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Panama Prequel: where in the world is the 34th Youth Day?

As Panama prepares to welcome Pope Francis, our correspondent in Panama City takes a closer look at the country and its people.

By Seán-Patrick Lovett

First and foremost, the name of the country is pronounced with the accent on the last, and not the first syllable: so it’s Panamá, not Pánama. And the Panamanians take the name of their nation very seriously. They also take the fact of hosting the 34th World Youth Day very seriously and are determined to display the best of who they are, and what they have.

Pilgrims and preparations

Panama City is brimming with young pilgrims from all over the world, many of whom have made huge sacrifices to be here. Like Sara, who travelled for over 20 hours in a battered bus over potholed mountain roads from Guatemala. Or Luke, who built and sold kites to help pay for his plane ticket to Panama from India. Or Filipe, who hitchhiked his way across most of South America because he could afford neither the bus nor the plane.

These, and thousands like them, are being housed in a variety of buildings, including schools, parishes and gymnasiums, and often any other edifice, so long as it has a roof. Even the local Islamic Community has opened its doors to 500 pilgrims. Most people are proud to have had a hand in preparing for the papal events, especially. Locations the Pope will visit are immediately identifiable by the smell of fresh paint, the yellow and white banners that adorn them, and the strong security contingents that surround them.

The Panamá Canal

But if Panamá is associated with anything at all, it is with its world famous canal – one of the first stops on the young pilgrims’ itinerary. They are welcomed by a multimedia exhibition space that proudly traces the construction of this so-called “7th Wonder of the Modern World”. Silly anecdotes about the canal abound: from the man who swam its full 82 kilometres, to the cargo ship supposedly carrying sugar, but really smuggling a military jet. Or the fun fact of its massive locks weighing 700 tonnes, the equivalent of 300 elephants.

Economy and Ecology

The canal is the major source of income for this country (around 2.4 billion dollars in 2018). Interestingly, it’s economic success relies largely on maintaining a balance with the local ecology. In Panamá they plant trees, instead of cutting them down. It rains here for 9 months of the year, and a lush, tropical vegetation is essential to maintain the natural water levels that allow the canal to do its work. Fortunately for the WYD pilgrims, January is not the rainy season. Weather forecasts predict clear skies (and sky-high humidity) for the next few days. Not that a bit of rain would be likely to dampen their youthful enthusiasm. Or ours.

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22 January 2019, 14:14