Panama-Rama, Defies Comprehension Then Wins You Over
It was 7 am and our propeller plane had begun its descent, barely 40 minutes into the flight. I was tired, sleep deprived, hungry and ridiculously cheerful. World, meet Holiday Neha. She channels Pharrell Williams’s brand of happiness better than everyone, prancing grannies included. My friend and I were travelling to Bocas del Toro, an archipelago in western Panama. After an indulgent weekend on the beach, we would head back to Panama City, where said friend had a conference to attend and I had Cuba Libres to consume.
As we stepped onto the tarmac - much to nobody’s concern - a large dog bounded up to the plane and greeted us loudly. Airport Dog set the tone for our time in Bocas, a toy-town with make believe characters, where you accepted delightfully bizarre occurrences and only wondered at them in the quiet of your ‘big city’ mind. The Province of Bocas del Toro comprises nine islands and the mainland town of Bocas. In 1502, Christopher Columbus made a pit stop here - may we all take a moment to admire the perseverance that made him move onward to North America.
The islands in Bocas are a forgotten secret of the Caribbean. Their warm waters are bluish green, full of vibrant sea life and excellent for surfing. Our hotel had a floating deck that looked out to the sea. We gazed at the water, our sleep addled brains gradually coming to terms with the brilliant turquoise. Water taxis buzzed across to the nearby islands of Bastimentos and Marina Carenero. Bastimentos is an idyllic, sparsely populated island town with rainforests that run to the shores. As we sipped on nutty, aromatic coffee our shoulders relaxed and lazy smiles crept out. Game on, island.
I had never had a mango margarita where the mango was freshly pulped before me and the tequila allowed to pour for what seemed like a whole minute. $5 cocktails and generously portioned seafood platters with patacones (plantain pancakes) would weigh us down as we floated in the Caribbean - an ingenious plan. We had parked ourselves on Starfish beach, a hidden cove ahead of Bocas del Drago, with powdery sand and shallow, calm waters. We paddled in the sea, people-watched and read under the drowsy sun. By the time we returned to the hotel in the evening, I was a fiery shade of red. I had succeeded in getting sunburnt despite my hardy Indian genes.
The rest of the weekend continued in the same vein. We walked around tiny Bocas where candy coloured houses served as homes, restaurants and shops. Short bursts of tropical rain would have us running for cover, changing the colour palette and mood of the town. On any beach holiday, my quest for fresh seafood takes on maniacal overtones. One evening, as we sat devouring sea bass and lemony ceviche, I decided I wanted this forever. Later, as we turned in for the night, we heard loud thumping music and shrieks from a hostel bar near our hotel. There comes a troubling point in your late twenties when the pros of guzzling fruit shots while surfer boys scramble to buy you more outweigh the con of sacrificing sleep to do so.
The United States gave back the Panama Canal and its surrounding lands to Panamanians only as recently as December 1999. So for a country that was founded in the early 16th century, Panama is really only 13 years old, independent and raring to go. Panama City manifests the spirit, inconsistencies and disarming appeal of adolescence. The wealthy talk shop in upscale bars and cafes, toasting their successes, looking over a skyline that seems to expand under their gaze. Panama City does struggle with poverty, crime and inequity and in that it reminded me much of Mumbai and parts of Gurgaon. But just like in Mumbai and Delhi, an unmistakable optimism courses through the city.
Casco Viejo or ‘Old Compound’ is Panama City’s loveliest open secret. It is where the old cohabits with the new, rich with poor and glamour with grime. The old city’s formerly dilapidated Colonial quarters have gotten a makeover and buzz with renewed energy. At night the bars come alive, tables groan under ‘new Panamanian’ cuisine and the freshly restored façades of old buildings are almost incandescent. We had Manhattan-quality cocktails at the hip rooftop bar ‘Tantalo’ one night and returned another night to gorge on grilled fish at ‘Las Clementinas’, followed by beers at the chic brewery, ‘La Rana Dorada’.
I love cities that are water-bound, they usually have a relaxed, playful vibe, and Panama City is no different. One of my favorite evenings here was when I walked up Amador Causeway and parked myself at ‘Mi Ranchito’ for beer and calamari. The wind flirted with my hair as the sun sank into the Canal, colouring the harbored yachts in pastels. On my last morning, I set out to see the ruins of Panama Viejo. Remnants of Panama’s Spanish colonial past, these stone structures had been churches, houses, hospitals and convents. A tout emphatically demanded $5 to show me around. He launched into rapid, well-rehearsed Spanish. As I stared back blankly, he laughed, handed me my money back and disappeared. This was Panama. It defied comprehension at first, then won you over anyway.
Neha Kumar grew up in Delhi and grew into herself in London, where she studied and worked for a few years. She is currently living in New York City, learning important lessons in survival and subway etiquette. Neha loves art, photography, textiles, smoked cheeses and beautifully crafted sentences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.