In August of 2021, I was sent to Panama to work as a documentary photographer on a campaign. Because of one reason or another, I had a lot of free time on my hands to explore Panama City and its surroundings. I ended up spending two months in the country, strolling the streets, alleys and dirt trails when possible, getting a slice of Panamanian life – a strange, segregated, American white-ashed slice of life.

These are just my interpretations, through my observations and wanderings.

From the jovial Mexican-style rooftop bar it’s a beautifully distorted view of Panama City – one where all the tourists stand in front of to get their photo taken. It’s a dilapidated, dusty, crumbling visage of the once hip-and-happening vibrant Caribbean town, against an eerie, soulless, American drenched, gray skyscraper skyline. Reggaeton echoes through the streets, the original soundtrack of a long-forgotten city and its people.

It’s a typical humidly warm tropical Saturday late-morning in the now so-called “ghettos” of the old town. Lingering through spirited pothole-filled streets, the smell and sounds of life and poverty intertwined in each other – a joyous melancholy cocktail. The tragic faded pastel colours of what’s left of what once was and what once could have been, and the honest beauty of the virgin white pearly smiles from every passerby and every inhabitant of this community – young and old, tall and short.

“Amigo, be careful! It’s dangerous here,” I hear a voice shouting from across the road, but I also hear the deafening sound of a warmhearted graciousness in the laughter of people all around. Rhythmically harmonizing with the cheerfully nostalgic Latin American rhythms flowing from old one-speaker radios. This is reality in all its forms, the truth of this cracked and broken world we try to patch together. This is what I go out in search of, what I desperately seek on my travels and wanderings. But unfortunately, this is not what your average tourist wants to see, because honesty is never soft on the eye nor conscience.

I reach the square in the centre of town with the century-old cathedral, cracked and skew with roots and leaves hanging from the walls, barely still standing, but still in use with the prayer-candle glow lighting up the doorway. In this part of the world, you still see people pray. The scene reminds me of an oil painting on the wall of the guest room in a shabby bed-and-breakfast somewhere in the middle of nowhere countryside. It’s the same square as in thousands of poor towns across this world. Inside prayers are being whispered while outside tired-face barechested hobos sit on park benches cursing the world around them out loud for their daily pain and struggles.

Going north, leaving the city behind, you find coconut-tree-covered coastal villages with cars covered in leaves parked beneath the shade of dense green tropical trees – by the look of the deflated tires, not of much use anymore, not going anywhere soon. If you stop and look closely, you might even see a sloth in one of those trees. Old picturesque faces rocking their chairs through the days on small porches with dripping blocked gutters. Abuelos laying shirtless in hammocks slowly dragging on crooked cigarettes, quick to lift their hand for a wave and a smile as I pass by. Niños laughing and playing in the middle of the street with the scrawny neighborhood street dogs.

When you walk through these streets there’s a natural lightness in you, as if you’re just floating from one place to next, barely touching the ground. There’s no rushing here, there’s no eagerness to get to the next big thing or to get to tomorrow, there’s no point in that anyway. Time runs backward here. This is the type of place city boys see in their small town dreams where they walk around as fictional characters – or maybe it was just me. It’s just another day in this forgotten tropical, thundercloud-covered scrapbook world. Seafarers and lonely rucksack dwellers are the only visitors passing through with time never on their side to stay long enough to get to know anyone really or to listen to the tales and dreams of the ghosts who found the land, still hanging around.

Drifting through this place reminds me of this quote by Alan Watts, “Time is a social institution and not a physical reality. There is no such thing as time in the natural world – the world of stars and waters, clouds, mountains and living organisms. There is such a thing as rhythm – rhythm of tides, rhythm of biological processes… There is rhythm and there is motion. Time is a way of measuring motion.”

Yet, I can’t help to feel a sense of sorrow and instinctively try to look for answers to how to save these people, fix the broken and make things “better”. But maybe, just maybe this is exactly our problem, that we’re the ones in need of the saving, the ones who should be learning from these communities, from those who owned the land way before we stepped foot on it. We should learn how to stop, slow down, and learn how to quietly observe, and just listen. In this world where we’re addicted to the noise and the gigantic, learn to stop the need for more. We should open our eyes to the magic and beauty in the everyday little miracles around us — those elegant, low-voiced, and delicate things, like a ladybug resting on your hand, spreading its wings and taking off again. Maybe then we’ll be able to hear the answers to some of the bigger questions… But what do I know anyway? I’m just a white westerner observing from a distance, clenching my notebook and pen with one eye through the lens.

~ Willem

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About the author

Avatar - Willem van den Heever

Willem van den Heever

I'm an independent filmmaker, photographer, writer, environmentalist and explorer from Cape Town, South Africa. In 2015 I graduated with a BA Film Arts degree from The Open Window Institute of Film Arts, in Pretoria, South Africa and have since travelled to...

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  1. Thank you for this wonderful writing with such insight, love the photos , they affirm your narrative beautifully! Thanks again.