Where Heavens Meet


Young Latter-day Saints in Panama find life in the tropics as beautiful and richly flavored as the exotic native plants. Many of the young people live in the Canal Zone because their fathers are employed either by the Panama Canal Company or the U.S. government, and so being a part of the climate and cultures of Panama brings many new and exciting experiences to them. The gospel, of course, is the same, but they find themselves involved in activities that could only take place in Panama. The native Panamanian Saints also find that their life is richer because of the many cultures around them.

Girls’ camp in Panama takes place when the southern and northern heavens mingle. During the first part of April in Panama you can see the Southern Cross and the Big Dipper at the same time. Under this fitting symbol, native Spanish-speaking Panamanians and English-speaking girls from the Canal Zone combine their languages, testimonies, cultures, and cuisine for one of the most fascinating, informative, and spiritual girls’ camps held anywhere in the Church.

At a recent camp, the girls and their counselors organized into groups and committees according to their levels of certification in the Young Women Camp Certification program. Each group or committee had at least one American who spoke Spanish or a Panamanian who spoke English so there was always a translator handy plus a person to make sure no one felt left out. All of the girls learned about a new culture and a different way of life.

The standard camp certification program has been modified somewhat to fit the particular circumstances in Panama. The girls’ camp under palms instead of pines; they hold two flag ceremonies each morning; and they eat typical Panamanian food, like Sancocho de gallina (chicken cooked with native herbs, roots, and cooking bananas), along with U.S. favorites, like pizza or tacos, the next day. Machete usage is taught as part of the regular camp skills.

The girls also learn about poisonous plants and dangerous reptiles. They learn early in their programs to avoid coral snakes and the feared fer de lance. They do learn a few of nature’s lessons the hard way. One night in camp some of the girls pitched their tents in the path of army ants on the march. These particular ants in Panama are between 1/2 and 3/4 of an inch long and don’t like to deviate from their chosen course.

Scripture study classes were held in Spanish and English at the same time, and these sessions helped to prepare everyone for the spiritual high point of the outing—a special evening testimony meeting when the girls from two lands could express their common beliefs in their own language. As they shared their feelings, the Big Dipper and the Southern Cross were both sparkling in the heavens, making everyone feel closer to each other and to the Father of them all.

While the LDS girls in Panama are preparing for and attending camp, most of the young men are trying to get ready for the athletic event of the year—the great ocean-to-ocean canoe race.

Each spring near Easter the Explorer division of the Canal Zone Council of the Boy Scouts of America sponsors a three-day, 45-mile cayuco (Indian word for dugout canoe) race. It starts in the Atlantic and goes through the Panama Canal to the Pacific Ocean.

Each cayuco is originally cut from a type of tropical cedar called Espa Vera. Usually the big trees are cut by Indians near the headwaters of rivers in the interior. They crudely shape them with axes and adzes in the forest and then float them down the river to the canal. After the Explorers work on them, they are fragile, sleek, light, and beautifully polished. Some 400 hours of work per boat changes their appearance so they bear little resemblance to the broad-beamed, seaworthy vessels the Indians still use for work and transportation.

The young men had been training since Christmas; they practiced paddling every day after school and then spent long evenings working on their boats.

The 21 canoes in the race were sponsored by Explorer posts. Included were three girl Explorer crews and one boat entered by the Cuna Indians. They brought it clear from the San Blas Islands off the Atlantic coast of Panama.

The race begins at Cristobal Harbor in the Atlantic Ocean and goes four miles to the Gatun locks the first day. The boats are put in at Gatun Lake the next morning and the most grueling part of the journey begins, 23 miles across Gatun Lake, through the Gaillard cut to Gamboa. The third day they leave Gamboa and go through the Pedro Miguel Locks, where they drop 31 feet, and across Miraflores Lake to the Miraflores Locks, where they lock down the final 54 feet to the level of the Pacific Ocean in two steps. They finish their three-day, 45-mile journey at Rodeman Pier in Balboa Harbour. Besides being wary of wind and waves, which can easily capsize their fragile craft (usually in poetic sounding places like the Banana Channel or the Bohio Reach), they have to watch out for ship traffic and be careful as they thread their way around the correct buoys and between small islands. Their only rest is when their boat capsizes or fills with water and they must put the paddles down and bail. Bailing seems like rest compared to the normal paddling cycle of 60 to 70 strokes per minute or the sprint stroke called chugging that goes up to 90 strokes per minute. The winning boat crew kept up their sprint stroke for four hours at a time.

