A couple of weeks – or what feels like a brief hallucination – ago I was deciding between packing seven tops, a pair of jeans, some denim shorts and at least three dresses for three days in the Tasmanian wilderness. Little did I know that I was on the eve of: what would be a festival unlike any I had ever experienced before. And I was vastly underprepared in both expectation and clothing choices for what I was about to do.
I’d say there would be few who return from their first visit to A Festival Called Panama without feeling a little like they’d awoken from a delicious dream. I sat in Launceston airport charging my phone, after a reception-less weekend, wondering whether what I thought I’d experienced was in fact reality. The smell of sawdust mixed with the ripe stench of well-used drop toilets was still fresh in my mind – and my nostrils – and so I knew that the last few days weren’t created by my fantasy-riddled mind.
A festival veteran through and through, I have been pulled to the front of mosh pits, waited in lines for port-a-loos and sought refuge under packed tents all at the insistence of my festival loving parents. I’ve been front and centre for more bands than I can count – most of them before I could count. My mum likes to remind me that I share a birth year with the Byron Bay Blues and Roots Festival, which up until a few years ago, my family had only missed for my birth and the birth of my younger sister.
When my friends started going to festivals in their late teens I couldn’t understand why they would willingly choose to subject themselves to such horrors. For me, a night out at a festival would mean standing with my mum for hours to secure a spot in the front row or slipping out past the security guards to give my dad a wristband that someone had slipped off for him on the inside. At the time I didn’t realise that my parents were giving me an invaluable musical education and a very strong resilience for large crowds.
Panama did the unthinkable and renewed my love for the humble festival. Disembarking in Sydney, I realised that I now faced a challenge; sing loudly and to anyone who would hear about my newfound love for this tiny yet prolific festival, located on private property just a one hour drive from Launceston, or keep this joy close to my heart – a secret between me and the other 1400 regular punters and festival organisers/crew. You see, it feels as though everyone who attends Panama shares in a secret that we must keep hidden for the rest of the year until we find each other again the next year to do it all again. We slip out of the secluded rainforest of Golconda and back into our corporate attire, keeping the spark inside of us hidden so that no one else knows it’s there.
Lounging on a rug with three people you only just met while you listen to the croons of Julia Jacklin or the deep lyrics of Emma Louise (which scarily imitate your own life) is a given. You’ll find no muscle tees, ass-hugging denim cut-offs or overly enthusiastic high-fives in the crowds at this festival. But families reign supreme and no one ever has to wait for longer than five minutes for a toilet, or a meal from one of the food trucks. One of the most difficult parts of the whole weekend is not sounding like an insufferable asshole when you attempt to describe the whole thing to people back in the real world. It reeks of the time you came back from your three-month backpacking trip to Europe and attempted to describe what it was like to visit the canals of Venice or walk through the streets of Istanbul – either way you come off looking like a pretentious tool and no one listens to you for at least another few weeks until you’ve assimilated back into the daily grind.
So assuming you haven’t already stopped reading this because you’re too busy rolling your eyes and miming sticking your finger down your throat, I can tell you that this festival is like no other I have ever been to. The weekend brings together a bill of excellent music, delicious foods, a mass festival clothes swap and the aggregated happiness of people who have switched their phones off for a whole weekend. So you can see why, as I ignored the flight safety demonstration, I had to blink for a minute and assure myself that what I’d just been a part of was in fact real life. I just can’t believe that my imagination could be that good.