Hidden Treasures: Lost (and Found) in Panama on Christmas Eve

Joel Carillet's picture


It was almost dark and neither the taxi driver nor I could figure it out.  We were on the right street, but where was the hostel?


We were idling beside a curb in the banking district of Panama City, sometimes called the “Miami of the South”, and it was Christmas Eve.  The taxi driver couldn’t match the address in my guidebook with anything he saw along the street.  And when he pulled out his cell to call the hostel there was no answer.


Not wishing to waste more of the driver’s time, I told him I would just get out here and find it on foot. I stepped out and grabbed my backpack from the back seat. “Feliz Navidad,” we said to each other as he pulled away.





Christmas Eve 2008 would end in Mariza's home. It began, however, aboard a Canadian yacht on the Panama Canal, where I had volunteered my services as a line-handler for its two day transit from the Caribbean to the Pacific


Now alone on the street in front of a small apartment building, I noticed that a car had just pulled into the parking lot.  A stylishly dressed young woman emerged.  “Habla Ingles?” I asked as she opened her trunk to grab a bag.


Mariza, age 29, did speak English and couldn’t quite recall where this hostel was either.  “My mom will know,” she said, inviting me up the stairs.


After a pause—and to my surprise—she also asked, after asking how long I would be in Panama City (three days), if I would like to just forget about the hostel and stay with her family.


After two flights of stairs and the turn of several locks, I was standing in a living room where Mariza’s mother told us how to find the hostel.  The mother also extended the invitation to stay in their home.  They had space, she explained along with Mariza, to set up a bed in either the living room or, for more privacy, near the washing machine.  I could contribute $10/night, which was the same I would be in the hostel, and I was invited to eat Christmas dinner with them late this evening.





On December 26, Mariza and one of her friends took me to see a few sites around the city.  The building on the left is Balboa Union Church, where I had attended Christmas Eve services.


I decided to skip the hostel.


After a shower I went alone to a Christmas Eve service at a historic church across the city.  When I returned at 9:30 p.m., I found Mariza kneeling between a beautifully decorated Christmas tree and a Nativity set, where she was adding three wise men on camels.  She had just bought them today at a bargain price, she told me.


Dinner with Mariza’s siblings, mother, and a couple family friends was a thing to remember.  Pork ribs and the potato salad with shrimp were my favorites, and the sangria was good too.  But mostly what I enjoyed was simply knowing that had the hostel been easy to find, I wouldn’t be spending Christmas Eve with strangers who throughout the next three days would make me feel very much at home.


When it came time to leave the country, Mariza’s mother and sister drove me to the airport at midnight for my red-eye to Florida.  (Mariza, who is a flight attendant for Panama’s national carrier Copa, had already left earlier in the day for Mexico City.)  As I bent down to give my mother for the week a hug, the short, sweet woman, with watery eyes, kissed me on the cheek and said in a mixture of English and Spanish, “If you ever return to Panama, you know where our home is.  It is your home, too.”





Fanny (left) and Carmen (right) dropping me off at the airport





Joel Carillet, chief editor of wanderingeducators.com, is a freelance writer and photographer based in Tennessee. He is the author of 30 Reasons to Travel: Photographs and Reflections from Southeast Asia. To learn more about him, visit www.joelcarillet.com.     




All photos courtesy and copyright of Joel Carillet.