PANAMA REVISITED......Jerry Mader
After 44 years I finally was able to return to Panama. It was the number one thing on the bucket list and now that has been done.
A short description of Panama and Farfan is - so much has changed and yet so much remains the same. On our first full day Marie and I took a city tour offered by the hotel...unfortunately no one told us the tour would all be in Spanish....while it was interesting had no idea what was being said.
By the way Panama City as we knew it is now two different cities! One part is the city we all remember...the other part looks like a large modern city with a sky line filled with high rise and I mean high rise buildings all very modern and many others still under construction....I was told much of the construction is being financed as investments by wealthy Venezuelan's who fear investing in their own country with its current government; by the way many are either only partially full or are still vacant. There is also a subway system under construction...amazing...a subway in Panama City. They still drive just the same as always...told the wife blowing your car horn is an old Panamanian custom and as Valerie says traffic signs are just "suggestions". Seems there are no longer private taxis decorated like Christmas Trees....they are all yellow and called "City Taxi's"....Cheva's still exist but are much bigger as they are all old school busses left by the US when it turned over the Canal....however they are also slowly being replaced by modern air conditioned buses.
That evening we met up Valerie Whiting who is employed by the Canadian Red Cross and lives in Panama and by the way is Chief Whiting's daughter for those of you who may remember him. Valerie agreed to spend many hours of the days with us and since she speaks Spanish was an invaluable host/guide. I will say she is a gracious young lady and Chief Whiting should be proud. Also,if not being able to coordinate with Valerie I would not have attempted to make this trip.
Day one with Valerie was Sunday and we were able to see the HQ bombproof in Amador through a chain link fence so was not able to get up real close. Drove around Amador and Balboa and had a great lunch in a local cafe on the water I think near the old Balboa Yacht Club.
On Monday things really made the trip a success. Valerie picked us up at the hotel and we visited Rodman....at least what is left of it. What is still standing are a few buildings that have been left to deteriorate...the Rodman pool is still there but unused....and full of breeding mosquitoes. What has replaced Rodman is the Port of Balboa....which is literally full of thousands of stacked shipping containers. It seems ships to large to use the locks off load the containers to then be shipped over land to then be loaded back on ships on the Atlantic side. By 2014 the new and much larger locks will be completed so this will no longer be required.
Leaving Rodman we drive over the Bridge of the America's to Farfan. I recognized the Farfan entrance immediately....though the bus stop is no longer there. I had Valerie drop me off so I could walk up the road to the barracks...kinda walk down memory lane. The houses on the right are still there and in excellent shape and used as dorms for collage students. As you near the barracks it actually looks pretty much the same...there are a few additions but still looks like Farfan. The ball field is still there but overgrown...no baseball has been played on it for years...the theater is gone but the unused tennis courts are still there as is the bohio which is now surrounded buy high standing shrubs I assume to keep it cool....sadly the pool is gone.
The entire Farfan site is now a home for the elderly....many were actually displaced during the US invasion to capture Noriega. It is run by the Maryknoll Sisters led by Sister Gerri Brake who were able to convince the Panamanian government to let them use the site in 2001. And to their credit they have maintained it in the best Navy tradition. We were offered a tour by the administrator Maria Antonieta de Montilla and an assistant, Marcelo Sanchez. With Valerie acting as our interpreter we walked through.
I was given Sister Brake's email address - she is currently in NY State and contacted her about my tour and had a nice response from her. She also has a web site.
The Farfan barracks serves an assisted home for the mobile residents...there is an addition in the back off what used to be the bar. I was told it was originally a fast food restaurant [not sure if it was built when it was still the receiver site]. It now serves as the kitchen and eating area for the residence...the chow hall is gone....a open air chapel has been built out back. The bar remains but is now a Shrine...it did appear to me the original mirror behind the bar was still there. The "day" room is still there but much smaller and a pool table is still there.
I was able to visit and see my old room and walk in it....seemed much bigger then I remembered. The HQ barracks is now apartments on both levels for those able to live on their own.
The Bombproof still remains the same as it did from the outside. The upper level is a hospital type facility for those that are bed ridden and where we diligently communicated with the world is now used just for storage and I could not get in...by the way it is called the "Bunker" now by the locals.
Amazingly to me after all these years there has been very little change on the exteriors of all the buildings...also it is no longer called Farfan...it is now Nueva Vida [New Life] thus the reason for the butterflies painted on the buildings.
Next a drive through Howard...no Kobbe...it is just Howard now. It is now a large industrial park and very much updated with many new buildings for many American and South American companies like Dell to serve South America. There is still allot of on going construction. The LaGuardia actually have their large training center at Howard... it appears using the original Army facilities.
After a nostalgic long day Marie, Valerie, and I headed out to dinner at a popular local restaurant....the name now escapes me. One the way back I told Marie I would pay a cab driver $50 to take me to Calle K. I had been warned it is now a "Red Zone" by both Valerie and Chief Whiting so I was not going to ask her to take me.
Back at the hotel I find a taxi driver that is willing to take me to Calle K in the AM....Marie wants to go along but insists that he return us unharmed! He gave me his card and told us he would get me to Calle K but also give us a good tour for $35 Balboa's...we made a deal and I would call him in the morning and he would be there.
In the AM off on the other reason for the trip. This guy is great! Went down Fourth of July Ave. The Red Coat and Ancon Inn no longer exist....I told the driver Calle K is just behind this block. I recognized Calle K immediately....which surprised me as it was always dark when arriving and I was blurry eyed and blinded by the sun when leaving....got out of the cab and took a couple of quick pictures. Amigo's is now a barber shop and looked very much the same....both entrances are still there - it was my favorite watering hole]...the bar across the street on the other corner is now a cafe and for the life of me I cannot remember the name as is the same with the next bar up the street....other then the watering holes no longer there it still looked like Calle K. The driver then took us to Quarry Heights...ya know where all the big brass used to live...allot of new construction of mansion type homes and additions to many of the older homes...all private property now....then on to Ancon Hill were there is just spectacular views of Panama City.
Even though the US Military has left many of the areas where the bases were located still retain their names - Clayton, Howard, Albrook.
Of further note...prostitution is still legal....at night the casino in the hotel was heavily populated with "working ladies" that I would call high class....don't ask? The first morning I stepped out of the hotel at about 6AM...and damn if I was immediately surrounded by a group of...well...Calle K quality ladies that would never be allowed in the hotel...again...don't ask?
It was four wonderful days and the trip of a lifetime that my wife had encouraged me to do...a special thanks to Valerie Whiting for her invaluable time spent with Marie and I....Valerie also encourages us to plan a reunion in Panama in the future and would assist if she is still living and working there. Also a thank you to Chief Whiting for getting me in touch with his wonderful daughter sometime ago so we could coordinate the trip when she would be available.
Visit my Farfan Album Page to see pictures from 1966 - 1968.