Panama is a modern city with skyscrapers jutting out to the beach - a true skyline, unlike the capital cities in Guatemala and Costa Rica. Streets filled with cars, lined with little American (US) style shopping centers. Side streets look more Central American-like, less affluent homes and signs of poverty, some gated, the colors of the tropics more evident. The taxi driver dropped us in Casco Viejo, the charming historic area of the city. Three storied Spanish style buildings with narrow balconies rimmed with elaborate ironwork, arched doorways below, dilapidated with peeling paint, laundry hung along the railings, framed the narrow curving streets. Ruins of several once impressive bombed out political buildings were the legacy of the US invasion that deposed Noriega. A stately municipal building opened up onto a small park along the waterfront, view of the skyline, the business center. A peek over the railing to breaking waves caressing the brown beach revealed disappointing piles of trash.
A walkway led out along the Pacific coast. Vendors spread their wares on blankets on the ground and over railings, taped to walls. Kuna indians, Panama's largest indigenous group, make colorful sewn collages, with intricate and primitive designs, called molas. They are sewn together loosely in large quilt like sheets for display - quickly detached for a sale or a closer look. The Kuna women we met wore a shiny silver ring through the nose, bright red kerchief tied over the head, and beadwork unlike any other I've seen. In this warm climate, arms and legs are exposed, but adorned with wide bands of beaded multicolored and geometrically patterned bracelets tied together.
As we walked, the rains came. By the time we reached the other side of the walkway it was pouring. A uniformed man with an umbrella standing before a hotel came running with a big grin to shelter me and directed us to a lovely little Creole and Italian restaurant down a quiet attractive street we never would have found on our own. (I would guess that is part of his job.) By the time we ventured out again, the storm had moved on. We walked up the hill to find the cultural center, small parks hiding in between well-heeled apartment buildings, with the occasional ruin sandwiched in between, buzzards perched on building tops overhead. That evening, we discovered that our hotel was at the edge of a small Chinatown - there is a large Chinese community in Panama - and I enjoyed the best Chinese dinner I've had in Central or South America.
The conference was held at a school housed in a collection of buildings that were at one time part of the US canal administration base. Official looking yellow buildings with red tile roofs around a grassy square. Driving in and out of the area, we passed through tall, seemingly endless, waving fields of pampas grass. The grasses, not innate to this area, were planted to keep the lands around the canal from erosion. Not a very strong agenda of workshops for the conference, Paul and I were surprised to find we were the only out of country participants. He presented a workshop on podcasting, I showed my Robotics class video and talked about that program, and there were some good discussions, but it was nowhere near as stimulating and useful for me as the other Latin American conferences I've had the good fortune to attend.
Our hosts, two easy going young men, the school librarians, took us to a trendy restaurant on the Amador Causeway with a view over the calm waters to the sparkling night skyline. This area is definitely a center of vibrant nightlife, albeit a new one. The causeway, constructed in the early days of the canal, is a narrow strip of highway connecting four small islands, and serves as a buffer to calm the waters at the approach to the canal. It was off limits to the Panamanians until the US relinquished the canal to Panama. New construction of hotels, shops and restaurants along this scenic strip have brought it alive. I made a mental note to come back and see it in daylight if there was time.
For lunch on Saturday, the group went to the Miraflores locks, the closest point to see the Panama Canal in action and the tallest of the locks due to the great tide fluctuations of the Pacific Ocean. Just a little late to see a ship actually going through the lock, one was just pulling out into high waters, that much closer to the Atlantic. This amazing human creation built to connect the oceans was fascinating to see, and enhanced by an excellent set of exhibits in the onsite museum covering its construction, people involved including the French that initiated the process, ecosystems of the region, and the mechanics of its workings. But most fun was the simulation of a ship passing through the Miraflores lock - you are at the ship's controls and an interactive video made from the ship's viewpoint is happening through the "windows". Our hosts had not been to this new feature before and were enthralled, one of them having worked at the canal during his student days. We drove past shipyards of stacked containers on the way back.
The last morning I had to myself. I did what many Panama City residents do on a fine Sunday morning, I walked the causeway. People walking, running, cycling, families riding carts, boys climbing up to knock cocoanuts from palms, watching birds, boats, bridges and soaring buildings, stopping for coffee, conversation and of course photographs.
One more stop on the way to the airport at the ruins of Panama Viejo, truly the old town, where the city thrived until the Spaniards came. My taxi driver turned tour guide accompanied me for a stroll around the silent stone structures and talked about the grandeur of the vanished world. A tower is propped up by scaffolding, restoration has begun on the church, interpretive signs explain what is not obvious from the partial walls and windows. At the edge of the ruins, one can see the modern city and shoreline through the trees.