I know I already wrote about traveling as a learning experience in my last blog, but I just wanted to elaborate on the topic a bit more this month, as I just had a great, life-changing experience last weekend in Panama City, Panama!
Panama City is about 15 hours away from San Jose by bus, or 45 minutes by plane. My friend Kristina and I had decided at the beginning of our programs that we wanted to explore Panama City, even if it was just to see the Panama Canal. It was looking like we weren’t going to be able to do it, as her program ends this week and our excursion to Bocas del Toro, Panama was supposed to be last weekend, but the excursion date got changed, so it freed up a weekend for us. Also, we were very fortunate to find relatively cheap airline tickets, so we didn’t have to spend the whole weekend on the bus!
Before our trip, I did a bit of research, both online and with my host family (who visits PC often) to see what kind of things we would want to do in our couple of days in the city. There are a ton of things to see in PC, so I wasn’t sure how much we could cram into two days, but we were bound and determined to see all that we could! We also made reservations in a guesthouse there, which turned out to be a pretty good choice, we would later find out.
Besides the research on tourist attractions and a tiny bit of history that I had heard in Spanish classes, I really had no idea what Panama was going to be like, the history, etc. I knew that the U.S. had been in charge of the Panama Canal for a while, so there were a lot of “Americanized” areas, but that was about the extent of my knowledge.
The first thing we saw in the city was the Panama Canal. We arrived just in time to see the last boats of the morning go through the locks—truly an amazing site to see!!! We also got to go through a museum and watch a film about the canal, where I learned how involved the U.S. really was in the whole creation of the canal, and how until very recently, an entire strip of Panama was owned by the U.S. I’m not normally too much of a history buff, but this trip to the canal sparked a bit of curiosity in me that stayed alive the entire trip.
After the canal, we walked the Amador Causeway and the Cinta Costera. The causeway is a long road surrounded by water on both sides that goes out to some islands. We got to see a great view of the city and the Bridge of the Americas, the bridge that connects North America and South America. The Cinta Costera is the area of town with all the skyscrapers, with new ones going up all the time. Both places were beautiful.
As I said before, Kristina and I stayed in a guesthouse instead of a typical hostel. It was run by a young man around our age and his mother (the guy spoke English, the mother did not), and we just stayed in the lower level of their house. Anyway, it was really great that we stayed there, because the guy, Ciro, told us that there was going to be a festival that night in the Casco Viejo (the old part of town, that we were planning on visiting the next day). Ciro’s mom gave us a ride to the Casco Antiguo, which was really neat because she offered a really interesting perspective on everything—I really would have liked to talk to her more! To get to the Casco Viejo, we had to pass through a really run-down neighborhood, the red-light district of Panama City (we quickly learned that no one is to walk through this neighborhood—taxis are always necessary!). She told us that this neighborhood was the neighborhood that the U.S. invaded. I just smiled and nodded, assuming that it had something to do with the canal and I hadn’t paid good enough attention at the museum earlier. Later on, I found out what she was really talking about.
The next morning, Kristina and I climbed Cerro Ancon, a mountain in the middle of the city with a giant Panamanian flag on the top. I had read before we left that it used to be under U.S. control when we had the area near the canal, and when Panama got it back, the first thing they did was put a giant flag on top of the mountain. Well, we climbed the mountain for some spectacular views, and at the top, we met a few people who gave us some more information about the U.S. involvement with the canal. One man, a Panamanian taxi driver, told us he misses the time when the U.S. controlled the area, because the gap between the rich and the poor was not as great as it is now. Another man, an American, lived in Panama during his high school years because his father worked on the canal. He told us stories about how things used to be and even showed us where the military base used to be. He told us that the guesthouse we were staying in used to be on U.S. land. It was really interesting to hear his stories, especially because we really had known nothing about the U.S. involvement in Panama until this trip.
After climbing the mountain, we went to explore Casco Viejo, which is the old part of town, known for its old buildings and history. To get to Casco Viejo, we of course took a taxi, knowing that we had to pass through the red light district (El Chorrillo) once again. This time, passing through El Chorrillo, I started noticing all the graffiti. I noticed that besides the typical graffiti, there was a lot of graffiti with the date “December 20, 1989” all over the place. I made a mental note to look up the date later on in the hostel. I was really curious, because this neighborhood made me extremely sad. I’ve seen poverty before, but nothing like this—I didn’t get a picture, but this is a pretty good representation.
Anyway, Kristina and I explored Casco Viejo and the ruins of Panama City, and then later returned to the house, where we looked up the date from the graffiti. Turns out, the date was the date that Ciro’s mom was talking about—when the U.S. invaded. In 1989, Panama had a corrupt leader who was doing all kinds of bad stuff, and he was hiding out in El Chorrillo. The U.S. invaded the neighborhood to get Noriega (the president) out and put him in prison, but in the meantime, many civilians were killed, as the neighborhood was already underdeveloped and U.S. forces wouldn’t even let emergency crews in. After finding this out, I was incredibly sad, and even felt guilty, even though I was only three months old when it happened.
Like I said before, I’ve never really liked history too much. This, however, changed my mind a bit. I never realized how much of a history Panama has, and how it has affected the country. I think my trip to Panama City changed how I look at history, and definitely how I look at war, because I saw how it can take its toll on people. It’s been over 20 years since the invasion in El Chorrillo, and the neighborhood still has graffiti with the date of the invasion. They also have reenactments of the invasion each year so that they do not forget what happened that day. I honestly cannot imagine how the neighborhood must have looked just after the invasion—still after twenty years there were signs of the invasion there.
Panama City taught me so much! It taught me so much history that I was never taught—history that involves the United States, but history that I am not proud of. I got to see so many different types of sights, talk to a variety of people, and learn so much. I am positive that my trip to Panama City was my greatest learning experience outside the classroom.