I arrive in Ocú under the cover of darkness. The town’s church has been designated as my pickup point. I wait on a green park bench with a priest’s sermon echoing in the background. In the foreground, there is a teenage boy giving his girlfriend a ride the bike’s handlebars. A late model yellow taxi pulls up as the passenger window is manually rolled down. A señora pops her head out and shouts, “Vamos pues!” (Lets go!)
The señora in the cab is Virginia. She is Deira’s mother. The driver’s name is Jose, but everyone calls him Sheri. Sheri is Deira’s stepfather. They’re hosting my stay in Ocú and helping me setup a machetero internship. Deria is the co-worker who took my mother to visit her family in Ocú and attend a local festival. The idea seeds of my machetero internship were sown at that time.
Deira: “Porque no te vas con nosotras a Ocú?” (Why don’t you come with us girls to Ocú?)
Me: “Nah, really can’t. I have to do (excuse), (excuse) and then (another excuse).”
Deira: “No! Es porque no te gusta el campo. Eres demasiado fino.” (No! It is because you do not like life in the country. You’re too prissy.)
Me: “I like el campo, plenty. I can throw around the machete with the best of them.”
Deira: “Tu! Tirando machete con esas manitos suaves? HA!” (You! Throwing around a machete with these soft little hands? HA!)
Me: “Oh yeah! I’ll show you. I’ll work that farm, I’ll work it good.”
That conversation sealed my machetero faith. Deira had done what so many have done to me before: challenged my manhood in order for me to carry out a silly dare.
This time the dare was working a day as a machetero. In college, it was a friend daring me to chug a gallon of whole-milk as fast as possible. This ended in disaster. And there countless other embarrassing dares that I’d rather not talk about right now.
The literal English translation of el machetero = machete man or peasant. Yet, el machetero is so much more. Agriculture is the backbone of rural Panama’s economy. Many city dwelling Panamanians were born in el interior (rural Panama). A gleeful smile spreads across their faces when I tell them, “Me voy pa’ el campo.” (I go to the countryside). Panama’s campo is shrouded with a reminisce nostalgia. El machetero is its unsung hero.
Virginia and Sheri live on the outer edge of Ocú. Ocú is a small Panamanian pueblo consisting of approximately 3,000 people in the rural province of Herrera. Virginia and I sit sideways on hammocks on her porch illuminated by a single light bulb. She is verifying the details of my day as a machetero.
Virginia: “Tu quieres ser machetero pa’ un dia?” (You want to learn how to be a machetero for one day?)
Virginia: “Porque? Vas a comprar una finca o estás estudiando agricultura?” (Why? Are you going to buy a farm or are you studying agriculture?)
Me: “Nah. I just want to caminar en los zapatos del pueblo.” (Walk in the shoes of Joe the Plumber)
Virginia and Sheri sit silent for a moment. I can see they are trying to make sense of me. They can’t figure out why a city-boy Gringo voluntarily wants to work as a machetero. They’re both thinking to themselves, “Este Gringo está loco!” (Evan is a crazy man)
Sheri starts making phone calls. He scrolls through a list of farmer friends on his second-hand Blackberry Bold cell phone.
Sheri: “Buenas noches, Eladio. Oiga, usted va a trabajar en la finca mañana siempre?” (Good evening, Eladio. Are you working on the farm tomorrow?)
Eladio: “Si, mañana voy a sacar Otoe.” (Yes, tomorrow I’m going to harvest a potato like plant)
Sheri pulls the phone away from his ear and turns to me: “Sacando Otoe – está bien contigo?” (Harvesting Otoe – ok with you?)
Sheri: “El Gringo dice está bien.” (Evan says it is ok)
Eladio: “Oiga Sheri, El Gringo va a cobrar?” (Is Evan going to charge?)
Again, Sheri pulls the phone away from his ear and turns to me: “Tu no vas a cobrar, cierto?” (You are not going to charge, correct?)
Me: “Nah, this is an internship. Internships are free.”
Sheri: “Si, si, si, el Gringo dice que no va a cobrar. Solo pagele con un lunche.” (Yeah, yeah, yeah, Evan says that he is not going to charge. Just pay him with lunch.)
On my Chinito Internship, the shopkeeper Chen was very clear that he was not going to pay me as well. This is understandable. Sole proprietors must keep their cost down. However, I’m beginning to believe another hypothesis: Locals are fearful of Gringo-ization.
In Panama, Gringos are synonymous with all things expensive. Restaurants and hotels that are frequented by Gringos are pricey. When Gringos start buying land, prices increase dramatically (Pedasi and Boquete). Spendy Gringos inflate prices to levels that are unaffordable to most working-class Panamanians. Many believe that Gringos are making Panama expensive.
For this reason, both Chen and Eladio have trepidations about associating themselves with me – a Gringo. I’m like voodoo to them. Their businesses and daily lives are just fine. They want nothing to become Gringo-ized. Thus, I’m super clear about my intentions: One day, no pay.
My alarm is set for 5 AM the following morning, but I do not need it. Minutes before the alarm rings, a chorus of roosters sound off. Seemingly, they’re having a competition for who can cock-a-doodle-doo the loudest.
Still half asleep, I walk like a zombie towards bathroom. My iPhone flashlight app leads the way. In the bathroom, I strip off my clothes and step into the shower. Through groggy vision, I see that the shower is controlled by a single lever. I turn it downwards. In an instant, a blast of morning-cold water hits me directly in the solar plex. The shock of the shivery blast sends me retreating to the back corner of the shower.
From there, I gingerly splash the cold water over soap-laden body parts for quick morning shower. Thanks to the chorus of roosters and ice cold water, I am wide awake.
Sheri waits for me in the car. Before heading to Eladio’s, we make a quick stop to buy some breakfast. I buy a Dixie-cup of black coffee and a bit of dry bread that sets me back $0.65. Sheri mingles with local friends. He knows everyone there.
It’s a 20-minute drive to Eladio’s home. He lives in a smaller pueblito called Rincon Santo. During the drive, there are children in Catholic school uniforms waiting curbside for their shuttle school van. Chickens scurry across the two-lane country road as we pass. This is el campo.
Eladio is the landowner. He sits shirtless on a wood chair inside his zinc roof home. He sips coffee from a tin cup while he sharpens a machete with a river rock. Eladio is 54-years-old. Yet, his lean muscular physique is that of a person 20 years younger.
Eladio: “Vamos a montar caballos a la finca hoy.” (We go to the farm on horseback today)
Sheri: “Dejo el Gringo en la escuela, entonces?” (So, I’ll leave Evan at the school?)
Eladio only has two horses. Both are occupied. So, Sheri drives me further down the country road. I’ll wait for Eladio in front of the single classroom elementary school.
I sit on the steps of the school. In the morning dew everything is cool and thick and wet. I choke down more dry bread with water from my water bottle. I’m going to need these carbohydrates for the long day ahead.
In no time, two horses come galloping up on the dirty road. “Vamos pues!” Eladio tells me. I sling my day bag over my right shoulder and begin walking behind the two horses. Our pace is swift. The horses are setting it.
In route, we meet the 3 additional macheteros. They’re brothers that live in the area. From their look, they can’t be much older than 20. Normally, they’d be working their family farms. In the downtime, Eladio gives them work.
The walk to Eladio’s farm is 2 miles. Eladio’s cattle are grazing when we arrive. The horses are tied up under the shade of trees. We squeeze through a barb wire fence and proceed to the field. From the fence to the field is less than 500 yards. However, it is heavily covered in high grass and bushes. The machetes clear the way.
After nearly 300 machete swings, we reach the patch of land that will be harvested. The plan for the day is to harvest Otoe. Otoe is known as a tuber or root vegetable. Tuber plants have roots systems that grow underneath the soil. Otoe is a starch. It is the color of a red onion with a mass comparable to a potato. Otoe is cooked in soups and is also served like mashed potatoes.
Above ground, Otoe grows two to four stems that reach to about waist height. Off each stem grows a large leaf. I shadow Eladio as he demonstrates how to harvest Otoe:
1) Bend over and firmly grab the stem near the root. Beware of sticker bushes that could prick your hands.
2) Once you have a firm grip, pull upwards and outwards. Rock the Otoe sharply back and forth will help dislodge it from the soil.
3) Once removed, check the plant’s roots for vegetables. Any Otoe larger than a baseball should be harvested.
4) Knee to the ground. Plunge your hands deep into the soil to search for more Otoe.
5) Remove all attached roots and excess dirt from the Otoe. Place the clean Otoe into a neat pile.
Finally rinse and repeat this process for the next 5 hours.
Harvesting Otoe is labor intensive! We’ve started just after 7AM. The rising morning sun is just beginning to evaporate the dew from the air. I have my hands buried into the rich soil. Working the land like this hits me just right.
By 8:30 AM, the sun is beginning to beat down on us. My body is lathered with sweat. My hands and shirt are covered in dirt. I’ve given up on working independently. Instead, I’m now assisting Eladio.
During our digging, I’m asking Eladio about the economics of Otoe. He explains to me that the average plant we pull contains $0.30-$1.00 of produce. Today, the market price of Otoe is $0.50/lb. Five years ago it was only $0.10/lb. This just shows the rise in global commodity prices.
From the field, the Otoe is packed into white sacks. Each sack weighs approximately 50lbs. That 50lbs sack has a market value of $25. Our goal for the day is to harvest 10 to 15 sacks which will gross $250 – $375.
