For Optimum Viewing
"No matter what you do, this year or in the next hundred,
you will be dead forever." Gabriel García Márquez
Once bitten; twice shy. And the third time, just because. Gritty city streets that offend most people are like an irresistible obsession; enticements to my vagabond spirit. Finding myself in places most won't dare or care to know even exist is beyond observance. And then, there was the disreputable haunt of a place like the Casco Viejo district; billed as one of Panamá City's most alluring but speculative attractions.
Walking along Avenida Balboa's malecón on my first jaunt through the city, arcing shape of the bay imparted a distant sliver cleaving the hazy blue canvas. Pinned between sky and sea, the mélange of ponderous structures was consummated with a terra cotta sprawl, ruptured only by Cathedral spires. A frontage of withering piers gave way to the fortified city; ominous bulwarks once a source of protection against outsiders.
Close but yet so far, the waterfront vistas groveled with inclinations during those first days. Information and local advice were unanimous about potential perils of visiting this barrio. Frankly, sketchiness of Panamá City seemed to be ripening everywhere else, almost to the point of dread. If this was the norm, exactly how sinister would the admonished be?
Traipsing around ruins of La Vieja on a radiant Easter morning, an American college student crossed my path to enliven desolation. Trying to force his final hours, the "second city" was all he'd yet to check. I recognized the same sense of hesitancy, and jumped all over the prospect of mutual escort. If third mugging in a lifetime was destiny, the safety in numbers tip-off would only sweeten culprit spoils.
Passing along Avenida Central, the pedestrianized shopping-mecca of the equally chancy Calidonia and Santa Ana districts, sacrilegious multitudes had converted the Holy holiday into a bandy of indulgence, stewing since Fat Tuesday.
Clutching backpacks, we dodged through the circus with dastardly purpose; the paleface beacon-in-tow my greatest consequence. Pausing to regroup amid the chaotic Santa Ana plaza, we'd come to edge of the frying pan; jumping into the proverbial fire waiting beyond the busy intersection.
Just a Coca-Cola Homeboy
Armed with nothing more than cold beverages and concealed cameras, we immediately fell prey to what would prove to be the greatest cause for alarm - Mother Nature. Yes, when she forged this most innocent peninsula of the Panamá isthmus, there was no intent towards future ramifications involving crook by hook.
Standing in front of Café Coca-Cola, sharp coercion of the terrain was indecipherable for knowing the historic district waited to the left. Shabby enticements baited adventure to the right, and I conceded to the puzzling layers of poverty and decay. Barely getting a couple of photos, an older gentleman endorsed a scathing reprimand to get out while we could!
Taking advice as yet another paranoid alarm, we dallied along sidewalks under rows of disheveled balconies. Dank, inanimate laundry concealed the screeching birds in cages and vigilantes surveying our every move. Allure was nothing more than a read-between-the-lines No Trespassing sign. Yet I was in my element reliving glory days of NYC and ghetto decorum.
Callous poise was the badge for turf invasion, exempting the callow deputy as well. Infringement was the least of worries even parading through a corner swarming with riff-raff. The most brazen accost was from another well-meaning individual, more than eager to guide us beyond the menacing neighborhood of El Chorrillo.
The three-block walk, presumably separating good from evil, would determine more than just a turning point of appropriate direction. Panamá City's saving graces were about to be rescued, too.
Philandering with the Phantoms
Prowling suspects left behind, the dispossessed sovereignty of Casco Viejo began to extend in a manner which ignited apprehension. Streets and plazas were utterly deserted. Venturing into the crumbling labyrinth hinted towards entrapment of the most gullible kind. My carrot-top comrade stuck close, but otherwise didn't seem the least bit bothered. Perhaps ignorance was bliss.
At high-noon, the only ambush was executed from a scorching sun; conceivably the sole ally of this immortal enclave. The wide-open expanse of Parque Herrera, looming more like a forsaken battlefield, was a valid place to take cover while figuring out exactly where we were. I thought it safe to expose ourselves as "tourists" by pulling out the guidebook; not that anyone was watching except a bellicose General.
