Machetero Internship

Machetero Internship

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?)
Me: “Yeah.”
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?)
Me: “Yes.”
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.

$0.65 Breakfast

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

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.

My Secret Stash

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:

El Machetero
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.

Ride Home

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


Erika (left) Me (right)

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.

Me: “Mañana.

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.

Me: “0.65c.”
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

Retirement Blog: Habla Español

Let me begin by stating that I took two years of high school Spanish. It was a long long time ago.  Spanish was not my best subject.  I passed just enough to complete the college entry requirement.   I definitely wasn’t conversational.

My memory of most words vanished years ago.  Worst, I listen slow so when anyone speaks fast, I only pick up a few words.   This has meant, I have little ability to communicate in Spanish speaking country.  Frustrating indeed for an extrovert who craves talking with everyone she meets.  I need at a minimum enough Spanish speaking ability to go beyond text book greetings and simple phrases.

Sandra Kelly

My son, Evan, had taken language immersion in Guatemala several years ago.  He learned a enough of the language to launch his Latin America adventures.

Perhaps, a Spanish school would work for me.  I would emerge myself in Spanish in Boquete.    Evan had arranged for his friend Itzy who is a teacher to tutor me.  I would take lessons four hours per day – two in the morning and two in the afternoon – for a week.  Admittedly not nearly enough time, but hopefully it would create momentum.

Itzy began by asking me to write a list of what I wanted to be able to say.  This was a much more practical approach than learning from a book organized into sections of contrived conversations.  We were also able to skip over things I already knew – granted not a lot to skip.  The process continued when the lesson was dedicated to verbs.  I picked the verbs that I would most use.  Learning became so much more relevant!  Even more amazing, was that I actually began to understand when Itzy spoke to me in Spanish.

The real thrill of this came at the end of the week.  While in Boquete, I stayed at a private residence.  My hostess spoke only limited English.  Our conversations for most of week were pleasantries.  At the end of week, we had a long conversation.  We discovered commonalities of social work, backgrounds of case loads, and much more.  There were, of course, words spoken by each of us that the other could not understand.  The more important thing was it was a real conversation!  More than enough motivation for me to keep learning.

Back in Casco, there is a conspiracy to keep me practicing Spanish.  My driver Blas each day insists that I learn a new word.  I attempt to tell him in Spanish that at one word a day, I will speak Spanish when I am a 100.  Evidently I did not quite say this because he understood that it will take me  100 years to learn Spanish.  It was close enough for it to become our joke.

I am getting better but need to keep taking lessons and practicing. If I pick up the pace with two words a day, well, I should be fluent well before a cententinal birthday.

4 Panamanian Phrases That Will Confuse You

4 Panamanian Phrases That Will Confuse You

Learning Spanish from a university class or Rosetta Stone will only get you so far. The beginner and intermediate lessons only begin to scratch the surface of the language. As you’ll quickly discover, Panamanians speak their own flavor of Spanish. Little phrases and inside jokes have meanings that won’t make sense to you. These will confuse you.

1. Oiste

Oiste is preterite tu form of the verb oir — to hear. Thus, oiste in Spanish translates to “did you hear me?”. It’s a confirmation that the person indeed heard you.

For example: “Hey Miguel, can you grab me that bag of chips, oiste?”

In some Panamanian’s lexicon, however, oiste is a part of the rhythm of speech. It is the English urban slang equivalent to “ya feel me” or “ya know what I’m say’n”. The following is an example of how the use of oiste confused me in a recent conversation.

Miguel: “Vamos a buscar comida, oiste?” (Let’s go look for food. Did you hear me?)

Me: “Yes, I did understand. Ready to go!”

Miguel: “Quiero un batido de guineo, oiste?” (I want a banana smoothie. Did you hear me?)

Me: “Yes, yes, I understand. That sounds delicious!”

Miguel: “Fren, esta viana es lo mejor, oiste?” (Friend, this shit is the best! Did you hear me?)

Me: “Fren, I do speak Spanish. I know I have a heavy Gringo accent, but I understand 100% of what you are telling me. It is not necessary to ask me oiste after every sentence.”

I finally figured it out after he used oiste several times. He was not asking me to confirm that I indeed heard him. Rather, it was just a part of his pattern of speech.


2. Ahora

Spanish 101 teaches you that Ahora = Now. Ahora vamos a la bibloteca (Now we go to the library). Simple. Yet, it is common for people to use Ahora as later.

Ex-girlfriend: “Evan, te llamo ahora.” (Evan, I call you now.)

Me: “You call me… now? But, aren’t we already in a conversation? How will you call me now if we are already talking? I’m confused.”

Ex-girlfriend: “Evan, que te pasa? Te llamo AHORA!” (Evan, what is wrong with you? I call you now!)

Me: “Don’t que te pasa me, missy. Ahora is now. At least how I understand it.”

