Sitting by Panama Canal sipping on my favourite exotic drink, coke zero with lemon/ limón and jelo (ice), stirred not shaken, I could feel the magic of Panama. The wonder of the Canal, shipping, the fight between gringos and locals to control said Canal and the stunning beauty of Panama. Not to mention that Panama City is one of the wealthiest in the world, perhaps the Singapore of the Americas with a dash of Manhattan and Greek! A number of buildings, shops and eateries were designed by Greeks; though having made a quick exit from a “four-star” Greek designed hotel, a hotel that would not be out of place in a war zone, I have to say the owners really let the Greek architect down. The only plus was celebrating what appeared to be Carnival on the nearby waterfront until the sun arrived.

I really enjoyed my “exotic” drink as the heat really bore down on my Buddha frame. The pool stared at me, but I had a Greek assignment to fulfil….

Greeks of course worked on Panama Canal from the early 1900s and throughout its lively history as engineers and builders. I once met a retired engineer in Rio who spent years working on the Canal. While the Canal has been a positive for Hellenes, Greeks have in turn had an impact on Panama over a period of two centuries.

Greek Orthodox Community. Photo: Supplied

So, after finishing my exotic drink by the Canal, I made my way to the Greek Orthodox Community Headquarters to meet Dimitris Kosmas; part of a family of lawyers and entrepreneurs, their dedication to Hellenism likely stemming from their parents and in particular their father, who arrived in 1958. I was fortunate to have a phone conversation with Mr Giannis Kosmas who told me about his move to Panama and his pride in his four sons.

Dimitris is the Secretary of the Greek Orthodox Community of Panama. He exemplifies what it means to be a Greek from Panama, taking on multiple roles to help the community and the Greek Orthodox Church, Dimitris was kind enough to give me a guided tour of the Greek compound, one of the most impressive in the world.

The location has a school, sports facilities, a function/reception hall, offices and more importantly, it’s the home of Catedral Ortodoxa Griega de la Anunciación de la Virgen de Panamá. The main Greek area is painted in patriotic blue and white, while the Church has a beautiful blue dome and white exterior with red tiles.

Dimitris takes tours of the church, explaining how it came into existence and the services offered.

One of the key elements of the community is the annual Greek Fest. While there are 2000 Greeks in Panama City, the event attracts up to 6000 people, making it one of the biggest Greek events in the Americas; another example of the strength of the local community.

Dimitris explains, “we are a small community; however, we make a lot of noise!”

Dimitris’ brother George is also an Ambassador for Panama. Some of his postings include Japan, Samoa and Korea.

Between 1994-1999, the Minister for Education, was of Greek heritage. This fact piqued my interest, only to be topped by Demetrio Basilio Lakas Bahas. “Jimmy the Greek” as he was known was president between 1969-1978, he negotiated the transfer of the Canal from USA to Panamanian control. The former president and engineer (of course!) was born in the smaller city of Coln.

Vasilis Papanastasopoulos. Photo: Supplied

Panama is also a meeting point; I met Christos Iliadis and Sara Razen here, two people based in Iceland who would re-appear in my travels. I met Christos one day on a rooftop pool, having just barely squeezed into a Greece shirt, he quickly made his acquaintance with this loco wearing an ill-fitting shirt. As it turns out, Chris is a football coach in Iceland and takes tours, not of churches like Dimitris, rather the nature and hiking type. A profession which Sara is involved with when not travelling the world.

Billy Cotsis with the Greek owner of Bucaneros. Photo: Supplied

On a pub crawl one night, led by a Brasiliera, we actually met other Greeks who live in Panama. Alexandros Bouzakis, a graphic designer, is one chap, who spoke to me about his heritage. Tri-lingual, Alexandros regularly attends church or Greek Fest. His father was born in Kefalonia in 1926, raised in Crete before arriving in Panama in 1969. “I was born shortly thereafter, and so here we are in a great nation.” Alexandros explains.

Francisco Arauz has a grandfather from Greece who emigrated to Panama in the 1920s to work. Francisco, while blessed to have Greek heritage is also Indigenous and Panamanian. The type of mix that is often associated with locals in the Americas especially those of Spanish origin.

One of the many Greek eateries of Panama and certainly one of the finest in the Americas, is Souvlaki Gr. Christos and Sara both loved the food here. The beauty of Souvlaki Gr is that it is a hub for local Greeks and stowaways such as myself. During my dining experience I met other local Greeks.

While he is not the owner, Vasilis Papanastasopoulos is the manager of the eatery and operates a Greek import business, a market that is styled on the Greek periptero. Locals come here to grab a range of products and produce to help bring a taste of Greece to their casa.

He was born in Aigio and arrived in Panama in 2010. “For me it’s a privilege to be able to bring some of Greece to Panama and at the same time, work at Souvlaki Gr, which opened three years.”

Vasilis, as it turns out, is on the Greek Orthodox Community board. As is always the case with locals, he enthused about the work of the community and especially the Greek Fest, which is held in April. He makes the point that all the Hellenes who came before this generation, left a positive legacy in Panama, “people view the Greeks positively thanks to the hard work and enterprise of Greeks in the old days.”

Dimitris encouraged me to visit his brother on the causeway who runs Bucaneros. His suggestion paid off, meeting another member of the distinguished Kosmas family. It turns out that Giannis, like two of his brothers, is a lawyer, with Bucaneros being a hobby project! The restaurant was established at the start of this century by Dimitris Kalormakis and is a beacon for many Greeks especially in shipping to sample a mixture of Panamanian and Greek cuisine.

Greek Orthodox Community. Photo: Supplied

Over a tsiporo instead of my usual exotic coke zero, Giannis explains that his father was originally from Messenia, Koroni and was just 18 years old when he made the trip to Panama, a chance to see something different in a city that was welcoming hard working migrants. His legacy has been a great one for the Greek community.

One night in Panama, I visited Meze, I seemed to bump into a couple that knew me, the elderly Greek man from my native Lesvos and the woman, who had learned to speak Greek fluently, from Costa Rica where they reside. I was convinced to drink an ouzo instead of my usual.

The Canal and work opportunities has brought Hellenes to this position of strength with a guarantee of longevity for Panama’s Greek Community. In a nod to this point, I sunk another of my exotic drinks and finally took a swim in a pool that been staring at me for days.

Griegos Panama documentary

Greek speakers who live in Costa Rica, at Meze restaurant. Photo: Supplied

*Billy Cotsis is the author of The Aegean Seven Take Back The Stolen Marbles