Headhunting in Panama

This story appears in the Summer 2014 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below. 

Story and Photography by Austin Holt

One innocuous left turn later and the unkempt neighborhood becomes a shantytown. People crane their necks out of their rusted, tin-walled tenements to get a better look at the three unshowered gringos in the dirty old Toyota. Fifty feet ahead, a child rolls a literal ball of fire across the dirt road.

“I don’t think we’re going to find him in here,” Alex says. “Well, what does the map say?” It wasn’t Surfer’s fault, either. He’d only been in Panama City a couple days longer than we had. “It says,” I repeat, “That there is a street, like, right there, two blocks ahead, to the right, that will take us back out to the main road.” I point straight ahead, past the blaze that still continues at the curbside. “Are you sure?” Surfer asks. “Positive. I was a navigator in the navy for like, four years.” He cocks his head. “No shit, really?” “Hell, no. But who wants to ask for directions?” A small stereo click as the locks shutter close. “You know, if we don’t find him, that’s cool. We can just grab a drink.” Alex leans back her seat and props her legs up on the dashboard. That was her way of saying she was hungry, and hot and wanting a beer and some street food, and didn’t want to look for the head anymore. “But it’s here, somewhere, I know it is.” Our guide dramatically raises his cupped hand to- ward the windshield. “In the shantytown?” Alex asks. “Nobody seems to know what the hell you’re talking about,” I say. “Are you sure you didn’t hear that there was some giant Einstein head in La Paz, or Santiago, or something?” “There was that one guy, at the restaurant. He knew what I was talking about.” “He didn’t speak a word of English, and your Spanish has not yet advanced to the point where you’re capable of asking directions to statues of famous physicists, and expecting any sort of accuracy.” It was a valiant effort, but the charm began to wear off the third time we were almost creamed by a taxi. “It’s not my fault that people here don’t know street names!” Alex seethed from the passenger seat. “Well, there’s that fucking mall,” she points to a towering white structure over a barricade of tin roof shacks. “Like for the fourth time.” I felt bad. Here we are, looking for a head, and everyone has their hopes up, and we just started chewing the guy out in his own car. For a moment, there was an uncomfortable silence. “Okay. A half hour. If it takes longer, we’ll quit, and I’ll grab the drinks.” Alex and I nod before slumping back in our seats. What if we were actually kidnapped by this vagabond from Tennessee and didn’t know it yet? What if this Einstein head thing was some perverse little game he was playing before spinning us into a back alley and selling our organs on the black market? Ah, well. As long as he was buying. “Four dollars worth of beer, huh?”

Panama
Panama

Since we were due to leave Panama City before sunrise the next day I wanted to peel myself out of bed early and get up with the Daystar. There’s something very relaxing about watching the first hit of daylight begin to paint the skyline. We were staying in Casco Viejo, an old colonial neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital, and at the tip of this neighborhood’s peninsula some six blocks away was a nice vantage point to get a view of downtown from afar. I dug out a fresh T-shirt and a Fatboy bottle of water and walked out the door of our hostel, memories of the night before creeping back into my head as I stopped by a giant wastebin filled with empty cans. All’s quiet, and I didn’t end up in a Panamanian jail, so all and all, a successful first night in the country.

Outside, light begins to fill the hollowed out shells, peppering this district’s streets. Fans of 24-hour news’ golden age will remember the invasion of Panama in 1989. This beautiful, three-century-old part of town got hit the hardest. It’s pulled itself back together, especially through the boom times, and has actually become quite the little touristy cultural district. But in any given row of colonial townhomes, one is going to be missing a wall and a ceiling. The unofficial memorials are left to their own devices, fragments of staircase being held together by long, snaking vines, surrounded by neglected layers of moisture and moss. Occasionally, shards of brick and mortar, flecked with faded specks of paint, will crumble to the sidewalk. Next door, a bistro, and then a massage parlor.

