Posts Tagged ‘Panama’

Encountering Carnival in Panama

Panama City, March 1962

I had no idea that we’d arrive in Panama during Carnival. Even as our ship sidled into port at the end of the Pacific crossing, we could hear the sounds of it, the ramshackle city pulsing to a beat like none I’d ever heard. Once docked and allowed to disembark, we passengers pushed our way through dense crowds of people, among which wove decorated floats, costumed dancers, bands crowded onto the beds of battered trucks, men on the street beating drums or, lacking drums, the metal sides of the trucks, all singing and shouting to the heady Latin American rhythms. Sometimes a figure in fantastic costume would pass, surrounded by a group of friends singing and shouting together.

Woman in traditional costume

Woman in traditional costume

Panamanian samba

Everyone dresses up for Carnival. I was fascinated to see women wearing the pollera, the Panamanian national costume. Spanish in origin and atmosphere, the dress is of white cambric, embroidered in a bold floral pattern in a contrasting color, usually red, black or blue, each frill trimmed with a border of hand-made lace.

Panama shave ice

Making shave ice

At roadside stalls we watched Panamanian boys scrape blocks of ice for the local sweet. They pressed the ice shavings into a paper cup, and poured over it a bright colored syrup and condensed milk. A bit tasteless, but very refreshing.

Passengers had been warned before we disembarked about the level of crime on Panama’s streets. There’s a hint of bravado in my letter to parents: “You just didn’t go into the side streets, or you would be unlikely to come back alive. Pickpockets everywhere. We were either lucky or careful (or both) but many of the passengers had purses, wallets or cameras stolen.”Panama letter

Street Stall, Panama 1962

A street stall selling straw dolls

What I didn’t write about was the effect on me of the incessant drums, the shouts and snatches of tune, the rhythm syncopated, hypnotic. I wanted to drown in it, swirl with the dancers forever into the glittering ocean of color and sound. But like the hawsers holding the ship to the dock, my past tethered me: syrupy fifties songs about marriage and children, strictures on proper behavior, appropriate dress. We wandered in the crowd for a day, then moved on.



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All photographs are by Tony Eppstein.

 Maureen is exploring the contents of an old black filing cabinet in her attic, which contains 55 years of her writing notes and memorabilia.