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.
Panama’s Dating Dilemma: Gringa or Latina
My dating life in Panama has a dilemma. Should I date a Gringa or should I date a Latina? So far, my results with both Gringas and Latinas have been mixed. Let me tell ya about it…
We’ll start with Ms. Luna. I met her at Relic’s Pull Pork Sandwich station. The bright yellow wristband and spring dress with flip flops are a dead giveaway that she is a guest of Luna’s Castle. Her hair has that I-haven’t-used-a-hair-straightener-in-weeks natural curl to it. I lean over and recommend my favorite BBQ sauce combination.
Me: “Try mixing Carolina Daddy Mustard, Sweet Jack Daniels, and Spicey Balboa Tang all together. They’ve been designed to work together.”
Ms. Luna: “You seem to know these sauces well. How long have you been staying at Luna’s Castle?”
Me: “Nah, I’m not staying here. I live around the corner.”
Ms. Luna: “You live in Casco Viejo!”
The conversation starts from there. Being a young American abroad for the past 5 years makes my personal story interesting inside traveler’s circles. Most Luna’s Castle guests are shoestring backpackers traveling from 2 weeks to 2 months. While they’re on the road, most travelers will ask themselves, “I wonder what it would be like to leave in this place?” Especially in a place like Casco Viejo. The neighborhood has so much cultural texture to it. I’m that traveler who actually stayed.
The conversation with Ms. Luna continues to flow easily. We share many commonalities: She is from the West Coast. She went to a Pac-12 university and participated in Greek life. She knows of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi.
Ms. Luna tells me that she flies home tomorrow. This means that I don’t have much time, which is fine for me. I’ve become accustomed to compressed relationships while on the road.
We take shots of rum and dance. Afterwards, we bar hop around Casco. Ms. Luna and I see eye-to-eye on our philosophy that paying cover fees for the privilege to buy drinks is silly. So we skip over nightlife hot spots like Tantalo and Havana Panama.
The night takes us to Plaza Herrera. We share a park bench under a flickering street lamp. There something about Spanish colonial plazas that makes them conducive to kissing. I realized this while living 6 weeks in Antigua, Guatemala. The movie Hitch taught me the importance of the First Kiss - 90/10 Rule. Ms. Luna and I are smooching within minutes of sitting down.
The night is nearing its end. We make one last stop at Mojitos (sin Mojitos). Over national beers, Ms. Luna and I talk about topics like our favorite entrepreneur self-help books, the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and how rewarding it is to dance Gangnam style. I try to pick up our bar tab. But she refuses to let me pay. We’ve been going dutch all night.
At this point, being direct with Ms. Luna seems very appropriate.
Me: “I think it’s a good idea that you stay with me tonight.”
Ms. Luna: “Really? And why do you think this?”
Me: “A couple reasons, actually: A) It’s your last night in town. This relationship only has until daylight mañana. B) You’re sleeping in a dormitory with 5 other smelly backpackers. On the other hand, I have access to a restored colonial apartment containing many leather bound books and that smells of rich mahogany.”
Ms. Luna buys my sales pitch. She stays the night, and we head straight to bed (my mother reads/writes for this blog).
The following morning we wake early enough to allow time for pillow talk. We can talk forever. Ms. Luna tells me that she wants to move. She lives in San Francisco, but is considering a career change. Austin and Brooklyn are her top relocation city choices. I’m pretty sure that Ms. Luna makes more money than I do. I’m for damn sure that she has a higher IQ score than me. Not being the breadwinner or the smartest partner in a relationship does not threaten me. I see it as a positive.
Me: “We gotta go. Your flight leaves soon.”
Ms. Luna: “(sigh) I know… You don’t have to walk me to the hostel. I’m totally independent.”
Me: “Spoken like a true sorority girl. But, I will walk you to the hostel. My mother would be disappointed in me.”
Yes, mom, I walked her home.
We exchange Facebook information at Luna’s Castle doorstep. Then she leaves on a jet plane. History has taught me that there is a 83% chance that I will never see Ms. Luna again.
As I walk back home, I think about the good and bad of the previous night. The good is that I felt a great connection with this girl. Generally, I prefer to date girls who like to travel because they are resourceful and optimistic. They also value experiences over material items. These are all respectable and sexy traits.
The bad is that the relationships end too quickly. Ms. Luna’s case was the extreme example – a one-night stand. However, other Gringa girls in Panama do not stay long either. These Gringas come down here on internships, Fulbright scholarship, or work relocation. They stay for 6 to 16 months. Eventually, their internship or contract expires. The novelty of living in a foreign country wears off. Their underlying desire to return home is exhausting in a committed relationship.
Dating Gringas is natural and easy for me. However, they leave me with a re-occuring feeling of unfulfillment.
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 there 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. But, I digress…
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
Ocu With Friends
OCU WITH FRIENDS
I have been fortunate to make several friends while living in Panama. Many are expats who share a sense of adventure that motivated them to leave their familiar homes. Others are tourists from literally all over the world who were intrigued by Panama. The individuals, however, that I am in daily contact are members of Panama’s working class who are employed by Los Cuatros Tulipanes in the heart of Casco Viejo. In spite of my very limited Spanish, their very limited English, and vast differences in backgrounds, we have found ways to effectively communicate. It has been natural for me to form a friendship with each.
