Don’t Stop The Carnival

Before anyone even thinks of moving to Panama or any other tropical paradise, Herman Wouk’s DON’T STOP THE CARNIVAL should be required reading.

It is set on the tropical island of “Amerigo” which in actually is St. Thomas, USVI. Wouk lived in St. Thomas with his family for 6 years, and DON’T STOP THE CARNIVAL was a fun, aside project and a way of coping.

I first went to St. Thomas in 1969 and was instantly in love. I was chaplain on the old ROTTERDAM and we were in St. Thomas on the US Thanksgiving Day. I called an acquaintance of mine who was the pastor of the Reformed Church in Charlotte Amalie and it turned out he was “off island.” But a young couple from Australia were house-sitting for him and insisted that I join them and a lot of other ex-pats in celebrating a US Thanksgiving. Well, I was the only United States citizen in the bunch, but it was a great party and they managed to get me back to the ship on time. Brian and Heather had a sail boat anchored on Hassel Island in the St. Thomas harbor and I would return to visit them, and boat sit and that started a fun friendship. In those days, if you can believe it, there was nothing along the waterfront in downtown Charlotte Amalie. Brian would leave his Jeep, we’d hop in a tiny dinghy and row out to Hassle Island where his boat was anchored. There was one grocery store and you kind of made do with whatever they happened to have. You needed a four-wheel drive to get anywhere on St John! I was hooked. We ended up going back on vacation with our best friends, a seminary classmate of mine who also fell in love with St Thomas and ended up becoming the pastor of the church there. Before he accepted the call he made us promise that we would come and visit . . . and we did! So I have a long love affair with St Thomas . . . and even after the love of my young life has become pretty much an aging cruise ship whore . . . I have fond memories. Unfortunately, now, I don’t even get off the ship.

As usual, I digress . . .

Wouk’s book came out in 1965 and I discovered it around 1969 . . . and at that time some of the real people who were the basis of the fictional characters, were still around. The story line of the book is about a Broadway publicist who gets tired of the Big Apple, buys a tiny hotel on an island in the harbor of “Amerigo” and all of his frustrations. The island is actually “Hassle Island” and we knew the hotel well.

It’s a funny book and I’ve read and reread it through the years when I want to escape and laugh. My standard movies for escape and laughter are “Birdcage” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”, and my standard book is DON’T STOP THE CARNIVAL. My copy is now held together with rotting rubber bands. So I took advantage of our local used book store in Dolega. Dolega is about 25 minutes from Boquete, and there is a wonderful used book store with mostly English books there called The Book Mark. I went to Dolega and picked up another copy, and full of frustration reread DON’T STOP THE CARNIVAL. I had not read it since we moved to Panama and let me tell you . . . it’s about Panama! Well, not really, but the cast of characters . . . the politicos, the shoddy contractors, the schemers and rip-off artists, the rain, the floods, the foolish gringos with their brains clouded by rum and hibiscus . . . it’s all here, and it’s all the same.

So if you are even thinking about retiring or picking up and moving to Panama . . . read DON’T STOP THE CARNIVAL first . . . and then lets talk.

Panama’s Mall Culture

Perhaps again aping Dubai, although on a more modest scale, Panama just can’t seem to get enough malls.

Gigantic Albrook Mall on the site of the old Albrook AFB

Driving from David to Panama City you see new shopping malls of all sizes springing up, and a mall starting construction today will be finished in time for pre-Christmas sales!  Supposedly, we have a new mall coming to David, 35 minutes from our house outside Boquete … and, drum roll, it is supposed to have a Riba Smith supermarket, unquestionably the best grocery store in Panama with an amazing selection of products, many imported from North America.

But in the meantime, as if Panama City doesn’t have enough malls …

An announcement has been made for the construction of a $160M mall with 190 stores, called Alta Plaza in Panama City, expected to open its doors in September 2015.

  • Multiplaza, Vía Israel, Panama City, Panama
  • Albrook Mall, aside of Gran Terminal de Transporte, Albrook, Panama City
  • Multi Centro, Avenida Balboa, Paitilla, Panama City.
  • El Dorado Shipping Center, Ricardo J. Alfaro Ave., (Tumba Muerto), Panama City.
  • Plaza Concordia, Vía España (Banking Area), Panama City
  • Vía Venetto Shopping Center, aside of Hotel El Panamá, 49 St., Panama City.
  • Bal Harbour, Vía Italia, Punta Paitilla, aside of Plaza Paitilla, Panama City.
  • Los Pueblos, entrance to Cerro Viento, national route to Tocumen Airport, Panama City.
  • Plaza New York, 50 St. y 53 St E. Street, Panama City.
  • Metromall, Domingo Díaz Ave, Panama City.

Now if we could just get all of these malls connected with a sky train or monorail, throw in some amazing fountains, and perhaps an indoor sky resort .

What's next, a ski resort like this one in a mall in Dubai?

What’s next, a ski resort like this one in a mall in Dubai?

In the ten years we’ve lived in Panama, with the economic boom, there is more and more disposable income, not just in Panama City, but throughout the country.

