January 21, 2009
Gloria and her son left for the city yesterday morning at 5 am, but when they arrived at the hospital clinic their doctor wasn’t there, and they had to come home – a fruitless trip and a fruitless waste of carfare, but all too common in Panama at the free public hospital. Upon returning she received further bad news: her niece is too sick for the heart operation in Panama. Her life is now in God’s hands. Gloria worked as hard as usual, but looked as if she was ready to burst into tears. While she waited for the clothes to finish in the dryer she sat on the floor and prayed.
This morning at Mari’s I set up Skype on Harlennys’ new computer, and we tested it with Sally on my computer at the villa. Harlennys is excited. Nine people slept at Mari’s last night, and all were leaning over my shoulder as I worked. Ita is very curious about Joel, Sally’s significant other. The phrase “significant other” translates poorly into Spanish, so we settled for the equivalent of “boyfriend.”
On the way to Mari’s Minga took me to see someone else who remembers me, a man older than she with a golden tooth and kidney failure. He showed me a bandage around his abdomen, under which is a subcutaneous line delivering medication. Upon returning to Panama he has to go on dialysis for four hours a day. As a young man he was part of a crew that cleared the pasture land in all of Buenventura with a machete; now he wants to come here and see what has transpired. I invited him and Minga and Roberto’s elderly surviving sister to have breakfast with me in the morning, and then we’ll do a tour. There’s no way Mr. Gold Tooth could get past security on his own.
Cele and Lawrence, full time residents at Buenaventura, are taking us to a fish restaurant in San Carlos tonight. I like the idea of getting to know local restaurants, but Cele is a major busybody and beginning to wear thin. I look forward to recovering my solitude at the pool, where I sit with coffee and a good book and am content.
January 20, 2009
Inauguration day. Sally and I are glued to satellite TV in the villa, watching our new President. We are joyful and hopeful. I typically reach for a global, not a solely American perspective, but today I am proud to be an American and proud that we have elected this man as our president. I will return to the village tomorrow. Minga and her family are excited too about our having a President Obama. Chomba asked me yesterday if white people in America are happy about Obama. I replied that in all countries there are some people who only like and trust those who look just like themselves. Most of us, I said, like and trust Obama very much.
I tried out the new cell phone by calling Mari, and it works. She said they are also very excited, and wish all of the American people congratulations on our new president.
January 19, 2009
Her eyes downcast and face troubled, Gloria asked if I would sit with her for a few moments as she had something very difficult to ask me. First, she needed inauguration day off. Her fourteen-year-old son Luis, born with a malformed foot and lower leg, will have his sixth surgery in May, and tomorrow is the day they must go to hospital in Panama for his x-rays and other tests. That was not all. Now Gloria’s voice became higher and much faster. Yesterday her husband Luis, working on their new house, stepped on a nail and had to go to Penonome for a tetanus shot. That took a good chunk of the carfare she had saved for the Panama trip. If Senora Alison [her on-site boss] was back from her trip to the US, Alison would lend her the money against her next paycheck. Gloria had asked her sister, who had no money to lend. The sister’s daughter, Gloria’s 18 year old niece, suffers from a congenital heart defect that has already claimed the lives of three of her siblings. The family has many medical expenses. Senora Patricia, the owner of the house, would also help but lives in Miami. Gloria has no one else to ask, and she tells me she is deeply ashamed because I have already given her so much. Now she began weeping. If I would lend her the carfare, she will repay me on the 27th, when she gets paid. Somehow I knew, for her dignity, that this needed to be a loan – even if I will tip her generously when I leave.
There is so little wiggle room of any kind for poor people. No extra, no reserve, no redundancy. I took Gloria’s hands in mine, and told her about my time of need, when I had found Jerry dead, and had sat frozen in a chair while friends brought me tea loaded with sugar, went to grocery shop, put on laundry, called other friends, helped me prepare to call my children. Sometimes, I said, help is financial. Sometimes it is spiritual. Always, we need help from each other to get through the hard moments of life. I gave Gloria ten dollars more than she had asked for, so that she would have a little extra. should anything unexpected arise. She asked God to bless me, and said that I have a good heart.
Later in the day in Penonome, a small gem of the moment: watching Sally and Minga, who is so tiny she reaches no higher than Sally’s shoulder, walk hand in hand into the Palestine Market for Sally to search for another sports bra. Knowing Sally speaks no Spanish they are loathe to let her go anywhere unaccompanied by someone who can help her if needed.
Grinning, Sally told me she found just the right bra and it cost $3.00.
January 18, 2009
In no other part of my life might I dance joyfully with a stranger on my way to buy a cell phone.
No task in Panama unfolds in linear fashion. Today, Sunday, Minga, Mari and I were to drive to Penonome to acquire an inexpensive cell for me to use here, and to try out the new casino that has opened down the street from the one in which Minga has had such good luck. Sally stayed at the pool; on our fourth day here, the morning is gorgeous… as it was the day before, and the day before, and the day we arrived.
I drove my bold little Daihatsu SUV first to Minga’s. With all the construction, the road to and from the villa and the highway is simply terrible, full of huge potholes. Not realizing how deep they are I hit the first one hard enough to pop a tire. Lesson learned. This day I took the back road, still bad but it has always been bad – there is no incentive to improve this road from Buenaventura to the village. No one from here goes back and forth except for the rusty small pickups and vans that carry the workers.
