Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Good Night, Jesus

I've never been much for ritual in my faith. I grew up in a country Baptist church where we called Communion the "Lord's Supper" and observed it quarterly, on special holidays or fifth Sundays, which didn't come around often. When they did, boy were they a treat: cardboard crackers and grape juice in morning service and an assortment of potluck dishes including Miss Evelyn's infamous tire-textured cubed steak in the Fellowship Hall after "Singspiration" (an all-singin' service) that night.

Those were good times, and that was a good church. I was taught the foundations of the Bible there. VBS, Bible drills, Sunday School and memory verses got me to the point where I could recite the books of the Bible backwards, a useless skill that I retain to this day. But outside of the rare observance of the sacred meal and the occasional convert getting dunked in the baptismal pool, rite was nowhere to be found.

I remember going a few times to my friend's Lutheran church. It felt stuffy. Robed acolytes carried a flame down the aisle and lit the fuse for a less-than-dynamite performance by men in funny outfits who droned on with collective chants and readings I couldn't really understand. Maybe I was projecting my state of mind, but the people seemed to drool with boredom. In my view, there was no pep, and I couldn't wait to wake up from the liturgical nightmare I'd fallen into. Rituals made no sense. They were mindless gestures by sad people steeped in lame traditions. And grape juice tasted much better than wine.

It's possible that I was right about the collective attitude of that church, but I was definitely off about the idea that structured, metered worship is useless and irredeemable. Because I hadn't seen it modeled in a constructive way, I assumed rite was wrong. In the past few years, worshiping in different churches and cultures, I've adjusted that view. I maintain that recitations and protocols without the flair of heartfelt spontaneity can lead to spiritual malaise. But now I realize ritual's potential to regularly revive hearts that are constantly being pulled down by the weight of our sin nature and the cares of the world. Predictable actions as symbols, the sacraments, give us an anchor with the saints of old and help us to - like Paul said - proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

On the first night of our recent trip to Savannah, Katy and I wandered the rain-slicked streets looking for something to do. It was a Sunday night, so the old city's restaurants were closing down even earlier than usual. Driving through one of the town's scenic squares, we noticed an old church with a new banner inviting everyone to "Come say good night to God." Sounded pretty awesome to me, even though I had never heard of a "compline," which I later found out is a night prayer that draws on 1,500 years of monastic tradition.

We returned to Christ Church Savannah that night for the event, which the sign promised would involve some sort of Gregorian chant. This Anglican church, established in 1733, is as old as the city and the Georgia colony. That became evident as choir members entered the sanctuary, breaking the subdued silence with steps that creaked the floorboards. Four candles stood at the front of the sanctuary, casting a soft glow on the stained-glass Jesus, who stood with arms outstretched as if to bless the gathered worshippers.

The robed singers disappeared into the balcony and proceeded to bathe the sanctuary in their chanting voices, singing in unison, not harmony, presumably to help focus participants on words and not the music. It worked, and voices that would have grated on my Baptist nerves in the past gave rise to a flow of meditation. Capped off with the Apostle's Creed, a poignant Father's Day sermon and a classical guitar number accompanied by an unseen booming voice from the balcony, I can't think of any better way to say, Good night, Jesus.

For another out-of-the-box worship experience, read about my first Mass, spent with reclusive Irish Travelers in Edgefield, S.C. here.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Tybee Island

Katy and I clash when it comes to the criteria for an ideal vacation. She likes pure, white sandy beaches and a lot of downtime to enjoy them. And once you've gotten good and baked in the sun, you go inside, get cleaned up and head out for a fancy, delicious dinner. To her, this is a natural progression.

I enjoy the beach well enough, at least the relaxation part of it. If I have a good book, plenty of sunscreen and sunglasses, I can wait it out. But I hate sand with a passion. I always try futilely to keep it from invading the cracks between my toes. And even though I'm lazy at times, I get bored with too much inactivity.

