Day 7 (Jun. 10):
Casco Viejo- Panama
El Día del Turista:
After the meeting yesterday, it looks as if Panama City is going to keep me a little longer than expected, but this is a good thing. I have an appointment at the Instituto Nacional de Cultura on Tuesday, a meeting at the Smithsonian on Wednesday, and two more Panamanian locations that have been added to the itinerary (The University of Chiriquí in David and the Northeast border crossing at Guabito). At this point it looks like I'm going to travel North to David to meet with a professor and then Northeast to Boca del Toro where I will cross back into Costa Rica. With all of this in place, Wednesday evening or Thursday morning is my new departure date. To be honest, I'm not complaining about some extra days in Panama City; especially when I can convince myself that it is for business. This means that today is a free day...A tourist day.
As I blindly strolled through the timeless avenues of Casco Viejo I suddenly heard the calls of a local man behind me. "Ey man! Where you from? American? English? Ey!" This is a common occurance for a gringo traveling through Central America and I usually walk on by. But, this time I had an entire day to burn. If I happened to get myself lost for a few hours it was no big deal. Going against my instincts I turned around, waited for the man to catch up, and explained: "American, from Florida." Instantly the yellowed eyes of a frail, but nimble old man glistened with joy as he released a smile that almost devoured his entire face. "American, I knew it! I love da Americans! I was born in da Canal Zone, so technically I am an American. A Zonian. The people, dey call me Conrad!" This man's voice had a slight Caribbean tinge to it, but his English was particularly on point. After chatting for a few minutes we started walking and like some magical pre-recorded guidebook the man started spewing out information about every building that we passed. "Dis is da French Embassy, we are in Paris." "Dat, dat the Canadian Embassy. Welcome to Canada." "Da skyline, I call dat Miami. I have da whole world here." He showed me the charred remains of Pablo Noriega's officers' club and the old Spanish dungeons that lie below sea level sinking prisoners into a watery grave at the first sign of high tide. Maybe Conrad was simply repeating common local knowledge, maybe it was all complete bullshit. Either way, other tourists were paying top dollar for professional tours...and this guy was good. Entertaining and enthusiastic. Adding to the allure of having an informal guide, he was excited to take me to the places that were off limits to the rest of the public. "In here, dis is a building wit many squatters. Take a look in dar. It's ugly, but dey have flatscreens. See dem wires..Dey have electricity. Dey pay no taxes. Dey live better than most da people here."
Early this morning I walked over to a section of the city called Casco Viejo. This is the area that the Spanish established after Captain Henry Morgan (Yes, that Capt. Morgan) ransacked the original Spanish city. It's a small fortified area with elaborate Spanish architecture. The streets of Casco Viejo instantly transport its pedestrians to the colonial heyday of the Spanish Empire. The entire area is currently under construction as the Panamanian Government is waiting to restore the colonial buildings and turn the old slums into the hidden gem of Central America. "Give it 10 years." That's what Panamanians boast. "In 10 years this city will be the place to be in Central America...in the Western Hemisphere." It's high hopes here and I hope that they can see it through.
Conrad seemed to have privileged access to the heavily guarded Casco Viejo- or maybe he was wearing an invisibility cloak- because he had me weaving around police barricades and crossing directly through construction sites leaving nothing but a quick "Perdóneme" in his wake. For Conrad, Casco Viejo was his neighborhood and these workers conducting the renovations were encroaching upon his territory. Like a whirlwind he would whisk me into a handmade craft shop to loudly explain, "dis, dis autentic Indian basket is a fake. Dey sell dem to da tourists. T'only a couple people dat sell da real ting." Before I could get in a word with this 77 year old wildman, two hours had gone by and we were sitting in a little coffee shop in the part of town that was still riddled with slums and squatters. "You're one hell of an interesting man Conrad." I said to him as I purchased our coffees; which he gulped down before I could even stir in my sugar. "Not bad for 77, 'eh?" Conrad sneered as he flashed one last fullfaced smile. I slid a $5 across the table, threw out a simple "Thanks man", and headed out the door. As I crossed the threshold I faintly heard the last words of Conrad that day, "See you later." Somehow, I find this to be true. Whether it is tomorrow or years down the road I feel like Conrad could materialize at any moment. He was just that magical.