Wednesday, May 14, 2008

My Cousin Eddie

If you're in transit enough, talking to cab drivers is often a good way to gauge public opinion. They're generally very friendly, they meet a lot of people, and let's face it; it takes a certain amount of gumption to do that job, especially in Panama City, where the chaotic traffic means there's no guarantee that you'll arrive alive from any given ride.

Although today's 1 1/2-hour transport to the Colon Free Zone involved a smooth, scenic ride on the luxurious rail cars of the Panama Canal Railway and an air-conditioned bus, yesterday we were adventurous enough to take four different cabs.

Luciano, a van driver that makes his money on tourists exiting the Country Inn & Suites, told us that he used to live in Boston. His son now attends high school in Rhode Island, and he misses the snow, although he really likes the warm, humid weather of his native Panama. He's got a 10-week visa to visit the U.S. to see his kid and he hopes to go soon.

The next cabby took us from the posh Marriott Panama back to our hotel, which is known more for its canal views and location than aesthetic amenities. I didn't catch his name, but this guy helped me figure out what they were selling at the Panamanian/Japanese Marisco Market we saw en route to the hotel. "Fish," he said flatly in English. As one of our trade mission handlers said, they speak Spanish in Panama almost as much as they do in Miami.

As if it was hard to get deeper into conversation than a debate over fish, our next chat was a bit more serious. Eduardo, a dark-skinned Panamanian whose father and grandparents are Jamaican, gave us the full gamut of public opinion about the U.S. Despite the invasion of Panama in 1989, the U.S. is still considered a great friend of Panama, he said. Most people feel very happy that the Americans liberated the country from Manuel Noriega's dictatorship, but many have resented the Americans in the past for having what he called "a country in a country" in the Canal Zone.

The Zone was controlled by the U.S. from the Canal's completion in 1914 until 1999, when it was returned to Panamanian control as per a treaty signed by then-President Jimmy Carter. Since that time, the Panamanians have been leveraging the Canal as an economic development engine, and the U.S. has pulled out most of its military personnel. Former U.S. army barracks and Air Force bases are being retrofitted to house companies and government offices. The cloistered American life in the Canal Zone is over.

As a cab driver, Eduardo had the added bonus of actually knowing where he was going. He found us a great strip of restaurants. Somewhere in the course of conversation, he clarified that "Mariscos" are not necessarily just fish. "Pescado" is the term for fish, while mariscos refers to all kinds of seafood, including shrimp and lobster. When we disembarked, we found out that his last name was Williams, the same as mine.

"Cousins!" I said.

"It's a small world," he replied, laughing.

On the way home we pried the day's last driver for his opinion on which is the best of Panama's predominant beers: Atlas, Panama Cerveza and Balboa.

"I don't drink," he said. "Food, food, food. As long as I have food and friends, I'm okay," he said. As an afterthought, he said he thought the Country Inn & Suites Amador is the best in Panama because of its quiet location, fresh air, and view of the ships traversing the Canal.

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