Panama and Mexico Chronicles

The temple before me was a stone pyramid with steep sides and a flat top. Around it was a perfectly manicured lawn, arching palm trees and then in the distance misty mountains. I was in Mexico – but not at the famous pyramids of Teotihuacán as you might think. If I had been there, I would have been surrounded by tourists – but I was alone, in the ruins of Zempoala, 40 km northeast of Veracruz City.

Zempoala is a small site and not many tourists visit it. However, the purpose of my visit to Mexico wasn’t tourism and since I had allowed myself only one afternoon in Veracruz province to sightsee, Zempoala seemed the perfect choice. In all honesty, I also loved the fact that I could explore the ruins in peace, with no (other) tourists, no vendors, no guides, just me the birds and the temples. Despite its small size, Zempoala was an important Mesoamerican city. It was the largest city on the Gulf of Mexico and the capital of the kingdom of Totonicapan, home of the Totonac people. At its peak, it had a population of between 25,000 and 30,000 and in the end the city was an important staging post in the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés.

The real reason for my trip to Veracruz was the North American Ornithological Congress, a huge gathering of “birders” (bird watchers and ornithologists) from all over North, Central and South America. Veracruz was chosen as a location in part to facilitate the attendance of Latin Americans without the hassles of obtaining visas for the USA or Canada. Just imagine Cubans trying to get into a conference in Miami for example! All in all, the conference was a great success with many scientifically stimulating talks and several inspirational orations given by people trying to promote conservation and ornithology in Latin America. It was also an excellent chance for me to establish and strengthen ties with colleagues in the Americas and to bounce around post-doc ideas.

After the conference I had a bit of time to explore Veracruz City. With a population of 500,000 (2000 census) Veracruz is a major port city on the Gulf of Mexico. It was founded by Hernán Cortés, who first landed there in 1519 at the start of his quest to conquer Mexico for Spain. It is often referred to as Puerto de Veracruz to distinguish it from the state and the people of Veracruz are known as jarochos. While in the city I hit the highlights of the Carranza Lighthouse, the Plaza de Armas and the colorful artisan market the malecón, a lovely harbor-front boulevard which draws more tourists from within Mexico than foreigners.

From Veracruz I hopped on a bus to Mexico City, taking in 6 hours of lovely scenery (and bad bus movies) along the way. With a population (in the greater metropolitan region) of over 17 million and an area of nearly 5000 square kilometres, Mexico City is one of the most immense cities I have ever seen. Low white houses seem to crawl up the sides of the surrounding volcanoes and entering the city by bus allowed an almost never ending view of the urban sprawl. My plan was to visit the Frida Kahlo museum in Coyócan, a district in the south of the sprawling city, but as luck would have it the museums were closed on Mondays. Instead I took the subway to the city centre and wandered the famous Zócalo (Plaza de la Constitución) a vast, flat square used as a stage for political rallies, special concerts, and holiday processions. A huge book fair was taking place around the square’s immense Mexican flag when I visited, and to the north I could see the Metropolitan Cathedral, Latin America’s largest church. Next to the church was the Templo Mayor (Great Temple), the ruins of a ceremonial center accidentally discovered in 1978 by city workers digging underground, and part of the buried Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. From there I went to look at the famous mural by José Clemente Orozco in the Supreme Court of Justice. The mural is called National Wealth and includes a huge tiger representing the national conscience defending the country’s wealth from human greed. Then I doubled back to the National Palace on the east side of the Zócalo. The palace was built on the ruins of Moctezuma’s palace, and is now the seat of the federal government. Inside the palace was the highlight of my visit to Mexico City, Diego Rivera’s stunning murals, which lined the walls and stairways with depictions of Mexican life and history in vibrant colors and revolutionary fervor. Rivera was Frida Kahlo’s husband, a famous Mexican muralist and a staunch political left winger.

