A character in John le Carrè’s novel The Tailor of Panamá describes Panamá this way:
‘We’ve got everything God needed to make paradise. Great farming, beaches, mountains, wildlife you wouldn’t believe, put a stick in the ground you get a fruit tree, people so beautiful you could cry.’
Pirata Morgan steals the gold, then burns down the city
In the early 16th century the Isthmus of Panamá was inhabited by several dozen Indian tribes. But then the Spaniards showed up, claiming the lands for their king. They made Panamá the metropolis of the Pacific, creating a gateway for gold coming from Perú, and silks and spices from the Orient. From Panamá these riches were carried across the isthmus, then loaded onto Spanish ships. In the mid-17th century, British buccaneer Sir Henry Morgan ransacked the city, leaving it in ruins, then, with his band of pirates, made off with everything worth anything.
The Panamá Canal
The idea of a two-lane water highway across the isthmus was first proposed by King Charles V of Spain. But it wasn’t until 1878 that the Colombian government awarded a contract to a Frenchman, who worked on the unimaginable project for eleven years, until disease, mudslides, accidents and the death of 25,000 men led to bankruptcy in 1898.
In 1903 the US government backed Panama to gain its independence from Colombia. Less than a month later Panama gave the US “sovereign rights in perpetuity” over the Canal Zone (an area extending 8 km on either side of the canal). Construction began in 1904, finished in 1914, involved more than 75,000 workers (including Judy’s grandfather, who worked on canal improvements in the twenties, during which time he contracted malaria, from which he died).
The canal extends 80 km from Colón on the Caribbean side, to Panama City on the Pacific. Each year more than 12,000 vessels transit it. Ships are built to fit within the dimensions of its locks: 305 meters long and 33.5 meters wide.
It was President Carter who, because of Panamá’s insistence on national sovereignty, relinquished control of the canal. On December 31, 1999, more than 10,000 American military and canal employees returned to the States.
Hot and humid, with oppressively loud music
The best window shopping and people watching takes place any day, any time, on jam-packed Avenida Perú, Panamá City’s avenue of commerce for the common people. While cars, buses and taxis pollute the narrow two-lane street, hawkers and peddlers bark out their special offerings. Each open-faced store broadcasts its own musical soundtrack. It’s hot, humid, the music is oppressively loud, and the street is teeming with colorful people. From corner to corner, vendors behind sidewalk stands sell everything from cell phones to stalks of celery.
This is prime pickpocket territory. Judy walks with her arm tightly wrapped around her shoulder bag, like she’s carrying a football. A razor-thin and sickly looking old lady spreads her bony arms, then stops directly in front of us. Wary, we each take a step backwards. She’s wearing a brightly colored dress and a purple bandana. I count a total of five teeth in her mouth. At second glance, she looks harmless, even kind.
“How are you today?” she asks softly in heavily accented English, as she gently puts one hand on Judy’s arm, one on mine.
“Fine, how are you?” I answer, suspiciously.
“Every day I wake up alive is a good day. I thank God for each day he grants me,” she says, alternately looking at Judy and me. “It’s nice to see that there are still some of you here. Panama didn’t know what they had, and they don’t know what they’re doing.”
I don’t know what she’s talking about.
“Have a good day,” she says abruptly, then turns and walks passed us.
“She must’ve been referring to Americans leaving Panamá, after turning over the Canal,” says Judy.
Down a side street I spot an old church. “Let’s take a look,” I say to Judy. At the corner of the block we’re intercepted by one bicycle-riding policeman, then another. “Foreigners?” asks one. “Yes, tourists,” I answer. “It’s not safe here,” one says. “You get robbed,” says the other. “Stay on the main street.”
Skin-tight yellowish green dress
The black cobbler’s arms and shoulders are huge and his back is hairy. Seated next to me, having a pair of custom sandals made, sits a guy wearing long pants and a white T-shirt. Beads of sweat gather on his forehead and cheeks, which he swipes at from time to time.
“Are you a tourist?” I ask.
“In a way,” he answers with half a smile.
“Are you American?”
“Are you here on business?”
“Delivering a boat. To Tahiti.”
The shoeshine guy sitting next to me can’t sit still. He’s wearing a worn black fedora-style hat, which sits crooked on his head, his front teeth are filled with gold, and his eyes are big, yellowish and mischievous. He’s up, dancing to the beat of the ever-present Caribbean music. Another shoeshine guy and a couple of other guys watch his every move.
Meanwhile, an attractive young woman wearing a skin-tight yellowish dress begins feeding coins into a public telephone. When I take off my shoe to hand it to the cobbler, he quickly reaches for a piece of carpet, then places it on the soiled wooden platform for me to rest my foot. “Gracias,” I say to him. He nods without looking at me. Then he turns his attention to the girl. Her dress is frayed and not completely clean. She’s not especially pretty and her body isn’t what you’d call perfect, but somehow all the parts add up¬. She’s compelling to look at.
The black shoeshine guy starts talking to her—not loud enough so she can hear but loud enough to entertain his friends. Here’s where my lack of Spanish fluency hurts. I’m sure that he’s very funny.
What happened for the Panamanians?
Joe’s wallet is crammed with business cards of past clients. He’s been collecting them ever since he started driving a cab, in 1999. Before that he worked in the US military PX, but that ended when the Americans gave the Canal back to Panamá.
