Monday, June 14, 2010

Havana, Cuba and Panama

Havana, Cuba
I am told that Havana, Cuba is still one of the most attractive cities in Latin America. Havana was one of the first cities founded by the Spanish in the New World and had one of the most magnificent natural harbors. Despite periods of great instability and a turbulent history, Havana grew substantially since it was the stopping point for most of those traveling to the New World a unique exchange of ideas existed. In 1868 the Cuban War of Independence brought a halt to the modernization of the city but the war ended in 1898 when the US intervened and a change from European influence to American influence began. In 1902, the republic was established and Havana started to blossom again. In 1940 Havana became a desirable tourist destination for Americans who were looking to escape the winter and enjoy the warm Cuban climate. The revolution in 1959 brought about tremendous social changes for the country. Although Cuba is one of the last bastions for Communism in the world, it should really be admired for its natural beauty, its rich history, and its unique urban architecture. (summarized from Llilian Llanes' book Havana Then and Now)
The Republic of Panama

The southernmost of the Central American nations, Panama is south of Costa Rica and north of Colombia. The Panama Canal bisects the isthmus at its narrowest and lowest point, allowing passage from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Panama is slightly smaller than South Carolina and is marked by a chain of mountains in the west, moderate hills in the interior, and a low range on the east coast. There are extensive forests in the fertile Caribbean area.

By August 15, 1914 the Panama Canal was officially opened by the passing of the SS Ancon. At the time, no single effort in American history had exacted such a price in dollars or in human life. The American expenditures from 1904 to 1914 totaled $352, 000,000, far more than the cost of anything built by the US Government up to that time. Together the French and American expenditures totaled $639,000,000. It took 34 years from the initial effort in 1880 to actually open the Canal in 1914. It is estimated that over 80,000 persons took part in the construction and that over 30,000 lives were lost in both French and American efforts.

To read more about the Panama Canal see this website:

White Family History
Somewhere around 1923/24 my maternal grandfather, Harold Somerset White, was in Tela Honduras working for the United Fruit Company when he was invited to a friend's house party. My grandmother, Martha Bell lived in Atlanta, GA but had gone to Tela to attend the same house party. The two met and carried on a long distance courtship for five years until finally marrying in Atlanta, GA in 1928 and moved to Honduras so grandad could continue his job with the UFC. Here is the time line as best as I can remember from my interview with my parents:
  • 1930/31, the White family was transferred from Honduras to Colon, Panama.
  • 1932 on January 1, my mother Martha Bell White was born. Martha Bell, or MB for short, had dual citizenship in both the US and Panama/Cuba.
  • 1942 they moved to Havana, Cuba in a suburb called Miramar
  • 1946 mom's brother, Chiefie ( Harold Somerset White, Jr)
  • 1949-1953 Mom attended Wesleyan College in Macon, GA but came home to Havana in the summers and then to Panama after the transfer.
  • 1949 Dad arrived from Hartford, CN to Havana to spend his summer after prep school and before entering college. He and his brother Ted lived in a fully furnished rented apartment that their dad was keeping while he worked the 3 years for the Cuban/Venezuelan Oil Co. The first apartment was in a very exclusive neighborhood called El Vedado and the second one was in Miramar. Both Dad and Ted attended summer school at the University of Havana.
  • 1949, June/July Mom and Dad met at a beach party at the exclusive Biltmore Beach Club in Havana given by Joan Condon Bear.
  • 1950 the White family was transferred back to Panama to a place called Cristobal, a port city that resides at the entrance of Limon Bay that leads to the entrance to the eastern side of the Panama Canal, and the Barnett family move back to Hartford. Mom and Dad spent the summer of 1950 dating seriously while attending summer school in the morning and sailing and attending beach parties in their free time. During the winter, Mom and Dad wrote each other and carried on a long distance relationship.
  • 1952 Dad went back to Panama for the summer and stayed one month in order to visit the White family and continue courting Mom.
  • 1953 Dad graduated from Trinity College and asked Mom to marry him.
  • 1953, September 9, Mom and Dad were married in Colon, Panama in an Episcopalian Church. Ted could not be there due to his military commitments, so grandad Barnett was Dad's best man.
Mom's first house in Colon, Panama was a wood house on stilts and was very close to the water.
The house in suburban Miramar was a little, white suburban house. They had hired help: a laundress named Beatrice and a cook named Gladys. The second house located in Cristobal, Panama was a very nice house with a back yard that backed up to the jungle much like our houses back up to woods. The jungle contained an assortment of wild animals like iguanas, black panthers, monkeys, land crabs, exotic birds, boas, and poisonous snakes. Grandmom and Grandad White owned a beautiful fresh water aquarium and raised budgies(parakeets). The jungle is where my grandmother gathered orchids and propagated them in order to sell them to local florists as well as making an exhibit out of them. They also owned a pet parrot named Lorita. She spoke Spanish and mastered the neighbors' high pitched laugh and was constantly cackling and shouting "fuego, fuego (fire, fire)!"

To me, Havana and Panama have always seemed like the home away from home. Although I have never physically visited these places, I vicariously enter these countries through my parents' stories. I hope to visit Havana as soon as Americans will be allowed to enter the country. I know I will visit Panama one of these days and trace the steps of my parents. I have read many articles explaining that it is a great place to retire. We'll see what becomes of this for me and my husband.

1 comment:

  1. This was a very informative post. I enjoyed reading the history and timelines of the people and places in your past. I had always wondered how your family ended up there. I can't imagine living next to a jungle! It must have been pretty tame to move back to Pa and have deer in their yard. I'm sure you'll make it there one day...