  • Ten years ago we had to search for basic pet supplies, like Frontline flea stuff, treats, etc. You were lucky to find more than one brand of dog food.  Pets are expensive.  Dogs were primarily for security and not intended to be pampered pooches.  Now, go to almost any grocery store and you will find an entire aisle of pet products.
  • The vets all treated horses and cows and it was challenging to find a vet who could take care of small animals.  Now there are vets who specialize in cats and dogs, and even dog grooming centers, and I saw a doggy hotel in Panama City.
  • Any weekend, or any afternoon for that matter, you will see scores of folks riding between David and Boquete on $8,000 racing bikes dressed in $1,000 worth of Spandex.
  • Yep, we now are starting to get graffiti, meaning kids have enough disposable income to buy spray paint.  Steal, perhaps, but that’s a lot harder to do in Panama than in the US.
  • People in Chiriqui used to paint only the front, street side of their house, now they paint the entire house.
  • Our local neighbors are all expanding their homes, adding on, making home improvements.  DoItCenters, like the ones we used to have in the States before they were forced out by Lowe’s and Home Depot, are popping up everywhere.
  • Panama City puts 159 new cars on the streets every day … without getting rid of the old ones.  Most Panamanians drive brand new cars.  Gringo expats drive the old, dented-up vehicles.
  • The cell phone penetration in Panama is 1.9 cell phones per person!  Everyone has a cell phone.  Many have smart phones. Driving while on your cell phone or texting has become a major problem and can result in a huge fine.
  • There is still a wide disparity of wealth between the really filthy rich and the very poor, but a middle class is growing, encouraged by public policy.  For $55,000 to $150,000 you can buy a basic, but nice tract home.  Low, low down payment.  Your $60 to $100 monthly payment is automatically deducted from your pay check and the government guarantees the loan.  So you have a home of your own!  You can start visiting DoItCenter and start the endless cycle of remodeling, painting, building equity, selling and moving up to bigger and better.  The dream of being middle class and owning your own home.

There is truth in the old adage that a rising tide lifts all boats.  But, as the economy has flourished and wages have increased and there is more disposable income … prices have gone up.  Prices of food and construction have doubled making life tougher for those at the bottom or those on fixed incomes.


Taking Money or Making Money From Tourists

This is a cool piece by Carrie Kahn  NPR [National Public Radio] featured about former gang members in the historic Casco Viejo section of Panama City who’ve gone from robbing tourists to serving them.

Panama, like its Central American neighbors, is struggling with a rise in gangs. A recent census by the country’s security forces put the number of criminal organizations operating in Panama now at about 200.

One neighborhood, in the capital’s historic district, is taking on its gang problem with a group of strange bedfellows.

First, meet K.C. Hardin.

“I moved to Panama 12 years ago just to surf and do nothing for a couple years, I thought,” says Hardin.

Developer K.C. Hardin has rehabbed the neoclassical American Trade Hotel, which had been home to one of Casco Viejo’s fiercest gangs.
Developer K.C. Hardin has rehabbed the neoclassical American Trade Hotel, which had been home to one of Casco Viejo’s fiercest gangs.
The still super-tan former New York corporate lawyer not only fell in love with the country, but also with Panama City’s old historic neighborhood, known as Casco Viejo.

“I wound up getting myself into real estate development somehow,” says Hardin. He’s rehabbed some of the old city’s most gorgeous properties, including the neoclassical American Trade Hotel and the Art Deco former Citibank headquarters.

That was no easy feat, considering the hotel was in ruins and had become home to one of Casco Viejo’s fiercest gangs.

Which brings us to the other partner in the rehabilitation of the neighborhood: the gang members, like Luis Ricardo James. Everyone calls him Ricky.

“We used to rob tourists here,” says James. “That’s how we survived.”

So did his cousin, Antonio Luis James, who was the leader of the local gang.

Standing just blocks from Hardin’s restored hotel, where a room can go for up to $400 a night, James points to a rundown house. His brother, also a gang member, was shot dead there. The dispute was over a stolen necklace.

Both James and his cousin have spent time in prison: Ricky, seven months for a firearms violation; Antonio, three years for what he says was an accessory to murder charge.

Two years ago, with Hardin’s help and a local evangelical church, the men and dozens more began a rehabilitation program. They got job training and self-esteem building. A year ago, they opened a fruit stand and a local bar, and now they cater to tourists instead of robbing them.

On a hot and humid recent afternoon, Antonio James gives a tour of Casco Viejo. Along the way we see historic sites, like the colonial-era wall that guarded the city from pirates. We meet neighbors, like a 92-year-old woman who lives in government-subsidized housing and won’t be pushed out by rising rents and gentrification. We also stop at what used to be gang hot spots.

James also stops to point out his mom, who’s waving furiously at us from the third floor of an old wooden building. He says she’s really proud of him and his turnaround. With his earnings from the tour and his fruit stand, James is putting his younger sister through college. She, too, beams at us from across the street as we continue on the tour.

Police crime statistics testify to the old city’s revitalization. There’s only been one robbery this year.

Hardin and the James cousins hope they can spread that good fortune and their pacification strategies to other parts of the country, and even beyond.

But while Panama is struggling with a growing gang problem and new ties with international criminal organizations, violence here is nowhere near the levels experienced in El Salvador or Honduras, says Ana Selles de Palacio of the Institute of Criminology at Panama University.

Selles says to keep combating gangs so they don’t reach critical levels, “it will require resources, technical expertise and political will.”

Hardin couldn’t agree more. He likes to say you can’t have healthy societies without healthy cities. He hopes that redevelopment, without displacing local residents, will be part of that strategy.

“Revitalizing the city core and doing it in an inclusive sustainable way,” he says. “I see it as a national priority for a lot of Latin America.”

James wants the same. He says he wants a better neighborhood and life for his children.

And, he adds, honest work is better: He’s making more money giving tours to tourists than robbing them.