Joe fancies himself a tourist guide, not a cab driver. Wearing an ever-present NY Yankees cap, he drives a mid-‘90s Toyota cab that’s been involved in its share of accidents, one which has rendered the passenger’s side rear door inoperable. As we meander through the crowded city streets, he provides a running commentary of which I get about half. His English is both amusing and irritating, and I can understand it about as well as his Spanish.
Joe holds the Panamanian government responsible for losing his job, and he’s bitter. The point he made, over and over again, until I grew tired of hearing it, was that American Canal employees and the US military provided a lot of work for Panamanians. The way Joe said it: “American soldiers giving too much work to Panamanians. Now Americans go home. What happened for the Panamanians, I don’t know.”
We’re on the way to the Canal, to witness the passing of a ship or two. Joe’s commentary: “Now the Canal people (the administrators) they make $25,000 a month. Es una locura (madness). Sons of the políticos these jobs have. They’re nothing, just botellas.” “What’s a botella?” I ask. “Es una expressión,” Joe answers. “Means people paid for do nothing.”
We pass dozens of empty military buildings. “Lot of corruption inside the Panamanian government.”
Later, Joe drives us pass a cluster of fancy hi-rise buildings. “So much narco traficante. Oooh, mucha seguridad. Everybody got guns. Before there are CIA, Interpol, FBI investigations. Now the government does nothing.”
We pass a grand building in an upscale neighborhood. Bavarian Motors, the sign says. I knew it would get a rise out of Joe so I ask him: “Who can afford these Mercedes and BMWs?”
“Oooh, estupid fuckin’ políticos and their estupid fuckin’ sons. Hay mucho corrupción in Panamá now.”
On the way back to the hotel, we wait for a man to cross the street. He’s dressed in typical Middle East garb, complete with head dressing. Joe pokes his head out of the window. “Bin Laden!” I laugh, he laughs. Then he repeats his joke three or four times. I stop laughing after the second time.
On the roof of the Hotel Covadonga are a tiny pool and a patio area containing a few tables and some white plastic chairs. It’s an ideal place to unwind from a tiring day of sightseeing. At a nearby table two guys play cards while a third watches. One guy pours rum into can of Coke, another pulls cans of Fosters out of a plastic ice chest. The Fosters guy is British. He tells us that he recently quit his job as a TV graphics designer, to travel. “It was the only way to make the time to go on a long vacation. I’ll travel for three months, then return to London and look for a job.” The watcher wears a perfectly shaped mustache, in a class with Wilbur Grimley or Brimley, the guy who did those Grape-Nut TV commercials. He’s a recently retired fireman from upstate New York. Single, I presume, he just moved in with his sister in North Carolina, opened up a joint-checking account, put his car in a garage, then came to Panamá. He’s here to hook on as a crew member on a sail boat. Someday, he says, he’ll buy his own sailboat and sail the world.
The third guy reminds me of a slightly overweight and really tired looking Michael Douglas. He’s from Ontario, Canada. He’s wearing a bikini-style bathing suit, along with a second-degree full-body sunburn, which he got from spending a week on a Panamanian island. Asked what he does, he says he has businesses. He spends a couple weeks every year in Panamá, he adds. “I’ve got arthritis so bad I have to use a cane to walk. But down here, in this heat, the pain goes away.”
The British guy is the most specific about a restaurant suggestion. Las Cascadas, he says. Good fish, reasonable, on the water, close by.
So we walk. Three blocks later, as we head down a street, a cabbie wags his finger at me. “Dangerous,” he says. That’s all it takes. “Take us to Las Cascadas” I say.
You can’t tell the streetwalkers from the housewives––every woman dresses seductively. Whatever the outfit, whether it’s a dress, jeans and a T-shirt, or a skirt and blouse, skin tight is the style. In Judy’s presence, I try, mostly unsuccessfully, to keep my eyes from popping out. So much skin, so many shades of brown. Bodies sculpted, some taking the best features of Hispanics, Indians and blacks. Legs that won’t quit, breasts and buns pointed skyward, as do my eyes whenever Judy turns toward me.
I find Judy’s bird-watching hobby kind of fun, although I’m not good at it. In a way it’s like fishing, where patience and concentration are as valuable as bait. You sit still, usually alone, in the middle of nature; it’s more or less quiet, except for the rustling of leaves and the taunting call of the birds.
Like fishing, you spend a lot of time anticipating that something will happen. A bird calls. You raise your level of alertness. You scour the trees, the bushes, the field––then, once in a while, you see one.
And then a voice says, “Fuckin’ piece of shit got no manners.” This coming from a television screen which hangs from the roof of the bus, three rows in front of me. Most passengers ignore the action, choosing instead to doze. Others watch and read the Spanish subtitles, trying to keep abreast of the story. I try to focus on the countryside. What we need, if anything, is not a bad R-rated American movie, but some soft classical guitar music. What we get is inane gibberish, profane-filled dialogue, and snippets of unrecognizable, mostly irritating rock music. Meanwhile, the sun sets ever so slowly behind puffy white clouds and lush tropical trees of every imaginable kind.
Judy sits next to a farmer wearing a typical Panamanian hat. His wife holds her 5-year-old son in her lap; the son is holding a baby chicken in his lap.