Somehow for our honeymoon last year, I was able to rope Katy into heading to Arizona, which - at least in the southern part - is basically like a beach without water. It's devastatingly hot, and when you're out walking and driving around, you can't just take a quick dip to cool off. She was a good sport, and I think the fact that our resort had a nice pool went a long way in helping her forget her beachy dreams.

But for this year's trip we found an even happier medium. Savannah's marketing people call Tybee Island "Savannah's Beach." I think that might be slighting Tybee a little. The island has a lot of attractions in its own right - batteries built by the Union during the Civil War to bombard confederate forts, pirate lore, one of the first lighthouses on the East Coast and a name that means "salt" in a Native American language.

Together, Savannah's tourist magnetism and Tybee's quiet, old-fashioned beach community made a great marriage of city life and isolation, activity and relaxation. And since marriage is what the whole trip was about, that couldn't have fit any better. We made the 30-minute drive twice, treading a long causeway across wetlands and out to the island.

Parking was convenient - only a few bucks for a few hours, and the ticket-dispensing machines were very intuitive, although we did have to help one older couple figure them out. The beaches were nice. The sand wasn't blinding white, but it wasn't too brown. Best of all, it was natural. In a total of about 4 1/2 hours over two days, we saw about 10 stingrays, two jellyfish and three dolphins, and we found the currency of vacation memories - sand dollars.

As fun as it was to trudge through sand and lay there hoping for clouds to cover the sun, my favorite Tybee Island activity had nothing to do with the sunny pursuits others like Katy tend to enjoy. I preferred cooling down at Seaweed's, a small "sno-ball" shop on the main drag, U.S. Highway 80. The friendly staff only accepts cash, and if you don't have it, make a trip to the ATM. In two days, we tried fuzzy navel, strawberry daiquiri and dinosaur (strawberry, banana, and fruit punch) with sweet cream. All were amazing, as I'm sure are the other 70-something flavors.

Thanks to Seaweed's, Savannah's Beach was quite a hit.

Photos (from top): Looking at the lighthouse Oglethorpe saw built in 1733; two aptly sized sand dollars; a Seaweed's preview.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


Katy and I recently returned from a four-day trip to Savannah to celebrate our one-year anniversary. Our short jaunt in Georgia's 275-year-old founding city was a welcome respite from the normal routines of life. It came conveniently and poignantly after a weekend where I participated in the wedding of one of my good friends. At his request, I sang "Amazing Grace" just before he kissed his new bride, reminding those gathered that their union is made possible and will be sustained only by God's willingness to look past their faults individually and their ability to do the same for one another.

Before Katy and I said our vows, weddings were a bore. For the past year, they've been a blast, as we've quietly renewed our commitment to our journey as we've seen friends begin theirs. Summer has just begun, and more weddings are to come. That means a lot of things - more mushy reminders of our still-young love, not to mention loads of great food.

Speaking of that, here's a short summary of our "Savanniversary," an adventure that was marked - as any good vacation is - by unconstrained gastronomic indulgence. If you're heading to Savannah, here's an ideal menu:


Experts say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Having grown up on Pop-Tarts and cereal, I doubted the veracity of the "experts'" arrogant consensus. After going to Savannah, I have to say that I've come around. If breakfast isn't the most important meal of the day, it can be the most fun.

-Savannah Coffee House Cafe - On our first morning, we left our (Pricelined) riverview room at the Hyatt Regency and headed south on Bull Street, through one of Savannah's 21 town squares and around some road construction to end up at Savannah Coffee House Cafe. Interestingly enough, our waitress from the previous night, who supplied us with our ribs from Tony Roma's on Bay Street, greeted us from behind the counter. After we stated the obvious connection from last night, she hooked me up with a heavenly raspberry mocha muffin. Katy opted for an apple fritter, which tasted like a glazed funnel cake with no powdered sugar. The coffees we ordered were great as well, and they even offered to top us off when we asked for a to-go cup for our walk back to the hotel.

