Tuesday, July 28, 2009

country mouse, city mouse

I've gained a bit of an understanding on the country mouse, city mouse story.

In the countryside, in Boquete where we've been for the last three weeks:
  • There is one main street. There are shops for most of what you need, and the center of town is several blocks long.
  • If you want to travel anywhere or see a film or stop light, you have to go to David, which is 32 km away and 900 meters lower.
  • There are kids who walk up to 3 hours down from the mountains to get to school.
  • There are lots of Gnobe Bugle Indians in their traditional bright colored dresses walking around.
  • In the schools, which are made of cement and incredibly hard to hear out of when it rains, the desks are gifts from the Ministry of Education. (That's printed on each desk.)
  • The teachers have to pay for their own photocopies at the local internet cafes. There aren't copy machines in the schools. A normal starting teacher salary is $625/month.
  • Most of what Panama eats is grown. A number of people I met at the night school, trying to get their GEDs, work on farms during the day. Coffee is almost exclusively harvested by Gnoble, who are the poorest indigenous people in the Americas. I have heard several "reasons" as to why, flavored by various people's points of views.
  • You can get a huge meal for $2 at the local cafeteria, though even that is kind of pricey at it's at least half expats.
  • When you have to visit the big city, you say "I'm going to Panama." Even though the countryside is in Panama, too. The politicians are not very likely to speak to your issues.
  • If someone speaks English, they are either a) retired Americans b) visiting on vacation or c) working in tourism.

A mere 7-8 hours' bus ride away in "Panama," however:

  • It's hugely international. Most banks have a presence here. People live here from all over the world. Half of Panama's 3 million residents live here.
  • Prices are about doubled.
  • There are tons of sky scrapers built right up to the water's edge, and there are more being build.
  • There's still fresh fruit, but you don't know the grower.
  • There are the projects, built by the Americans to house the workers for the Canal. There is supposed to be a lot of drug selling in certain areas.
  • You can feel the former colonial presence. Our hotel is in the old American area, where those who oversaw the canal lived. It is tree-lined and lovely.
  • There's still fresh fruit, mostly shipped in from Boquete area, but you don't know the growers any more.
  • Tourist traps. Monuments. A mall to rival the Mall of America. The canal that funds all the projects in the country.
  • 20 degrees hotter, way more humidity, and less chance of rain. When it rains, the water doesn't know where to go.

The presence of history, particularly colonial history, is strong here. Here are two fun facts learned from today's here-is-where-you-can-buy-more-stuff "tour" of the city:

Balboa, that famous explorer, gave the Pacific ocean it's name right here in Panama City. He was the first European to cross on land to see the Pacific ocean (1500s) and it's so calm (pacifico) that he named it "Pacific." Amazing to think that if you set sail straight west from here, you might not hit anything for 3000 miles. Lots of stuff named after Balboa here: beer, a district of town, a short-lived attempt at their own money system before turning to $. There's a statue of him citing the ocean, except just a few years ago they finished this huge landfill project that now has him citing water from some half a mile inland.

From Panama City the Spaniards planned most of their invasions of the Incas. Here they brought the gold, silver, emeralds, etc., back to the Atlantic (via donkeys) to ship it back to Spain. The rich Panamanians rented out the donkeys. There were so many pearls left over from eating oysters that the indigenous people who lived in this area used to cover their canoes with them. But wealth has its price, and Captain Henry Morgan, that famous English pirate, demolished Panama City and stole all its riches. They rebuilt. The ruins of the old are still visible and tour-able. For his great deed, Captain Morgan was rewarded with the governorship of Jamaica. Poor Jamaicans!

This may be all I'm able to write for the next week, as we'll be out and about. Thankfully all our time won't be spent in the city before we head back to the States.

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