A plain-looking middle-age lady climbs aboard the bus, pulling a small girl behind her. She’s wearing a skirt and a loose-fitting blouse that has tiny pineapples and Dole written all over it. She stands at the front of the bus, then proceeds to tell everyone in the packed 32-passenger bus that one of her daughters is in the hospital, waiting to have an operation. She says that she needs blood and that she wishes that God blesses this bus and all the passengers on it.
My seatmate is a 5-foot-tall Indian man with a full head of black hair, and a kind but weather-beaten face. I introduce myself and he says something I can’t understand. When the pineapple lady comes by he drops a few coins into her hand. Bad luck not to, I guess, so I do too. He tells me that he’s returning to his home, on what he describes as a mountain top overlooking a picturesque valley where he farms in a co-op. Two of his three girls are grown, one remains at home, and his wife, I guess, has left him. Asked if she died, he answers with a wave of his hand. To get home, it’ll take him an hour bus ride and then a three-hour walk. By horse, he adds, it takes only an hour.
Baking in a strong sun on a remote beach, in and out of water that’s too warm to be refreshing. The small lagoon is surrounded by dense jungle. Judy stays in the shade, peering into the forest canopy for birds.
The big tease: A Lance-Tailed Manakin
The best places are hard to get to. Give me a cramped bus, followed by a fifteen-mile ride in the back of a pickup truck over an un-maintained dirt road, a five-minute boat ride––and it’s almost always worth it, maybe because few people go there. Certainly, in this case, there’s not much to go to, only one place to stay on Isla Boca Grande––The Cabanas Boca Grande––a half-dozen rooms, some with private bathroom, plus a few hammocks to rent.
I’m vaguely aware that Judy has gotten out of bed and has dressed. It’s early, I’m not sure how early. The sun, I think, has just risen.
“OK, OK,” I say. In less than a minute I’m up, dressed, with backpack in hand. Another couple of minutes later and I’m standing on a path staring blankly into the forest canopy while Judy is intently trying to determine from where she has just heard this unfamiliar and very distinctive bird call.
On my feet I’m still in bed, in that blissful state of near-wakefulness. My body temperature hasn’t risen yet, or lowered, I’m not sure which. Whatever, it seems the same as the ambient temperature, I think it’s called. I’m in a cocoon. I could stay like this forever.
Butterflies dart in front of my face. Sun tries to penetrate the thick tropical forest, but mostly fails in its attempt.
Five minutes later: I’m 90% awake.
A bird with the distinctive call teases Judy, here and there, but nowhere to be seen. Sounds so close. I, too, scan the treetops. After a while she gives up, continuing on the path. I tag along. Again, the call. For ten minutes she looks, listens, but doesn’t see.
On the move. Again, no sightings.
“Are you hungry?” she asks.
“Yeah, I guess.” What I want mostly is to sit down and rest my legs. It’s maybe 8 a.m. I’ve got a full sweat going. It feels good.
On the way back she stops. Again, the call. As though to reward her for persistence, the bird shows itself.
Question: Is Pepito a boy or a girl?
The Cabanas Boca Grande sits above the water about sixty feet. From the open-air restaurant, there’s a 180-degree view of the mainland and two nearby islands. It’s the kind of place that elicits distant stares and long periods of doing and saying nothing. We’re sitting on the middle of three levels in the restaurant. On the top level, sitting by himself, is a landscape contractor from New Hampshire, who is beginning a three-month vacation in Panamá. His idea, he says, is possibly to buy property and live here. Research, he says he’s doing. Below us are a British couple playing Scrabble and sharing a pitcher of beer. Although I haven’t spoken with them, I know they’re sleeping in hammocks. I ask how well they sleep. The guy tells me that it takes some getting used to, that a couple years ago they spent a month on an island off India where they slept in hammocks every night. Above us are three Swedes, a twenty-something female missionary and two similar-age male friends, who, I’m guessing, are related to her in some way. I tell Judy they’re here to deprogram her from the religious cult she’s fallen in with. She’s been working in Panama City. I didn’t ask what denomination. Also above us sit a couple who apparently do not speak English. They just arrived. He’s looking at a map of the island and its jungle paths, she’s got her nose in a guide book. Seated below us are six Austrians. Three of them have a particularly good story to tell.
Earlier, when a man, woman and their kid come into the restaurant, I think the man is an American with a really bad Spanish accent. He’s carrying a parrot on his forefinger and he’s showing it to the two parrots that make the restaurant their home.
“Pepito’s his name,” I overhear him say in Spanish.
Passing our table, he notices that Judy is looking at a bird book. He asks if she can identify the parrot’s species and if she can tell whether Pepito is a male or a female. “I got him from a Venezuelan fisherman who didn’t know,” says the man. “Maybe her name should be Pepita.”
“It’s very difficult,” replies Judy. “With some birds you have to dissect them to determine their sex.” She shows the boy a picture of their bird, a Red Lored Amazon.
I asked where they’re from. When the man hesitated I realized that it wasn’t a simple question to answer.
“A sailboat,” he said with a curious look, “but we’re originally from Austria. We came to this place three years ago and wanted to see if it had changed.”
Sailors. I was so intrigued.
“Did I understand that you’ve been sailing for three years?” I ask.
“More like eighteen years,” he answers.
I introduce myself and Judy. Peter and Karin, and Hans, their ten-year-old kid, are traveling with Wolfgang, another Austrian. I wanted to know how one travels without having to work, so I ask, “How do you make a living?”
