Panama memories


The original plan was to travel on Sunday, but that changed when the first plane initiated a descending spiral of unfavorable events, when the gate agents left us with that jinxed phrase “mechanical issues”, looking down on the diminutive, shabby 1970’s aircraft I could understand why. The second plane fared no better. Lightening sweeping across New Jersey kept the crew on board past their allocated hours and so we clumsily de-boarded that one as well. Sometimes an instinct, which is not quite either wisdom or superstition, draws you prematurely from an airport and back home with a feeling of exhilaration. I jumped at the opportunity for a flight the next day and gleefully wove my way back through the airports oncoming human traffic. I wasn’t entirely alone, I saw service desks with exasperated, restless long lines, groups of passengers looking helpless, caught snippets of urgent discussions as I strode past it all with singular purpose; my mind at least fully made up and committed. I enjoyed a warm flush of exuberance in the taxi as it inched back towards home mainly with the unexpected bonus of stealing an evening with Mary but also because I’ve reached that point in my career where I run away from work with more enthusiasm than I do towards it.

The next afternoon however I did fly into Panama and just as the plane dipped its nose to land, I looked out at the black Caribbean Sea where I saw perhaps thirty cargo vessels in regimental lines, lite up as if by candle light, their slim top heavy outlines perfectly reflected in the Ocean which was as lazy and motionless as a midsummer pond. On the ground, I reflected that the country’s immigration area offers a good insight into what to expect of the country itself. On this occasion there were several booths with officers ostentatiously chatting and daring each other how long they could ignore the line of tired travelers. Their disinterest was absolute; keeping us waiting, studious in their neglect as presumably they have been ignored or disrespected themselves, existing in their own eco-system and apparently reluctant to start down the slippery path of customer service….and yet at the same time I sensed they were signaling some unknown hurt to us, in the spirit of Auden’s poem, those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.

Panama City is a painting that is best viewed from afar, as you approach it by car it has the appearance of a mini Hong Kong, or Monaco with new, mainly unremarkable, high rise buildings sprouting from a narrow downtown area. But with closer scrutiny as you walk along the unpaved streets, weeds spill out of parking lot borders, plywood temporarily servers as a window, corrugated iron roofing whispers a less universally prosperous story. From the roof of the hotel you can see the elegant curve of the Ocean and the high rise buildings on the horizon, but if you are to walk to the water itself it laps up against a mountain of garbage lining the shore. As a strange parallel to this mound of multicolored debris you are equally struck by the overwhelming vitality of nature here, seemingly unstoppable in its scope, outside the city parasitic strangler trees grow on and destroy their hosts and everything manmade will be quickly covered by the brutal abundance of aggressive plant life without constant ministration. An abandoned house is now an integral part of the forest, with branches extending out from the darkness within, a car which might have broke down ten years ago now unrecognizable within the grasp of the jungle, which astonishes you with the commotion of its mechanical, almost industrialized insect cacophony.

The city’s history has been one of abrupt change for the last five hundred years or so when it was first invaded, although this was a slow process which started when the first port was developed as early as 1501 by these Spanish adventurers. Prior to that were several thousand years of living off the earth, hunting, eating what grows, reproducing, making clay pots. If we could go back, lets say, three thousand years you would meet the descendants of tribes that walked from Siberia and beyond across what we now call Alaska, California, Mexico to arrive at this migratory sliver of land. There would be many more passing through this dense tropical jungle to more pleasant and manageable points further south. It all changed with the arrival of the Europeans who, as every school child knows, brought two deadly weapons; steel and viruses. What those school children are not likely to tell you, because they are already complicit in the process of being corrupted themselves, is that they brought a third and more deadly weapon; ambition. This is what swept the explorers, the soldiers and the adventurers across the Ocean searching not just for things to steal or possess but also to return home and be embraced by the dominant hierarchical structures of church and monarchy. We are no more advanced today. Still buying into the propaganda which is now so ingrained that we fail even to recognize it within ourselves, to suggest emancipation from corporate, capitalist structures makes us react angrily and laugh with sarcasm at the naivety of socialists and the Woodstock generation as we are now, as a society, pretty good at self-incarceration for the sake of a reliable paycheck.

I searched my memory of old history lessons, of the events of 1671 in Panama, which I knew quite well once and several years ago had even walked across the old quarters and re-trod the movements leading to the sack of the city by the loose group of privateers headed by Henry Morgan. He was someone not in the service of Church or State, a poor child from the rocky landscape between Cardiff and Newport in South Wales and for me not too difficult to imagine what he was like as I feel like I’ve met modern versions of his kind before. I also remember that area’s inhospitable wet climate and the wind swept ferocity of South Wales, the brittle coast line, the proud independence and disregard of English laws, society and norms, a wildness that is the only plausible outcome from such tough lives.

