From working in a school in Cali, Colombia, to walking past one in Panama City, Panama, things seemed pretty different.
Kids still lingered on the street at the end of the day, chatting about the same things as the students I’ve known, but it was in suits and ties, with expensive watches glittering above their designer bags.
Instead of a backdrop of barrio houses, built on a clay hillside so slippery it means no school on a rainy day, these kids were flanked by enormous shiny skyscrapers, the Hard Rock Café and one of Trump’s many towers.
With one short flight, I’d gone from being a gringa trying to shed any signifiers of her presumed western wealth, to feeling, quite frankly, entirely underdressed. Cross the border of jungle and marshland that separates Panama from Colombia and the world’s a completely different place. Or so it seemed.
Panama City’s a beacon of capitalism. Like the many coins that have been invested in the place, the metallic high-rises of its looming skyline glisten brightly in the hot sun.
Running the stretch of the capital’s coastline is a perfectly preened walkway called La Quinta Costera. It’s popular with joggers, cyclists and families and is the ideal way to get from one side of the city to the other.
But as the morning breaks and the tide is low, the view over the waist-high wall separating the path from the sea tells a different story. On one side, wealthy, health conscious runners go about their daily exercise, on the other, turkey faced vultures pick through the debris of a painfully polluted beachfront.
A little further up the coast, affluent yacht clubs sit awkwardly next to the only obvious indication that this metropolis is actually in Latin America; the fishing harbour.
It’s a loud, bustling hive of activity. Deliveries pass back and forth, fishmongers tout their wares and birds linger eagerly for the opportunity to steal their next meal. Engulfed in its noise, smells, pelicans and salsa music, I began to miss the liveliness of Colombia.
The safe European feel of Panama City, from its immaculate park areas to its designer malls, makes it easy, on first glance, to assume its wealth is spread relatively equally amongst its citizens.
It wasn’t until I left the old town, aiming towards the famous Ship Canal I had absolutely no desire to see, that I found myself suddenly in a very low-income area. My less than reliable sense of direction rarely gets me where I need to go on time but often allows me to see things I would otherwise miss. This small neighbourhood of dilapidated tenement buildings and run down houses whispered of another side to the city. They huddled together in sharp contrast to the touristic areas, like a dirty secret the rest of the town was trying to hide behind its glossy skyscrapers.
Crumbling walls strained under article upon article of drying clothing hung from every available jutting brick and window ledge. Dust marked children played football in the street with a ball long past its best while parents perched on doorsteps surveilling the world around them with vacant, distant stares.
The extremity of financial divides in certain cities constantly astounds me. Invisible lines separate the exceptionally poor from the implausibly rich while necessitating they co-exist in close proximity to one another. On each side of these lines, lifestyles differ beyond recognition and the rights of the individual seem to hold very different weight.
Panama’s capital is a strange place. Its identity seems skewed, as though three completely different cities were smashed together and selectively sprinkled with a whole lot of money.
I enjoyed my time there. I was reunited with comforts I hadn’t really realised I’d been missing: organisation, cleanliness, Italian food. And it’s always good to be by the sea. But beyond that, I can’t think of a reason I’d actually want to go back there.
I definitely didn’t fall in love with Panama City. I wanted to. I tried to. But it just wasn’t meant to be.