It was because of my friendship with Deira, the assistant manager, that I was invited to attend the Festival del Manito Ocueño. I eagerly accepted but knew very little about the festival or what to expect. I was to be Deira’s guest. We would leave immediately after her shift on Friday and return Sunday. I would soon learn how important leaving on time would be. Deira had to spend several minutes locating me at the end of her shift. As a result we were 10 minutes late leaving work. We literally jogged to an area where we could hail a cab headed in the direction of the Albrook Bus Terminal. Several passed us before we found a willing cab.
Once at the terminal, it seemed we had arrived on time since the next bus was in 20 minutes. There was a line waiting for the bus which did not seem a concern until a small bus arrived and the bus was full just before our turn to board. Those precious minutes that Deira had not been able to leave meant that we would wait for an hour for the next bus. It also meant that rearranging when her children would be picked up along the bus route. I had a whole new perspective about willingness to stay a few minutes late.
It took approximately 90 minutes to reach Choerra for Deira’s children, as she exited the bus I needlessly worried the bus would leave with me but without her. Deira soon boarded with her children. Deirita, her 14 year old daughter, sat next to me. Manuel crawled up on his mother’s lap. The journey resumed, with the AC at ice cold and the radio blasting Panamanian folk music for the next 4 hours.
We arrived in Ocu after 11:00 PM. Carrying our bags and drowsy 5 year old, we began our hike to Deira’s mother’s home. It was pitch black outside. We were following a dirt road without a single street light when a cab pulled over driven by Deira’s step father, Jose. We all piled in for a short ride to her mother’s home.
I am not entirely certain of the full layout of the house but believe it had 3 bedrooms separate from the living area. There was a small kitchen in the front attached to larger living area. There was one small bathroom. It was made of cinderblock with a tin roof. Electrical wires were routed along the roof lines.
Deira’s mother, Virginia, had waited up. She served us chicken and yucca with a yummy sauce for our very late dinner. She then pulled out a sack from the second hand store filled with items for Deira and her children. She has a good eye. There were great finds in that bag – Rockport, Naturalizer, Travelon, and Chico. I communicated what the US retail price would be as one bargain shopper to another. Virginia beamed and insisted that I take Travelon leather purse. Muchas gracias, Virginia! I let them all know that it was going to be the purse I take on my upcoming trip to England in December.
Exhausted and no longer hungry, we went off to bed. Deira, Deirita, Manuel, and I would share a room. All three of them slept in a large bed. I was provided the twin bed with freshly laundered Strawberry Shortcake sheets. I woke up quite early to the sound of roosters crowing – indeed an entire choir of roosters. It was still dark outside which does not matter a tinker to Panama’s roosters. Virginia and Jose were already up and busy. I could see now that that the outside living area served many purposes. The large cement porch had a tin roof overhead, several clothes lines, wash machine and tub, dining table, hammocks, and open flame stove. It led into their garden with an area for chickens, including several members of the rooster choir, and dogs. The morning air was pleasant and far less humid than Panama City. I understood I was being asked how I had slept which until waking up before the crack of dawn had been fine. Not knowing the Spanish word for rooster, I crowed, “cock-a-doodle”. Virginia and Jose roared. Indeed it may have just been the funniest word ever heard. The rest of the weekend, Virginia would imitate my crow and laugh.
Soon the day was underway. I grabbed a fast shower which without hot water was quick. Deira’s younger sister Naomi arrived who I had met some time ago in Casco. She, Deira, and I head to the second hand store where Virginia scored those bargains. Next we stopped at a market. I bought apples and sodas to share.
We then drove over to Naomi’s house which is in a lovely neighborhood of new cinder block homes. She was pleased show me her home which has an addition underway. I am reintroduced to her two sons and little girl. Naomi’s husband, Ricardo, has been watching the children. He is an immigration officer who I immediately had declared as best friend when we first met. He commutes between Panama City and Ocu each week in order for his family to continue to live in this idyllic community surrounded by their families. Since the trip takes 5 hours each way, he is only home weekends.
More of Deira’s family has arrived by the time we return for lunch. Attending the festival is a family event and everyone excited as we head out the door to walk to town. Deira and Deirita explain that the festival celebrates tradition. The town has been transformed. There are booths selling handmade clothing, shoes, and food. A large stage with audience seating surrounding it is in the center of town. We find seats for our large group to watch the various competitions. The performances include music, dance, and handiwork. Each is judged on the basis of both skill and adherence to traditional standards.
The competitions continue throughout the afternoon and into the night. There is standing room only by early evening. Each contestant is cheered by everyone in the crowd. Not a single boo or hiss is uttered. Indeed when a 12 year old accordion player who dazzled the crowd with his first two songs, cannot remember the third the whole crowd empathically claps the song’s rhythm to support him. He finishes the song best he can, dissolving in tears as he exits. The announcer makes his way to lad to ensure he has done a great job. The next competitors nail all of their three songs. The crowd is equally supportive of their efforts. Before the winners are announced, the disappointed boy is called to the stage where a compassionate judge again congratulates the young boy on his talent and tells him that everyone who has ever played has done the same including him. The whole town cheered his effort.
