Panama: A Wonderland


I was born to a military family.

My father, being in the Air Force, had traveled around the United States and lived in Okinawa, Japan, and the Philippines before I came to be. He eventually retired in 1996, yet prior to that was sent on one last exotic adventure, this time with a family in tow.

In 1990 I was 6 years old and my sister Vanessa was 9 when our dad received orders to Howard Air Force Base in Panama. That is, of course, the country of Panama; an isthmus connecting Central and South America near the equator. For the next three years, our family lived in the humid, abundant tropical paradise that is Panama.

The best, most vivid, most acutely nostalgic of my childhood experiences are rooted in the hot, colorful, piquant memories of those years.

I had been inclined toward drawing from my earliest years and I became a habitual writer in second grade, during our second year overseas.

Panama served as an incredible muse especially for the creative, dramatic personality that I was. For the awakening imagination, nowhere provided more ardent sense experiences than my childhood world in Panama.

American military life was in no way segregated from the Panamanian culture within which it temporarily resided. The jungle surrounded the cul-de-sacs of houses and the flora and fauna of the country filled our view and crept into our yards. There were banana palms in the front yard and lime trees in the back. Geckos were everywhere, making themselves at home in just about every room.

One day a sloth traveled through our neighborhood, taking the entire 24 hours to make his languid way from one end of the cul-de-sac to the other. He was undisturbed and unfettered while we took pictures and videos, and stood in his path waiting for his measured motion to draw near before jumping out of his way.

Native Panamanians worked on the air force base with the personnel, as well as in the neighborhoods gardening and housekeeping. They taught us Spanish, introduced us to spicy rice and bean dishes, fried bread, and an immaculate seafood selection brought door to door by local fishermen.

Our housekeeper Carolina was part of our family.

When I was sick she would make me “pan,” fried dough, and feed me frozen oranges with sugar on them. I recall watching “I Love Lucy” in Spanish with her, as well as a Spanish soap opera and to the rapid-fire dialogue on the show she turned to me and explained with fierce eyes, “She muy mal! Very bad!”

Carolina brought us an albino bunny, carrying him with her on the bus in a paper bag. He was our treasured pet for the duration of our stay, and when we left, Carolina took him home with her, as it would be quite a process to take him back with us.

She also brought and shared with us her extended family, who came over for her son’s wedding reception and filled our home with delicious foods, laughter, and hours of dancing. Carolina’s son Prado worked with my dad on the base. He taught my sister and me how to dance and he called us his little sisters.

Beyond Howard AFB, we could drive to beaches and swim in either the Pacific or the Atlantic. Our favorite beach was Rio Mar, where sizzling black sand mingled with white and burned your feet if you forgot your sandals, as I did once. My parents have that moment on video, when I crossed the beach barefoot and as the heat set in, started running toward them with a crescendoing howl.

We went deep-sea fishing with Panamanian guides from a small village where the children treated our leftover jelly beans like pebbles of manna upon returning from a day on the ocean. I caught the most fish with the help of our guide, who bated my hook for me.

In the traffic and bustle of Panama City we could get lost, where the festivals and dancers taught us about celebration, rhythm, and beauty.

In this environment, resplendent with exotic culture, eternal summer weather, and strange, otherworldly plants and animals, my emergent writing skills were infused with brilliant references. My imagination was fed by the peculiar scenery. Our cul-de-sac appeared to be a lush, jungle wonderland.

With no shortage of friends, who put up with my demands, as I was then a bossy, precocious brat, I spent hours leading epic battles and expeditions in our imaginary world. I named it the Woods of Windsor, a title I gleaned from the label of a fancy soap set I received for Christmas one year. Moved by the thriving wilderness around us and stimulated toward storytelling by imaginative role-play perhaps, I wrote my first book in second grade.

I considered it a book. It was 24 pages long, an impressive length in my fledgling opinion, and I had stapled the pages together so it was official. It included an illustrated cover, a title page, and a dedication to my Spanish teacher Senior Hector (who enjoyed a cameo in the story as a vampire). To read it now, especially as it is, without correcting the misspellings and grammatical disorder, is comical, to say the least. Still, at the time it was my greatest achievement, and having received from my teacher a double “Good Thinking” stamp on the cover, I knew thereafter that I had to be a writer. From that point onward, I was perpetually writing, ever collecting inspiration from the foreign culture that colored my experiences.

A visual learner and a visual artist, I became also a visual writer, ever moved by the overwhelming beauty and mystery of Panama. I attribute the stimulation of so astounding an experience to stoking the creative fires of this soul. In later years as I would begin to paint, I would use the vivid colors uncommon to the arid northwestern state of Montana where I spent all but three years of my life. Instead, the colors I remember, and the dense jungle scenes that I took in for three radiant years in Panama, pervade my palate and mark my canvases with their bold, sultry hues. In writing, the dramatic imagery that stirred my youthful blood begs to be described and reborn for others to relish.

As the children of the cul-de-sac we remained in the sun all day until we had turned brown and our lungs had acclimated to the moisture dense air. We dug for shells and picked sour, pink, pear-shaped apples to eat until our bellies ached. We stroked the blades of plants whose leaves closed on contact, caught fireflies after dark, and immersed ourselves in the strange environment with the wild abandon of innocence.

When the rain came in heavy silvery sheets, drenching the dirt to bright orange sludge, and weighing the banana palms and ferns down to reach for the fat, neon green grass, we let the warm showers envelop us. With glee, we slid down hills through the mud on cardboard boxes, were washed clean in a moment upon standing in the deluge, and then muddied ourselves again.

In a time when childhood consisted of days spent mostly outside, in a place ethereal, we were uninhibited in exploration and unlimited in the enrichment of our imaginations.

The time spent in Panama was a precious gift, a three-year tropical vacation. I will forever have the memories, the sights, smells, sounds, and warmth lingering in my fondest thoughts.

Perhaps someday I’ll go back. Perhaps you will have the opportunity to experience the wonder! If you do, take it all in, explore the wonder, and enjoy every minute of it.

-Jillian Kae

#Panama #tropics #AirForce #Military #Childhood #Memories

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