This was a long and full and rich day in Panama City – from breakfast at 08.00 till dinner on the island Flamenco at 21.00 and back at the hotel at 22.00. I could have written three different blogposts today, I certainly have photos enough. Slow internet and late return to the hotel makes such ambitions impossible and I have to settle for one concentrated blogpost. The day falls in six different and very distinctive parts.
I knew that the building of the Panama Canal had led to the establishment of an American Army and Navy YMCA in 1904. But I did not know that the building of that YMCA still existed. When Lourdes stopped outside the fence surrounding that building, I could not avoid an instinctive reaction in the form of a big open mouth – sheer surprise, but also admiration.
ARMY AND NAVY YOUNG MENS CHRISTIAN ASSOCIATION
After having slowly managed to close my mouth again I watched this magnificent building with the triangle and the name spelled out in golden letters all over the facade. We shouted through the fence to a guard, and he actually showed us a way to get in, even if he claimed that to visit the building we would need an official permit.
It is not that easy to stop Lourdes, so soon after we were standing inside the building. I closed my eyes and imagined the hall full of people, small shops shattered around the big lobby, and children on their way to the swimming pool. I opened my eyes again and saw dust and decline and decay all around me.
The Army had left Panama in the late 1980s and the building plus another property were left to Panama YMCA, established as a separate YMCA in 1966. As so often before, this became a sad example of how YMCA looses the family silver.
Similarities with the World Alliance building at Quay Wilson 37 were drumming inside my head as I heard the sad story about this building being lost for the YMCA. In the late 1990s YMCA in Panama had to give up, and the very valuable properties were sold for a very modest sum and will be reconstructed to a supermarket owned by some Greek business people.
I felt tears in my eyes thinking how this building, given a sensible transition process, could have given the Panamanian YMCA a solid fundament for the long future. In stead it will become a supermarket and vegetables and beer will be sold where once a chapel and gymnasium was servicing families and children.
The second part of the day was a tour of the Panama Canal administrative area. Beautiful architecture and a consistent design from early twentieth century gave a unique profile to this part of the city.
We passed the high school where Panamanian students had attempted to fly the Panamanian flag, and had been attacked by American students and further attacked by police.
At the end of the day 21 students from Panama lay dead on the grass. That was the moment when the US government decided that they had to leave Panama, according to history, and that led to the Carter agreement in 1977 of handing over of the Canal to Panama at the end of 1999.
The third part of the day was a visit to the YMCA school. To reach the school, we had to drive over the beautiful bridge called Las Americas.
The school was still closed for summer holidays, and was given general maintenance and painting. Still there was a group of kids attending a summer course.
I was impressed by this project. 250 pupils were attending school there, pre school, primary and high school. A kid can stay for 14 years and receive all teaching in English language. A popular and needed product that will be more and more important for years to come.
Ambitious plans for expansion of the school is being discussed. They are looking for assistance to organize a real capital campaign to fundraise for the new buildings.
The fourth part of the day was a fantastic visit to Panama Canal, first to the museum, and then up to the top of the building to watch a big container ship go through the Miraflores Locks.
What a fascinating experience! Last time I saw such a spectacle was on the Volga river, on the Moscow Canal in Russia, but then I saw it from the ship itself.
Now we followed this big ship from Hong Kong as it sunk inside the locks, 10 metres and then again 10 metres, until it floated majestically into the Pacific Ocean and on its way back home to Hong Kong.
In the evening we enjoyed the lights from the many ships lining up to wait for the passage through the Miraflores Locks. Amazing.
And alongside the old channel was the new one being built, the old one can take ships up to 60 000 tons and the new will take ships up to 150 000 tons! Each ship has to pay between 3 and 400 000 US $ for the passage, and Panama Canal is of course one of the key income generators in Panamanian economy.
The fifth part of the day was a long meeting with young leaders and volunteers back at the YMCA building. Under leadership of Sarah and Eva they presented their activities and plans, and each of the young leaders shared their experiences with this work, primarily social programmes for children from difficult backgrounds.
Again their eyes were shining and I could feel the passion in their voices when they eloquently spoke about heir engagement for the children in need. Romulo and I shared about World YMCA and our own experiences, and answered a number of questions, especially about volunteerism and motivation. Two hours later the room was still full of intense conversations, questions and new ideas. A really inspiring and encouraging afternoon with some very idealistic young people.
The sixth part of the day was the evening meal on the Flamenco Island with a spectacular view of the Panama skyline in the distance.