It has been taking forever, but a big epidemic will disrupt a public works project. Plus, there is a sneaking suspicion that the economic fallout will mean that a lot of the old vendors will lack the resources to set up shop again and an economy that will remain weak for some time to come will make it hard for those who do come back. All that said, the renovated public market is looking good. The electric meters are yet to be installed and there are still plastic bags covering the exterior lights, but the sparkling if unoccupied interior looks much easier to clean, with more space to do business.
The town of Anton on the Monday after Independence Day
by Eric Jackson
It’s a slow return to work, a bus ride there and a bus ride back, with stops for cat food and bread, then a walk this reporter had not taken for many months.
At the bus stop that I usually use at the entrance to El Bajito, SOMEBODY had been busy with a chainsaw over the holiday weekend. Had the maleantes not taken many of my tools I’d have on the way back grabbed a piece of teak from which to make something. Actually, all the way to the turnoff from the Pan-American Highway to the back entrance to El Valle — via Juan Diaz, San Juan de Dios and Altos de La Estancia — there were a bunch of places where people had been busy sawing down trees over the previous few days. Plus there was some significant progress on a few new houses along the way. Would there have been enough discarded teak to make some cool paneling or furniture for these new brick, concrete and plaster places? I doubt that such would have been the plan.
Turning onto the highway and heading toward the town of Anton, a new and an old feature begged questions. Souith of the road there is now a municipal farm. Seems like a local answer to the primordial national security challenge, to keep the people fed. Who works it, where the food goes, what agreements and chains of commerce or distribution, those I don’t know.
A little way farther, on the north side of the highway, there is a project that looked set to go before the epidemic hit, a warehouse of some sort. It looks finished from the outside, but may not be inside. More surplus real estate inventory, which might turn busy and profitable but may represent somebody eating a big loss before that might happen? Recall that economists were talking about the excess inventory issue as Nito Cortizo took office in mid-2019. Who eats such losses? A more pervasive question now than it was then.
On the way from the bus into town to my grocery shopping and then onward, some of the produce vendors’ places were now empty, but there were others. Is it intended that as many such micro-businesses as possible are to be moved to the refurbished market if they are to continue?
Taking a shortcut through the bus terminal, and there was a lady cooking and serving breakfast from a kitchen set up at the back of a van, inside the Anton to Panama bus station.
Not a whole lot new, other than a resurfaced street, walking from the bus station into the town center. There are, however, some notable vacancies, some with renovation clearly intended, and an few more homes than before that appear to be recently emptied fixer-uppers. Land tenure is a mess in Cocle province, but perhaps there are bargain in-town housing solutions to be had for the price of an inexpensive shell of a building plus the cost of renovation along the left side of this street. For years, there have been unrealized thoughts about what to do on a bigger scale behind that corrugated metal fence on the right.
So, for retirees seeking to settle down in the town of Anton, what’s an old buzzard to do? Well, on this morning, to take the first left going up the street above at the Juzgado Municipal, kitty-corner across the street there was a pile of illegally dumped garbage bags and an enthusiastic flock of black vultures feasting on their contents. People come to shop in Anton, and buzzards come sniffing for something gross to eat.
On this day the bars were closed, a lot of barbershops and small stores were open but without customers, and at the city gym, which had been host to an inter-provincial tournament over the weekend, a coach was instructing a team of pre-teen boys.
Past that, no domino players at the corner set aside for the old men who pass their time that way. But in a modest apartment a guy who fit the profile for that crowd was getting a pedicure on his front porch. The young woman massaging his feet is surely part of the informal economy. Did she, like so many others, fall into that niche during the epidemic. The government doesn’t count very much about the informal economy, but from household surveys it knows that these micro-business sectors that now account for most of Panama’s work force have grown.
Turn the corner and the banner across the alley sternly warns about dumping your refuse on city property. A little way past, and it’s the city Christmas tree. Will some politician soon be using the modest shrine to hand out K-pop makeup kits to the girls and plastic Shang-Chi action figures to the boys — or will it be the other way around?
The municipal Christmas tree — no dirty, dangerous and low-paid North American jobs involved.
In the town square’s gazebo, two young men with laptops. Students doing a homework assignment together? A creative collaboration without benefit of an institution? I might have asked but they looked like they were working and concentrating on what they were doing. Just past the gazebo, an old man asked me what country I was from. When I told him I was born in Colon and live in Juan Diaz de Anton he took the hint that this was not to be an informal tour guide customer. Were it not such hard times I might have slipped him a dollar or so — but then he might have been off pursuing some better-paid occupation.
The plaza sits among institutions of church and state, the latter institutions more recently painted. About 125 years ago, this municipal district was perhaps not as devastated as Penonome next door, but the province was Ground Zero for the most ferocious religious warfare between the secular Liberals and the Catholic establishmentarian Conservatives. You can tell this in various ways in many of Anton district’s corregimientos, but it seems that nobody told anyone about it in the town center.
Catholicism is not just a congregation with a house of worship in Anton. The church is also the center of many smaller cultural, academic, service and social institutions housed nearby.
Walking away, a athletic looking young woman carrying a full backpack and wearing no mask hurried on her way. She fit the stereotype of a German backpacker but my mask and her lack of one kept us going in our different directions. These cultural divides cross all sorts of borders and ethnic lines. They will continue to do so, even after the epidemic is over.
Turning back by the courthouse, which was closed on this day, the only crowd I saw was composed of vultures. As my 69th birthday approaches next month, a Panamanian classic from a scene amidst which I grew up came to mind.
Heading back to get the bus home, in the same place and same pose as before. It was a slow day.
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