The next morning, Virginia made us tortillas for breakfast which she cooked over an open flame. Yummy! Family members were again arriving early. Sunday was an important festival day and it was traditional for children to wear traditional dress. Naomi’s 2 year old was as pretty as could be in fancy white dress. Deira’s nieces wore the calico print skirts of Ocu. The boys were dressed as well in traditional garb. I watched in amazement has each girl’s hair was done in a traditional style without a fidget. Each child also made a special point to say “Good Morning, Sandra” in English, except the little 2 year old, who, simply crawled up into my lap. Nanas are simply universal – no language required.
Before we headed back to the festival, Deira was insistent that I try on her traditional dress. The outfit was beautiful would have been shown off much better by Deirta’s beauty. Nonetheless it was quite an honor to be allowed to try it on. Deira had embroidered hundreds of pink flowers on the tiers of the skirt. It was lovely and would no doubt one day be Deirita’s wedding dress. As soon as I changed back to my clothes and took a few photos of the children in their traditional outfits, we were ready to go back town.
Once all were ready, the family walked to town, greeting neighbors as we passed. When we arrived the parade was well underway. Again the whole town seemed turned out either to participate or watch. There were l classes of children marching, dance groups, and cowboys on horseback all in traditional dress. Groups of men carried replicas of traditional houses. Traditional music played. It wasn’t long before I was in the midst of parading children snapping photos with my iPad and having a wonderful time showing them the results. The parade would last for hours as it wound its way to the stage where each group was cheered.
Before leaving the festival, I could not resist purchasing a white cotton dress with traditional embroidery and handmade sandals for my granddaughter. Virginia and several of her friends carefully inspected each stitch– front and back. They let me know that I too had a good eye. The workmanship was excellent. Isn’t amazing the conversation that is possible without common language!
We needed to leave festival early to return to Panama City. With another long line at Ocu’s terminal, Ricardo drove us to the freeway where more buses would pass. We waited just 15 minutes before we were boarded. I was glad to have purchased a sweater at Virginia’s second hand store and only wished I had thought to bring headphones or ear plugs. Ah, well. It was nearly 10 pm when we arrived in Panama City. Deira insisted she find me a cab from the terminal to Casco when we arrived. I insisted she let me pay for a cab to take her family home to Chorrera and would not hear of them spending another 90 minutes on a bus. I can be quite stubborn about the welfare of my friends.
I will long consider this weekend, one of my most memorable in Panama. I had become a member of loving Panamanian family. I lived with them as they live. I ate the same food, slept in the same room, and played with their children. I joked and laughed with all and managed to bridge a language gap. Everywhere we went I was welcomed and treated as a local and not as a tourist. I was impressed with the obvious bonds of Deira’s family who had evidently made education a priority. Deira and sisters of earned college degrees with the exception of her youngest sister, Virginia, who is studying to be CSI officer – another new best friend. They are all best friends – everyone in the family. I loved Ocu as well. I will long remember the many special moments I had while there.
Joining Neighborhood Watch
Joining Casco’s Neighborhood Watch
I didn’t want to join Casco’s neighborhood watch team. During the meeting it was being formed, I tried to sneak out. I sat for an hour with fellow residents of Casco. My mind intensely focused on decoding the high level Spanish spoken by civic leaders as they discussed the creation of an official Casco neighborhood watch. This made me sleepy. I had planned to quietly creep out and watch an episode of Mad Men. As soon as I reached the exit door, someone called my name.
A friend: “Evan, you should join.”
Me: “Is there responsibility involved? I don’t like commitment.”
A friend: “Yes, but I’ll help you. Just do it.”
Five minutes later I raised la mano derecha and was sworn in. I’m now a serving member of Casco’s neighborhood watch group.
Some backstory: Casco is in turmoil. The massive street and underground infrastructure project is suffocating the neighborhood. Everyone in Casco has been adversely affected. Even long established small business like Platea, Cafe Rene, and Forchetta, are on the verge of going under because they have been inaccessible.
The project began badly with widespread incompetency. Merchants and residents were provided only a week notice prior to the commencement of the 18 month overhaul with no opportunity to provide ideas to minimize impact. New traffic circulation routes were not adequately signaled. Accessible parking has disappeared. To make matters worse, the inferior bricks were initially laid and had to be replaced. People are as mad as hell.
The situation has put SPI in charge. SPI’s core function is to private security – protect Panama’s president. Not community relations. Yet, their commission is to perform damage control.
Approximately one month ago, a meeting was called (see photo above). The people of Casco discussed their frustrations with civic leaders, the construction company, and SPI. Typically, these townhall-style meetings accomplish little. The meetings lack written agendas. Individual rants too often derail constructive conversations. The time spent was often times unproductive.
But this time was different. At the end of the meeting, a neighborhood watch group was formed. These sworn in individuals would directly collaborate with SPI in order to improve the situation. It’s believed that less cooks in the kitchens might yield better results. So far, here is what we’ve been working on:
1. Police Reports: Officially reporting a crime is ridiculously challenging. Every government agency tells you to talk to someone else. It’s easier to dance Passa Passa while twirling a hula hoop than to file a police report successfully.
Community’s proposed solution: Create an online form. This simple field allows Spanish and English speakers to communicate with SPI. Proper police filings are still required. However, this allows residents to access records and therefore keep authorities accountable.
2. Tranque (traffic): Construction has eliminated the use of a significant number of streets. Unfortunately, the traffic volume has not been reduced. As a result, traffic gridlock is overwhelming.
Community’s proposed solution: Step 1 – Shuttle government officials to and from the Causeway/Cinta Costera into Casco. This would eliminate their cars clogging the streets. It would also release spaces in both parking garages, since government vehicles currently occupy the majority of available spaces.
