I always believed I was my father’s favorite child. I’m sure each of my siblings believed that, too, but I was altogether certain he loved me best. Perhaps that’s why, like a balloon popped by a sharp pin, the pain of his death deflated me.
For a while any belief in an afterlife—or ever seeing my dad again—left me just as surely and as quietly as Dad’s spirit left his body as I held his hand in St. David’s hospital.
Not being Catholic, I was curious about the saint for whom that hospital was named, and a quick Google search told me Catholics believe, when St. David died, his monastery “filled with angels as Christ received his soul.”
I could sense no angels when my dad passed away. The room seemed wholly empty.
The finality of it all seemed flat and certain. I wanted to believe in heaven, but death seemed suddenly so banal—so pitifully unoriginal and hopeless. The words of a Neil Young song looped like a mantra in my head: “Helpless, helpless helpless…The chains are locked and tied across the door.”
I couldn’t conceive of a passage that could connect our two realms until recently when I took a trip to Panama. There I would again sense my father’s presence in my life.
As a travel writer, I am often invited to see new properties and write about them, and so when friends asked me to check out the beautiful Breezes Resort in Panama, I was eager to go. I’d been to several fabulous Breezes “super-inclusive” resorts in Jamaica, so I knew that the resort in Panama would be stunning and serve as a restful retreat. But I also had my own personal reasons for wanting to go there, and mostly they had to do with my wanting to connect with the memory of my father by going to a place he had once been.
I also wanted to see the white sandy beaches and blue waters and the jungle-like beauty of rainforests there. I wanted to walk the narrow streets of Panama City and visit local markets and see colorful boats on the harbor. But mostly I wanted to see the Panama Canal. A sliver of something in me believed I would sense my father in that place. And so I went.
My friend Lauren and I took a smooth Copa Airlines flight out of New York. Copa is an affiliate of Continental/United; even their logo looks like the familiar one from Continental. When we arrived in Panama City, a gentle rain was falling. A mini-van picked us up and whisked us to the resort, fewer than two hours from the airport.
Beneath stormy skies, refreshing winds blew through the gorgeous white open-air lobby at the aptly named Breezes Resort. A man in a Guayabera shirt greeted us with a tray of fruity libations, and another handed us cool moist towels with thick tongs. My room was large and clean with two balconies overlooking the ocean and a series of connecting pools, hot tubs, and swim-up bars. I unpacked, put on a bathing suit and sarong, and went to explore the resort.
Like a cruise ship, all-inclusive resorts are largely about the food—fabulous long buffets with fresh shrimp and crab claws, standing roast beef being carved by men in tall white chef hats, pasta bars, omelet bars, and fresh tropical fruits by the boatload. But Breezes properties everywhere are “super inclusive” resorts, meaning that—besides all meals—unlimited beverages of all kinds, alcoholic and non-, are also included in the one-time-vacation price. So you can drink and eat all you want any time day or night—and it’s all of the highest quality.
I stood staring slack-jawed at the food before me at the lunch buffet as the chef told me that there are three other restaurants in the resort, offering everything from fresh sushi to authentic Italian fare. There are also four bars, including a swim-up bar in the pool and a swank piano bar off the lobby, a sports bar, and an Italian piazza-style bar.
Just off the lobby, three swimming pools beckon, including one with a swim-up bar for adults, as well as two separate children’s pools. The hotel also has two heated Jacuzzis® and two tanning pools. Adjacent to the pool area is the luxurious Miraflores Spa, where guests can enjoy a massage, facial, manicure and more.
At all the Breezes resorts, there’s always something exciting happening: nightly entertainment, a pulsating nightclub, karaoke, and even staff and guest talent shows. This Breezes resort also has a gameroom, as well as separate children facilities, with supervised programs for kids and babysitting available for a reasonable charge.
Like its sister properties in Jamaica and Bahamas, Curaçao and Brazil, this Breezes resort was spectacular—and the beach was divine. I had no idea Panama had Pacific Ocean beaches that rival those of the Caribbean. Still, as I lay on the beach, I felt a tug inside that told me I it was time to see the Canal.
Most of our days so far had been spent on the property with an occasional excursion to nearby hot springs, small jungle villages, and food and crafts markets. One afternoon Lauren and I even wandered the old town in Panama City where antique doorways, wood-framed buildings, and museums featuring ornate ancient architecture recall the city’s rich history. Parts of it looked a lot like New Orleans’ French Quarter. Normally, a day like that spent wandering off the beaten path would have been the highlight of a trip, but this time Panama’s hottest tourist spot, the Canal, attracted me most.
Here’s why…. My father lied about his age during World War II so he could join the Merchant Marines when he was still was just a peach-fuzz-faced redheaded boy. Not much older than my little redhead son is now, Dad was hardly a seaman when he left his family farm and set off to see the world, but he soon became one. Forever after he was drawn to the sea as surely as if sirens clung to rocks and called him.