The only drawback of my trip to Mexico was the location of the conference center – smack in the middle of the resort district of Veracruz. I certainly don’t blame the conference organizers for choosing that venue, as housing 1600 delegates would have been a nightmare anywhere else. I was just disappointed by the surroundings – hotel chains, imported fast food and glitzy shopping malls in all directions. The place gave no inkling of being in Mexico, it could have been a resort district anywhere. Don’t get me wrong, I love going to the beach as much as anyone else. Furthermore I love traveling. I am a tourist and I am thus part of the problem. But I hate the fact that we are creating a “monoculture” – a monoculture that refers not to a single species of cultivated plant, but literally to a single (and in my opinion exceptionally fake and materialistic) culture. If I wanted to see an American shopping center I would have stayed in North America! When in Mexico I want to see Mexico and Mexicans – and not Mexicans cleaning my room, washing my sheets and waiting on me hand and foot – I can get that up north too.

Sadly, the same thing is happening in my beloved Panama. Since I left, luxury condominiums have sprouted like weeds selling the tropical lifestyle to Americans, Canadians and Europeans. I don’t mind the condominiums, in fact in this era over overpopulation and urbanization I am staunch supporter of vertical cities. But I feel like Panama is selling itself out, and I am desperately afraid that, like so many other places I have visited, it will lose it’s soul while trying to cater to the extravagant needs of others (on top of the extravagant needs of the already existing upper class). It is not that I mind sharing the country with other foreigners. I enjoy showing people around Panama, but it is Panama that I want them to see – not just another tropical resort. I also hate the impact of tourist dollars on poor or lower middle class Panamanians. Whole districts are being gentrified and the accompanying price rises are excluding Panamanians. Even worse is the unceremonious ousting of poor people from their homes on what have now become prime waterfront properties. Of course they are offered compensation – but in what form, and can it ever be enough?

Panama is certainly not the worst offender. I have seen the same thing in Peru, Ecuador, China, and yes in Canada too. And I’ve heard horror stories from BBC documentaries and from traveling friends that the plastification of South East Asia continues unrelented and that poor people are being evicted in droves. To me (and this is just my opinion) mass tourism is the new colonialism. When Europeans first colonized what eventually became the Third World (I use the older terminology for convenience), the land and resources of others were used to service the needs of the rich in the First World. Though many don’t realize it, this continues today and the Third World still exports (to the First World) more food that it uses to feed its own people and much more in monetary value than it ever receives in aid. Now even more land is being used to service the rich. Everywhere I look I see property being sold for ridiculously low (by First Word standards) prices. But if Panama (or anyone else) sells all of its prime property, what will be left for Panamanians?

Still not all the changes are bad. Yesterday I found a wonderful microbrewery in the middle of Panama City. Panamanian beer is notoriously watery, but this “home brew” was wonderful and completely local. The brewery is supported by tourists and locals alike and I like that. Other things are changing in Panama as well. As I write this Panamanians are gathering to vote in a referendum over whether or not to widen the Panama Canal. If the project goes through, and is managed without corruption, it will provide a plethora of jobs and will greatly improve the Panamanian economy – but at what cost? Widening the canal runs the risk or overtaxing the canal watershed and creating not a wider canal, but a dry one. Furthermore, why is the expansion necessary? Do we really need to accommodate bigger boats? The Panamax giants that I see in the canal everyday seem plenty big enough to me. Just how much “stuff” do we need and why do we need to transport it all over the world? Of course I am as guilty as anyone else of buying New Zealand apples during the local off season …

But condominiums and shopping malls aside I still love Latin America and especially Panama. I love the enveloping humidity, the roasting sun, the passionate storms and the vibrancy of the people. This country remains close to my heart and so far I don’t feel that tourism and development have robbed it of its soul. People here are as proud and feisty as ever as they prepare for their referendum and hurl insults at their government (both orally and via some excellent editorial cartoons) over a recent social security health service scandal. Indeed, I still love the place and it still feels like home to me.

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