THERE ARE SOME things you should never attempt to do, for the good of your health. And your pocket. One of these is to try and drink an Englishman under the table, and heaven help you if you take on an Irishman. This particularly applies if you are a half-cut Panamanian tealeaf with plans to mug said Englishman and his Mexican pals, who also like a beer or ten. But more on him later.
After the crumbling, dusty, grim and threatening places that are the majority of Central American capital cities, arriving in Panamá is a breath of fresh air. Well, not quite that fresh; there is still the oppressive heat and humidity, the acrid sting of blue exhaust smoke and occasional whiff of the city's collective previous night's dinner to foul the lungs and burn the eyes. But to eventually escape the Albrook terminal, and bump along in the back of a cab across concrete towards the glittering bay-hugging, glass and steel skyline, is to catch your breath and realise that you've made it: they save the best city of this region for last.
The image every traveller holds of Panamá is the curve of high-rises flanking the ocean up to the tip of the far peninsula. It's a stunning sight. And quite incredible when you consider that many of these building will never see a tenant: they are monuments to Colombian money-laundering. Signs abound to tempt the rental market, but these empty buildings are already occupied by ghost tenants, non-existent occupants paying way over the odds. The cartels build the high-rises, then rent out the space to themselves and plough their cocaine funds through it. Clean money. Beautiful.
But by far the most beautiful part of Panamá is the Casco Viejo, or old quarter. This tight-knit maze of streets and courtyards, loomed over by decaying colonial facades, is one of the prettiest places I've seen in a while. It is a small area; on the edges exist the poor in a mix of decrepit wooden houses rotted by sea air, and overflowing concrete slabs of hopeless humanity. In the afternoon the locals sit out on porches, battered wooden chairs or old sofas, passing the remaining hours of another listless day. Walk too far out of the safe haven, and a well-meaning local will wag a finger and warn you off. I've walked through some sketchy areas in my time, and am generally not too worried: I have money stashed in several places as back-up if I am robbed. And the VISA card currently in my wallet is defunct, and would excite my would-be mugger for about ten minutes after his escape. But one old man pointed to my silver ring and advised me "If they want that, Señor, they will take it...and if you don't give it quickly...then they take your finger, too..." followed by a toothy cackle with head thrown back. All laughter aside, I turned back the way I had come after thanking him for the advice. I've been through the area since and, having seen it from the back of a speeding cab at dusk, can assure you there is likely no bigger shithole this side of Mogadishu. Ancient housing blocks, hardly suitable for habitation; shifty figures in the shadowy stairwells; youths congregating on street corners in the fading light, hungry-eyed hyenas; ragged children rummaging through skips in the hope of finding something useful or edible; scarecrow people slumped in doorways, those who with no fight left. The blowing lights in the tiny squares of the huge rotting edifices varied and warm: tangerine, cherry red, ochre, mustard and pampas green. The sight looks inviting to a night photographer...but you and your camera wouldn't last five minutes.
I haven't had as positive a feeling for a city since I first set foot in Barcelona, Spain. Casco Viejo had a similar effect on me. Stef and Maxy were in town, as were Emi and Andreas, the Mexicans I'd befriended Suchitoto, El Salvador. Luckily for us, there was a music festival the second night I arrived...drinking and dancing in the streets.
Rich and poor were out in force. The latter were campled out at the end of their streets, drinking rum and dancing frenziedly. They are rightly proud of their town and their heritage. I've yet to visit Cuba, but can well imagine it looking and feeling like this. How long this melting pot will be allowed to simmer is anyone's guess, though: UNESCO designated the quarter a World Heritage Site in 2003. Buildings previously left to rot have been rescued, facades lovingly restored. But this has meant an influx of high-class restaurants and shops. Indeed, the President of Panamá also lives in this area. At the present time, the new establishments are required to use local builders and staff...but how sustainable this is remains to be seen. Certainly, the shabby wooden eyesores will be demolished...but where will the inhabitants of many generations be moved to? Likely the concrete slums I traversed in the back of a taxi. Progress? I'm not so sure.
