Monday, May 19, 2014


You live in the best country in the world, right? In your country you feel at home. There are special places there, places that you can't find anywhere else, that you feel emotionally attached to. Your food is completly tasty (ok, not if you're a Brit) and you would never visit a doctor in a foreign country unless you had to. Even if you suffer corrupt leaders or environmental degradation it is hard for you to imagine a better place to call home.

Have you asked why?

We are all subject to a constant stream of patriotic image creation. Your country's government directs this strategy early on in school (pledge of allegiance) and media outlets all over the world happily continue to feed the nationalistic beast. One or another entity constantly spoon feeds us how we are supposed to think about our selves, our neighbors, our homeland - sometimes the spoon is golden, sometimes its a ladel, sometimes a cudgel. Plenty of historical memes help us interpret our reality. It is easy to base our understanding of our place in the world, our selves and how we relate to people in other countries on these thought patterns.

We all think we come from the best place in the solar system, and the sun specifically shines her rays on our dog's ass.

In the USA people are convinced that they have the best life style in the world. The richest, most developed and monied place in the world. Yet, the USA just kicked off the worst economic crises since below. The healthcare system is a joke and a significant part of the population is excluded from this wealth-creating, resource-consuming machine.

In Austria we base our self image on a long, storied history. We are small now, but we used to be big. Vienna was the original melting pot of the world long before New York or London. Just look at a Viennese phonebook, you will hardly find any german names in there. We used to create art that the world appreciates to this day. We live in a grand, golden past and struggle with the present.

It is difficult for us humans to see this reality because we are group animals. We are used to rolling in a pack. All packs have rules and in exchange for following these we receive the benefits of being part of a group - protection, support and social interaction. I have only discovered one way to counteract this, leaving my leetle Austrian pack. As opposed to The Terminator, I probably won't be back.

I have been silly enough to move myself from one continent to another three times. From Austria to Australia, then to Japan and finally to the USA. Silly, because only people who don't know any better keep doing this. Each time you must build a new life, find a new pack. For some reason I have enjoyed this so far.

Now, because I am following a crazy old man, I get to ride through a string of countries on my bicycle. B2B, Mestre Acordeon's project to document the development of Capoeira in the Americas, affords us insights into countries, societies and cultures that I never dreamed of.

Panama is one of those countries. A nation at the mercy of international politics for centuries and one that, like all the other Central and South American countries, suffered Spanish Conquistadores and the consequences of being a colony. A small country can only fall in line with the powers that be. After having supported Panama's secession from Colombia the USA obviously made sure to keep its strong influence here in order to control the Panama Canal.

The country lies at the skinniest part of the two Americas, forming a thin connective tissue between two continents. This alone produces a meme of connectedness and international relations.  The Canal only adds to this creation myth. Now Panama is not just the hugely important north-south connection, in fact it is the entire world that flows through her gates. The only other place that has similar powers of inspiration would be the land bridge of the Bering Straight. But who would want to deal with the temperatures of an ice age? You'd probably have to hunt Mammoths and fight Saber Tooth Kittens too.

Panama built an image of itself as a connector between worlds, cultures and trade. Panamanians appreciate their melting pot way of life. I can't count the times that I saw a Panamarica/Interamerica store of all varieties or an America Import store while riding. Of course this country imports things from all the Americas, even if its just coming from Costa Rica or Nicaragua.

Whats that say on the bottom right?

Before the recent US-brokered freetade agreement Panama did not trade very much with Colombia. The two states have a complicated history. In a Politics 101 nutshell: once Panama realized that they can make a good living on their own with the about-to-be-built canal they split like hell from Colombia and started their own little fiesta, with the support and protection of the USA. This of course is quite the quit pro quo, hence being beholden to the powers that be. You can imagine that Colombia is none too pleased about losing control of this cash cow.

Awesome Panama Canal

Perhaps as a consequence of the complicated history no roads connect Panama and Colombia. The Darien Gap, a stinking reptile and drug dealer infested mud hole makes it impossible to pass on a bike, on foot or by car - still the preferred mode of transportation. Except if you are this guy (I can't recommend enough for you to watch this grainy video, its true explorer stuff). The country that thinks of itself as the connective tissue between two continents is physically cut off from one of them.

But that's no biggy, you can just run a bunch of ships. Tons of them. Just like you are used to doing anyway with that other gigantic global umbilical cord - The Canal. Oh, you dont do that? Really? No ferries, no freight ships, no joy rides? Nada? Nunca? Only random private boats that ship lost backpackers and crazy cyclists through the San Blas Islands from one country to the other. If you have a car, or OMG, you are trying to ship some Bananas from one side to the other you are, as they say, rather far up the shitty creek. Which happens to be island paradise. Not that we at B2B are complaining. Tranquilo.

Lost sail boats and the rather authentic Kuna populate the San Blas

So, if you have an impassable piece of real estate on your southern border and there are no scheduled ships going around it, how can you consider yourself the world's top continent connector? Containing multitudes. A land bridge containing and communicating multi-cultural influences and tastes. An istmus even. A hot international property in the process of tossing off theUSA's yoke for good.

This makes Panama a fairly straight forward example of why it is important to travel so that we may understand our patriotic assumptions for what they really are. Assumptions. Propaganda. Or as Pirata would say - Bullshit. It is easy to defend your opinions about the USA or about China. So many factors influence the images of these countries that, as with some religious texts, there is much room for interpretation. This is more difficult for Panama. You either connect, communicate and melt in a pot, or you don't.

So let us all happily profit and learn from Panama and try to examine our assumptions about our patriotism, about our countries' good and bad sides. Maybe we would discover a bit of humanity under all the vulgar propaganda. The stuff that connects rather than seperates us. Like a land bridge. An istmus even.

No comments:

Post a Comment