So, here we are in Panama, a country known for hats, flags-of-convenience, money-laundering, Colonel Noriega, the Darien Gap and…oh yes, that rather amazing canal. At some 77 kilometres long, the canal cuts through the isthmus of Panama, connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific and is a major conduit for international maritime trade. France began work on the canal in 1881, though ran out of money long before completing it. The United States took over in 1904 and, to great celebration, the first passage occurred in 1914. This narrow strip of land has been a trading route going back to the days of the Spanish conquistadors. Vasco Nunez de Bilbao was the first of them to thrash his way through the jungle, discovering the Pacific Ocean on the other side. During the California gold rush prospectors from Europe crossed the isthmus, joining ships bound for San Francisco, this being a speedier route to the gold fields than slogging across the width of America. Even the former Kingdom of Scotland tried its hand in developing a trade route between the two oceans. Known as the Darien Scheme (or Darien Disaster), Scotland attempted becoming a world trading nation by establishing a colony called Caledonia in the late 1690s. The aim was to establish a major trading route across the isthmus of Panama, though it was soon to be a tale of woe, beset by embezzlement, incompetence, disease and Spanish domination. Those who were left alive made a hasty retreat back across the Atlantic
Casco Viejo (Old Panama)
When the producers of the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace needed a place that could double for Haiti they chose Panama City and Colon (on Panama’s Caribbean coast), which is a measure of what you’ll find here – plenty of rough edges but less of the flying bullets. Panama City was founded in 1519, though ransacked and destroyed by the pirate Henry Morgan in 1671. The city was rebuilt 8 kilometres to the south-west, in an area known as Casco Viejo. As the modern, high-rise, Panama City developed, so the money followed with it, leaving Casco Viejo to deteriorate into an urban slum. In recent years the money has started to flow back and a stroll round Old Panama reveals a curious mix of decrepit colonial building existing alongside those that have been renovated into smart apartments, shops and hotels.
“COMPUTER SAYS NO…”
In the British TV comedy Little Britain there’s a great sketch about the perils of dealing with modern administrative procedure. Before a gormless official various characters find their mundane endeavours utterly frustrated. After a few taps on a keyboard, the glazed-eyed official looks up and utters the words, “Nah…computer says no.” And so it was wandering around the port of Manzanillo, Panama, attempting to retrieve our car from its container. In many cases we were lucky to even eyeball one of the many ‘officials’ with whom we came into contact, for most of them existed behind tinted, bullet-proof screens and communicated by barking through an intercom. The shipping route between Colombia and Panama is reputed to be one of the worst the overlander can experience. I’ve done a few borders in Africa but none of them quite matched our senseless meander round Manzanillo, or the damage caused by the customs rummage squad. It took us a day and a half to finally retrieve the car. That night I was plagued by a dream where I wandered round a slum, visiting one sunshade after another, and under each one a faceless official took money from me and sent me on my way. By the morning I was completely skint…and thoroughly exhausted.
Colon’s International Afro-Festival