By Nicholas Nazar
PANAMA CITY, Panama — Buses with anxious Canadians, just released from a forced quarantine, are rushing at a heady speed to Panama City airport. Our police escort is flashing lights and clearing traffic as if for a presidential motorcade.
Night curfew strikes soon at 9 p.m. Air travel in and out of the country halts at 11:59 p.m. Sunday. A few of us in the group are without a booked flight.
We were at Tribal Gathering, an annual festival of music and Indigenous culture on a remote Caribbean beach in Panama.
Life was about learning from tribal elders and practising open-hearted hugs. Then, as we gathered around fire, strange news from the outer world started to seep into our conversations.
“Electronic devices be gone,” was our motto a day before. Now we are staring into our phones with bewilderment.
The next day, March 12, authorities close entry to the festival grounds.
Unsure what to make of the initial coronavirus reports, the attendees merrily go on celebrating life. Here on the inside, we feel lucky. The pestilence lives out there, somewhere outside our secluded world. The whole thing will be over in a week, right?
As we stroll the beach under the full moon, the festival music seems as good as the ocean is warm. There is not a mosquito in sight. Handsome and distinctively weariness-free old hippie Assem talks to us about the importance of self-love.
The next day, we learn that all public events in the world are shutting down. The latest news of grounded flights from Panama to Europe seems surreal to us.
The next day, we learn that all public events in the world are shutting down
On March 16 it is time to go home. Packed and loaded, I head for the gate, only to learn that Panamanian authorities quarantined the entire festival. The participants can leave only if they have been in the country more than 14 days and do not exhibit symptoms of the virus. I realize that nothing of the sort ever happened to me: today I was barred from leaving paradise.
No one was prepared to operate the gathering after its scheduled end date. By now, this piece of tropical heaven is starting to look sad. People’s nerves are frayed. An American guy vents about his stolen hammock, a German girl is crying, hugging a palm tree. Some folks are hastily leaving, others are stuck. Some just sit on the ground by the exit, surrounded by their bags, puzzled about what to do.
Then, on March 18, things go from bad to worse. Local authorities declare that everyone is now required to show a ticket out of the country for the same day or the next. People comply and make reservations.
Police escort people out, only to later stop them. Around 65 of them are kept on the side of a road for six hours. They are returned to the festival at 4:30 a.m., scared, tired and hungry.
This is the moment when, unexpectedly, the festival grounds become a welcoming home for the returning folk. And — actually — for all of us. Here we have shelter, food and people who share our plight. Here, there are no uniformed armed men in sunglasses.
Suddenly, everyone wants to volunteer. Locals stay behind in order to help us out. Alex offers to stay to clean toilets rather than return home to the U.S. Elysha from Canada and Fabiana from Italy start collecting plastic off the beach.
Impromptu meditation sessions and fire spinning shows spring up. A new DJ spins befittingly mellow sets, Canadian lifeguards reappear on the beach, barmen pour drinks liberally.
The last remaining local food vendor, Mogi, reopens his kitchen despite a lack of supplies. He makes cookies from the coconuts people collect. You can pay him with tobacco or by PayPal, whenever.
You can easily start to think that you are still in paradise.
Then, on March 19, a jovial military officer gathers us to say that, in three days, Panama will shut down the country’s airports. A mad dash out is about to start.