Part 1 On distant dirt – preamble
Three weeks on different, distant dirt – Panama and Cuba. 10 days each. Panama City and Havana. Then inland. And some beach time in both countries.
I wanted to do this particular trip because Panama was a bit of an enigma for me. I’d heard about it as a retirement haven and I had some history on the Panama Canal, knew vaguely about the Aboriginal Peoples. And always the criminality, the Colombian drug money that is so easily laundered under Panama’s favourable investment and banking rules.
Cuba has long been on my radar but only peripherally. I’d often thought of going, but there was always somewhere else to go to “first”. And having lived in Nicaragua during the Sandinista Revolution and seeing the hardship from shortages caused by the U.S. blockade, I’ve always thought that Cuba would suffer similar hardship. I’d read and heard that over the past decade, that Cubans had been granted increasing liberties to travel and to conduct small private enterprises.
That made me feel more comfortable about travelling there. So, when earlier this year at a fundraiser, I met a young Cuban man who advised me to “get there before McDonald’s does”, I followed his advice. Clearly, the time had come to quit procrastinating.
Then I made the decision to go to both countries in one grand adventure. I would compare the two countries – the hyper-modern Panama City, with the fastest growing economy in Latin America for two years running – with Cuba, the most retro country in the hemisphere. I would make it a photographic assignment. I brought the trusty – and large – Nikon along and shot about 5,000 photos. Some of them are good. Others I missed the light, or the composition is somewhat off.
Check out the contrast between the Havana skyline (left) and the Panama City skyline.
My camera became my touchpoint to speak to people. In Boquete, Panama, I had a gaggle of about a dozen teen-aged school girls posing for photographs, then chatting with me, curious about who I was, where I came from, where I’d travelled to. Then they in turn, told me of their lives, studies and aspirations before scurrying away to catch the school bus. It was very sweet. And it happened often that I would would become familiar with the people before I photographed them, catching the faintest scent of their lives that I attempted to convey in my photographs.
It was a very quick trip. Whirlwind. And I discovered that I was not as well organized as I might have been, given the short time I had to fulfill my ambitious plan. So, given the limitations of time and quick wittedness, I managed to muddle my way through with relative ease and incurring only minor bumps and bruises.
I spoke a lot of Spanish. And some German. I took a tour in German to the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca in Panama’s northern Chiriquí province. In Boquete in Panama, it was difficult to find people with whom to speak Spanish. The kids at the reception at the Mamallena Hostel where I stayed were from the Czech Republic and didn’t even speak Spanish. A lot of North Americans in Panama too.
In Cuba, I spoke a lot of Spanish. A singsong sort of Spanish where words roll into one another and endings are lost, beginnings soften. Where does one word end and the other begin? I often had to ask people to repeat their comment. The women spoke way more clearly than the men, interestingly.
That’s the preamble. More to come.