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.