An American Abroad

BioMuseo: The Museum of Biodiversity in Panama City

Imagine you blew up a contemporary glass, concrete, steel building. Then imagine you stacked the rubble and painted the roof fragments in the kinds of bright primary colors you find in a kindergartener’s crayon box. Then you would have some idea how the BioMuseo in Panama City looks from the outside.

The building was designed by Frank Gehry. It’s the real star exhibit of the museum. It has a jaunty, child-like look. It’s dramatic and pleasing to the eye.

The building houses a didactic museum — it’s intended to teach you something. What is has to teach (the importance of biodiversity) is vital to know. The experience of walking through the museum is like walking through a book. You learn a lot as you go through the pages.

The museum’s book-like method of delivering information, though, is its chief weakness. So much of what it has to teach is rendered in words, not exhibits, objects, hands-on displays, or even interesting photos. This is, in effect, a natural history museum, and so I compare it against the best of that genre. And by that measure, it comes up short.

Yes, there are fossils and bones. There is a cool ten-minute video presentation on screens that surround you. There are white plaster representations of animals. Very occasionally, there is some kind of interesting artifact – an earthquake measuring device, a notebook kept by a scientist who was cataloging insects, etc. But these are few and far between. There are many plaques and walls to read and the items that accompany them are disappointing. Most kids would be bored by the place and even adults would find little reason to visit more than once.

There are numerous helpful guides who are all very eager to share information (in Spanish and English) about biodiversity. Still, most people don’t come to a museum for a lecture. The museum does have plans to expand into a wing that is, at this moment, relatively unused. And it seems that there is money behind the museum, so perhaps as it matures it will be able to fund some more engaging exhibits. The building itself is interesting to see and it conveys the messy chaos of nature quite well. But the funhouse atmosphere feels forced after awhile, especially when what’s inside the funhouse is just not all that stimulating.

Motorcycles & Street Art in Panama City

My two weeks in Panama were not a vacation for me. On weekdays, I stayed close to my hotel or cafes where internet service was available so I could continue working. I took a lot of photos in that immediate vicinity, namely, the El Congrejo neighborhood of Panama City. I took them on my way to and from the cafe where I spent most of my work time. And a lot of them were of motorcycles and street art. In the four years I’ve maintained this blog, I’ve put up many posts about those two interests of mine. I’m combining the two here.

I didn’t get the sense that Panama City has a booming motorcycle culture. Most of the bikes I saw were either fast food delivery vehicles or police cycles. Both tended to be Suzuki 150s.

I also didn’t see a whole lot of street art in this neighborhood, but I loved this piece that was just down the street from my hotel. The branches look something like a crown of laurels.

My favorite neighborhood eatery was the New York Bagel Cafe. One day I saw this beautiful new Vespa parked in front. There’s also a Vespa dealer on one of the more commercial streets in El Cangrejo. I was tempted to buy one and ride it all the way back to the USA.

The streets near the NYBC are lined with apartment towers. It’s a middle- to upper-middle class area, so there wasn’t a lot of tagging to be seen. So I was surprised to come across this.

Perhaps coincidentally, it was near there that I saw one of the only Harleys I laid eyes on here.

One of the most interesting works of unauthorized public art I saw was in an unlikely spot. The park that runs by the waterfront on Avenida Almador near the Bio Museum generally has an upscale feel to it. But right next door there are some modest apartment complexes where I spied this. In Spanish it reads

Somos seres humanos experimentando una forma de pensamiento que caduco hace mucho tiempo y seguimos sufriendo de ello porque tenemos medo a aventurarnos a los recónditos de perdernos cuando en realidad va estamos perdidos.

The best English translation I could come up with (which is admittedly rough) is

We are human beings experiencing a way of thinking that expired a long time ago and we continue to suffer from it because we have the courage to venture into the recesses of losing ourselves when in reality we are lost.

