I’ve loved soccer since I was a little kid. I vividly remember being nine years old and watching Peter Schmeichel, the goalkeeper of the Danish national team, win my heart and the 1992 UEFA European Soccer Championship. I went to every Dinamo Minsk soccer match I could attend, first with my dad, then with my friends. I even once lied to my parents about spending a night at my friend’s house and instead, taking a train to another city to cheer on my team. Being a European soccer fan is not for the faint of heart. There was often violence, fighting, and vandalism among soccer hooligans, but I was there for the love of the game. Even the ever-present chance of getting beaten up by the opposite team’s fans in another city or the wrong part of my hometown didn’t stop me. I am a fan for life.
As a child, I could never imagine being able to visit all these far-away stadiums I’ve seen on a small screen TV in my family’s living room. And now, as I travel the world, I always make sure to catch a soccer game – whether it’s kids playing on the streets of Buenos Aires, a high school game in Iceland, joining in on a game on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro or attending a professional game in the best-known stadiums in the world, such as La Bombonera or Azteca. In a previous post, I wrote how even getting lost in the Czech wilderness did not stop me from getting to a soccer game in Prague and so, as I arrived in Panama on another solo trip in 2014, catching a game of Liga Panameña de Fútbol (the top tier soccer league in Panama) was a top priority.
Panama is not known as a soccer powerhouse nation, but I was still excited about the match. Unfortunately, the game that evening was unexpectedly mediocre and ended in a scoreless draw. On top of that, it rained for the entire duration of the first half. But that’s the life of a fan, living through the most thrilling of times followed by the depth of frustration. Little did I know, I was about to catch all my thrills after the game.
Unable to get a taxi after the game, I decided to walk back to my hostel. I figured that a 1.5-mile walk, even in an unknown neighborhood in a foreign country, shouldn’t be a problem. After all, I was once chased by a gang of soccer hooligans, while trying to get home from an out-of-town game when I was fifteen. This was going to be a walk in the park.
I crossed the stadium’s parking lot and followed the cars that were leaving the game. I kept walking and walking. As I was getting closer to my hostel, however, I had a dilemma: I could take a longer route through a beautiful waterfront boulevard, but that would add 30 minutes to my trip. By the time I could reach my hostel, I would have walked in the dark for quite some time, something that I wanted to avoid. Alternatively, I could just take a shortcut through the neighborhood of El Chorrillo and get to my hostel in 10 minutes. I saw parts of El Chorrillo from the window of a taxi on the way to the game, and the neighborhood did not strike me as particularly safe. But it was late, I was tired, and walking a longer route for half an hour in the dark didn’t sound as appealing as just zipping through El Chorrillo.
When I entered El Chorrillo, I stopped breathing.
It is one thing to see a dangerous neighborhood from the window of your cab, as you are speeding down a street. It is a completely different story when you are suddenly on that street in the dusk.
Was I scared as I walked through El Chorrillo? Oh, yes, I was. Generally, that rarely happens. I traveled to Egypt in 2011 when the country was engulfed in the Arab Spring protests; I visited Thailand when they had anti-government demonstrations; I went to Argentina when the country was dealing with a strike of public transportation workers. But every time, despite the commotion and disturbances, I never felt that I should fear for my life. At that moment, in El Chorrillo, I was regretting my choice.
The neighborhood was intimidating and depressing, all at the same time. I was surrounded by piles of garbage, dilapidating houses, and excessive graffiti on the walls. And not the type of graffiti informing you about the creative and artistic spirit of the place, but more like “this is my neighborhood and I will kill you if you step foot here” graffiti. The streets of El Chorrillo reminded me of some bad parts of the south side of Chicago. It was getting dark, and I was moving through this place as fast as I could, barely breathing and counting my steps.
With all that fear eating me from the inside out, I was still able to notice and absorb things that I saw. The image that particularly stuck in my head was a small crumbling concrete house with a collapsed roof. Inside, there was a very old woman in her 70s or 80s sitting on a simple sofa and watching a black-and-white TV with her cat. All of this was way too cinematic. As you can imagine, I do not have a lot of pictures of El Chorrillo as I was afraid to take my camera out of the backpack.
My walk through the streets of El Chorrillo was no more than 10 minutes but it felt like an eternity for me. At times, I felt like I was walking through a war zone, which in retrospect, I was. When the U.S. invaded Panama in 1989, they destroyed the heavily populated El Chorrillo neighborhood in downtown Panama City and the place has never been rebuilt. There were firefights in the streets 30 years ago, but by the look of the place now, the assault seemed to have just briefly ceased and the bullets were about to start flying again. As I was making my way through the decaying street, I felt absolutely naked and imagined that the entire neighborhood was watching me with a sinister plan in mind. I finally realized that I was exiting the neighborhood when I saw local kids kicking a ball and chasing dogs. I let out a long, shaking breath. It felt like I didn’t breathe the entire walk.
Later, when I finally got to my hostel, I decided to read more about El Chorrillo. The Internet research confirmed what I saw with my own eyes - El Chorrillo never recovered from being heavily bombed and still looks like dictator Manuel Noriega just surrendered and the U.S. troops just left. Rampant drug use and gang violence became commonplace here. El Chorrillo still has a prime location in the heart of Panama City, and a neighboring Casco Viejo (“Old Town”) is currently being renovated with the support of UNESCO money, but at this time, El Chorrillo is best to be avoided by an average traveler.
I realize that I have posted back-to-back stories about almost dying in a foreign land, both incidentally happening either before a soccer match or right after. Maybe it’s my fanatism for the game, maybe it’s the fact that I sometimes disregard a well-trodden travel path, or maybe (according to Julia) I shouldn’t be allowed to travel on my own. Either way, every crazy story like this is counter-balanced with a thousand safe experiences which usually don’t make it into blog posts. I hope this doesn’t dissuade anyone from the love of traveling or soccer. I know it didn’t for me.