A City of Contrast, Contradiction and Disparity
Many of us from the US have long-held a fascination with Panama, and especially the Panama Canal, which was managed by the US until 2000. This engineering marvel has been operational for nearly 100 years. When you see how expansive this 80 Km canal is – it stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, it is difficult to believe that it was constructed 100 years ago. Today it continues to move 14,000 ships through this passageway every year. The technology is modern and has an elaborate quality control system so it doesn´t fail. In addition, the canal is currently being expanded so that in 2014, ships as wide as 55 meters (?160 feet) will be able to pass through the canal. Currently the canal is run solely by the people of Panama. As you can imagine, the impact on Panama City is enormous, it is a huge center for commerce and banking and there are mega shopping malls that rival those in any modern country.
As we visited Panama City, an urban community of 3 or 4 million people and with an expansive skyline of modern buildings, the contrast with every day life for the majority of inhabitants of Panama City was at times disturbing. As we stood near the well-known fish market on Balboa Avenue, a look to the right showed this, which is only a portion of the skyline for the commercial district. Immediately behind several of these modern skyscrapers was a community of stilt houses right in the water. With no electricity or other services, their cobbled together stilt houses and boardwalks were at times under water when the tide came in and they sat in mud when the tide went out. For the very poor such as these people or those who live in tenement housing, there are no publicly supported services as in some countries.
As we looked straight ahead of us and stepped around to look behind us there were dozens (probably really hundreds) of high-rise apartments that looked war-torn, sometimes with no doors or windows and non-functional plumbing. In this intense 90 degree heat, one can only imagine the living conditions. Some are occupied by squatters and some actually pay rent for these horrible dwellings. I tried to photograph a few of these tenements but photos just don´t capture the desperate situation.
Still standing from the same viewpoint, a look to the right shows the beautiful and historic old city or Casco Viejo which has been named a UNESCO world heritage site and which is now being restored to the beauty and regal of Colonial times. (This is also where we stayed while in Panama City). This neighborhood was allowed to deteriorate to a state which one can´t imagine until you walk through the neighborhoods. Now as foreign money is being infused in to the old quarter, it is being restored to its original beauty and will likely return to the state of glory of earlier times.
Urban disparity is likely a ubiquitous problem, however in this city or possibly in the country (we only visited Panama City and Colon which is much worse than Panama City) the contrast between those who have and those who don´t is so obvious everywhere you go. Simultaneously there is urban wealth. For example, people with money take the air-conditioned new buses and poor people take Chicken Buses (they call them ¨Red Devils¨).
It was very different in Panama, unlike the other Central American countries we visited, there is money in this country.