Eladio: “La finca le paga, pero tiene que trabajarla.” (The farm pays, but you have it work it)
Eladio does have significant cost. He has a loan to payback. There is labor. Each machetero earns $10/day plus a chicken and rice lunch. Labor costs vary in Panama depending on the province. Macheteros makes as much as $12/day in Los Santos and as little as $8/day in the Darien. Other costs include things like equipment and feed for horses.
There are also unforeseeable costs which include insect evasion, drought, and robbery. Robbery is the most frequent of these. Multiple times a year sections of Eladio’s farm are pilfered.
Eladio: “Me roban cuando estoy en otro lado.” (They rob when I’m not at the farm)
Me: “Do you know who is robbing you?”
Eladio: “Claro que si, pero no les digo nada. Me da pena. Ellos son más pobre que yo y lo necesitan la plata más que yo.” (Yeah, but I don’t say anything. I feel bad. They are the poorer than me. They need the money more than me.)
Most of my focus has not been not on harvesting Otoe. Rather, I’m primarily focused on asking Charlie Rose style interview questions of Eladio. Absent is Charlie’s trademark set of a round table and black backdrop in NYC. Instead, Eladio and I talk while working with our hands in the dirt in rural Panama.
Me: “So how did you start farming?”
Eladio openly admits that he is not formally educated beyond the 6th grade. So, going off to work in Panama City would have him, “limpiando la casa de un rico” (cleaning a rich person’s house). Instead, Eladio wanted to buy his own farm. He wanted to be his own boss.
The problem was that Eladio had no means to buy a farm. His parents were poor. Eladio owned no land or other collateralizable assets. He had been working years as a machetero. The paid was just enough to survive.
What Eladio did do was opened up savings account 15 years ago with Panama’s state-owned bank – Banco Nacional. Over time, he established credit. 3 years later, he applied for a small loan through a government-sponsored rural development program at the bank. For the subsequent 5 years, he improved his credit by making payments on time.
After he established good credit, Eladio applied for a larger loan. This time it was to buy another larger farm. It’s the farm Eladio and I are currently working. Eladio has the 15-year loan scheduled to pay off in 10 years. A full 5 years early.
Having access to capital has changed Eladio’s life. Eladio had been working the majority of his life as a landless machetero. Through a government rural development program, Eladio capitalized on his hard work. He went from a peasant to a landowner. He went from poverty to the middle class. Today, the banking industry is often demonized – and rightfully so – but the capital markets have given Eladio social mobility. Very Cool!
In the field, Eladio wears a Banco Nacional hat. Its primary utility is not sponsorship, rather to block the unrelenting sun. However, he does prefer Banco Nacional to other government agricultural loan programs, even though Banco Nacional is very strict on their repayment terms.
Eladio: “Los Panameños, somos frescos. Si no pagas tu deuda, Banco Nacional te llame en seguida. No importa tu exusa.” (Some Panamanians are not to be trusted. If you don’t make a loan payment on time, Banco Nacional calls you. No excuses)
Eladio contributes this strict repayment schedule for the main reason that he stayed on target.
By 11 AM, I am extremely fatigued. I barely have enough energy to help Eladio on the Otoe pulls and zero desire to have my filthy hands in the dirt any longer. The heat from the rising afternoon sun is so damn intense. My sweat is sweating. Soil is embedded underneath my fingernails. My sneakers have been obliterated. The underwear I’m wearing is soaked through with swamp-ass. The novelty of workin-on-the-farm is long gone.
Eladio’s man-strength and stamina are impressive. Lifting weights in a gym, there is zero doubt that I’m stronger than this 54-year-old man. But in the field, there is no competition. Eladio is stronger on the pulls and shows no discomfort as he works from a bent over position. I’m basically tapping out, while Eladio is just getting started.
At noon, the macheteros break for lunch. From a seated position underneath a tree, I reach into my day bag and grab a secret stash of peanuts. Lunch is being served. But I know the arroz pelao (plain rice) with a small piece of chicken will not give me enough strength to continue.
I gobble down as many peanuts as my mouth can fit. To wash it down, I chug a jug of river water. The taste is glorious. It’s as refreshing as a fresh slice of mama’s apple pie and a giant glass of cold milk.
The other macheteros sit on top of bags while they eat their lunch. During our 30-minute break, they ask me questions about America. Primarily the questions are about agricultural produce grow in America; Did I vote for Obama; And, do I like the Yankees.
Phase II is much easier. We fill the Otoe into white sacks. The 50lbs sacks are loaded onto the horses and walked to a meeting point. There the loads will be transferred to a truck that picks everyone up 2:30 PM.
During this process, my job is little. I simply walk to the school and wait for the truck. When it appears, I take the lead on lifting the heavy white sacks into the back of the Toyota Hilux. The lift movement is similar to an Olympic-style exercise called a Power Clean.
A thought occurs to me: A day as a machetero would be a fantastic Crossfit workout. They are always posting quirky workouts on their website like bear crawls, fireman rope climbs, and running with bags on your back. The workouts are designed to test both physical and mental toughness. I’m emailing them my machetero workout as we speak:
2 Mile horse-pace walk
300 Machete swings through tall grass
200 Otoe pulls
2 Mile horse-pace walk
20 Power cleans of 50lbs sacks of Otoe into the back of a pickup truck
The day is nearing an end. The other macheteros and I are hanging off the back of the Toyota Hilux as we ride home. Meanwhile, I’m thinking about my day.
Personally, it felt good to work the land. Typically, 70% of my working day is spent behind a computer screen. Farming outdoors was a refreshing change. Sure, the labor was hard. But it gave me a sense of contribution to the earth. Responding to emails all day has never given me that same sense of contribution.
For individuals, farming builds a strong work ethic. Successful farmers wake up before sunrise. Eladio rarely drinks. Not because he doesn’t like the taste of a beer, rather because drinking makes him unproductive. Individuals with industrious habits likes these are good for the community.
Lastly, increasing social mobility is good for society. Macheteros working indefinitely the farm of land barrens returns society back to feudalism. A life like this is a real tragedy because it’s destined to abject poverty. People must see the tangible benefits from their hard work. To borrow a quote from Bill Clinton, “Society must have a connection between effort and reward.”
See more Machetero Internship photos here.
A Chinito Internship
A Chinito Internship
It has been my dream to work at a Chinito. Since I arrived in Panama 5 years ago, I’ve had a hard to explain fascination with these small corner stores. Maybe it’s because Chinitos are owner-operated. We share a small business man’s mindset. Maybe it’s because I’m curious about China and its culture. I’m itching to travel to Asia more. Or maybe it’s because I admire Chinito’s dedication. They are open everyday, and almost all day. Whatever it is, Chinitos fascinate me.
Chen is the owner of my local Chinito. I approached him about the possibility of working for him for a single day, without pay. Panamanian politicians refer to this as, “caminar en los zapatos del pueblo” (walking in the shoes of Joe the Plumber). I just call it an internship.
Chen: “No te voy a pagar, Gringo.” (I am not going to pay you, Evan)
Me: “I know. That is the beauty of an internship. Business owners don’t have to pay money. My compensation is the experience.”
Chen: “Está bien, loco!” (Alrighty then! You crazy man, you)
Days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months. I got busy with other things. Things included writing my first book as well as operating our rad colonial apartments. The idea of the Chinito internship was placed on the back-burner. Said another way, I procrastinated.
Ten days ago a sense of urgency came over me. My time in Panama was limited. Soon I would be back on the road. This time backpacking around Europe. My plan was to travel until my money ran out. If I was going to intern at the Chinito, it had to be now.
The following morning, I walked into the Chinito. Chen was re-stocking sacks of sliced pineapples. He was dressed casually in a white tank top, Umbro shorts and pair of knock-off Crocs. I made a bee line straight for him. I stood behind him until he felt my presence. I spoke slowly.
Me: “Listo.” (Ready)
Chen turned around. His head cocked to the side as he looked at me confused. Chen had forgotten about our internship discussion months earlier. Instead of reminding him about it, I stayed silent. I proceeded on as if he remembered. My eyes were focused, and my face was serious.
Suddenly, Chen remembered. He, too, did not blink his eyes.
Chen: “Dale pues…” (Do it)
My internship was set. Tomorrow would be the day.
There was one small problem. While Chen and I’s stare off made for great T.V. drama, it left my internship clouded with a tremendous amount of ambiguity. What time do I start? What will be my responsibilities? I asked myself questions like these.
That night I couldn’t sleep. I stared at the ceiling searching for answers. Finally, an answer came to me in the form of a Chinese Proverb, “He who wakes up before dawn 360 days a year will make his family rich.”
It became clear. I must rise before the sun.
The next morning, I arrive at the Chinito before dawn. As Chen rolls up his store front steel gate, I’m waiting there on the sidewalk. I have a cup of freshly brewed Boquete coffee in my hand. It’s my second. I’m ready to work.
Chen seems surprised to see me. Nonetheless, he immediately put me to work. My first duty is to be the front door watchman. This person sits on a beer grate at the entrance of the store and looks out for shoplifters. It’s an unglamourous position at the Chinito. However, I keep a good attitude. I’ve no problem starting from the bottom of the Chinito’s company ladder.
I ask Chen to demonstrate some of the tell-tale signs of a shoplifter.
