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Latin America Kavitha Dispatch

Partytime in Panama!

Getting stuck in places isn't always that bad - especially when you just happen to be stuck on the day of the biggest festival of the year!
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NOT what we expected to find on the coast!
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When we found out we were going to be delayed in Panama City for another few days, a friend from the hostel and I decided to take off for the Caribbean coast. What did we expect? Well, the usual: palm trees, white sand beaches, nothing to do but swim and eat coconuts...
These cannons still lie where they were left hundreds of years ago
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Portobelo was one of the main places where the Spaniards stored all the gold they stole from the indigenous people when they took over. Much of the gold that came through here was from the Inca people, who lived in what is today Peru - our next destination (as soon as we get a boat out of here!). The gold was carried overland by mules.

But many people from other countries, especially the British, were jealous of the Spaniards, and became pirates to steal what they could! In 1739 a British Admiral led an attack on Portobelo that destroyed the city. In 1746 the Spanish gave up and just started to ship the gold all the way around Cape Horn at the very bottom of South America.

The city was rebuilt in 1751, but never regained its glory, and many of the stones from the forts here were even taken away and used to help make the Panama Canal!

Source: The Lonely Planet, Central America on a Shoestring, p. 750

But what we found was a drumming and dancing frenzy complete with barbecue treats and cool drinks. We had stumbled into the coastal town of Portobelo on their annual celebration of the town's foundation, and what a blast it was!
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Portebelo - Pretty good name for such a pretty place
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The first European to arrive here, Christopher Columbus, first sailed into the bay at Portobelo in 1502 and named it Puerto Bello (beautiful port) because of the beauty of its natural harbor, and the name stuck. The town was first established in 1597 when the Spanish realized that it's bay was a perfect shape and size for defensive tactics. They built enormous forts on both sides of the entrance to the bay and one at the head. Today the houses of the small town of Portabelo are built around the walls of these old ruins.

Portobelans are laid back, fun loving and friendly folk, mostly of African descent, who appreciate the beauty and history of their Caribbean home. The 402nd anniversary of the foundation of Portobelo was a celebration of dance and music both traditional and modern, combining the Spanish influence with African traditions. Troupes of dancers and musicians from all the surrounding villages arrived throughout the day to compete in the evening's festivities. They came in full costume with drummers drumming and singers singing to announce their arrival.
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What's up, what's up?  Ashiveika and Kaisa show how it's done in Panama
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The festivities kicked off with a modern performance by our new friends Ashiveika and Kaisa, and other teens from the nearby big city Colon who call themselves Dance Revolution. Their dance was all out, with all the energy and appeal of a Janet Jackson or Paula Abdul video, but with hints of African dance thrown in. Ashiveika, who's 14 years old, and Kaisa, who's 16 years old, said that even though Colon is a bigger city with lots to do, they look forward to these annual festivals in Portobelo. "We dance all night, until you can't even stand up any more!"
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Smooth and refined - <i>Tipica</i>
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After their opening, it went right in to a competition of Tipica music and dance. Tipica dance came from the Spaniards. The women wear elegant white lacy shirts, and long, frilly skirts, with their hair tied back in long braids adorned with ribbons and pearls. The men wear white button up shirts, straw hats, khaki pants and sandals. The dance is subtle and sweet. With quick moving feet and a slight shake in the hips, the partners never lose eye contact, and barely move their upper torso or change their facial expressions. The men and women never actually touch each other, they just dance very close, like an innocent courting. The music consists of the melody of an accordion, a gourd shaker, and a stick drum. >
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Fast and raw - <i>Los Congos</i>
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In stark contrast to Tipica, the festival closes out with Los Congos. The Congos is an outlandish dance tradition that is a satire of the colonial Spaniards and their traditions. Los Congos originates from back in the time of the slave trade, when some slaves escaped to the rainforests. People take on the role of the escaped slaves and the songs are sung in a slang they created so the Spaniards wouldn't understand them making fun of them!

The men of Los Congos dress in tattered clothes, with painted faces, and cones on their heads representing crowns. They sometimes carry sticks with bells and feathers hanging from it and many had belts with all kinds of crazy trinkets hanging from them like heads of dolls and shells. The women wear brightly colored dresses with huge tropical flowers in their pulled back hair. Whereas most of the women who danced in the Tipica section were young and petite, the women of Los Congos were older, full-bodied women who could hold their own with all the antics of the men.

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Keeping the beat on the congo
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The music is just congos, a group of men drumming and a whole slew of people chanting and clapping all around. The dance looks more like a game, with men circling around often on all fours trying to 'trap' the women who always seem to escape as they shake their hips to the fast rhythms. The difference between the refined, European influenced Tipica, and the rawer, more tropical Congos is amazing and such a delight to watch. The final group who performed was the troupe from Portobelo, and by the end of their dance frenzy there were over 40 people up on stage, boogying and playing to the beats!

But the dancing didn't stop there! Thank goodness Ashiveika and Kaisha were there to help teach me how to shake my hips, congo style, because the next thing you know, the competition was over and the entire crowd was dancing in the streets. It was so much fun, but we just couldn't keep up! The music was still blaring as we finally gave up and started walking home through the ruins of the old forts after midnight...

I wonder if the Spaniards partied this hard 402 years ago?...

Kavitha

Team - The Ghosts of Pirates Haunt These Waters
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Monica - Hey There, Sailor, Got Room For Three More?

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