In the service, he traveled the world. Over the years he would tell us stories, like when he was in a rickshaw that turned over in India, or the night he spent on a ship in the South Seas. He was given the task of cranking an old ice cream maker until his arm hurt, and as he did that, whispers scattered like mice throughout the ship that the war was about to end. The next morning, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
A story I also remember well was about the exhilaration he felt as he was allowed to steer a ship, at least part of the way, through the Panama Canal. He had his picture taken to commemorate that moment, and I keep that photo now.
Dad always loved ships. His whole life he had boats and sailed whenever possible, but mostly it seemed to me he lived like a seaman in forced exile on dry land as he worked and supported our family as a civil engineer, building bridges.
Since he died, the times I have felt most connected to my father have been when I visited places he loved, like Lake Ponchartrain in New Orleans, where he sailed his sailboat or the Rio Grande Gorge bridge outside of Taos, New Mexico, that he’d helped build. And so it was that I found myself standing, at last, beside the Panama Canal.
Going to the Panama Canal is like going to a big museum. In fact, the Miraflores Visitor’s Center offers visitors comprehensive exhibits of the history of the long,arduous project of building the canal, completed by the U.S. in 1914. An estimated 22,000 workers died during the main period of French construction (1881–1889), and in 1903, the U.S. began work on the Canal, which we leased from Panama for 99 years. The Panamanian government now retains full ownership.
The visitor’s center is a multi-level complex containing photographs, films, maps, and more. There’s a gift shop and a café, of course, but the most fascinating part of the experience is standing on the decks outside overlooking the Canal and watching giant ships pass.
The Panama Canal Locks, which lift ships up 25.9 m (85 ft) to the main elevation of the Panama Canal, is one of the greatest engineering works ever undertaken. The 47.9-mile long ship canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and to date more than 815,000 vessels have passed through it.
My father was on one of them.
CONNECTED TO THE PAST
More than 60 years later, I stood and watched the ingenious workings of the Canal. Enormous ships squeeze through locks about 110 feet wide. They enter the lock, gates close behind them, and the water level is raised and lowered before a gate opens and they come out on the other side at a new height.
With the wind on my face and droplets of rain falling like small, happy tears, I stood for over an hour watching the boats move slowly through the Miraflores locks.
I could picture my father as a young man, standing at the helm, hands on the wheel, gazing over the green land, the lakes and bayou-like waters around the canal. I could hear the timeless then-and-now sound of foghorns, chains clanking, ropes being hoisted, locks opening, waters rushing, and engines roaring. I sensed the vastness of this magnificent earth—the enormity of the adventure of it all—and the same wonder my young father must have felt.
The grand size of the ships made me feel small, yet oddly important—as though good and big work was out there to be done. Connected to the whole of things—I felt a tender tether to the dear memory of my father, whose wanderlust now lives in me.
During my travels, I have sometimes journeyed to the homes of famous historical and literary figures: I’ve stood in Hemingway’s bathroom, Napoleon’s bedroom, Yeats’ living room, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s doorstep in Greenwich Village, and William Faulkner’s apartment in New Orleans. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe in assigning meaning to certain places and things. Perhaps it’s a reflection of my own admiration for some people—or the sense of significance and reverence I have for the past, but it has always seemed to me that certain places retain something of the people who have passed through them. I don’t mean that in some weird Ghost Hunters’ brush-with-the-occult kind of way. I simply mean that I have stood on ancient ground and gazed upon the same views that others saw long before me and have felt connected to them.
There in Panama, along the same narrow passage my father navigated as a young man, I saw what he must have seen: a big world, bright and utterly amazing. And like water flooding a lock, an idea started to seep in: Perhaps, just maybe, the impossible is possible after all.
Two oceans connect before my eyes. Men moved heaven and earth to create a safe passage between two worlds. Simple, hard-working people made a way when there was none, and miraculously it worked.
For a moment, it was as though my father and I were once again at the same place together—as if his memory had steered me there to show me it was OK to believe again—OK to miss him, too. Being there in Panama, I felt as though I knew him better, somehow.
I remembered a line from “To Kill a Mockingbird”: “Atticus was right… He said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.”
Standing beside the Canal was enough for me.
Janis Turk is an award-winning travel writer living in Texas and is the author of Frommer’s San Antonio & Austin Day by Day. Visit www.janisturk.com for more information.
IF YOU GO:
• Check out the affordable and fabulous world of Breezes Resorts in Jamaica, The Bahamas, Curaçao, Brazil and Panama by visiting www.breezes.com.
• Visit the Miraflores Visitor’s Center and learn more about Panama online at www.pancanal.com.
• Get there by air on Copa Airlines, www.copaair.com.