There were also some upscale bikes in Casco Viejo, the Spanish colonial part of town. The photo immediately below of the Yamaha is one of the finest motorcycle pix I’ve ever taken.

Living Next Door to Roberto Durán

I was taught that if your last name isn’t Windsor, you have no business having stone lions in front of your house. Unless, of course, your name is Roberto Durán. He’s got lions plus Roman statues of women with perfectly hemispherical breasts. I just found out he lives right next to the hotel I’m at. That’s an Excalbur replicar in the garage.

The Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal

It was a 20-dollar/20-minute taxi ride from my hotel in El Cangrejo, Panama City, to the Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal. We drove by the port of Balboa and passed scores of cranes loading and unloading thousands of Danish shipping containers onto and off of Chinese freighters. Then dozens of white three-story buildings with red-orange roofs appeared on the right, military-style residences from another era. “The Americans lived there,” my driver remarked.

At my destination, I walked up three flights of stairs to the visitors center, bought a ticket, sat through a 15 minute film about the canal, and went wandering through the four story building. The center integrated a museum and a series of observation platforms directly opposite the locks. As I climbed upward, I got different perspectives on the canal.

From the top level, the size and scale of the canal became apparent. The enormous doors of the locks (made in Pennsylvania, by the way) hold back tons of water that fills the deep canal. There is a cog railroad track on either side of the canal. The engines that ride on it (which are called mulas, or mules) pull the ships through the channel. Since the water level in the locks rises and falls, the tracks also run up steep concrete inclines so they stay more or less level with the ships.

To my left was a channel that, in just a few kilometers, empties into Panama Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

To my right was the bulk of the canal system, 65 kilometers of lakes, canals, and locks that end in the city of Colón and the Caribbean Sea.

Behind the visitors center, I could see some of the infrastructure that keeps the canal running. This, I believe, is the power plant.

Inside the museum, I was especially interested in a working replica of part of the control room. I got the notion that if I pushed the right button, I could snarl international commerce for months.

The museum had many beautifully-wrought models of the early 20th century machinery that was used to build the canal. And it did a good job of conveying how monumental a task it was. Building the canal employed tens of thousands of men from Panama, the United States, the Caribbean islands, and China. A whole city had to be erected to house all the workers. Because disease and tropical conditions posed such a threat to the workforce, their housing was built with window screens, sanitary sewers, oiled cisterns to keep down mosquitoes, and other features that were not common to work camps of the era. But even with these refinements, the death toll from sickness alone was staggering.

Throughout the visitor center, I saw variations of this graphic. This particular one indicates the stairs, but others mark bathrooms and exits. All of them use the broken rectangle as the primary design element, representing the path between the seas.

I was thinking: we built this. We human beings built this huge, glorious thing. And we did it without modern tools and technology. And just as I was starting to convince myself that nothing could be more sublime, this bird showed up, alighted on the fence that ran beside the great canal, and proved me wrong.

The Nomada Eatery

Every now and then I walk into a place that’s so welcoming and aesthetically pleasing that I feel like I’m home–even though I’ve never been there. One such place is the Nomada Eatery. I was only there once for a fine American breakfast of bacon and eggs, but while I was there I felt the satisfaction of knowing that I was in an interior space that had been wonderfully and whimsically designed.

Located in Caso Viejo, the old quarter of Panama City, the Nomada Eatery is another one of those places that seem designed to attract a certain kind of traveler. It’s in the same building as Luna’s Castle Hostel, which may help account for its funky international vibe.

The bathroom there is a treat in itself. Books are glued to the walls and ceiling in front of and above the toilet. Graffiti seems to be encouraged.

And on the wall next to the toilet is a reflective reminder to zip up.

Signs of Casco Viejo

I’m back with another photoessay about signs, this time in the oldest neighborhood in Panama City. This may be my last one, though. One of my favorite British road signs reads “Changed Priorities Ahead,” which is the best description of life’s vicissitudes I’ve ever encountered. After my posts about signs in Santo Domingo, Chefchaouen, Hong Kong, Nicaragua, and Fes, blogging pictures of signs is starting to feel a little old. But until I find some way to kick the habit, here’s what I saw in Casco Viejo.

