¡Hola a todos!
A quick note: this is the third and final blog detailing my experiences in Panama and I have uploaded all of them within the past tens minutes: my apologies; once again there was something of a backlog!
I returned from the islands of San Blas feeling peaceful and refreshed. I asked the 4x4 driver to drop me off outside a backpackers' hostel in Casco Viejo, the 'old town' district of Panama City. The area was originally settled shortly after Captain Morgan pillaged the first colonial outpost to be established (constructed close to this site) in 1671. Casco Viejo is full of a quaint, whimsical charm: it recalls an era of splendour for Panama City, a time of blossoming prosperity. Like so many antiquarian quarters, it stands as a synthetized snapshot of a period Time - and the modern incarnation of the city - have passed by. I booked a night at the hostel, a bright, airy old building full of creaking staircases and floorboards of worn wood, part of the historic settlement's original town wall still running through the garden behind the residence. After depositing my bag and taking a desperately needed cold shower, I donned clean attire and took to the streets, armed with a simple map, to conduct my own solo walking tour of my surroundings.
My route led me down quiet, shaded alleyways, tall, colourful edifices crowding over me, to restive, secluded, small squares, decorous churches, sombre dwellings and unobtrusive cafes populating their perimeters. A gentle breeze wafted down the portals and passageways, a zephyr borne from the ocean, at times no more than a couple of streets away. This is made possible by the southern edge of the old town's comely position upon a promitory striking out from the otherwise quite regular coastline. Small and narrow - it offers space only for two streets running parallel down its length - the promitory is thus hemmed in by ocean on three sides, attached to the rest of the quarter by only its northern side. Delighting in the picturesque vistas opening at every corner, yielding slowly and partially - often obscured by shadow - I stopped to savour more fully the atmosphere and my time in this warm, mellow place. I chose a dappled spot, protected from the strong rays of the sun by a sturdy tree clustered with branches splaying forth thick plummage. The cafe, rather aptly perhaps (it was certainly the reason for my selecting it above the plethora of others), was named 'Casablanca' and looked to be particularly tasteful. I opted for a decadent slice of cake from the patisserie menu (chocolate and cheese-cake: what a winner!) and flopped back, the better to relax and enjoy my temporary break.
Casco Viejo is well-served with a useful array of information points, located in any area of particular interest within its limits. I learnt that the square in which I reposed so contentedly was named Bolivar and took its name from an important meeting of the great libertador's Amphictyonic Congress in 1826; the aftermath of his and others' triumphant slipping of the imperial Spanish yoke. The Congress had met in an old building within the square, now housing the current Panamanian government's department of international relations. Its purpose, as Bolivar himself saw the matter, was to develop stronger relations between certain Latin American countries to counter continued Spanish interests in the sub-continent. The Congress was attended by representatives of Gran Colombia (comprising modern-day Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Panama), Peru, the United Provinces of Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica) and Mexico. Unfortunately for Bolivar, the rather grandly titled 'Treaty of Union, League and Perpetual Confederation' that emerged from the meeting was only ratified in Gran Colombia, a country that in any case soon saw civil war. Central America soon disintegrated also and Bolivar's dream was left in tatters. Incidentally, US representatives, invited only because of pressure placed upon Bolivar by President John Adams, failed to arrive in time for the meeting, delayed by disputes raised in the southern States on account of Latin America's stance on slavery, where in many coutries it was outlawed. As a consequence, Great Britain, which attended the meeting as an observer, managed to secure many lucrative trade deals with Latin American countries.
