Live from Panama

Story posted March 9, 2017 in News, CommMedia in Panama by International Reporting Spring 2017

Stories and photos from Panama



From Siberia to the tropics: Russian art in Panama

                                                                                                          ~By Emily Kohlman

PANAMA CITY, PANAMA -- From Siberia to Toronto to Panama City, Polina Spitsina and her family have experienced very different climates.

Polina grew up surrounded by her parents’ art exhibitions in Siberia.  When she was eight, her family of five moved to the only slightly more moderate climate of Toronto. It was there that Polina studied business and tourism and gained experience in fields that, unexpectedly, would benefit a business her parents would open in tropical Panama.

Polina’s parents have been in Panama City for five years. They decided to retire here, attracted by the decidedly un-Siberian climate and lack of snow. Panama had always been a popular winter holiday travel destination for the family.

Polina said that by the time her parents retired, they had been collecting Russian art for more than 30 years. So they decided to open the very first Russian art museum in Panama, MoMA Panama, which features Russian avant-garde modern artists.

MoMA uses social media to spread the word about events and special visits, and Polina said that most of the museum’s visitors are younger Panamanians or members of the large ex-patriot community in Panama City. Polina says she wants to promote a sense of community through her parents’ business, providing locals and tourists a culturally educational place to visit.

As someone who is focused in the field of hospitality, Polina said that her parents’ art museum in Panama has been a great platform for her to exercise her ideas for how to promote tourism in Panama. She said that the opportunities for tourism were not abundant at all, and especially opportunities that involve cultural explorations.

Panama’s population of 3.8 million people may not seem to foster a strong diversity in cultural attractions, but the large number of foreign visitors and ex-pats here bring different flavors to  Panamanian culture.

MoMA brings its unique flavor all the way from Siberia to a city in close proximity with the equator, offering something to do that differs from the typical “restaurant scene” in Panama, as Polina described it. Additionally, Polina said, MoMA provides those who cannot leave Panama with authentic culture from a place half-way across the globe.

Growing up enveloped in Russian art, Polina said that she admires most the artwork of Maxim Kantor, a Russian artist with Argentinian roots. She explained that he is not afraid of bold colors and of expressing social issues in his work. She gestured to images on the walls in the museum, and it was easy to be lost in a sea of color and emotion. In one painting in particular, she said, Kantor depicted a fight, something that artists rarely portray in paintings.

As someone who studied business and tourism in college, Polina said that her parents’ art museum in Panama has been a great platform for her to exercise her ideas in the past year that she has been working in Panama.

“I feel bad for the tourists, I do,” Polina said. “This gives them a place to spend a few hours and learn about another culture.”

Panama doesn’t have many cultural attractions, she said. This is why she feels it is important to share her own culture and utilize her expertise in tourism to attract more people to Panama. She said that the “hipster” culture of teens and young adults in Panama attracts them to MoMA, but older generations are curious about Russian art as well.

The art space in MoMA occupies a couple of rooms, featuring elaborate and famous artwork that Russian artists themselves come here to unveil. Each month, Polina said, they welcome an artist to Panama to interact with tourists and locals who visit to take part in this unique intercultural opportunity.


The local flavor of Panama City

                                                                                                                 ~By Carter Walker

PANAMA CITY, PANAMA -- Panama is a vibrant country, rich in biodiversity and culture. In this land nestled between two oceans, there is no shortage of enticing cuisine.

Panama City is on the Pacific side of the isthmus of Panama. Because of its geographical position in Central America, and the Panama Canal, the tropical city is a hub for international travel and commerce.

As such, the city is full of restaurants featuring cuisine from around the world. Italian, Indian, Japanese and even well-known United States chain restaurants. But the best food is that of the locals.

Panamanian cuisine is typically served in large portions. Because of the country’s proximity to water, many of its dishes include seafood. The country’s name means “abundance of fish” in the native language.

Corvina, or Sea Bass, is one of the most popular and can be found in many restaurants and in many different forms. Like many of the dishes in Panama, this fish is often deep fried and served whole.

