagram about the experience of sitting in a fabric-covered, or better yet, a leather chair. “Look at your kingly posture,” you shout to the world in a photo of you and your surroundings. Your followers would be shrieking right now if they saw that your chair has a power plug by it—power to continue your important life.
You fish your hand around in your jumbled pile of things, grasp onto your desired piece, delicately unravel seven cords all jumbled into one, and spend a couple minutes trying to pull out the power cord which you will soon be jamming into the port at your feet. Loud announcements, people yelling into phones fighting the robot announcer while deafening their loved one—apparently unaware how phones work—as an overworked women with a spending problem, two cups of coffee and enough baggage for the Ottoman army slams into your shoulder. Naturally it isn’t her fault that your pants have mopped up half of her liquid goods as she scurries away.
That could be you.
With seven hours between flights, you are instead jamming some bags in a secret free locker in the airport, borrowing a lock from a random desk manager, navigating yourself through the long lines of people importing thirteen bags each through the customs process. You are the guy with zero bags and naturally draw more scrutiny.
What do you do when the public, local bus pulls up and you don’t have any way of getting a fare card, and thus a ticket? You get on anyways. You wheel and deal with some lady to pay her in cash, at a premium, for a ride off her card. Does she have any idea what is going on? Probably not, as you stuff her hand with some cash and her bus card, passing by her bewildered befuddlement to seat yourself in the back.
After jumping off the bus in a spaghetti-infrastructure-like morass, you set off on foot towards Casco Viejo, the “must-see” spot, the “4.5 star neighborhood” on TripAdvisor, the place to go when you can only see one thing. Where else can you find trinkets from China in such numbers? You’ve always wanted an imported Panama Canal shot glass tastefully decorated in cadmium pigments, haven’t you?
“Oh this neighborhood is so quaint with the cobblestone streets and waves of tourists ducking into tourist shops,” you scream in sheer excitement. Or maybe you find yourself hustling off in the other direction, following your instinct, wondering why you checked out the “4.5 star attraction” after all, doesn’t that always end the same way?
Street art comes in many different flavours, attributed to numerous time periods. The first period is where street art is illicit, illegal and shunned. The government realizes street art is a gateway drug to hell and that fire will rain down from the sky if it’s allowed. Usually the artists are there because its the place they can afford to be and the things they are painting are not too luxurious.
You can tell the difference between this style and the style that comes at the end of the cycle, say a commissioned luxury watch advertisement. The latter is about as exciting as Chinese shot glasses in trinket shops. All of this is to say, you have spied some street art devoid of commercialism and this leads your way out from the sadness of 4.5 star attractions.
Now you are in an area where thing are more run-down and a much more real feeling Panama City. There is the faded anti-drug ad with birds being eaten by frogs. There is the politically-inspired art showing Panamanian legend Victoriano Lorenzo getting shot by the authorities. Some psychedelic birds line certain walls as you continue onwards into this interesting zone.
You want to check out a food spot, a little dilapidated shack of a place with a flurry of shadows in the darkened interior. You are pointing at it as an officer, driving by, makes some motion with his arm out the window, yelling something in Spanish. Is he motioning that it’s a good place to check out? Or to leave? You continue walking.
A couple peligro and peligrosos sprinkled liberally in sentences find their way into your head as you come upon another police officer, this one standing on a shaded corner. His facial expression tells you all you need to know; you aren’t really in a place recommended by those accomplished cruise ship passengers on TripAdvisor. Have you noticed that there is an officer on every corner, or at least in view of every corner around this neighborhood?
The tourist zone, tourists, trinket shops, street art, some grilled corn, some grilled beef, a glass or two of pressed sugar cane, a ride on your new subway system and an adventure to figure out how to board a bus that actually passes by the airport before your plane departs: It was a pleasure Panama City.
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