“We’re working now,” Peter says with a wide smile.
I look at Wolfgang. He must be paying for being taken through the Panama Canal, and Caribbean island cruising.
Peter tells us that they’ve been around the world three times. They look weather-beaten, that’s for sure. Both are lean and leathery. The bleach-blonde boy looks like he came right off a movie set––Robinson Crusoe or something. He looks just like you’d think some kid would look like who has lived most of his life on a boat.
Last year, Peter says, they spent six months living on an uninhabited atoll in the Indian Ocean. “It’s near Diego Garcia, where the U.S. keeps its destroyers for its Middle East problems,” he says.
I ask questions about island life, navigating storms, food, educating their son, and craving ice cream, among other things. When the conversation returns to birds, I return to our room, to put on shoes, socks and a pair of long pants, in defense of the sand fleas that come alive in the early evening.
In front of the door sits another guest I had not met. I ask where he’s from. “Austria,” he says. “That’s a coincidence,” I say “a family of Austrians just arrived by sailboat; they’re in the restaurant now.” Ten minutes later he and his wife join the other Austrians. I regretted saying anything because they would monopolize my source of adventure travel stories.
After a few minutes, Peter gets Judy’s attention. “You won’t believe it. This lady has the same exact parrot at her home. I glance over and Peter is holding Pepito by the head and shoulders while the lady is feeling his bottom.
“She says he has narrow hips,” Peter says, “She thinks Pepito’s a male.”
Overpriced seven-cent hotel room
Doubt there’ll be a next time, but if there were, I’da taken taken the bus to Cerro Punta, then hiked the entire Quetzal trail to Boquete. As it was, we went to Boquete, a picturesque small town situated at the base of Volcán Barú. For most of two days we were here, a strong wind brought mist and light rain that left no puddles.
On the trail we encountered an elderly American couple who, like us, were out for a leisurely day hike. Bob and Ellen are veteran travelers who were making their first visit to Panamá, after having spent a couple of weeks in Costa Rica. At a trailside table, we sat and shared oranges and Oreo cookies. Bob complained that his just-purchased binoculars were broken, then told us that they foolishly lost a travel bag to thieves in Costa Rica. They had stopped to repair a flat tire, then accepted help from a couple of young men. When they turned their backs, the good Samaritans walked off with one of their travel bags. Nicaraguans, they figured, since Costa Rica has recently been troubled by thousands of illegal immigrants.
For years Bob and Ellen have spent their vacations on bicycles seeing the world. When Ellen mentioned that they had recently visited Cuba, I was interested. I’d seen the documentary of the making of Ry Cooder’s Buena Vista Social Club, and I was keen to see Havana, especially.
“Go now, before Starbucks,” said Bob. “Castro has already sold the beach-front property, to every nation except the U.S. It’s only a matter of time before it becomes a tourist hot spot.”
They described the country’s natural beauty, the fascination of Havana, the Cubans’ hospitality––but Ellen said that the services, especially housing, are lacking. She recounted a long bike ride that ended in a remote rural area, when they ran out of daylight, then were forced to stay in a village hostal where their room cost the equivalent of .07 cents. “And we didn’t get out money’s worth,” Bob said.
They visited Cuba, in part to recruit a few Cubans to dance in a production of West Side Story. At the time Ellen was owner/manager of an outdoor summer theatre. I asked how difficult it was to get visas. An immigration attorney donated his services, she said, and that it took two months of non-stop finagling. The clincher, she said, was when she arranged for Leonard Bernstein’s daughter to write a letter on her behalf. (As if I knew that Bernstein wrote the music.) Ellen had to prove that Cuban actors were necessary, that they couldn’t just as well be Americans, or Puerto Ricans, for that matter. Come to find out that Bernstein wrote the music with a Cuban percussionist, with Cuban music in mind.
While we hiked along, Ellen told me that her three actors––a married couple and one guy––didn’t speak English, that they learned the music phonetically, by listening to tapes. In answer to my question of how they adjusted to life in the U.S., she mentioned that none had even taken a hot shower before. The couple took one that lasted five hours, she said. They earned $2000 a piece; the couple took the money, bought TVs and stereos, then sold them on the black market, so they could buy an apartment in Havana.
When I asked if she’d heard from them since, Ellen’s face lit up. “On September 11th, Carlos called me. He was in London, performing. He called to say how sorry he was. I was touched.”
Met a Panamanian, who, with his family, had hiked the entire trail. Spent ten minutes chatting, during which time he proposed, I guess, that I hike to a place called Lago Escondido (Lost Lake) with a guide who is a friend of his. “It takes eight hours. You go and come back in one day. You can do it. You leave at four in the morning. You’ll see many animals. Pumas, even.”
“There’s a path?” I ask.
Eugenio Horna runs Mercancia Horna,and has, since 1947
Watch any team championship and, when time expires, or the last out has been made, the winners always assemble in a tight group and start hopping up and down.
And that was Pancho’s reaction when he saw Diana.
I met Diana in the Mercancía Horna on Calle Central in Boquete. I was shopping for a writing pen. From behind a long glass counter, a pleasant middle-aged woman clerk was showing me the selection; while I was trying to decide among my three choices, she pushed her thirteen-year-old daughter forward, to get her to practice English.
After asking her three times what her name was, she finally answered. I asked her how long she’d been studying English.
On a tiny piece of paper, she wrote: thirteen years old.