Chen: “Busca el Ciclón. El Ciclón es carro, loco!” (Look out for the Ciclon. It is expensive! You crazy man, you)
Chen is referring to the energy drink, Ciclon. The price is $2 for a small can. $2 puts the price near the top of Chinito’s product list. Also, the small can makes it’s easy to conceal under a shirt or pair of shorts. Shoplifters take the Ciclon from his store and re-sell it to the Chinito on Calle 8. This is just one of the reasons Chen and Chinito on Calle 8 are not on speaking terms.
Chen asks me to focus my efforts on securing his energy drink section. I run into an unexpected problem. Most of the shoppers in this Chinito know me. They’re fellow Casqueños (residence of Casco Viejo). My attempts to search them are not taken seriously. Everybody thinks that I am being playful. “Oye, que te pasa, Gringo?!” (Cut it out, Evan!)
Chen realizes my efforts are being counter-productive. So he moves me to the candy section. Specifically, to restocking the Peanut M&Ms. After 30 minutes of restocking items, Chen needs to attend to a situation in the back of the store. He has to accept a beer delivery.
Chen: “Gringo, maneja la caja.” (Evan, take over the cash register)
Just like that I’m operating the cash register. The cash register is the epicenter of the Chinito. Me being summoned to take control of it is like a rookie backup NFL quarterback being thrust into the game after the starting veteran QB goes down with an injury. I had no time to think. Much less time to be nervous. Adrenaline raced through my veins – baptism by fire.
As Chen attends to the situation in the back, I am holding down the cash register just fine. I already know the price of most of the items being ordered. I order them frequently. They include bananas, yogurts and calling cards.
All of a sudden, a rush of 20 MOP construction workers take their mid-morning break. They all jam into the Chinito at once. The cash register is being overcrowded. (MOP = El Ministro de Obras Públicas aka The Ministry of Public Works)
MOP Construction worker: “Oye, Gringo, cuanto vale eso?” (Evan, how much does this cost?)
He holds up a mini liter of Coke-a-Cola. His bright yellow uniform is filthy. It’s covered with mud and bits of dried concrete from the extensive digging they are doing in Casco Viejo.
MOP Construction worker: “Chuleta! Ya el priceo subió!” (Pork Chop! The price has risen!)
Me: “Don’t blame me, papá. I am just the intern.”
Meanwhile, more and more MOP workers are surrounding the cash register.
#2 MOP Construction worker: “Gringo, dame una hoja.” (Evan, give me ‘X?’).
Me: “What is a ‘hoja’?”
Through hand motions, #2 mimics the rolling and puffing on a joint. I learn that “oja” is a slang term for blunt papers.
MOP workers have now engulfed the cash register. From all directions, everyone is demanding that I hurry up. “Muévete, Gringo!”(Move it, Evan)
A nervous sweat begins to drip off my face. My hands are shaky. Anxiety from the demands of impatient MOP construction workers has made me unable to do basic math. The pressure is mounting. I’m falling apart like a cheap suit. Chen is nowhere to be found.
By the grace of God, Carlos comes through the entrance. He is the skinny 20-year-old part-time worker at this Chinito. Carlos is Chinese, but was born in Panama. He is one of the growing number of first generation Chinese born and raised in Panama.
Immediately, Carlos sees me struggling and steps right in. He scoots me to the side as he takes the lead on the cash register. I slowly retreat to the beer crate a few feet away. He has essentially tagged me out.
Carlos is good. His movements are smooth and quick. He charms customers as he multi-tasks. With one hand, he lights a cigarette for a MOP worker. The lighter has been tied to the table to make sure it is not stolen. With the other hand, Carlos returns change to another customer. At the same time, another MOP worker asks the price of the small pack Ritz crackers.
Carlos: “20 centavos, nada má(s)!” (Only 20 cents. What a deal!)
Multi-tasking at the cash register like this continues. It’s an artform. Carlos has an entrepeneur-type of energy about him. I predict he will operate his own Chinito someday soon.
In the meantime, I’m taking notes on a small notebook I purchased right here from the Chinito. Writing information down helps me absorb it more efficiently. I discovered this during college. Hopefully, there will be another opportunity for me to manejar la caja.
MOP construction workers stay fraternizing in the Chinito during their break. They drink .25c Malta (a carbonated malt beverage) and nibble on .15c pancito (bread). Some of them cat-call girls ranging in age from 14 to 40. Other fight for bragging rights over who has the latest and greatest smartphone. The atmosphere is urban masculine and blue-collar.
Casco’s white-collar workers are also congregating. They hang out at Super G, a few blocks away. They sip on skim-milk cappuccinos as they discuss the advantages of vegan diets and Macintosh computers. The two groups are in relatively close proximity to each other, yet their cultures are worlds apart.
After a couple hours behind the cash register, Carlos is summoned to stock beers. Chen’s wife, Erika, has taken over. She sits next to me as she eats a bowl of sticky rice with chopsticks.
Erika: “Tu eres millonario, verdad?” (You are a millionaire.)
Me: “No, no, no… I’m just a small time hotelier who moonlights as an indie writer.”
Erika: “Mentira! Los gringos siempre tiene plata!” (Lie! Gringos always have money!)
Me: “Well, not this one. I’m still paying off student loan debts!”
We chit chat for a while. Then, she asks me if I want to take over the cash register. This time she will stay near just in case. I’m back in the game!
Continue reading Part 2: A Chinito Internship – II
Azuero Reforestation Road Trip
<strong>Azuero Reforestation Road Trip</strong>
Most people take vacations at the beach. My friend Jon (a former Peace Corps volunteer living in NYC) had another idea. He convinced me to visit Jake’s (another former Peace Corps member) farm:
Jon: “Evan, lets get outta the city.”
Evan: “Where do you wanna go?”
Jon: “Wanna do some farming with Jake?”
Evan: “Hmmm… Sure.”
Jon: “Vamos pues!”
Jake had been working on a special type of reforestation project in Panama’s Azuero Pennisula. It had been a long time since the 3 of us had shot the shit together.
Jon and Jake are different from most Gringos in Panama. They speak excellent Panamanian Spanish. They are also incredibly knowledgeable about tropical ecology. Lastly and most impressively, they both comprehend the various and complex cultural nuisances of Panamanian society better than 98.7% of the Gringos in Panama. They’re <em>Pana-Gringos</em>.
Jon and I arrived to Albrook Bus Terminal at 6am. The bus ticket for the 5 hour trip to Las Tablas cost $9.75. It didn’t make sense to rent a car.
At Las Tablas we transferred buses. But before we did, Jon knew of a great local eat. The family style restaurant was self-seating with a limited menu. Basically, the waitress tells you what kitchen is cooking — take it or leave it (my kinda restaurant). $5 covered our meal. Parts of Panama are still <em>bien barato</em>.
With full bellys we boarded the next <em>buscito</em> heading to Pedasí. There, we fetched a cab for the remaining 20-minute ride to Jake’s pueblito in Los Asientos. We asked the others on the bus what the approximate charge for the cab needed to take us the rest of the way would be. The consensus cost among the locals was $6.75. Later, the taxi driver repeated the same price. I love the feeling of NOT being treated like a tourist.
Los Asientos is on few people’s maps. The small <em>pueblito</em> sits just about an hour’s horse ride beyond Pedasí (the mode of transportation for many). The few Panamanian city folks and foreigners that do recognize Los Asientos are likely to do so only because their cell phones lose signal while driving towards Playa Venao. Los Asientos is definitely not a tourist destination.
Jake was walking towards his house when we arrived. He looked like he had spent the entire day at the farm. His traditional Santeño sombrero was soaked with sweat. His was wearing an old long sleeve Oxford shirt and full length pants to protect against the sun. On his feet were a hefty set of work boots with tiny plant seedlings clinging here and there. Jon and Jake exchanged Santeño “AJUUUEEEE!!” yelps. I’m still practicing mine.
First things first, Jake popped the top off a couple <em>cervezas bien frias</em>. We caught up with each other’s life happenings as we sat on Jake’s small front porch. Children on bikes and men on horseback occasionally passed by. A complete change from the city.
Eventually, our conversation centered on the general macro reforestation effort throughout Panama. Both Jon and Jake have several years of elite schooling focused on development studies as well as several years of swinging machetes on Panamanian farms. It was a highly educated discussion.
After a couple beers, Jon and I now wanted to see an actual project. We were there to experience the reforestation effort at the micro level. Jake had been working closely with a local farmer on his 2 hecture cattle pasture. It was a demo plot to show the skeptics in the area the benefits of agroforestry. Jon grabbed the sunscreen and I enthusiastically carried the machete. We set out to see Jake’s project.
We walked for about 30 minutes. Along the way, Jon and Jake described the state of Azuero. The rare tropical dry forest has been severely deforested by extensive clear cutting and intensive cattle ranching. The native ecosystems and the biodiversity of the area have been nearly wiped out. Jake has been working with<a href=”http://eltinews.blogspot.com/2011/09/local-farmers-associations-in-panamas.html” target=”_blank”> local farmers to implement silvopastor systems</a>. Arguably, it’s the best chance to reforest the Azuero.
A <a href=”about:blank”>silvopastoral system integrates trees into cattle pasture systems</a> in a mutually beneficial way. Semi reforesting lands utilizing beneficial forage and fodder species in living fences and inside pastures, more efficient rotation of grazing lands will start to restore lost ecosystems. Cattle are still able to graze. And, in more productive systems that provide not just the calories of pasture grass, but also proteins from tree leaves and fruits. As a result the cattle have an improved diet which increases fertility as well as meat and milk production. Furthermore, increasing trees on degraded landscapes restore invaluable ecosystem services. Bottomline: It’s a win-win situation for the farmers and the environment.