Shuttling government employees was an idea from the government. A rather good one. Casco’s community just wants them to follow through with it.
Step 2 – Make Casco pedestrian only. Many historic districts around the world have successfully implemented pedestrians restrictions (see Europe). In order to preserve the nuevecito laid brick, Casco should be pedestrian only as well.
3. Break-ins: The infrastructure project has increased the volume of people circulating through Casco. An increase in petty crime was bound to happen.
SPI proposed solution: Visit every building in Casco. Propose a list of preventive security recommendations (fortified doors, cameras, etc). In addition, record employee information of those buildings in case they need to be contacted. Great idea.
4.Bien cuidados: Very polarizing subject. Some people see this as extortion. Others see it as part of Panamanian culture. Regardless, some level of organization must happen. Charging $3-$5 to help park cars is thought to be outrageous.
Community’s proposed solution: Register the bien cuidados. Parking assistance is needed. However, there should be some stipulations: Bien cuidados must register with the SPI. They must be identifiable (badge, shirt, etc) and be over the age of 21. Lastly, tipping is not an obligation.
*Note ”Proposed solution” from both SPI and Casco community are not official nor supported by every member. Rather some popular ideas.
Lately, this administration has been accused of not listening to others. That it acts more like a dictator than a president. On the other hand, collaborating with the SPI has been the opposite. They’re accessible and are trying to improve the situation. It has been a delightful experience.
One of the very first things that I changed when I arrived in Panama was my routine. For many years getting out the door to work was my first consideration. There were a couple of things I would add walking a mile on the treadmill or completing a Wii routine before showering, but my resolve never lasted for more than a few weeks before fading. Moreover my gym membership was only active because the dues were paid automatically.
Unfortunately, there was not an automatic motivation system to drive me the 25 miles nor send me upstairs to my treadmill and Wii. The results were predictable. I gained weight, a little more each year until health alarms were beginning to ring. I was pre-diabetic with occasional spikes in blood pressure and cholesterol readings. My right hip throbbed with chronic arthritic pain sufficient enough I needed to take Aleve throughout the day. Indeed when I did venture up to complete a Wii routine, it announced loudly “you are overweight!”
Before I arrived in Panama, my son Evan had joined a local gym. He was so enthusiastic about the program within my first week in Panama, he had signed me up as well. Frankly I was less than enthusiastic and not convinced that exercising would actually do much for me. Afterall, I have limitations – an bad hip, two wrists that were broken a few years ago, and various back issues caused by car accidents. I was not flexible, could not balance on one foot, and easily became dizzy. Indeed, I knew of at least a dozen more reasons why this was a bad idea. However, Evan was insistent, so off I went with the intent of giving it a fair chance if only to prove that 65 is not the new 40 – 65 is 65!
During the first month at the gym, Andy eased me into exercising. He was careful not to have me over do anything. When one exercise did not work, another was substituted. When I teetered, he was right there to hold me up. When the routine was too strenuous, he modified it. Little by little I improved. My clothes fit better and I felt better.
I then decided I could accomplish this on my own by walking. So I gave up the membership which is actually the rationale that has sabotaged me countless times before. This time, however, I admitted that self discipline was not working and too often I found reasons for not walking, i.e. – it is raining! I returned to the gym and Andy’s guidance in earnest as my New Year’s Resolution.
It has been a life changing decision. I begin my day with a 45 minute aerobic and anti-aerobic routine. Every morning Andy lists the exercise series I will complete and the number of repetitions. First, I begin with run/walking to warm up, followed by stretching, and then, the series of exercises is repeated 4 times. Each day the exercise series is different and Andy is there to show both what to do and to make certain that is done correctly. I do this Monday through Friday. On Saturday, I walk and stretch before Andy gives me a massage. The massage increases circulation and takes away muscle soreness. Moreover, it helps Andy determine which of my muscles are responding. The massage routine has worked a miracle on my hip which no longer chronically throbs. On Sunday, I rest.
The results are more than impressive. At my annual examination in March, I had lost a full 18 pounds. All of my tests were normal. My doctor was thrilled and stated that once considered medications were not needed. Upon my return, I resumed the routine and have lost more weight. I now wear medium and have given away most of my previous wardrobe. I no longer need to take Aleve to cope with my arthritic hip. My balance and flexibility have improved so much that balance is no longer concern. I can even bend over to touch the floor! There is muscle definition in my arms and legs. I can run laps and climb stairs without becoming breathless. And at least one of my chins has disappeared.
But the biggest change is that I look forward to working out each day and feel years younger! Perhaps, 65 is the new 40!
I must credit the gym with the results that I have achieved in less than 5 months. Having a personal trainer work with you each day is much more effective than occasional instruction. Having one like Andy who is a physical therapist with an understanding of rehabilitation and aging is a godsend. I am convinced that there is absolutely no other way that would have achieved my results. There is no diet or medication that would have increased my flexibility, strength, and stamina. The arthritic pain vanished because my hip is regularly massage and has become stronger. My blood sugar, bone scan, cholesterol, and blood pressure are impressively in the normal range because the calories consumed are burned more effectively. Prior tight fitting slacks literally fall off me because I am 2-3 sizes smaller.
