Friday, May 27, 2011

Beautiful Port: An Introduction

 Don't go to Portobelo

 "Did a storm hit here?" My friend Philip asked shortly after arriving in Portobelo.

 "No. What do you mean?" I asked knowing exactly what he meant but just wanting him to say it.

 "I don't know, I just thought the way all of the buildings looked maybe a storm hit here."

"No, that is just the look."

The truth is I love this place. For me it's perfect. But for you, you shouldn't come to Portobelo. You won't like it. It's hot. The moisture from the surrounding mountains sinks down into the town and the equatorial sun cooks the moisture into what amounts to a thoroughly unpleasant steam. It's dirty. If you were to take all possible meanings of the word "dirt" Portobelo can find a way to represent them all. Exhaust from the old school buses that take people to Colon buries itself anywhere your skin comes together: neck, elbows, knees. I love walking through town and feeling like I'm marinating in trash.  Shit from the worm ravaged dogs that roam the streets in search of food and shade decorates the sidewalks. I love the worm ravaged dogs. And when I walk my dog around town I don't have to carry a bag and clean up after her, she just contributes to the decor. It's charmingly dirty. Like I said it's perfect.

I love the people here. Overall the people are unattractive, lazy, drunks that aren't overly friendly. Why do I like them? Unattractive people make me feel good about myself, lazy people make me feel productive, drunks make me feel okay about my personal consumption rate. And the people here are black. Really black. African black. And they're experienced with racism so unless you're black, they may not warm up to you immediately. I know what you're thinking, "drunk blacks, is it safe?" It's completely safe. Crime takes effort and these people are just to laid back for crime. You can do whatever you like in Portobelo. No one cares. You can do nothing as well, no cares if you do that either because that is what everyone is doing, nothing. In Portobelo unlike the rest of Panama you can buy booze on religious holidays. You can walk down the street with a beer unlike the rest of Panama. In Portobelo you do what you want.

Even the buzzards here are a special breed of extra ugly buzzards. They like to hang out on the bridges that cross the few canals that drain the rain from the surrounding mountains. These rivers of trash are filled with diapers, plastic wrappers of Festival Cookies and Balboa cans and the buzzards like to pick through the watery waste for scraps. The town has no trash cans and even if it did the residents wouldn't care to use them it's they're way of saying "fuck you Columbus, for naming it Portobelo {"beautiful port"}. If Henry Morgan came back from the dead and returned to Portobelo he'd be content that nothing he and his men could do to the town would make it any worse off than it is and he'd simply move on.

How can I say this? After all, Portobelo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. When you come to Portobelo you will realize that being a UNESCO World Heritage Site comes with one benefit, you get a sign that says, "UNESCO World Heritage Site." What you won't see when you get to Portobelo is any hint of the $77,that it was once the most important city in the Spanish Main. You won't see any evidence of the massive riches that flowed from Peru and the rest of South America to be loaded onto ships in Portobelo. You won't see any green or khaki wearing tour guides at the ruins. There are no animatronic pirates. There is no entrance fee and no pamphlets for reading. Like I said it's perfect. You can walk right into a five hundred year old fort and allow your dog to take a shit and no one will even notice. I've done it.

What you really shouldn't do is clean it up. I say, "leave Portobelo dirty!" If you aren't immediately repulsed by the entire aura of Portobelo you may be inclined to walk around the town and imagine it through your Westernized/Disney-esque idea of what it should  or could look like "Well if they cleaned up the trash, with a little paint and landscaping...." Don't do it. If that is what you're looking for go back to your planned community with your New Urbanism garages hidden in the back and your desire to make everything quaint. Like I said you shouldn't come here. You won't like it.

