Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Back Home - Maeve Friel

After nearly two years in Panamá, I am back in my own house in a tiny village in Alicante, Spain. (That´s my front door with the lovely iron door knocker which is very traditional in this area - it´s a gloved hand knocking at the door with an orange.) 

When I first went to Panamá, I knew little about it except that it had a canal and a hat (and the hats, it turned out, were actually from Ecuador). I quickly embarked on  a rapid immersion course of Panamanian ecology, political history and culture. My head was soon spinning with tales of Spanish conquistadors, Welsh and English pirates in the Caribbean, runaway slaves, pearl fishermen, the 49ers who crossed the isthmus to get to the California gold rush, the Chinese workers who built the railway.

 I read about the thousands of men who died of yellow fever and malaria during the first doomed attempt by the French to build the canal. I learned how President Truman engineered Panamá´s independence from Colombia in 1903 and the subsequent land grab so that the Americans could take over and complete the canal. I read Grahame Greene´s Getting to Know the General about his friendship with the dictator Trujillo who made the Americans return the canal to Panamanian governance. I visited the grave of ballerina Margot Fonteyn whose Panamanian playboy husband was shot and left paraplegic by a furious husband. I went to an exhibition about Paul Gauguin´s stay in Panamá when he worked as a labourer on the canal during the French era.  

Panama city was a city of huge contrasts, with soaring skyscrapers and an old and very beautiful colonial city emerging from years of neglect. 
I spent weekends walking in rainforests or visiting South Sea and Caribbean islands. We took the train through the jungle (from Pacific to Atlantic in an hour) and did a full canal transit (about eight hours).  
On the nights of the full moon, we joined the hundreds of drummers who gathered around the huge curutú tree in the City of Knowledge. I overcame my fear of heights and swam in a swimming-pool on the twenty-seventh floor of our apartment building. 

The biodiversity was amazing - blue morpho butterflies as big as saucers, a sloth which hung on the school playground fence,  flocks of pelicans on the roof of the fish market, gangs of bandit coatimundis raiding the bins,  a toucan in the mango tree and huge migrations of vultures which soared over the city in October and November making their way from Canada to Chile.  One week,  millions of luminous black and emerald butterflies crossed the isthmus, clouds of them fluttering over the heads of the joggers on the coastal strip - it was like  living in a Gabriel García Marquez novel.  

Surely, I thought, I can get a book out of all this. 

Last winter, I started a novel which is set in Panamá in the 1920s but I haven´t even got a decent first draft yet. However, since leaving the country,  I have discovered something very important. 
I need to do some very major surgery. I need to cut the hooptedoodle (the part that readers tend to skip, as Elmore Leonard called it). There is too much information.  I don´t need my reader to know as much as I now do about my beloved Panamá. 
Actually, what I most need to do, is close that door up there and ignore anyone knocking.


Elen C said...

Wow! Sounds like an amazing experience. Images of wonder.

Sue Purkiss said...

It sounds wonderful - so much to take in! And pretty amazing also that home is now behind that lovely door in Spain!

Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for sharing some of the hooptedoodle with us - sounds stunning!

Now get to work!

Maeve Friel said...

Thanks all. And yes, Joan, I will get back to work. The only snags are the summer visitors and the unhelpful heat (today it's about 40 degrees)!

Jennifer said...

There' a time & place for everything. First settle in, adjust , helped by a few glasses of wine & some mojitos ...:-) and then get down to work!
Not much you can do in this heat!
Glad to have you back!
Jenny & Os