Bill Hartley savours the sights
Panama City is all about business and that business can be seen out in the bay as the queue of ships moves towards the canal. By nine in the morning those on the Pacific side of the isthmus have had their turn. As the last ship leaves the lock at Miraflores and joins the slow procession shepherded by tugs across the man made lake beyond, so ships from the Atlantic appear and the traffic changes direction. This goes on unceasingly around the clock.
Parallel to this marvel of civil engineering a new canal is being constructed. Of course it is all done with heavy machinery these days. The heroic age of construction involving a cast of thousands is long gone. The new canal is designed to take monster container ships perhaps twice the size of those which can navigate the existing canal. Observing the process makes one aware of the challenge of squeezing modern ships into locks built in the 1900s. For many ships the locks are a tight fit. So tight that the skill of a pilot cannot be relied upon to keep a vessel on the straight and narrow as it proceeds. Instead the ship is attached by cables to railway locomotives known as mules which run on tracks flanking the locks. These are not to provide power, the locomotives are tethered to a ship by cables and their job is to keep these taut and the vessel on a straight course, preserving those few feet of clearance on either side.
There has been talk about a rival to the canal which would involve ships crossing Lake Nicaragua. This is a Chinese backed scheme but many in the financial press believe it will never happen. The plan raises environmental concerns, notably the risk of exposing Nicaragua and indeed Central America’s largest source of fresh water to the risk of oil spillages. Last month the Miami Herald reported that the start of construction work had been put back again to 2016.
Like the San Tome mine in Joseph Conrad’s novel Nostromo set in a mythical Central American republic, the lights from the canal can be seen from the city signalling its overarching role in the economic life of this small country. Panama City is dominated by skyscrapers housing banks many of which you will probably never have heard of; their presence proclaimed via logos on the buildings. There is the sense of a city which has grown too fast and is near to outstripping the infrastructure. The towering buildings make for an impressive city scape but down at street level are poorly maintained roads and pavements. Often power is carried overhead and jerry-rigged with great loops of cabling left dangling above drains with missing covers. In fairness Panama City is not all like this but rush hour gridlocking suggests that the authorities should have given more thought to the horizontal whilst allowing so much vertical growth. For the pedestrian there is a subway system and given the quite ferocious levels of humidity this must be particularly welcome.
There is a lot to like about Panama City, notably the people. Because the place isn’t strong on tourism, visitors get little hassle even in the locations where there are souvenir shops. Whilst Panama City isn’t a place for fine dining there are many small cafés and restaurants where prices are modest. Indeed it has been listed as one of the world’s cheaper capital cities. It would though be unwise for the visitor to stray too far from the city centre. Even in bright sunshine the closest barrio is a depressing and sinister place, where passing cars are viewed from balconies by expressionless faces. It is a location where taxi drivers, always a good barometer of public safety, will not go.
A flavour of this can be found in the city centre. Within a single block of my hotel I encountered five armed guards. Every bank has them, frisking customers with metal detectors before they are allowed to enter. It would seem that in Panama criminals still resort to the low tech method of bank robbery. The more upmarket shopping malls also use armed guards. Given the traffic congestion rapid reaction policing is done by cops on trail bikes. The pillion man being the one with the sub machine gun.
Beneath the sophisticated veneer of a modern city the local press shows other forces are still at work. Newspaper small ads are full of individuals promising to use their soothsaying powers to attract great wealth. To emphasise this many advertisements are illustrated with dollar bills. Shrewdly the Panamanians chose to adopt the US dollar to maintain financial stability. There is a local currency running parallel to the dollar but it generally turns up only in small change. Separate from the soothsayers are those practising a different sort of necromancy involving Indian spirit guides. Despite Panama being a long way from the American West these shamans are always illustrated by men in full head dress as if they belonged in a John Ford western. In Panama day dreams about money aren’t restricted to lottery wins, there are inhabitants of the supernatural there to help you: for a fee of course.
Certainly money would come in useful to avoid being a patient in one of the public hospitals. My taxi driver reported that they are places to be avoided, where a patient may be told to return when a new batch of hypodermic needles is available. This was echoed by my Mexican hotel manager who added an even more ominous concern, being of the opinion that in Panama they can run up any kind of certificate of qualification, raising the risk, he suggested, that you might be treated by the local equivalent of Dr Nick from The Simpson’s.
The Americans were running the canal up to 1999. Part of the concession they got from the Panamanians was a land corridor across the isthmus. You can cross an invisible line just outside the city and this is the point where the traveller would once have entered the Canal Zone and US territory. Since 1999 it has been locally run and the business world believes the Panamanians do a good job. The cost to a shipping line may seem considerable (between $50,000 and $250,00 for a container ship) but still a lot cheaper in time and money to sail from say Shanghai to Tilbury via that route, rather than round South America.
The Panamanians try to talk up the country as a tourist destination but it has its limitations. For example no effort has been made to tidy up the scrap of beach on the edge of the city, which would seem the obvious thing to do. For the time being at least neighbouring Costa Rica is going to continue to get most of the tourists, though Panama also has a good sized chunk of rain forest. Really though the thing to see is that wonder of the modern world just outside town: the relentless procession of ships transiting the isthmus from ocean to ocean.
BILL HARTLEY is a freelance writer from Yorkshire