All of this was accomplished without taking a single supplement or medication which my doctor was convinced should be added to bring levels nearer to normal. Indeed, it was all achieve without giving up ice cream!
I have become a CrossFit devotee because it works. The program is the key to staying healthy, fit, and youthful. It is worth every penny spent both on membership dues and a weekly massage from Andy. So to those of you living near, join me. You will find me every morning at Santa Familia in Casco Viejo! I have complete confidence that I will reach my goals in the next few months and that you can be on your way as well.
My Casco Viejo Guide
Casco Viejo is an intriguing place. It is one of few remaining colonial areas of Latin America that is World Heritage site. As you stroll through the neighborhood take in the dilapidated facades, recent restorations, and the barefoot children in la calle. You are witness to Casco’s transformation from Panama’s forgotten neighborhood to its cultural heartbeat. Enjoy.
Dining in Casco:
Manolo Caracol: No thinking is required. Simply sit back and enjoy 10 Latin inspired tapas courses that are always delicious and fresh. Food is harvested locally. Walk-in and make a reservation (required). Located on Avenida Central and Calle 3. $$$$
Las Clementinas: A throwback to the 1930s hey-days of Casco Viejo. (Las) Clementinas is famous for fish and cocktails. Try the Seafood Sampler with the Martini containing freshly picked Basil from the garden. Also, Clementinas has one of the best Sunday brunches in Panama City ($27/per head). Located on Avenida B and Calle 11. $$$$
Ego: Nothing is more quintessentially Casco Viejo than dining late night on a plaza. Look no further than Ego (yellow umbrellas). We love the Fried Ceviche, Ego Salad, Chicharrones, and the brownie that has cheese on it! Located on Plaza Bolivar on Avenida B. $$$$
Mercado del Marisco (Fish Market): This was Anthony Bourdain’s first stop in Panama – so it must be good! It’s located about 15 minutes outside of Casco walking along the ocean pedestrian path. Try a number of the different style ceviches from the booths outside. Otherwise, pick your own fish from the market and have it cooked upstairs at the restaurant. $$
Aye Carmela. We are currently obsessed with this mid range charming restaurant! Portions are big and the prices are small! Try the Greek Salad and Patacones (very Panamanian). Located on Calle 9 and Avienda B. $$
Caffe Per Due. For those that love authentic Italian thin-crust pizza, this will be a treat. Very affordable good food. The desserts are homemade and yummy. Avienda A and Calle 2. $$
Mama Chefa: If Casco were to have a grandmother, Mama Chefa would be it. The 40 year resident of the neighborhood serves lunch out of her very own kitchen (11am-12:30am). You will likely rub elbows with Panama’s government workers as you munch down on lovingly prepared $3 Panamanian lunch. It’s located on Calle 4 between Plaza Bolivar and the Presidential Plaza. $ (Chefa’s has no external sign – so ask, “Dónde está Mama Chefa?”)
Pollo de Papo: Papo is another Casco character. The jolly Casqueño occasionally sings Michael Jackson and steps to Salsa while grilling a mean BBQ chicken! Papo sets up lunchtime shop in front of his house on Calle 3 and Avienda B. Bring $4 and beat the noon rush. $
Coke-a-Cola: A former favorite of American G.I.’s during the Canal Period, Coke-a-Cola has seen better days. For those hankering for a no frills, local place to eat breakfast, this is the place. Buy the La Prensa local newspaper and sip on a cafe con leche. Located near Santa Ana plaza on Avenida Central (follow the trolley tracks). $
Pritty Pritty Fonda: A Spanglish play on the English word “Pretty”. You don’t get more local than their chicken, rice and beans for $3. Located next to Las Clementinas on Avienda B. $
Relic: Cleverly tucked under a youth hostel to throw off those without any sense of adventure, Relic has become Casco Viejo’s de facto late night destination. This underground bar/club attracts a young crowd and those that think young. Calle 9 and Avienda B.
Tantalo: This new addition to Casco has quickly become the place to go. The uncovered rooftop bar offers sweeping views of PTY as well as unlimited space necessary to fit the inflated egos of Panama’s Who’s-Who. Expect to pay a cover. Calle 8 and Avenida B.
Havana Panama: The best salsa space in all of Panama. Expect to pay a cover too. Down the hill from Relic.
Di Vino: Casco’s swanky wine bar is a great place to sip a glass of wine with a special someone or mix and mingle. Avenida A and Calle 4.
La Vecindad: A no thrills local hip-hop open joint. Dip into the $8-glass-of-fine-wine world at Di Vino. Afterwards, walk across the street and dip into the $1.50-national-beer-and-Reggae world at La Vecindad. This polar opposite social-economic situation is the essences of Casco Viejo.
Top 15 things to do in Casco Viejo.
1. Eat something from a street vendor (Bollo, Empanada, Tamale, Quail egg, churro, pina).
2. Watch Casco’s most talented play futbolito at 4pm. Calle 4 and Avienda A – head towards the ocean.
3. Wait outside the Presidential Palace to meet the Panama’s President, shake his hand.
4. Buy a ice cream from Granclement. Ask to try every single flavor. They will not get mad!
5. Get your shoes shinned in Plaza Santa Ana – $0.75!
6. Catch a show at the National Theater (near Plaza Bolivar), or at least go in for a look.
7. Work out at the ocean view, local Casco gym. Calle 4 and Avienda A – kinda hidden inside the Santa Familia building.
8. Buy fresh fruit from overflowing carts on Plaza Santa Ana.
9. Accidentally walk into an abandoned building and ask to see a nice one.
10. Look for 2 of the 5 mansions in Casco Viejo. The other 3 have fallen down.
11. Sit on a bench in Plaza Catedral around 4:00pm while watching the sunset across the building facades.
12. At 4:45pm walk the length of the Cinta Costera while nibbling a Dixie cup of ceviche. See the skyline contrast between the new and the old city as well as teenagers romancing on park benches.