Ex-girlfriend: “Bueno. Evan, te llamo MAS TARDE, oiste!” (Good. Evan, I’ll call you later.)

Panamanian Spanish guidelines:

English                  Spanish                   Panamanian Spanish
Later                      Mas Tarde               Ahora
Now                       Ahora                        Ahorita
Already                  Ya                              YA! (YA means hurry up! I needed it 10 fucking minutes ago.)


3. Siempre

Again, Spanish 101 teaches you that Siempre = Always. “Siempre es lo mejor” (It’s always the best).

However, in certain situations, it is used to replace the word todavía (still).

Ex-girlfriend: “Te vas al cine siempre?” (Do you go to the cinema always).

Hmmm…. Strange.

Me: “It is true I enjoy the cinema. But, I don’t understand. Are you asking me, ‘Do I always like to go to the movies?’ or ‘I’m always at the movies?’ Like I go to the cinema so much I practically live there, or something?”

Ex-girlfriend: “Evan, que estás hablando? TODAVIA quieres ir al cine?” (Evan, what are you talking about? Do you still want to go to the movies?)

Me: “Now I understand. Do I want to go to the cinema tonight? Well, sure!”


4. Cuanto sale

Sale is the present tense it (he, she or it) form of the verb Salir. Salir = leave or to go out. It is commonly used in terms of going out to party. Like “Tu quieres salir hoy, mi amor?” (Do you want to party tonight, baby?).

It is also used to ask the price of a certain item. It replaces “Cuanto cuesta?” (how much?).

El Señor: “Cuanto sale eso?”

Me: Hmmm…. “Did you just ask, “Cuan-d-o sale eso?” (When does this leave?). “Sorry sir, but this item does not leave the store.”

*** Cuando = When. Cuanto = How.

El Señor: “No, cuan-d-o s-a-l-e eso.” (How much this item goes out at night.)

Hmmm…. Strange.

Me: “Sir, I have no idea what you are saying.”

El Señor: “A ver….” then El Señor explained to me the meaning and context of cuanto sale.

At first, these words and phrases will certainly confuse you. Don’t let it frustrate you. Instead, embrace it, mimic it, love it.Panamanize your vocabulary!

If you combine these examples and sprinkle in some past helpful Spanish language articles; Spanish Sweet Nothings, Pretend Like You Speak Spanish and some Panamanian Slang terms, you’ll practically be a local! Dale, loco! (Do it, you crazy person!).


Avoiding Panama’s Princesas

Dear Gentlemen, Amigos, and Causal Observers,

Avoid princesas (princesses) in Panama. No vale la pena (it’s not worth it). I know they’re cute. I agree that their heavily Victoria Secret moisturized skin smells delicious. I understand that she might be the most physically attractive girl you have ever dated. Ever. Yet, amigo, you need to leave them. You gotta get over it. It will be harmful to your upbeat personality as well as your psychological and financial well being. Trust me.

For definitional purposes, describes a princesa as a “A girl that has been pampered, sheltered and spoiled her whole life to the extent that she has no friggin idea about the real world.”

Every country and culture has their own princesas. Princesas, here, hail from other Latin American countries like Colombia and Venezuela. There are also local princesas from Panama City, as well as girls who migrate from smaller pueblos in Panama’s interior.

My hypothesis (totally unproven by science) is that a rigid class system and a paranoid culture are the main contributing factors to Panama’s own brand of princesa. Let me explain…

In many parts of Latin America, there remains a large gap between the rich and the poor. Social class standing is supremely important in an individual’s socialization. Adolescents from wealthy families grow up with a sense of superiority over people from the perceived lower class.

High status Latinos typically are extremely paranoid about being accosted or kidnapped. It is common for Latin American families of status to construct tightly secured living compounds to isolate themselves from poverty and crime. Simply drive to the beach community of Coronado or any other wealthy neighborhood in Panama City to see an illustration of this point. This paranoid complex manifests itself in Latino dating culture. Males are expected to not only be dating partners, but protectors from the perceived dangers of the outside world.

This sense of class superiority combined with the expectation of the protective Latino male greatly influence Panama’s own brand of princesa.

*** To better understand and identify the princesa complex, watch a movie like Chance or any Colombian tele novela (soap opera).

Financially, in order to please your princesa, you’ll take on unsustainable levels of debt. Personal credit cards will be maxed. Frivolous expenses like imported luxury hand bags, frequent trips to the beauty salon, and oversized sunglasses will start to be everyday purchases. Furthermore, your standard bottle of whiskey while clubbing on Calle Uruguay will be replaced by Grey Goose. Taking a cab is strictly forbidden.

Psychologically, you’ll try to meet unrealistic expectations. You never will. No matter the social event they are invited to attend, the gift they are given, or beach they are brought to, they’ll be sure to inform you that they’ve had better. In time, you will find yourself doubting your own self-worth.