Morgan was one of those historical characters whose lives make fiction seem pointless. In Panama he led a small group of privateers across the breadth of the country from the Atlantic side to the Pacific where he took the Spanish garrison with almost comical ease killing 400-500 Spanish with the loss of only about 15 of his band. The attacks contained moments of farce, the release of oxen and Bulls by the defenders which turned back on their former captives in the panic of gun fire for example. He was treated as a hero on return to England and received praise from Charles 2. A few years later he joined the establishment and became Knight Bachelor in 1674 and returned to run Jamaica. But then his story was, for want of a better word, pirated, and that’s when things got interesting. A memoir by one of his former shipmates portrayed him in a harsh light, frequently torturing his captives, a willful disregard for human life whether it was his enemies, his own crew or himself which had the unintended result of overly romanticizing his character. It caught traction in the business of myth making and the idea of a noble pirate was born after his death. He becomes interesting for all the wrong reasons which is something we should all be fearful of I suppose, popular culture has a way of a taking a sliver of truth and molding it ways to suit its own ends and industries are created around such an illusory persona; Hollywood actors swing from chains in cavernous Californian studio’s, graphic designers imagine his face for the label of a bottle of rum, screenwriters in the Hollywood hills pursue ideas of theatrical antics in the Bahamas.

In the late months of 1989 Panama was invaded again as an independent country but this time fastidiously, capably and relatively drama free, by the USA. George WH Bush decided to remove Manuel Noriega from office, he had been a thorn in the side of the USA for a long time and his decision to not recognize democratic election results tipped the scale. The USA presented to the cynical world the tiresome playbook of reasons; safeguarding US citizens in Panama, defending democracy, combating drug trafficking, to protect the canal….in the end about 1,000 Panamanians were killed as well 23 USA soldiers, but the actual data is imprecise, however we know Noriega himself died much later in June 2017 of a brain tumor. A few years before this I was in a bus rattling through the heart of the Panamanian jungle and as we passed a gated compound the other passengers eagerly pointed out to me a lonely siluette of a portly, track suited man in the distance, I didn’t see him at first but then very briefly I did, and heard the hushed words “The General”, their own Napoleon in exile.

My first trip to Panama took place in the mid-1990’s, just five years or so after the American invasion, the place was down at heal. I had been instructed to go by my boss at the time, a withered New Englander, who had the slow drawl of a John Wayne cowboy and offered his instructions with cryptic economy; see if we “over paid for it” take a look the freight (of a famous computer manufacturer). It sounds corny but in his slow direct speech there was genuine authority, and I lived in fear of letting him down.

I had arrived on that occasion by an early evening flight, it was not yet that moment when it suddenly goes dark as if thrown by a light switch. I had checked into the El Panama hotel, assured this being the only really decent place in the city. It possessed a certain Latin mid-century glamor, an empty oversized swimming pool surrounded by handsome couples confirming clichéd prejudices; she an exaggerated pear shape in a scarlet dress, he with thick black hair, a moustache. In those days I was intermittently home sick, and carried with me a Sony short wave radio in the hope that I could catch the BBC World Service. It rarely was successful, but on this occasion I got almost perfect clarity and with remarkable good timing listened to a journalist taking a walk through one of my favorite places in Shropshire and a climb up Clee Hill. It was reassuring to hear the precise tone, a lovely soft regional accent, the sound of the wind and farm animals, somehow it was all more vivid because of the lack of visual information, radio allows you to trawl through memories, bringing them into sharper focus in your imagination, and I fell deeply asleep to those muffled footsteps and the familiar swish of long grass. That however was atypical of my nights in El Panama. On one night I woke at about two am convinced that I heard a key in my door, and saw with some certainty two dark feet in the dim corridor light in the gap under my door, but by the time I had coughed loudly and noisily swung out of bed there was no sign of any intruder. But I was alert most nights after that to any sounds inside or outside my room.

The first task was easy, “seeing if we overpaid” was code for looking at the Company’s Balance Sheet and tearing it apart, search for the misleadingly described assets, a fictional warehouse building perhaps which was wildly overstated in value, a large debt as old and stale as bread, liabilities that logically should exist but are minimized in the numbers being reported. I could do all this blind fold. The second part however left me full of anxiety, what did “taking a look” at the computer equipment mean exactly? I addressed this first and found I had walked innocently into the center of some corporate power struggle, the country CEO immediately excusing himself to make a call to the head office which clearly didn’t do any good so he sulkily picked up his car keys and a group of us headed out to his four wheel drive truck following in his angry wake.

