By Meret Schueschke
During the last days, Panama City has been a different place: It was Carnival, and the entire city celebrated it.
The first sign we noticed on Friday was the closure of a major downtown road, Avenida Balboa, which runs along the coast. Part of this road, and the Cinta Costera coastal park next to it were the main area for the celebrations, with daily parades, four stages where music and show acts were hosted, and a multitude of little stalls selling food, beverages, souvenirs and toys.
On Saturday morning, the entire city seemed deserted. The usually busy roads were empty, restaurants were closed, and even the bustling Casco Viejo with its souvenir stores, restoration projects and tourist activity was empty and quiet. As soon as we reached Cinta Costera we knew why: live music was playing on several stages while big water tanks stood by to spray the dancing crowds with water, a very welcome refreshment in the hot noon sun. Soaked with water, hungry and excited, we retreated home during the late afternoon to get changed and rest, before joining the celebrations again in the evening. The atmosphere was like a big street festival, and it seemed that the entire city had come out to participate in the festivities: from old men in Wheelchairs to babies in the arms of their parents, from Kuna women in their traditional Mola to Tourists in their not-quite-so traditional flower print shorts, everyone was there. We strolled through the crowds, considered buying funny sunglasses and flashing hair ornaments, tried grilled Chorizo and marinated pork on skewers, and listened to the rhythms of Salsa, Rumba and Reggae being played everywhere. Children darted through the crowds, spraying unsuspecting people with fake snow, couples young and old danced by the stages, while the carnival queens waved serenely from their decorated wagons.
Each evening brought new parades with elaborate floats, stunning carnival queens and animated calypso bands, we could not get enough of the multitude of things to see, the flavors, smells and sounds of a whole city dancing and celebrating together.
The whole thing had a strong feeling of community, an openness that large cities usually do not experience, people were brought together by the music and the festivities.
And then, today, Ash Wednesday, it seems like it was all a dream. The colorful displays, the calypso bands, the queens and dancers and revelers are all gone. The city is returning to normal, until next year, when the next carnival queen will be crowned to lead the city during these exceptional days.