Without the intervention of a well-meaning aunt, an 18-year-old Judith McKinnon would have wed a Panamanian boy the same age, presumably leading to a dramatically different life for this native Panamanian woman.
“But it’s good that I didn’t marry him,” Judith, now 73, affirms, “because I would have become a widow thirty years ago!” As it happened, her marriage to a Cuban-born aircraft mechanic led to more fortuitous developments: children, grandchildren, and a life of travel.
She soon reveals her reverence for such notions as “fate” and “destiny,” nourishing a broader spirituality that sometimes borders on superstition. I’m uncertain whether Judith’s prodigious faith is common among natives of the isthmus or if she takes it to a new pitch – whatever the case, its role in shaping her strong character and warm personality makes me grateful for its influence.
That, and the stories.
“I was sitting in church,” says Judith, gesticulating hands keeping pace with her animated dialogue, “and all of a sudden, I can’t concentrate on the sermon anymore. I’m having a vision – very clear I see my daughter’s husband in a white shirt, riding his motorcycle, and a big truck comes around the bend and runs him off the road!” I gasp, but swallow my incredulity so she’ll continue.
“I tell [my daughter] Inez about this; her husband sells his motorcycle that day. My daughter knows how many times I’ve been right – my kids call me brujita. In English, it means ‘little witch.’”
This affectionate nickname has no basis in actual occult-worship, as Judith McKinnon is a practicing Roman Catholic like most of my own Polish relatives. A little statistical investigation informs me that more than three-quarters of Panama’s population identifies itself as Catholic. But this fact makes far less of an impression than the divine cast Judith’s face assumes when speaking of her beliefs.
She’s spent the last half-century living outside Panama; 28 years in California preceded her eventual move to suburban Chicagoland. Notwithstanding her university education in the US and extensive European and Latin American travels, Judith remains closely connected to Panama via an extensive family network spiderwebbing the isthmus. She has been so fortunate as to visit them almost annually for most of her life.
In addition to her faith, Judith maintains a few other characteristics stemming from her Central American upbringing. Notably, a predilection for tropical produce.
“At the stores here, they don’t know when a plantain is ripe! They’re always about to throw them out just when they’re perfect!” she exclaims. “So I ask for the plantains they’re about to take out back.”
Judith swears by Costa Rican plátanos and Belizean papayas, but will buy both Panamanian in a pinch. She’s yet to find a certain fruit variety she sorely misses from her homeland: the yuplón. These “golden plums” are available in Central America during the summer months. Luckily, Judith is headed straight to the source – she’ll be in Panama by month’s end, setting out July 24 for a two-week tour of the countryside with her cousin, his wife, and Judith’s girlhood friend Clementina.
Judith’s return to Panama coincides with my first visit to the country, which is the reason for our Chicago meetup. We got together for dinner last Friday to discuss our travel plans and arrange a coffee date in Panama City. She’s ecstatic to learn that I’ll be going by car from the capital to Chiriqui Province and begins making enthusiastic sightseeing recommendations.
“After you pass Veraguas, keep looking to your right, past the hills and the forest. You’ll see a waterfall and a tall mountain on the way to David. And not too far from David, on the road to Boquete, there’s another waterfall where the kids go up and dive off the top!”
Like most people from Panama (as I’m told by my colleagues at The Resort at Isla Palenque), Judith is keen to help visiting travelers experience the country’s natural beauty and diverse offerings.
Her Panamanian pride rivaling her spirituality in its intensity, Judith speaks of the pristine rivers of Chiriqui – “The water’s so green and clear, it is like nothing you have ever seen!” – and tells me I have no reason to worry about bad weather – “It is good you go in July.”
“You don’t have to be afraid of the rainy season,” she continues. “If you wake up in the morning and it’s raining, by 1, 2 o’clock, you can go out! If it’s the opposite and it’s sunny when you wake up, run outside and enjoy it – by 1, 2 o’clock it will seem the rain comes out of nowhere!”
An evening spent in the company of a native Panamanian is probably sufficient to sell just about anyone on making a trip to the country. Judith’s love for natural settings of her youth, which endures despite decades lived elsewhere, brings her back year after year to the place of her childhood. If only to please this dear, generous woman, I plan to have the time of my life exploring its breathtaking wilds.
Stay tuned on The Ambler in July for stories from my first visit to Panama and the island of Isla Palenque!