in Local History

A Foul Hole

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.

no_tire_basuraSo 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.

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Care to Comment?



  1. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on what will happen in Panama City in the next 5-10 years?

    The traffic is already horrible. If all of those high rise condos sell out, traffic and congestion will be intolerable.

    And if they don't sell (and builders continue to do the one and only thing they know how to do… build!) then what will happen to the local economy when/if the condo market goes bust?

    Also– what about the flux of Colombians coming into the country? Will this affect crime and turn Panama into another San Jose or worse? Or will the Panamanians be able to clean it up?

    Yes, please consult your crystal ball, as I will be basing my future life plans on your answers. ;)

    – Costa Rica Jones.

    P.S. You're a great writer. Truely enjoy reading your work.

  2. thanks, i'm glad you enjoyed reading.

    i felt the same way about the traffic when i first hit P-city. i had just traveled down the east coast of CR and had spent a month on Bocas. so it was a shock.

    truth is, i don't have a car here. so i'm not bothered by traffic. i'll admit for a country so poor there are a lot of cars. but its not so bad. Not compared to Boston or Cape Cod.

    i drove a truck in Boston, and ran a small business on Cape Cod. those two areas are crazy with traffic. in the summer it takes an hour to go to Welfleet from Orleans. its about 10 minutes in the winter. in P-city the traffic's loud but always moving. just don't rent or buy an apartment near Via Espania. or you will be bothered by traffic.

    you know those high rise buildings seem to sell. but they never seem to be full. maybe they're used for vacations, or hideouts. i'm not so sure more people living, renting, and buying in the city is a bad thing.

    lol crystal ball … let's say i'm hopeful. Torrijos seems to making the right moves, fixing social security, widening the canal, cleaning the bay. but he's also fumbled the ball on creating more transparency in government. there's still way too much corruption.

    the canal's the cash cow. but i think tourism will continue to grow the economy. that is, if they don't poison the well.

    also, a lot depends on what happens in the US. if the US economy crashes who knows? will more people move to affordable Panama? or stay home and grow turnips? what about all those boomers about to retire? if they end up here that will inject even more money and stability into the economy.

    but hey, i've only been in P-city a couple of years. what-the-fuck do i know?

  3. Thanks for the informative posting.

    I have been teaching English in East Asia for several years but I'm thinking of moving to Panama in about a years time. I hope they have cleaned up the Bay by then.

  4. i recently visited beunos aires,and i hae to tell you it is a beautiful and very civilized city and the cost of living is less than panama. i still prefer panama, but b.a. might suit your taste,

  5. they're only talking about cleaning up the bay now. if they can get it together to stop the crap flowing in, it will clean itself. but i recall it took Boston decades to find the political will to clean up the Charles river.

  6. I really enjoyed this. and to think I googled to find out where Santa Clara was and came upon this article which I think is very well written. I really enjoyed it. Keep up the good blog work.


  8. Steaphani, when you whine – be specific. what "horrible" things? this particular article mentioned many good things about Panama. indeed, i'm very fond of Panama and i've been consistent in saying this.

    but i'm not going to lie. and if you think the government's not to blame for many of Panama's problems then you haven't been paying attention.

  9. Nobody leaves his country since he or she wanted . Whether or not you do not like to live in PANAMA what are you doing in my country . If anything disturb you, so you can return to your country and leave in PEACE. Panamanians are VERY Respectful to foreigners who come seeking a new life, adventures , bussiness or whatever in our country. Government politics and other affairs are very common in other countries as well pollution , environmental issues and delinquency; nevertheless, Panama has a minimal issue among others. Panama offers many differnet things and it is a unquie lovely place to live. So I suggested you to focus in the good thing this country has. May God bless you and your family in the name of Jesus!!! and leave bitterness in the past and enjoy your time in PanamA. Live and let live .

  10. Gina, your comments has shown one of the main lacks of our culture, Panamanians dont read very often, that make us BAD readers in spanish and TERRIBLY BAD readers in any other language… You missed the point completely or you are just one of those persons who dont like the truth thrown to your face. Being fare to the writer, the article only shows what we panamanians know, its not about "showing the bad", and if you have read other articles you may understand that this falls into "it comes with the territory" aspects of living here. Gringos (pun intended :D) are not used to our way of throwing garbage to the streets, remember how CLEAN the Canal Zone WAS when it was US controlled?(And I love its ours now…, but the truth is the truth), get the point now, or need translation?

  11. Cojito, have you consider the aspect that the goverment is a full of the panamanian culture too, we got corruption on our inner core (ask any school children, they cheat…), is the "juega vivo", is the "paternalismo", it had crafter the panamanian nation different than US, we dont usually use our personall responsability as citizens, and when we do, we usually get framed by our equals for been whining bitches or been "pendejos". There's a saying "Each nation got the goverment it deserves", well, its panamanians faults all the good and bad things we have here, goverment just happen to be a group of panamanians in charge of state. (See that i used fault instead of responsability…)…

    keep living your dream!