A little back story: We first decided to extend our stay in Panama City when we were in Nicaragua – it’s not often we think so far ahead but there was a possibility of a ferry to take us to Colombia; it hadn’t started yet but the word was ‘at the end of summer’. OK, we thought, let’s check out volunteering with The Muskoka Foundation, maybe do an Earthcircuit exhibition, go watch some ships on the canal, and then, hopefully, there’s a ferry ready to start. Fast forward till now and we’ve more or less accomplished our Panama projects but still no cheap boat. Turns out that ‘the end of summer’ in a tropical country means, like, flippin’ never. So the thing is, we’ve kind of fallen in love with Panama City. Like all great loves, this was unexpected and it’s going to end with us forking out a fortune for us to escape to South America; getting charged a packet for the privilege of being thrown out of the promised land.
This is financially very frustrating because Panama City is full of money. You can see that as soon as you cross the canal that brings in millions of dollars a day, rain or shine, global recession or not; zip past the renovating Old Town (most of the time they’re actually using real bricks); crawl through a mess of new highway, fly-over and elevated-section construction; and first see the herd of skyscrapers that have congregated on the city beaches, like very expensive but mostly empty, steel and glass animals pressed up to a watering hole, the lower-rise urban environment stretching for miles around behind them. I don’t know why it is exactly – but it seems the whole world has come to buy a little bit of Panama City and it kind of reminds me of London. And while most maps show London near the center of the world, Panama City is at the crossroads of the world: the junction between the Atlantic and Pacific – it would be the mid-point between South America and North America but because they’ve neglected to build a road through the pristine jungle of the Darién, and have failed to provide a ferry to go around it, this north-south route becomes more a staging post of northbound narco-traffic rather than southbound overlanding regular traffic. Not only, then, the crossroads of the world but a good place to handle great quantities of questionable money. As the expensive but mostly empty skyscrapers suggest.
Other reasons for all the cash that’s come to Panama includes the fact that they use US dollars here, saying like this is an international city, an inter-zone where a million ravenous wallets from around the world can come talk the same language. Also, let’s not forget, the ready supply of poor people to make, construct and launder whatever dream project you may have: It’s through their efforts that there is anything here at all. The question is whether they are helping to build themselves out of a home or if they are part of Panama City’s future.
We’re told that the typical wage is about $300 a month. Rent is like $150 a month, food another $150. Of course, individual circumstances will dictate the reality but those sorts of numbers at least suggest survival is possible, even easy in this town. And with that comfort zone, a person might have the energy to think out how to get a better deal on life. It’s this whiff of possibility, a creative energy that powers something fundamental in this city – that great urban spirit of… how to describe it… that city life.
To wrap it all up, then, let’s go back to the dollars and that damn boat. This is our dream, our one last project in this place of possibilities, our last chance at playing the game of life in Panama City: We lose $2500 because there’s no ferry, only the freight ships can take us on around the world. We made $110 already from selling a couple of photographs to our fellow city-dwellers and we got $4 for the aluminium cans I collected. So either we sell 47 more photographs or find another 93 600 cans to recycle. And we have just ten days left before we have to hand over our truck at the port and leave for Colombia. Can we balance the books at least a little bit? Can we do it?