Frank Sinatra’s "My Way" blasts over the tinny speaker at an open-air pit stop in Santiago, a town which our guidebook accurately describes as the “Bakersfield of Panama". Indeed, rolling into our Santiago in air-conditioned bus, en route to the Pacific Coast, we see pastures with cows, rusted auto shops with tireless trucks, and sprawling strip-malls with McDonalds, now with the “China” menu (probably just in time for the Olympic fervor). The pit stop — an overcrowded, under air-conditioned open air cafeteria — appears to be a stopping point on the InterAmerican Highway for truckers, RVs, and other buses, all on their way to Panama City.
Just like Bakersfield, Santiago is the place to go - on the way to somewhere else. And this is the place to be in Santiago.
Inside the thriving pit stop, Sinatra croons, a young Panamanian women strolls by my fiancé Corin and I, donning a tasteful T-shirt that reads, in English: shut up b*tch! In ironic shock, we sit down to eat spaghetti and chow mein at the cafeteria benches. We see a young mother, kindly helping her child eat the chow mein noodles, wearing a soft yellow, matronly shirt, which reads, in block letters: sixty nine.
This head-spinning cultural jumbo, this haphazard collage of cultures is standard in Panama: “Hey Jude” at Tocumen Airport, Peruvian flautists playing “Titanic” at an American-style mall teeming with American-style bored teenagers and over-priced watches, pain-stakingly hand-painted portraits of Tupac, Pamela Anderson and Jesus on the side of a school bus originally from Middlebury, MA. Back on our bus, Will Smith smiles coyly out from the television, hitting on Eva Mendes in fluent Spanish, a local child in a colorful handmade dress staring at the screen, clutching a Hannah Montana folder. Oh, and John Wayne has an island named after him.
For some, this is a doomsday scenario: the vibrant local Panamanian culture eroded by the menacing forces of globalization, and in its place — Hannah Montana, McDonalds, a world-wide Bakersfield. What we see in Santiago, some might say, is a second Conquest of Central America: the Church of Consumerism, rather than Catholicism, brainwashing the “natives” through the new Conquistadors — Will Smith and cheap hamburgers.
In fact, the image of the Conquistador is un-ironically popular in Panama. The Conquistador is not publicly shunned, swept under the rug, rather he appears to be touted proudly. Spanish Conquistador Balboa, who “founded” Panama and famously claimed for Spain all the land that touched the Pacific, can be seen in any Panamanians pocket, in his shiny metal helmet and pointy beard, staring out from quarters and nickels, which are, not by accident, the same size as US coins. Though the paper money is US currency, by design, it is still referred to as the Balboa. A popular light beer bears his name and his likeness, and promises to “conquer your taste buds". And just in time for the start of the school year, a student can buy a Balboa notebook (replete with an equation chart) to accompany her Hannah Montana folder. (I couldn’t help but write the first draft of this essay in such a notebook, for the irony, of course).
In Santa Clara, our destination on the Pacific, we are greeted by a enormous, professional banner slung across an overpass, advertising New World Realty, a white couple in mid-joy on a virgin beach, twirling away. In English, the ad reads: Find Your Hidden Paradise! The logo for New World? You guessed it — a Conquistador's helmet, just as Balboa wears.
Welcome, Conquistadors! You can put your muskets down. Your beach front property is hidden this a-way!
On New World’s website, the owners/staff, who come from the U.S., Canada and Panama, claim that one of the main reasons to move to Panama is that “It Feels Like Home". In Santa Clara, a “town” which appears built solely for visitors, this holds true, that is, if your home happens to be a Godfather-style mansion with ionic columns, protected behind a heavy steel gate with barb-wire on the top, just to make sure no sneaky locals jump into your guarded Eden. One particularly ostentatious plot is aptly named Marlbolo Country, a gated jungle and mansion within. There appears to be no real community in Santa Clara, at least not from our cursory look, rather a series of gated estates, secluded from the mad hodgepodge of people and cultures. But perhaps, for many Americans, this does feel like home: a gated “community,” which requires no contact with the public, other than a quick trip to the Albrook Mall.
Take a look at any episode of International House Hunters, to put a face to these new Conquistadors. In the show, a couple looks to buy a house abroad, is given three choices, and by the end of the episode (drumroll) chooses one. A recent episode of the show, set in Boquete — a village nestled in the mountains, like something out of the French Alps — shows a Napa couple looking for a restfulful vacation spot in Panama. They find themselves ultimately purchasing a mansion inside a gated resort — with golf course and lawn service — outside the city limits. The perfectly manicured property has a guard at the gate, and some nature to look at within the limits of the gate. It is a little oasis, a little piece of the West inside the South. They can enjoy the fruits of Panama while still being at home, in essence, and without having to deal with locals, or even with pesky neighbors, if they’d prefer.
Perhaps this is a New Manifest destiny. With no beachfront property affordable enough to build an enormous estate on, we move South, instead of West. We seek to escape from the crowds, from the bothersome communities, from the clashing of cultures, from our own globalizing influence. The Conquistadors are welcomed heartily, their money taken happily, and they are placed on expensive, all-inclusive reservations, isolated from the rest of the population. Rather than place the indigenous populations on reservations, place the Conquistadors there, and tell ‘em it’s paradise.
That’s just as American as John Wayne, ain’t it?