Thursday, December 31, 2015

Come with me to Panama

Panama City from Ancon Hill

With our driver-guide, Francisco, at the Miraflores Locks

Shopping for essentials in Boqete

Where your cup of coffee began . . . possibly

Learning Spanish: I can now say: La Quenta, por favor and whether or not I have it down perfectly, the waiter returns in a few minutes with the bill. I can also say with confidence, Mi gato bebes leche, but since I don’t have a cat, telling someone that it drinks milk is not likely to come up in a conversation. Yo escribe un carta might be useful sometime but who writes letters anymore? Un cafe nigra or Un cafe, non leche, is useful; the coffee here is fabuloso and I’ve never drunk it with milk. The stop signs read Alto but that can also mean “upper” as in Alto Boqete, which is where my daughter lives. In Germany we regularly visited Oberbieber (Upper Beaver) and Niederbieber which is . . . well you guessed it. I find myself answering in German if I’m surprised by a question; the other day I said Aufwiedersehen to a puzzled store clerk. I’m still not sure about greetings, but I think Buenos Dias suits morning greetings, Buenos Tardes (?) the afternoon and “good-night” is Buenas Noches. Around here it doesn’t  matter since everyone seems just to say Buena, an all-purpose form of saying “How’re y’all doin’” which is what you’re likely to get from the Texans in church.

Laws and Limits: I was told there are laws for everything and, I’ve observed, there are police everywhere you look. However, most everyone apparently ignores the laws and the police seldom enforce them. The Pan American highway between David and Santiago is under construction and absolutely horrible for long distances, but even on the finished, paved four-lane portions, signs that help are hard to find and I wondered if one big sign at either end saying “FIGURE IT OUT, GRINGO” wouldn’t be more helpful as it would prepare you for what you’re about to experience. In construction areas, the word disculpe appears often, a word related to the English “culpable,” or guilty, and similar to the German “entschuldigen sie mir, bitte.” In other words, “We’re sorry, please forgive us.” You’d think Canadians had written their signs.

Panama City: Panama City is impressive with it’s stainless steel and glass skyscrapers . . . but situated alongside vast slums. it’s obvious that the Panama Canal has pumped a steady flow of cash into the capital. What’s also obvious is that the wealth it’s brought has never been equitably distributed. In the suburbs, acres and acres of modest, small, identical homes march up and down hillsides, a possible attempt at moving the poor out of the city proper and into better housing. Our driver-guide said that the tenements downtown “look like Cuba” and that the city was attempting to buy them but their owners weren’t willing to sell. Apparently slum landlords exist everywhere.

Driving: My son-in-law is a skilled and aggressive driver, and his style fits the going conventions well. A minimum of signs and traffic lights means that drivers have to be assertive and opportunistic in order to get from point A to B. If there’s an opening—no matter how small—take it . . . or you could be trying to get onto Balboa Calle for hours. Our driver-guide was a recent immigrant from Venezuela (he said there are 300,000 of his countrymen in Panama) and he commented that Panamanians are good drivers; I’d have to agree if in-and-out-weaving-with-horn-honking-and-jack rabbit-acceleration-and-brake-slamming is considered the measure of good driving. I can’t drive that way and, fortunately, I won’t have to. I’d rather eat bark.

English in Panama: The second language here is English; in fact it’s the only foreign language group that’s given an obvious nod by the signs and directions and by personnel in hotels and restaurants. The involvement of the USA in the progress of the Panamanian economy is obvious and Panama’s desirability as an alternative retirement haven for Americans, particularly, greases the wheels of commerce and has perpetuated a class system that remains the plague of many colonial countries. If you speak English or if you’re a Panamanian who got in on the ground floor of the Panama Canal’s largess, you’re not likely to pick fruit, cut sugar cane or rake coffee beans on the drying floor. The Hombres mixing concrete along the highway, erecting signposts, had their heads wrapped against the burning sun; their day’s pay probably amounts to less than 10% of what a Canadian would earn doing similar work. (Minimum wage levels range from $1.60 per hour for unskilled labout to 3.60 for stewards and other in-flight crew. Domestics make $200 - $250 per month) I’ve been surprised not to have seen many multinational factories here as one does in Juarez or Nogales, Mexico; what with the proximity to the canal and the low wage rates, I’d have thought the location ideal for the blood-sucking, faceless nature of multinationals. It’s possible I just missed that aspect.

But if my impressions count, I’d say that the Panama we’ve seen is a safe and friendly place. It’s people are beautiful and generous and if half the country’s citizens are super-privileged and the other half subsisting, the disparity seems not to have disturbed the general peace.

At least not yet.

I could live here.

Can’t say I belong here, though. At least not until I can say “What’s the best way to get from here to Bocas del Toro without flying to Panama City first and without driving the treacherous road over the mountains,” in fluent Spanish. That would take a while.

Or “Where can I get a shovelful of snow? I want to stick my face in it.”

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