A blast from the past: notes from a trip to Colombia and Panama (2004)

The fascinating fusion of physical and cultural landscapes was an enormous source of inspiration in the Central American region where we lived (from 2002 to 2005). The people inhabiting the islands of the Caribbean have produced a wild mixture of musical rhythms including salsa and reggae, not to mention other exotics like pirates, rum and stories of hidden treasure. And there are artists like Paul Gauguin, who stopped in Central America en route from France, seeking the unity of natural and human forms in the “primitive” Pacific. The vastness of the ocean underpins the magical story of Pi, who leaves Pondicherry in southern India to sail to Canada and survives a shipping accident stuck on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger slowly floating to Mexico. Check out Yann Martel (2001): The life of Pi (Harcourt, Orlando).

We needed little encouragement to seize opportunities for exploring. But our kids were growing up and didn’t want to spend too much time with their “aging” parents. So we organized a one-week trip combining four days in Cartagena on the Caribbean coast of Colombia with a short stay at a beach resort on the Pacific coast west of Panamá City. Cartagena is one of the oldest Spanish settlements in the Caribbean. Panamá is an apex of modern, “globalised”, financial and commercial enterprise. Both places bask in the light, the shapes, the smells and the sounds of the region.

We stayed in a hotel located near the residential zone of Cartagena a few minutes walk from the old walled town. Our rooms were on the 20th floor and there was an excellent seafood restaurant on the 23rd floor. The views across the harbour and along the coast were wonderful, although the hotel was overcrowded and noisy; too few lifts, around 300 people eating in shifts. The majority of the guests were Colombians; indeed, as we explored the city we realized that there were very few foreign tourists which is not surprising given that Colombia has been torn apart by civil conflict for over 40 years. I was reminded of a slogan I once saw on a poster in Dhaka: “Visit Bangladesh, before the tourists do!”

Cartagena seemed to be an oasis of calm on the fringe of a turbulent country. It was a great pleasure to stroll through the streets of a Caribbean town with tall stone churches, Iberian style wooden doors and balconies festooned with flowers, whitewashed houses and palm trees on the little squares. In one area of the old town there are exclusive shops selling smart clothes and expensive emeralds (mined in Colombia) as well as fancy restaurants. Further away from the sea, the commercial district encroaches and the narrow streets are packed with stalls and sellers of all colours, shapes and sizes.

We took a trip on a boat to a group of coral islands where there is an aquarium stocked with sharks, turtles and dolphins. The latter amused the crowds with a show, leaping out of the water and diving in formation. We sailed to a crystal blue beach and saw the old forts built by the colonizers to defend the entrance to the natural harbour of Cartagena.

A four-day stay was only just enough time to get a superficial impression of the Caribbean coast. The city was lively. But undercurrents of the harsher Colombian reality were also readily visible: security forces, police and military, a US Coastguard ship anchored in the bay, a dog sniffing bags at the hotel, careful searches at the airport and so on. The obviously high level of underemployment also contrasted strongly with the conspicuous consumption of the residential and tourist enclave.

We left Cartagena on a short flight westwards to Panamá City. The Caribbean dropped out of sight behind us. The isthmus of Central America is crossed in a few minutes by air. From the windows of the aircraft we could see the rugged, inaccessible mountainous region stretching east to the Darian Gap; bandit country, used as a refuge by the Colombian guerillas. Then we were driven across the congested city and the brightly lit canal at sundown and along the Pacific coast road in the darkness to our hotel at the Playa Blanca (white beach).

Given the natural beauty of Panama – mountain ranges, rainforests and sparkling beaches – the Costa Rican model of mass “eco-tourism” will doubtless take off in the near future. The scars of the US invasion in 1989 are healing, the canal is under Panamanian control, trade and business seem to be booming. Panama City boasts the biggest shopping malls in the region and buying sprees are vigorously promoted along with the wonders of cheap plastic surgery and medical care and the delights of the casinos, night-clubs and resorts.

Reflecting on biological and human diversity seemed like the obvious thing to do as we lazed under a straw shelter on the white beach and watched the tide flow. The hotel restaurant was packed at mealtimes. The standard package is “all inclusive”, which means that over-consumption is hard to avoid. But we were in the company of the privileged minority in Panama. Recent data show that although the average income is relatively high, around 40 percent of the population lives on or below the poverty line.

Two days of sun and sand and heavy meals, with as much beer and wine as we wished, was enough. Around the swimming pool the rich, tanned bikini set (mostly from Panamá) seemed to mingle uncomfortably with the pale, overweight, middle-aged European and North American tourists. The attractions of such resorts quickly wear off.

While hunger and malnutrition still affect over 800 million people, there is also a rapid “nutrition transition” underway in the developing world as explored by Barry Popkin (and others) in a collection of articles about Food policy – old and new (edited by Simon Maxwell & Rachel Slater and published by ODI/Blackwell, 2004). Many countries are increasingly affected by a “double burden” of simultaneous under-nutrition and “over-nutrition.” Cursory evidence from our stay at the Playa Blanca (and the hotel in Cartagena) confirms the thesis that middle income countries are increasingly characterized by the consumption patterns associated with the industrialized, “fast food nations” and by the resulting health problems.

En route from the hotel to the airport there were fantastic views across the Pacific and from the bridge (the “Puente de las Americas”) across the Canal. The hills drowned in lush vegetation and every shade of green. Suddenly we emerged amongst the skyscrapers and crowds of Panama City again, heading for the airport.

Our exploration of the Caribbean and Pacific had scarcely begun, but time and money are powerful limiting factors. There are plentiful contrasts in the coasts and mountains, modern cities and remote villages, indigenous colours and imported commodities. Not to mention the delights of artistic imagination!

Some of Fernando Botero’s fat people are on display in Cartagena

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