While the appearance of  a fish deep fried from head-to-tail on the plate may be a surprise for some, don’t shy away. This classic Panamanian dish, Corvina a la Chorrillera, is one of the best options for getting a true taste of Panamanian food.

Typically served with lime wedges and fried plantains (another true Latin American classic), the serving may also include a mildly tart side salad of cucumbers, onions and green olives.
The fish itself is uncleaned, meaning that its underbelly is uncut and the contents of it are still intact. The flakey, fried skin gives way to unexpectedly tender flesh below. Flavored with onion and lime juice, it creates a unique taste.

The gills are the most tender area, but the head is included mostly for show. Given that this is a whole fish and not a fillet, one must also be careful when eating around the backbone, so as to avoid the tiny, sharp bones that comprise the ribcage.

Sea bass is also used in another classic dish: Ceviche. Ceviche is a popular Latin American appetizer, and in Panama it is made with raw fish, diced and paired with lemon juice and onions, with salt and chili pepper for seasoning. The acidity of the lemon juice cooks the fish and adds in a layer of flavor. Served cold, this dish can be very refreshing on a hot day.

Sancocho is another popular Panamanian dish which may be more familiar to tourists from the United States.  Sancocho is a thick, brothy soup, typically made with corn, rice and a generous amount of chicken, and is generally accompanied by white rice.  

With a variety of rich food and an abundance of restaurants that serve it, Panama City is a culinary treat for international travelers.


Looking Through a Lens

                                                                                                     ~ By Alana Richardson

Panama City, Panama—As I stand along the road with my JVC video camera, Panamanians walking by let out a friendly “buenas” and the cars passing acknowledge my presence with a simple, yet vibrant beep, beep. 

Suddenly, my camera becomes more than a piece of technology. It is my lifeline to another world.

Differences in language, culture, and tradition can often cause misunderstanding. Whether it be mixing up social cues, or misinterpreting the language, an exchange between two cultures may take time to grasp.  But through the lens of my JVC, the unfamiliar quickly becomes known, and my doubt fades.

“¡La cámara, la cámara, la cámara!” 

The camera becomes an instant connector, helping to link human curiosity with the telling of stories. 

“Por qué tienes una cámara?” 

These five words (why do you have a camera) are my gateway into the lives of others. 

Within moments, the Panamanians kids learn that I am a journalist from Penn State University, and I get a keen glimpse into the lives of each kid.  And in that instant, the walls of cultural divide crumbled, and from its ruins grows a mutual promise to explore, discover, and learn.


Chance Encounter Puts Novice Traveler at Ease

                                                                                                        ~ By Paige Woiner

PANAMA CITY, PANAMA – Before I came to Panama, I had never left the United States. What brought me here was my love for telling stories.

Far from State College in Panama City, I didn’t know what type of people I would meet. I didn’t know what to expect. Stepping off the plane into a foreign country, I was more nervous than I had ever been.

A few days into the trip, as I washed my hands in the hotel lobby restroom, a small voice came from beside me. “I like your haircut,” said a hotel worker. I thanked her, surprised by her fluent English, and I went on with my day.

As the days continued, I kept seeing her around the hotel. She knew the answer to every question I asked, and helped me communicate in a language I didn’t know.

Ligia Martinez dedicates her time at the hotel to helping others get around the city. As I spoke to her, I found that Martinez is more similar to me than I ever expected.

“I think I can tell stories forever just from working in the hotel,” she told me, taking a break from her busy morning of assisting tourists.

Originally from Venezuela, Martinez said she went to middle school and high school in Florida. There, she said, she improved her English skills.

What I never expected to hear from a hotel worker in Panama City was that she is also a broadcast journalist, like myself. “You can tell stories that happened or never happened,” she said. “It’s like living life through everything you create.”

Martinez worked in Venezuela for two years as a journalist and producer, but she said she left her country due to political corruption and other societal issues. “You work just to eat, basically,” Martinez said.

Even though she is away from her family, Martinez said she is enjoying Panama so far.
“I like it because it’s a mix of everywhere I’ve lived before,” she said.
“It has a lot of my country, a lot of American stuff, and even some of Europe if you think about it.”