This photo shows the contrast between the old and the new Panama City. Like Cartagena, Colombia, Panama City has done a good job of building a modern boomtown without ruining the character of its old historic city. The skyscrapers of downtown – “the Dubai of Central America” – are located safely across the bay from Casco Viejo, which benefits from its isolation on three sides by the Panama Bay.

The old city is no stranger to luxury. This hotel (with its name spelled out in a cool retro-font) is one of the chicest places in either the new or old cities.

But my chief interest lies in the downmarket signs. Here’s one for a math tutor trying to make a buck. I’d like to think that the tutor within is a genius on the order of Gödel, Newton, or Spinoza.

The signs in the pic below don’t tell the story; they just provide the context. Lady in a fancy white dress. Big suitcase. Helpful policeman. The story writes itself.

What would Panama be without Panama hats? Pretty much the same. The only people I’ve seen wearing them are tourists like me. But damn, they look good in them.

Stop. Do not enter this kitchen. We used to have a similar rule in effect at certain times when my sons were young.

I wonder if this Peruvian restaurant ran out of green paint, ran out of money, or both. But as long as they don’t run out of quinoa, kiwicha, or chili peppers, I think’s they’ll be OK.

I’ve always wondered where to find one of these. But alas, Jack Sparrow was not in.

Alley Oop and Slam Dunk are some of the only real wild style art I saw in Casco. Well done.

Nicolás Pacheco was a beloved Panamanian high school teacher of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He also organized and taught night school classes for adults. He was, by all accounts, a very hard-working and modest man who was much admired by his students and their parents. This school is named after him.

If I lived in Casco Viejo, I’d want a house with a tile sign like one of these proclaiming

Casa Santiago Zorro Trumm

That would be a rough rendering of my name in old Spanish.

There’s not much special about these signs. I’m posting them to remind me of my aspirations.

Murals of Indigenous Panamanian Resistance

At the edge of Casco Viejo, the oldest part of Panama City, stands a series of murals depicting the struggles of Panama’s indigenous peoples. I’ve photographed them individually to make them easier to show and comment on. I’m not well-versed in Panamanian history, but this is what I’ve been able to figure out.

The first panel is a prelapsarian ode to the Guna people. Most Guna live in the southeastern part of Panama that connects to South America; some also live on the islands nearby. The colors used in this panel are very similar to the reds, pinks, greens, and oranges still used today in traditional Guna clothing. The inscription on the jewel-like, heart-like shape to the right of the person’s head translates as “Listen to the sound of the heart.” As Wikipedia notes, singing and listening to songs are a fundamental part of the Guna social and political culture:

In Guna Yala, each community has its own political organization, led by a saila (pronounced “sigh-lah”). The saila is traditionally both the political and spiritual leader of the community; he memorizes songs which relate the sacred history of the people, and in turn transmits them to the people. Decisions are made in meetings held in the Onmaked Nega, or Ibeorgun Nega (Congress House or Casa de Congreso), a structure which likewise serves both political and spiritual purposes. It is in the Onmaked Nega that the saila sings the history, legends and laws of the Guna, as well as administering the day-to-day political and social affairs. The saila is usually accompanied by one or more voceros who function as interpreters and counselors for the saila. Because the songs and oral history of the Guna are in a higher linguistic register with specialized vocabulary, the saila’s recitation will frequently be followed by an explanation and interpretation from one of the voceros in everyday Guna language.

