Sunday, September 13, 2009

Panama: A Boring Place With An Imported Culture

Panama City, Panama

Other than the Canal, Panama was boring.

Panama was too wealthy to be interesting, but not wealthy enough to be comfortable. As a traveler, I encountered the problems and inconveniences of the Third World. But I rarely felt like I was in the Third World. Most of the time, I felt like I was in a California border town.

Panama City is reputedly the most cosmopolitan of the Central American capitals. There’s a lot of American and Canadian retirees, as well as communities of Sephardic Jews, Gujaratis, Sindhis, Punjabis and Arabs. Many of the convenience stores are owned by Chinese immigrants.

The mix of peoples should have made Panama City dynamic and lively, but it didn’t. The food was bland. The museums were meager. The few head-turning women were invariably Colombian. Much of the architecture was uninspired; many of the buildings were either indifferent concrete boxes or Miami Vice towers shouting their modernity (pictured).

If there was a local visual art scene, I couldn’t access it beyond a few galleries. There must be a music scene, but I couldn’t find it. The English-language publications were advertorials pitching tourist traps and real estate. There was no Time Out or Weekly to show an Anglophone the cultural ropes.

The bookstores were the most expensive I’ve ever seen. Used hardcovers at Libreria Argosy were priced at $30, new paperback at $15 to $20. The prices imply high import costs but also a tiny market of English readers.

Nothing sizzled. The nightlife districts were passable. The budget hotels would do. Nothing was objectionable. Nothing was exciting.

Much of Panama’s culture was imported. The television broadcast telenovelas from Mexico and Venezuela. Bars and cafeterias played American baseball. One day during my journey, the arts section of La Prensa featured the breakup of Oasis. Rap music blared from cars.

Panama City was modern enough that the Latin American touches looked like blemishes, not local color. Piles of garbage were on the curb, growing over the course of each day. Wild dogs trotted about, although not in the numbers seen in Asia. Street signs were not consistently placed, and there weren’t enough traffic lights or crosswalks. A restaurant in the hotel district named Crepes & Waffles did not open until 1 p.m., because what traveler would want crepes or waffles in the morning? Shops were closed on Sundays, when the city air felt lifeless.

If this were Nicaragua or another country with a lower score on the Human Development Index, all of the above would be bracing. But in a town with Citibank branches and Kia dealerships where you can seamlessly follow the Dodgers or Law & Order, it’s disappointing.

I may have done everything wrong. I may have stayed in the wrong hotel, visited the wrong neighborhoods, or traveled at the wrong time or with the wrong mindframe. I plead guilty to making no real effort to connect with Panamanians other than a few Jewish and Indian shopkeepers.

The Canal rocked. It’s not often you can get that close to massive container ships, and it’s fun to watch them rise and fall on elevators of water. But the Canal is an import, an American creation, yet another thing which sprung from outside the country’s borders.

Panama was a disappointment.



Anonymous The Panama Report said...

A very fair and accurate review of Panama City - well phrased! I have known Panama now for about four years and written extensively on the subject. The only thing I'd add is that the remainder of the country (outside the City that is) is what makes Panama great and unique. The City is sort of a lame, over-marketed third world trap. Prices have risen so fast in the past few years that it jumped from ragtag cool (because it was cheap) to downright overrated. Kudos on your piece!

10:28 PM  
Blogger JVasquez said...

You did do everything wrong. No tour guide? Did you know someone who lives here who could show you the "colorful" side of Panama? Or did you go to TGI Friday's, McDonalds and KFC that are omnipresent in capitals around the world?

"I may have done everything wrong. I may have stayed in the wrong hotel, visited the wrong neighborhoods, or traveled at the wrong time or with the wrong mindframe. I plead guilty to making no real effort to connect with Panamanians other than a few Jewish and Indian shopkeepers."

10:33 PM  
Blogger grumpypuppet said...

You would have had more fun at my party.

1:17 PM  
Anonymous Peter said...

i agree with JVasquez, Peter, you are a boring and predictable worm-turd man who will never sate his appetite for kfc. you can't even appreciate a place that shows "law & order?" what the hell is the matter with you, Peter?

5:17 AM  
Blogger moi said...

