National Independence holidays are a part of the makeup of almost every country. Some countries have more and other have fewer of these special days on their calendar, but most countries have at least one of these special holidays. Taiwanese celebrate their independence day on 10/10. July 4 is one of the highlights on the USA calendar. The Brits celebrate the Queen’s birthday. In Panama the citizens of this small country are not happy with celebrating only one Independence-day.
During my stay in the country I discovered they have three separate Independence-day festivals on different days in November. Some people may argue that these holidays are a bore as they have lost their original meaning, and now are a waste of time and money. The protesters would argue that in the current economic climate traders cannot afford the loss of a full day’s revenue. In Panama at least, the lost trade is countered by the numerous much greater advantages attached to celebrating a national holiday.
The celebration of the major national independence-day festival in Panama City in November does not occur without due preparation. At least two weeks before the actual ‘Day’ most public city buildings suddenly fly the national colors. Banners and rosettes in red, blue and white flutter in the breeze winking at passers-by like huge bright eyes. Storefront windows display magnificent day and evening dresses side by side in the three national colors. And, as if by prior arrangement, vehicles start sporting miniature pennants, often one on either side of the car or truck. Fast food vendors’ tricycles become even more noticeable with the added blue, red and white flags brightening the big yellow plastic buckets containing their spicy rolls and pastries. This general upsurge of patriotism is not confined to public places of business and trade. Flags of varying sizes draped on balconies of apartments and other visible areas in private homes declare to the world that a loyal Panamanian family or perhaps only a single individual lives there.
On Sunday afternoon before the start of the festival week in Panama City a full dress rehearsal of parades takes place on one of the main streets of the city. Large crowds of enthusiastic spectators cheer a seemingly unending flow of bands. Some are led by drum majorettes, others, only by baton swinging band leaders marching down the street. Every band tries to outshine the rest as they march past a number of perspiring local VIPs under a red and white striped canopy. These guests of honor sit behind a table laden with shiny trophies. Their task is to judge participants on performance and dress and award prizes to the best performers afterwards.
Throughout the long merry afternoon onlookers show their support to family and friends spontaneously in many ways. Sometimes a spectator joins the band as an extra member on the edge of the road, walking in pace with them for a couple of yards. Or a member of the colorful crowd darts out on the street to offer a soda or a wet sponge to a relative marching past under the blazing sun. Or, a well wisher shouts a few words of encouragement to perspiring individuals who look drained by the heat and exertion of the long march. Sometimes someone hurriedly kicks away an empty carton or soda-can that may block the way of the marchers on the street.
On the sidewalk carefree toddlers who are sitting very securely on their fathers’ shoulders tower above other umbrella holding onlookers. They wave half empty soda cans or tiny flags trying to catch the eye of a familiar band member. Mothers and other equally proud relatives loudly hail or wave at their favorite persons in the band. And sandwiched in between the densely packed masses strollers, with their light loads soundly asleep, fill every available empty spot. If the little ones clamor for attention they’re hurriedly pacified with a drink or a pat by an adult or older sibling. No one wants to lose track of the barrage of sound and ever moving spectacle on the wide street in front of them.
The actual celebration lasts two days. Scores of brass bands, school bands and private and public organizations participate in parades. The Panama sky may more often than not be a monotonous gray, but life on the city streets usually vibrates with smells, sound and color. At no other time is this liveliness more evident than during the independence festival week. Supporters loudly cheer their favorite band waving their special banner when they come in sight down the main road especially when dancers in colorful sugar fairy national dress form part of a particular procession. Locals and international visitors from neighboring Central American and other more distant countries mingle freely in the crowded public spaces. And all add enthusiastically to the cacophony without giving a second thought to who’s pressing against whom.
Rich and poor are united in pursuit of pleasure and free entertainment. Nobody seems to mind being jostled and sometimes stepped on in spectators’ single-minded urge to move forward a fraction of a meter in order to have a better view of the colorful visual and musical spectacle in front of them. Thousands of citizens line the main streets ten deep to watch and cheer and share in their compatriots’ repeated musical performances. The merging of clanging cymbals, energetic thumping on drums interspersed with the finer lighter piping of clarinets and melodious tunes of xylophones fills the air. Trumpeters blaring at full blast often herald the procession.
A lot of trading goes on amidst all this medley of color and sound. Informal entrepreneurs brave the throng of people to carry on brisk trade. The piercing sounds of vendors’ rubber balloon hooters trill at every street corner and open space between store fronts and entrances. The sellers weave in and out among the jostling pressing, noisy masses. Some are on bicycles with long festoons of miniature flags sticking out above the heads of people on the sidewalks. Others carry heavy trays filled with handmade trinkets from the countryside or cheap Chinese manufactured mementos. These trays overflow with shiny yellow miniature trumpets, pennants, fake brand name watches, sunglasses and strings of multi-colored bead necklaces and bracelets. The best customers are the scores of children who wish to blow their shiny toy trumpet or fly their own pennant.
People also have to eat and drink at a festival. The colorful canopies of fast food vendors’ three-wheelers proudly displaying their country’s colors therefore are a welcome sight. Strong flavors of fried sausage and roast meat carried by the light wind tempt prospective customers to flock to the carts. Hungry compatriots fight for the best spots to give the sizzling delicacies a closer look before parting with their small change. Those with different preferences sample spicy hot-dogs, tamales, rolls and pies. An inviting selection of soft drinks and ice creams revives the weary ones who crave something sweet to get new energy to enjoy another spate of drum beats.
After two days of incessant drumming, dancing and parading it seems as if a cloud of silence blankets the weary city. People are exhausted but happy. They were energized by a rush of patriotism which transformed divergent masses into a nation. People from all walks of life could be part of the celebrations at no cost. The less privileged were able to escape the drudge of their daily lives while being entertained by their own people for free. And more privileged citizens, who wanted to escape the crush, could spend time with family and friends in the quiet countryside. Pennants also waved on many of the outward bound vehicles.
As I was standing on the fringes of the colorful assortment of people I thought about the benefits of celebrating national independence days. It may be inconvenient to find some stores and banks closed for two weekdays in a row. But these special days bring home the truth that success should not always be measured in terms of perfect professional performance, or reckoned in multi-million dollar profits.
Often the reward lies in the satisfaction of unemployed persons who could earn a few dollars to provide for their family, or the joy of a school boy or girl having been able to show their musical talents as a member of a group making their parents proud. These special days also give families a chance to share quality time together. And, last but not least, these national holidays provide citizens a chance to show their pride in their country. (1431 words)