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.