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Panama Authenticity Report: Part 1

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Written by Matt   
Monday, 23 August 2010 14:26

Most of my time here has been spent subconsciously analyzing whether Panama is real or not and then trying to write about it. It wasn’t something I ever specifically asked myself out loud or anyone else for that matter. I never held round-table discussions on the touristic merits of Kuna Yala or solicited views on the financial impact of expanding the Canal. I just never got that technical or formal. I guess you could say I’m just lazy, thumb or indifferent, or both.

It would be cruel for anyone but the Panamanian people to decide the future of their country.

 

When I say real, of course, I’m not doubting the fact that Panama is an actual place with a physical population and a proper (and proportionally remarkable) GDP. Rather, I wonder whether it’s a genuine place. It's an authenticity argument Casey got me hooked on a long time ago.

Does Panama offer unique experiences or opportunities that are better than other places? Does it have irrevocably redeeming qualities? Is culture preserved? Is there a sense of purpose or drive or self-betterment? What is the ultimate identity Panama wants to project and does that identity match the aspirations of foreigners who travel or invest there? 

These are the questions that fuel my ongoing (yet entirely unsystematic) search for individualism in Panama, and for the time being, the following conclusions seem to represent my best stab at making sense of it all. 

  1. Nothing, not even the most impressive country in the world, is 100% authentic
  2. When Panama leans towards the inauthentic, it is almost always more popular (both to foreigners and to Panamanians) in the present tense. When Panama leans towards the authentic, it has more potential to be popular over the long haul, but it also has a greater likelihood of failing completely.
  3. The most success comes when Panama is sort of authentic in its intent, yet mostly fake in its delivery. This would be Gamboa Rainforest Resort. The worst comes from the opposite situation, like John Wayne Island off the coast of Punta Chame. If the intent is fake and the delivery is fake (Decameron and Playa Blanca), things seem to work out OK. And if both the intent and the delivery are unswervingly authentic, failure is imminent (like a ton of places you’ve never heard of, but probably should have).
  4. In the present moment, most people in Panama don’t see this as a problem. Bloggers and critics write about it, but most people don’t know or simply don’t care.
  5. The most defining act for Panama will be attempting to be inauthentic on purpose, and most specifically if that attempt fails.

 

Like a lot of normal people interested in Panama, the first four don’t captivate me anymore: unless you have a lot of money or power or an extraordinary amount of spare time to dedicate, changing perspectives in Panama is unspeakably hard. But the fifth, I think, in a very fatal sort of way, is the most intriguing topic in Panama right now. It hinges on the core confusion: just who exactly does Panama think it is?

It would be cruel for anyone but the Panamanian people to decide the future of their country. It would be equally cruel to their country for the Panamanian people to blow this decision. Choosing to be inauthentic on purpose – this would include but not be limited to evolving a gimmicky tourism industry or building highways around historic districts – has absolutely no historic merit.

When Panama successfully defines itself, the result will be definitive and eternal. It’s like the way Costa Rica morphed into Costa Rica and, in the process, became bigger than all of Central America put together. Or the way a country in Africa arrives on the Failed State Index. This is not to say Costa Rica is good or Africa is bad or vice versa. But if a transformation fails – no matter the reason – the original product erodes into something else. It disappears into itself and everyone gets depressed and sad and no one wants it anymore.

Veering off Casey's path, I don't think pure authenticity is (and never really will be) the catalyst here because, culturally, it just isn't understood. Panama is a vanity project. Something its people are doing – and rightly so – for themselves. But with vanity, just as with things done exclusively for other people, some sense of taste is required or everything just falls apart. Searching for this taste exposes the confusing truths that have always been here in Panama, lurking quietly.

 

 

 

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Last Updated on Monday, 23 August 2010 14:44
 
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