At the waterfront, Panama City shines brightly — a new metropolis built by a people who were proud of the control they now had over their future. The canal was given to Panama at the turn of the century, allowing the city to flourish as a commercial mecca. But as the rich keep getting richer, so do the poor, poorer. Our taxi ride in the day before had taken us on elevated highway systems with views of billboard-sporting, 35-story glass and steel supertowers lording over the slums that have formed at their base. Ham-fisted.

Panama is a city thrilled by its new wealth that wants to grow as fast as it possibly can. I remembered something about the security guard from the night before, in front of the hostel. The illuminated skyline was visible through the tunnel of street, and he was telling me about how much Panama had changed. Seven beers and the onset of dehydration make me susceptible to new friendships, so I interjected with short, unslurred affirmatives as he told me about how he and his brother used to come up here to look at the city, and how none of those buildings were there, and how poor they were. I smoked a cigarette, trying to keep up with his pigeon English, mustering only periodic affirmatives in Spanish. Si. Si. Oh, si ... He was skeptical, and he had been there his whole life; I was drunk, and was willing to take his word for it.

I walked back up the hill to the hostel, a bright, eccentric little place called Luna’s Castle. A few puffy-eyed messes were already shambling about, woken prematurely by the heat, nursing cups of coffee. That backpacker couple from Switzerland or Sweden. That college girl from Washington. That dreadlocked woman, topless and curled up in the corner, nibbling on a banana and some Cheerios. No one seems to notice. The expat dude who said “fuck it,” and has just been wandering around for a few years. All had fallen victim to the honor fridge of Balboa.

I found Alex in the kitchen. She was talking to that surfer dude from Tennessee who was making pancakes. The surfer dude wasn’t actually a surfer at all, which is probably for the best, as he would have a hard time at it in Tennessee. Turns out the surfer thing was just natural nonchalance and a tan, combined with not getting his hair cut for a long time. At 28, he had already sold off an engineering firm that he had built from the ground up. So, he decided to buy a shitty old Toyota and drive down to Argentina to visit a flautist he had met in the States. He only had one more day in Panama City, too, before he had his car shipped to Columbia.

They said that they had worked up an agenda for the day. He seemed like an entertaining guy to spend the day with. We would hit up the fish market for some post-pancake breakfast ceviché; check out the canal; maybe go for a bike ride. Then, we were going to find Einstein’s head.

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 12.06.01 PM
Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 12.06.01 PM

Turns out, if you’re ever in Panama in search of Einstein’s six-foot-tall concrete cranium, you’ll find it in a traffic circle next to an apartment building and a Subway.

We parked the car and cautiously approached it. Weathered and moss eaten, the stolid glare from Einstein’s bulbous façade still stared stalwartly ahead, daring those fearful travelers who had been through shitty traffic, and feral dogs, and rushed bathroom breaks, to find it before sundown.

It had been a long journey to get to where we were standing. The historic charm of Casco Viejo, the last stronghold of the old Panama, gave way to a new Panama, one where the dreams of tomorrow are being yielded.

“You think it’s really Einstein?” Surfer asks. We appraised it for a minute. “What do you mean?” Alex returns. “I mean, it could be some Hispanic dude. I dunno. The mayor, or something.” “Albert Einstein was a Hispanic mayor,” I chime in. “But I don’t see a sign, or anything. Maybe Panama City had a mayor who looked a lot like Albert Einstein, but, you know, darker. Which wouldn’t show up in the concrete.” Maybe it used to be painted, or something. “There should be a sign somewhere,” Alex says.

I didn’t care if it was Einstein or a mayor, or whomever. We had found this random head in the middle of Panama City with Surfer Tennessee in his crappy old green Toyota. And I think we all felt proud of that. Like we had achieved something stupid and wonderful.

I like to think, for a moment, that there was a sense of human decency that went into making that selfie we got with the head. Here we were, three people on the road of life, our paths crossing briefly for one hung-over, self-imposed scavenger hunt. It occurred to me that we would probably never see Surfer again after we parted ways the next day. He was going to Argentina to see about having sex with a flautist. And I was beginning to smell pork being grilled somewhere.

We left Albert behind in the fading light of the setting sun to go get some street food and chill out next to the honor fridge back at the hostel.