The airport in Panama is a glorious contrast to the one in Caracas. Short immigration lines, TV screens proudly beaming images of Panama, shops aplenty giving away free samples of booze, a smile on the faces and a spring in the step of the local workers, fresh, clean, optimistic, open and welcoming to foreigners – much a reflection of the country as a whole. Panama, you see, is growing at an incredible rate, and this is in no small part due to moneyed Venezuelans fleeing Maduro’s crazy all-controlling anti-entrepreneur government…business opportunities are few and far between, and so they flock to Panama, bringing their wealth and creating opportunities, and Panama welcomes them with open arms.
M, our friend whom we’d met in Singapore, was waiting for us at the airport – armed with a punishing itinerary, a big smile, and some strange headbands with fuzzy balls swinging from them which were promptly deposited on our heads. I thought I’d been unwittingly swept into a hen party. Walked out into the blazing late afternoon heat and to M’s new darling – a Rav 4, and off we went, excited about the week that lay ahead.
The drive to the city took around 20 minutes. Taking in those tall, gleaming beacons of modernity was like driving into Singapore or Hong Kong. Some impressive architecture was on display, and the waterfront setting made it all the more spectacular. Panama City is starting to show off. I opened the window. You could feel the buzz in the air, and if you were underground you could probably feel it too – a new subway is being built. Inevitably, infrastructure was not developing at the same rate as the city and M taught us a new buzzword – ‘tranca’ meaning traffic (jam). Much of the city centre is one-way traffic, so it took a little while to get around to the hotel – the Rui Plaza, 5 star modern opulence in the heart of the city. US$105 a night was cheap compared to similar hotels in leading cities around the world. We changed quickly and had a margarita and some sashimi in the lounge bar downstairs, then we were back in the SUV and off to M’s house to start the evening.
M lives in a lovely suburb around 10 minutes drive from the city in a lovely 3 storey house resplendent with colourful paintings – there’s even an open deck at the top with sunloungers and a Jacuzzi. Lots of exposed wood and brick gave it an essentially Latin feel. Enjoyed a bottle of red wine, cheese and empanadas and chatted with M’s friendly family – her mum and dad, her brother, and her younger sister – who was having a very busy graduation week and attending lots of parties (hers was the following evening). All spoke English perfectly, but M’s dad refused to, encouraging me to practice my Spanish. As everyone spoke in Spanish around me, I realized Panamanian Spanish is much quicker than Venezuelan, and I was finding it more difficult to follow. M’s brother A, after letting me try out my limited Spanish for a while, then began speaking to me in perfect English – having lived and worked as a lawyer in London for 6 years. He told of his flying lessons in the UK, and how old fashioned but incredibly professional the instructors are, and how a flying license in Panama doesn’t cut the mustard in the UK. He told me of tests he had to pass where the instructors cut the plane engine and make you recover, or when they suddenly yell ‘emergency landing’ and you have to attempt to make an emergency landing wherever you are, or how they make you fly to an exact point on a map, using just a compass and a map – no fancy navigational tools. It sounded pretty intense, but exciting.
After a good few drinks, we all headed to Casco Viejo, the historic district, for a lovely street side dinner in a leafy square as singers with battered old guitars serenaded diners for a few dollars. The four-pepper steak I had was fiery and highly recommended. Casco Viejo is a fantastic maze of narrow streets and old buildings that have recently been restored. ‘Recently’ is another buzzword in Panama. A lot of good things in Panama have happened recently. The Old City just a few years ago was a no-go area, taken over by Panama’s poor, a dirty, dilapidated, dangerous area. Now, it’s been cleaned up with heavy government investment, police stand on every corner, lighting has improved, and bars and restaurants have moved into the old buildings and opened rooftops, creating a well-preserved cultural city not unlike Cartagena. Now, the well-heeled flock in droves to dine in safety. The Panamanians we dined with were rightly proud of the transformations taking place in their city. M’s dad paid for everyone’s dinner, a kind gesture that I would love to have returned during the trip but didn’t get the opportunity.
A splinter group of us set off in search of further entertainment, and found a nice rooftop bar which afforded lovely views over to the shiny city. It was a bit quiet, so we headed to another rooftop bar which was more happening, and had some local Abuelo rum – and I was pleased to see that measures were generous here too – a ‘heavy hand’ is much appreciated. A fabulous evening passed relaxing with this group of ambitious young Panamanians in cultural hub of this thriving city.