-Express Cafe and Bakery - SCHC would be hard to top, but the next morning, we went a different route, heading west on Bay Street before turning south from the River onto Barnard Street, where we found the Express Cafe and Bakery at the Barnard/Broughton intersection. We had noticed it the day before on one of many shopping excursions. We crisscrossed the downtown streets so much, I literally had them memorized east to west. Express Cafe has a goose on their sign, which really attracted Katy. Upping the "cuteness" factor, their OPEN sign said, "Come on in, and see what the goose is cookin'." How could we not?

Apparently, the goose is a very good chef, at least with breakfast food. Katy's warmed croissant filled with strawberry preserves and cream cheese gave us a nice introduction to the bird's vast culinary repertoire. My cinnamon raisin bagel was less sensational, although still very good. We both put in an order for spiced new potatoes, which were deliciously prepared. The coffee was good, and the melty, homemade peanut butter chocolate chip cookie we ordered to go was even better. In a gesture of smugness, I sneered and waved the cookie proudly at Paula Deen's overcrowded restaurant as we walked by.


Midday was a time for safe meals with adventurous twists. We ate on River Street near the hotel both days after trips to the nearby Tybee Island beaches. As a rule, everything is more expensive on River Street, but we had great access to it from our hotel. The Hyatt Regency, though reviled by some because of it's lack of historic charm, has an elevator that spits guests right out onto the cobblestoned thoroughfare lining the Savannah River. Watch out for trolleys and crowds of tourists. And here's a tip: Walk on the sidewalk nearest the river and look back at the shops and restaurants. You'll have a better view and keep from stumbling over candy-toting kids and photo-snapping families.

-Boar's Head Grill & Tavern - Aside from the waiter who told us all about his sailboat and his daughter's unorthodox methods of using the restroom in the ocean waters, everything at the Boar's Head was quite appetizing. We shared a huge burger and fries and bought a bowl of black-eyed pea and ham soup, which was what drew us into the restaurant in the first place. It shattered our expectations in its presentation: In the bowl of soup, not a pea was to be found. But it also went far beyond the taste I anticipated. It was definitely worth the stop, and the restaurant itself had a historic pub decor.

-Huey's on the River - Recommended by our Frommer's book, Huey's was billed as a cajun haven. In keeping with that theme, a fried oyster po'boy seemed like the way to go for me. Katy indulged her craving for fried green tomatoes, which she ate on a muffaletta with some olive spread.


Tony Roma's ribs were our only meal from a restaurant chain, and we decided that it didn't count since that restaurant is mostly found in other states, and I had never eaten there. We went with local favorites for our other two dinners.

-Masato of Japan - Another great thing that came out of our Boar's Head lunch - a recommendation for Masato, a Japanese hibachi restaurant on the south side of Savannah's Abercorn Street near the mall. Our waiter praised Masato's steak and other intangibles. Apparently, a chef there named "Duck" gives out an endless string of sake shots to semi-alcoholics like our waiter. We went for the steak and sat with a Pakistani family celebrating their daughter's graduation. Our chef was from Bali, and his name was Pu, like Winnie the Pooh, he said. Pu makes a mean filet mignon. I don't think I've ever been that full. With Pu's help and despite a less-than-romantic atmosphere, our anniversary dinner was very laid-back and extremely enjoyable.

-Vinnie Van GoGo's - Don't try to eat in Savannah after 10 p.m. Apparently, the "Hostess City" has not gotten the memo that some people like to eat out later than five-year-old kids go to bed. Our search on our final night in town took us to three restaurants that said they were closed. We finally made it to Vinnie Van GoGo's, a pizza place in Savannah's City Market shopping area. The pizza reminded me of Mellow Mushroom. Luckily we had cash, because Vinnie didn't accept credit cards.

After Vinnie's we hit up Lulu's Chocolate Bar on MLK Blvd. Nothing better than truffles to go. I particularly enjoyed the chocolate truffle with chili powder.

You'll be happy to know that we're both alive and well. A few pounds heavier maybe, but we'll work it off as we get back to the bustle of our daily routines. We're still astounded that we're blessed enough to have the luxury of a Savanniversary extravaganza. Our bellies - and our hearts - are overflowing.