Undoubtedly, you’ll ask, “Evan, how do you identify princesas?” It’s simple, look for the signs.

- Loves to spend other people’s money. A person’s level of hard work directly correlates to their level of frugality. Princesas, by definition, have been pampered. They undervalue hard earned money. Spending someone else’s money comes easy.

- No plan in place. There will be lofty dreams of being a famous actress, model, or other glamorous figure. Yet, they have no tangible plan to accomplish their goal.

An example of a legitimate plan would be “Today, I’m going to school to study _____. Afterwords, I plan on working _______ to gain experience in the industry. From there, my plan is to ______….” That’s called a plan with tangible goals. Success in real life requires a plan.

- Eagerness to quit their job. Don’t be surprised if at the beginning of the relationship your princesa is more than willing to abandon her job. Sitting poolside or spending days at Multi Plaza mall sounds much more appealing.

Ultimately, we guys are to blame. We’re cursed with a short term dating mindset. We overvalue physical beauty. If a girl is “hot” enough, we overlook major personality flaws like the princesa mentality. Not until it is too late and we are too entangled (a dog, shared home, children, etc) do we admit to ourselves that the relationship was doomed from the start.

Few of us guys realize that successful long term relationships start from solid friendships first and foremost. Purely physically attraction wears off over time.

The good news is that people change. Princesas can grow up. They can grow out of the act. So, there remains hope for stubborn guys who believe that their princesa will change. My advise is, don”t bet on it. Look for a good girl in Panama. Where do you meet them? No se (I don’t know). That is one of Panama’s greatest mysteries. I’m still trying to solve it ;)

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The Grumpy Gringo

The Grumpy Gringo

Grumpy Gringo syndrome is all too common in Panama.  The syndrome is characterized by a negative outlook on life amongst some foreigners living on the Isthmus. The Grumpy Gringo resents what they have lost and under appreciates what they have gained. They embellish fond memories of home/other countries while frequently pointing out the negatives that they perceive exist only in Panama. I call them the Grumpy Gringos.

Contrary to my coined “Grumpy Gringo” term, the syndrome isn’t restricted to strictly Gringos (North Americans). Sure, we (Gringos) seem to be some of the grumpiest people in Panama. But, other foreigners: Colombians, Italians, French, Israeli, etc,  also exhibit syndrome traits.

The syndrome is made up of two central components. Part one is Rosy Retrospection. This is when a person over exaggerates the positive nature of their past. To them, the past is always so much better than the present. The past is always recalled to be good.

Part two is the Foreigner Superiority Complex. Many foreigners who come to Panama believe they’re smarter than the countrymen they left behind. It should not surprise anyone that they believe that they are also smarter than Panamanians. This is common in all Developing World countries. Many people coming from the Developed World – North America, Europe and in Panama’s case Argentina, Chile and Mexico – act with a sense of superiority. Typically, they’re very condescending to Panamanians.

Simply stated, anyone demonstrating both Rosy Retrospection and Foreigner Superiority Complex while in Panama, is what I call a Grumpy Gringo.

On a recent trip back home to visit friends and family, I diagnosed myself with Grumpy Gringo-itus. My prolonged stay on the Isthmus was making me irritable. Panama was getting to me. The sweating. The noise. The gridlock traffic and the other daily irritations of Panamanian life were beginning to drain my generally upbeat personality.

With increasing regularity, I mentioned how I would prefer to live in other countries I’d visited. Countries like India, Colombia, Brazil and others. How certain things were SO much better back in my home country of America. I was grumpy. I was gringo. I was that Grumpy Gringo.

During this time, friends would often hear me utter grumpy statements.

Me: “God, back home is so much better than ____.”
Me: “Geez, ______ is so shitty in Panama.”
Me: “I really miss ______ from back when I lived _______.”

The list went on.

However, while back in the States, I noticed something. Those things we foreigners claim are SO much better, generally are not.

For example, a irritation in Panama is the regularity with which people cut infront of me in line.  Yet, within minutes of setting foot in Miami’s airport, I was overtaken in line.  Additionally, I have always resented cab drivers price gouging me in Panama. Again, in California, I got ripped off by a cab driver. Bad manners are universal.

Even if there are some cultural norms we perceive as superior such as better – customer service, less overt corruption, stronger work ethic – there are many other cultural norms that are clearly inferior. A few examples from the United States are its uber materialism, bitter ideological political mindsets, weak family and community relationships and rampant obesity. Just to name a few.

What are the root cause of Grumpy Gringo-itus? I’m not sure I’ve discovered any scientific answers, but here is my hypothesis:

1. Lacking love life: Everything is so much better when you have a robust and healthy love life. Even the morning coffee taste better.