Minga was dressed for the trip to Penonome, which is the district capitol, and sitting on the front patio awaiting me. I greeted Humberto, sitting across the road in the shade and already drinking with a couple of friends on the one day of the week that the men who work in Panama are back in town. Inside Jennifer was dressing Josue, who is still shy with me, even after a few days. “Go and kiss Tia Pamela,” she urged,” and he buried his face in his mother’s leg. I kissed him on the top of his head instead, then hugged and kissed Jennifer. While his mother was distracted Josue wiggled from between us and scooted across the room and out the front door – he’s quite steady on his feet and quite fast for a 13-month old. . Minga grabbed him as he made a beeline for his uncle Humberto and deposited him back in the living room, putting the front gate in place across the open doorway. Minga’s knees and ankles may ache with arthritis, but she is well able to retrieve a curious great-grandson before he gets to the road.
Before driving around the corner to Mari’s, Minga told me we had to walk for a few minutes to another house to greet Roberto’s elderly sister, which we did. Then, we took another short walk to another house of someone who remembered me and wanted to see me. The woman told me she had been part of the celebration 40 years ago when we colored Easter eggs on my front porch; she told me where she had crouched among the crowd of children, and asked if I remembered her. I smiled and assured her I did – a white lie, as I believe it’s called. She remembered the color of her egg, and that she had guarded it for days, not wanting to eat it, until it had gone bad in the heat.
By now we are more than an hour since I left the villa, and we’re not yet on the road to Penonome.
Then, walking back toward Minga’s, we heard the sounds of salsa music. Last night’s wedding in the village – which Minga and her family attended – had flown directly into today’s birthday party for someone, and Minga declared that we must pass by and give our greetings. All of her kids were there, Ita peeling yucca for two huge pots of sancocho, everyone else drinking and dancing and the kids dunking in a pool. Someone handed me a cold beer and a stick of grilled meat from the fire, and as I swayed with the music someone named Fufo was encouraged to get up and dance with me. My trips to Rio Hato are the ultimate “go with the flow.” Somehow the steps of traditional dancing came back to me after all the years, and we did pretty well.
In awhile, Minga announced that we were on the way to Penonome and we finally left.
Thank God Mari was with me to find the cell phone – not all models work at the beach, and we had to go to three different stores. She bargained hard for the right to bring the phone back if it failed to work, and for $39.95 and a ten-dollar phone card, I’m now up and running with a Panamanian cellular.
That simple purchase wound up, all told, taking hours.
January 17, 2009
Happy birthday Tia Linda! No internet yet, no Skype here at the villa, so I will have to wait to call. The official Panama birthday party will be January 31, when Linda and Ron are here along with Wendy and George. Mari is in charge of the planning; there will be typical music and dancing by the children in traditional dress. And, a grand feast. The food is Minga’s bailiwick, although all the girls will help do the actual cooking.
Cultural differences keep taking me by surprise. I had told Minga I would come early [she arises at 5:00 am and takes Josue so his mother can sleep], around 8:00 am, to have coffee with her, just the two of us. There is literally no such thing in Panamanian life as “just the two of us,” which I should know by now. When I arrived, the table was set in Minga’s kitchen with a tablecloth, china, napkins and silverware. Humberto was standing at the gas stove, cooking. Forty years ago Minga had neither table and chairs, nor a tablecloth, nor dishes or glasses. She had tin plates and bowls; most of the family ate with spoons or their fingers sitting on the front stoop. Sally was expected and a place set for her, although wanting to respect my time alone with Minga, she had stayed back at the villa. Humberto was preparing coffee, grilled tamales, and some kind of meat [liver?] with a strong taste and a few strips of onion to tone it down. Jennifer got up and joined us; Georgethe climbed on her mother’s lap and picked at the food, still dressed in pajamas. Rufina arrived, and took a plate. Humberto filled his own plate and sat down to join in the conversation. Somehow, in all the din, Minga and I did find a way to talk.
January 15, 2009
Mari, Harlennys and Luis came with us in the rental car for the drive back to Rio Hato. I asked Mari if she knew the roads out of the city and onto the Bridge of the Americas, and she said yes.
She did know, but not the highway: the bus route – which is how she comes and goes. We had a slow moving, exhaust-choked tour of the peripheral city neighborhoods along streets with traffic lights every few blocks. After almost an hour, the bridge came into sight and we were on our way.
January 14, 2009
Despite the seven degree cold in both Rochester and Newark there was no snow, and Sally and I arrived without incident. My suitcase was one of the last ones out, making us among the last going through security and customs. As we emerged into the terminal just past 11 p.m. , there was Minga’s posse, our gaggle of greeters: Ita, daughters Jarelys, Jarynelis, and baby Jaryneilis; Mari and Harlennys and Luis; Daira. Minga had stayed in Rio Hato because her arthritis was bothering her, and the hour of meeting us would be late. They had come on the bus, some from Rio Hato and some from the city. After hugs and kisses and photos, I asked if they would like to come to the airport hotel with us for a soda.
Mari at 39 is the responsible one. Ay, no, Tia Pamela, the hour is late and you and Sally must be tired. The children have to get to bed.
Ita at 41 is the party girl. Claro que si. Of course!
Including the driver, we were 11 piling into a taxi along with the luggage for the short ride. So heavily did we weight down the car that we hung up on a speed bump, scraping loudly as the driver inched the car along. After registering and taking our luggage to the room, Sally and I sat with them in the bar, ordering Cokes. Luis was fascinated by the jumbo TV showing a basketball game, couldn’t take his eyes off it. The kids all tried out the public bathroom just off the bar.
The adventure begins.