Even though silvopastoral systems seem sensible, implementation is difficult. Farmers are resistant to change. Remember, traditionally, farmers view the forest as their adversary. Generations of back breaking hours have been spent clear cutting those hillsides. A deforested pasture is a sign of victory. An overgrown pasture is seen as not keeping your land “<em>limpio</em>” (well maintained). You’re an embarrassment inside the community. Yet, today, international organizations are trying to tell farmers to…. replant them? <em>Estas loco</em>!
To compound the cultural misunderstanding, there is an unusual language barrier. City boy Spanish spoken by a urban Panamanian championing the sustainability of silvopastoral systems won’t sell to local farmers. Ivy-League American interns are even worse. Local farmers don’t culturally identify with them or find them credible. As Jake summarized ,“Evan, not enough people speak Santeño nor understand the traditional and cultural constraints of implementing development projects.”. This fact is often overlooked inside the international development ivory tower.
*** <em>Santeño</em> is a person from <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Los_Santos_Province” target=”_blank”>Los Santos</a>.
On the other hand, Jake <em>is</em> Santeño. Sure, Jake is a Gringo who earned a prestigious masters degree in Forestry. Yet, Jake chooses to live amongst the locals (instead of the highly populated Gringo areas of Pedasí and the nearby beaches). Jake walks, talks, and acts like a Santeño. He has locals sharing the latest Los Asientos gossip with him as well as picking him up while he is hitchhiking along the highway. I’ll say it again, my boy Jake <em>is</em> Santeño.
This is apparent in Jake’s silvopastoral sales pitch to Santeños: “<em>En su sistema convencional, con solamente pasto mejorado su ganado están comiendo arroz pela’o. Con un sistema silvopastoril con leucaena, botón de oro y pasto mejorado, su ganado están comiendo un plato completo (el arroz, la presa, lentejas, y plátanos fritos). Como nosotros, el ganado quiere comer bien también.</em>”
(In your conventional system, with only improved pasture, your cattle are eating plain rice. With a silvopastoral system with Leucaena, Mexican sunflower, and improved pasture, your cattle are eating a complete meal (rice, the dam, lentils, and fried plantains). Like us, the cattle need to eat well too.)
People are taking notice of Jake’s work. Silvopastoral systems are out performing surrounding pastures. The farmer who volunteered for the project can’t wait to bring his cattle to graze. Former skeptics are now asking Jake for agricultural advise during conversations at the local <em>tienda</em>. Jon and I are excited to see our boy doing such a good job!
See photos of the trip <a href=”http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.2770981951893.2127232.1178324321&type=1″ target=”_blank”>here</a>.
My Lively Casita
My Lively Casita
Come, take a walk with me. See how life is in mi new casita.
My alarm is set for 6:45am. It’s way too ambitious. The previous night I had stayed at a BBQ until late. It was a little too much for a Sunday…. I hit the snooze button.
Now, it must be after 8am. I’m guessing by gauging the rising temperature in my bedroom. I have large ocean view windows that fill the room with light. It’s like a greenhouse.
Slightly hungover and severely dehydrated, I scour for something to drink. However, my fridge strictly has the spoils from the previous night: an assortment of beers, wine, Cheetos, a tasty guacamole dip, and enough BBQ chicken to feed a family of four for a week. Warm tap water from semi-rusty pipes will not quench my thirst tampoco (either).
To compound matters, I have no money. So, that leaves me with el chinito as the only option. They give me credit.
I recycle a kinda clean pair of gym shorts and cotton tee shirt off the floor. My hair is outrageous. My face feels slightly swollen. And, I’m definitely not in the mood to talk with anyone. Getting Gatorade is the mission. No need to impress.
I step out of my apartment. Immediately, there are seriously dressed adults in the nearby open-air stairwell. Their movements have purpose. It is 8am, but the building is already bustling with life.
“Buenos dias. Como estas?” I half-heartily say to a lady in the hallway.
“HOLA! Buenos dias, senor! Como esta usted?”.
“Bien.”….. I really should to start using the “usted” verb tense more often, I think to myself.
I’m the only resident that actually lives in Santa Familia. It is not a residential building. The space is occupied by various businesses and non-profit organizations. These tenants have creatively transformed a crumbling, uninhabitable, oceanfront, former school into workable space. The rugged concrete walls have murals and spray painted images on them. In the open-air internal courtyard, there is a nursery. The place feels like a small village.
At the bottom of the stairs I see the Cross Fit gym. I fill with self-disgust. God, I need to stop drinking.
I continue on my path. To my right there is the Calicanto’s women’s job training program. I see an elegant woman (I think the manager at Las Clementians) addressing a group of 30 attentively listening students. I duck down. I don’t want my just-got-out-of-bed appearance to be a distraction.
Within in a few steps, I pass by the another office. Nicole is working. We exchange “buenos dias”. I’ve known her for a month, but she just started making eye contact about a week ago. I kinda got a crush on her.
I near the steel door entrance. On the steps are 3 neighborhood children dressed in formal school outfits. I don’t really want to talk. But, they engage me by pulling on my arms. They thank me for the chicken last night and pass me la pelota (the ball) a couple times. It’s difficult to be irritable around smiling children.
The painter Mario is working up ahead. He’s already in a mid-day sweat.
“Oye, Mario, what time do you wake up?”.
“Chuso! Como a las 4am, papa!” (Hot dang! Like 4am, brother!”)
“Wow. Mario. You truly are a man. I, surely, am not.”.
Within my first 500 steps, I’m surrounded by people attacking their Mondays. You have early birds hitting the gym hard. Low income women who are enthusiastically participating in a personal and job development program. Young children formally dressed and ready for school. And, Mario, who takes a 2 hour bus ride every morning. He’s swinging the hammer by 6am. Talk about motivation!
Feeling inspired, I detour to my office. It’s just around the corner. I ring the doorbell. My co-worker (and organizational life coach) Olga answers the door. She looks me up and down – “Por Dios, Evan!” (For God’s Sake, Evan!) is what she is thinking. No words are communicated. She inherently knows from my rough appearance not to expect anything meaningful from me until the afternoon.
Maybe I should stick with the original plan – Gatorade from el chinito.
I order a red Gatorade and two bananas over the head of two children. They are deciding between different kinds of candies. “Chen, put this on mi cuenta, por favor.”. I’ll be by when I recovered to settle my tab ($1.20).
The Gatorade is gone within my two minute walk back to Santa Familia. I bypass my apartment and head to the impressive rooftop. The sun is not yet hot. The breeze is just right. The views are spectacular.
I want to take a brief moment before I dive into my day: In less than 40 days, I’ll be 27 years old. My Cuban squatter style apartment can be spooky. But, I love it! It is unique, has an ocean view, and is filled with life! I’m just glad that I don’t live in some sterile high rise apartment in downtown Panama City – people who focus on their blackberries while in the elevator. Worst yet, a cookie-cutter 100 single family home complex that is limited to 3 different floor plans back in Seattle – people who park their cars in a two car garage and head directly towards the master bedroom.
For me, I need life. And, Santa Familia has plenty of it.
P.S. If you are going to ask me how I got such a rad apartment – don’t. It’s difficult to explain. Casco just rewards good karma. If you are a positive contributing member and have longevity in the community, Casco finds a way to reward you. Sometimes in the form of unique apartments. I have no other way to explain it.
A Chinito Internship – II
Erika looks over my shoulder. She calls out prices. I make proper change and pack orders in small plastic bags. Her first instruction to me is “Cobra la plata primero, Gringo!” (Evan, take the money first). Meaning, that I should immediately deposit the customer’s money into the cash register then give them their change. Rather than leaving their money on the counter as I count their change.
The Chinito utilizes an unorthodox cash register. Instead of a traditional, centralized cash register, the Chinito has a decentralized one. There are four boxes on three different levels.
On the top level, there is the change bin. This is a tupperware container holding small coins. On the second level, there is the cardboard box housing the $1 bills/coins. To the left of that is another cardboard box housing the $5 & $10 bills. On the ground floor is a large Seco rum cardboard box. It’s the location for bills $20 or larger. Any given transaction could include all four of these boxes.
With Erika helping me, ya vamos bien (we are going good). Customers appear satisfied with the quick service. At the Chinito, good customer service is not about courtesy – it is about competency.
Also, I notice that she says, “Seis cinco” (six five) instead of “Sesenta y cinco” (sixty-five). As it turns out, the English and Spanish speaker’s numbering system is quite irregular. In English, we don’t say “one-teen” and “two-teen”. Numerals from “thirteen” to “nineteen” are irregular as well as those over twenty (“twenty-one”, “thirty-two”, “sixty-four”).
In Chinese, on the other hand, the system is perfectly regular. After 10, the numbers are expressed as “one-ten-one” (11), “one-ten-two” (12), “two-ten-one” (21), “two-ten-two” (22), “three-ten-seven” (37), etc.
Try this exercise: compute thirty-seven plus twenty-two. If you are an English speaker, your brain has to decode that into “three tens and seven” plus “two tens and two”. For a Chinese speaker, the information is right there in the question: “three-ten seven plus two-ten two”. Chinese is more conducive to learning math than English. By the age of five, English speaking children are 1 year behind Chinese children in counting. Fact.
The Chinese numerical approach is a competitive advantage at the Chinito. Product orders are miniscule. The micro sales are often times done without the assistance of a calculator. So, supreme comprehension in math is a must.