13. Barter with street vendors for souvenirs.
14. Go inside the beautiful indoor plaza at Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores on Plaza Bolivar.
15. Get a massage ($40/hour) from super bilingual Andy: 6145-8064.
5 Casco Viejo Reads:
Back To Casco
Back To Casco
Time does fly. The six weeks I spent at home in Northwest Washington, seemed like a few days. Nonetheless a lot was accomplished. We found new renters for my house there within a short time. Whew! I completed dental and doctor check ups. We successfully shopped for items that are to find in Panama. And most importantly, I spent time with family and friends, dedicating most of it to my daughter and my 15 month old granddaughter, Addi, who jumped from her crib into my arms. I even managed to help my daughter organize her new home while doting on Addi. The time literally flew by.
It did not take long to switch gears upon my return to Panama. Blas, my driver, was patiently waiting for me as I exited customs. Vamos, Sandra a Casco Viejo! Evan was, of course, waiting and I was warmly welcomed back by the staff at Los Cuatros Tulipanes. And in no time, I was back in the swing of things which allows me to meet guests and sometimes help staff.
Everywhere I went for the next few weeks, I was welcomed back. I have made many friends in Casco. Even more than I might have counted before returning and realizing that people here notice and care. The guard at the museum who I pass almost everyday, the owners and their staffs at restaurants, the pharmacist, street vendors, children, and workmen have all welcomed me back. Indeed even a man that I pass when ducking out the back way and the maid who cleans the floors of building that I am in daily welcomed me back. This was amazing to me since very often people do not notice when a neighbor is gone on vacation. It is another thing that I love about Casco. It is a community.
There are many people that I miss in the Northwest. But I know there lives are busy and spending time with them is limited. Spending time with friends here is also limited but less so. The difference seems to be frequency of contact. In the Northwest, to see most of my friends requires that arrangements be made. Many live too far to walk over to see. It is even rare to run into any at a store or restaurant. Here the opposite is true. Everyday I pass friends on the street and meet new people. We are known customers and recognized neighbors. No matter where we go we bump into friends.
It is a very good feeling. Afterall, in the words from Thoroughly Modern Millie, “tis sad to all alone in the world.” To which can be replied, “but impossible to be all alone in Casco.”
Defending Panamanian Street Food
As I sat down to write this post, the USA Today article, “Panamanian Food: Cover It with Ketchup or Set It on Fire” had 374 comments, 99.3% of them negative. I, too, will pile on the author Brian. Here are some of his comments with which I disagree:
“My experiences with the local cuisine and dining scene in Panama City were vastly different and much less romantic than this optimistic bit of narrative in our trusty Lonely Planet guidebook. Granted, I spent just 2.5 days exploring the city…”
Brian, you should have blasted an email to local bloggers titled, “Hey, I’m doing a Panama City street food article for USA Today. Help me, POR FAVOR!”. Surely, someone in PTY would have volunteered.
A great candidate would have been ThePanamaReport.com’s Matt Landau. He is a blogger that lives in Casco Viejo (Casco) and often posts about food. In 2.5 days, Matt could have given you Casco’s low down.
Street food everywhere? No, hardly anywhere.
Again, this is where a local foodie guide would have been useful. He/she would have informed you that Casco’s street food scene is mobile. For example, Señor Peru sells morning empanadas from his motorbike in Plaza Cathedral. By 11am, he’s gone. Papo cooks up a helluva BBQ chicken. Yet, the grill is only smoking during the weekday lunch rush. A dedicated man on a bike pedals around warm cups of Chichime at 5pm. Casco has street food. You just need to know when and where to look.
Roadside fresh fruit stands and/or vendors with carts overflowing with pineapples, mangoes, bananas, coconuts? Nope.
An angel lady sells freshly sliced mangos for half of the year. She sits under the shade on a Plaza Bolivar park bench adjacent to Simon Bolivar elementary school. However, mangos are not in season right now. During the downtime, she carries around a box of bottled water.
Also, almost all the chinos offer bananas and pineapples daily. It’s not as novel as a overflowing cart of fruits, but it is fresh.
Mounds of beans and rice covered in onions, served with sides of boiled yuca and saccharine-sweet plantains, just like at my favorite Latin American joint in New York on the corner of Spring & Lafayette Streets? Not even close.
Comparing any Developing World city with New York City is just unfair. In NYC, one can eat better Italian food than in Italy; better Brazilian food than in Brazil; and better homemade food than Grandma herself makes! NYC has the world’s highest concentration of talented, energetic culinary kings and queens. New Yorkers, too, have godly high expectations.
In Casco Viejo, the ongoing influx of expat-run restaurants is helping to drive prices up and “cheap and cheerful” hole-in-the-walls out.
