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Trekking Around Panama

Although it is a connector between north and south, and between east and west, Panama is geographically disorienting, always presenting the traveler with directional conundrums. There are points in the country from which you travel west to east to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Still, I quickly learned—in a general sense—where I was in Panama. I was in the center of the Americas. And all this because of the canal. The canal has traditionally governed everything in Panama. It has the biggest cash flow of any business—well, certainly, of any legitimate business—in the country, and fees levied on transiting ships from around the world account for most of Panama's monetary intake. Running the canal is as important a job in many ways as being president of Panama, if not more so. And the canal is intimately tied to Panama's complicated demographics. During the late 1800's and up through the completion of the canal, there were not enough Panamanians available to dig the gigantic and demanding cuts or to build the dams and retaining walls of the project, so workers by the thousands had to be imported. Because so many laborers from around the world immigrated to the isthmus—submitting themselves to harrowing engineering ordeals and murderous epidemics—Panama now has a large West Indian population, a sizable Asian population, and a trader class of Middle Eastern Jews and Arabs, as well as people descended from conquering Spanish and Native American ancestors, or both. During the canal's American phase—in which it actually got built—workers of different races were tacitly segregated in their own tidy little U.S.-built villages, but since then, there's been plenty of what might be called interpenetration.

At noon on December 31, 1999, after a gradual process of transfer, the U.S. government turned over control of the Panama Canal to the Panamanians, including administration, operations, and defense of the waterway. It was an odd moment. The Canal Zone, a 553-square-mile tract of land, and all the buildings on it, were now completely Panamanian, and the Canal Authority, under the sole management of Panama, could decide how to dispose of the territory and everything it contained. Before this, the Zone had always been a more or less pristine version of American suburbia, albeit in a tropical setting. U.S. soldiers in crisp uniforms patrolled the nearby base, and on weekends, families living in beautiful two-story wooden houses with screened terraces and porches frolicked on their lawns, drinking martinis and eating barbecue, the children gliding through the air on plank swings and playing with cheerful plastic toys. Everything came from the commissary, shipped in by the U.S. government.

But from the moment it fell under Panama's control, the Canal Zone effectively was Panamized, while the rest of the country quickly became more Americanized. Now you can find a McDonald's in every medium-sized town, Pizza Huts and Mail Boxes Etc. dotting the avenidas, shopping malls of every stripe in the cities, and Internet service everywhere—even up in the cloud forest. I drive into the canal zone late one afternoon to talk to a man named, improbably, Gilles Saint-Gilles, a French designer with a worldwide practice. The first plans for a canal across the isthmus were drawn up by the Spanish in 1529, but war and exploration diverted the conquistadors. In the late 1800's, the Spanish renewed their attempt and began developing companies to finance construction. The only thing they failed to do was break ground. That was left to the French, who were the first to both dream of a canal in Panama and begin digging one. The original work on the Panama Canal was financed by France in 1880 and undertaken by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the public relations genius and impresario who had—before that—conceived of the Suez Canal, sold the French on that one, and got it built.

Gilles Saint-Gilles is the latest in the series of Frenchmen touched by a crazy Panamanian dream. We sit in the courtyard of his office, which is in an old Canal Zone house. Upstairs, in a cheerfully renovated, modernized work area, careful men wearing spectacles are pasting together architects' models of various dazzling buildings. Outside the office windows, palms spread their dark green fronds. About eight years ago, Saint-Gilles and his wife came to Panama on a lark. They were walking through the Casco Viejo—the elegant, dilapidated colonial quarter of Panama City—"and she looked at it and then at me and said, 'Hmm. Not bad,' " Saint-Gilles says, laughing.

"That meant she had fallen in love."

He had, too. Together they bought some land out on the Azueros Peninsula, on the Pacific coast near a small town called Pedasí. "I chose the place because of the sea," Saint-Gilles says. "The calm, the climate. It's very peaceful. Like Tuscany." And they began building. First, a house.

"It's a small house," Saint-Gilles says. "To paint in, to think in."

A small house, however, didn't satisfy his need to create on a large scale—and so he found himself, as time passed, obsessively continuing construction on his sprawling Azueros property, until, by now, there is the equivalent of a resort there, including a hotel called Villa Camilla. He and his partners hope to turn it into a luxurious, exclusive retreat for the world's wealthiest vacationers. It remains to be seen whether a place like Panama can play to that crowd.

"We think it can," says K. C. Hardin, an American businessman easy to mistake for a surfer, which he also is, who has been working with Saint-Gilles and others to make the Azueros resort a reality. "Panama has ­everything: beauty, beaches, excitement, adventure."

Panama's head of tourism has other ideas. And he's exactly the kind of person you appoint if you want your tourism chief to have other ideas. His name is Ruben Blades. Arguably the world's most famous living Panamanian (with the possible exception of deposed dictator ­Manuel Noriega, now languishing in a Florida prison) and arguably the world's most famous living salsa musician, Blades is also a talented film actor who has a house in Los Angeles as well as in the Casco Viejo. But here he is at work in his office in the Convention Center downtown, surrounded by high-gloss tourism photos. His music always had political undertones, and in 1994 he made an unsuccessful but high-spirited bid for Panama's presidency. Blades's friend Martin Torrijos, Panama's new president, was inaugurated in September 2004 and appointed Blades soon after.


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