Last updated on April 1, 2019
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 the Panama Canal Zone as a child.
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.
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 Justina. 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.
And 20 years after I first saw those photos, I linked those faces and stories with huge hugs of welcome. 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 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.
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 the Panama Canal Zone, and America’s involvement in the country in the ’60s and ’70s, 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 in the stories my dad had long shared with 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).