A typical order looks like this: a quarter stick of butter (.20c), three slices of cheese (.15c/each), two cigarettes (.35c/each) and a pint of Maracuya juice (.75c). It is customary for customers to add items as change is being given. $2 Mas Movil phone card ($2.14) and a single balloon (.30c). By the end of my internship, my math skills had drastically improved.
A Gringo is waiting by the cash register. Tourists are commonplace at Chinitos. I can tell he is a fellow Gringo because he is wearing board shorts, sandals and his tee shirt is soaked with sweat.
The Gringo patiently waits to order two Balboa beers as locals are cutting in front of him in line. He looks confused. I know what he is thinking, “Why is everyone cutting in front of me?” I know this feeling well. In a Developing World, relaxed setting like the Chinito, standing in line is rare. The most aggressive customers are served first. I first experienced this when I was in India trying to buy train tickets.
Not everyone is ordering local Balboa beers. Miller Genuine Draft outsold the beer, Balboa. A 12-ounce bottle of Miller cost un palo ($1), while the local Balboa beer cost .45c. This is the Chinito’s equivalent to ordering sushi instead of fried fish.
At the Chinito, referring to a person by their race is commonplace. My name is Gringo. Carlos, Chen and Erika are exclusively referred to as Chino/a. Customers from African ancestry are referred to as Negro/a. Sometimes Chombo – which is Panama’s equivalent to the N word.
African ancestry customer: “Oye, Chino, dame eso.” (Chinese man, give me this)
Chen: “Aquí está, Chombo.” (Here it is, N word)
African ancestry customer: “Gringo, dame un cartucho.” (White man, give me a plastic bag)
Me: “Here ya go, Chom…. I mean Caballeros. (Caballeros = Gentlemen)
I don’t feel comfortable saying Chombo in public. Even though, given the relaxed racial norms at the Chinito, saying Chombo could be appropriate. To me, it’s too close to saying the N word. The only time I say that is when I‘m alone in the shower rapping the song Juicy by Notorious B.I.G.
I worked 9 hours at the Chinito that day. It was an incredible experience. Besides adding to my street cred in Casco, my Chinito internship left me with a few valuable takeaways.
First, I realized that Chinitos fill a niche in the community. Their business model is based on a high-volume of micro-sales. Chinito’s customers can purchase individual units of products such as an egg, a slice of cheese and a single piece of gum. They pay an increased price purchasing individual units, but most of their customers are thrifty. They’re living from quincena a quincena (paycheck to paycheck).
Another Chinito business insight is their inventory. They do a terrific job at identifying the wants and needs of their customers. Chinito’s shelf space are stocked with seemingly strange items like blunt wraps, balloons and Rambutan fruit.
Yet, their inventory moves quickly. Rarely will items sit in the store more than a week. It’s a living example of last minute inventory.
Socially, Chinitos serve an important function. They are egalitarian. Rich and poor people are treated equally in the Chinito. Rules are the same for the rich and the poor.
A person of means can easily dismiss a beggar on the sidewalk as somebody who is “asking for a handout”. The beggars become invisible. This type of denigrating is difficult to do when you’re standing shoulder to shoulder with a poor person and both waiting to buy the same $1 cup of ceviche. The Chinito levels the social-economic playing field.
This is a good thing.
Additional stories about Chinitos:
My Failed Attempts To Friend Panama’s Yeyés
My failed attempts to friend Panama’s Yeyés
“Yeyé” is a subculture in Panama. One of its most exclusive. The definition of Yeyés would be preppy, wealthy people who like to show off a lot. Thus far, my attempts to understand Yeyé culture by befriending them have been unsuccessful. Even though I have many friends in Panama, very few of them are Yeyés.
A stereotypicallyYeyé person would be born and raised in Panama City. They would have attended an exclusive private school. Their skin color is light and locals say they speak like they have, “Una papa caliente en la boca” (a hot potato in their mouth).
*** A great illustration of Yeyé behavior is demonstrated by La Patrona on the show Usnavy.
On the surface, it would appear that Yeyés and I would share many commonalities. First, we both live in Panama. Second, we both have had a relatively high level of schooling. We consider ourselves fairly well-educated. Lastly, we both love to speak Spanglish.
In theory, befriending Yeyés should not be that difficult. Yet, it has been quite the contrary.
I believe one reason is because I’m American. Yeyés typically stereotype Americans as unsophisticated, unless you come from New York City, Miami or the state of California. If Yeyés knew Seattle or personally knew me better, they might think Seattle is sophisticated too.
Another obstacle to befriending Yeyés has been connecting to their culture. I’m critical of many aspects of it.
First, Yeyé culture lacks excitement and depth. A fun weekend is considered going to a family Buenaventura beach house or a friend’s condo in Coronado. For international travel excitement, add in a shopping trip to Miami. Those options seem quite boring to me.
Locally, I would rather hike Volcan Baru or go camping on a tropical island of San Blas. Internationally, exciting trips abroad include exploring new countries in Asia or tracing back my family roots in Scotland. Something new. Something interesting.
Secondly, Yeyé culture is too pretentious. Yeyés, like other snobby cultures, pride themselves on being exclusive. Exclusive private parties in VIP and only inviting exclusive people.
I’m the complete opposite. My personal life philosophy values being inclusive. I like street festivals with toda la gente (everybody) or staying at hotels/hostels that are conducive to meeting other people. The more the merrier!
In addition to our other differences, having a normal conversation with a Yeyé is nearly impossible. Here are examples of my attempts at small talk with Yeyés I have met:
Me: “…..So, where are you from?” (90% of the time I have to initiate the conversation).
Yeyé: “Panama (obviously).”
Me: “Ohh yeah, which part?”
Yeyé: “Punta Paitilla.” Punta Pacifica and Costal Del Este are also common responses.
Me: “That’s cool….”
(long, awkward pause)
At this point, I’ll try to keep the conversation flowing. I might ask questions on topics that are conducive to conversation; music, restaurants or local politics.
Setting: A private house party in Coronado. Topic: Music.
Me: “Oye, do you know of any good bars or restaurants that play Latin music?”
Yeyé: “No. I really don’t like Latin music. I listen to electronic and house music. I know I’m Latino, but I really don’t like Latin music.”
Yeyé culture is into electro music, preferably anything European. This may include other popular varieties of international music, but definitely NOT Latin music. But, I’m the opposite. I’m burned out of partying to electro music – especially while living in Latin American countries.
Setting: A rooftop bar in PTY. Topic: PTY restaurants.
Me: “Have you been to any good restaurants lately?”
Yeyé: “Have you heard of the restaurant Beirut? Es lo mejor! (it’s the best!)”
Me: “Yeah, I’ve been there a couple times. Kinda overrated.”
Again, here our tastes are different. Yeyé culture is into foreign themed restaurants with imported food – preferably Middle Eastern or Italian. On the other hand, I dig restaurants with gourmet interpretations of local cuisine. I enjoy the freshness and the creativity of sprucing up local dishes like patacones relleanos, ceviche or a local steak from Chiriqui.
Setting: Art Galley. Topic: Local politics.
Me: “What do you think about the police arresting the two girls kissing in Casco Viejo?”
Yeyé: “I know it is wrong, but it’s Panama. That is just the way it is in my country.”
Me: “Yeah. Well, I think….. Nevermind.”
I typically refrain from giving my politician opinion because I’m a foreigner in Panama. Yet, I’m still frustrated in these conversations because Yeyés are too often apathetic about local issues. No matter if is it homosexuals being denied rights, controversial mining on indigenous land, or the controversial 3rd phase of the Cinta Costera, a typical response is nonchalantly saying, “Ohh well. It’s Panama. I don’t really care”.
I could not disagree more with being apathetic. You can be for something or against something, but AT LEAST BE for something.
However, maybe I’m being too harsh on Yeyé culture. Not everyone is strictly a Yeyé or not. There are varying shades of Yeyéness.
Moreover, people change. As Yeyés grow older, sometimes they grow out of the Yeyé mentality. Others have international experiences (studying or living in another country) that opens their minds and deflates their egos.
As a recovering Yeyé friend once told me, “When I studied in London, it was so multi-cultural. Everyone was from a different country. Nobody knew about my prestigious Panamanian last name. So, acting like a snobby Yeyé wasn’t cool. If I did, I wouldn’t have had any friends there.”
So I will keep attempting to friend Yeyés. I like to have friends from different backgrounds and walks of life. Hopefully they’ll just realize that they are acting like an idiot.
Manolo and Me
Manolo is the owner of Manolo Caracol. He’s a lively Spaniard whose stature and boisterousness remind me of Napoleon Bonaparte. He has an I’ll ban-your-ass-from-my-restaurant-if-i-want-to mentality that would make the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld proud. Manolo is a true Casco (Viejo) character and my neighbor.
Manolo’s restaurant is one of Panama’s few culinary institutions. $30 bucks a head reserves you a seat while food dishes come rolling out. Most of his ingredients are locally sourced at farms in El Valle or his own farm in Pedasi. Eating at Manolo Caracol is not simply a dinner, it’s an event.
On a pleasant sunny afternoon in Casco, my friend Mateo and I strolled over to find Manolo. We wanted to talk business. Our intention was to streamline his reservation process for our guests. Manolo’s website was unresponsive, and English speaking guests had a hard time calling the restaurant to make dinner reservations in Spanish. A simpler reservation process was needed because we wanted to continue sending business to Manolo. He was a fellow Casqueno (person who lives in Casco).