Next comes a triptych of Guna leaders headlined by text that translates as “1925 – 2015. 90 years of Dule Revolution.” The word “Dule” means people in the Guna language. The Dule Revolution, also known as the Guna Revolution, has been described this way:

In the 1920s, two decades after Panama had separated from Colombia, the new republic had established the objective of integrating the Guna population to the “national life”. To do this, the capital employed tactics that were used to divide indigenous communities and undermine the authority of their leaders. Given this situation, in February 1925, several Gunayala communities rose against the Colonial Police in what has gone down in history as the Guna Revolution. Shortly after, a peace agreement was signed by which the government compromised to respect the customs and traditions of the gunas, while the rebels agreed to accept Panama’s sovereignty and respect indigenous people who decided to adopt Panamanian customs. The Guna people’s resistance to acculturation and external submission has allowed them to reach the 21st century as one of the indigenous territories in the world with more autonomy.

The man on the left, Olonibiginya, and the man on the right, Nele Kantule, were leaders of the Dule Revolution. I have not been able to identify the middle figure. “Ologindibibbi” brings nothing up in the search engines I’ve tried; presumably he, too, is a Guna revolutionary.

The following panel, I think, depicts Guna life in an idealized state after 1925. The swastika flag, which appears at the bottom left, was adopted by the Guna nation after the Guna revolution. The swastika, which has nothing to do with Nazis, is an indigenous Amerindian symbol that represents the four sides of the world from which peoples of the earth came. The multicolored fabrics to the old woman’s right are molas with colorful geometric designs produced by a reverse appliqué process. Guna women still make, wear, and sell clothing made from these fabrics; I see them on the streets of Panama City every day. The man on the left is wearing the same kind of hat that the Guna leaders in the previous panel wear.

The fourth panel commemorates the execution of Victoriano Lorenzo, one of the big names in Panamanian history. During the struggles for Panamanian independence, he fought for the rights of indigenous people. When his party, the Liberals, was defeated in the war for independence and signed a peace treaty with the opposition, Lorenzo refused to lay down his arms. He took to the countryside to continue a guerrilla insurgency. He was eventually trapped and executed by the government, just seven months before Panama broke free from Columbian control. The Wikipedia article about him notes that “[m]any indigenous people in Panama understand his assassination as the defeat of their autonomous land rights and access to representation in the Panamanian state structure.” The text here translates as “Victoriano Lorenzo, why did they shoot him? Because he was a real Panamanian!”

The next panel continues to answer the question. It says, “Because he organized the Panamanian people and struggled at their side in the face of injustice. He fought beside the Liberals and they betrayed him.”

The last panel shows a portrait of Victoriano Lorenzo on the left, drawn closely from an oft-reproduced photo. The text on the right side reads, “We continue. The fight is fighting!” This last is a Panamanian idiom similar to saying “We have to keep up the fight!”



(Thank you to my son, Spencer Trumm, and the desk clerk staff at the Novotel Panama City for helping me translate and understand these murals.)

Laundry and Flags in Casco Viejo

It rained for five days straight after I arrived in Panama City. But finally there came a day where the skies, while not exactly bright and sunny, were at least not pouring down rain. I used the opportunity to go to Casco Viejo, the oldest part of Panama City. The neighborhood, which dates back to 1519, sits on a stubby peninsula that juts out into Panama Bay, surrounded on three sides by water. I was here:

Though it’s undeniably an historic district, Casco Viejo is also a living, breathing community. Well-to-do people, the middle class, and poorer folks all live there in close proximity to each other. And even though they live in a UNESCO World Heritage site, they still have to do laundry like everyone else. The Sunday I went was apparently laundry day. Coincidentally, it was also just a few days before the start of Panama’s month-long celebration of nationhood, El Mes de Patria. Panamanian flags and red, white, and blue bunting hung everywhere, sometimes commingling with the laundry.

27 Curaçao

Many people and institutions sustained me during my five weeks in Curaçao. Bed & Bike gave me a place to live and work. La Cantina del Patron nourished me with tapas and cold beer. But it was 27 Curaçao that fortified my rock n roll heart.

27 takes its name from the age at which so many great musicians cashed their check. Robert Johnson. Janis Joplin. Brian Jones. Alan Wilson. Jimi Hendrix. Jim Morrison. Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. Kurt Cobain. Amy Winehouse. These musicians are immortalized on the walls.

