Panama, Casco Viejo
Casco Antiguo, San Felipe
But Paradise is a deceiving thing on both sides of the road. To begin with, Paradise means a lot of radically different things to a lot of people. In my closest dictionary, Paradise is a state of supreme happiness, bliss. It is also a place of extreme beauty, delight, or happiness. All of it, we know, lies in the eye of the beholder, which at the same time is pumped up or not by expectations. Not even religion can get it together on what is or should be Paradise. Somehow, people got it into their minds it was white beach and a sunny sky. That means tan beach ain´t paradise? I like tan beach. I like it more than white, frankly. And I like clouds, it is less hot and I feel less dehydrated. And rain is quite romantic.
Truth is that we have allowed ourselves to get wired in a way that paradise is a package of very defined things (which anyways change from culture to culture and from people to people) and when it doesn’t look, feel or taste like the magazine cover of our preference, then there is a problem. But the trick is that we know, as we also know models in magazines aren´t as beautiful when met in person(they do have skin marks, they are very skinny and some even have bad hair… but great bones!), that paradise simply doesn´t exist as perfection doesn´t exist. Like believing the woman (or man) we are marrying is “perfect” and then divorcing her (or him) on the grounds that you just “found out” he or she wasn´t. Hello???? It is all a fantasy to make us escape our reality for a while. But read it again: Paradise doesn´t exist. Reality, on the other hand, will lead you to long lasting, satisfying relationships.
Now, is Panama Paradise? Of course not! And you wouldn´t be able to name one country where Paradise actually is. As usual, the media creates the “hipe” by using those words to the point where they loose all meaning. In the past, words tended to be these valuable vehicles to convey important concepts that had some weight. When you gave your word it meant the world. No papers needed to be signed. With the extreme use of faaaabulous, wooonderful, paradise, fantastic, etc we have lost track of what they mean. Faabulous is the new pink or vanilla. And it is a shame, because some things are trully amazing, wonderful and fantastic or beautiful. But used without discretion just to overcome the “marketing noise” out there to get your product across it looses its own value and by the way hurts the same product you wanted to highlight.
We should start downsizing, even in our everyday conversations. Don´t mind the financial bubble, there is a language bubble crisis in modern society that is getting to affect our judgement about the world and is numbing us to the real great things that life and countries have to offer us. We should make a vow never to use the word “paradise” and use words like great, nice and enjoyable when there is really a cause for it.
Why? because this is the only way everyone wins. Think about it: if you scream “paradise” and someone buys on it, when they get there and it happens it rains too much, traffic is loud, it is too hot or any other thing, then both client and marketer end up in a bad spot. But if your speech is truthful and moderate, and it sets the right expectations, when the person buys he is satisfied and both parties end up in the right place.
For many years, we´ve had this notion that Caribbean countries (and make no mistake, Panama is a Caribbean country, I still don´t know why we are still in the Central America section) are paradise. White beaches, laid back population, a coconut and a palm. The hammock and piña colada life. But reality, as all realities, is made of different angles and the “simple life” is far from simple. Caribbean countries have wonderful beaches, most likely full of sand fleas, mosquitoes, etc. Nature is great until you get bit by something you can´t even pronounce. People are laid back, which means a heavy lazy vein is also present. They are happy people and love to party, I guess that is fine. But partying has it´s own set of negative things, as many would know very well. For every good thing there is a bad one, as every coin has two sides, and ignoring it is trying to cover the sun with the finger.
Everything is cheaper in Caribbean countries, Panama included, and I agree the country has streched this card too far, along with the tax heaven thing (you see! another concept of Paradise!). But expecting exactly the same service at the same level as you where at home but for half the price in a completely different culture is unrealistic. Basic economics tell you that if it is half the price is because there are hidden costs, and it is normal that there would be. Hidden costs are usually charged under the currency of time (things take longer to get done), effort (we are laid back, remember?) and cultural differences among other things.
Rabindranath Tagore once said: “If you cry for loosing the sun, your tears will prevent you from looking at the stars”. Panama isn´t paradise, but it is a great place to travel, live and invest in. It is a place on Earth, not on Heaven (wherever that is in your specific culture and religion). If you are setting up a business, you do have far less competition. It is hard work, don´t fool yourself. But you have the opportunity to do things and be an entrepreneur in ways that maybe your country wouldn´t allow for it anymore as it is so crowded and expensive. Panama may not have super white sand beaches everywhere and at the snaps of your fingers, but it does have two interesting coasts with wild geographies worth exploring. And if white sand is what you need, go to San Blas, Bocas or Pearl Islands, you´ll find it there along with Kuna Indians, afroantillian culture or a mix of both with a third party.
Not all Panamanians speak English, but Panama´s incredible diversity for the small country it is makes for an intriguing palette to explore, and even surprising that they all speak Spanish. Seven different indian tribes, a mix of Spanish, afroantillian, african, white, chinese, you name it! Service isn´t probably at the top level, but the country is learning fast. It is one of the easiest countries to travel to and to do tourism, as everything is so close. You can plan for beach, mountain and ethnic in a less than a week vacation or just relax on a fishing trip at really beautiful sites.
For a scientist, diversity is paradise. If so, then Panama is paradise. The one other strenght it has other than geographic location is diversity. In every aspect. Panama has a little bit of everything, and for those adventurous sould who enjoy exploring a petit store of curiosities, Panama is a good fit.
Since I have dedicated my life to a very specific part of Panama, Casco Viejo, I should make a disclaimer right away: Casco Viejo is not paradise. It is a 300 year old colonial site, where everything is mixed. From architecture (art deco side by side with caribbean, colonial, french, republican among others) to social (poor, middle class and rich), to lifestyles and ways of thinking. Restored and unrestored, ruins side by side with sites under construction.
Casco Viejo is the most down to earth community I know and that is where the true beauty lies. It is not fabulous in a “dinner topic” manner, but it is highly unusual and very special because it is so rare and somehow for those who get it, there is a profound visceral connection, no words needed. Here people care about people and the ones who have moved here and / or invested here enjoy building a community for others. This, in combination with the beautiful site itself, makes for the best you can hope for anywhere whether it is back home or not.