A Little Story… Travels Through Panama with my Dad

Last updated on May 15, 2023

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.

Panama City from Amador island
Stormy day views of the sprawling metropolis of Panama City 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 Bridge of the Americas from Ancon Hill in Panama City
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 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.

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 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.

On the base
This soldier guarding the abandoned base 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 had 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 swimmingly. 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 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).

There is a 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.
Collage of our Panama family

15 thoughts on “A Little Story… Travels Through Panama with my Dad”

  1. Hi Shannon! I’ve been referencing your site as I travel around the world. Your budget spreadsheet is EL MEJOR! I honestly live and breathe by it. I just checked back in to find out some budgeting information and ran across this post from so many years ago… I’m in tears! This is such a touching and wonderful story! Thank you for sharing it here along with the photos of the people who hold great meaning in you and your family’s lives.

    • Hi Jen! I am SO glad you’ve found the spreadsheet useful! I truly hope it’s helped in your travels. And thank you for the kind words about this story—Panama remains such a special place for me, and I was lucky to have my Panamanian family visit me in Barcelona just this past January and I was able to host them show them around. It was so memorable. :)

  2. Dear Shannon, I was taking in oh a previous page you had developed on you home page describing in particular the different cities that ExPats would find attractive and gave a brief description of the cost of living in those particular city other than Panama City like for instance Coronado comes to mind, did delete those pages from your web site?

    Thank you


  3. More color and telling detail on places and people you visit and how they connect to you and affect you would enliven your stories.

    Will Wright
    Old journalist

    • Thanks for the feedback, many (most) stories on this site are a very different tone than this one as I traditionally travel solo and not to visit old family friends; I like to think of this one as having been written last summer as a bit more for my regular readers following my personal journey these past few years. I encourage you to perhaps dig around in the archives and you may find some that appeal more. :)

  4. What an incredible experience to be able to share that with your dad! I know what you mean about having a family in a way you never considered. My husband studied abroad for a year in Japan and has been all but adopted by his host family. Some 14 years later, they are still close. He took me to Japan to meet them right after we got engaged and they adopted me too! It’s amazing that we can make such profound connections with people seemingly so different, but the same at the core.

    • Wow, that must have been incredible to show up and be welcomed by the family in Japan. I really find it interesting what it says about our own culture, because I often wonder if we nurture that sense of extended family here in the states. Our family structures are so different that I just don’t know that my family would be as welcoming in the reverse situation. An interesting dynamic! :)

  5. Hi Shannon, it’s wonderful that you go to travel with your dad. You look just like him. All of you seem very happy. Beautiful smiles :)

  6. wow, your dad is absolutely beaming in these photos! that is amazing that you got to go visit this part of his life with him. my mom and her family spent a few years in africa when she finished high school, and i would love to go there with her and see the places i’ve heard so much about.

    • Wow, that would be amazing to travel over there with your mom. It’s a really different experience to travel with them, but one I think is worth the time to arrange and make happen with her :)

  7. Looks like such a fun time. You look so much like your Dad! When I hear stories of my parents growing up (in very different circumstances than my childhood), I also have similar thoughts about how weird it is to think of them having these experiences and relationships that I did not experience (or relate to) in any way.

    • Heh heh heh, I have heard that before Jen and sometimes my mother bemoans it :) Thanks so much for reading it; it’s easy to think about the time we have with our parents as the focus of their life, but wacky to think they were out on adventures of their own pre-children!


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