High and Low Notes in Panama

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Jun 19, 2012    •    549 Views

By Mira Korber, guest blogger.

As the Panama City skyline emerged from my misty Wednesday morning flight window, I must say the view was impressive. A snaking coast boasts skyscraper after skyscraper, each seeming to outdo the previous in height and marvels of modern engineering and architecture. With a 10.6% first quarter GDP growth, you feel a heating economy (and climate!) in Panama.

I, however, was not en-route to a zoody hotel in the ultra-urban section of the expanding city. I was on on my way to a monastery — where air conditioning and hot water were not part of the picture for music festival students like me. Amenities were scarce, weather in excess of 100 degrees, and humidity in the 90th percentile.

In contrast to the sleepy monastery, I felt Panama City radiating with economic activity. Dense population and feverish construction make short distances in Panama long car rides, and traffic congestion (“tranque”), a daily occurrence. Trundling through the neighborhood of Casco Viejo with instruments and musicians unceremoniously crashing around in an overstuffed bus, our driver navigated closed streets and constant construction; the entire historic district is under restoration to return cobblestone streets and stucco buildings to their full 16th/17th century Spanish architectural glory.

Ricardo Martinelli, president of Panama, has allocated those funds for rebuilding Casco Viejo and other massive construction projects, including a $1.25 billion metro construction project that keeps workers on the job 24/7.  $5.25 billion is on the books to add a third set of locks to the Panama Canal. At the moment, 35-40 ships make the passage daily, and freighters traveling both east and west share the same artery. In the 2014 centennial anniversary of the Panama Canal itself, a new set of locks will allow for traffic in both directions, bigger ships, and reuse of water.

For me, while Panama will always be about a fantastic musical experience, there was more. As I moved between unbearable heat in the monastery and then frigid air conditioning in our nearby practice room, as I observed the country’s eye-grabbing skyline and its bottomless poverty, I thought about its contrasts.

If I return for more music, I hope to see that Panama’s economic development will have as good a “conductor” as we did.

For reports of Panama’s accelerating GDP, look here and here. Festival de Alfredo Saint-Malo, in which I participated.

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