By Seàn-Patrick Lovett
Imagine, just for a moment, that you are a young pilgrim attending the 34th World Youth Day in Panamá City. If you are lucky, you will have arrived by plane. Even after a 20-hour flight from Europe, Africa or Asia, you’ll still feel fortunate to be here. Because we all know this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a unique opportunity to celebrate being Catholic among committed, faith-filled, young believers like yourself.
That sense of celebration will increase exponentially as you drive from the airport to the city centre. Flanked by fluttering flags, alternating the yellow and white of the Vatican, with the red, white and blue of Panamá, you will be greeted by the face of Pope Francis himself, smiling down at you from banners and billboards.
Your destination is the Cinta Costera, a 2.5-kilometer coastal beltway and park, built on land reclaimed from the sea. It’s here the opening Mass for WYD was held on Tuesday afternoon. And it’s here the Pope will first greet young pilgrims at the official welcome ceremony on Thursday evening.
The Cinta Costera provides a spectacular backdrop to the best Panama City has to offer: breath-taking skyscrapers, mouth-watering eateries, top-of-the-range fashion stores, and everything else a consumer’s heart could possibly desire.
It’s no secret that many of the world’s super-rich, including four of the wealthiest people on the planet, have a home in Panamá. Income from the Canal, along with some rather liberal tax laws, ensures it stays that way. For the lucky ones, at least.
But if you keep walking, your surroundings change rapidly and radically.
Suddenly you’re in a warren of cobbled alleyways where street vendors sell pineapples, coconuts, fish and hand-made footwear, all at prices that anyone can afford.
Keep on walking and you reach a part of the city that never appeared on Trip Advisor: past the quaint and picturesque cobbled streets of the Casco Viejo, or Old Quarter, past the hostels and hotels, the colourful sights and exotic smells, keep walking past ramshackle houses where paint peels off weatherworn walls.
Now you are outside Panama City proper, in a kind of no-man’s land made of mud and shacks, where stray dogs prowl and children play among the garbage.
This is where the unlucky ones live, those who reap zero benefit from the wealth generated by the Panama Canal, or from anything else. They are the other face of an otherwise fascinating city.
But if you want to meet them, you’re going to have to keep on walking.