The Real Casco Viejo?
Friday, September 15 2006 @ 08:19 PM EDT
Contributed by: Don Winner
Romantic Spanish Architecture: There's two primary things to know about Casco Viejo. The first is that there is a set and limited number of properties and lots, a number that will never change. Casco Viejo is a peninsula, surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and the Bay of Panama on three sides. This location was chosen specifically because it was easier to defend that the site of "Old Panama" which was sacked and burned by pirates. The net effect is that there is quite simply a limited number of square meters of land in Casco Viejo and it will never get any bigger. The second thing to understand is that the Archaeological Site of Panamá Viejo and Historic District of Panamá was inscribed in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a world heritage site in 1997 to "to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity." As such there are strict limits and controls of what can be built and how. That means there won't be any 100-story skyscrapers going up there, ever. So what you end up with is a set number of diamonds in the rough that can be cut, polished and improved, but the number will never grow. Hence, the allure.
What Do You Want to Show? One of the easiest things to do with a camera in Casco Viejo is to show the ugly and dirty side if you want to. When I first moved to Panama in 1987 Casco Viejo was a slum in every sense of the word. It was very dangerous and considered to be "Noriega country." The rich and wealthy had moved out of the city to new mansions in Bella Vista, Dos Mares, and Paitilla. The old inner city was left to rot and there are still remnants of abject poverty and neglected properties that are now (surprisingly) starting to rise in value. The result is an odd mix of luxurious mansions next to abandoned rubble, crystal and polished brass next to rust and termite-riddled wood, or a Mercedes Benz being guarded by a crack-head "guachiman." Depending on where you choose to aim your camera and frame your shot you can show either side of Casco Viejo at will.
Hey Man, I Gotta Go..."
Dank Urine-Soaked Back Alleys: The tourist guides would describe it as something akin to a "dazzling array for the senses" which is a nice way to say "smells like beer-piss." On my wander through Casco Viejo this morning the wind was blowing just right (or wrong) and I was hit by a wave of "array." There are not many public restrooms available, especially at night and especially for the local drunk. So, pick an alley. I guess when you have your Atlas-goggles on you don't notice the "Danger - High Voltage" sign, a combination which could potentially create some interesting fireworks. I commented on this to Clyde who immediately spotted the other side the exact same photo...
Hey! Look at that...
A Different Point of View: These two pictures were taken from the exact same location, in the same direction and at the same time of day. The only change is the framing, focal length, and description of the picture. You can either describe a piss-stained back alley or the symbolic Bridge of the Americas framed by Panama's historic past. The beauty of Casco Viejo is in the eye of the beholder (or nose, as the case may be.)
A Day At the Beach
There's Nothing Like a Quick Dip: Especially on a hot day in the middle of the rainy season. These guys were having a blast splashing around in the surf and they were more than happy to ham it up for the camera. But the simple existence of this picture raises a couple of obvious questions. If this is an article about Casco Viejo, where are these guys swimming? I didn't know there was a beach. They look to be about ten to twelve years old, so how come they are not in school? Where are their parents, and who's looking after them?
I'll Give You $50 Bucks...
Nah, I'll Pass: I tried to get Clyde to take a dip but he passed on the offer. There's a program getting under way right now to clean up the Bay of Panama. As a matter of fact the government is going to spend more than $350 million dollars to collect polluted runoff water and sewage and treat it before it gets flushed into the bay. But construction associated with that program is just starting now and will take some years to complete. Once the pollution stops going into the bay then it will take several more years for the environment to heal and recover. By then, these kids will have three eyes and seven toes. They're not in school because their parents are absent. And, they are taking care of themselves (obviously.)
BBQ Chicken (Cheap)
Hungry? OK, here's the deal. I paid for a cup of coffee, and Clyde picked up the tab for lunch and dessert, so who got the better deal? We wandered into one of the 5-star tourist restaurants and had a fantastic cup of coffee (it really was very good) and the bill and tip came to a total of $5.00 for both of us. Not bad considering the quality, air conditioning, decor, ambiance, and what it costs for a cup of coffee from Starbucks in the states. But in Panama there's no doubt that those are prices for tourists. Clyde introduced me to his friend who roasts a couple of dozen chickens on the corner every day to feed the government workers who pour out of the local buildings every day like clockwork and who line up for BBQ chicken and yuca. Price for two servings? A total of $2.50 or $1.25 each, which included the sauces and plastic-ware. What a bargain. We ate under the shade of the ficus trees in the square.
Right Next To The National Theater: You can't miss it. They're there every day a lunchtime and it's really good stuff. The other thing that becomes apparent wandering around Casco Viejo are the wonderful people. We met and talked to all kinds of folks, from the occasional tourist to the Chief of the Tourism Police, the security guard who stands watch in front of the house of the Chief Justice on the Electoral Tribunal to the guy who was hanging out in the park with a t-shirt from my hometown. We talked to people who live in the area and those who work in the area but live somewhere else. We talked to people who own businesses and sell real estate to foreigners for millions as well as those who sell artisan crafts or "raspado" to survive. But rich or poor, local or foreigner, everyone had that "spark" which unites us all.
How You Doin'...?
The Best People in the World: Panama is blessed with some of the best people on the face of the planet. No matter where you go it's easy to find simply wonderful people who will take the time to talk, point you the right way, give advice, listen to your questions, or buy a little crack... (huh?)
