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Sent: 08 February 2001 12:18
Subject: Panama - Canal Blues

Panama - Canal Blues

Panama, Crossroads of the Continents, a nation dissected in half by a waterway that has shaped its destiny and very existence. A hundred years
ago, this was still part of Colombia. A break came when Americans craving for the Californian dream (that was before they knew about the Earthquake or the electricity woes) got bored of riding a pony on express fare across the deserts (no more bisons or Indians to shoot at) or doing the big trip round the tip of South America (penguin meat arenīt that tasty). Some thought it might be cool to dig a big drain across the narrow S-shaped (S for sun, sea or s??) Panama Isthmus. Ferdinand de Lesseps, a Frenchman whose pastime was building canals (Suez was one of his) came along and with others started the Panama Interoceanic Company, a non-dotcom startup, which soon went bust in a non-dotcom crash. The Colombian Government tried getting the US government to bail the company out but this was vetoed by the Colombian Senate. So Uncle Sam encouraged the local Panama elite to declare independence from Colombia, and then sent a few warships to safeguard the newly independent state, uphold liberty (our liberty to act), democracy (U better elect the guys we want), human rights (American rights), free trade (i.e. from US to Panama), Coca Cola and the American Football. And so the Canal was built, with the American flag flying on 8km on each side of the canal, guarded by thousands of American troops who once in a while marched into town to maintain order among troublesome locals and to embrace local women. So, Panama became an independent state, that is, an American state all but in name - where everybody pretend that they use a currency called the Balboa, but in reality uses the Dollar (B1 = US$1); and live in suburbs called Los Angeles, San Antonio and Hollywood (but a fair proportion of the population probably already live in the real LA, San Antonio and Hollywood).  [Apologies to the People of Panama - just trying to be humorous...]

An early Panama banknote.  It uses the US$ exclusively these days.

I arrived here on Wednesday morning on a Copa Airlines (Panamaīs national airlines - Not Coca or Cocaine Airlines, even though Colombia is next door) 737 jet from Havana, sitting with two hilarious Brazilian girls who told flying jokes - the kind of taboo or inauspisiouc jokes supersitious Chinese wouldnīt want to hear on a flight.)

After a few days in proletariat Cuba, I adapt readily to the sweet capitalism of Panama City. Here I rediscovered the joys of credit cards, ATM machines, supermarkets with non-empty shelves, a relatively large number of English speakers (many with American accent), and best of all, an amazing variety of restaurants with cheap seafood and great Panamaian cuisine. I had a large lobster plus rice and salad for only $12 ! (I tend to fall in love with any place with great seafood).

I dropped by the statue of Balboa, the Spanish conquistador who had the guts to declare himself the discoverer of the Pacific Ocean, when the Chinese navy, Indian traders and Indonesian seafarers had already washed their feet in the Pacific for more than 1000 years before that. I strolled along the sea-hugging Avienda Balboa to avoid the wide swath of no-go zones detailed in my guidebook. Popped by Chinatown with its ornate (again) gateway with the plaque dedicated by the former Taiwanese President Li Teng Hui (Panama recognises Taiwan and not mainland China). The Chinatown here is larger than that in Havana but I didnīt explore it as its flashy restaurants and shops were flanked by semi-slums and suspicious characters were loitering around. 

I moved on quickly to the Cosco Viejo - the old town where a few shiny pockets of past architectural grandeur such as the Presidential Palace and the French Embassy were surrounded by decaying old mansions and narrow alleys - the guidebook and my hotel reception all warned me about the dangers. A group of angry peasants were blocking the main entrance to the palace facing well-prepared police. I dashed to a side lane in case a riot breaks out and soon made my way back to the city proper.

I visited the canal - an amazing engineering feat considering the mountains and tropical jungle in between. The Panamaians have taken over the canal since 31 Dec 1999 but the American suburbia atmosphere has remained, with clean cut lawns and nicely maintained buildings... 

Now, in mere one day, I have completed the main sights of the City and decided to move on to Guatemala - there are too many parts of Panama City which are way too dangerous, judging from the description of my Footprints guidebook and the advice of my hotel reception. Slums, muggings and more... It is said that mugging occurs even in daylight hours...or maybe everyone have exaggerated. Tough decision but since there is so much to do in Guatemala, I will fly there tomorrow and thatīs where the risk is worth the adventure!


Wee Cheng

Old Panama (Panama Viejo)

Balboa, the conqueror of Panama

The financial centre of Panama City - could have been Singapore, HK or any global financial centre

Chinatown of Panama - with Taiwanese President Lee Teng Hui's dedication

Bridge of the Americas - near here was a CIA built school from which many Latin America dictators once graduated...

A colourful Panamaian bus 

 The Old City from the other side of the bay.

Old city and boats

 The French Plaza

Boy in the slums of the old city.

Santo Domingo where the famous arch can be seen.  This huge freestanding arch convinced the US Congress that the canal should be built in Panama, rather than in Nicaragua - a French chap with financial interests here showed the Americans a Nicaraguan stamp depicting volcano erupting.

The Canal and the flag of Panama

The Canal Watching the crossing of the locks Old American canal admin buildings

Onward to Guatemala

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