What's Old is New Again

Trip Start Sep 07, 2011
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Trip End Dec 22, 2011


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Flag of Panama  ,
Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Am I in Miami or in Panama?  I can't really tell now.   Going from old world Xela to new world Panama City was like throwing me cold turkey into something I just can't yet explain.   To be sure Panama has some grinding poverty and slums where a gringo probably shouldn't go poking around.   The rest of the city is highrise condos, American chain stores, shopping malls, and even a grocery store down the block that could be straight out of some familiar suburbia right down to the Frosted Flakes and same beeping of the cash register scanner.   Panama even uses our currency, and were it not for espanol everywhere, I am back in the United States.

Today I put my limited espanol to the test for a very local Panama City experience...all for a whopping $2.50.   Public transportation is a dirt cheap mix of buses either modern air conditioning equipped models that would be home in Sweden, New York or Sydney or the old chicken bus kind.   With directions to find a "Terminal Albrook" bus and hop off at Mercado de Mariscos (fish market) off I went on an adventure not too many people would dare attempt.   A chicken bus ride across Nicaragua may be missing from my travels this week but this 25 cent fare sure did make up for it on a crosstown ride of similar nature here in Panama City right down to the blaring latin music and crazy decorations.

As luck would have it, my hooptie was a battered old school bus and a sign up front even warned me that any misbehavior will be promptly reported to the principal for permanent expulsion from the bus.  Since the sign also advised that normal conversation without profanity is allowed, I asked a young woman with baby where the fish market stop is after having been on the bus 20 minutes so far.   She pointed to the left somewhere and rattled off more words than I was ready to comprehend.  She could have been using profanity for all I know.  Somehow I got off in the right place, paid the driver two dimes and a nickel and cut through the market for Casco Viejo, or the old quarter.

About 15 years ago my first visit to Panama brought me to a much different Casco Viejo which was an area to look at very quickly from the safety of a taxi.  What a difference a decade makes as I was on a bus and then foot through a former no go area. This centuries old area shares some architectural similarities with the French Quarter in New Orleans. The contrasts between old and new, rich and poor are striking here in this part of town.   A woman hangs her wash outside on the second floor of her dumpy building right next door to a renovated shop selling $6.50 ham sandwiches she will never afford.

Maybe it's just me, but I feel an old neighborhood that once had character and soul just becomes a characature of itself when the place gentrifies into a corporate Disney World.   Chalkboard menus out on the sidewalk are usually a good sign the place caters to tourists or others who put trend over quality.   Casco Viejo is balancing in between two worlds for now with modern restored condos winning the battle to buildings losing theirs with gravity.  

As I made my way out of Casco Viejo I noticed a very familiar red and black oval sign.   Holy crap!  Segafredos?   Here in Casco Viejo?   I'll be damned if it wasn't the same exact shiny and sanitized restaurant in my Hanoi neighborhoodlocated right next to a ramshackle filthy open air shack selling tasty fried rice and soups with meats of dubious animal origin.  And guess which one gets my business back home...

Some tourist probably wanders into my gentrified expat neighborhood and laments the corporate cleaned up atmosphere is a far cry from the real mom and pop Hanoi such as the fried rice stand that will slowly move on as so many other local businesses have since I've lived there.   Indeed, I am one of "those people" who invades a neighborhood and causes the $1 lunch stand to turn into an expat wine bar.   My life in Hanoi is same same but different as these people moving into Casco Viejo, and I just never realized it.   The absurd amount of rent I pay is out of reach for the average Vietnamese, and I can't help but think that Panamanian woman putting out her wash will one day be priced out of her home when a developer comes knocking.

With the Segafredo's sighting leaving a bad taste in my mouth, I headed back to the fish market for a full on immersion into all things Panama.   Two bucks even bought me my very first ever ceviche from a woman doing a steady business to nontourists.   This cold mix of shrimp, chopped onions and some liquid citrus spice delivered in a styrofoam cup went down so well out there on the steamy fish scented sidewalk.  I looked back at Casco Viejo across the water up on that small hill and thought how nice and pretty it is but this woman selling ceviche is more why I am here.

I even somehow found the proper 25 cent bus back to my Coco del Mar neighborhood and got off at the right stop with the help of the conductor. It's nice knowing just enough Spanish to survive.

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