However, as an immigrant to Panama, Martinez said it is sometimes difficult to connect with locals. She said they are concerned with immigrants taking their jobs. “When you’re an immigrant you have to be prepared to adapt to the country you’re in,” she said.  “That’s what I’m doing.”

Although she said it’s sometimes difficult to connect with people, she said she feels as if this is where she belongs.

“I felt like I’m home,” she said. “Finally.”


Diablo Rojos – CATA buses they’re not

                                                                                                              ~ by Jackie Friedman

PANAMA CITY, PANAMA -- The Panama City bus terminal is part of Albook Mall, one of the largest shopping malls in Latin America. From this bus terminal, it’s possible to travel to virtually anyplace in Panama and as far as Costa Rica. It is here at the mall bus station that you will find Panama City’s colorfully painted buses, Diablo Rojos (Red Devils).


A Diablo Rojos bus pulls into the bus terminal at Albrook Mall in Panama City, Panama.

These retired school buses, mainly from the U.S., are painted in a riot of colors and often festooned with Christmas lights, and might be covered with graffiti, religious scenes or elaborate artistic designs.


People wait in line for a bus inside the bus terminal near Albrook Mall in Panama City, Panama.

The buses are owner-operated and typically follow no set schedule. Because the drivers are notorious traffic scofflaws and the buses are said to be dangerous, the government is trying to phase them out. A few years ago, modern, air-conditioned white municipal buses made their appearance on the city’s streets. But they are more expensive and often overcrowded. Panamanians, a New York Times article reported, immediately dubbed them Diablos Blancos, or White Devils.

Buses leave the bus terminal at the Albrook Mall in Panama City, Panama.


Still On Guard

~ by Anthony Amato

PORTOBELO, PANAMA – Fort San Lorenzo was built on Panama’s Caribbean coast by the Spanish in the 17th century to protect Spain’s lucrative trade in slaves and gold from pirates. Today it forms part of a government protected area of some 30,000 acres near what used to be the Caribbean entrance of the U.S.-controlled Canal Zone. In 1980 it was declared part of a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, which noted the fort’s ruins are “a magnificent example” of military architecture of the time.

The wall at Fort San Lorenzo is a popular place to sit and watch boats at sunset.

Fort San Lorenzo is located along the Charges River in the Portobelo district in the province of Colon in Panama.

Much like the San Lorenzo Fort, the Portobelo district went through of a series of renovations and reconstruction through the colonial era.


Life in the Panama Canal Zone

                                                                                                                ~ by Rachel Johannes


PANAMA CITY, PANAMA –For nearly 100 years, the Canal Zone was a little bit of the United States that was just out of reach of average Panamanians. In the Zone, Americans shopped for U.S. products in American stores, went to their own schools and lived in American housing. On Election Day in the U.S., Panamanians watched with a bit of envy as American residents of the Zone voted in free and fair American elections.

All that ended in 1999, when the Canal Zone was returned to Panama and became sovereign Panamanian territory once again.

The canal itself has been rebuilt and is thriving as never before, and other parts of the former Canal Zone have been turned into major tourist attractions, such as the stunning Frank Gehry-designed Biomuseo, or biodiversity museum, right next to what was once the officers’ club for U.S. Army and Navy officers.

But in the intervening 18 years since return, it is also clear that the government still has not figured out what to do with some other very prominent and visible parts of the old Canal Zone, which are dilapidated, rundown and appear to be abandoned.

In what used to be a lively area for American families in the Canal Zone, once comfortable houses are now used as after-school hang-outs for teenagers. Graffiti artists have found their canvases here, and even tourists are occasionally seen biking around the neighborhoods. Tall fences topped with barbed wire do virtually nothing to keep people out.

“This is an extremely safe place,” says Maria Flores, a 25-year-old law student who had visited the abandoned households a few times. “You can feel safe here, and generally do whatever you want, since it owned by the government and they are doing nothing with it.”

