Panama is a metropolitan area that extends over a very large territory where almost two million people live today. In the few days that I have spent here I have tried to understand its spirit, but I am leaving now without having developed a clear idea. Maybe it’s just a matter of time, but one thing is certain: Panama is a country of great contradictions. Some ruins remain of the original city – the first founded in the early sixteenth century on the Pacific coast – after the pirate Henry Morgan sacked it and set it on fire in 1671. The locals tell of this destruction and the amusing anecdote of the church of San Josè – still intact even in its internal decorative structures. The church had a magnificent gilded monumental altar, but the astute fathers, who learned of the imminent arrival of the pirate, painted it black. When Morgan entered the church he was disappointed and indeed felt sorry to see her so bare and gloomy – so not only did they prevent the looting, but Morgan also left a donation. The story seems more like a fairytale for tourists, but actually today you can still admire the magnificent seventeenth-century altar full of statues and heavy gilding inside the original basilica-plan temple.
The oldest monuments are in the Casco Viejo: the cathedral and other churches, the skeleton of the Compagnia del Gesù building and other historic buildings. Today this is the tourist district where there are restaurants, clubs, hotels, but also the main government buildings. To reach the belly of the city, you exit the Casco and enter the popular El Chorrillo neighbourhood, once very dangerous, today a little less following the urban changes that have taken place in recent years. According to Josè – the young taxi driver with whom we have worked in the days spent here – the economy of Panama is always growing, and even if the city faces strong immigration from the poorer countries of Latin America, everyone can find work if he truly undertakes to look for it. He is the one who showed us the new city that has the face of a modern metropolis, with skyscrapers overlooking the Pacific and large roadways that cross the neighbourhoods and residential areas born in recent decades that has created a real urban jungle. Valerio and I spent an afternoon exploring this asphalt jungle with Josè who takes pride in introducing us to what he thinks is the true face of Panama. We go to eat a hamburger behind a car wash, where at the entrance two girls attract customers by dancing and waving cloths that they use to dry the newly washed cars. We shop for our boat parts in department stores quite similar to those found everywhere, we see new architecture such as El Tornillo, a glass and steel skyscraper that grows upwards by twisting towards the ever blue sky; we pass in front of the entrance of numerous banks along the Central Avenue. “Es un paraìso fiscal,” says Josè with pride, talking about the ousting of General Noriega by the Americans, and how the cost of an apartment has risen exponentially in the last ten years.
The next day I visit the Frank Gehry Biomuseum which is worth seeing more for its architecture (it is the only museum built by the well-known architect in Latin America), than for its contents. I stop to talk to some young museum guides who start off as if reading from a script, explaining the genesis of the Isthmus of Panama and its development from the glaciations until today! Panama promotes its territory as a unique ecosystem in the world and protects its conservation through informative campaigns. Along the streets there are numerous billboards on the topic of global pollution and climate change. We are left wondering how much this program can really work in the reality of what is the largest trade hub in Latin and South America. From here pass all the large ships that carry goods from east to west and vice versa, but also are all those that unite Latin America with South America. It is incredible for us Europeans to think, but there is no road that connects Panama with Colombia. The roads descend from Mexico down to Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica but all stop before the Nacional del Darien Park. To reach South America, you need to take a ship from one side of the canal to the other. “La sierra es impenetrable” says Josè, telling us about the proposal made by the Colombian government for the construction of a road that would cross it, which was rejected by Panama for fear of greater immigration.
But the most beautiful encounter was born by chance, as always: when I decide to get lost in the Casco Viejo without looking, but rather to let life surprise me. In Plaza Simon Bolivar I run into the entrance of a stone building that has board outside its doors with the words, “Colectiva de mujeres creadoras” on it. I go inside and go up a small flight of stairs that leads me to a studio shared by seven local artists who have come together in a collective to create and exhibit their works of painting, paper making and tattoos. Ada is working on a painting. “I’m creating my own style,” she says. “I studied fashion in Milan for four years, but then I realised that my vocation was to paint and therefore I returned.” Their studio gallery has been open since last June and is the only one like it in the whole country. Ada works in different mediums and paints works that interpret Nature understood as a single, vital breath. Animals, plants, environmental elements, human figures, but also symbolic figures linked to the religions and ancient cults of these lands. These for her, are manifestations of the love that animates the universe. The collective also exhibits works by other artists, not only from Panama, and they often organise cultural meetings and installations. A beautiful reality, unique in its kind, that bodes well for the cultural growth of this city. Ada smilingly tells me that she is trying to find her own path and that she works a lot because her muse often calls to her and that when she is ready maybe she too will go looking for the answer in the forest, as other artists have done: “La Selva is very powerful”. We continue to talk about art, life, truth, passion and the intensity of doing creative work as if we have always known each other. In the evening we go to have a beer on the terrace of a small hotel in the old town and I am reminded of a way of toasting that Giuliano taught me years ago; I believe that true art lovers unite all over the world: “At three o’clock: Art, Friendship, Love”.
Bye Ada, I hope you find what you are looking for, even if I have not found it yet.