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Dispatch from Panama: A Walking Tour of the City

Posted by Tom Haines, Globe Travel Writer  February 15, 2008 10:18 AM

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Despite the spikes of skyscrapers sprouting at its edges, Panama City's central streets are often low-slung. Two and three and four-story buildings sit back from avenues that rise and fall on slight slopes and wind, heading one way for a block, then another the next. Foot traffic and the lurching of colorful old school buses give the place intimate dimensions. Heat and humidity can make it feel like an atrium.
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So it was a subdued scene - despite the bull horns, waving red flags and chants for change - when more than a thousand marchers turned a corner onto Avenida Central Espana and headed away from the Bella Vista district - long a center of the city - toward the Plaza Cinco de Mayo.

It was calmer than in previous days, when protesting construction workers sought better safety conditions, then came out in bigger numbers after police apparently shot and killed one of their own on Tuesday.
Photo: Essdras M Suarez

Shop keepers pulled metal doors down in front of glass windows, but lingered to watch the marchers pass. Families gathered on balconies, which became more worn and weathered as the route passed the Cinco de Mayo plaza and angled toward the Pacific Ocean, and the presidential palace in San Felipe.

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In the streets below, neighborhood residents stopped to buy shaved ice snacks and Valentine's flowers from wandering vendors with arm-loads of bouquets. Kids played baseball on a lot of cracked pavement and thick weeds.

By dusk, the crowd had arrived in the Plaza Bolivar, adjacent to the palace and home to shops renovated in recent years to serve swells of tourists and well-heeled Panamanians. Union leaders, who have been mounting a campaign for months to get better working conditions and compensation for the crews on high-rises, gathered to speak from a gazebo in the center of the leafy plaza.

There was no violence, as economic realities of a booming international economy and a poorer local one, mingled in the streets. The police, though, were ready.

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Photos: Essdras M Suarez

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