So I stop in to view the Coiba photo exhibit at Multi Plaza, Punta Pacifica’s new mall. Coiba was an isolated penal colony. Now its one of the biggest marine parks in the world. It’s got the largest coral reef in the Western Pacific. Perfect for diving, snorkeling, fishing. The photos of Coiba striking. It’s Panama old school. Pristine. There’s been some talk about overturning the law that protects Coiba. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. Panama can’t afford to allow the tourism, lumber, or fishing industries to turn this amazing island into another foul hole.
Thirty minutes later I’m wedged in the back of an old cab careening down Balboa Avenue . Black clouds hang over the bay. It’s low tide, and the fecal breeze shatters my dream of Coiba’s unspoiled beauty. I hear the sound of rain on metal roofs. Softly at first, then the hammer falls. It sounds like Prussian soldiers marching on Panama. Bolts of lightning tear at the earth. A gray snake appears in the street. On its back the city’s filth. Wrappers, bottles, leaves, even coconuts, are swept past.
My taxi fights the current. Flotsam bounces off the bumper and rattles down the side panel. The hand painted Jesus on the dashboard looks on, serene. He’s got the faith. I’ve got issues. Water pours into the back from holes in the floor. I begin to wonder if I’ll need to swim for it. Then, as suddenly as it began, it stops. The sun returns. The serpent heads for the bay. The city streets glisten.
As cities go, Panama’s clean. For generations rain has scoured the streets. An almost constant sea breeze freshens the air. That’s not to say the city’s not dirty. Even with mother nature’s help there’s work to be done. I remember traveling Costa Rica. In almost every town there was someone, almost always a woman, sweeping dirt floors, and filthy streets. In Panama City it’s the same, only on a grander scale. Gangs of young women in yellow jumpsuits sweep every night.
Even at home my girlfriend is always sweeping, washing, polishing. At times I think she’s obsessed. I’ve never had clothes so clean. We have a machine. She washes them by hand. My shirts look like they’ve been beaten against rocks. She mops floors every couple of days. And god forbid there’s a dirty dish left in the sink. Last night she used a screwdriver to take apart the toaster. Why? She wanted to clean inside.
I suspect she may be part German. Though she’s expressed no desire to invade Columbia. And she thinks the final solution is to get married and hit the lottery. So, what’s with the Teutonic treatment? Why are Panamanians always cleaning? Is it biblical? Panama’s over 85% catholic, and cleanliness is next to godliness. Ah, but then Catholics routinely go against their teachings. Adultery and premarital sex are more common than coconuts in Panama (gracias a dios).
A more pragmatic explanation. Somewhere in the public psyche there seems to be a connection between uncleanliness and unhealthiness. Panamanians clean for the same reason doctors scrub for surgery. Bugs (seen and unseen) can kill you. If you don’t wash the dishes in the tropics you attract roaches and ants. If you don’t eliminate standing water you get mosquitoes. Nasty bleeders that bring dengue fever. Insects are everywhere in the tropics. They attack your food, your body, your home, your health.
If you’re poor you can’t you afford to be cavalier about your health. There’s no ambulance manned with eager EMT’s waiting to whisk you off to the emergency room. And even if there was, you couldn’t afford it. When you don’t have adequate access to health care, you must be proactive. Sickness is more likely to be fatal. A simple cut or cold is cause for alarm. That’s not to say doctors here are incompetent. It means the poor must do what they can to avoid seeing them.
So if being clean is so frickin important, why do so many Panamanians and Costa Ricans dump their trash in the streets? Tradition? Back in the day “a foul hole” was the unflattering label early travelers hung on Colon. When the denizens of Colon wanted to get rid of garbage, They tossed it out the back window and into the streets. Years of sewage and filth was piled two stories high in some places. Today many Panamanians continue this dubious tradition.
This has created a different sort of problem. The “foul hole” isn’t Panama City, its the bay. Right now all the city’s filth ends up in the bay after heavy rains. The city gets clean but the bay has become an open sewer. Panama has some of the most beautiful, pristine beaches in the world. But in the city there’s “Mojon Beach.” Mojon, for you English speakers, is poo. You don’t even want to walk on the beach much less swim there. Nearby, a romantic dinner at Cafe Sante the fine outdoor cafe turns into a gag fest if the wind’s not in a favorable direction. This pollution is bad for the health, bad for business.
Last week the government announced plans to clean up the Bay of Panama. The idea is to filter the runoff. Later they want to stop raw sewage from entering the bay by rebuilding the old sewer network. It’s a big project that will cost millions. $350 million is the figure most often thrown out. After the work is finished the bay will regenerate itself with the help of its 18 ft tides. Much like the waters around Boston have improved thanks to treatment and an outfall pipe.
“Bullsheet,” my taxi driver says, punctuating his disgust by tossing his Styrofoam coffee cup into the street.
No one I talk to believes it’ll happen. Its been discussed for decades. But because of corruption or ineptitude nothing has ever been done. And with the canal project on the fast track one wonders where they’ll find the money. Still, if Torrijos is able to overcome Panama’s entrenched corruption and successfully deal with this longstanding problem, it will be a major achievement. Perhaps even more important than widening the canal.
For the rich its of no importance. They can afford beach houses and fancy hotels outside the city. But imagine what it would mean to the poor and middle class if they could swim in the Pacific’s healthy waters. Imagine the pride people would feel for their city again. Imagine the money that would roll in through tourism if Panama City’s bay and beaches were clean and filled with bikini clad beauties.
Panama City’s a modern city with a rich historical past. It’s already a wonderful place to live. With clean beaches and waters it would become a jewel, a killer destination. Like Coiba, the kind of place travelers dream about.
-Cojito @ Panama After Dark.