Casco Viejo is a neighborhood on the fringe. It’s fabric, in simple terms, is nothing more than a series of miscellaneousness. Casco’s people are borderline weird. Casco’s streets are borderline antique. Casco’s identity is borderline bizarre. It’s even on the fringe in a literal sense, squashed geographically between the modern towers of downtown Panama City and the forgotten slums of yesteryear.
Keeping this in mind, I ate nothing but food purchased from Casco Viejo’s local chinos for three days straight.
One could argue that chinos are the vortex of Casco Viejo society. Granted, this would be a very easy argument to debunk. But the neighborhood’s Chinese-owned mini-marts certainly are the epitome of Casco Viejo. They represent a very accurate and condensed account of what life is like in the city’s historic district: the residents, taste preferences, sanitation, economy, and cultural nuances that define where we live. Casco Viejo’s chinos are the Star Wars bars of the Republic.
In documenting the effects of the Casco Viejo chino diet, I developed nine solid conjectures:
- If you have ever seen the label of a small snack product read NOT FOR INDIVIDUAL SALE and wondered, who in their right mind would want to sell, say, one individual Q-tip, you now know the answer. Anything that can be broken down for individual sale in Casco Viejo’s chinos is. This goes for single slices of American cheese, lone cloves of garlic, solitary stalks of celery, and individual cigarettes. Products that cannot intuitively be individualized take some thought: vegetable oil, for instance, which is sold in tablespoon-portions inside of pressurized plastic bags. As a tribute to this phenomenon, I ate a salami sandwich on day one: my purchase consisted of two slices of loaf bread, a few slices of salami, a mini-packet of mustard, and a leaf of iceberg lettuce.
- A select basket of goods is laughably inexpensive. I walked in around dinnertime with three dollar bills and accrued the following items. One bag of ripe, sliced mango with salt and vinegar ($0.35), bottle of Coke ($0.35), can of escabeche tuna ($1.25), whole wheat crackers ($0.30), bag of mixed nuts ($0.25), cup of sea bass ceviche ($0.50). I had change left over for two breath mints.
- On day two, I started to notice a strict hierarchy among the chino ownership. In my repertoire were four chino shops across a grid of ten Casco Viejo blocks and each of them always had a young, alpha male type more or less running the show. His (I’m guessing) wife, is almost always subservient and eats her meals at the cash register from a metal bowl. These meals always look surprisingly delicious and authentically Chinese. The rest of the employees are either old Chinese people (the parents who seem to be responsible mainly for making sure no one steals anything) or young Kuna Indians who do absolutely anything they are told. If the alpha male told the Kuna Indian to individually wrap ten thousand toothpicks in cellophane, he would do it.
- You know what’s great about Casco Viejo’s chinos? Its clients represent the polar extremes of the socioeconomic scale. Millionaires buy the same emergency roll of toilet paper that do crack heads. Worldly languages are tossed around in chinos like the spice bazaars of Constantinople. Somewhere during day two (you might imagine my visits started to lose clarity over time) I heard an Australian backpacker, with the translation services of a six year-old street kid, trying to describe fresh coconut. Perhaps the only common denominator here is the tone with which people speak to the Chinese owners. It is always abrasive and usually rude, but no one ever seems to get offended.
- Do not buy the meat. This should be obvious to anyone who grew up with refrigeration. Try to avoid the back display case in Casco Viejo’s chinos—the key word being display, seeing as though what’s inside is quite a spectacle—busy with heaps of raw pork and beef. Knowing this, I saw lots of locals buying and they appeared to be alive, so I ordered some of the cubed beef. I stewed it for about 5 hours in a bourguignon base with carrots, onions, celery and potatoes. The result looked fine but I couldn’t get the display case and flies out of my mind so I gave the stew to some squatters who said it tasted “exotic.”
- After some careful observation, I can factually state that the most popular item in Casco Viejo’s chinos is soda, followed closely by individual bags of chips. Lone cigarettes are popular (perhaps because they come with the one-time usage of a lighter) as are cans of tuna fish, juice, and piecemeal candy. Though not typically advertised, customers can use a chino cell phone and pay per second. It is always attached to a chain that’s connected to the metal frame of the cash register. Another thing most people don’t know is that chinos have a no-interest lending program. As long as you don’t look like you live under a bridge, they will write down your purchase on a simple ledger and permit you to pay later.
- Throughout my three days, I realized that part of the chino experience is consuming your purchase in the entryway while partially blocking other customers.
- Stray animals roam freely yet seem to know the limits of what owners will allow. On a separate yet semi-related note, one chino in San Miguelito was shutdown last year for illegally peddling dog stir-fry.
- At the end of day three, I conclude that if you can’t find a reason to like Casco Viejo’s chinos, then you’re just not trying. Much like Panama became the crossroads of the Spanish empire in the New World, chinos are, in a very lucid way, the crossroads of Casco Viejo. They evoke diversity, cross-cultural bridges, families. They are abstractions of where people meet. In a weird way, they provide identity and vitality to Casco Viejo. They are the simple, eloquent definitions of community in a neighborhood that’s otherwise pretty difficult to explain.