Since I was going to be handling most of the reservations, I initiated the conversation with Manolo outside his restaurant.
Me, “Oye (hey), Manolo, we would like to make reservations at your restaurant. What would be the easiest way?”
Manolo barely acknowledged my existence. Instead, he turned directly to Mateo and said, “Claro, sólo llámenos. Es fácil.” (Sure, just call us. It’s pretty easy).
Recalling the past difficulties of some of our guests, I insisted that simply calling the restaurant was not as easy as it seemed.
Again, instead of responding to me, Manolo spoke only to Mateo. Manolo, “Pues, ustedes pueden llamar y hacer las reservas. Si ustedes me mandan muchas, les doy cenas gratis.“. (You guys can make the reservations. If you send me a lot, I’ll give you free dinners).
Hmmm…. Strange. Why did Manolo refuse to speak to me? The fact was that I had never formally met him. I considered myself a pretty nice guy, so I felt like Manolo had no reason to be standoffish. Baffling.
Mateo mentioned that it could had been because Manolo despises anyone who he believes attends the rooftop partys above his apartment. The late night private fiestas had taken place directly above his bedroom. Strangely, Manolo is unable to sleep to the thumping sounds of House music. Anyone who he perceives as a part of that party-going crowd is strictly persona non grata.
**** Truth be told, I had attended a few of those partys. Sorry Manolo :(
Fast forward 3 months: A couple of friends and I were having drinks at our customary 5pm happy hour spot, Tequila. Manolo happened to be passing by. I wanted to let him know that the reservation process was going smoothly.
Me, “Oye, Manolo, everything is going well with the reservation process.”
Manolo, “A la orden…… Oye, tengo curiosidad, cuántas reservas has hecho? 5, 10, 20?” (At your service…. Hey, out of curiosity, how many reservations have you sent? 5, 10, 20?)
Manolo, “COMO! Espera, espera, espera…. me estás diciendo que tú me has mandado 87 reservas?” (WHAT! wait, wait, wait,… you are telling me that you’ve sent me 87 reservations).
Me, “Sí Señor. 87.” I responded. (Reservations are anywhere from 2-6 people so it was roughly about 200 people. 200 x $30 a dinner….. well, you do the math.)
Manolo, “Por Dios, Evan! Puedes comer en mi restaurant cualquier momento que quieres, oiste!“. (Good God, Evan! You may eat in my restaurant anytime you want).
From that day forward, Manolo loved me! His greetings dramatically changed from slight head nods to full on man hugs. He was sure to inform me of all the tweeks to his menu. And, would even fill me in on the latest Casco gossip. Manolo and me had become amigos :)
Yet, becoming friends with Manolo was not my fondest memory of him. On one night, Manolo helped me illustrate the reason I choose to live in Casco and continue to live in Panama.
On my mother’s last night in town we decided to stroll around Casco Viejo looking for our traditional special last meal. As we walked, the conversation digressed from restaurant options to discussing my “plan” for Panama – both short term and long term.
Being a mother, she wanted to make sure that her son’s life was progressing on the right track. She was supportive of my decision to travel and live abroad at a young age. It had been her life’s dream. I have just been fortunate to live it.
Yet, having her son located 4,000 miles away was difficult. Lonely at times. So, these yearly conversations were her chance to check in on me, like all good mothers do. She wanted to ensure that my experiences in Panama were still fitting into my larger life goals. That I had a plan in place.
I reassured her that indeed I was carrying out my entrepreneurial plans for Panama. There had been some set backs, but things were progressing in the right direction. Time in Panama was still being well spent.
But, also, I really enjoyed the sense of community that I had found in Casco Viejo. Coming from suburban America, Casco’s rough-around-the-edges community was intriguing. Its inner-city revitalization movement was unique and exciting. A new experience. Leaving it behind would be difficult.
Just at that moment, we happened to be passing by Manolo’s restaurant. He immediately waived us over. I introduced him to my mother and Manolo immediately smacked two giant kisses on each cheek.
I explained to Manolo that my mother was flying back home to Seattle the next day and we were in search of our last meal together. He insisted that we must eat at his place. Manolo would not take no for an answer. Dinner was on him.
However, Manolo soon realized that his restaurant was completely full. All the tables had been reserved. The restaurant was packed to the brim. Against the advice of Manolo’s hostesses, he personally made room for us. Manolo grabbed my mother’s hand and led us into the vibrant restaurant. We weaved behind Manolo through a series of packed tables and waitresses carrying specific courses to each table. Near the back, there was a table for 2 with a “reservado” sign on it. Manolo snatched the sign off the table and immediately instructed our waiter to fetch us a nice bottle of red wine. Wow!
Weaving through the sold out restaurant and Manolo himself making room for us was a like a scene straight from Goodfellas. From that night at Manolo Caracol onwards, my mother could understand why I insisted on staying in Panama. My friends and I are treated like the Kings of Casco.
El Chino – A Panama Rock Star
Keenan, aka El Chino, is a true rock star in Panama. He looks like a rock star. He is a tall, overtly dark American of Chinese decent who looks like a male model. He acts likes a rock star. His eccentric personality and man-of-the-people persona stand out wherever he goes. He is much the reason I am here today.
Some backstory: Late 2007 I’d been traveling for 12 consecutive months. I had been to practically every country in Latin America (21 countries in total). Travel fatigue had set in. The novelty of living on a shoestring out of a REI backpack had lost it’s charm. I yearned for stability, both physical and financial. Rapidly developing Panama City seemed like a perfect place to start a new chapter in my life, chapter Latin America.
The transformation from traveling vagabond to temporary citizen would be difficult. My Bank of America account had been whittled down to an unsettling $733.26. Personal and professional networks were limited (one person via CouchSurfing.com). My emergency blanket — my mother — would send financial support, but just enough buy a plane ticket to get my butt back home to Seattle. Chapter Latin America had little chance of succeeding unless quick actions were taken.
Enter El Chino. Keenan was one of the first persons that I met in Panama. His open minded approach of be-friends-with-everybody was critical to my success.
I meet Keenan at the bar in the banking district formerly known as “Koppas”. My one friend via CouchSurfing.com had invited me out to get me off the couch (literally). Our group chit-chated around a bottle of StoliVodka. It was a Wednesday night and uneventful.
However, towards the end of the night, Keenan leaned over to me and asked “Dude, your name is Evan, right?”.
I responded: “Yeah.”
Keenan proceeded: “Hey, you like to party? I got some Wall Street buddies coming tomorrow night. They get rowdy. Wanna join?”.
Excited I exclaimed: “Hell Yeah!”
“Cool. Come out to Casco (Viejo) manana. Get ready to party, amigo!”.
The next day I arrived at Keenan’s office, a popular property management company in Casco Viejo. He worked behind an all glass corporate style desk dressed in atypical business attire; tank top, boardshorts, and flip flops. Somehow the outfit seemed congruent with Keenan. After he finished up some e-mails, we started bumping house music in the office while he got ready. The upbeat music set the tone for the entire evening.
*** To get the full effect of this article, play this song loudly while you read it.
After Keenan’s spruce up, we headed into the “City” (Downtown). In route to find a cab, Keenan knew practically everyone. Rich and poor, young and old, man and woman, white and black, and Gringo and Latino, didn’t matter, he knew everyone. From all directions, there were calls of “Hey, Keenan”, “Oye, Chino“, “Oye, Bruce Lee“, Mani Pachiao, or any other famous Asian person at the time. No matter the person, Keenan would stop to say hello.
His on-the-run greetings ran the gambit: Little kids would be twirled around in the air. Attractive girls were tickled, spun around, or met with some other flirtatious gesture. Older gentlemen would extend their hand for a formal handshake, only to be hand slapped by a high five. For families inside their homes, he would briefly dart into their small living quarters, perform an assortment of greetings, make everyone laugh and then leave. It was a spectacle to watch.
The 5 block walk theoretically should have taken 5 minutes. Instead, Keenan’s popularity turned into a 30 minute trek. I didn’t care. I was along for the ride. In my mind, Keenan’s status had been elevated to a one cool dude.
Once in the cab, the driver seemed perplexed by Keenan’s existence. A tall, very dark, outgoing Asian dude who speaks Spanish with a Gringo accent. The cab driver asked “Oye, tu eres Chino?” (Hey, are you Chinese?). Keenan replied with a “Si, soy Bruce Lee” (Yes, I’m Bruce Lee). A playful banter ensued. At times, it had racist undertones. Many in the Chinese community would have found the conversation offensive.
Instead of being offended, Keenan reversed the negative Chinese stereotype into a positive. He jokingly probed the cab driver asking if he enjoyed the delicious flavor of deep fried cat or if he had been dedicated in his Karate practice. Jokes were hurled back and forth with Keenan occasionally interjecting a Karate chop to the cab driver’s right arm. The typically mundane cab ride was hilarious. Keenan status: Amateur comedian.
True to Keenan’s warning, his Wall Street buddies hit the streets of Panama rambunctious and ready to party.
No time to waste. First stop, Le Palace. Le Palace is Panama’s top gentleman’s club. It has the largest concentration of smoking hot ladies dressed in skimpy bunny outfits south of Hugh Heffner’s Playboy Manison. I’m not exaggerating.
Keenan led our group through the dark club entrance, guided by neon lights. Three or four different gorgeous bunnies came immediately prancing up to greet him exclaiming, “Keeeeeenan! Mi amor, como estas?” (Keenan, baby, how are you?). Nonchalantly, Keenan kissed each girl on the cheek and proceeded to ordered a bottle for our table. It was a scene straight from Entourage. Keenan’s status: Pimpin!
