Casco Viejo, Tell Me If It's Real
From the moment I met him, I knew he was going to ask. I wasn’t sure how I'd respond, but I knew the question was coming sooner rather than later. Armed with my new Nikon D5300 and the sleek 18-200 mm lens, I was returning with him to Casco Viejo, the place we’d first met over a month ago. The as yet unspoken question lingered in the air between us.
I love the old city of Casco Viejo with its perfect angles and beautifully rehabilitated colonial buildings. Not only was it the place I’d first fallen in love with Panama many years ago, but it was a great place to take my new camera for a spin. First, however, I wanted to return to the swings he’d shown me the last time we were here.
Thus, we strolled the Cinta Costera, the busy boardwalk that curved along the oceanfront leading to the old city in one direction and the skyscrapers that formed the cities new skyline in the other. In the direction of the old city was the set of swings carefully constructed underneath an overpass. Lovers and loners alike could be found seeking privacy in it's the carefully designed shade.
His long dreads swayed back and forth with the movement of the swing he’d sat in to watch me intently as I photographed the scene, but he remained quiet until I was done. “Listo,” I said to him to signal that we were done here and we could continue on to Casco Viejo.
He had texted me "good morning, beautiful” “how was your day" and “goodnight, queen” almost every day since we'd first met, but now that we were face to face once again, he seemed shy. I rattled on and on until I made a mistake in Spanish and he interrupted to gently correct me, and then laughed when my face flushed. After 4 months of Spanish classes, I still occasionally made simple mistakes that embarrassed and annoyed me. “No te preocupes, “ he said, breaking out of his shell to encourage me to continue on speaking.
As he led me through Casco Viejo, I experienced the charm of the narrow streets all over again through the lens of my camera. He seemed to know everyone as well as every nook and cranny as he pointed out spots that I would have surely missed if I were alone. He stopped to chat with the street vendors, old men hanging out of the window to people watch, and kids playing games of hide n’ seek in the ruins of relics.
We winded our way to the Plaza Independencia anchored by the main cathedral before continuing on to the ruins of the Iglesia de la Compania de Jesús. The church was destroyed by a fire in 1781 and then further damaged by an earthquake, but the stone façade remains largely intact.
As we were making our way to steps leading to the Esteban Huertas Promenande, a flower vendor strutted towards us and exclaimed, “You should buy your woman flowers,” before thrusting 2 roses inot my hand. He then looked at companion expectantly, which made me also look at him expectantly out of curiosity as to how he would handle this decidedly awkward situation. He and the guy chatted a bit before he paid him for the flowers and we continued on. “Can you believe that guy,” he asked me with a grin as we continued on.
On the promenade, he stopped to talk to Kuna woman in traditional dress selling artisanal crafts, I lingered by quietly, marveling at the burst of colors on and around her. “Is this your girlfriend,” she asked him, looking at me pointedly. I pretended not to hear her as he laughed and tried to avoid the question. As we walked off, he awkwardly slipped his arms around my shoulders while I asked a flood of questions about the woman. Finally, I asked him if he thought she’d mind if I took her photograph. “Sure, she’s like a mother to me,” he said as we turned back to go speak to her again. I quietly slipped away from his arm to position my camera when she happily agreed to let me take her photo.
As we made our way to the edges of Casco Viejo, the scenery changed. Ritzy restaurants gave way to barbershops. Luxury condos in restored structures turned into colorfully dilapidated old buildings with clotheslines hanging from slack-jawed balconies. Grafitti art transformed closed storefronts into works of art. Sidewalks were for socializing again and cars and children shared the streets.
As much as I loved Casco Viejo, from the restored neighborhoods of Old Habana to Old San Juan to Cartegena, all the old Spanish colonial cities easily blend into one another after a while. The Spanish conquistadors were pretty consistent withthe architecture of the capitol cities they built at times right atop the ruins of indigenous cities.
These streets was different from Casco Viejo- this was the real pulse of the city. There were no tourists to be found here, only regular Panamanians going about their daily lives in neighborhoods not yet touched by the gentrification spreading through Casco Viejo. “Where are we,” I asked my companion as my eyes lit up. “This is Santa Ana,” he said, using this as an opportunity to reach for my hand with a forced casualness and lead me around.
“I really liked holding your hand today” the text came as soon as I got in my apartment that evening. I sent a smiley face emoji back.
Then came the question I knew he’d been working up the nerve to ask all day: “Do you want to be my girlfriend?”
I paused and thought about this. Well, do I?
The first thing that came to my mind was my mother’s voice telling me that I wasn’t getting any younger and she’d really like to meet her grandchildren before she died. Pushing her out of my mind, I thought about it from my own point of view. Here was a sincere guy who had been nothing but kind and attentive to me. He texted everyday and called when he said he would. I don’t think he’d ever told me a single lie. But did my heart skip a beat when I recieved a text from him? Was I already thinking about the next time I’d see him? Did his smile melt away all my insecurities? Did I no longer have the desire to meet anyone else since I’d first met him?
I knew what my answer would be. I texted him back the first thing that came to my mind: “I’d like to be your friend.”
The search for true love continues. I don't want to settle for anything less than that.