I laughed. “Not how old you are, how long––por cuanto tiempo––have you studied––has estudiado––English––Inglés.”
Two years, she wrote.
I turned to her mother. “¿Es mudo?” (Can’t she speak?)
As if to distract me from any more questions, Diana handed me a talking watch that didn’t tell time. She pushed a button and a cartoon-like voice started laughing, then said something unintelligible, then laughed again. In Spanish, I told her that I couldn’t understand it.
“It’s in English,” Diana said. For the next few minutes I pushed the button, again and again, straining to understand. An aunt and two cousins joined Diana and her mother behind the counter. One by one, I translated the expressions into Spanish.
“I can’t keep a straight face.”…“I laughed until I peed in my pants.”…“Too funny for words.”
Meanwhile, an old man from behind the other end of the counter was playing La Cucaracha on a child’s accordion. Listening to him was a peasant farmer wearing his Sunday clothes and a typical Panamanian straw hat. I walked over to the old man and, when he completed the song, mentioned that I, too, played the accordion. From the top shelf, he handed me a button accordion, the kind used in most mariachi bands.
“I play the piano accordion,” I said.
“Me too,” said the old man. He had to be at least 85, I thought. Then he motioned for me to follow him to the other side of the store, where he lifted a box from below the merchandise case. It was a full-size accordion.
“It’s broken,” said the old man, who I figured to be the Señor Horna of Mercancía Horna. Then he said something I couldn’t understand. I was guessing that he told me that the bellows were cracked, or the reeds had dried up––those being the most likely explanations.
Then I asked if anyone knew of a Señora Julieta Halley.
“Let me look in the directory,” said Diana’s mother.
“I already looked,” I said. “Her name wasn’t there.”
A minute later Diana’s cousin Beatriz handed me the directory, pointing at Julieta’s name, address and phone number.
Then another lady in the store, either a customer or a friend of Diana’s mother, said she knew of Julieta. Then she used the store phone to call a friend of Julieta, who told her Julieta was in David (a nearby town) visiting, but that she had her friend’s number.
Now, to answer the question of who Julieta Halley is: When I told my Saturday morning tennis class that I would be vacationing in Panamá for a couple of weeks, one of the students said that a good friend of his mother lived in Panamá, and she enjoyed hosting visitors. Later in the afternoon this guy called, leaving Julieta’s name and number on my answering machine. I wrote it down on a piece of paper, put it in my Panamá travel guide, then, on the next day, when we changed planes in Dallas, I leave the book on the plane.
When I told the aunt that Judy enjoyed bird watching, the mother sent Diana to retrieve a book on Panamá wildlife. While they were looking at the book, I chatted with the old man. Then the aunt asked Judy if we want to go to see Pancho, Diana’s monkey. I was thinking that the monkey lived in a small cage in someone’s tiny house, that we’d go over, feel sorry for him, say something polite like “Oh, what a cute little monkey,” bid farewell to my fellow accordion player, and be on our way.
Into the Jeep wagon we climbed: aunt, daughter, granddaughter and three female cousins.
Before meeting Pancho, we made stops at a hydroelectric plant and a suspension bridge over the River Caldera. Then, in the middle of a narrow country road, we stopped in front of a gated fence, the daughter got out, opened the gate, and we drove across an open field to a house on a hill overlooking the valley.
It was almost dark. It was hard to make our way through a yard littered with cow patties. At the house we passed a line of people. A typical Sunday afternoon family gathering was in progress.
The ten-acre farm included grapefruit trees, orange trees, a sugar cane field, a corn patch, dogs, cats, cows, pigs and Pancho, who, at the time was confined to his spacious two-story four-by-four-foot cage.
When he saw Diana he started bouncing up and down. I learned that Diana got Pancho when he was three months old, that she looked after him for three years, until reason prevailed, and they gave him to this family.
I was told that Pancho leads an idyllic life, that he runs free during the day, and that he plays with the cat and dog like he was one, or the other. For safety’s sake, he’s put in at night. And that he sleeps with a blanket that he wraps himself in when it gets cold. (I think I got that right.)
After taking a few pictures of Pancho, we were led to a barn that houses a sugar cane processing machine.
The sugar cane stalk, I guess you’d call it, looks like a two-inch-wide piece of bamboo. They stick one end in a juicer, I guess you’d call it, then a couple of people push this fifteen-feet wide overhead helicopter propeller, I guess you’d call it, which squishes the cane, milking it of its juice. It was sweet, but not too sweet.
They showed us how the juice is put in trays, then cooked until it takes on the consistency of honey, then dried.
Behind the house we stood around and chew these corncob-size stalks of sugar cane. Beatriz told me to bite off a piece, chew it, then spit the fibrous material on the ground. “Easy for you to say––” I said, “this is not your yard.”
“The chickens will eat it,” the farm lady said laughing.
Leaving the yard without stepping on a cow-patty was made easier because there was a full moon.
“We’ll be able to tell if anyone fails when we get in the car and roll up the window,” I said to the girls.
The store was closed when we returned. We were invited in. The old man and his wife, daughter and the other daughter were still there.
The old man brought out his violin and played a few tunes. Meanwhile, his granddaughter danced. It was an especially moving scene––the closeness of the family, the vibrancy of the old man (he’s 89, still works six days a week), all taking place in a setting that looks like it could be in the early 1900s.