After an hour of visual stimulation at Le Palace, our entourage stumbled to the nightlife district of Calle Uruguay. Among the memorable events was Keenan trying to physically grab the tongue of our waitress (a complete stranger) with his fingers. He literally reached into her month with his hand to snatch her tongue in mid- sentence. True story. Shortly afterwords, Keenan was asked by a couple of yea yea girls “De donde tu eres?” (Where are you from?). Keenan, with a serious stone cold face, responded “Sweden.”. Keenan status: Rock Star!
To recap, I consider Keenan a rock star because, a) he’s friends with everybody regardless of social standing, b) doesn’t take life (or himself) too seriously, c) has enough bunny lady friends to rival Hugh Hefner, and d) he spices up the mundane of daily life. He is just a light hearted and entertaining guy that people love to be around.
Most importantly, I contribute a large part of my success in Panama to Keenan. He took me in, no questions or personal favors asked. By introducing me to people in my first days, I was able to form networks of friends and business contacts when they were most needed. This network allowed me to establish myself and later thrive in Panama. Without Keenan, and other generous people here, my Latin American chapter would have ended before it had a chance to really begin. Mil Gracias, Keenan :)
Another article about Keenan: Me Voy Pa’l Chino
Me Voy Pa’l Chino
My goal was to save money. I did not save any money, but I did learn valuable lessons about one of Panama’s most important subcultures and a Casco Viejo celebrity.
The distributor who sells us our beverages (cokes, sodas, waters, etc) is unreliable. They never keep an appointment. They do not accept credit cards. Plus, the person in charge of our business account is a prick. So, I decided it was time to look for a new supplier.
Our offices are located near a local corner store, aka “El Chino”. The Chino doesn’t sell in bulk like the distributor. Rather they sell in small lots and individual units. They are happy to sell you a single slice of cheese or a half pack of batteries. Logic tells us that selling individual units should cost more. However, Chino’s operate with EXTREMELY low overhead. They have no air conditioners or fans. The employees are strictly friends and family who live on site. Their low overhead would impress Walmart.
The Chinese community in Panama has an interesting back story. A large wave of Chinese immigrated to Panama during the construction of the Trans-Isthmian Railroad in the 1850s. Subsequently, gradual waves of migration have continued, forming a sizable population. The community is extremely tightly knit. Even to this day it is rare to see Chinese in Panama intermarry. They own and operate literally every corner store in Panama. Hence, “El Chino” refers to corner stores in the Panamanian lexicon.
I decided it was time to approach the Chino to see if they could handle our business accounts. I believed that with such low overhead if we bought in bulk they should be willing to give us a price break. Plus, the close proximity would allow us to run much lower inventories saving us much needed office space.
Entering the Chino, I start perspiring immediately. The lack of air circulation combined with Panama City’s tropical climate causes almost everyone to sweat. Sweating and confused, I was approached by an 18-20 year old, with unusually long finger nails. He asked if he could help. It wasn’t politely asked. Rather, he barked, “whatta need Gringo”. I replied by saying that we are looking to buy in bulk. We pay in cash and will send you alot of business, so you SHOULD give us a discount (I’ve found that assertions are far more effective than asking in Latin America). He chuckles and low balls me. He offers me 5% off. My many years in the developing world have accustomed me to receiving the Gringo price. Sensing that negotiating any further would be an exercise in futility, I decided to regroup and rethink my strategy.
Unbeknownst to the unusually long fingered nailed store clerk, I had a secret weapon. He is an American named Keenan(pictured to your left). Keenan is my business associate. He is also of Chinese decent. Not only is Keenan Chinese, but he is a local Casco Viejo celebrity. He’s unusually tall and slender for a man of Chinese decent and always wears attention-grabbing board shorts. Imagine a Chinese person with the hair of James Dean and the body of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps.
I believed that Keenan could leverage his celebrity status and ethnicity with his Chinese brethren to get us a deal. BRILLIANT. However, Keenan was reluctant to go. He believed that I was over estimating both the power of his celebrity status and importance of his shared Chinese ethnicity.
I returned to the Chino, this time with Casco’s most infamous Chinese-American, Keenan. To demonstrate that we meant business, I spruced up my outfit by adding a pair of slacks and a collared shirt. Keenan wore his customary business attire; board short, flip flops, and a tank tap with a Brazilian beer company logo on the front.
We stood patiently in the back of the store. Keenan explained to me that we must wait until the two older Chinese guys dropping off fruits and vegetables left. They were part of the local Chinese mafia and we should not overhear the negotiations. Typically, the word mobsters conjures up images of well-to-do business men wielding tommy guns, not blue collared vegetable delivery men.
Meanwhile, the same young help approached us. Keenan greeted the young man with his usual sarcastic high-five-fake-out-armpit-poke maneuver. He and the young guy started negations. Keenan quickly realized that in order to talk serious business, we must talk to the owner behind the counter.
The mobsters left and we proceeded to the front cash register. The owner of the Chino, a mid-30′s skinny guy with long straight hair, sat behind the till. Again, Keenan initiated the standard high-five-fake-out-armpit poke maneuver. They began bantering back and forth in Spanish. During the negotiations, Keenan would eccentrically pretend to leave the conversation. He would return to the conversation by playfully slapping the business owner’s upper body with a notebook. It was like watching two school children fight in the sandbox.
The conversation was mostly in Spanish. However, occasionally Keenan would randomly interject phrases in Mandarin that would evoke a strange look from the business owner:
At the time, I had no idea what he was saying. I imagined it was some profound Chinese proverb. Some type of verbal cultural recognition saying “Hey, we are part of the same family. I help you, you help me, and together we help each other”. Like the Panamanian equivalent una mano lava la otra y juntas lavan la cara. However, the two phrases Keenan kept loudly repeating were NOT deep nor profound in meaning.
“我愛你” — I love you
“我吃烤鴨” — I eat roast duck
The conversation ended with Keenan abruptly leaving the store in mid-sentence. I quickly caught up to Keenan in the street. I was under the assumption that the 20 minute negotiation had produced a result. We got a better discount or not, but some level of finality. On the contrary, Keenan calmly explained to me that within the first 3 minutes he realized that he had no idea what he was talking about. He didn’t know our current inventory prices, and as a result had no frame of reference with which to judge the Chino’s quote. True to Keenan’s nonchalant attitude, the exercise was more theatrics than a business negotiation.
In the end, we decided to go another route with our suppliers. Yet, the event was not a total waste. That day I learned two things. First, ethnicity is still a VERY important factor in the fabric of Panamanian society. Secondly, Keenan maybe had a point; wearing board shorts to work is the life to live.
Pictures of Keenan.
My Latino Family Values
Bogota, Colombia Bus Terminal Winter 2006.
I was waiting in an open-air bus station in Bogota in the northern part of Colombia. The night was chilly. The air was crisp due to the Colombian capital’s 9,000 foot altitude. I was awaiting a 12 hour overnight bus switchback journey from the mountains of Bogota to the valley of Cali. The metro station was packed with riders and their friends and family getting ready to see them off. The scene of departing friends and family was reminiscentof what I have observed at international airports.
As I waited with my Ipod headphones in my ears, a family of three huddling together caught my attention. There was a grandmother, mother, and a child who could not have been older than 6. They appeared to have come from Colombia’snumerous working class poor. Their clothes were tattered and there were barely enough of them to fight off the cold.
The grandmother and child were getting ready to board the bus. Presumably, the grandmother and child were visiting the mother, who had migrated to Bogota in search of work. The two were visiting the mother for a weekend, but now had to return to Cali. The child was being raised alone by his grandmother, a very common occurrence in Colombia.
The grandmother and young child were the last riders to board the bus. Not until the 3rd, and final call, did the grandmother and child move towards the bus. Visible tears ran down their cheeks. They held each other tightly, hugging and kissing until the last possible moment. Being the eldest of the family, the grandmother reluctantly tore the child out from the mother’s arm to get on the final night bus back to Cali. As the late night bus departed, the sad Colombian family pressed their trembling hands against the passenger window until the last possible moment.
That night in the Colombian Andes mountains, as many of the riders quickly fell asleep, I stayed awake. I spent that evening thinking about what I had just seen. I re-examined my relationships with family and friends. It was a turning point in my life…
My time in Latin America has strengthened my sense of family. Latino families play a much more significant role in daily life than in any other culture I’ve experienced. This includes my own in the States. Typically Latino families are larger than the typical NorthAmerican family. What they consider to be “family” is beyond the traditional nuclear family. Family often includes cousins, aunts, and close friends. Many families have multiple generations living under one roof.
Often, large households are a necessity. The average per-capita income in Latin America is far below that of the United States, Europe, and parts of Asia. As a result, greater numbers in the household allow scarce resources to be pooled together. The economic struggle builds comradery and unites them as they work together as a unit. The parents go to work, children go to school, and the grandparents look after the children. As a close Latino family friend once mentioned to me, “we never have enough, but it’s always just enough to get by”.
As a general rule, Latinos live longer at home than their North American counterparts. It is common to see a Latino youth living at home well into their late 20′s and early 30′s. This is true even if the young adult can afford to live alone. It’s assumed that the child will stay at home unless he/she goes off to college or migrates to another country. By way of contrast, many of my peers in Seattle were itching to move out as soon as possible. I had friends living on their own as early as age 18. It was considered the first step to adulthood. Conversely, living at your parents house beyond your mid 20′s was considered uncool among your peers.
