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'We had a drag queen party': the Britons in lockdown on a Panama beach | Music


If you’ve ever been at a festival on a Monday morning and thought it was something that might happen at the end of the world, you might have some sympathy for performers and crew at the Tribal Gathering in Panama. The British-run festival – which takes place on the country’s northern coast and brings together indigenous peoples with DJs, artists and performers from around the world for cultural exchange and a three-week beach party – was supposed to end on 16 March. But then came lockdown, in this case enforced by the military.

The festival has now been turned into a makeshift camp, with many of its attendees unable to return home and complaining of insufficient flights and strained discussions with embassies. The UK Foreign Office told a Guardian reporter that they were “in regular contact” with festivalgoers, who are scattered between the festival and Panama City.

“I’ve been camping on a beach for 80 days!” says Doug Francisco, a circus performer and artist from Bristol. Francisco, who designed and led the Extinction Rebellion red brigades at last year’s protests in London, got to the site at the beginning of February. “While the festival was still going on, the military came in and tried to shut it down,” he told me over the phone from the beach.





The Tribal Gathering site.



The Tribal Gathering site. Photograph: Luis Acosta/AFP via Getty Images

The organisers persuaded the army to allow the festival to finish. After it was over, the battle became how to leave the site. Confused and conflicting orders were given by the army, festivalgoers report. A busload of travellers was held for 12 hours near the site and those without confirmed flights were turned back. But many flights had been cancelled. Embassies became involved with mixed results. “The British embassy sent a bus, but they just took people to the airport,” says Francisco. “There were no flights and they just left them there. They didn’t sort them out flights or anything. That was when it was all kicking off. I was like, I’m not getting on the bus if I don’t have a flight.” He remained at the festival site, where he has a four-metre bell tent.

British festivals such as Glastonbury cancelled, but at Tribal Gathering the show went on, of a sort. About 300 crew, performers and public were still on site days after it was supposed to have ended. “People were dealing with it pretty well,” says Francisco. Because they had been quarantined, they were safe from the threat of coronavirus and could avoid the restrictions the rest of the world was enduring. “This might be the last show on Earth. I did my one-man show the other night to the kitchen crew. We had a drag queen party with cocktails on the beach.”

Some of those who managed to leave the festival are still stranded in Panama City. One who got back to the UK was Barry Rees, a tree surgeon from Anglesey. He had gone to Panama to work on the build, turning the wild jungle beach, with its spiders, snakes and rampaging monkeys, into a safe festival site. When it was time to leave, he found his flight had been cancelled. Nevertheless, he managed to get past the armed guards. “I don’t know how I did it,” he told me down the line from north Wales. “I put on my pirate hat, that might have helped.” After borrowing £1,000 from his brother, almost being stranded in Miami and taking four international flights in three days, Rees finally got home. “I was really jetlagged, had diarrhoea, couldn’t really go anywhere. I was thinking, why did I leave paradise? But I didn’t have much money and I didn’t want to be a charity case.”

Those who remained got on with the festival takedown, “more slowly and methodically than usual”, says Francisco. The organisers kept the food deliveries coming long after they were meant to have stopped. “They looked after everybody at the hell of a cost for food,” says Rees. The festival has reportedly taken out a $160,000 loan and is also crowdfunding via GoFundMe.

“Moving anywhere in the country is complicated – you need permissions, there’s lots of checkpoints,” says Francisco. “There’s all this anticipation trying to leave, we’re gonna go, we’re gonna go, and then it’s – there’s no flights, we can’t go. Well, OK, I’ll stay here rather than getting stuck in a hostel.” Rees says some of the crew managed to get put up for a month in a mansion, but it had nothing in it, not even tables and chairs, and no internet. “They were going out of their minds,” he says. Even now, it may be six weeks before anybody can leave Panama.

At the festival, a feeling of unreality was persistent. “There’s a strange sense of this whole coronavirus thing happening that you’re not connected with, which would sound like a dream scenario but is quite weird. And the idea that when we leave here we’re going into a really difficult situation is daunting,” says Francisco. “It’s weird because the whole world’s gone mental and we’re stuck in the old days. We can still hang out and do stuff together, which is a real luxury, but you feel disconnected from what’s going on.”





A Panama health worker checks the temperature of an attendee of the Tribal Gathering festival.



A Panama health worker checks the temperature of an attendee of the Tribal Gathering festival. Photograph: Luis Acosta/AFP via Getty Images

And even paradise can wear thin. “I’m not gonna get much sympathy for being trapped on a beach, but it’s quite an intense environment. It looks picturesque, but the palm trees secrete oil at night and everything gets covered in it. And there’s the dust; it’s very windy. After 80 days, I’m gagging for a wall.”

Along with Maitane Berrozpe, an artist from Spain’s Basque country, Francisco has been continuing his project Plastik Paradiso, collecting refuse washed up on the beaches and turning it into shamanic-inspired art. “It’s shocking, because where there’s houses or tourist places, it’s all cleaned up, you’ve got this paradise vista, but as soon as you walk around the corner you’re knee-deep in plastic waste. It’s just hideous.” He plans to deconstruct the artworks and fit them into suitcases when he does eventually leave. “Francis Drake used the nearby town of Portobelo to extract all the Inca gold. I’m doing the same with all this plastic,” he says.

Even the party at the end of the world has to come to an end. Fewer than 50 people remain on the site and the imminent start of the rainy season is focusing minds. “That’s a different story. We had a couple of days already, it hoots it down, just rivers of mud running down the site.” He may be a veteran of the British festival scene, but there is one extra element that has persuaded Francisco to find alternative accommodation nearby. “All the crabs come out,” he says. “Crabageddon: that’s on the cards in the next couple of weeks.”



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