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A Tale of Two Cities

After three days in “rustic” San Blas, it felt good to be back in the Marriott – and if felt even better to be upgraded to the Junior Suite! Air conditioning, a steam shower and access to the executive lounge – heaven! The sole reason for us being in Panama was to catch up with Simon and Estella – Simon, being the man that he is, agreed to meet us for late drinks two hours after landing from his flight on the Friday night and so after a heavy dose of air conditioning, a steam shower and a couple of boozy glasses of wine at the executive lounge, we headed out into the humidity of the evening heat to Casco Viejo…

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All that needs to be said is that Casco Viejo has changed. Four years ago this part of town was dark, lonely and intimidating. Now it is filled with artisan boutiques, quirky bodegas and fine dining restaurants with expats and travellers from all over the world sipping mojitos on the street until dawn, and musicians playing a funky salsa beat on every corner. It is a part of town that is most assuredly on the map.

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The place picks up at around 10pm with a traffic jam of cabs and the occasional Lamborghini bringing in the locals. We hear the sound of music on every street, not just from the bars and restaurants, but from the cars and the open windows in the residential flats above the street level. Sitting in a bar, a guitar manifests from nowhere and the table next door breaks out into a song. Walking around we see pyramids of Panama hats and cigars, little art galleries, and a plethora of al fresco dining – the smell of grilled steaks, empanadas and plantains wrapping itself around us. Even for newbies, this part of the city has the feeling of familiarity – a lot of the buildings are still “under development” but it is as if the old town is telling us it’s stories about a time long forgotten.

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But what story is this city telling? Street kids run around as young as four, hanging around restaurants and street food vendors, cajoling tourists and locals alike into buying them food or giving them money. They jump around on expensive cars, play around with the waiters and run in and out of buildings, screaming, laughing and seemingly having fun – except its 1am in the morning and the conversation inevitably turns to matters more serious as we are reminded of Panama City’s more darker contexts.

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One of the main issues faced by families in the poorer districts of Panama City is that children often form part of street gangs that operate in the wider city area, spiralling into a life of drugs, exploitation and violence. Whilst many children’s groups have started operating in Panama City, such as SOS-Children’s Village, an NGO that supports children and young people by providing education, training and semi fostering it does not necessarily address the extreme poverty faced by many urban Panamanians which is, according to the World Bank, why this country is one of the most economically imbalanced countries in the world on par with Brazil in terms of income distribution.

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The opportunity for change may be emerging however – the city is developing fast, with a wealth of expats starting businesses in the city. As the fastest growing country in Latin America it is unclear how government policy is being structured to deal with poverty alleviation, however as the 2014 hosts to the World Economic Forum’s Latin America Social Entrepreneur of the Year Awards, perhaps there are some who are rethinking the way that goods and services can be delivered in a more socially responsible way. The Panama Canal expansion plan is expected to propel Panama into the maritime big leagues and whilst critics remain sceptical about how the increased economic growth and wealth will be shared, it cannot hurt to remain hopeful.

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