The One-Hand "Be Cool" Maneuver: While we were standing on the corner buying our chicken, taking pictures of of the cute government administrative workers or snapping pictures of historic buildings, these two guys were making some kind of an illegal transaction right in the middle of the street. They followed the standard "look natural" routine and surreptitiously exchanged a few bills for a small package. It could have been Viagra, who knows. But the funny part is that there was a cop walking by at this exact instant, and they made the buy just as he walked by (and had his back to them.) Again, this article is about the two sides of Casco Viejo so I didn't want to get too distracted by the cute government admin chicks. You know, stay focused and all that.
Arts and Crafts: There has been a lingering struggle between the artisans who have been selling their wares to the passing tourists on the streets for years and the government that's trying to make them go away. There are a few business owners that have made the investment to open more formal and traditional stores selling the same items and they have to charge more in order to pay their rent and bills. The actual artisans can sell them for less because they have no overhead, literally and figuratively speaking. These guys were in the middle of giving an interview to a reporter and photographer from the Panama America newspaper and I listened long enough to confirm what I already knew.
The Past - Starving Artists
Very Nice Stuff: As will all issues in Casco Viejo there are two sides to every issue. The artisans are just trying to make a buck and the government is trying to put on a better face. As it stands right now these guys have lookouts posted to spot the arrival of the local judge who can confiscate their wares and send them packing. All of the guys who sell in this area are built for speed and can pack up and leave at a moment's notice. They have all been fined at least once but they keep coming back because this is where the tourists are. Supply and demand, capitalism and democracy, comparisons and contrasts. It's everywhere you look in Casco Viejo.
This Is Called "Art" Kids...
Color, Shading, Contrast: Personally I hope the government of Panama finds a way to accomodate both the formal shop owners and the informal street vendors. Both have their strong and weak points and they simply fall on different points of the economy. There are now less informal artisans selling their wares along the prominade above Las Bovedas than I have ever seen. Today there were only about five vendors on a day when there normally would have been dozens. So the government's efforts to make these people move is having an effect. And besides, some artisans have some real skills.
The Future - Starving Artists
Who's Making the Money: Most squabbles can be traced back to the money and in this case the people who own this store are simply buying the goods wholesale from the makers and offering them up for more money to pay for a roof, ambiance, air conditioning, and quality, like the chicken and coffee contrast from lunch.
Clean, or Sterile?
The Desired Effect: This is the area that was filled with artisans selling there wares to passing tourists. Now it's been cleaned up, but the new look leaves something to be desired in my humble opinion.
Birds of a Feather...
A Resting Place: So Clyde and I finished our wandering tour of Casco Viejo and he was starting to get into the swing of the "two sides" motif and spotted the vultures perched atop the monument to the failure of the French to dig the Panama Canal. At least they got some prime real estate out of the deal. Somehow this picture sort of summed up our walk through the old part of Panama City very nicely. I'm sure the birds appreciated a place to take a break from a hard day of eating dead fish on the beach.
Two, No White Stuff
Time For Desert: Remeber I said that Clyde sprang for lunch and desert? Well at $.25 cents a pop a "raspado" is still the best deal in town. I asked this guy what he though about the upcoming referendum on the proposal to expand the Panama Canal. His surprising answer was that "the entire referendum was a waste of time and money. It's a good thing for the economy of the country so they should have just done it." So I guess we'll see the "Raspados For a Si" movement registering themselves at the door of the Electoral Tribunal in a couple of days. But this is a rather focused poll with a margin of error = 0%.
The Accidental Tourist: We met this nice young lady at the National Theater. Acually I was flat on my back trying to get a good shot of the artwork that decorates the cupola and had to pull a "don't mind me..." and get out of her way. I pointed her towards Bruce Quinn's production of "Cabaret" that's currently playing at the Teatro el Circulo. We ran into her about five more times as we criss-crossed Casco Viejo. She managed to find the hat she has specifically set out to buy. Actually, I take that back. She's not a tourist but rather lives here and is just now starting to discover some of the attractions of Panama. Welcome aboard.
"A Fistfull of Dollars"
So I Paid Clyde: The tour was over and since Clyde was on the clock this entire time I paid him all the back-pay he had coming as the bouncer for the Americans in Panama Yahoo! group. (Just kidding. Clyde was actually showing me the location of the only ATM in Casco Viejo...) He showed me the place where he's staying, the Hostal Casco Viejo which is very nice, clean, and well kept. Everything about Casco Veijo is a mix of old and new, rich and poor, past and future, living side by side today. In reality there is no "true" Casco Viejo, it simply esists. The renovations will slowly be completed and the diamonds in the rough will be polished one by one. Anyone who's thinking about buying real estate in Casco Viejo would do well to hook up with Patrizia Pinzon and Clara Hardin from Arco Properties, who, buy the way, have nothing to do with the article that appeared in La Prensa today. There is another company called Arco Chato S.A, which is totally different from these guys. Clara has been working on real estate deals in Casco Viejo for a long time and they were some of the first to enter the market and they now specialize in this sector. The laws and regulations governing what you can and can't do are more complex and require professionals. Whoever you end up using, just make sure they are documented and legal to sell realestate in Panama. Rumor has it that the government is about to crack down hard on freelancers.
So, What Is the Real Casco Viejo? Whatever you want it to be. You have to want to be there in order to make it work. There appears to be a certain combination of personality traits that fit very well into the mix of contrasts that is Casco Viejo. Clyde is absolutely perfect for the area and already knows many people and made a lot of friends. The only constant is change, and Casco Veijo ten years from now will be simultaneously completely different and exactly the same. I'm looking forward to documenting the transition.
Copyright 2006 www.panama-guide.com. Article and photos by Don Winner. As usual fee free to use anything you want as long as you give credit and provide a link-back to this article (please use this URL.) Thanks for your continued support. If you like this article please e-mail it to a friend.