This is a simplistic view of Casco’s revitalization/gentrification. True, Casco Viejo has seen a surge of foreign entrepreneurs (Americans, Venezuelans, Italians, etc) arrive on the restaurant and nightlife scene. However, the majority of these newbies are not driving out “cheap and cheerful” local Panamanian establishments.
Remember that Casco Viejo was nearly abandoned in the last half of the 20th century. Swaths of city blocks of buildings were left dilapidated and deserted. The restoration of these uninhabited facilities didn’t displace the “cheap and cheerful”. Instead, they displaced trash and trees that had been accumulating inside the property.
Furthermore, Casco Viejo didn’t (and doesn’t) have high population density. Every street corner of Hanoi is crowded with small plastic stools surrounding a hot pot of Pho. Yet, every square inch of Hanoi is densely populated. This creates a strong demand for cheap eats.
Casco doesn’t have even the neighborhood density (yet) to sustain more than a handful of street vendors.
Panama City’s food scene was kind of a letdown.
Fair statement. You’re entitled to your opinion. But, let’s see where your taste have been formed. According to your travel article page, you’ve spent considerable time in Asia – specifically Bangkok.
Asian and Latin American cuisines are considerably different. Signature Asian street dishes are loaded with greens and lack hearty hunks of red meat and starches. On the other hand, Latin American street food is heavy on both:
Argentina/Uruguay: All sorts of red meats cooked on la parrilla.
Costa Rica: Gallo Pinto the staple breakfast.
Cuba: Ropa Vieja
El Salavdor: Pupusas
Peru: Freakn’ 3,000 different types of potatoes!
A Pescetarian will have a very hard time in most parts of Latin American.
I do applaud Brian for giving his honest opinion. Travel literature is too god damn fluffy and politically correct! Brian, just next time you come to Casco, stay with us. I’ll take you on the cool kid’s tour of Casco. Food included!
Dissecting Panama’s Poor Customer Service
Dissecting Panama’s Poor Customer Service.
Panama has a reputation for poor customer service. Yet, discussing this topic is polarizing: Grumpy Gringos broadly generalize that ALL customer service in Panama as awful. Not true. I employe/work with Panamanians who give excellent customer service. I have received great customer service. Great customer service in Panama does exist.
On the other hand, SOME hyper sensitive Panamanians denounce any critique made by a foreigner with a “Go home Gringo!”. This to is stupid. Poor customer service adversely affects all consumers – Panamanians and Gringos. Everyone should get fired up.
Let’s compare two similar businesses to illustrate my poor customer service point. Recently, I visited Panama’s Price Smart and Seattle’s Costco. The two retailers have nearly identical bussiness models: A warehouse club that allows members household items in bulk. Their store layouts and products are indistinguishable. The only obvious differences are the company colors and the fact that Costco dishes out mucho mas yummi food samples. I’ve been a long time member at both.
Yet, the customer service experience is vastly different. Let’s dissect it:
I arrive at Costco with two tasks to accomplish: 1) Help return my friend’s bike, and 2) Fill my fridge with food.
My friend bought a mountain bike months ago. He had used it a couple times. Now, he wants to return it without a receipt. To complicate matters, he accidentally forgot the combination to his after-market bike lock. It’ll be strapped on the bike forever. Yet, even with these two complications, all goes well.
A 30 year old-ish customer service representative (Ms. Customer Rep): “Hello! How can I help you guys today?”
Me: “He wants to return the bike. However, we’ve forgotten the combination to the lock and he has no receipt. Is that going to be a problem?”
Ms. Customer Rep: “No problem. Let me pull up your record…. Yes, it appears you bought the bike three months ago. I’ll take care of everything. Would you like store credit or cash?”
My friend: “Store credit is fine.”
Ms. Customer Rep: “Great. Here is your store credit. I hope you have a wonderful day!”
Ms. Customer Rep acted upbeat and professional. She solved our problem quickly and to our satisfaction. In a matter of minutes, we were spending more money in Costco. Costco’s return policy and its people are so fantastic that shoppers will overpay for their merchandise. That includes me.
We fill our cart with groceries and bellies with food samples. Time to checkout. The lines are long, but they’re moving briskly. Again, each checkout operator looks to be over 30 years old, mature, and on the move. In addition, there are floor helpers to assist shoppers – a couple managers floating too. Any checkout disruptions are handled instantaneously.
Mr. Register: “Did you find everything okay today?”
Me: “Yes. The muffin samples were particularly delicious.”
While Mr. Register and I banter back and forth, a floater starts boxing our order. The checkout is a smooth, synchronized process.
Mr. Register: “All set. Your total was $XXX. I hope you have a great day!”
As I leave the store I’m feeling satisfied and even more loyal to Costco.
I need to accomplish three tasks: 1) Return a computer. 2) Get a record of a receipt. 3) Buy gift certificates. Unlike Costco, my experience wasn’t pleasant.
A 21 year old customer service rep (Ms. Joven): “Buenos dias. Como le puedo auydar?” (Good day. How can I help you?)
Ms. Joven’s body language is different from Costco’s Mr. Customer Rep. Ms. Joven looks uninterested. A smile has long left her face.
Me: “I need to return this computer. It’s broken.”
Ms. Joven: “Solo hay 15 dias para devolver la mercancia. Y usted debe que tener la factura.” (There is only 15 days to return the merchandise. And, you must have the reciept)
Me: “I know. Yesterday I unsuccessfully tried to return the computer without la factura. Lesson learned.” I hand her the receipt.
