Panama City Intl. Airport, Interlude
A throng of young travellers in the Panama City Airport Transfer Hall spoke a flowing language with syllables like fast river torrents meeting in confluence. I could only guess it was likely a dialect of Mayan; though as likely to be a dialect of this region, the sky. Panama City International Airport is a sprawling shopping mall of the skies: bright corridors of shops crammed with colourful potpourri souvenirs, hi-fi noise and pricey aromatic junk all light the pavilion, like a pinball machine in which the transit-passengers’ consumer-libido is the shiny orb being knocked around. None of this, of course, would strike Anglo-Americans as exotic. The muzak-jukebox airport-mall only takes green US – you wouldn’t know the Panamanian Balboa existed as a currency. I had spotted one such extinct phantom bill, its colour and design made to mirror that of the US dollar, except that instead of Washington it featured the profile of the mutinous conquistador Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, who turned his back on Spain, only to have his head decapitated and fall on this very soil by none other than the destroyer of the Inca empire, Francisco Pissarro. Vasco’s death bound him to this land, redeeming his popularity (even if he would never reach the heights of salsa singer and one-time politician Rubén Blades): if an Iberian conqueror in life, Balboa became a Central American in death through the shared destiny of falling to Pissarro.
The bill’s design seemed to fulfil its intended fate: to fade into the dollar, as if absorbed by osmosis into the more powerful cell’s membrane. According to online research engines and the Google authority, the Balboa I had hunted for remains an official Panamanian currency; yet any Panamanian will testify that it has long ago fallen from circulation, an oblivion-coin. For a Panamanian to sight a Balboa bill might very well signal portent in one form or another – in a sense resembling that other Caribbean theophany, the apparition of the Chupacabra, a predatory life-form rumoured to haunt nocturnal fields in Puerto Rico and attack sleeping goats.
Of course, the Balboa is more of a symbol, while the Chupacabra is an organism, as understood by exobiology. Ironically, both have become spectral and profoundly national symbols at once.
Presiding over a small bright booth offering tours of Panama, sat an employee whose face brought to mind an antique New World map, what with the ashen patterns of dotted lines where the flesh was undergoing laser-tattoo-removal procedures. Was he perhaps a pious early bird, celebrating permanent Ash Wednesday, before Carnival had arrived? (And on a Tuesday to boot.) Laser-surgery has a high price, even if facial tattoos come free in most Isthmian prisons. Could a typical Panamanian salary afford the operation? I wondered – this is, after all, a Pro-North American, open-for-business country, its employers known to be conservative, not know for covering the health insurance of workers.
Likely, then, that he was no employee, but rather the owner of this eco-tourism enterprise; or the member of a union-imposed co-op. Or – to further sway my spelunker’s pickaxe-speculum at the spectrum of possibilities – perhaps this robust-shouldered package-tour retailer, undergoing advanced facial tat-removal, was among the beneficiaries of that widely-reported influx of exiled Venezuelan plastic surgeons. I had seen the best of my generation, stranded hysterical naked, become itinerants eager to offer their world-famous services in host-countries at discount rates, if not in exchange for a bed and a cold slice of papaya. (One of these surgeons who I had met attending a concert in Holguin, Cuba, of all places, with a horror undiminished by mojitos or cello music, told me of the rhinoplasty with which he had rebuilt, from scratch, the sinuses, like destroyed temples, of Miamian couples whose cocaine-habits had hollowed out new cavities inside their noses, altering their sing-song speech.)
If these guesses all missed the mark, then one possibility remained: perhaps he had been a beneficiary of the Reagan administration’s generous awards programmes, which granted benefits to the mercenaries who battled the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and were bitterly defeated, and who later founded the gangs called maras. I did not, however, find the gall to further interrogate Sales Director Yilder Fonseca – as his nametag read – on such private matters as his wealth index, or from whence sprouted these faded patterns intersecting his frowning face, lit up by a noisy video on his mobile. Instead of his past, best inquire about what he had to offer today.
Yilder sold tours and cruises to Colón, a Panamanian city near the capital; he marked on the map with a highlighter one of the destinations I had asked about – old Fort Gulick, in pictures a sprawling fortress built curiously in an Oriental or Andalusian-seeming style, with multi-terraced clean white walls. While he took his highlighter out and marked it for me, he looked me up and down. “La escuela de los martillazos. The School of Hammer Blows. I know of several but this is the most prestigious one, international. You are looking for a tour there?” he asked, strangely unsurprised.
“No” I answered, remembering what I had decided after seeing the tourism industry around old concentration camp sites in Poland. Tourist info did not mention that the outpost hosted the institute called the School of the Americas. In fact, the torture academy held its seminars – among its alumni, several Argentine dictators like Fortunato Galtieri, who while inebriated on more than the elixir of patriotism started the war over the Malvinas archipelago. (It is noteworthy, though perhaps anecdotal and limited to my own experience, that men named Fortunato tend to push their luck in great gambles that impact those less Fortunato.)
In recent years, the hated School evacuated the Panamanian compound named after an American general who had fought against Mexican revolutionaries. Following its umbilical cord, the School moved house to Fort Benning, Georgia where many more Latin American regime functionaries continue to receive workshops and scholarship courses devoted to the sciences of torture.
The coordinated destabilisation of the human will, attained by using the nervous system against itself – perhaps a more perfect definition of the exact opposite of art is nigh impossible. Though still not as difficult as the endeavour to define art itself, we can define its shadow inversion, as a starting point. Following the American social justice concern about names and disturbing words, the School of the Americas changed its name: it was problematic to imply that this was the School of the Latin American subcontinent, thereby rivalling, for example, the University of Buenos Aires, which enjoys a very high international ranking. The School of the Americas was renamed WHINSEC. Meanwhile US Progressive senators agitate to rename Fort Benning, so as to end the outrageous anachronism of a Confederate surname still defacing the hallways of the glorious edifice which continues operations in full swing, currently training Colombian counter-insurgency operatives.
Yilder told me that as a preventive measure against visits from Isthmian neighbours, any traveller must be carrying US $3000 cash minimum upon tourist entry.
Would I have to show customs my collection of bills with the faces of various poets on them (1 Cuban orange peso bill with the head of José Martí, the Tunisian 20 Dinars of poet Abulqassem El Chebbi, and so forth)? Luckily, I was just here circumstantially, an Isthmus-hopper poet on his way to Nica’ (as Nicaraguans name their country) and so the “$3000 min. upon entry” rule did not apply.
Arturo Desimone (1984) is an Aruban-Argentinean writer and visual artist. Born and raised on the island of Aruba, at 22 he emigrated to the Netherlands. He later relocated to Argentina while working on projects related to his Argentinean family background. Desimone’s articles, poetry and fiction pieces previously appeared in Nueva York Poetry Review, Círculo de Poesía (Spanish), Island (Tasmanian), the Drunken Boat, Anomaly and in the poetry collection Mare Nostrum/Costa Nostra (Hesterglock 2019). He has performed at international poetry festivals in Granada, Nicaragua, Buenos Aires and Havana and has exhibited drawings in galleries in Amsterdam and Ciudad la Plata (Argentina). This essay is an excerpt from work-in-progress “Prelude to Ash-Wednesday”.
Note: Name has been changed.