But 27 is not a monument to the dead – it’s a space for the living. Live bands perform there several times a week. Rock predominates, but Latin music and hip hop also get their due. Here are some of the best moments from my hours there.

One of my favorite groups was The Charming Bastards, a band committed to carrying the rock n roll torch in Curaçao. Most of their selections were well-chosen covers, both of well-known tunes and deeper tracks – everything a great party band should do.

The biggest show I attended was on October 7, which was when Barry Hay’s Flying V Formation took the 27 stage. I bought the third ticket that was sold for this event, which attracted a couple hundred people (a big crowd for Curaçao).

Barry Hay was the frontman for Golden Earring, a Dutch band that had a big radio hit in the US with “Radar Love.” He has an interesting history, being a Jewish kid born in India to a Dutch mother and a Scottish father. He lives part-time on Curaçao, where he reportedly DJs a radio program.

I’m always wary of going to see older rockers. There are things that many of them did with their voices and their instruments when they were younger that they just can’t do anymore. But Barry Hay seemed to have lost very little of his vocal timbre. He certainly knew how to put on a fine show. And he looked damn good for 69 too. His new band, Flying V Formation, was a multinational ensemble of younger musicians who rocked hard and tight.

The opening act that night was a singer/songwriter from The Netherlands who calls herself PollyAnna. She was one of those opening acts that I’d be happy to see as a headliner sometime. With a voice and style reminiscent of Joni Mitchell, she did a set of of self-penned songs with beautiful melody lines and lyrics that ran from whimsical to introspective.

Andres Mercedes y Los Presidentes are a Latin ensemble from Curaçao. They play salsa, merengue, bachata, and other styles and attract a crowd of locals. The women get dressed up to dance for this band. I don’t know enough about Latin American musical styles to comment intelligently on their shows (yes, I saw them twice), but I loved them. I’ve never been able to dance, but if there’s one genre of music I wish I could move to, it’s this stuff. You can’t be alive and sit still while this group is playing.

In moments of idle musing, I’ve sometimes thought how cool it would be to open my own club. I doubt I’ll ever actually do it. But if I did, I’d model it very closely on 27. It’s worth a trip to Curaçao to visit.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites

So far this year, I’ve been to three UNESCO World Heritage sites. And that got me wondering about how many I have been to in total. So here’s my list, which I will update from time to time as I notch more of them.

Canada

Historic District of Old Quebec

Cambodia

Angkor

Colombia

Port, Fortresses and Group of Monuments, Cartagena

Curaçao

Historic Area of Willemstad, Inner City and Harbour, Curaçao

Czech Republic

Historic Centre of Prague

Dominican Republic

Colonial City of Santo Domingo

France

Paris, Banks of the Seine

Palace and Park of Versailles

Le Havre, the City Rebuilt by Auguste Perret

Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Former Abbey of Saint-Rémi and Palace of Tau, Reims

Italy

Venice and its Lagoon

Laos

Town of Luang Prabang

Mexico

Pre-Hispanic City of Chichen-Itza

Morocco

Medina of Fez

Medina of Marrakesh

Panama

Archaeological Site of Panamá Viejo and Historic District of Panamá

Spain

Alhambra, Generalife and Albayzín, Granada

Cathedral, Alcázar and Archivo de Indias in Seville

Historic City of Toledo

Sri Lanka

Sacred City of Anuradhapura

Tunisia

Amphitheatre of El Jem

Medina of Tunis

Kairouan

Dougga / Thugga

Turkey

Historic Areas of Istanbul

United Kingdom

Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites

City of Bath

Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey including Saint Margaret’s Church

Tower of London

Liverpool – Maritime Mercantile City

United States

Grand Canyon National Park

Independence Hall

Statue of Liberty

Taos Pueblo

Yellowstone National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Vietnam

Ha Long Bay

Hoi An Ancient Town