Tuesday, September 13, 2011

What’s to like about Colon, Panama

Colon is the small Panamanian city at the Caribbean  (northern) side of the Panama Canal,  and it has one of the worst reputations of  any city in my modest sphere of awareness. 

PHOTO IGLESIA METODISTA OVERGROWN AND UNREPAIRED

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In the early 1990s, when we were arranging transit of the Panama Canal aboard Arion , it was indicated that we should take a taxi between stops, especially when ferrying funds from the bank. I got the feeling that I’d be mugged if my feet even touched the ground! When I ventured into the market for veggies, stashing my money in my  bra as I did so,  a local woman told me ‘you put your money in there honey, and they just stick their hand in and take it back out.’ Doug took to carrying his knob-headed walking stick when we went to town, and an older gent passing on the street told him ‘yes, you carry that stick and good, you hit them on the head if they bother you.’  We had a friend whose purse was snatched from beneath the partition while she was on the toilet!

We were even scammed in Colon (this story has never been told, due to extreme embarrassment), by a man who told us  he could get us beer ‘off the truck’  at half price, but that we had to pay the driver in advance. Dreaming of drinking those three (cheap) cases of warm Budweiser in mid-Pacific, we were eager to pay, but for some reason, our guy never showed.

At the time, crime was blamed on the very recent Operation Just Cause, the US military operation that overthrew Manuel Noriega, the military dictator who ran the country from 1983 to 1989. Popular wisdom indicated that there were a lot of loose guns on the street which had trickled down into, or maybe just consolidated the strength of, a criminal element.

But I gather from recent readings (The Canal Builders, by Julie Greene) that Colon has always been a sort of lawless place. Certainly an early 20th century ‘frontier town’ full of  men imported from all over the globe as  labor for Canal construction, used hard and put away wet, wouldn’t produce much else. The proverbial drunken sailor temporarily off his anchored ship  isn’t a noted law-abider either, nor are those who ‘service’ him.

PHOTO PASTEL FADED PAINT AND TIN ROOF

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It’s still hard to find anyone to say anything nice about Colon, except, now, me. From my vantage point  anchored near town, off the Club Nautico. I am rather enjoying myself here. While we haven’t been out at night, and actually haven’t walked around much either, and occasionally have seen some pretty rough characters on the street, mainly what Colon looks like is a bustling Central American city, a watered-down Havana, or La Ceiba, Honduras. It has the advantage of good bones, since so much of it looks built to US standards back in the ‘sturdy’ era.

PHOTO COLON STREET TAXIS 3STORY BUILDINGS POWER LINES

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One of our taxi drivers showed us around; this park was a highlight, but, despite living across the street as a kid,  he couldn’t remember which politicians these were (all white, though!) Several buildings in the vicinity had been restored as apartments by the government and were being offered for rent. Pay for 20 years, and it’s yours forever.

PHOTO POLITICIAN BUSTS IN PARK

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Colon/Cristobal may not always be a ‘garden spot’ but its central median ‘parque’ continues down the length of the main road, until it runs into an ordinary, undistinguished, more traffic, shopping center zone.

We always asked (or tried to) our taxi drivers about the security situation. Several drivers told us there had been no problems whatsoever in Noriega’s times; they seemed to yearn for the peace of the dictator. One man blamed TV for changing the expectations of Panama’s youth, for the worse; I can see how he might think that. Personally, I had the idea that the drivers weren’t too worried about their own safety, beyond some precautions about who they pick up at night; professionally, of course, they think people like us should always take taxis, and for the dollar or two most rides cost for door to door service, air conditioning, a chat and some local knowledge, I tend to agree.

It’s a town which, no matter what low-life element it possesses, is also full of normal people (you and I, I was going to say) just trying to raise their kids, keep a roof over their head, a cell phone in their ear, and some fashionable shoes or shirts on their bodies. People bustle about, chat, shop, sweep the streets, do their work.  The people who sell lottery tickets, umbrellas, watch batteries, and bits of candy on the street greet each other like old friends at a club meeting. Women and girls walk alone on the street, with purses. People are happy to help us if we ask, but otherwise leave us alone. It just doesn’t feel like a scary place, at least where we’ve been, downtown. Just, as usual, everybody doing the best they can.

One thing that makes me feel better is evidence of a public relations campaign manifested by dozens of street signs

PHOTO PARQUE CENTRAL TOURIST SIGN AT MARKET

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like this one: On the Tourist Depends Your Future and That of Colon. Take Care of Them(/it?)

Others say: More Tourism, More Richness; The Tourist Appreciates What You Offer; Offer Your Best Smile to the Tourists. 

PHOTO TOURIST SIGN AND STREET LIFE

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The Colon 2000 sign refers to a shopping center that was built as a cruise ship destination, not far from the Club Nautico. It has a casino, but is otherwise just a small  local-style shopping center; hard to see that being a big draw. But the Canal, the jungle out by Fort Sherman, Fort Lorenzo at the mouth of the Rio Chagres, all are on the cruise ship bus tours.  And the tourists in their ‘yachtie’ form hit the big supermarkets and hardware stores like deprived junkies after their months in the San Blas, as they may have been. We ourselves were thrilled to see peanut butter, and kosher salt, and now Doug owns 3000 FLAT toothpicks.

There is also a huge (2500+ merchants and acres of warehouses) duty free zone in Colon. But before you reach for your wallet, know that it’s not really for the likes of us, and nothing like the duty free tourist centers of the eastern Caribbean. It’s meant mainly for the wholesale merchants of South and Central America to procure the goods from all the containers that pass through Panama. Want to buy thousands of caps? Here’s the motherlode, Casa de Gorras.

PHOTO SHOP WINDOW CASA DE GORRAS

A wholesale seller of caps in the duty-free zone, Casa de Gorras, might supply all of Central and South America.

No, the real reason I’m presently smitten by Colon has mainly to do with the downtown market. It’s a hive of activity, full of life and happening,  vegetables and meat. The few blocks around it which I’ve also wandered are a real hodge-podge of goods,  much of it Chinese, as are many of the merchants.  You’d have to be really motivated, and optimistic, to want to dig through some of the stuff for sale on the streets. But I love the market and the friendly people therein.

Here are some photos. I know that some of them, being fuzzy, are only worth maybe 250 words, but think of the scribing they still save me!

TEN PHOTOS MARKET SCENES

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And there are more photos here.

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http://galivant.smugmug.com/Panama/Colon/18840275_d8rvb6/ I hope the captions made it; if not, I’ll be working on it, manana.