Sunday Afternoon in Casco Viejo

February 10, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

I'm not exactly sure why the Panama City neighborhood I am presently visiting is called Casco Viejo. According to my English-Spanish dictionary, casco means "helmet," or "skull." But the proper translation of Casco Viejo is the "old town." It's not the original site of Panama City. The original was burned in 1671 by marauding pirates. Two years later, Spain rebuilt on the current site, surrounding the new buildings with a thick stone wall. I guess this is the best possible explanation for the name. The Spaniards figured the wall protected their gold the way helmets and skulls protected their brains.

I first saw Casco Viejo a couple of decades ago, when I visited as a journalist. It had fallen on hard times. Buildings were coming apart and I was warned not to go there after dark. The money in Panama City--and there's a lot of it--had migrated a few miles across a bay and up the coast, where dozens upon dozens of gleaming skyscrapers pierce the skyline. Panama does quite well with discreet banking, even more discreet legal services, and of course, the Canal. Casco Viejo seemed to have been left behind, permanently.

But in 1997, UNESCO declared the old quarter a World Heritage Site. Investment started to flow in. Now, I am told by Google Translate, Spanish has adopted the English word "gentrification." It certainly was needed to describe Casco Viejo. There are narrow streets in the old town where you can buy artisanal cocktails, artisanal clothing, and artisanal cuisine. A horde of tourism police make it safe for foreigners. It seems that every block has a building or two that has been stripped and gutted and will be rebuilt for luxury condos, offices, or shops.

I arrived on a Sunday afternoon and took a walk around. The sun was setting in a clear sky. Freighters waited in a loose line out in the sea for the next time the canal's locks would be open to Pacific-Atlantic traffic. The people of Casco Viejo, it seemed, were spending the last hours of their weekend in the warm air.

To find them, one had simply to get off the main streets and poke around down the side streets, toward the sea. Down one little street, at the water's edge, I found a tiny futbol field, covered in artificial turf that had seen a lot of use. It was literally coming apart at the seams. A small crowd of kids were playing some  version of futbol, though it was hard to tell what the sides and the rules were. Maybe this was because they didn't wear anything to help with identification. Most were in shorts and bare feet. Some were in their underwear. Their lithe bodies gleamed with sweat in the waning sun. 

It was easier to figure out the rules of play down another side street, where someone had placed a ping-pong table. If you won a point, you stayed at the table. If you lost one, you gave up the paddle to someone else. Adults walked by, squeezing around the table. The kids seemed not to notice them. 

A little further down, the street met the sea. Underneath the city wall to the left was a small, gritty beach. A few people swam, a few paddled on boards. A lot sat quietly in beach chairs, or on the sand, sipping on things.

A few feet above the beach level there was a kind of sandy terrace with a low, concrete perimeter wall. A neighborhood party was going on.  Music came from a speaker in one corner. There was dancing, sometimes with couples doing something known best to themselves, sometimes with groups that formed and disintegrated, seemingly at random. Most people seemed content to perch on the perimeter wall, watching the other people, drinking cocktails from styrofoam cups or beer from cans, chatting, maybe avoiding the thought of the work that awaited them the next morning. They were very friendly to a stranger in their midst. If I asked to take someone's picture, that person invariably said a pleasant yes and waited patiently while I fiddled with the camera. 

Some of the women carried little signs, in the form of comic book-style word balloons mounted on little sticks. At the top of this post, the woman in sunglasses is carrying one. It says, in my rough translation, "Single, but not in a hurry." She was sitting next to an eminently presentable man, but if they were connected, or if he was put off by the sign, I couldn't say.  Another woman carried a sign that said, in Spanish, "Busco Pareja Solo Por Este Noche." My rough translation of that one was, "I seek a couple, for this night only." 

I wasn't sure what she meant by that. It could have been she was angling for a threesome, if you took it literally. Or, it could have been an idiomatic way of saying she was looking for a more traditional one-night-stand. Or, more likely, it was a joke, a conversation starter. No one seemed to care. 

I noted, of course, that the people in this part of Casco Viejo had skin colors in various shades of brown. I am not an expert on Panamanian demographics, but I know that the country's elite has traditionally had skin of a paler hue. And I saw people like that, people like the family pictured below, walking on an esplanade atop the ancient walls, with the towers of modern Panama City behind them. 

It would be easy, but perhaps irresponsible, for me to suggest that the people at the neighborhood fiesta represented the past of Casco Viejo, and the people walking on the esplanade represented its future. I don't know. Maybe gentrification will work differently in Panama. 

Whatever happens, I hope that the old barrio doesn't lose its appetite for communal joy.


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