It’s a few minutes before noon and your parents just caught their Uber to the airport. As if on cue, raindrops start falling in fits from the sky. You think it’ll be the typical short afternoon shower, but an hour later, you realize that it hasn’t let up.
“The skies are crying because Panama’s sad to see us go,” you say aloud to no one in particular as you make your way to the window to catch a better view of the gloom outside as thunder rumbles in protest.
“Maybe you’re right,” your brother says. You look up, not realizing he overheard you. “Panama knows we’re leaving. It hasn’t rained this hard our entire time here until now.”
After 28 years of being away from this country – this city – you once called home, you’ve returned for four short days before you head off for new adventures in new countries.
When you last left home, you were with your mom. Your father had to stay behind a bit longer to tie up loose ends, and your parents had sent your brother back stateside a year prior so that he could attend a junior high school that hadn’t been marred by Colombian drug cartels. You don’t remember much about the day you left or the months leading up to that day. You recall that you were excited that you’d be reunited with your brother and your grandparents, but the upside ended there. You felt uneasy about being uprooted from this place that had become your home to move back to the city where you were born which over time had become unfamiliar and foreign.
Because this country – this city where you once called home – is riddled with your sweetest childhood memories, and these past four days have been a walk back in time to rediscover places, many of which, you remember so vividly.
When you step off the plane at Tocumen Airport, you have a full circle moment. As you make your way out of the jet bridge and into the terminal, the humidity from outside seeps in and slaps you in waves as you inhale deeply and say aloud to no one in particular, “It smells like Panama!”
“It smells like Panama!” your brother says as he walks into the terminal a few minutes behind you, unknowingly confirming that your memory hasn’t failed you. You think how funny it is that smells can conjure such subconscious memories.
As you and your family make your way from the airport through downtown to your B&B in Ancón Hill, your dad sits shotgun and goes on and on with the driver about how much Panama has changed.
“I remember Panama always being so sunny,” your dad says as he observes the overcast skies. “It used to rain everyday around 2pm in short spurts, but then the sun would come out again.”
Your driver, Rogelio, explains that although it still rains daily, the sun no longer reappears afterward, and it usually remains gloomy for the rest of the day.
There are other changes too. For starters, the skyline looks like a scene from Miami Beach. When you left home, there weren’t any concrete jungles competing for aerial space.
The next day, Rogelio arrives to take you and your family to your old neighborhood a short ride across the Bridge of the Americas to the former Air Force base where you lived.
As you reach the other side, your mom points out a highway exit that leads to a seaside restaurant that she used to frequent with a friend. You remember eating there with them once; it was the first time you tried octopus.
Your thoughts are interrupted as you enter Panama Pacifico, and you try to wrap your mind around the fact that the base where you once lived is now part of an international airport and business complex.
But as you make your way further onto the property, you’re overcome with nostalgia as the white concrete houses with red tiled roofs come into view. These homes look exactly as you remember them – identical and neat in a row. But as you drive closer, you can see that they’re dilapidated.
In fact, many have been torn down so that new, more modern homes can be built. Upon Rogelio asking the security guards who stand post at the entrance to the new development how much the new homes cost, you and your brother talk about how cool it would be to buy one and AirBnB it when you’re away.
The road leading to your old house is also blocked. Your brother seems sure that it’s probably been torn down and redeveloped anyway since all of the other homes in that direction have been.
Seeing that the door is open, you, your brother, and your dad decide to check out one of the old homes. It resembles your old house although this one is smaller and the layout is different. But still, it’s surreal to be standing here after so many years have passed.
Afterward, you guys make your way to your old church, and you and your brother check out your former elementary school. You’re surprised to find that it’s still open and that it looks exactly the same although the name has changed and it’s now an international school.
Before heading out, you stop by the neighborhood swimming pool where you nearly drowned while being taught to swim the “sink or swim” way. The pool has been drastically remodeled, and the neighboring movie theater and the youth center where your brother took karate and where you took gymnastics has been torn down.
As you make your way back to the car, you’re greeted by a coatimundi. You used to encounter these mild-mannered creatures everyday when you lived here, but as you see one approaching now, it no longer feels familiar, so you make sure to stay out of its way.
As you drive back over the bridge back to Ancón Hill, you realize what a blessing it is that you’ve been able to return to this place and see it as you remembered it. Because with all of the rebuilding that’s going on, there’s no telling if anything will look the same the next time you return.
“¿Puedo comprar?” your brother asks your Uber driver in his unsure Spanish as he points to one of the small Panamanian flags suctioned to the car’s windshield in hopes that he can add it to the growing collection of flags he’s acquired from around the world.
As he cautiously drives us over the Bridge of the Americas through the rain, the driver eyes your brother suspiciously.
“You Panamanian?” he asks your brother.
“No, uh…but my sister and I used to live here when we were little,” your brother tries to explain to your driver who obviously speaks limited English.
Noticing the driver’s confusion, you chime in with slightly more confident Spanish, “Vivíamos en Panamá cuando…uh…éramos niños…ummm…porque nuestro padre…uh…estaba en…uh…el militar.”
“Ohhh!” your driver says as his face lights up and your eyes meet his in the rearview mirror.
In broken English, he asks where you used to live in Panama, and in broken Spanish, you explain that you lived on the base that’s now Panama Pacifico – the area he’s now driving you to from where you’ll catch your flight to Medellín.
He’s amused. He wants to know when you were last in Panama.
“Viente ocho años,” you say, as you make eye contact with him through the mirror again.
“So you, you are children of Panama.” your driver says. “You not born here, but still, you are Panamanian!” he beams.
Until that moment, you’d never thought of yourself as Panamanian. But the fact that he considers you Panamanian is flattering; it’s as if he’s confirming that you still belong here and that this is still your home, even after all these years.
“Here, you take,” he says as he removes the flag from the windshield and hands it to your brother.
“Oh…uh…¿cuánto cuesta?” your brother asks.
“No…nada. You Panamanian. Es free,” your driver says.
Your brother breaks into a chorus of “graciases”, and although you didn’t get a flag, you chime in.
Because without even knowing it, your driver has confirmed what you’ve always known – that Panama was, is, and always will be home.