After the concert we took turns trying to read the date on a tiny slip of paper that floats inside his Stradivarius. The general agreement: 1731.
Building your own paradise
Standing with one foot resting on a saw horse is Jerry Johnson, a middle-age white guy wearing walking shorts, soiled tennis shoes and a sweat-soaked-to-the-skin T-shirt that covers a well- nurtured beer belly. He’s posed in front of what soon will be his seaside vacation home on Isla Careneno. No fewer than ten guys are sawing and hammering two-by-fours here and there.
A contractor by trade, whose stateside home and business are in Sacramento, Jerry built the house next to it, didn’t quite like it, sold it, then decided to build another. This time, he says, he would not make the same mistakes. In getting the job done, he says, anything and everything goes wrong when dealing with the Panamanians. They ran out of nails yesterday, he says. Meanwhile, a work party of ten other guys are building a thatched roof boat house on the end of his private dock. “Look, three guys working, the rest watching,” Jerry said with a shrug. Then he points out the foreman, says that the guy has had twenty- three children, but only seven have survived. He says there’s a lot of inbreeding on the island, that they need a bigger gene pool. Then he adds with a smile: “The guy who bought my first house is trying to do his share to help the problem.”
Isla Careneno is home to a few hundred black Panamanians, three cabin-style hotels and four newly constructed beachfront wooden homes. Jerry’s wife sells real estate in Boca del Toro, which is a two-minute water-taxi ride away. Apparently, there’s a bit of a real estate boom here. Bocas has an airport, it’s close to the mainland, which is connected by a major road, and it’s right on the Caribbean sailing route. They’ve got dusty streets, sidewalk taverns, a few mercantile stores, and enough of a work force that “you can have almost anyone to do anything for $20 a day,” Jerry says.
On the Canadian Bluebird bus back to David, a nearby cell phone rings. Then, from a seat three rows in front of me, a rooster cockadoodledoos. Above the driver hang eight teddy bears, in addition to the Panama flag.
It irks me when I let a photo opportunity pass me by. We are sitting on the bus to Changuinola, waiting to leave, when a group of Indians board, bringing with them one huge cooking pot, a dozen machetes, a broom, two trash cans, two huge gunny sacks and a dog.
Getting the bags on the roof takes two guys pushing and one pulling. This is where I should have gotten my camera out and at the ready. The two guys are pushing the dog up, the guy on the roof is pulling. For an uncomfortably long moment the dog is spread eagle, face flat against the window, neck stretched to the max. The untaken photo would’ve included Judy with her head in her lap, hands over her eyes. You wouldn’t have been able to see her cringing face.
When they couldn’t cut through the bureaucracy in India, Herbert and Monica, two Swiss entrepreneur/adventurers went to Central America––first to Costa Rica, then Panama––to build their mountain hideaway retreat. They didn’t buy anything while Noriega was president because, Herbert said, “You couldn’t trust him.” But when the U.S. drove Noriega out of office in 1990, they purchased 800 hectares of highland jungle on the road to Changuinola.
A bad day traveling can be a bad day.
It started OK. Up at daylight and out the door, in search of whatever nature cares to show us.
We’ve spent the night on Isla Careneno, a couple of stone throws from Boca del Toro, the populated island and home to a few of the expatriates that Jimmy Buffet sings about–– Caribbean sailors, adventurous backpackers, teenage surfers with unexcused leaves of absence, and older people in search of a simpler, better-understood life.
It was noisy last night. It rained off and, sometimes hard, and, with a very tired room air conditioner right above my head, I slept fitfully.
On a morning walk: crabs and coconuts, plastic bottles and tennis shoes, morning spider webs, driftwood and mangrove trees, we pass a couple of surfers and a Panamanian with a machete, on the way to spend the day “chopping,” he says.
Get a lift in a motorized canoe, then a water taxi, then a car taxi to the bus stop, where the David bus had just stopped. Perfect transportation timing. But our good fortune ends as soon as we climb aboard.
Between the bordering-on-reckless driving and the loud rap music, I want off as soon as we get on. An hour, is what I think it’ll take until we’re where we want to go. “Where” is a place called Rancho Ecológico, a mountain jungle campground that rents tents and serves meals. I tell the chofer’s helper to drop us off there. When we got near, I assume, I’ll tell him again.
It never happens––stopping, that is. Three hours later, with stomachs in our throats, nerves frayed and ears begging for Beatles, Beethoven or better, silence, we arrive back in David.
And I’m not feeling well. Dull headache, upset stomach, lack of appetite––I ate/drank something. A few uninvited amoebas are doing their thing to upset my system.
From the David bus station to the Hotel Occidental. Big room with cable TV and a sweet smooth-running air conditioner. A suite. Shower, pillows, Pepsi on ice, corn chips––aaahhh. Half-an-hour later someone checks into the adjoining room. Conversation so loud it sounds as though they’re in the room with us. Not a bother to me, but Judy gets rattled over such things. So we change rooms. From the luxury suite we moved to a small local-TV-only room with a whining air conditioner. Did I say it was hot and humid in David?
A few hours later the little air conditioner that could stopped trying. I push my twin bed as close to the contraption as I can. Warm air blows weakly over me. I change sleeping positions non-stop, searching for something at least not uncomfortable. I put my head at the foot of the bed, right in front of the air conditioner. That feels better. Still I can’t sleep. Now I can feel the bed bugs. I’m lying on top of the bed, clothesless. I tear the blanket off the bed, put my shirt and pants on, then pull the cover sheet over me. I get comfortable enough to sleep.