These houses, many with two stories and multiple balconies, depict the rich lifestyles of the American families that lived there during the almost 100 years of occupation. These homes had full electric power, running water and came with services such as maids. The lifestyle of Americans in the former Canal Zone was controversial among Panamanians, as the abundance available to these families far outstripped what was available to ordinary Panamanian citizens.

Today, the forgotten parts of the old Canal Zone bear little resemblance to what modern Panama has become– a lively, loud and cosmopolitan country that hosts people from all over the world.

Walking through the houses of the former Canal Zone was like stepping back in time, to when construction of the canal was just beginning over 100 years ago. Window panes are cloudy and grimy; doors hang from their hinges, graffiti covers every inch of some houses, and bits of rubble cover the floors.


The place is silent and almost eerily quiet until, soon enough, a family bikes by or school students walk through the yards, once lush and green but now brown and dry.


A beloved park and its year-round Christmas lights

                                                                                                                  ~ by Michelle Wolf

PANAMA CITY, PANAMA – At the corner of Avenida Balboa and Federico Boyd sits one of the most popular parks in this noisy, traffic-choked city.

Built in 1918, Parque Urraca is one of the oldest public spaces in Panama City. By day, it is a popular spot for Panamanians to sit and relax or play a game of pick-up basketball. Some people bring their dogs. Most sit under the shade of the trees.

Here, classic palm trees intermingle with gnarled old trees that look like something straight out of Jurassic Park. There’s also the occasional piece of art. Across the street towers the Miramar Hotel and an apartment building where the Panamanian President, Juan Carlos Varela, lives.

By night, the park comes alive with twinkling lavender lights that vertically hang from every tree. Panamanians say the lights were left over from Christmas. Our Uber driver, Ricardo, takes the story one step further. He recalls how the park was almost torn down to make room for more of the ubiquitous high rises that make the Panama City skyline so distinctive. But the park was saved when the then-mayor waged a campaign to save it. Ever since, Ricardo says, the lights have been left burning to symbolize the continued life of the beloved park.


Traffic in Panama: Rush hour, without the rush

~ by Kayla Fish

PANAMA CITY, PANAMA -- It’s 8:30 a.m. in Panama City. Drivers honk their horns. Crossing guards blow their whistles. People walk across the four lane streets between bumper-to-bumper cars. Lines of traffic criss-cross like a woven basket.

For someone used to driving in the small towns of Central Pennsylvania, there’s nothing more stressful than the notorious traffic of Panama City.

And yet somehow, everyone remains calm.

While traffic in the U.S. sticks to the right side of the road, in Panama it sometimes seems right side or left side is at the option of the driver. It’s common to see a truck crossing three lanes of traffic in one fluid motion, often without the help of stop signs or stoplights.

And on rare occasions when the roads aren’t too congested, driving in the middle of two same-direction lanes happens, because, well, why not?

Motorcycles have it easiest in Panama–they just make their own lanes between the cars stuck in traffic.

A car horn in a city like New York has its distinctive personality–angry, annoyed and hurried. Here it’s different.

When someone honks a car horn in Panama, they’re not saying ‘You’re driving too slowly!’, but more like ‘Hey, our cars are a little too close’, which sometimes happens when you’re driving on a three lane road with no lines.

Also, in Panama, if you stop or even slowly walk down a sidewalk, you’ll hear a quick beep from a taxi, suggesting there’s space if you need a ride. 

And then there's the short, cheerful little beep beep that Panamanian drivers emit for no discernible reason. Maybe they see a clear patch of pavement ahead–beep beep. Maybe they're singing along to a catchy song on the radio, blasting from the open car window–beep beep. Maybe simply because they want to announce to an otherwise indifferent world that it's good to be alive in such a beautiful country on a beautiful morning–beep beep.

The concept of a pedestrian right of way is still developing in Panama. If you try jaywalking here, you’d better have your running shoes on because a car is sure to be barreling down the avenue, seemingly intent on testing your agility. 

It's ironic then that despite all the chaos, Panamanians, unlike Americans, are laid back and easy going when caught in the inevitable traffic jams. Drivers pay close attention to every other driver around them and give each other mutual respect.

They will all get to where they need to go eventually, so what’s the rush?