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Chinese Food and Snow Cones in the Heart of Panama
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Nope, we're not back in San Francisco - this is Chinatown, Panama style!
So we're stuck in Panama City for a few days, but I'm not complaining. I've discovered that Panama City is in some ways similar to cities in the U.S. As I neared the edge of San Felipe, I came upon a large arch to the city's Chinatown. Chinatown in Panama City resembles Chinatown in San Francisco and others I've been to. I wandered into a supermarket and saw all of the usual products, some of which I bought to make dinner with that evening. There seems to be a large Chinese population here in Panama, which is not surprising since the city is made up of people with roots in Africa, Europe, the Americas, and Asia. It's as diverse as any city I've visited in the U.S., but unfortunately, the disparity between poor and wealthy areas is equally as noticeable.

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Kevin and Shawn enjoying Chinese food
The next day I decided to take the first bus I could find and get off wherever things began to look interesting. I didn't even bring a map with me. Many of the public buses are school buses brightly painted with the names of their destinations and other designs inspired by jungle motifs. Bus fare is a flat fifteen cents but what's stranger is you must pay when you get off of the bus and not before. After only ten minutes of riding my orange, blue, and red bus, the streets began to look very lively, just the sort of action I was looking for. I hopped off right in the middle of the central market district known as Calidonia, which was packed with Panamaños. There were so many stores and street vendors that I felt I could've found anything I would ever wish to buy right there.

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Would you like yours with or without condensed milk?
By mid-day Panama City, less than ten degrees from the equator, is blazingly hot and even if the sun retreats behind a cloud or two the humidity is relentless. One type of street vendor that does exceptionally well in this city is that of the raspado. A raspado is basically what we would call a snow cone or maybe an Icee in the US, but I've been told it's also known as a Piragua in Costa Rica and a Frio-Frio in Puerto Rico.

Well, I was so hot from walking that when I spotted a raspado stand in front of a school I just knew I would try one. The vendor's name was Jesus and he was more than happy to tell me about his business. He started with the three-wheeled cart that he pushes and stands behind for 7-10 hours each day. Jesus' cart cost him $360 but he's looking to upgrade to a better one soon, the nicest of which come with all sorts of added features and cost about $2,500. Every morning he spends about 2 1/2 hours preparing for the busy day. He pushes his cart from his home to the hieleria where he buys an enormous block of solid ice. The ice block costs less than $5 but it weighs over 150 pounds. Since he covers the ice while in transit or during slow moments, it can last up to 4-5 hours. He then pushes the cart to a market where he refills the colorful containers of syrup flavorings.

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6 flavors - all as good as they are colorful!
Jesus' selection of flavors includes lemon, orange, mint, strawberry, pineapple, and grape, all of which are standard choices. He pushes the cart even further, to the schoolyard, where I found him just in time for the lunch hour. For each customer paying 25 cents, Jesus inserts a paper cone into an ice shaver and then vigorously shaves the top of the ice block until the cone is packed full. Shaving the ice requires so much strength the entire cart rocks back and forth with each pass of the shaver. Kids can choose any flavor but mixing flavors is also common. He tops off the raspado with condensed milk and even a squirt of honey.

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And one for me, please!
Sometimes the kids try to bargain him down from 25 cents but the best he'll do for them is offer them a group discount. It's necessary for Jesus to obtain a carnet (permit) every five years in order to sell raspados in the street. When I asked Jesus why he pushes this heavy cart for miles every day just to stand in the hot sun and shave ice he replied, "Just look at the smiles on the kids' faces! They love it!" For my own raspado I chose lemon flavor only and figured I'd try the condensed milk and honey some other day. It was indeed refreshing!


Check out this website to learn more about the weather in Panama and other places around the world!

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Kevin - Kids' Version - 25 Cents for a Taste of Heaven
Kavitha - Beware What You Order! Food in Central America
Abeja - Anatomy of a Border Crossing
Shawn - A Tech Man Cries "Uncle!"
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