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Banana: The Fruity Wanderer

The banana: universally revered by most everyone with a pulse, is considered a delicatessen in many parts of the world while in Panama, as it is with many a fruit or vegetable, all you really have to do is walk outside and look around. Abundance truly is bliss for the fruit lover while treading the light fantastic around these parts, with the banana being one of its media darlings.

The next time you head out to the corner store and grab a handful of these bad boys though, bear in mind that what you are eating might very well be extinct before your grandchildren have a chance to try them.

Wanderlust

First, a little history. Bananas are the proverbial wanderers of Fruitdom, with the first reports of cultivation coming from Southeast Asia as far back as 5000 BCE. Archeological and palaeoenvironmental evidence in the Western Highlands Province of Papa New Guinea, deep within the entrails of the Kuk Swamp respectively backs up this theory. This evidence further suggests that banana cultivation spread from Southeast Asia to Africa where there was a banana bonanza for thousands of years.

Banana proliferation reached godlike proportions when, honoring its nomadic nature, the banana seemingly helped kick-start Islam in the Middle East. Islamic texts from the early 9th century namedrop bananas with much gusto, and there is evidence that the prophet Muhammad himself liked to sit back, cross his legs and enjoy the sweetness of this cameo-loving fruit.

The banana loved kickin’ it old school with its globetrotting, because it shows up throughout different pivotal points in human history starting in Egypt, moving through North Africa and Muslim Iberia, eventually anchoring in West Africa in the 12th century. The banana hung out with the delightful wildlife of the region for hundreds of years until it met adventurous Portuguese sailors in the 16th century, had a night of drunken debauchery and was coerced into setting sail for the Americas immediately thereafter.

Once the Portuguese seamen got a hold of the banana, its exploits and virtues where the conversation topic of every colonial water cooler for centuries to come. Plantations quickly appeared in Brazil and the Caribbean and, complementing the ones already established in West Africa, they began exporting them as a delicatessen for the aristocrats in Europe to enjoy.

In yet another display of the banana’s ability to “work it,” the fruit is mentioned in numerous texts from the Victorian Era. One man who went by the name of Jules Verne goes into what can only be described as 19th century food porn with his very detailed description of bananas in his celebrated book and dubious travel log “Around the World in 80 Days.”

After killing the Victorian Era softly with its song the banana, like any true wanderer, got bored and decided to do its thing on greener pastures. Incorrigible, it made its way into Central and South America by the start of the 20th century and hooked up with people who saw its potential, thinking they could make some money with it.

After millennia of being coveted, desired and traveling the world in pursuit of good times, our fruity friend was forced to grow up in a trial by fire with less-than-stellar consequences. The “Banana Republic” was born.

This Stuff is B-a-n-a-n-a-s

Not only does the banana have a serious case of wanderlust, but it also entertains a slight personality disorder. It was rather crafty in the way it hid this from the public eye but that all changed once it arrived in Panama to cast its spell like with so many other parts of the world centuries prior. For all this time, the banana went by the stage name of Gros Michel, which in all seriousness was the most exported cultivar of the fruit until the 1950s.

To inadvertently continue the running metaphor in this piece powered by the indomitable power of calamitous circumstance, Gros Michel, better known as “Big Mike” was big, thick and tasted very sweet. Its fame spanned across the globe for most of the known history of man but the party hit its closing time during the 20th century, when the United Fruit Company went about exporting Big Mike from Central and South American countries to the United States and Europe.

Setting up processing plants that would run day and night, powered by the humble locals of the regions’ poorest districts, the United Fruit Company made a killing exporting millions of banana crates as delicatessen across the globe. With that, the “Banana Republic” was born.

A sore subject for virtually everyone involved, the United Fruit Company saw a golden opportunity back in the 1910’s when they first discovered the untapped commercial potential of our phallic-shaped, amber-colored friend. The US Dollar, being the most powerful currency at the time and coincidentally the official currency in a Third World country smack-dab in the middle of a region that presented near-perfect conditions to cultivate the fruit, would give the UFC the opportunity to set up facilities to 100% in record time, at ridiculously low prices.

As a bonus, the humble Central Americans could be easily “coerced” into working long hours for what should definitely be considered less than stellar pay: Imagine sweating balls in the unmerciful tropical heat cutting down banana plants for sixteen-hour workdays, six and sometimes seven days a week, for about $2 a month. That’s pretty much like the wages of World of Warcraft gold farmers, only dipped in hot oil so they don’t fall asleep on the job.

