A Little Adrift

A Little Story … Travels Though Panama with my Dad

I was seven before I accepted that my parents had a life that existed before me, and in that year I remember a whole world opening up because I began to comprehend a world so much wider than what I had seen and experienced as yet in life. Though I am the rare breed of native Floridian, my parents are both transplants. My mom grew up in the Oswego area of upstate New York and my four older brothers were born there. My dad on the other hand approached life with the wicked New England accent inherited from my grandmother, but tempered with the 16 years he spent living in Panama’s Canal Zone as a child.

The sprawling metropolis of Panama City on a story day from Fort Amador Island

In contrast to my rather staid childhood in a suburban neighborhood in the states, my dad spun tales of epic rotten-mango wars with his friends—a fruit so plentiful in the country he said it was impossible to eat them all. I lusted after the freedom and free range he was given to wander through forests filled with sloths, wild animals, and the untold mischievous adventures I knew he glossed over as he recounted them to me. And he got wistful when he talked about racing his mini motorcycle up and down the hills on the far side of the Miraflores locks.

The same hills that we stood on together last month from an overlook, hills now excavated and buzzing with construction work on the country’s new wider canal system.

You see, Panama was a special trip for me because it was a country I’ve heard about my entire life.

And it was special for my dad because it was the first time he’s taken me there, taken me to see the memories, stories, and people from the first 16 years of his life.

The most terrifying bridge I’ve driven across, the Bridge of the Americas, from Ancon Hill outside of Panama City.

For the past three weeks back home in Florida, I’ve been processing the weeks my dad, my niece Ana, and I spent traveling through Panama. Unlike many places I visit, there was so much more to my trip than simply sightseeing or taking in the natural beauty of the country. We did all those things, and those stories will come, but our two weeks were framed by this nostalgia my dad carries with him for a country he left 40 years ago.

There was a warmth and welcome in Panama that I’ve spent my whole life pondering. My dad traveled back to Panama a few times over the years and the surest reason I have always pinpointed was a love for the people still living there who shaped his childhood. For throughout the stories were always peppered the key players in his life there, the two Panamanian sisters who worked for his family, Bernabela and Houstina. My dad traveled back there when I was nine years old and from that trip he brought home photos of him surrounded by people I had never met, everyone beaming smiles into the camera.

Berna and my dad laughing at lunch over some story Berna’s granddaughter was telling!

And 20 years after I first saw those photos, I put huge hugs of welcome to the faces and stories. And in the overwhelm of introductions and hellos, all in Spanish mind you, it brought back the same cautious curiosity I had felt at the age of seven—my dad had a life and people connected to him that existed 1) before I was alive and 2) at a deeper level than had occurred to me in the self-focused bubble I walk around in. And these people made up an extended version of family I had never quite considered.

I preface any future stories about Panama with this one because it most strongly shaped my memories of the country. Threads connect each of us to each other, and I don’t just mean the family bonds, or neighborhoods and cultures that appear on the surface of our lives. The interwoven story of humanity is one I’ve touched on before here, and it presented itself in the days spent visiting and reminiscing. I was connected to a place and a people and there were threads tying us to each other in ways I hadn’t considered. And because of these connections, Panama was so much more than yet another country added to my collection.

This soldier was guarding the abandoned base and seemed thrilled to have visitors. He peppered my dad with all sorts of questions he must have built up over the years, wondering who lived in which housing and what guy earned the huge clapboard house on the hill (the military doctor).

This was my dad’s apartment on the base growing up and we went for a visit with Berna and her granddaughter, who is 14 and made the perfect friend for Ana — the two got on great. Each one practiced the opposite language (Berna’s granddaughter spoke to Ana in English and Ana responded in Spanish; and they spoke the universal language of teens — selfies with their cell phone cameras).

I so often travel solo, and I connect with new places over volunteer service or food. I ask for life stories, I consider how history has shaped the culture. My dad’s life in Panama in the Canal Zone and America’s involvement in the country in the 60’s and 70’s took on a new meaning for me as we traveled to the old military base, and even more as I met the family and faces to the stories my dad had long told me over the years.

The majority of the photos in this post deviate from the more traditional travel photos I usually share, but they were some of the more special moments from our last week in Panama with new friends and family and with a whole lot of laughter since I was one of the primary translators for our mixed group (only Berna and myself could easily navigate the two languages; that made for hilarity as the number of family members grew and translations were needed).

There is the distinct possibility this guffaw ensued after I translated something.

The guys in our group.

The teens held down the couch and did mysterious things together on their phones for most of the evening.