2. Panama is small: Instead of comparing Bogota (7.5 million people) to Panama City (1.2 million people) or England (50 million people) to Panama (3 million people), compare Cartagena (1 million) to Panama City or Panama to Nicaragua (5 million). Compare apples to apples.

3. Age: Age increases people’s bitterness and cynicism. Especially in old men.

Grumpy Gringos need to loosen up. This includes me. We live in the TROPICS. It’s warmer 85 degrees. Every single day. We can buy a delicious pineapple bigger than my head for $1. $1! We can be almost anywhere on the Isthmus and there is a beautiful beach less than two hours away.

This is the good life, brother.

I’ll bet that someday when we return back to our home countries we will still be grumpy. When we are working 50 hours a week. When we are stuck in traffic two hours everyday. When it is freezing outside and there are no Panamanian Chiva party buses to ride. We’ll look back at our time in Panama and say, “Geez, Panama was SO much better than ____”

Panama’s Urban Dictionary

This is a list of slang terms you will hear in Panama.  Eye On Panama does not recommend the usage of these words because some of them are very derogatory.  However, we realize the following list below is widely spoken and we would like to educate our readers before they attempt to repeat them:

***** This list was created by wikipedia*****


YeYe = a wealthy person who likes to show off a lot. Preppy boy/girl.

Racataca = A very unsophisticated person – the stereotype usually involves listening to bad reggae dancehall music (or reggaeton), wearing gold teeth, wearing clothes that look like stuff gringo rappers threw in the garbage and were picked up by piedreros, naming their children with strange, multisyllabic composite names like SURISABEL or

YAMIURKA (examples of which you’ll find painted on the windows of most DIABLO ROJOs)

El Chino = a corner store (bodega), lit. “the Chinaman”. Originates from the fact many Chinese migrated to Panama to help build the Panama Railroad, and many

corner stores are owned and run by Chinese immigrants. Other countries have similar social patterns, for instance, the “Arab” corner store of France.

Maleante= “Gang member, criminal, etc.” Racataca’s male mate (see “racataca”). Usually belongs to a gang in the ghettos.

Zambito/a: In the region of Azuero ( The Provinces of Los Santos and Herrera) is a slang meaning dude, Child O Teenagers (Boys) Zambita fem. slang meaning due Child O Teenagers (Girls)

Rejeros=Refers to a group of men who only hang out with males. They usually go out in packs to try to pick up women, but often fail at doing so. During weekends they will typically hang out at a guy’s house and drink between themselves. Also, they can be spotted at strip clubs too. A man who belongs to this group is know as a “rejero”. The word became popular after a TV Show (La Cascara) ran a skit based on four fictional rejeros.

Agua Cero= Heavy, constant rain that often causes rivers of water to run down the street.  Usually last for 20-40 minutes, at most an hour.

Maricon = butterfly, gay.

Chombo = derogatory term use to refer to black people.

Cholopop = Person from the countryside, trying to impress by wearing rocker outfits.

Chambón= A clumbsy person

Chifiar= To ignore a person. Ex: Chifea ese awebao (see “awebao”) que es un loser- Don’t invite that guy because he is a loser.

Borriguero= A low ranking employee. Lizard Ameiva ameiva. In the contructions works is the person that do all the hard work.

Chapot= From the English “Shaped up”. Used to refer to someone that is very well dressed. As in “Estas bien chapot”.

Chuchita= Someone who is always being taken advantage of by another.

Pipi sweet= Womanizer or a “Don Juan” (Sweet dick).

Brother surfer= Stereotypically, how surfers call each other.

La kenton= When someone promises you something and does not deliver. “Carlos me hizo la kenton, me dijo que iba traer dos botellas y solo trajo una”. Syn. la pacheca.

Tortillera: Disrespective form to say lesbian.

Congo= Someone who is always taken advantage of, an idiot.

Piedrero = A homeless person that has a deep adiction to “crack cocaine”. Crack in Panamanian Spanish is often called “piedra”(“stone”/”ice”). Can also be used to tell a person that the way they are poorly dressed and not good looking.

Pela= slang meaning “any” woman or chick. (Eg. Vi a esa pela en la discoteca anoche.= I saw that woman in the disco last night.)

Pelao= slang meaning dude. (Eg. Yo conosco ese pelao. = I know that dude.

Cueco/a= Syn:of gay and lesbian. Despective form to say gay ( cueco-man) o lesbian(cueca-


FIRI-FIRI= very skinny man or woman (Ana es una firi-firi). On its superlative form BIEN FIRI-FIRI (extremely skinny!).

Cangreja= “Female crab”. An unattractive woman.

Manzanillos = A rich/famous person’s entourage and leech off of them. Buddies that follow and take advantage of someone for interest (ex. roberto duran).

CHACARON(A) or CHACARUDO(A)= superlative for CHACARA means a very lazy man (or woman) or someone who relies in everybody else to solve his (her) problems.