The People of Casco Viejo (Old Town)
Old Town consists of a fascinating mixture of plazas, parks, sidewalk cafes, renovated colonial and French neoclassical buildings that are now trendy restaurants, elegant bars, and upscale boutique hotels. There are churches, museums and palaces, along side stone ruins and dilapidated buildings.
The neighborhood is filled with a entrepreneurs, urbanites, artists, intellectuals, and/or the “new creatives”. Laundry hanging from rooftop clothes lines is displayed from the properties inhabited by working class families and poor marginalized squatters.
Diplomats, ambassadors, bureaucrats, and high governmental officials occupy a portion of the area because the Presidential Palace is situated in the Old Town district. You may see several dark windowed sedans with waving Panama flags escorted by motorcycle policemen driving down the street in front of a local deli, with officials or even the President.
In July, 2011, there was a peaceful rally or protest against the creation of a highway over the Gulf of Panama around Casco Viejo which would provide better access yet destroy some of the beauty of the ocean bay views to the Panama City skyline.
Kuna Indian vendors sell colorful embroidered molas and other handicrafts along a flower covered lane called lover’s walkway.
Local cafes are populated with investors, store owners, real estate agents, professionals, workers, mothers & fathers, business people, tourists, and expats. This juxtaposition of people create this dynamic neighborhood.
Casco Viejo’s atmosphere is packed with palapable vitality. I feel that I can slice the energy in the air with a knife. I see children in their navy and white school uniforms, kids playing soccer in the street, grandmothers care-taking toddlers, teenagers listening to salsa music, women gossiping while rolling each other’s hair and men sitting watching the procession of life.
Old town is not boring. It is not suburbia. Because there are nearby neighborhoods with extreme poverty, there is some minor theft and pick-pocketing; however a strong police presence has kept this problem to a minimum. I felt safe walking around during the day. In the nighttime, you’ll want to stay in the well-lit and populated plazas with restaurants, bars, hotel & apartment areas. If it is in the wee hours of the morning, you’ll want to take a taxi from the nightclubs with great live music back to your hotel. (Just like you would in NYC).
When I hear squeals of delight, the laughter of children, I am filled with joy. When I listen to lively music playing or see people dancing in the streets, I feel cheerful. When I see romance, love, or lust, I am hopeful. When I smell fresh fish at the fish market, or empanadas or sancocho a chicken, onion, with cilantro soup, or taste fried plantain chips sold by street-vendors, I feel nourished.
Even as I sense heartache & sorrow, as with all human beings, through it all or underneath all of it, there is a relaxed ease about the individual. Because most people express their feelings, feel listened to, appreciated each other as a member of a family —they know they are cared about. This intimate family and social net of the Latino American provides a profound sense of being loved. Each person is free to be whoever they are. They appear to be genuinely comfortable in their own skin.
The people in Panama who I met, whether they live in a city or in a rural town, appear to have this aura of satisfaction in living a simple life. City dwellers may experience busier and noisier lives than a resident of a smaller town, yet both citizens have a sense of well-being.
While many households are comprised of the nuclear family, there are still many households with several generations living together. That means when the kids come home from school, someone is home like a grandmother, aunt or cousin to take care of them or just to be there. Everyone has a role in the family, there is respect for the elders and most everyone feels connected and cared for.
Panamanians have a good sense of humor, an intangible core, an inner strength, and an undeniable spirit. As I embrace the Latino Americans, I feel this natural flow of affection.
In other words, there’s LIFE. Not just in Casco Viejo or Panama City, but the people in Pedasi, Las Tablas, San Blas and Boquete are also genuinely kind and warm and fun to be with. Panamanian’s live authentically where the human heart, mind and spirit is engaged in the present moment. As a part of the local people’s richness and lightness rubs off on me, I celebrate their passion for Life.