Ms. Joven: “Presenteme su identificación.” (Present me your ID)
Me: “Do you see my photo on the membership card? Anyways, here is an additional form of ID.”
Ms. Joven: “Cuál es su….” (What is…)
A series of questions ensue. She further verifies my membership and carefully examines my factura. I feel like she is suspiciously searching for a flaw. Any reason NOT to take back my 7 day old broken computer. This is a far different experience from Costco’s liberal (and friendly) return policy. Ms. Joven is acting like an insurance adjuster trying to deny a claim.
Me: “Also, Ms. Joven, could you do me another favor. Could you please print out a facutra from a past transaction. I lost it. I need documentation of it for 2011 accounting purposes. It would be registered under….”
Ms. Joven cuts me off.
Ms. Joven: “El gerente no está aquí.” (The manager is not here)
Me: “Ok. When will he be back?”
Ms. Joven: “Mañana.”
Me: “No bueno. I’m here today. Mañana is pretty busy for me. Could you help me out?”
Ms. Joven: “Lo siento, pero NO ES posible.” (Sorry, but it is not possible)
Me: “Wouldn’t looking up my membership record provide a list of my past transaction?”
Ms. Joven: “No se puede.” (No I can’t)
Me: “Maybe another manager is on duty? They could help me out.”
I’m feeding Ms. Joven possible solutions. She is not being creative or helpful.
Ms. Joven: “No… Bueno, si. Pero ella está ocupada.” (No…Well, yeah. But she is busy)
Me: “You say “no” mucho.”
Now I’m just being a smart ass.
Sensing my attitude Ms. Joven says, “Bueno. Dejame ver si alguien me puede ayudar.” (Well, let me see if there is someone who can help you).
A couple minutes later, a manager comes down.
Me: “Hey Mr. Manager. I’m Evan. I have a business account with you. Could you help me out?”
Mr. Manager: “Hmm…. realmente, no estoy trabajando. Y tengo que irme. Pero, este vez, voy a auydarte.” – He emphasis the fact that he is doing ME a favor. (Actually, I’m not working and I have to leave. But, THIS TIME, I can help you)
Me: “Chucha de tu madre! Tell me “Con mucho gusto!” and find my receipt with a smile! My company spends 10k/year at your store!” is what I think. I actually say, “Thank you sooooo much Mr. Manager. You’re toooo kind!”
I proceed to shop. At checkout, the lines are long too. It’s quincena (payday). Quincenas in Panama are on par with the busiest shopping days in the USA – think Black Friday.
At the register, I give the register lady (Ms. Register) full disclosure. My order will be complicated because A) business accounts takes several steps in order to comply with government regulations. B) I’m ordering gift certificates – which seems simple, but Price Smart makes it super complicated.
Me: “We can do all of this?” I need reassurance.
Ms. Register: “Con mucho gusto!” (With pleasure!)
I love when they say that.
Ms. Register is doing an excellent job. Not only are we proceeding at a rapid pace, she is laughing at my jokes. I’m feeling happy. Ms. Joven and Mr. Manager had set my service expectations very low.
Yet, there is a small snag: The gift certificate code is nowhere to be found. Ms. Register presses the assistance button. Nobody comes. She scans the floor for a floater. Nadie (nobody). Management has imcompanitenly not scheduled additional help during the busiest day of the month. Ms. Register is on her own.
Pressure is mounting. We’ve been stalled for multiple minutes. Shoppers waiting in line are tapping their toes impatiently. Ms. Register is forced to leave her post. She seeks the certificate code sola.
She returns 5 minutes later.
Ms. Register: “Perdóneme, Señor.” (Please forgive me Sr.)
Me: “It’s not your fault. You are doing a great job. Management let you down.”
As I left Price Smart, my feeling about their customer service was one of frustration coupled with a slight onset of rage.
If I’m jefe of Price Smart tomorrow, I immediately do three things:
- Staff more. High volume days (like quiencena) must have all hands on deck. Ms. Register was providing great customer service. However, she was under resourced. Members were irritated by the slow check out process.
- Staff better. A company should staff some of their best employees in places that interact with customers. In the case of Coscto, their customer service staff consisted of mature and motivated 30 year olds. On the other hand, Price Smart placed mostly apathetic 20-somethings in this department. The difference in the customer service experiences was dramatic.
- Surveys. Price Smart should email out a quarterly/yearly member satisfaction surveys. This would provide honest feedback from their current members about their Price Smart experience. A simple and cheap way to improve operations.
Truth be told, frustration, rage, and hopelessness are reoccurring emotions for us Panama consumers. Just ask anyone who has a Cable and Wireless or HSBC account, flown Air Panama/Aeropearlas, or interacted with an immigration officer at Tocumen International Airport. Big companies and a bureaucratic government in Panama give awful customer service.
So, customer service in the USA is perfect, right? No. My recent return flight to Panama stopped at LAX. Untied Airlines’ Mr. Counter Clerk was an asshole. USA has poor customer service too.
Here is the difference: After every flight United emails me a, “Let us know about your trip” survey. I unloaded on the comment box. I (the customer) have some recourse. Something like a satisfaction survey shows that the airline giant United attempts to care about their customer’s experience. In my 5 years as a consumer in Panama, very, very few times have I ever seen a medium or big sized company considering their customer experience. I feel like few even know customer service exist.