Photos (from top):

-Obligatory beach shot;
-Flowers at St. John's cathedral;
-Express Cafe;
-Rubbing my cookie in Paula Deen's face. You'll have to look just above the cookie to see the sign for "The Lady & Sons," her perennially crowded restaurant;
-Boar's Head looks out at the Savannah River, where ships make their way toward the nation's fastest-growing port;
-St. John's Cathedral;
-All photos Copyright Trevor Williams, 2008.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Panama Wrap-up

I just have to get it out of my system. I've been procrastinating long enough, and now it's time to wrap up the Panama II narrative with a few last thoughts and pieces of travel advice. To make this quick and painless, food will be mixed in with sights and sounds.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I stayed at the Country Inn & Suites Amador, a nice little hotel that sits on the Panama Canal. Location is the main attraction. I paid $125 a night for a suite with a view of the canal. As I said before, the rooms were far from glamorous, but watching the sun set behind the iconic Bridge of the Americas was memorable, and the pool was a great respite from the humidity that had me sweating all day.

A TGI Friday's is attached to the hotel. I've never been that tourist who eats at the hotel restaurant, but fried calamari and Balboa beer hit the spot when we arrived late our first night. At least the dish was a little exotic; we don't normally do squid at the Friday's in Atlanta.

The next day, we headed down to Casco Viejo, or Casco Antiguo, depending on which specific part of the old city you're talking about. For me, one of the highlights of the colorful UNESCO World Heritage site is the Plaza de la Independencia, dominated by the 300-year-old Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción.

The church is a rustic brown and has two blistering white towers flanking its entrance. You can see them all the way across the bay from Punta Paitilla, a developed section of the new city. Across the plaza sits the classic Hotel Central, a dilapidated yellow building on the verge of restoration. Leading away from the plaza to the north is Avenida Central, a bustling market street. On one side of the square is the Panama Interoceanic Canal Museum ($7 for adults), where we saw Spanish exhibitions about the history of the canal. On the top floor, we were led to a dark room and treated with a wonderful surprise: etchings by Rembrandt.

We asked the curator how she was able to get such high-profile pieces on a loan from Europe. "I can be a pain," she said.

Casco Viejo, as its name suggests, is old, but that's its charm. The government as well as private investors have long recognized that "old" doesn't need to equal "tired." Real estate signs were up everywhere. Workmen gutted old buildings, leaving their historic facades while providing a new steel skeleton on which to build new studios, offices and condos. The warm breeze coming off the bay carried the odor of wet paint and the sound of jackhammers. As was the case last time I visited, tourist police patrolled the area, and steely-eyed soldiers guarded diplomatic buildings to keep ignorant tourists from wandering down the wrong brick streets.

We stopped for lunch at a polished red building in Plaza de Simon Bolivar with "Hotel Colombia" written on its facade. Casablanca, the restaurant on the bottom floor, seemed attractive enough. The inside was stuffy - the waitress explained that the A/C didn't reach the back room where we sat. But its decor was cheery and refreshing: lime, almost neon, green pillars and rafters, orange pillows and deep brown wood furniture. A fish tank filled with oscars separated us from the rest of the dining room. My hamburger turned out to be extremely delicious and filling.

Next stop was Granclement, an gelato shop we stumbled upon before lunch. The flavor selection would've made Mr. Baskin and Mr. Robbins jealous, especially considering all were homemade according to the "traditional methods of the best French artesans." I opted for a $2.50 single scoop of the vanilla, a pretty good price. I've paid more in Atlanta. And the beans speckled throughout the ivory cream told me that this glop of goodness was worth the money.

Lastly, I visited two restaurants on the Amador Causeway, a narrow strip of land connecting the mainland with two small islands in the Amador area. The furthest one out serves as a landing pad for huge yachts. With those in view and the Panama City skyline in the background, we ate at Alberto's, a tasty Italian place. Earlier in the week, my boss and I had a simple dinner at La Parillada, a steakhouse back toward the city.