I continued my walk south, down a beautiful pedestrianized walkway that led out onto the promitory, following the top of the area's old sea wall, a defence even today against the incessant pounding of the surf below. As I strolled beneath a wooden tressle, overflowing with fragrant climbing plants that created a stunning portal of greenery along the path, I mused over the ambivalence and contrasting virtues of fate in Casco Viejo. Here is a locale absolutely wonderful to behold and to experience, boasting rich scenery, fine eateries and important history. Its atmosphere is fresh; wholesome and clean. Yet, it was here that one man's dream began to fall apart. A man more recognized above any other perhaps for helping gift Latin America its freedom and independence from one of the greatest politico-military forces of the day. At the same time as this particular star foundered, others rose: the possibilities that blossomed for newly-formed, individual states still existing to this day and the special significance afforded to British interests in the sub-continent. This train of thought brought me to the impressive, domineering French Plaza, located at the southern tip of the promitory. Looking out over the crashing surf, populated by bronze busts of important historical individuals surrounding a soaring obelisk that forms the constructions centrepiece, the square is arresting to the senses: at once abundant yet, desolate. Such desolation is fitting indeed to the square's main function, that of remembering the French lost in the failed original attempt to forge a canal in the region. Hundreds fell under the twin onslaught of yellow fever and malaria: incidentally, one who survived was Paul Gauguin, the famous Post-Impressionist painter. One bust - all of which relate to the history of the failed canal attempt - represents the Cuban doctor, Carlos Finlay. Working at the turn of the twentieth century, Finlay first hypothesized much earlier (in 1881) that the mosquito could be a carrier - a 'disease vector' - of yellow fever. Subsequent research by both Finlay and Walter Reed confirmed the villain to be the 'Aedes' species of mosquito and this significant medical break-through was of enormous consequence in helping the successful American effort in building their canal, from 1903 onwards - prior to this year and this rich knowledge, the Americans had been losing approximately ten percent of their workforce to yellow fever annually. Ambiguity once more then: a location so fabulous for me to explore had previously been the site of so much human suffering but, later of such a resounding human success story.
After spending one night in Casco Viejo, I returned to my familiar haunt of 'Mamallena' hostel, where I was given the bunk below Seb for my final night in Panama and, indeed, in Latin America. That afternoon, Seb and I ventured out to an exotic ecological reserve on the edge of the city. The air was stifling and my clothes clung to my tenaciously, as I swigged bottled water religiously. The walk, in truth, yielded very little, bar some impressive though hazy views out over the city sky-line. We hailed a cab and motored back to the Albrook, a huge, American-inspired shopping mall. I endured patiently while Seb conducted a small retail raid on some fashionable stores, my martyrdom rewarded by a quick call at 'Dunkin' Donuts'. From Albrook, we took yet another taxi out to the Causeway, a narrow man-made strip created from some of the soil dug to construct the canal that connects three small islands. The area has become a popular evening haunt for Panama's fast-set and boasts some prestigious eateries and drinking holes, as well as an impressive collection of small marinas, waterlogged with glamorous yachts and motorboats especially. Here, we enjoyed a stroll through the islands, before a refreshing Panamanian beer at a suitably expensive bar - well, it was my last night! Returning to the city-centre, we shopped for steak and vegetables and spent the remainder of the evening cooking, eating, drinking and watching a film. I know what you are thinking: it was my last night in Latin America but, it was also a Monday night and the city was dead. I was in good company and doing things that I enjoy - I was happy.
The following day, I say my goodbyes to Seb early, as he decided that the time was right to stike out westward towards Costa Rica. The remainder of the morning I spent packing and blogging, before taking a taxi to the international airport in the mid-afternoon. The ride there took some time, giving me chance for further reflection upon my short and, admittedly, rather uninspired stay in Panama, as well as the end, finally, of my Latin American adventure: after this, the US is all that remains. Panama had its highlights, certainly: I thoroughly enjoyed my trip up the canal and especially my stay in the San Blas and in Casco Viejo. Nonetheless, it did not come close to comparing with my favourite scenes from South America and it is to this sub-continent that my minds wanders most frequently, since I touched down here in Los Angeles. These reflections and returns to nostalgic moments have been limited due to my enjoying so much here in LA. Some of these experiences will form the core of my next blog and the first from North America: this is an exciting time indeed!
¡Saludos a todos!