The United Fruit Company started collapsing under its own weight with a perfect storm of calamity: increasingly hostile worker strikes, too much money being spent on luxury cruises, retreats and dubious expense accounts and other displays of poor leadership. After much struggle and a hostile takeover, UFC was bought in 1968 by Eli M. Black and had it merged with his own food processing company AMK to create United Brands International. Workers in the plantations were still given lousy salaries for unbearable amounts of labor and working conditions, and things only got worse.

Black had no idea how to work bananas, and the company was in so much debt that they couldn’t pay the already underpaid workers in the plantations and all hell broke lose, resulting in his suicide in 1975 by jumping off the 44th floor of the Pan Am Building where his office was, to land a killer faceplant on the New York sidewalk. Shortly thereafter, an investigation in the UBC’s dealings revealed that the company had made numerous bribes to political leaders and government officials all over Latin America in order to get tax cuts and preferential treatment. Dubbed “Bananagate,” Honduran President Oswaldo López Arellano was to take a $1.25 million-dollar bribe, plus another $1.25 billion when numerous tax cuts had been implemented for the company. It all went south for both United Brands Company and Arellano, the former’s stock halted and the latter’s presidency stunted via military coup.

Chiquita Brands International, the current company after being bought by the American Financial Group in 1984, seems to be more civilized with its workforce than over the course of most of the 20th century, but Panamanians wouldn’t really know because the banana production industry is hardly there nowadays. There are still many disputes and claims, and the future of the industry in the country is uncertain, despite several attempts to reactivate it.

The Good Ol’ Days

My dad, born from the scorching ashes of the most hardcore fire pit in Almirante, Bocas del Toro, worked in the UFC outpost in the province, one of two they operated in the country. He never went to the other one located in the town of Puerto Armuelles, Chiriqui, but he can guarantee the infrastructure and subsequent banana processing was the same in all plants across the continent, located in Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, Panama and other countries.

When he was 14 he was “deported” to Changuinola, where the United Fruit Company had its banana packing and processing plant, due to various degrees of insubordination towards my grandmother, but that’s a story for another day. Like any true rebel, upon arriving the first thing he thought was of a way to get out of there, and after some quick recon he figured the only way he was going to get out was by plane. Plane rides require plane tickets. Plane tickets cost money, which he didn’t have. Thankfully, the UFC was willing to take him in with open arms as cheap labor. And so, Operation: “The Great Escape” was underway.

Being strong, able-bodied and willing to put himself in harm’s way with reckless abandon he did practically every job there is to do in a production line, a process that hasn’t changed since the plantations were built in the late 1800’s. The fields are included in this production cycle and it all functions like clockwork with astounding precision: First, the banana tree is cut from its trunk by one person, while another arcs his back waiting for the banana bunch to come down and rest comfortably above his shoulders. A third man then cuts the bunch from the tree using a special hook knife.

The carrier then walks a distance of up to 200m with the 40lb bunch on his back to large, arched pathways that cross the ever-expanding plantations every 400 meters. These pathways have a pulley with hooks on it that the carrier must grapple the bunch on so that it can travel to the packaging plant.

Once there, quality control takes over. Bananas are sized up, cleaned and checked for consistency and appearance. Any spots, broken “necks” or shortcomings in size or girth and these rejects are put on the Grade B pile, which coincidentally is the one that stays in Panama for purchase. The Grade A bananas are then packaged in crates that must weigh exactly 42 pounds; back then, the crates would be taken by train to transport ships, each of the 10 wagons carrying exactly 300, 42-lb crates full of Gros Michel, Grade A bananas. They would eventually find their way to markets in the US, Canada and Europe.

In the 1950’s Panama made its mark in banana history with the first appearance of a fungus which attacks the banana plant’s roots and is immune to fungicide. Nicknamed “Panama Disease”, it wiped the entire Gros Michel cultivar out. Taking its place is the Vietnamese Cavendish cultivar, arguably a less-than-stellar replacement yet resistant to the disease. This is the banana you have today, one that is seemingly immune to the Panama Disease… though studies are showing that the ailment has become stronger and there are reports that say it’s beginning to attack the Cavendish as well.

Even with its ups, downs and turn-it-all-arounds, the banana has come and gone, and seen it all. Its subtle beauty and delicious taste has inspired artists and businessmen alike for centuries, starting physical, sociological, civil and corporate wars throughout the ages. The next time you slice up those bananas for your yogurt or sundae, you’ll know all the history and work it takes for it to reach your hands, even today.

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