The Wonders of Panamá - 7 Days - Aug 12 - Aug 18, 2019
My trip last week included retracing family history on the maternal side of both my mother’s and father’s side of the family, celebrating 500 years of the founding of the oldest city in the Pacific, being singularly called out to belly dance in a Lebanese restaurant (and convincingly holding my own) in the middle of Panamá City, thence to receiving the warmest, kindest, globalist, most beautifulest birthday greetings from around the world on my seminal 25th-again-for-the-62nd-time-birthday for which I’m so grateful to be celebrating... what a week, I honestly don’t know where to begin...
So I’ll begin at the beginning. Panamá.
Everything about Panamá is fascinating. It’s so easy to overlook how fascinating it is, but the fates would have it that I would be in Panamá both for my birthday and for the 500th años celebration of the founding of Old Panamá City – there is nothing to overlook about these fascinations! Exploring Latin America is like going into your neighbour’s house for the first time. Your neighbour has always been there but for some reason or another you’ve never entered into their home… and then, for some reason or another you get an opportunity to enter, and for the first time you find yourself crossing over the threshold into an alternate universe and it hits you how remarkable it is to live next door to someone, greeting or commiserating on their news regularly but having no clue about what the inside of their home looks like! I think we have all been there. Latin America is that unseen habitat that you see every day … but until you’ve crossed the threshold, you’ve never seen quite in this way!
My Panamá trip took the form of a well-planned experience with kimkim, crafted to understand the stories of the 80,000+ AfroAntillians (West Indians) who travelled to Panamá before WW1 to seek better since sugar plantations gave them no hope of overcoming impoverishment and the Americans promised work to West Indians with the building the Panamá Canal - the largest engineering undertaking at that time. I visited the museums where their stories are carefully curated, walked along the coasts where their bones are buried, prayed at the churches that gathered their sorrows, celebrated their offspring who stand on their proud shoulders and tell their stories, retraced their steps from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Coast, connected with descendants who have not silenced their songs, learnt to cook their food on their stoves and in their kitchens and soaked up as much as I could about a brave and resilient people who sacrificed life and limb to move mountains and join oceans under the most trying of circumstances at the isthmus of a newly created country called Panamá.
The population of Panamá is only 4 million, much smaller than neighbouring Colombia or Costa Rica. Two million of these inhabitants live in the busy metropolis, Panamá City. A 360 turn brings you views of the Pacific Ocean, the National metropolitan park, colonial buildings in the Casco Viejo district or any one of the 78 international banks jostling for space on the skyline. There is a high standard of living here, despite a very rainy climate, Panamanians enjoy a relaxed lifestyle with a 80% Catholic religion but a freedom to practice various faiths evidenced by the presence of churches, mosques, temples and synagogues. The mixed population smiles easily maybe due to the benefits of their location … at the crossing of the world. With well established ports, plane and sea routes, Panamá is easy to get to and well worth a visit.
On the maternal side, my mothers’ mother’s father, (my great grandfather), shopkeeper, Ren Arthur Brathwaite never returned to Barbados after leaving to seek work in Panamá. Fearing the worst, Adele, on not hearing any news of her husband’s promised return, migrated south with her five children to seek work as a Panamá widow in Trinidad. My grandmother, Angene, at eight years old, was the youngest child of this union. On my father’s side, my grandmothers’ father, George Merritt went to Panamá on a five year work contract, from 1916 to 1920, but was never heard from again. This was my father’s maternal grandfather. It is suspected that George remained in Panamá and started a new branch of the family tree there. The memoirs of both of my great-grandparents are buried with them in Panamá. No one would know if they perished under the harsh, unsafe and unfair labour practices of the time, or if they survived and started new lives and families in Panamá. I do know however that in every geography lesson in secondary school whenever we spoke of the Panamá Canal, I felt that the stories that were being told, were stories that directly linked to me.
Our week in Panamá started with a half day city tour of Panamá La Vieja and Casco Antiguo by Yesenia of Tucaya, one of the warmest and most engaging tour guides that I have ever met on my travels. So knowledgeable, she could not hide her ancestry, love or passion for her Panamá. She brought life to the history of these original spaces.
Even before the Canal, Panamá was a meeting point in the world. The first stop on our second day provided historical context to Panamá’s connections. Portobelo, on the Pacific Coast, was the centre of export from South America to Europe in the 1700s. The mostly leaf canopied two-hour drive with sweetheart Julio (dubbed el Presidente on this trip) brought us to this historic town that is centered around a trifector of ironies. The customs house, for the counting of the precious metals that were stolen from the El Dorados of Peru and Colombia to be shipped to Spain, the two forts that manned the Pacific coast and the ubiquitous Catholic church with a life-sized replica of a Black Jesus which is ornately paraded through the streets of Portobelo every October 21 to the deeply spiritual beats of African drums. At Casa Congo, the miscegenated children of African descendants from the Fundacion Bahia de Portobelo, showed us remnants of a rich culture in song and dance. We did not stay long on the Pacific side and returned to Casco Antiguo the following day to celebrate its 500-year founding, visiting churches and viewing new Panamanians in their ornate Montuno and Pollera attire, clear Spanish derivatives. Before the week ended, we were off to Parque Santa Ana to review food traditions with a cooking demonstration in El Chorrillo, a slum in Panamá, still reeling from an American invasion of 1989. Here, we also visited a popular milliner Mario, who carries on the tradition of the making Panamá hats, erroneously named, since the hats are actually Ecuadorian! We ended the day with a visit to the AfroAntillean Museum of Panamá.
Finally, on the weekend, we made it to the Panamá Canal. We had a tour and partial transit through the Panamá Canal with the boat guide making no mention of the workers who made the marvel possible, but that oversight was corrected at a gala dinner later that day recognizing the contributions of persons who came from all over the world to construct the Panamá Canal. Full circle. Special recognition was made to several persons who contributed to the building of Panamanian culture including Irving Saladino, the only Olympic gold medalist of Panamá. Thanks to mom for accompanying me on this weeklong expedition.
I must make mention of the eeriest part of the week for me and it was not crossing through the Panamá Canal where I envisioned the many West Indian workers at the Culebra Cut as they plowed through mountains by hand to join oceans, but it was walking around the intimate AfroAntillian museum and seeing artefacts of my youth. Symbols that make me West Indian, like the posey, the pressing comb and the coal pot and realizing that the symbols of my grandmother’s house bind me as much to my history as the stories of those who went before me, who took these implements with them on their journey and how they have become our artefacts, compassionately curated in a museum. If I’m being honest, this was my first experience of seeing myself in a museum. I saw people who looked like me with a history that I recognized with experiences that I could relate to. I needed to see this. I didn’t know it before, but I needed these groundings. It was my first realization that as a member of a diaspora, there are things that hold true to who I am, recognizable truths that when you leave home, you never leave your things behind. In some small way, you travel with them and they travel with you.
Panamá turn out to be the morale boost that I did not know that I needed but one that my spirit was greedily craving. I felt this because I cried when I left Panamá, tears of relief and joy. Somewhere along the way, along my way, I had lost my way and this, my first trip to Panamá, was a reminder of what resilience looks like… that no matter what the dream is or where it takes us, or how far away we are, we have things to fall back upon to remind us of who we are, why we do what we do and why we must never ever miss an opportunity to celebrate who we are. We never know what mountains we have to move today to make the world a better place for our future selves tomorrow.