Panama City, PanamaJanuary 4, 2017
In your city, how can we tell that we are in the year 2016?
In Panama we live fully absorbed in technology; wherever you look you see cable antennas, televisions, giant screens, and people talking on their phones. In the city there are more mobile phones than inhabitants. You constantly come across people who seem like they’re talking to themselves and you find groups of people, at restaurants and other places of encounter, who don’t talk among themselves since everyone is submerged in his or her device. In the past year we’ve seen a growing number of people who walk around distracted, with telephones in their hands, focused only on the possibility of catching some Pokemon.
What in your city reminds you of the past?
The few original houses left in the neighborhood of Bella Vista. They are incredibly beautiful. They still survive, but they’re being choked out by the monstrous towers that have grown uncontrollably and have little by little replaced the houses. There’s not much left of the original neighborhood, but with what’s left you can guess what the area was like: a plot of land outlined by wide sidewalks for people to stroll under shade trees that attracted birds…it makes you feel nostalgic and sad for what this city could have become if it had urbanized in another way.
Which building or intersection in the city would make us think that we are in the future?
If you’re thinking of a post-apocalyptic future, it could be any of the big intersections that are clogged with standstill traffic, for example, on a rainy Friday afternoon following payday. There are lines of cars that stretch for kilometers that don’t move, waiting for hours in the rain. It would seem that we’re all trying to escape from something, forming caravans to flee some disaster.
Where in your city would be the best place to lose track of time, freeze time, or gain time?
The pools in the Áreas Revertidas. They’re Olympic pools, huge and open-air, bathed in sun and surrounded by the exuberant green of the tropics. The buildings feel like they’re from another time. They have the peculiar architecture of the Canal Zone and a mix of modernity and deterioration that makes them feel atemporal. It’s an incredible sensation to start the day with a swim in one of these pools while the sun comes up and the tropics awake.
What song or local band would you recommend for an everyday playlist?
Señor Loop, any of their records, although the one I never get tired of listening to is Vikorg. The lyrics are very powerful and personal chronicles; they have a lot to do with living here. They’ve been playing for 16 years and for many of us, their songs have been there while we look for romance, while we partner with someone, when we begin to have kids, projects, illnesses, while we welcome new friends and say goodbye to ones who’ve always been there but left along the way while the city mutated around us. Señor Loop put words and music to all this. They’re still doing it. Now, at their concerts it’s common to find the band’s followers bringing their kids to see them. For me, that band and Carlos Méndez, (an indispensable musician) are the soundtrack of the city.
Which museum or cultural space is generally omitted from a typical cultural excursion, but is definitely worth visiting?
Junta, the invention of a group of architects who, after sustaining their exhibition space in a physical location for a period of time, decided to broaden it to include the entire territory of the city. They now organize sporadic presentations and explorations that take place in different spaces. Some of the most interesting contemporary art events of the past few years have been organized by Junta. It’s worthwhile to research what they have coming up so as not to miss it.
In which bookstore can you find new or second-hand publications on art history, exhibition catalogs, or artist monographs?
It isn’t easy to buy books in Panama, either art books or general literature. There are few bookstores, and the existing ones are full of religion and self-help. I think the store at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo would be the best place to try your luck. Sometimes I’ve found unexpected things at a little secondhand market, Salsipuedes, where I go to get magazines and materials for collage. But the outcome of that expedition is always unpredictable.
What dish most embodies your city, and where would you find it?
One delicious tradition in Panama is the desayuno chino, or dim sum. It’s done mostly on the weekends. One of the best places to enjoy it is at Lung Fung restaurant. Panama’s Chinese population is very large, and Chinese culture has a strong presence in many aspects of life here.
Where can you find the best coffee (or tea)?
I don’t drink coffee, but Unido is the place unanimously recommended by all my friends who can’t skip their daily doses. There are several throughout the city and they all have quality beans, roasted by hand. The space is very pleasant and makes you want to stay a while. They dedicate part of their proceeds to supporting social projects in the coffee-growing regions.
What is a monument that reveals a hidden past?
The statue of (Vasco Núñez de) Balboa, which has an outstanding location on the Cinta Costera and is a strange homage to one of the main figures responsible for the extermination of the indigenous peoples of the isthmus during the Spanish conquest. The image of the conquistador rises above the globe of the world, which seems to be supported by the efforts of a nearly naked indigenous group. The statue is in one of the areas of greatest traffic, so every day thousands of people see it, but nobody seems to care much what it represents. Balboa the Conquistador also lends his name to the country’s currency and to a local beer.
Outdoor or public artwork worth visiting:
The stairs of the Edificio de la Administración del Canal (the canal administration building), an emblematic place that was constructed by the North Americans for the managing the canal. The Canal Zone has ceased to be synonymous with occupation by the United States and areas like this have become favorite places for many Panamanians to do outdoor activities. It’s worth sitting for a while beside the fountain at the Goethals monument while the sun sets. Families pass by, trying to control their kids and their dogs; you see trainers for groups who want to start playing some sport, all wearing the latest style of activewear; there are photographers giving instructions and taking pictures of newlyweds posing there to create some sort of romantic souvenir. The planes fly low and almost buzz the palm trees as they descend to Albrook airport. In the summer these little deer pass by, trying not to be noticed while they come down from Cerro Ancón looking for water.
Where would be the best place to view the sunset in your city?
The top of the Cerro Ancón, where the city’s nature conserves all its strength and you find truly impressive beauty. The hill is a protected urban park where you can see agoutis, iguanas, toucans, deer, sloths…all cloaked in masses of vegetation and hundreds of trees. You can walk up to the top, where there are two overlooks with views of the city. It would seem that you are light-years away from town, with its noise and buildings and traffic, but in reality you are quite close to the urban center. From the top you can see a sunset that looks different every day, but its colors—oranges, blues, grays, pinks—are always overwhelming above the waters of the canal.
Next Sunday, let’s meet at:
The Camino del Oleoducto, in Gamboa. There is a small restaurant at the entrance to the visitors’ center, where Señora Gume cooks fried fish and plantains darienita style. It’s delicious. The tables are outside among the trees. From there you can walk a well-marked path that covers several kilometers through the tropical forest, which is handy for working up an appetite before the fish.
Which book transports me to your city?
I’ve never found another book about Panama that I’ve liked as much as Ciudad Múltiple; it was an urban art project curated by Gerardo Mosquera and Adrienne Samos that took place in 2003. The book doesn’t just collect the interventions of the participating artists; it does much more and becomes an exploration of the city using all the senses. There are texts from urbanists, writers, and thinkers writing about a wealth of interesting things in the city. And it has a few special hinges that link everything together. I find it to be a book made with a sharp critical vision and great humor and affection at the same time.
What aspect of your city most inspires you?
The mix, the unexpected findings, such as the guayarán trees full of yellow flowers that resist the advancing concrete, or the hand-painted signs at small diners and the plastic pools that overtake the streets of the ghettos in the summer. I like the strange and peaceful coexistence of very different elements in small geographic spaces—and the presence of the improbable and the absurd where you least expect it.
Where would one probably get lost: geographically, emotionally or historically speaking?
In San Miguelito, an enormous neighborhood that is like another city within the city. It has very dangerous areas, and the codes for driving there are a mystery to those of us who don’t live there.
If you were to be commissioned today to create an artwork “about” this city, briefly describe your proposal.
I would propose a work about the statues. The public art in the streets of Panama is a fascinating collection of strange and, in many cases, nonsensical elements. I’m amazed by how quickly we get used to them—a little like how we get used to so many other things here.