After a while driving in the traffic which in those days consisted of a lot of buses ornately decorated with painted hub caps, plastic Madonna’s, pasted pictures of Jesus and illegible lettering on each window, they were essentially folk art, the decorative exteriors of these former US school buses apparently getting more attention from there owners than the more mundane mechanical interior workings as evidenced by the number of broken down ones at the side of the road. We turned to a dirt road surrounded by weeds and overgrown bushes, partly cemented but this had been ravished by time and was rutted and deeply cracked. There was a slight smell of petrol in the car, probably the result of the rockiness of the road, the cold touch of the vinyl seating made me slide uncomfortably, I noticed something small and fast had escaped our front wheels. I was suddenly overtaken by melancholy, a memory out of reach in the form of an exasperating “déjà vu” moment, something about the tension inside the car took me back to a different time, a different continent; it wasn’t until much later that night in the silent simmering hotel room, sleeplessness opened a gate in my memory; the same overcast grey sky poised to rain, the same indifference to the roads condition. It was an awful holiday in the Scottish Cairngorms, I was eight or nine years old, a Fathers idea hated by our Mother, who needed a holiday from house work and us children but hadn’t quite realized or articulated this fact until we arrived in the cold, damp remote cottage. When my sister and I closed the door in this unhappy place and climbed the nearby mountains we could hear the constant hoarse shouting thorough the thin Scottish air. I felt broken hearted at the time and that feeling lingers today, the intractable conflict between romanticism from one side of a relationship and the pragmatism (or something darker- an unspoken longing or need for recognition perhaps) which surfaces at that moment to stifle it.

The first security guards were surly but looked legitimate in their uniforms and elderly single shot rifles but after passing them the tension in the car increased again a level, there was no more laughter and the body language of the other passengers was clear, the quiet, almost whispered instructions signaled a reverence that I couldn’t understand. We were in the “old” airport now, a wide open disused space where the run ways used to be butting up against a group of semi-abandoned warehouses and hangers. The silent car now drove to a section of the building where we could see groups of people on each corner surveying us, a young man in jeans and sneakers approached, he was holding a modern semi-automatic rifle and the exchange was short and tense. I was surprised to detect deference from my group and sensed an unresolved ambiguity over who worked for whom.

I was going to make a joke about teenagers with rifles but opted against it, a few years earlier I had been staring at the barrel of a rifle in the jungle bordered suburbs of Harare, at the other end a terrified Zimbabwean teenager shacking and shouting something incomprehensible from the pitch darkness. Thank heavens for a waiting taxi driver, equally as distressed, who had repeatedly assured me with forbidden knowledge that he was unwilling or unable to share that I had the wrong address for the dinner party.

In this instance I was less frightened about the security than the others on the grounds that ignorance of danger is the greatest luxury. Once we got out I could see the runway was stacked with boxes on pallets for perhaps a hundred meters. On each pallet there must have been forty or fifty boxes, each containing a laptop which in those days retailed for over a thousand dollars. There must have been sixty of these pallets at the mercy of the rain. I did some mental arithmetic. Each pallet would be worth 50,000 dollars, if there were indeed sixty of these then I was staring at three million dollars. I glanced into the almost derelict warehouse, with light seeping through the roof making moving shimmering pillars out of dust, and saw there were many, many more of these pallets here also. There were also more boys with guns staked against the wall while they played soccer with a makeshift ball. A few months earlier I had come from Peru where the average annual salary was eight thousand dollars a year, I suspected it couldn’t be that much different here.

This week’s trip was inconsequential, nothing happened of note and the work largely mundane and predictable. I ate with a colleague most nights in the hotel restaurant, both relived when it was over due to our need to reduce conversations to their most basic, un-nuanced form thanks to our mutual language difficulties. Most nights I was in bed by ten o’clock watching CNN. I had an hour each day to myself between finishing work and having dinner, and in each case strolled down to the foot paths that wound parallel to the shoreline, where joggers and fitness buff’s worked out. There is an unruly patch of land between these and the water’s edge where I ventured once hoping to photograph some of the exotic birds, some of the resting brown pelicans and hoping to see a frigate bird, but moments after stepping out this rough ground I could feel mosquito’s biting my ankles and then the sight of trash up against what might have been the beach made me hurry back. Plus it was strangely dark and frightening, although just a few steps from civilization, I sensed danger lurking in the empty dark tangled bushes ahead. Panama today feels a city protected by the slimmest veneer of respectability.

A few years ago the Panama Papers were published painting a picture of corrupt lawlessness and some of the wealthiest, most influential people in the World were named as participants, as I harbor contrarian tendencies admit I found it rather brave to be hiding wealth in the labyrinths of Central American bookkeeping and banking regulations. If there was any doubt about the countries integrity the word “Trump” could be seen on the side of one of the buildings broadcasting the ugly side of the cities nature. Could there is something about the location that promotes as sense of risk taking, of a mild recklessness and disorder? Perhaps it is its physical position, the open sea’s at both sides of the country that offer the role of precarious outsider, an easy escape to the wider world, or the history of its society demands an acceptance of transience over this slender, gossamer attachment of the North and South American continents.









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