Here's a summary of GlobalAtlanta articles I've written for the work side of the trip:

-On a pending Panama free trade agreement
-On the Colon Free Zone
-Our interview with Ambassador William Eaton - Story - VIDEO
-On Georgia Tech's interest in starting logistics programs there. Another Tech story here.

Sunday, June 08, 2008


Keeping house is a tough job, even with just two adults in the home. My wife is an excellent housekeeper, and I have to say that I contribute a decent amount myself. But in the past few weeks, my wife and I have tried to up the ante by progressively maintaining the elevated level of cleanliness often only achieved when visitors are coming.

We've done a pretty good job. Our laundry is sorted, dishes caught up and living room as cozy and put-together as ever. But taking the small steps of maintenance has been more difficult than I expected. It has required us often to forsake a momentary desire - for television, the Internet, reading - for the benefit of our goal. It's surprising how little the virtue of self-sacrifice is practiced in American life, even when the brunt of what we call "work" is taken on by machines.

But aside from the denying ourselves, there's another parallel to the Christian life in our quest for a clean home. Without the small sacrifices, the larger picture can't take shape. If we don't act on today's task or the next day's, our tomorrow will be a mess, and we'll spend it in a cleaning spree rather than doing something we desire.

I think my Christian life suffers from a lack of maintenance. Rather than a tidy, disciplined heart picked up as I go, I'm often between the clutter and filth of inconsistency and the sparkle of full-on devotion. More maintenance in my daily life is in order. God knows my heart is not.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

China 2006 Trip Narrative

So, I've finally done it. It has taken me nearly two years, but I've finally compiled all my China 2006 blog posts into a chronological compendium of travel goodness. If you were on the trip or are just interested in missions in China, please take a gander. The dates denote what day the post was written, not the actual timing of the event. The trip was a month-long excursion across four provinces and countless cities and towns. There's tons of stuff I didn't even write about. To view the previous year's trip, go to China 2005 trip narrative.

8/18/06 - Enter the Forbidden City
8/20/06 - Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen Square)
8/22/06 - The Chairman's Image
8/22/06 - Mai Dang Lao
8/30/06 - The Temple of Heaven
8/30/06 -The Great (Long) Wall of China
9/4/06 - The Other Side of the Wall
9/6/06 - Beijing's Summer Palace
9/6/06 - Beijing Duck
9/6/06 - Bumpass, Virginia
9/6/06 - The Return
9/7/06 - Chinese Breakfast
9/21/06 - Platforms
9/21/06 - From the Ground Up
9/26/06 - The Office
9/26/06 - The School
10/10/06 - Evaluations
10/12/06 - Devotions-1
10/12/06 - Meals-1
10/17/06 - First Day of Camp
10/25/06 - Music Class
10/26/06 - Meals 2-Dico's
10/26/06 - A Ray of Light
10/29/06 - Web Developments
10/29/06 - A Good Day
11/13/06 - Hurdles
11/13/06 - Peacock Lake Park
11/14/06 - Recreation
11/20/06 - Rain for us, Rainforest
11/21/06 - Meals 3-Burma
11/21/06 - Rooftop View
11/26/06 - China Travel Articles
11/26/06 - Double-take
11/26/06 - A Gentile Sabbath?
11/26/06 - Leisurely Labor: A Sabbath Rest in China
12/2/06 - Holy Days
12/20/06 - Party Time
12/22/06 - A Change in Climate

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Andy's Journey

My most recent trip to Panama was spent in business mode. Traveling with a trade delegation from Kansas City, I visited the Panama Canal, ports on both sides of the isthmus, logistics outfits, diplomats and U.S. companies. It was interesting to see what makes Panama tick on a commercial level, but it wasn't my idea of an ideal trip.

Before I joined the workforce in July of last year, my international trips were focused almost exclusively on building God's kingdom through missions. Crazy adventures marked with whimsical itineraries were part of the territory, especially on journeys to China. In 2006, I visited Panama with a different agenda, though the elements of danger and stupidity were still present.

