by Mark Scheinbaum
American Reporter Correspondent
February 21, 2007
Panama City, Panama
CARNAVAL IN PANAMA: HOLD THE BOOZE, PASS THE SOUP
PANAMA CITY, Panama, Feb. 20, 2007 -- The craziness which is Panama's annual Carnaval has turned out to be more about soup than booze, more about those leaving than those entering the city, and as usual, about a big dose of politics.
A combination of events actually has made much of the booming city of 1.9 million people grind to a halt, or at least a prolonged siesta for the past two weeks and now for the four days leading to Ash Wednesday.
There was St. Valentine's Day called "The Day of Friendship and Love" which is a big deal for gifts and special restaurant dinners; the week of "pre-Carnaval" which is sort of a Spring Training for amateur drunks and party goers; the Chinese New Year which is always an extended fiesta for the influential Panamanians of Chinese heritage and the equivalent of everyone being Irish on St. Paddy's Day, and finally the somewhat surprising rise to the futbol (soccer) finals of the Panamanian team that faced Costa Rica Sunday for the Central American championship (they tied 1-1 in regulation, but Costa Rica scored again in a penalty shootout).
"Where's the President? Why isn't he here?" one older Panamanian asked over lunch today.
The question was rhetorical and had already been answered by every editorial writer and newscaster in town. President Martin Torrijos and his wife accepted a White House invitation and this is the weekend Torrijos has been in the United States in policy meetings with Defense Sec. Robert Gates, Bush, and other officials. The First Ladies were doing tea and lunch in Georgetown, and more than a few Panmanians sarcastically wondered if perhaps the Panama first family did not want to mix it up with the locals during what has become more than slightly raucous in some years.
If President and Mrs. Torrijos had actually shown up for the first two nights of Carnaval they might have been pleasantly surprised.
Heightened police roadblocks (to find drunk drivers), a move from the busy downtown location to a cordoned strip of a large highway which connects the cities of Panama and Colon (Transistmica), a series of stages and top live concerts serving genres of all age, and an influx of U.S., Canadian, Brazilian, and European tourists, have thus far kept problems to a minimum.
Newspaper articles all week had talked about the huge amounts of additional rum, beer, and the local favorite "seco" trucked on for the holiday, previous deaths on the road and off, and the disorderly nature of the crowds.
"It's something beyond what anyone could have imagined," grey-haired Willy Fernandez, one of the organizing "marshals" of Carnaval working the VIP area said. "In the first two nights alone, concessions have served 200,000 bowls of 'sancocho' (a chicken soup or stew which serves as the national dish) at 70 cents a serving. We couldn't keep up with it. Some people were joking about hiring big tank trucks to bring more in for the rest of the weekend."
At 10 a.m. Sunday, families with sleeping kids on their shoulders, were finally heading home after a night of music, dance, drinking, and perhaps slurping soup. Just as many families near the University of Panama and the surrounding El Congrejo neighborhood were walking towards the Carnaval site for an early start on lining up a good spot for tonight's concerts, which include Ruben Blades, minister of tourism who is an Ivy League educated international lawyer, award winning actor, singer, composer, and band leader.
As of Sunday afternoon, two deaths had been reported from traffic accidents, and a few days before Carnaval two others were killed and about 20 injured, some critically in a bus accident which is becoming a more frequent cause of death on overcrowded roads.
Some estimates are that alcohol consumption increases 55 percent over a typical weekend during Carnaval, and some brewers and liquor distributors have blatantly issued press releases and run full-page ads promoting their products and their extra production to satisfy the festival needs. In the interior province of Cocle, the cattle and cowboy town of Penonome almost canceled its waterborne holiday flotilla because one liquor company did not want to co-sponsor the event with any other companies. A compromise was finally reached, but it generated even more national publicity for the liquor company's popular products.
One caller to a talk radio show last week summed up the thoughts of a number of Panamanians, who tried to step back and take an objective look at the local Carnaval, Carnaval in Brazil, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, etc.
"I spent time in Bolivia and France," the caller said. "In France, it is about the kids, and families, and things for the kids to enjoy. In Bolivia, things get out of hand in a few towns, but there is definitely a religious tone to things, and you know it is a religious holiday. Unfortunately, I think in Panama it is for teenagers and young adults. The old and the very young leave town."
At beach resorts in the interior provinces, areas such as Las Tablas report people sleeping in cars and camping on the beach. Even foreign tourists have headed for other areas of the country.
The fairly new national bus terminal whihc is also a gigantic super mall, multiplex movie theater, food court, and retail complex at the former U.S. Air Force Allbrook broke all records. Early Sunday the newspaper La Prensa reported that the National Terminal had handled 250,000 passengers in and out of the city on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday an all time national three day record.
At least one location which drew crowds in the hundreds, not the thousands, tried to include families and kids in the festivities. The site was the President Remon Race Track, and live bands performed between races, a promotion of free admission for everyone was extended for Carnaval, and to the chagrin of liability insurance underwriters everywhere, kids were allowed in the most prominent of spots.
Before each race there is the traditional trumpet call to the post, but then the "paddock parade" Saturday saw the jockeys and grooms standing aside, and placing boys and girls as young as four and five years old in the saddle, slowly holding the bridles and walking them around the paddock to the clicks of cameras and the broad smiles of the youngsters.
So, Carnaval is over and things seem to have gone smoothly, at least until the sancocho ran out.