With all travel it is the unexpected that delights, the deviations from plan that make a trip special. After transiting the Panama Canal (I will get to that post later when I have time to sort through 300 exposures) we had planned to go into the Panama City’s old town, walk around and perhaps have dinner and listen to some music. It didn’t happen.
Monday, the 9th, is Martyrs’ Day in Panama, making a three-day weekend. The evening of the 8th was a party Sunday night, no school or work the next day.
Martyr’s day commemorates the Panamanians killed in Anti-American riots in January 1964. In 1963 President Kennedy ordered that Panamanian flags fly next to American flags at non-military buildings in the Canal Zone. Zonians (residents of the Canal Zone) did not particularly like this. After Kennedy was murdered the governor of the Zone decided that rather than inflame the Zonians, he ordered no flags be flown at those buildings. This was a big mistake.
On January 9, when schools restarted after the Christmas — Three Kings Day break students at Balboa High hoisted the Stars and Stripes in front of the school. Panamanian students at a nearby high school in Panama decided to protest and raise their own flag at Balboa High. They informed the police in both Panama and the Zone and marched across the street into the Zone and were confronted by Zonian students. A tussle ensued and the Panamanian flag was ripped. It was an historic flag and word spread of Americans desecrating this old flag. Things escalated. A Panamanian student was shot, allegedly while helping carry an injured person from the scene. A Panamanian baby died, allegedly from inhaling too much tear gas, the Panamanian National Guard and the US Army were deployed and in the end 28 Panamanians were dead (6 were employees killed when a Panamanian owned building that housed Pan Am Airways offices was torched.) Five American soldiers died. So, this was kind of an Anti-American holiday.
The new, and unfinished cruise terminal is at the end of a causeway that connects several islands. The causway was built with material excavated from the canal and serves as a breakwater protecting the Pacific entrance. Because the area is a construction zone, we had to take a bus to Isla Pelico, near the end of the causeway and known as a restaurant center. From there we could take cabs to wherever. The shuttle should have taken 5 minutes. It took close to half an hour because of the traffic on the causeway. I could see it being jammed going to Pelico, but I didn’t understand the traffic jam going back into town. It turns out it was caused by a police roadblock giving every driver a sobriety check before entering Panama City.
We had planned to take a cab into the Old City but when we saw the traffic, we decided we didn’t want to spend the evening in a traffic jam. So, we stayed on Pelico.
Getting off the bus we smelled grilling meat. Even though there were many restaurants, all of them full, there were many more stands selling skewers of meat, spicy sausages, and plain old hot dogs. Music came from boom boxes and more elaborate speaker systems powered by generators, meaning that the music was cranked up to cover the generator noise. The music was mostly Salsa, Ruben Blades, the great Salsa, and Latin Jazzman. (And also, by the way, a former Panamanian Minister of Tourism) mixed with some hip hop, reggae, and Michael Jackson.
The crowd was young, I think the only ones old enough to remember the 1964 riots that the holiday commemorates were the gringos off the two cruise ships (both Dam ships.) Many of the young people wore Yankee baseball caps or t shirts without irony.
The vibe was a mix between the Balkan Korso, or evening promenade, and Jersey Shore boardwalk. Families strolled along eating grilled meat, cotton candy and candy apples, groups of girls flirted with groups of boys and couples strolled arm in arm, enjoying the sea breeze of the causeway away from the heat of Panama City. Some folks walked their dogs, dogs dressed for the holiday. The people were in t-shirts and shorts.
Parents rented different vehicle for their kids to try from bikes to scooters to skateboards to rollerblades. Some of them rented “ATV’s” which were peddle powered carts that held 4 people and, perhaps an extra baby. The strollers were friendly to us with lots of smiles, and greetings. Parents telling toddlers “Say ola to the Gringo!” One mom was trying to take a picture of a little girl riding a little foot powered car, but she refused to get on, just wanting to just push it hard. She pushed it at Suzi, who pushed it back as the mom smiled, then the girl pushed it at mom. The kid never did get on the cart. Mom didn’t get her picture, but I did.