Quickly strategizing our invasion, the dead give away was stashed and substituted with something declaring a bit more fire power. My accomplice followed by maneuvering his palm-sized digital. What ensued was a sharp-shooting exercise, camouflaged with a flurry of touristic impetuosity. Making quick work of the abandoned maze was under defense of his pending flight.
As if standing under a magna fine glass, vulnerability shimmered while watching the compatriot's taxi vanish. Sweat dripping down back of my neck generated a chill against the saturated shirt. With no sense tempting fate, I headed the same direction, on-foot.
The map would later divulge all that was missed in tainted haste. There was no second-guessing what had to be done. Waiting until Tuesday morning once museums reopened, I conscientiously retraced the paths of least resistance, though little about them was familiar.
Hosts of everyday people were now associating with the heat and history, enlivened after the holiday defection. At first, the vibrant transformation was abrupt. Trying to distinguish between friend or foe, along busy streets, was a futile mission until coming to terms with my own insignificance. I wasn't even a blip on the radar.
Alien contour was clearly translucent thanks to voluptuous sirens neutralizing co-workers, construction verracos, and other capable aggressors. I had to snicker. One of these temptresses was worth an entire posse of gun- wielding escorts for insuring safe passage. False pretenses were eventually stripped; melting away in the fervor of hot pursuit.
After almost a week in the capital, the indubitable Panamá City was unveiling itself block by block to finally captivate genuine expectations. Resurrection had occurred two days late; hardly preposterous in a frivolous nation where time seems to have little relevance, and Casco cathedral doors weren't even unlocked for Easter. Besides, other than cool respite, the hallowed caverns fostered nothing more than passing dogma -- betrayed by memoirs emblazoned beyond.
Eventually, wandering for the sake of wondering was embroiled with imminent turmoil brewing on the afternoon horizon. Spain's subsequent endeavor on the Pacific had proven invincible to marauders of yore, and distinctly illicit to newcomers centuries later, but this exclusive conquest had been mine. Savoring exploit, I was content to slip away while leaving behind the notorious worst, of what would turn out to be the very best that Panamá City could afford.
Enrichments of a Renegade
Plans were laid to spend final day in other parts of the libertine metropolis. Over-rated and disappointing, I found myself trailing towards the only sector worthy of presence; a third pilgrimage vindicated by nothing more than consolation. Then again, perhaps only I could seek nostalgia amid the accursed realms of a proximity like Casco Viejo.
An influx of vacillating virgins had occupied tourist guides and police. Without discernments, intermittent investigations were left to my own recognition. There was nothing in particular that had to be seen. Ambitions had already been satisfied. I was craving the comforts of whatever waited off the beaten paths, where only nationals made themselves at home.
Disappearing into the colonial clutter, the array of portentous lifestyles was sedated by warmth; though hardly apathetic at top of the siesta hour. While streets might have been temporarily forsaken, sublime balconies stirred with chatter. Humidity had sopped-up the lunchtime redolence wafting from kitchens; a hint of Salsa further seasoning the ambience with rhythm, and I gorged with gusto on the nourishment.
Prudence, and accountability for the novice decoy, had obviously led the first scouting sortie astray. An immature exile would've proven the only thing contemptuous. The healthy sense of respect, necessary for inaugural deliverance, was now bronzed with secure admiration. Palpable bravado disregarded any tourist taboos. With nothing left to surrender, the covert charisma became incarnated -- once daring to look into the eyes of a stranger.
Duration is the copious misfortune of destitution; character that could never be grasped or even photographed without a sense of belonging. Seizing the extraordinary was mine for the taking; exclusion ultimately averted by inclusion. If only redemption could've dawned before my final hours. Earnestly, it had.
After almost three weeks combing the country's magnificent natural realms and ersatz capital, there was no more searching or disbelieves. I'd finally arrived in Panamá. And the sky wept.