The GSI group arrived, gazing around the lobby of the Holiday Inn with a sense of wonder. It seems that their hotel experience previously had been a little rugged,
so they really appreciated the hot water showers and generous beds. After they’d had a short rest, we went for a bus tour around the city. Panama City contains
about half the population of the country. Because of new construction, traffic is currently among the worst in the world. New highrises, shopping centers and developments compete with government infrastructure projects–roads, subway and water/power excavations. The beach is lined with tall condominiums, built during the boom and mostly
unoccupied because of the current bust, but very impressive, very inexpensive ($300,000 for an ocean view) and, we were told, very deluxe. Panama is looking for foreign residents and prospective citizens to come fill the condos. And many American retirees are taking up the offer. Wouldn’t you like to live here overlooking the Pacific? We were even given pamphlets that explained how easy and inexpensive it is to become a Panamanian resident. We’d seen most of the city on the previous days, but it was good to have a guide
to tell us what we were looking at. This building, The Twisted Tower, is only one of the many creative and original buildings in Panama City. It is an office building for the
power company–I guess the elevator must go up the middle. But, of course, nothing actually changes in a living city. Here, right on the edge of a major street, is an open-air produce market just like those that have been here for years.
Then we went for dinner to the Beirut, a Lebanese restaurant. We walked up stairs that appeared to be made of rock into a cave with arches and benches. Sat down on cushioned rock-like benches, and the food began to come. We had hummos with pita, stuffed grape leaves, felafel, eggplant, fried yuca, salads, oh, I just can’t remember it all. And I didn’t take a single photo; I was too busy eating and talking.
Probably 30 different dishes served family style, and when one was empty, either another full one or a different delight replaced it. Then at last came a plate with regular servings of beef, lamb, and chicken and some potatoes. We were almost too full to eat this dinner after all the mezze dishes. For drinks, we had a choice of sangria or lemonade. The sangria was delicious and a perfect complement to the dinner, but the lemonade drinkers said theirs was very sweet. And of course coffee to finish. Panama has a selection of American fast food joints, but so far we’ve avoided them and found the food in the local restaurants (including our hotel) is excellent. The dinner gave us a chance to catch up with Scholar Ship alumni and meet the new people who had signed up for GSI. Starting in the morning the schedule for the GSI group (including us) is cram-packed. First session at about 8:00, then continuous until a last meeting (or dinner or film) at 7:00-9:00. It was all fascinating, but hectic – especially since traffic refuses to kowtow to our schedule.
The next day, January 2, after a 6:30 breakfast, we spent at the City of Knowledge (Ciudade del Saber) meeting the staff who coordinate this Panamanian public-private project to bring together scientists (particularly working on water and climate change and on IT), professors (to run basic environmental courses, coordinate the work of interns who come to study Latin America and the Caribbean at the center), and administrators who keep the enormous project running smoothly. The CoK/CdS is set in the former Clayton U.S. army base, and most of the buildings date from when the U.S. ran the canal. Of
course in this tropical area they have had to be maintained to be as clean and useful as they are. And unfortunately, I didn’t take any photos of the magnificently maintained and updated office buildings (you can tell the ones that are in use by the visible elevator shafts attached to the front of them). Nor did I get any photos of the base housing that is in wonderful shape). The only photo I can find is this one of the native flora overtaking the gutters on this building, but most of them were very well kept up. There’s a definite difference in the buildings of similar age that are part of the CdS and those downtown that are privately owned. The CdS brings together about 27 Universities from around the world, government entities like USAID, international organizations like the U.N. and its agencies, and private companies dealing with environmental and sustainability issues. Our host told us that there are meetings of various groups to focus on important issues, and that having all these organizations based in the same area promotes cooperation among them.
The CdS itself is most focused on the environment of Panama, of course, but the consortium has a wider view of climate and climate change in Latin America and the Caribbean. One of the NGOs on site is the collection and interpretation center for all of the U.S. NASA and NOAA satellite data for Latin America and the Caribbean. We will visit them tomorrow. It is amazing how many interesting Panamanians we are meeting. This is a very exciting country–it was poor and dependent on agriculture, but since taking over the Canal, there is a lot more money for improvements. So there are new flyways being built to travel over the city and lessen traffic on city streets. A subway is under construction and expected to be finished in 2015. You probably know that they are building a third canal. We saw a movie about the work that was very vivid about the problems, solutions, and successes. It’s not as huge a project as the first two (one in each direction) because the route uses the lakes that were created when the Chagres River was dammed by the Americans in 1914. So the third canal is mostly two more sets of locks to get larger ships up and down over the Continental Divide. But because nothing is ever
simple, the original routes that ships take through the lakes and especially through the
Culebra Cut (the hardest part of the original construction–all solid rock) had to be widened by about 10 yards and deepened by 60 feet. The builders built a cofferdam at the edge of the water and are doing all the digging and dredging on the dry side of it, planning to let the water flow in when the work was finished. A clever solution since obviously there would be a massive international outcry if they shut down the Panama Canal for three years while they were working on the new one. By the way, the largest ships that can go through the Canal now are called Panamax; those that will be able to fit into the new, larger locks are called Pospanamax. It makes sense, but when you see the signs, you have to think a moment to realize what they are saying. They are very big on acronyms and short forms here–just like Americans. Must be catching. The Canal Authority, which is, obviously, in charge of running the Canal, is a non-governmental organization like the Smithsonian or the National Academies in the U.S. The Canal Authority has to take enough money in to maintain the canal including the work on the new canal, but with all this they are still able to pay the Government of Panama rents of a billion dollars a year. So that’s how all these new roads and schools, and the City of Knowledge, and the rebuilding of the Casco Antiguo is being carried out. Of course, the Casco Antiguo is a joint project: the Government builds the roads and the President’s Office and other official buildings, but individuals are rehabbing (and sometimes only the outer walls are still standing) the old buildings into restaurants, hotels, and apartments. I suppose some are being rebuilt as private houses too, and the whole area is a UNESCO Global Heritage Site. It’s a pleasure just to walk through it. So we did that several times during our stay.