My life changed forever in September 2012 when I found a tiny kitten hiding under a car in San Felipe, Republic of Panama.

During my two years in Latin America, dinner at the stylish Las ClementinasHotel was my Friday night routine. The hotel was located in my neighborhood, San Felipe, in Panama City. San Felipe is a UNESCO world heritage site built by the Spanish and settled in 1673. It’s a vibrant and revitalized part of the city where street cats and dogs live among locals and tourists.

Taking my leftovers from dinner in a to-go box, I walked out of the hotel onto Calle 11. Surrounded by the noise of kids playing in the street and loud music coming from surrounding apartments, I was met with the warm tropical air and sunset that invited me to slow down and take it all in.

Outside of Las Clementinas’ Hotel, there was a car parked by a large trash can. Like most large trash cans in San Felipe, there were street cats hanging around looking for a meal. Under the car I saw a calico kitten with one orange ear and one black ear, a grey face and a pink nose covered in black dirt. Without hesitation I found myself walking toward her as if I were being pulled.

LOVE. The skittish kitten didnt want to come too close, but my leftover food was more temptation than she could resist. When I picked her up, I saw large cuts on her legs where she must have been entangled for some length of time. Her belly was bloated, not from being overfed but from worms. Her face was grey and black from digging for food in the adjacent trash can. She was so tiny she could sit in the palm of my hand.

This kitten was the sweetest and most beautiful mess I had ever seen!

Some of the San Felipe boys ran over to me to tell me about the kitten. They told me that her mom was killed by a taxi just days before and that her kitten siblings werent around anymore either. She was on her own with her band of 8-year-old Panamanian brothers who regularly fed her bites of their sandwiches.

Without hesitation, I respectfully asked the boyspermission to take the kitten home to live with me. I committed to taking her to the veterinarian, feeding her good food and giving her a bath. With excitement, they repliedSi, Si” then we shook hands, and the deal was finalized.

NAMESAKE. The following morning I took her to her first real veterinarian appointment. Dr. Sandra, my vet asked me her name for the medical file. I realized that she didnt have one. On the spot, I decided to name her after the hotel where I found her. Her name would be Roberta Clementina.

Its no surprise that my kittens namesake, Clementina Herrera was a successful, free-spirited, and independent woman. At the turn of the19th Century, the economy boomed from the construction of the Panama Railroad, the Gold Rush, and the prospect of the Panama Canal. The city was full of new arrivals seeking their fortune in the Isthmus. In those days, pawn shops were the equivalent of modern banks. Clementina opened her very own pawn shop and acquired a property strategically located in one of Panamas busiest streets. That property is now the home of Las Clementinas’ Hotel.

Clementina became the most talked about woman in San Felipe, but it was not just for her success. Clementina Herrera was unusual for her time because this free-spirited lady became the first Panamanian women to ever wear pants. 

VISION. The day Dr. Sandra watched me walk into the vet clinic with my new street kitten, she shook her head at me. Without words, we both accepted that I was a bleeding heart who brought one of the hundreds of street cats of San Felipe into my home. Roberta would officially be my very first cat.

I knew I needed my new kitten to fit into the vision I had for my life and lifestyle. We had to find a way to co-exist in a way that would benefit us both. Dr. Sandra told me that kittens can learn what to expect from their owners as long as they are taught before turning 9 months old. So, that night, I had a heart to heart talk with my 8-week old kitten.

Birdie, you cant be one of those cats that meows for wet food and pounces on my head at 5 AM. I need my sleep, ok little girl? Also, I need you to be able to travel with me because being homebound because of you just won’t work for me. I need you to trust me because we are going to have a fabulous and adventurous life together.

Roberta agreed to try my plan for her life. She slept in her bedroom (the bathroom) until she outgrew it. She was then free to live in the entire apartment, but she knew to not bother me when I was sleeping. She also agreed to go on nightly “walks” around the neighborhood in her new airline carry-on bag. I wanted her to get used to the noises and movements of the outside world.

In these six years, Roberta and I have had a life of adventure. Sure, she will put up an initial small fight or try to hide under the bed when she knows I am ready to go on a traveling adventure but she quickly gives in knowing we’re probably going to a really cool place. I earned the trust of this now highly adaptable cat.

From San Felipe, Roberta immigrated to the USA. She has also traveled and lived with me in Italy, Switzerland, and Spain. She has also traveled by train across Eastern Europe and into Greece. Many pet-loving Airbnb hosts from all over the world have welcomed us with open hearts as we have set out to see and experience the world.

HIJA. Roberta Clementina has been the most fun-loving and loyal street cat I could have ever asked for or known to ask for. She is tough and sassy, and like her namesake, she wears the pants in our family.

I believe when I walked out of Las Clementinas’ Hotel that Friday night, she was waiting there for me. She knew I would be her new mom days after her real mom was killed. I proudly call Roberta Clementina my daughter, and if anyone thinks I am a crazy cat lady for doing so, well… thats just fine.

Elisabeth Yarrow, Cat Mom, is the author of Destination Dream Job, a book aimed at helping women in the job search. She writes, creates, and dreams with her cat Robert and dog Jesse part time from Austin, and part time somewhere in Europe.

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