In the second KYD No. 21 teaser, Kate Middleton explores the backstreets of Panama City and asks what it means to be a tourist.

1. The only man wearing a Panama hat is an American travelling first class, already costumed in a white blazer.

This was the first thing I wrote in my notebook as I began to gather my thoughts about travelling to Panama City, the metropolis located on the Pacific side of the famous isthmus. It was May 2008, and I was on the plane from Newark when I scribbled these words down, en route to the small international airport that is the major hub for visitors to the land of the world’s most famous canal.

Coming across this brief note years later, I can recall that moment of first spying the gentleman at Newark, and then seeing him again, as we all waited on the other end at customs, paying our $10 entry visa fees. Though it wasn’t my first time arriving alone in a foreign country, I looked everywhere for clues about the best way to proceed, the quickest way to push myself into a Panamanian mindset. The man with the Panama hat had no doubt decided on his attire in his own attempt to acknowledge his final destination. He was prepared for one type of Panamanian experience: the country that was American enough that John McCain, then campaigning as the Republican candidate for president, was eligible for the post because he was born in the American-run Canal Zone. The Canal Zone is back under Panamanian governance, but American Panama still thrives in Panama City.

I was, as usual, travelling on the cheap, but all I wanted was to get to the place I was staying and settle in. Instead of trying to band together with other arrivals for mini-van transport, I let a cab driver lead me to his taxi. I showed him the address I’d scribbled on a piece of paper and suddenly we were driving into the tropical night. I wondered if I would see my man in the Panama hat again. I would not.

2. Being in a foreign (language) culture – forces the word-person into experiencing the visual. Deepens relationship to own language? Heightened.

The ‘word-person’ was, of course, myself. In high school I took Latin; for a few months in 2003 I lived in Italy and took foreign language classes every day. I had never spoken Spanish, though I had muddled my way through reading some of the language. I had once been told that Italian speakers could make themselves understood by Spanish speakers, and vice versa. I didn’t realise until I landed in Panama City that this might be true in Europe, but in Central America hearing the Italian language just confuses people. Likewise my own slow and imperfect comprehension of Italian wasn’t much help when I tried to understand the uncertain replies of my interlocutors. Italian seems to sound just familiar enough to Panamanians that they think perhaps they are meant to understand it, but it’s different enough that it registers as just what it is: a foreign language.

And so, on my first morning I navigated my way from my hostel’s enclave, firmly outside the ritzier expat area, towards Casco Viejo, an older part of the city on the southeast side. Casco Viejo was once a hub of activity, the city that was built after the original Panama City – Panama Viejo – was sacked by the pirate Henry Morgan. Just as the hub had shifted after that sacking, as the city grew, its centre shifted again, and this old quarter of Casco Viejo fell into disrepair. In time it gained a reputation for being dangerous – but then, after being designated as a World Heritage site, Casco Viejo slowly began to re-establish its glamour. The mix of decay and grandeur is an equation in the process of being recalculated.

The local buses used to be school buses from the USA. Upon receiving a new lease of life in Panama they were treated to a gaudy new paint job. They streamed down busy roads in lurid abandon, seats still showing the wear that accompanies years of student abuse. From my hostel I walked to the main road and then I hopped on the bus that, as far as I could fathom, displayed the right number. I got off in the centre of town. I walked down a side street with a bustling market, attracted by the chaos of open-air retail. Coming out the other side, I sat down to get my bearings. Thinking I knew my way, I walked down streets in the sultry mid-morning heat of the wet season. I took a wrong turn, and, recognisably out of place, was set right by a passer-by who spoke to me in broken English. Gracias, I answered. Gratitude always the first language mastered in a new country.

And I looked. While so often I am a reader and a listener, in a foreign country I suddenly rely on my eyes much more as language fails me. The world lays out its splendour, its squalor, its confusing, confused, array. Looking bridges the gap created by the lack of language. In Casco Viejo I found that the direction to look was often upward. Ornate architecture bloomed at the tops of buildings, and I could also see an invasion of vibrant tropical plants along the skyline. As I looked I thought about the way that in drought-prone regions of the world, buildings fall apart for the opposite reasons of the pervasive decay in the tropics – and yet the buildings themselves look remarkably similar as they slide into a fallen state.

Wandering in the city I somehow quickly come to plot my own routes, to find my own landmarks, to memorise the visual elements that I so often miss in the English-speaking world. I can’t help but wonder if that foreignness I experience when I reach the language barrier has a tendency to exoticise my surroundings further. Is the decay of Casco Viejo more picturesque to me because its decay is written in a foreign tongue?

Want to read the rest? Issue 21 will be available online Monday 13th April! Be the first to read it by purchasing a print or online subscription to KYD.

Image credit: Karen Sheets de Gracia

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