Oranges, orchids and coffee
From The Posada del Cerro la Vieja, in Chiguiri Grande, where the Panamanian President has stayed, we enjoy a sweeping view of green valleys and imposing peaks intermittently shrouded by clouds. The valley below appears uninhabited. But ten thousand people live in this region, says Roberto, the inn’s caretaker. From here you can’t see one building, what with the jungle.
Pretty girls dressed in tight-fitting denim jeans and halter tops, coarse blue-black hair, freshly washed, skin glistening in the moist tropical air, walk the stone and dirt road. Each seemingly carrying a plastic bag in each hand, they turn off onto a narrow dirt paths, disappearing into the jungle.
On a neighborhood walk, I’m standing in the middle of the road, staring at nothing in particular, just waiting for Judy to catch up. A man’s voice gets my attention. Do I want an orange? he asks. Two little girls standing by his side look at me curiously. I say, “Sí.”
I follow him to a tree in the front yard of his modest home. From branch to branch he climbs, until he picks four, tossing them down to me.
Through the branches he sees that I have a female companion. He asks if we’d like to see some orchids. So we follow him and his two girls to his back yard. An elderly lady, his mother, he says, greets us openly. The father comes out of the house wearing an open short-sleeve shirt and long pants, barefoot. He has a serious look to him. He’s either shy or, most likely, a bit perturbed that his son has invited strangers into his backyard. Soon, though, he notices that his wife is enjoying showing Judy, especially, her garden, and all the natural ways of preparing food in the jungle.
The grandmother invites us into the kitchen. It’s protected by a twenty-foot-high thatched-roof structure open to all sides. A small stream runs adjacent to their property. An open-fire stove sits on one side, firewood stacked beneath. A few pieces are burning under a couple of large pots. I wanted to ask what she was cooking for lunch but I didn’t want them to think that I was begging to stay for it.
The son slices up an orange while the grandmother prepares coffee for us. From inside the house enters an 18-year-old granddaughter, a university student, and her five-year-old sister, who sits next to me while her older sister braids her hair. When asked, the father tells me that he’s 79 years old, that he still works in the fruit orchards, a one-hour walk away. The grandmother invites us into the cinder block home. One by one, she proudly identities the family members in photos hanging from the wall.
I take photos. I’ll get their address and send them.
Motion sick on a crowded bus
The last bus for Penonomé is a flatbed truck, with u-shaped wooden seats and a low wood-and-tin roof. When I step up I notice that it is filled. There appears to be no room anywhere, not for a passenger nor their bags. The driver’s helper motions us to board anyway. Judy climbs in first. Somehow a space is made for her to sit. I hand my backpack to the guy, who somehow finds space for it on the floor, but for me, none. I step over a couple of bags and boxes, then start to sit on large stuffed gunny sack. Not here, someone motions. Must be fruit. So I squat on my backpack. When I put my hand on a nearby box, to maintain my balance, another lady says to be careful, that the box contains chickens. When the bus takes off, I put my hand on a lady’s leg, trying to keep from falling off my seat. She doesn’t seem to mind.
After a few stops, where more get off than on, I find a seat on the bench across from Judy, who says to me that she expected to see the university student and her sister on the bus. I laugh, then point to the person next to her. It was the girl, with her sister asleep on her lap.
The teenage boy seated next to me is getting motion sickness. His mother, seated across from him, passes him a towel, then a bag, should he get sick. When he puts his head in his hands, I suggest that he look out the side of the bus. The mother smiles at me appreciatively.
Sit up straight, dammit, enjoy your dessert!
A chubby little girl makes her entry into the restaurant by running and sliding to a stop. When she sees us sitting by the door she gives us a surprised and embarrassed look. Following closely behind is her equally plump little sister and her seriously overweight middle-age mother.
“Provecho,” she says, acknowledging us. I’d never heard that expression used that way before so I look it up in my Spanish/English dictionary.
Maybe she said Buen Provecho, which means Have a good appetite.
Anyway, she stands at a nearby table, then tells each girl where to sit. When the waitress comes in the room she greets her with a hearty Hello! Good to see you. How have you been?
Then she proceeds to hand each one of the girls a picture book and instructs them to read aloud to one another.
The large lady acts as though there’s no one else in the restaurant as she instructs, corrects and sometimes admonishes the two girls. When one fidgets the mother snaps her to attention: “Your sister paid attention to you. Sit still.”
She orders three bowls of soup and a bottle of drinking water.
After our dinner the waitress takes our empty plates then returns to ask if we’d like dessert. I wasn’t that hungry and Judy is not a big dessert eater, but I ask, “Do you have vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce?”
“I have vanilla with something or other,” she answers. I didn’t understand what she said.
So the waitress returns to the kitchen, then brings a sample of the ice cream. Some kind of nuts were in it.
Then the large lady spoke.
“May I recommend The Special––three kinds of ice cream, cake, chocolate sauce, with fruit on top. You’ll enjoy it.” She said this in English.
By now I, too, was under her spell––fear, actually––of disobeying her.
“Uh, sure,” I said.
“Do you want cream on top?” asked the waitress.
I wanted to ask the large lady, but I went out on a limb.
