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Picturesque Panama

Antoinette Connell

Picturesque Panama

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We waited there, excited. The gates of the Gatun Locks were about to open and a boatful of Barbadians and Jamaicans were poised to sail the Panama Canal.

It was the eve of the 100th anniversary of the world-famous waterway, a marvel of engineering design and the gateway to international trading.

No other waterway has held such intrigue for Caribbean people as this 50-mile long canal that links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. For some, the Panama connection comes from tales about long lost relatives who left more than one hundred years ago to work on the construction of the canal and the Panama Canal Railway. Others associate it with the childhood Panama hat worn to school or the headwear for men.

But it was all coming alive for about 78 of us making the trip with the Combermere Foreign Language Club under the command of Nicolas Vaughan, head of the modern languages department at the school. In our midst was Professor Velma Newton, who was being honoured in Panama for her highly acclaimed The Silver Men, a well documented account of the Caribbean labour migration to Panama to assist with the building of the railway and the canal and the deep consequences of the movement. A Spanish version of the book was published through the efforts of the Society of Friends of the West Indian Museum of Panama, the organisation honouring the professor.  

The trip was about ten years in the making since the club, after a visit during the 90th anniversary, determined that the centenary of Canal de Panamá should not be missed.

But this Panama was obviously nothing like what we created in our minds, judging from the remarks as we travelled from the airport headed for our hotel, Torres de Alba in Panama City. We would discover its quaint side later but for now we were witnessing a Panama marked by skyscrapers in its capital, the latest vehicles and technology as we were bombarded with economic information that makes the country attractive for business and for retirement immigration.

The Spanish-speaking Panama has a population of about 3.6 million, a 95 per cent literacy rate and a major initiative to make English mandatory in all schools.

Jo-Jo, our bilingual tour guide for the 12-day visit, also claims Barbadian heritage from the Branch side of her foreparents, one of whom came from rural Barbados.

On one of our first excursions Jo-Jo took us on tour of the ruins of the Panama Viejo that included Las Casas Terrin and the remains of the Dominican Convent established in the 1500s, both of which contrasted the modern skyline of the capital.

During our walking tour up and down the cobbled stone streets, we paused at the Arco Chato (The Flat Arch) part of the remains of the church and convent of St Dominic, which was twice burnt but the arch survived even demolition and its strange shape, length and age became a curious attraction for tourists.

We observed indigenous Panamanians finding creative ways to apply the symbols of Panama on to the enticing souvenirs.

Before our eyes the wonders of their hands created painted villages, ocean scenes or artwork inspired by the feathers of peacocks or polished stones from the earth and transformed into symbols of love.

“Look,” said one man gesturing, “All done here.” He turned and with swift momentum created a piece of artwork casting an image of a lizard over the eye of the peacock’s feather. He offered his small framed artwork at three for US$10 and I took the bargain.

On what we thought was another hot day we took a ride aboard the railway.

The rainforest makes the weather in Panama unpredictable for us travellers as some days we woke to pouring rain with the belief that it would never let up, but it did and the sun came out and scorched those of us without sunscreen.

The railway is the first to join the two oceans, and the hour-long journey, like the coach ride, produces flashes of the country that cause the sightseers to compare it with The Whim or Sailor Gully.

As the train chugs along, we have a chance to admire in the low lighting the carving of its panels with some detail but the real interest is on the outside.

At some points after emerging from the dense jungle it’s almost as though the train is gliding across water but the experience is brief. We catch glimpses of the country’s vast variety of wildlife, birds and reptiles.

One another outing, to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, we got a closer view of the animals, birds, butterflies, snakes, crocodiles, lizards and fish.

The brave handled the snakes at length; the scared opted for a quick, light touch in order to have a chance of boasting. Butterflies are bred in abundance at Gamboa, once home to the non-white workers on the canal.