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Dressed as a Nun, He Fled
One person who changed Panama forever
April 30, 2023
My dearest travelers! It’s been so long, and I missed you. If all of you were in Nashville, I’d open my tiny apartment and host each and every one of you for a multi-course dinner party. But a Sunday letter will have to suffice.
I’ve been away longer than expected and desired, but I have found that this space is worth every bit of the energy I give it as a writer. If I need time to store that up before creating again, so be it. Slowly but surely, I am coming to grips with the limits of only being one person who needs to eat and sleep. If both weren’t so enjoyable, I’d be more irritated.
Since I last wrote you, I went to two new countries. Just as the 26 that came before them, Panama and Ecuador each brought their own personalities to the Journey to 197. If it were any other time, if it were any other place, if it were any other people than Val and I, it wouldn’t have been the same. I needed this experience. In a series of newsletters, I’ll tell you how it unfolded.
If you’ve been here a while, you’ve probably noticed I don’t show the places I visit in a very negative light. Even if some unpleasant things happened, I don’t emphasize them. In part, because I don’t like how my writing sounds when it’s down, down, down. But also, it’s because I need the time to think through what I saw before my every thought is immortalized in this little black font on your screen.
Most of the time, when I show up here, I’m saying “This is the best chocolate cake I’ve ever had, and you must try it,” or “I loved this place from the start.” And every time I said that, it was true.
Today, things are different. After a few hours in Panama City, I was afraid we wouldn’t like Panama at all. Something about it was just off. I mean, sure, there was that charming parilla without Wi-Fi and the sassy sign insisting people, you know, put down the phones and talk to one another. The architecture was charming, our Airbnb exactly like the photos.By all intents and purposes, everything seemed right.
But something was still wrong. Casco Viejowas (objectively) a great place, but it wasn’t our place. Thankfully, the best Panama had to offer us was yet to come, a crescendo of beauty. We left on a high note, in disbelief at all we had witnessed. What a way to say goodbye to a country—if I never get to go back, I have peace.
The beginning, though? That first night in Panama made me finally ask myself, “Will there be a country on the Journey to 197 I just don’t like at all?” Like everything else in life, time will tell. But that’s not the story I have for you today. Instead, I have a country of countries. A place that surprised me.
Just eight days there and I experienced the world.
Early Monday morning, I woke shortly after the sun. Sunday’s 2:30am airport wake-up call staggered my internal clock, orienting me to a time I do not normally see. Panama City was warm, not yet hot, the embrace of light blue skies promising a beautiful day before us. Our one activity was a walking tour that I almost cancelled, but couldn’t bring myself to pull our names from the list.
That instinct was right. Not only were we enamored by all the stories surrounding us in Casco Viejo—we were walked through them by a guide who was living there when the Noriega dictatorship rose and was part of its inevitable downfall.
Many months ago, I listened to a two-part series about Noriega on my favorite podcast. Even after studying Spanish-speaking countries for four years, I never knew the domino effect of fascism in South and Central America also made an appearance in Panama.
Like many dictators, Noriega rose through military ranks and came out on top in the wake of a coup. In its aftermath, he proved worse than his predecessor. It’s a story as old as time, with a ripple effect of consequences for innocent people that stretch to the present day.
For almost 100 years, entering the Panama Canal was like stepping foot onto U.S. soil. There were American execs managing (very, very expensive) operations of the canal; there were little Americanized homes where their wives kept house all day in sundresses; there were American schools where their children learned A-B-C-D-E-F-G.
And for decades, there was Jim Crow. What went down in the States went down in the canal. Separate living areas, separate schools, separate currencies for payment,separate everything. The whole nine yards.
My country projected its worst on another place. Then and now. In another time, and in our time. I am from here and have been shaped by this land, for better and for worse. I will love it, for better and for worse, and with all that out the way I can say we were wrong. The people who proudly bore our flag and learned the same things about our shared nation that I learned were flat-out wrong. And none of them said they’re sorry.
It is almost ironic that Noriega was successful in part due to the help of the CIA.The same nation that brought him to power when it was convenient also removed him from power.
Decades ago, the Panamanian government ceded control to the U.S. to intervene (with force) if any conflict, internal or external, posed a threat to the canal. The extreme suppression of the Noriega dictatorship and ensuing chaos of uprising posed exactly that.
When our guide was roughly my age, he was in his apartment in Panama City when he heard the bombs. Like many other young people, he jumped up and headed towards the action. For days, pandemonium broke out across the city on a mad hunt for a madman.
Before Noriega was captured, he dressed as a nun (yes, seriously) and sought refuge in the embassy. Eventually, the Vatican envoy to Panama realized Noriega wasn’t exactly the type of person they could reason with, and cut off their support for him after 10 days.
Already a protestor of the regime, our guide joined the mobs demanding Noriega’s release from American custody. “He was our problem, and we deserved to bring him to justice,” is how he articulated it. Can’t say I blame him.
Unsurprisingly, the American GIs were like human pillars, blocking the way to vengeance. It goes without saying Noriega’s trial was mismanaged,an American judge allowing him to wear his military uniform to hearings (a major affront to Panamanians, considering the human rights crimes he committed against them).
In the end, he served his time. But the implications of external oversight are an issue still reckoned with today, with no clear-cut answers and many lingering questions all along the lines of Would we have done anything differently, given the circumstances?
There’s no way of knowing now, but we can wonder.
In the end, I’d say Panama City is a great place to transit through and see this country. Would I spend several days there? Not personally. But I can say my immediate perception of it was wrong. There was so, so much more than met my adventurous eye. The best Panama had to offer me was yet to come, but I can say the nation’s capital was the introduction I didn’t know I needed.
Early (oh, so early) Tuesday morning, we flew to the clouds—you’re going to love this part. I’ll share it next time.
Be brave and stay that way,
P.s. I’ve read so much since the last time I wrote here, so books will get their own post this week or next!
I feel like we make this tradeoff so often in our increasingly-digital world. Letters became emails became text messages became social media DMs. I think this is my strange way of saying I’m going to write long, multi-page letters to those I love and don’t get to see often.
What a relief!
Casco Viejo is the historic quarter of Panama City; the rest of the city is very cosmopolitan. This area is full of charming colonial architecture.
European and American workers on the canal were paid in gold, while workers with darker skin across many nationalities and ethnicities were paid in silver (which was worth much less). Source: The Conversation
Or if they did, it wasn’t written down anywhere or widely remembered.
This is also the case with many other Central and South American dictators.
The uprising occurred because Noriega overturned the 1989 election results, which would have removed him from power.
How wouldn’t it be? It seemed every nation in the free world wanted its handcuffs around his wrists on narcotics trafficking charges.