Portobelo at a Glance

A blue sky breaks into the sleeping eye, a sky that will turn gray for an hour a few times a day as the quick moving rain showers push off the surrounding mountains. From my boat I hear howler monkeys and the air brakes from the local buses as they round the bend which lead into the town. When you're in the bus as it rounds the bend overlooking the bay you may be inclined to think you're somewhere perfect if at that time the sun happens to be putting on a light show with the water in the bay, the greens on the surrounding mountains are singing Bob Marley and the sixty something sailboats lightly dancing on their anchor. What you'll realize when you get off the bus is that you'll wish you were back on the bus.

Foreshadowing the town to perfection, if you're approaching the town by sea, is a sailboat on it's side, partially submerged, it's mast points towards 1as it deteriorates in rhythm with the town. Accompanying it, in the bay, are the remains of a few ideally dilapidated structures, poking above the water line.  Caribbean Pink, Green, Yellow and Blue shacks perch on ancient coral stone walls carpeted with patches of green moss. Small satellite dishes atop the rusty tin roofs receive HGTV and Fox News.

In town the streets of old coral pavers are breaking apart in a way that looks artistic and charming and run parallel to open drainage canals that serve a supplementary function of carrying trash into the bay. Many of the walls of the buildings of crumbling concrete block and wood are painted with murals of a devil with a muppet like face, his mouth a grapefruit halved, with flames painted around his head. Some of the murals have worshippers, represented by drawing the same man over and over again, moving toward the devil with a cross. The walls that aren't painted with devils are mostly painted with advertising for Atlas Beer and Moviestar or Claro phone service. Moviestar seems to be the most predominant which is unfortunate as their colors features a bile green accompanied by an unattractive blue as if part of their marketing strategy is to gain your attention by revolting you with color. And juxtaposed among these walls of devils and advertising are bits and pieces of walls that are ruins from the fort and town dating back to the 15

In the center of town, across from the bus stop is a large square in front of the scenic Royal Custom House Museum which dates from 1597. The square is a nicely covered in coral pavers and one must step up two steps to cross it. The added elevation would suit a concert nicely if one were so inclined but no one is inclined and thus there are never concerts here. Amid the square are four large square landscaping planters displaying unmanicured grass, palm trees and trash. It's common to spot a dog wandering in the planter, it's nose to the ground, he will take three turns and then squat and take a dump. Last week I noticed an enterprising man had taken his trash and dumped it in the planter and set it on fire. No one cared or noticed. Beautiful. Around the planters are many concrete  benches painted in Moviestar colors all of which are broken and collapsing with the exception of two or three. At the Royal Customs House Museum there is no evidence of any employees or formal volunteers of this museum, only men who sit in it's shade in metal folding chairs drinking Balboas and staring a their charmingly ugly town. I say Bwwwaaaaaenos to the men as I pass through the museum and the men smile and say "Bwaaaaaaanos" back.

If you were reading a guide book it'd probably tell you about Festival El Diablo in Portobelo and Feast day of the Cristo Negro which is the Festival of the Black Christ where for some reason unknown to even the participants the Black Christ is honored as a miracle and sixty thousand people walk from as far as Costa Rica to honor it. What the guide book won't tell you about Portobelo is that all these people do is have festivals. They have a festival almost every week, it is the only thing they do. Near the church are sad looking booths, most of which are never open, others which are always open. The open ones are worked by fat women and skinny girls who will be fat soon enough. All of them dress in the kind of cheap slutty clothes common among poor blacks in the States like awkwardly tight fitting jeans adorned with excessive golds and silvers and overly accessorized matching gold and silver body and hair decorations. At the booths you'll find Black Jesus statues of varying sizes, Black Jesus necklaces,  Black Jesus hats, Black Jesus coffee mugs, Black Jesus shirts, Black Jesus pins even a Black Jesus USB stick.

If you google Portobelo all the pictures you'll see are beautiful panoramas, photos of the fort overlooking the bay. If that is what you're looking for print out the photos and leave it at that. But if you're like me and you like your ugliness right out front where you can keep an eye on it, examine it, interact with it and play with it well then you might say this place is portobelo.

Still to come are the following People of Portobelo and Life in Portobelo....

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