“No,” I said, “Gracias.”
When it arrived, I gave Judy a what-the-heck look. It was in one of those huge margarita glasses, the one with the huge mouth, stem and base.
Mountain road rage
I’m a calculated risk taker. When my time is up, it’s up, I figure. So far I’ve dodged a few bullets, I’ve learned a few lessons, nothing really bad has happened.
When I get on the bus I put my trust in the driver. Most likely he’s got a mother, I figure, and he’ll take care of himself, for her sake, at least. But when the little red minivan passes us on a marginally blind curve, and narrowly avoids hitting an oncoming car, I join Judy in watching the road.
The driver, a kid in his early twenties, is teed. He says something profane, I’m sure, then he lifts up his arm, elbow first, in the universal Latin gesture of supreme irritation.
Then, dammit, he accelerates the 28-passenger boxlike bus, as if his goal were to ride the minibus’ tail, or worse.
Luckily, the minibus pulls over for passengers, and the race is over. Still, he drives hard.
As I look forward, now more with concern than appreciation, I see an amusing sight––in the rear view mirror, in the same frame, are Judy’s clinched face and the kid’s. I take out my camera.
Judy’s hands alternately go from bracing the seat in front of her, then to holding her head. Preparing to die, she is, with every turn.
This guy has earned the dubious distinction of being the worst of the bad drivers we had on this trip. In fairness, they’re not inept, just in a hurry––the quicker they get to where they’re going, the more passengers they pick up, the more trips they make, the more money they earn. More than once I watch in wonder, as our driver motors down a mountain, foot on the gas pedal, sees a fare standing along the road, slams on the brakes, then backs up for him.
In Panama, stop signs are universally ignored, even in the presence of a transit police. The rules that govern traffic are basic: one, go when you can; two, be very aware.
In retrospect, as soon as I determined that the kid was close to causing Judy’s heart muscle to cramp, I should’ve announced that we were getting off at the next palm tree.
Then I’d get to enjoy one of those precious moments in life, when all the discomfort, pain and suffering seems worthwhile––when it stops. In seconds we’d be sitting by the side of the road, cooled by the shade of some exotic tropical tree, listening to the sounds of rustling leaves, or an endangered frog.
And Judy’s complaints, no doubt.
Caretaker for dead people
The guy with the aisle seat had a story to tell; it was just a question of whether he’d tell it.
As soon as we were airborne, I leaned over and fired the first of what I thought would be three questions that I’d have to initiate a conversation.
“Where you headed?” I asked.
“Reno, to a conference.”
“So you live in Panamá?”
“For over thirty years, yes I have.”
“Were you here in the military and then stayed?”
“Now what do you do?”
“I manage the American military cemetery.”
I had him now, or at least I thought. I had so many questions; all he had to do was answer them.
His face reminded me of those happy-sad masks. Round catcher’s-glove-shaped face, no lips, double chin, furrowed brow, tiny blue veins visible around his nose and cheeks. When I approached his––our––aisle, I hesitated telling him that I had the window seat. He gave me a serious-as-death look.
But when he smiled he looked absolutely cheerful.
I started with some questions about the cemetery.
Five thousand interred. Unlike most military cemeteries, quite a few civilians—many who died building the canal. Raised four kids, none chose to stay in Panama, three returned to Texas, his childhood home. Served in Vietnam: “I was medivacked out of there; I never went back. This may be bad to say, but I didn’t want to. I was 18, I had absolutely no idea what I had gotten myself into. I had friends whose lives were permanently ruined as a result of their experience there. When Saigon fell I cried hard. Not for me, but for others I know. It was a political war. It was just bullshit, if you’ll pardon the expression.”
He said he’s driven his motorcycle all over Panamá, never had a problem. “Put mama on the back and off we’d go—anywhere.”
Seated, his belly rose high enough to rest his arms on.
He added that he hasn’t gone down to the Darién (Darién Province, in the very south of Panamá). “Everyone knows that it’s in the hands of the Colombian guerrillas,” he said. “My wife’s best friend’s husband is a Panamanian policeman; he was sent there. Within six months he got shot up, bad, in the legs. He recovered and they wanted to send him back. But he wouldn’t go. ‘Send me anywhere else, send me to jail, but I’m not going,’ he said.
“I couldn’t go there,” he said. “Any American is at risk, especially if you have some kind of title or government role. Then you’re worth more to them, newswise.”
He predicted that the Panamanians will have problems maintaining the canal. “They’re not making the necessary improvements now,” he said. “They’ll have problems with the canal or something else,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“They’ll have problems with either Colombia or Venezuela. There’s a dictator in Venezuela now. He doesn’t want anything to do with Americans. Remember when there was all that flood damage? He wouldn’t even accept American aid.”
I don’t remember how we got on the subject, but he told us that he was in the process of adopting a baby. He and his 29-year-old second wife knew of a 19-year-old poor, light-skinned Panamanian who was having her second child out of wedlock, and he paid for her hospital stay. “She’s a good person, very attractive, living with her family, just very poor. My wife can’t have kids; neither can I,” he said.
I wanted to ask how he met his young wife, what happened to his first wife, but an airplane, I figured, was too confining a place to get personal. (But I already knew that she was a hooker and couldn’t resist making a lady of her. As for his first wife, when he retired from the military, and he chose to stay in Panamá, she was on the first plane back to Austin.)