The dwarf palm tree was my friend that day. Its swaths of healthy green opened in a gorgeous five-foot-tall flourish – like a wondrous, tropical green rose. Instead of towering high above, the green v-shaped arms bowed in the heavy humidity, their tips almost touching the ground. It was Dali-esque – a perfect, quaint corner of botanical surrealism. My local Panamanian sales rep and I had just finished lunch inside – at the cafeteria of the Panama Canal Authority's corporate office. The cafeteria was a huge drafty room with lots of windows and mammoth ceiling fans pumping out cool air to every nook and cranny. It reminded me of an Army barracks cafeteria – or what I imagined one to be. The cafeteria was stark – no frills – but the food was good and the staff polite. I think I had a cheeseburger with a side of fresh fried plantains – the sweet carmelized fruit melted all grainy and buttery on my tongue. Heavenly. I had plantains a lot that week. And I had paid the cashier with American dollars – as Panama is a dollarized economy.
As I looked out at my surroundings, I found myself drifting. I wondered if a century earlier day laborers – tasked with hollowing out Panama's legendary tropical isthmus that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans – had stood where I was just now. This place had that historical feel. Did they eat in this cafeteria, too? Were their ghosts now, in 2007, taking a mid-day nap? I better be gone from here by night!
All I knew was I loved Panama. I had been here only two days and I'd already had a breathtaking tour of Panama City – thanks to my local sales rep. He took me to see Panama City's skyline. It looked a lot like Miami's – in flux. It was impressive skyscrapers going up – a sign of economic growth and prosperity – surrounded by sunny Pirates of the Caribbean inlets that smelled of salty green sea moss when we drove past, and whose topography changed beautifully with the tides. The lagoons had me feeling all adventurous and internally warm.
I had also already lunched at a waterfront restaurant overlooking the Panama Canal's Miraflores Locks. There, I saw a ship come in. I had actually seen a ship, a huge hunk of steel and international importance, dock at the canal. I heard the clinks and clanks, saw the water go up and down around the ship – as I sat perched on my restaurant's terrace patio amazed at modern technology. My Panamanian ceviche – a sea bass, shrimp, and lime seafood dish – was absolutely delicious, but I couldn't get over this canal. How amazing that the Panama Canal existed. It revolutionized modern-day trade. It brought the nations of the world closer – improving economies and standards of living, all with what could be shipped over in these boats that didn't have to sail far, far down and around the tip of South America. I felt privileged to witness the canal's majesty.
And today I stood outside the Panama Canal Authority's cafeteria dressed in a business suit and smiling in the sun. The meeting with our client here had gone well. They'd be renewing and even adding to their Country Forecast and Market Indicators subscriptions. I was a sales exec for the research division of the Economist magazine called the EIU (Economist Intelligence Unit). Going to government agencies wasn't new to me – but the beauty of this particular day was.
I was inhabiting a sunny, peaceful pocket of time – and I knew it. I was thirty-one. I was healthy. I was traveling the world and meeting people committed to improving their country. It was a profound feeling for me. Knowing that I was in some small way – or perhaps in a big way – helping these people in their mission was an even more profound feeling. I was providing them with the business intelligence and insight to make their country's dreams a reality.
This day, I wondered if they knew that they were making my dreams come true, too. I loved my job – the responsibility and international opportunity it provided me. And not only did I often meet prestigious – dare I say awe-inspiring – international clients, but I had some of the smartest, kindest co-workers back home in New York City. These co-workers pushed me to work hard, to keep learning, and to always see the bigger picture: We are all part of this marvelous world, and we're here to enjoy it, but also make it better.
Today in Panama, I was doing both. I was bringing humanity forward by way of my job, meanwhile remembering that I'm a part of humanity, too. I sometimes felt lonely on my business trips to Central and South America. But today, I was simply happy. And I was grateful for the salty, humid air fogging up my sunglasses. Panama and her sweet, fantastical dwarf palm tree – me and my humanitarian heart – we were a match made in tropical heaven.