Fr. Varghese Edathil was an unofficial ambassador from India during his decade in Panama thanks to his fluency in Spanish, Portuguese, Latin and English

Fr. Varghese Edathil’s mission in the Latin American nation Panama was not just confined to serving the laity as a priest. The polyglot, who speaks Spanish, Portuguese, Latin and English, worked as an unofficial ambassador from India in the Hispanic nation while serving there as a priest from 2001-2011.

Fr. Varghese who is now a priest at St. Joseph’s church, Neericode near Aluva, was the only Keralite among the 2000-odd Indians there.

“I reached Panama during 2001 as part of ecclesiastical mission. The nation had been a colony of Spain for centuries. Since I knew Spanish, the Church approved my mission. It was journey of around 45,000 km covering four continents in four different flights in three days. I was welcomed as the first English-speaking priest there. Otherwise, only those who migrated to Panama from the West Indies knew English,” he says. In his time there, he even wrote a hymn in Spanish which is still read out during church masses.

Many laurels

Among the 2,000-odd Indians in Panama, a majority are from Gujarat and Punjab. The Indian embassy officials then were well versed in English but could not communicate with the local people in Spanish.

“It was at this point that I won the laurels of the Indian embassy. The embassy officials understood the local issues through me as I could communicate in Spanish with the residents. The then Indian Ambassador Primrose Sharma acknowledged my efforts,” he adds. The Indian Independence Day and Republic Day celebrations were held with great festivity in Panama. Fr. Varghese often took the initiative to organise them.

‘Panama’ is a country without an army of its own. During contingencies, the United States will lend forces to Panama. The famous Panama Canal, which straddles the country for 85 km, connects the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

The revenue raised by collecting toll from ships passing through the canal is the main source of income for Panama. Otherwise, the country is a consumer nation importing all its essentials from other countries.

Like most Latin American nations, Panama does not have an indigenous culture and heredity. Fr. Varghese laments the violent culture spreading among the youth in Panama.

By the time they reach young adulthood, many are prey to gun culture and other anti-social elements. “I have conducted more death ceremonial services for the youth than the elderly in Panama,” Fr.Varghese says.

Travels and meetings

The most memorable event in his time there was his meeting with a friend of the revolutionary Che Guevara at the latter’s memorial in Argentina. “It was in 2009 that I visited the Che Guevera museum at Alta Gracia, Cordoba province in Argentina. I met an old friend of his named Pedro Sanchez at the museum. He was curious about me as I told him that I belonged to Kerala, a State where the Communist Party came to power through the ballot for the first time in history,” Fr. Varghese says. The motorbike used by Che Guevera to travel the entire South American continent, his typewriter, cycle etc. are the main attractions in the museum.

“The common perception of the Panama people about India is what they gather from television. Poverty in India is often talked about,” Fr. Varghese says. His mother’s illness forced Fr. Varghese to return home in 2011. He now teaches Spanish and Portuguese at Carmel Academy, Aluva.