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Panama's New Street of Decay

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Written by Matt   
Tuesday, 14 November 2006 08:37
I was recently in a not-so-good part of town where I met a small boy selling bars of soap on a street corner and his fat fingers reminded me of baby carrots. The street corner was grimy: stray dogs infected with the mange roamed in and out of ramshackle buildings and off in the distance a man took, sales what can appropriately be described as a massive bowel movement in the street. The bars of soap which the boy was selling were handmade and they seemed to be laced with some sort of sand or abrasive, making for a terrifically exfoliating massage. It's unfortunate that Panama's sketchy neighborhoods can't be scrubbed using traditional cleaning supplies. This little soap boy and the dirty street were symbolic for me. Just a few days ago, Eric Jackson wrote an article expressing concern over the ever-devolving tourist scene on a street called Via Veneto in Panama's El Cangrejo neighborhood. As a young guy from the states, part of what initially attracted me to Central America was the dangerous vibe that it whispered—this shadowy third world facet of risk and potentially-huge reward. But in all honesty, that very draw that brought me south of the border several years ago, has of late, lost its luster. It's not a novelty anymore. Now it's just gross.

Walk down Via Veneto on a Friday or Saturday night and see what I'm talking about. Cancel the façade of Panama's newest and nicest casino, The Veneto Casino and Hotel, and you'll see the street's dark, eerie, and semi-underbelly gang of panhandlers, aggressive taxistas, and promoters with small raunchy business cards trying to lure you into their crooked establishments. The streets are poorly lit, the sidewalks are dirty and crack-laden, the feel is like that of being trapped in a stagnant pool of rainwater.

During the day, when I pass the barred pawn shops, crammed internet cafes, and convenient stores selling lighters and individual cans of beer, I can't help but compare Via Veneto to the sullied streets of downtown Myrtle Beach—an area near which I lived long ago, occupied mainly by smoky tattoo parlors and people wearing sleeveless T-shirts with vulgar and non-witty things on them like IF I WANTED TO HEAR FROM AN ASSHOLE, I'D FART! With the opening of one new strip club and another new massage parlor, my confidence that Via Veneto will evolve as a tourism hotspot appears to be sinking faster than the long-forgotten breasts of an old street whore.

I found myself asking this question just last week, when on my way home, a dog-eared hooker approached me like in the movies. All staggering and drunk, the way you might introduce yourself after ingesting several sticks of highlighter fluid. She wore this hideous road crew orange dress and she was fat like a warrior walrus. Roar. She wore a wig of red stringy hair which partially covered the giant bruise on her face; a bruise that looked very much like the LA Lakers logo. And she was stuffing her face with cashew nuts. I felt bad for the woman, Queenie. I felt bad for the neighborhood. Hell, I felt bad for myself.

What vacationer in their right mind would want to arrive, after six hours in comedy class, to a pumpkin-looking prostitute with cashew breath? I walk this street almost every day and lately, the amount of beggars with deformed limbs and screaming babies is getting to be too much. Why can't anyone clean this place up? At this rate, The Veneto Casino could turn into Hotel Del Rey, where a large percentage of the eyes on you are caked in the hungry eye shadow of crypto-hookers. So while it's funny to a certain extent, and I'm sure a handful of Johns visit the country for this reason alone, I have to ask myself, at what point is enough, enough? Keep it under control wont ya?

This phenomenon isn't happening in all that many other areas of Panama, but it'll be an interesting development to follow in El Cangrejo as more tall buildings erect themselves and more fanny pack-toting gringos hit the streets. It is perhaps Panama reminding us that as a country, it does indeed have a herculean income gap—close to that of South Africa. I don't know much about tourism nor economics, so my views on how to handle this subject aren't nearly as valid as, say, a guy who wears slacks to work. However, it doesn't take a trained eye to see that the seediness of Via Veneto is germinating. One, cashewnut-eating floozy at a time.
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Last Updated on Monday, 11 August 2008 23:28