I was out with the Mexicans an afternoon later. We'd taken a delicious lunch of ceviche down by the harbour. I was living on this cheap dish for days: fish and shrimp left to "cook" in fresh lime juice for twenty minutes...can there be anything healthier? No additives, bar the ubiquitous chilli sauce. We wandered back into the heart of the old town, looking for a cheap beer. A dilapidated cantina stood before us, its front a hotchpotch of discarded wooden panels and planks, its door of the swinging Wild West saloon variety. Salsa blared from the darkness, the smell of hot unwashed bodies seeped from within. Emi didn't look so sure. Andreas grinned at me. I shrugged...and in we went.
It was almost pitch black. The small bar stretched away into the gloom to our left, a string of fairy lights snaked behind the stacks of cheap licor bottles. A bored barman chewed a toothpick and eyed us. The dirt floor was where the action was at, a couple of dumpy prostitutes dancing with an old man who was a right little mover...he must have been popular as a young man, and wasn't doing bad right now, if truth be told. A mulatta approached us, and jabbered away with Andreas. I couldn't hear the conversation over the music. She was soon jutting her jaw at each of us and pursing her lips. I backed away, fearing she wanted a kiss. I then remembered, with palpable relief, that this was a method latins sometimes use instead of pointing at something. Lazy buggers...I find it easier to just lift my arm.
Andreas danced with one of the women. Myself and Emi chatted with an old bloke over the raucous music. Well I say chatted, the old man blathered and I nodded politely. I like places like this. The locals are friendly 90% of the time, and if you can get over the grimmest toilets this side of Calcutta, then you might have a good night. And these ones were grim, believe me...if I'd needed to shit, I'd have been yanking my pants down at the side of the street rather than subject my fair buttocks to the horrifically-stained biological experiment of a commode available.
After a bit of a boogie with some prostitutes, which seems to be becoming somewhat of a bad habit, we left our new pals at the cantina and headed back to the hostel. On the way we spied another shitty bar, and obviously went in. There was a dodgy-looking local in there, a few sheets to the wind, who insisted on buying us a beer. Apparently he could show us the best parts of Casco Viejo, including a 100-year-old bar. After a couple of straighteners, we headed off with him...back to the cantina we'd just left. Imagine this fellow's surprise as we were greeted with a cheer, like long-lost friends? A couple of the women warned us off him immediately, but we'd already smelled a rat with his transparent patter. One of the hookers, mid-fifties at a rough estimated, sidled up, grabbed my hand and put it on her arse and then, breathing rum fumes, told me "Don' trus dat guy. Bad man. I am lonely. I live up there" and pointed to her flat over the road. I thanked her for the info and diplomatically retrieved my hand. I get lonely too, but we have to draw the line somewhere. El Bandito, meanwhile, was getting us another round of drinks in...mentioning another drinking den a few blocks down, which I knew to be in the no-go area. We suggested a few more in this place first.
Andreas was showing off his fancy footwork again, and the locals were loving it. I was chatting to hookers old enough to be my grandmother, Emi was fending off the same. They were cadging drinks off us left, right and centre...but we didn't mind. It was a cheap enough night out. El Bandito's plan of luring us away in a drunken stupor, to be robbed by him and his associates, was beginning to backfire; glassy-eyed, he could hardly stand up. He asked for another beer. I pointed out that it was his round again (like the last three), and to stop being a tight-arse. He looked down at his bottle, as if to question himself on the source of that one, before shuffling off to the bar for another four. It'd be his round again for the next lot, too.
We left him slumped on a stool in the corner, looking out confusedly over the rubble of his scheme. I'd liked to have seen his face when he awoke the following morning, several dollars lighter and with a stinking headache? We happened upon another cantina on the way home, this one stinking like a cattleshed, the stench was appalling...ammonia, soil and sweat. You try holding your nose and drinking a beer at the same time? It's not easy, but we managed. Last round for the old ladies of the night, and we rolled back home.
I crawled into bed and drifted off with a smile on my face. Yes, I like Panamá...