Our mission was much simpler than in China. Instead of bringing souls into saving faith, our goal was to save ourselves from all that can go wrong on a tropical island known for its role as a former penal colony and covered with virgin triple-canopy jungle. Not a mission trip per se, but during the expedition I learned a lot about preparation and how it pertains to my faith. It also deepened my hunger for international travel, a desire I feel is God-birthed.

This year, I thought I'd leave Panama without any kind of spiritual experience. I did visit a cathedral, but it was cold and empty. I did pray a few times, but up until the last night, work had sucked much of the life and energy out of the journey.

But a window of free time opened up, and I spent it with a friend who coincidentally had flown in from the U.S. to speak at a men's retreat. He had recently lived in Panama City for six months and had just moved back home to the States. The day I found out I was going to Panama was the day he moved back. I was sad, but then I found out that the retreat would bring him back at the same time as my trip.

When his plane touched down, he invited me to hang out, but only if I was "up for a little praying." Bone-dry spiritually, I took him up on the offer and hopped a cab to a small church.

We gathered around a table, three white guys and five Hispanics, all men save the one woman who had come with her husband. They started in Spanish. By the fourth prayer, I was understanding about a third of what was going on. I was last, and I thanked God (in English, of course) for the privilege of being around people that wanted so desperately to see his kingdom come. I also asked for him to give my friend strength as he spoke to the more than 100 men registered for the retreat.

Afterward, on the way to a restaurant, my friend and I rode with Andy, one of the men administering the retreat. In what was an affirmation for me that the bond of Christian brotherhood is vastly different and stronger than any other fraternity, he shared his testimony with utter transparency.

Andy's father had lived a double-life for more than 20 years, visiting another each week while his wife and kids thought he was teaching night classes at the college where he was a professor. When Andy's family caught wind of the rumor, they followed their dad and found him coming out of the woman's apartment.

A sick feeling still rips at Andy's gut every time that image comes to mind. His mother's pain was similar. Confronted, begged for her to let him stay, claiming that he didn't love the other woman. Andy's mother consented, but the wounds persisted. Heartbroken, they decided to get him help for what was nothing less than an addiction. They tried everything in the realm of superstition. When nothing worked, they gave a Christian pastor a chance.

That was the turning point. Andy's mother accepted Christ and forgave her husband. He eventually followed suit. He mailed his mistress a Bible. In it, he highlighted the verses that God had used to deliver him from her grasp. That was his last contact with her.

All this time, Andy was still an unbeliever, working his way up the corporate ladder, showing little regard for spiritual things. He found a beautiful wife and earned plenty of money. But there was unease, and his father's legacy began to creep up on him. Around the time the whole family moved to Panama from Colombia, Andy began thinking that an affair of his own wouldn't be too bad of a deal. He traveled often for business, and a lot of the men he knew had engaged in similar flings.

Soon, his wife began, ironically, going to church with his parents. She drew him there, and he stubbornly came along. He became a believer before ever acting on his adulterous thoughts, and now his whole family knows and serves Jesus.

"We must remember," he told me, "when we are ministering to men, we are not ministering just to men. We are ministering to whole families. Tomorrow, we will be ministering to 100 families at our retreat."

Andy knows firsthand the devastating impact a man has when he shirks his fatherly and husbandly responsibilities. I do too, having come from a somewhat broken home.

I shared my testimony with Andy as he drove me back to the hotel. He told me that he is planning to quit his high-paying job to become a missionary to a West African country. His co-workers will think he's crazy, but he prays that it will be an opportunity for him to share the Gospel.

I realized that he had touched on the theme of both of our stories. As in our lives, God's plan often looks ridiculous. But with him, broken families and illogical career choices are chances for unworldly forgiveness, power and sacrifice to be made known. With a God who writes the rules, impossible circumstances become prime opportunities.

The Art of Diplomacy

Thomas Jefferson's face is upside-down, but he doesn't seem to mind. And the smiling man on the other side of the doorway? His cheesy grin shows he's carefree too. Around another corner, a weathered old coal miner scowls, but the tired wrinkles on his face belie the relief he must feel to be on tropical vacation from his hard life in Virginia.