During my travels, I have stayed with many Latino households. Many of my most memorable experiences have been in these households. I was always embraced by the family as one of their own. The elder females in the family would take care of me (even scold me). They constantly fed me and I was never permitted to leave the house without a jacket (even on a warm day). The males in the house looked after me like a younger brother. They showed me a good time, and if anyone gave me grief they were quick to protect me. Always within minutes of staying in their homes, they treated me as a long time member of the family.
I’ve grown to appreciate many aspects of the Latino family dynamic. Some aspects I agree with more than those of my native culture. For example, it would appear to be common sense that a young man or woman should remain a contributing member of the larger family unit until they are truly ready to live on their own. Young people should save their money. Invest it wisely, rather than becoming bankrupt living on their own too quickly.
In addition, I admire the Latino’s open affection for fellow family members as well as their willingness to assist a family member in need. The “mi casa, tu casa” mentality. I often joke with friends that I would like the help a Latina grandmother as a nanny to assist me in raising my future family.
As I’ve matured, I have learned to appreciate cultural norms and values that differ from my own native culture. These differences give us a new perspective and can teach us more about our own culture. More importantly, it allows us the opportunity to blend various aspects of differing cultures into our own daily life. Individually, we all have the ability to customize our own personal worldview. For me, I admire Latino family values and I’m continually incorporating them into my daily life.
The Day I Rubbed Urine On My Face In Panama
**** One of Jacobo’s journal entries from Peace Corps in Panama
Recently, I had to bare a fare well to the majority of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers whom I had arrived with to Panama back in May of 2005. We had all completed our two years of service and like most PCVs, they were a bit weary of living on $10 a day and in the confines of a mud or tin shack. But in the end, they felt that sadness of depature, as their communities shed many tears at their goodbye parties.Even with all the frustrations and hardships, but along with a few successes, they had become part of their communities, bonding with the humble rural Panamanians, whom two years ago seem to have nothing in common with them. Yes, Peace Corps is a special experience, one that cannot be traded for anything as few have the opportunity to serve their country as an international development worker and ambassador of goodwill. So all I have say is whew, glad I don’t have to go through leaving my community yet! As you all know, I’ll be continuing my service until early next year. So let the saving lives and good times roll in Panama !
Besides that fact that I’m utterly broke living on $300 bucks a month, many of you believe I live a charmed life here in Panama . Beaches, monkeys, toucans and banana filled jungles are might what come to mind when you think of me. While I agree my days are normally filled surrounded by beautiful people and places, not everyday is paradise. Only 99.3% of my days are. So for those .07% of bad days, this letter is dedicated to one day in particular when I couldn’t turn my frown, upside down.
The day I rubbed urine on my face. Early last year when I broke my ankle, I had to give up running for a bit. So instead I would ride my bike down to the beach everyday and go for an early morning swim. The swims were going well for about a month, having the beach to myself besides a few fishermen in their small boats. Then came jellyfish season. Unaware of this, I went for my swim as usual and lasted a good five minutes before getting bum-rushed in the face by a swarm of jellyfish.
Upon my speedy exit to the shore, I inquired about how to lessen the affects of a swollen face with the fishermen. Biting their lips with all of the three teeth many of them still had, trying not to burst out in laughter at the naïve gringo, they explained that since they had no vinegar, “tu tienes que echar orina para todo tu cara para quitar esa vaina.” (You have to put urine on your face to stop the swelling). So after they gave me a two liter to wiz in, I was surprised to find that applying it very sparingly like aftershave, brought instant relief. After feeling like a new man I took a walk back down the beach to gather my things and enjoy the natural splendor. Next to my bike was a large tree that was baring hundreds of yellow crab apple-looking fruits. Figuring they were the new delicious edible fruit of the month common in Panama and after living through my near-death jelly fish incident, I decided to try a few. What I tasted was the most delicious cinnamon-apple flavored fruit. I ate a few and then decided to go for another swim in an area the fishermen told me would be safe. About five minutes into the swim, my throat began to feel as if I had just chugged a pint of hot sauce. Assuming that I had just swallowed a jellyfish I figured it would be a good time to get out of the water.
As I rode back up the mountain to my house, I made a quick stop at the little store to drink some cold milk, hoping it would soothe my burning throat. Upon telling the store clerk my adventure with the jellyfish and how delicious the beach-crab apples were, he stopped me mid sentence and says “Oye, esa fruta es manzanillo! Es bien venenoso, vaya al medico!”(Hey dude, that fruit is called death apple! It is poisonous, get yourself to the doctor!)
Upon arriving to my house feeling a bit dizzy and disorientated, I proceeded chugging water and calling the Peace Corps Medical Office.The nurse on duty unfortunately had no idea what it was
I had eaten and told me to continue consuming large quantities of water, while she “googled” this manzanillo fruit. After an eternal fifteen minutes, she called back and said that since I hadn’t eaten too many, I’d probably live…I felt like a new man.
It was likely one of the worst days I’ve had in Panama , especially after the store clerk told everyone in town that the dumb gringo at the fruit they normally use for rat poison. But instead of becoming the laughingstock of the town, the villagers and even the witch doctors began to believe I had supernatural gringo powers, having not died from eating manzanillo. My Panamanian-grandfather even told me a story of shipwrecked pirates who ate the same apples to avoid starvation, only to die a horrible bloating death. It was a turning point in respect from the community. Before I had just been another gringo, but after this event I became a gringo-Panamaneo.
All in all, these misadventures not only reaffirm your Peace Corps experience, but they also make for great stories to tell everyone when you come back home and they ask, “So how was Peace Corps?”
Sorry, I didn’t get any pictures of this misadventure, but I’m sure you can imagine how it goes.
Who Pulled Up the Social Ladder?
My grandfather grew up poor. His family had immigrated to the United States from Scotland, and headed West seeking opportunity. My grandfather was a teenager during the Great Depression, and often recounted tales of juggling jobs, stretching money, and desperately trying to eek out a meager living. He bravely enlisted, like so many of his peers, to fight in WWII. After the War he studied hard, and with government assistance from the G.I. Bill, he was able to go some of our State’s finest universities. He went on to receive a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s degree, and became a superintendent of a school district. With hard work, determination, and mostly importantly opportunity, my grandfather was able to utilize America’s social ladders to climb himself and his family out of poverty, and into the middle class.
His story is not unique. Similar narratives are quiet frequent in the United States and other Western countries. It is commonly referred to as the “American Dream”. The American Dream is not only relegated to the United States, rather to any country that institutes policies and incentives that are designed to increase social mobility. The American Dream says that if you work hard and stay focused, your time and efforts will be rewarded with prosperity. The American Dream is not perfect. Some people play by the rules, have a strong work ethic, and are not rewarded with a more comfortable life. However, more often that not, American dreams do come true. It did for my family.
Unfortunately, these social ladders are absent in Latin America, especially Panama.
It is not a question of a country’s wealth, Panama has it. They have the Canal, a bustling maritime industry, one of Latin America’s largest banking sectors, and a slue of multi-national companies. These industries combined with others, are continuously pumping capital into this tiny country of 3 million people. Yet the average Panamanian’s Gross National Income per year is only $5,510. (BBC) This ranks Panama ahead of Peru and slightly behind Costa Rica for Latin American countries, and 90th out of 180 for the entire world. Panama should be much higher on this list.
Panama suffers from a chicken or the egg problem. In order to get a good job in Panama, you must attend a private school. Public schools in Panama are borderline pathetic. Parents will do almost anything it takes to ensure their children are sent to a private school rather than going to a public school. However, in order to pay for the private school tuition, you must have a well paying job. So, the chances that a publicly school educated is able to obtain are well paying job are as likely as finding true love on a reality television show.
Much can also be contributed to Panama’s cultural legacy (If you are not familiar with the term cultural legacy, I highly recommend you read the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell). Panama’s cultural legacy has been shaped by the various imperial rulers and dictatorships that have presided over most of the country’s history. These despotistic political institutions combined with economic inequality have fostered a cultural legacy that is not conducive to social mobility. According to the Brookings Institute, 84% of Panamanians believe that their country is run by a handful of people, one of the highest in Latin America. This widespread believe that the country is run by the few, has created a cultural legacy that says hard work will not be rewarded and dedication to a trade or profession will not be met by a more prosperous life. It is a mentality that says why bother, when it is inevitable to be to be let down again. This is the anti-American dream.
What policies could the new Martinelli Administration pursue to combat Panama’s chicken and the egg problem as well as its cultural legacy?
First, increase the number of slots private schools must reserve for under privileged students. Studies after studies show the achievement gaps are almost completely closed when students are given an equal playing field.
Second, expand internet coverage and computer access to rural areas. Through increased access to the internet, students in rural areas can have access to quality educational programs. Many times in rural areas, there is a shortage of qualified teaching professionals and expanded access to the internet will help mitigate against these disadvantages.
Third, connect with reputable microfinance companies like Kiva.org. Microfinance, in the proper application, will encourage entrepreneurship and is one of the most powerful tools combating poverty.
These three proposals will not automatically increase social mobility in Panama. Panama has a long way to go and more serious overhaul is needed to the system. However, all of the aforementioned suggestions are not expensive and easy to implement. I love Panama and would like it to succeed.
For questions, comments, concerns, we encourage you to leave a comment.
More about the Author: Read Evan’s Bio