Panama City, Panama
By Mike Heavers
Rain bombards the pavement relentlessly, filling gutters and drowning spirits, laying its cadence down upon on the rooftops of Panama City, a steady drum roll daring the people to step outside onto its battlefield. Booms of cannonfire thunder shout out their orders sporadically, summoning forth a thick grey fog which casts its ominous veil over inner city high rises, marching ever inland. The busy city streets begin to empty of pedestrians who search for refuge in every market, corner store, cab, or bus within reach. Traffic halts, and with it the passage of time. The sense of urgency that normally pervades the city begins to dissipate, replaced by an unshakeable gloom. And while the denizens of the inner city give up to the storm in surrender, one barrio stands defiantly at the forefront, on the rocky shores of the Pacific.
Casco Viejo. The Old Helmet. For centuries it has stood, taking the brunt of the blows delivered by these vicious coastal storms. The neighborhood is no stranger to turmoil. In 1671, the city was sacked and burned by the pirate Henry Morgan, but the spirit of the people could not be incinerated, and they rose again to rebuild their lives. The carcass of the dungeon in which they were enslaved still remains as a testament to what they have overcome. In the 1900s, over 22,000 people gave up their lives in pursuit of the dream of free passage from Atlantic to Pacific via the Panama Canal. Their story is told on the large stone tablets which adorn the walls in the Plaza de Francia. But more than anything, the people’s resilience can be demonstrated in their resistance to the stalwart hand of poverty which tugs unceasingly at their haggard clothes and scant pocketbooks. And while Casco Viejo may be one of the poorest neighborhoods of Panama, it is also the most intricately beautiful and well preserved, a dichotomy that attests to the people’s fortitude.
The streets flood and out of the mud the residents of Casco Viejo plod on down cobblestone streets determinedly. A weary back supports a heavy rucksack which must be delivered to the other end of town before nightfall. Calloused hands dart deftly down upon an old wooden desk in a domestic fabrica, plunging needle and thread through a rough-hewn swatch of fabric that will one day become a dress worn proudly by a young girl at her Quinceañera. From the ornate balcony of a faded blue building, a voice sings out unrestrained to the scratchy tune of an old Hispanic ballad playing on the radio. For a moment the song, which talks of unrequited love, becomes less words and more a raw feeling reaching out to everyone and no one at all. Out the open door of a local eatery pour the smells of pan-seared Corvina caught fresh each morning, ceviche, sancocho, and cazuelo de mariscos. At old wood barstools sit old Panamians, drinking a potent concoction of aged Seco and watching reruns of telenovelas on an antique television in the corner of the bar, their inebriant breath paying homage to the old slang definition of Casco Viejo: “empty bottle.”
Somewhere in Casco Viejo a man is starving for food – two dirty, scabbed palms open to the mercy of the passersby, who have little but give much. Somewhere in the city two youths are starving for adventure, sneaking their way into the shell of an old cannery by way of an old boarded up window. Somewhere in Panama a wily thief lays eyes upon two tourists who look about with fascination at the ornate architecture of the Plaza de Independancia. And while Casco Viejo hosts a battalion of guards (the Policia Turstica de Panama), true security is maintained by the old grandmothers sitting in door stoops and behind rusted iron bars, eyes and ears attuned through the years to the beating pulse of the barrio. Somewhere in Casco Viejo, a band strikes up and people begin to dance, their measured Merengue steps doing more to announce nightfall than the setting of the sun.
Somewhere in the old city, our silhouettes pass hand-in-hand underneath a flowered arch on an old stone bridge, headed toward the pier. From there we can see the rocky cliffs turning back the crashing waves. In the distance, the grim countenance of the mainland frowns back at us, a faded spectre consumed by fog. And while mainland Panama says a grumpy good night, we hold close our rain soaked bodies, kissing to the night ahead, and to the untiring spirit of Casco Viejo.