Panama is an unlikely setting for this summit of characters from Virginia, but they're here, hanging on the walls of the U.S. ambassador's residence in Panama City. And rather than the jungle scenes that mark this country's geography, depictions of Appalachia surround them, adorning the foyer and multiple living areas on the bottom floor of this diplomatic dwelling.

I met Ambassador William Eaton during a recent trip to Panama, where my boss and I interviewed him for a video to include in various articles in GlobalAtlanta, our international business news Web site. Mr. Eaton has been stationed there for more than three years, and his tour ends in August. A career diplomat, the ambassador has enjoyed tours in Guyana, Italy, Russia and Turkey. He speaks English, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Russian and Turkish.

Our camera equipment cleared earlier in the day by security officials, we arrived at the residence early. A commercial officer started us on a tour while we waited for Mr. Eaton, and we noticed that the decor reflected the variety of cultures he's lived in. Along with photos of himself posed with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Secretary Colin Powell, Mr. Eaton displays a hookah pipe, an Asian coffee table and a smattering of pieces from his travels.

As we ducked through a doorway into yet another sitting area, the ambassador appeared unannounced, emerging as if from an unseen passageway. After introductions, he resumed the tour, giving us the inside story on the art he personally selected to hang in his temporary home.

The State Department allows ambassadors to select the theme of their residential decor and pays for the shipment of art to their residence. With his blank canvas, Mr. Eaton chose to give a nod to his homeland. A native of Winchester, Va., Mr. Eaton's ties to the Shenandoah Valley show through in all his selections. The obvious depictions of bubbling streams and verdant mountains hang alongside more unorthodox works created by artists from the region.

The result is a hodge-podge exhibition that lends itself to conversation, a characteristic Mr. Eaton said comes in handy during diplomatic meetings there.

Take Thomas Jefferson, for example. The aforementioned depiction of the drafter of the Declaration of Independence and third U.S. president is one of Mr. Eaton's favorites. His face is upside-down, while everything else about the picture remains in normal configuration. Mr. Eaton found the piece at a Virginia gallery. As he stared at it curiously, he felt someone walk up behind him.

"What are you thinking?" a voice asked.

"I'm thinking, 'What the hell was the artist thinking when he painted this?'" Mr. Eaton replied.

Turns out, the questioner was the artist. He explained that the piece was meant to pay tribute to Thomas Jefferson's ability to see the world differently than most people of his day. A graduate of the University of Virginia, where Jefferson is practically canonized, Mr. Eaton enjoyed that explanation and purchased the piece.

But it's more than a painting to him. It's a tool. He has used it to show Panamanian business and political leaders that they, like Jefferson, can look beyond the bounds of today's political climate. They can choose to let go of the corruption and instability that has plagued Panama's past and gird themselves for a better future.

The other two pieces mentioned above were less groundbreaking. The smiling man was a work called "Say Cheese!" in which a girl had painted her shirtless boyfriend laughing. Behind him are chunks of cheddar.

The coal miner is done in color pencil specially for Mr. Eaton's residence by a woman he worked with in the U.S. Embassy in Russia.

Other fun facts about the ambassador's residence:

-The library where we conducted the interview was the site of a summit of Latin American heads of state hosted by President Eisenhower in the 1950s. I'm no historian, but an embassy public affairs officer who's also an expert in the history of the region told us stories about all the infamous dictators that had been present in the very room where we stood. A gold plaque on the wallpaid tribute to that meeting.

-The site for the residence was selected by FDR and wasn't completed until after WWII. Because metals went to the war effort, brass for the handrails on the staircase had to be locally produced in Panama. The ship carrying bathroom fixtures for the residence was sunk by a German submarine, and they had to be ordered again.

-The 48 congruent wood panels in the library represent the 48 states the U.S. had at the time.

-Mr. Eaton invited the artists for a special exhibition at his residence. Five paid their own way to come.