A Glance Back at a Green Panama

Our West Indian forefathers predominated as the bulk of the work force on th Panama Rairoad and the Canal.  Image from 1910 is from the Dickinson Library.

Our West Indian forefathers predominated as the bulk of the work force on th Panama Rairoad and the Canal. Image from 1910 is from the Dickinson Library.

The inscription on this Panama Railroad Tie reads "A Life for Each Tie PANAMA."  Most of those lives were West Indian.  Image thanks to www.panamarailroad.org

The inscription on this Panama Railroad Tie reads “A Life for Each Tie PANAMA.” Most of those lives were West Indian. Image thanks to www.panamarailroad.org

The train ride was quiet and made me remember my grandfather, Seymour, who had been employed as a blacksmith on the Panama Railroad in the City of Colon not too far from where we all lived. By then I had little to distract me on that ride but it had calmed me down, until the train pulled into “Darien Station.” I then recognized that we were passing the Silver town of Paraiso where we stopped only briefly since only a few souls ventured to get off. But the stop made me think of my French grandparents, the Juliens.

Suddenly, the food vendors mobbed the platform displaying a variety of things to eat for the weary and hungry travelers. Trays sporting bowls of homemade delicacies made with sweet coconut filled the air with fragrances to stimulate appetite. Preparations stuffed into corn husks or wrapped in banana leaves I immediately recognized as tamales. Other vendors waved trays of ready-to-eat fresh fruit slices. Others sold sweetened Chicha or fruit drinks.

It was their way of making a living offering passengers something to eat while they rode the train through this “desert” of human comfort in which no snack bars, vending machines or eateries of any kind existed on the platforms. One could not even get a drink of water. Since I had never been one to purchase food from street people, I didn’t buy anything, but the sudden influx of all those resourceful vendors made me curious to know where they were from and what exactly it was they were selling.

The train continued to the next stop of some importance which I called “White” Balboa where very few people boarded. They were mostly workmen not much older than myself but, I recognized one of them from my boyhood from our neighborhood, a lad who had grown up with us and who lived in the board building known as “The War Zone Building.” He passed by me and I recognized him as Hector, the brother of “Fatman.”

He was carrying the unmistakable black night bag used by the Canal employees that seemed to be an emblematic requirement for men who finally got a job and would be independent souls. Watching him walk by I thought, “The Panama Canal Commission became his saviour,” when I remembered that I would also have to stop by my paternal grandmother’s to get some of my clothing I had left in my hasty retreat from their home in Magnolia building. I would need my clothing and toilet articles that I had left behind since I needed to keep a neat apearance now in Colon.

While sitting in that Panama Railroad car bound for the capitol I focused my attention on the rare sight of the young Silver worker, the kid with whom I had grown up in the same San Miguel Hill area. He had probably followed the advise of his father and even his grandfather, I thought, and was now trapped into working on the Canal. As the boy hurried past me, he acted the role of the veteran worker and then exited into another rail car without even glancing back at me. Seeing this I attributed the whole thing to my absence on the streets of San Miguel while I had attended school at the Institute and my work at the dental lab.

So I turned my attention to the colorful landscape of Balboa, the Gold Roll Canal Zone area that I had known since my childhood. But then I said under my breath, ” That rass! We grew up together in the same area of San Miguel and he acts as if he didn’t see me!” I then thought better that it had been the Westindian in me that came out but, again, I thought that the rass had gotten a job and now he didn’t recognize me.

By then, however, I became distracted by the last scenes of the Canal Zone before the train entered the city limits. Still looking out the window I couldn’t help but be taken in by the magnificant  greenery speeding past our train. The Canal was like a an enormous, artificial incision made into a beautiful tropical landscape; but it was breathtaking, to say the least.

The train finally arrived at Plaza Cinco de Mayo. The conductor or fare collector ran past me as the train made its last stop and quickly exhaled like a roaring giant letting out steam. I quickly got off the train and walked the familiar path to the National Institute, through the street we knew as Calle Estudiante. Surprisingly, although I had been gone only a short time in Colon, things in Panama City already seemed strange to me. I felt as though I had never belonged to Panama and that, indeed, was a strange emotion to me.

This story continues.

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