After the race all the racers and fans gathered together for an awards ceremony that included a lead anchor award and a hard luck award (an old paddle with a hole in it), in addition to the usual trophies, patches, speeches, and even flowers for the boat queens.

Some of the most enjoyable times to young Latter-day Saints in Panama are when a few of them get together, hop on a train, and go see some of the countryside. Since many of their parents work for the Canal company or for the government in Panama, even the ordinary roadsides with their profusion of tropical plants and flowers are interesting to them.

Nik Kovalenko and Marie Tueller from Balboa on the Pacific coast and Jeff and Karen Ward from Fort Davis on the Atlantic coast took trains and met at a small interior station called Frijoles. Here they picked up a boat that took them to Barro Colorado, an island in the middle of Gatun Lake. It was created when the lake was filled during the construction of the canal in 1914 and has been a biological research reserve ever since. It is a great place to see many of the native plants and animals in their natural environment. As they walked along the carefully marked trails, the young people enjoyed the exotic, tropical foliage and wildlife. By being extra quiet and careful they were able to stalk a band of wild howling monkeys. These animals have large necks and put them to good use as they roar and howl in ferocious-sounding, lionlike noises at their visitors.

On their way home, the young people stopped at Summit Gardens where they could see many more of Panama’s plants and animals.

The favorable climate and geography of Panama make it a beautiful place to live. They also make life pleasant and full of fun for the young Latter-day Saints living there. There are hardships like having to travel some distance to scattered branches for meetings and to see other Mormon youth, but they are accepted as part of the experience of living and sharing the gospel in this corner of the world.

[photos] Photos by Brian Kelly

[photo] Diane Tueller enjoys the rocky beach for a few moments of reflection and scripture study

[photo] The first macrame project requires concentration and counting

[photo] Hammocks are comfortable and cooler than beds on the ground for camping in the tropics

[photo] A grove of tropical trees helped keep the tents cool in the daytime

[photo] Fingers and toes are needed to straighten jute before the macrame class begins

[photo] The girls work together to ferry their canoes

[photo] The mola, a native sewing art, is a popular addition to many young people’s wardrobes

[photo] Haciendo baetas or putting native designs on wooden plates

[photos] The Cuna Indian entry closely resembles the cayuco used for fishing. Often they are fitted with sails

[photo] Zinc oxide looks funny, but it will protect Dean Norris’s nose from sunburn as he paddles in the cayuco race.

[photo] Each crew had to launch its own boat

[photo] Dean Norris, Nik and Mikel Kovalenko, and Jon Call are grateful for a moment’s rest after 23 miles of steady paddling

[photo] After being lowered, the crews race out of the lock chamber

[photo] All the crews sprinted the one mile from Pedro Miguel Lock to Miraflores

[photo] Panama Explorer Scouts with the inclination have plenty of opportunity to learn seamanship

[photo] The winds and wakes caused by ocean-going ships are big hazards to staying upright

[photo] Ships’ crews from around the world witnessed various parts of the race

[photo] Collisions seemed inevitable on some of the tight turns

[photo] Preparing to lock down

[photo] Rusting pieces of anchor chain

[photo] The Gaillard Cut slices through the continental divide

[photo] Cannonball trees at Summit Gardens

[photo] At last they found a palm they could climb

[photo] Karen Ward finds that some of the most beautiful flowers lack fragrance

[photo] Meeting at a place called “Beans”

[photo] A tiny but curious tropical frog

[photo] On the jungle path at Barro Colorado