I don't know Panama, but it does sound to me like you did everything wrong. Starting with your implied expectation of finding poverty entertaining and authentic. I find that offensive. Next time, be resourceful enough to visit an NGO that works with poor kids, or helps artisans market their products, or something. Or stick to cities where Time Out has an edition.

6:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

FYI - Included this piece in my monthly newsletter. No need to publish this comment, couldn't find your email elsewhere. - Matt

10:52 PM  
Blogger Moonchild said...

I take great offense to your remark about Colombian women as the only head turners, and of Panama as a boring place. Obviously you did not venture out of what you may have deemed your "safe zone" and missed out on really enjoying the natural beauty of Panama, its people, food, and culture. Hopefully you plan your next trip elsewhere by doing some research and perhaps getting a Tour Guide. You surely missed out on a lot. I was born in Panama, but have lived in the USA for 40+ years, and to this day, many of my Panamanian female friends, relatives and I, always get compliments about our beauty, and I am a grandmother. You missed out on an awful lot by segregating yourself. Next time please do your research, mix with the locals, and get a Tour guide. You really missed out on experiencing the natural richness, and the real beauty of Panama and its people.

4:26 AM  
Anonymous Peter said...

Something tells me Peter made every effort to "research the beauty of Panama's people" and "mix with the locals."

1:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Uhhhh.... all things here are subjective, BUT, if you only found the Colombian women attractive, then I question whether you even like women at all. Panama has some of the most mind bogglingly stunning women on the planet... and they are everywhere. Where you just another gringo looking for cheap prostitutes? I gotta wonder...

3:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I completely agree with the article. Well said! Bland food and lacking culture... So many foreigners (I mean MANY) agree with your article deep down, they just don't admit it because they are afraid that they'll be judged or seen as negative. If you hear conversations (and I've heard it from various circles of expats both young and old who have lived in Panama for extended periods of time - 2+ years), the country does needs more culture. Many events are disappointing. And the food... well that's another story. If you're used to tasty food and are from a city where you have a HUGE selection of tastes, foods and culture, Panama can be disappointing. Although Panama has a lot of nature, it lacks in culture, food and common courtesy. People don't treat each other well. I'm not talking about how they treat foreigners I'm talking about how they treat EVERYONE even their fellow Panamanians. A simple smile or hello, holding the door open, being kind is lacking in the city. But outside of the city people are much kinder. Hopefully the country will improve because it has a lot of potential. The question is do you have the patience or the time to wait for it?

2:29 AM  
Anonymous Nancy said...

I have to agree with the assessment about Panama.

4:45 AM  
Blogger Nancy O. said...

I feel the same way and have linked your site to mine. Check out my observations on Panama. Granted, I was only there a month all told.

2:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Panama has quite a rich and vibrant culture, but most of it lies with the indigenous populations and some of the more cultural events that occur from time to time. The culture also resides with certain locations in Panama.

You are right that the rest of the "culture" is mostly imported by the international community because that is one of the major focuses of Panama. The museums are indeed pitiful, but part of that is because the international community is mostly concerned with making money and retirement and the local government doesn't give two figs about museums and doing a decent job at understanding that museums are cultural icons. Theatre in Panama is raunchy and nouveau, and art also tends toward sexuality as a common theme. There is MUCH to be done in these areas, sadly.

There are plenty of readers in English who come from the international community, but these bookstores only in certain districts and areas. There are bookstores such as Excedra books, and there is an Hombre de La Mancha in every mall that carries books in English. As for Spanish bookstores, there are plenty out there, Hombre de La Mancha being one of them. There are no massive commercial booksellers in Panama. It is true that regular Panamanian culture is not a reading one, but part of that is also a governmental issue since the public education system is also seriously flawed.

I went to Explora the other day, which is supposed to be a hands-on science museum for kids, and it was a sad display of old, worn and damaged equipment. The information was outdated and the museum guides were only repeating information verbatim rather than truly knowledgeable. That's what happens when you don't value your museums or your museum staff.

I definitely don't think you were looking in the right places. If so, the Panama Canal wouldn't have been the sole experience that you had that was worth it. To really experience Panama, you have to travel outside of the city, head to the mountains of Boquete or to Bocas del Toro or dig around in Casco Viejo. Although, even Casco Viejo is getting a bit touristy these days. For night life, you should have been hitting Calle Uruguay perhaps, or for music, you should have come during the jazz festival.

5:43 AM  

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