Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Paseando por el Casco Viejo de Panamá

My adventure for the morning was an idea to return to the "old city" I'd been to on my 1999 trip. So, I had the doorman got me a cab to my destination, which I thought was "the old city". We headed off in an odd direction, luckily the driver spoke very good English (used to work for Dell Computers and visited Austin often). Turns out that Viejo Panama ("old Panama") are ruins from the 16th century city and not to be confused with "Casco Viejo" (aka "Casco Antiguo") which is the "old city" from the 17th century.

Finally got there and the ride was $15. A Panamanian colleague told me you never pay more than $5 for any cab ride, but I paid since by that time I was happy to be anywhere except inside the white minivan I was in. Started to wander around and got a little concerned as nothing was open and not a lot of people around. I persevered  however, and enjoyed the architecture. Near the cathedral, was an alley with a lot of vendors and I picked up some things there. Walked down to the seawall and there were more people and street vendors. Bought some bracelets and was debating buying a Panama hat when a guy greeted me and started talking.

View of new Panama City
His name, he said, was Conrad G. and he was 76 years old; his grandfather built the Canal, and he was sent to American schools in the Canal Zone. During the American invasion in the 1990's, his wife was killed and he lived in a refugee camp eating MREs for two years. But he loves Americans. So I ask him, "how much should I pay for a hat?" and he says, "Ah, come with me."

We go around to a hat seller, very nice hats; they show me the different types, the different weaves, different quality. I pick one out, $80! Ask for something cheaper, find another and it's talked down to $40. Plus, I get a balsa wood box to keep it humidified and pliable.

Telephone Booth
Conrad and I continue down the street and I know realize I either need to get rid of him, or go with the flow and let him take me around. So we start to walk and I get a fabulous tour of the Casco Viejo. We go to all the buildings: Presidential Palace, Noriega's officers club, the three main churches, National Theatre. It's getting near lunch and I only had two coffees and orange juice for breakfast, so I ask for a lunch suggestion.

We go to a couple of places, but their closed. Find another and go in. Very nice. Conrad doesn't want anything, well, maybe a beer. I get a beer and a very good seafood paella. We head out and do some more sights: the Public Market (fascinating place, fruits and such, in the meat hall, they had large steel tables where they were butchering the animals, pigs heads, trotters, etc. all being cut up, blood all over the floor, flies all over the meat) then over the the Fish Market (same as the other, but all fish, huge shrimp, octopus, squid, various fish, etc.). Also, a whole row of "cevicheria" where they had tubs of various types of ceviche. Wasn't feeling too comfortable with the hygiene, so, though it looked great, I passed on it (perhaps ironically since later that night at the meeting reception they served ceviche which probably came directly from the same source).

Strolled outside of the Casco Viejo to the pedestrian mall, "The real Panama" said Conrad, full of cheap shops, dollar stores, Chinese restaurants ("I never eat Chinese food," said Conrad, "too many cats in it"). I'd been down that street before in 1998 (with Angel) and Conrad pointed out the shell of the Titanic Store (a department store) now out of business that I recalled from the previous visit).

Headed back to the Casco Viejo. I wanted to pick up the Seco and Aguardiente I didn't get earlier and also wanted to stop in the Havana Club bar and restaurant that we'd passed earlier. Got the liquor at a "Chinese store" and then stopped in the Havana Club. I had a Cuban rum mojito and Conrad had another beer. We talked about America, Panama, the world, Hell; Conrad told me how Colombians are ruining Panama and about growing up in Gamboa. We also discussed whether, perhaps, I might have a little something for him. Now, as he'd been telling me all day that American's are terrible bargainers, when he said, "Perhaps, $30 would be good." I asked him if I should negotiate him down. He said no, "I know that I'm going to go to Hell, but I'm not going to cheat you and this is good". Since it was the best $30 walking tour I've ever had, even if I could have talked him down to $10, it was worth it.

Street vendor
We head out and he was going to get me a cab back to the hotel, from a friend of his, not the "lazy idiot" we'd passed in the Independence Plaza by the Cathedral. We find his friend and I get the special $12 rate. Then my driver, Conrad and the "lazy idiot" get in a shouting match. Conrad heads off and I go with my driver while the "lazy idiot" and my driver are yelling at each other. I get in the tiny cab; the "lazy idiot" wanders off. I try to put on the seat belt, but the driver stops me, "broken". The two cab drivers then stop yelling and start laughing ... and away we go. We travel at breakneck speeds and get to the hotel in about 10 minutes.

Slideshow of selected images from the day:

View Panama in a larger map

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