Here, in a nutshell, are the contrasts of Panama City: million dollar condos and office buildings sit side by side with ordinary Panama, the places where most residents of the city live.
Wealthy Panama is as rich as the top earners anywhere. Buenaventura, which hosts events for Panama’s elite, exceeds the 1M threshold for bookings on a reliably regular basis. Start with 400 guests, dinner and open bar for wedding or quinceaneros plus ancillary meals and receptions and brunches, facilities rentals, taking over essentially the entire hotel room capacity plus most of the nearby villas — you do the math.
At the same time, ordinary middle class people like bank managers and teachers make in the mid-20K range, and laborers in the rural areas still work for about $20 a day when there is work. Mari still sells her charming and life-like pinatas for $3 a pop.
I sometimes get the chance to talk with people who are thinking of retiring to Panama, because it’s cheaper for U.S. residents to live there, the currency is the same, good medical care is available if you can pay for it, and the sun shines for 6 months of the year. All of that is true. But it’s not “just like living in the U.S. only cheaper”, as some promotional material suggests. In our country, the boundary between rich and poor is far more impermeable and more clearly buffered. We in Seattle, with no small sense of angst but little beyond that, regularly walk by homeless persons sleeping in doorways in winter’s drenching rain. But our actual contact with those fellow Seattle-ites is nil, unless we volunteer for one of the agencies that serves their needs. In Panama, rich and poor are far more intermingled. One of the biggest outbreaks of dengue fever in recent years happened in Betania, an upper class neighborhood of the city. Rich and poor who navigate city streets, in private cars or Uber or busses or taxis, find the same choking traffic.
To live in Panama, or to vacation there, is to be reminded every day that success in life begins with the randomness of birth: being born here, instead of there. I’m not smarter than Minga and Gloria, or more resilient or hard working or insightful. I’m just luckier.
Photos by Bob Levy.