Part Three: The Heart of Panama City
Panama has three beers to offer us. There’s nothing special or fancy – they’re all golden beers, light in flavor and body, and all pretty similar. We tried them all, of course, and actually wanted to venture out into the city to pick some up to keep in our hotel room. Those Panama nights get long, and that balcony that overlooks the Diesel Beach just seems to call to us like the crickets of the jungle. We longed to sit out on that balcony and enjoy a few cold cans of Balboa. Alas, here now we sit in our comfortable leather couches back in Dallas, Texas, and can say we not once sat in those chairs on the balcony.
We did do plenty of sitting and drinking though. I met some really great people on this trip. Certain people with whom I’ve spoken and supported many times were there, and it was great to meet them. But they also brought with them their spouses, and that really rounded out the vacation for me. Tom and Jeremy and Sean – these guys were the perfect compliment to the Suzanne, Shana and Kacy I’ve already come to know and love. Though I’d not yet met Suzanne and Kacy, I was already very fond of them from my dealings with them on the phone. The nights we spent out by the pool crowded around a table drinking beer we had bribed a waiter into serving us were as memorable as the tours and experiences we were talking about around those tables.
It wasn’t that it was hard to get a beer at the resort. In fact, at any bar we approached in the facility, we were given as many as we wanted with no cost to us directly. But getting them to hand you twelve cold cans of Balboa was a different story. They would do it, but they had to bring them out to you on a tray. And they would shake the tip cup. We would then stuff the tip cup full of American dollars and go patiently await their arrival by one of the pools amid the backdrop of salsa music playing from inside one of the clubs. The nights were wild with music and drink, a sweet comfortable eighty degrees or so, and the mornings were late, getting to sleep in until seven-thirty or eight… The kids didn’t come, you see. Well Tom and Suzanne were forced to bring their two kids because they couldn’t find babysitting. I’m glad they did though. Tommy and Hannah were a total delight, and made the trip that much more special.
It was the second full day in Panama for us that we chose to relax by the pool and do nothing but drink and burn. Well, I stayed under the canopy of a poolside shade avoiding the sun like a plague. I decided long ago I didn’t care about tanning. I was born white, and I’m of the opinion I should try to stay that way. Any attempts I make to darken my skin result in a complete different direction of color, and I end up red as the ketchup on a Panamanian Taco. Now here I’m assuming they put ketchup on their tacos. And that it’s red. Anyway, the pool’s swim-up bar served us well during this day, and I even broke out my e-reader to try to catch up on my reading. I have fifty books to read this year, and have only finished four so far. I clearly need to get in gear. Well, it wasn’t in the cards. I read about two sentences during the five or so hours we sat by the pool.
It was about the time I was ready to head up for a nap that Amy recommended we join them at the casino later that night. She and Erika had plans to go lose some money at some sort of table – be it craps or blackjack or Panamanian Four-Square. Julie and her sister Sandy were to be there as well. See, the problem with this is that the company paid for couples to go. And for whatever reason if someone wasn’t married or didn’t want to bring his or her spouse, they brought a sister or a friend. Which was the case with these two ladies. They brought other ladies. And this is a problem, because I went with my wife. And when we went to the casino, it was four ladies, and me.
Please bear with me here, as I’m trying to remember why this was a problem.
Okay, apparently, it was a fleeting one, or I’ve lost recollection of it entirely. Amy mentioned that as we walked through the mall and casino that I could be the rock star, and the ladies could be my bitches. They played the part well. I hope I did mine. The mall and casino were like a million others. I could write volumes about the time we spent there – the games Amy and Erika taught us, the names of Mexican cities, the autographs we didn’t sign… But the most poignant part of the trip for me was the journey itself. Having been shut down from leaving the room the night before in search of beer to bring up to our room, I was anxious to get out. You see, the bellboy had told me it was too dangerous for a white man to venture out into Vera Cruz where the nearest gas station was to get beer after dark. Driving through the city on the way to the mall, it became evident why.
The city is beautiful. It’s not the same beautiful as we’re used to in the States, surrounded by new condominiums and apartments popping up all over the place. But it’s beautiful in its own eerie way. The people of Panama are not afraid of color. On a thirty-storey condo building, you’ll see pinks and greens and blues – more color than we’re allowed at home. It’s refreshing to see the spirit. Though now dirty with soot and smog, blackened by years of exposure and mold, you can still see the spirit we never even started with. Their fervor for beauty far exceeds our will to produce it.
But it’s dark. It’s depressing. These same painted buildings are full of clotheslines hanging from every balcony, filled with clothing. No one can afford the electricity for driers. Window units hang from some of the units, but not all. I felt myself trying to imagine the feel of the inside of some of these homes. I tried to picture the dark warmth of a summer night inside one of the dwellings, the sound of the loud window unit vibrating and humming as I try to sleep, sweat beading on my brow as I swat the flies away. The smell of the city drifting in from the open windows. It’s a dreary and sad picture, but picturesque in its un-American obscenity. The sight was offensive to my civilized senses, but alluring to my artistic humanitarian heart. I wanted to feel what these people feel. To know one week of their poverty in return for what I could show them my world was like. I’ve seen their faces. Their faces are bare of the American arrogance we carry. They are more in touch with their lives, even though it might not be to our standards. The trash along the roads, the graffiti on the buildings, the crumbling, blackened walls of the buildings down a remote alley – it’s a level of neglect we’re just not used to seeing. And it’s abundant. But you don’t see it in their faces. They seem to be free from the burdens of our culture – the worry of the Next Big Thing, the money to cover our broadband bill, the price of a caviar dinner with white wine and a limo ride back to the Marriot… I was humbled. But not disheartened. That very deepest part of me that wanted to be disgusted by this was the same part of me that wanted to invade their homes. To feel their pain and experience their lives. That part of me wanted to turn tail and run – to forget I had ever witnessed this harshest reality and just sail back to my white-collar world. But I also wanted to stay. I wanted to shed my riches and stay with them. To know their lives.
This is the side of Panama that I will never forget. Their biggest houses and densest cities still run along roads that border dense jungle. You could see a sloth on your walk to the diner. We don’t really have that at home. It was a profound and sobering experience just to drive through this town where white man was not really welcome. And it was evident why I was not welcome. My cheap pants were more expensive than some of their wardrobes. But they don’t think about these things like we do. They make do with their lives and find their own happinesses. I’ve not often in my life felt so close to the ground as I did here. And when I go back to Panama, to take my children, this is where I will go. I will stand atop this hill, this bridge, and let my children look upon the things they take for granted. To see a life they will never know.
All the fun and food and games and laughs we found in the mall and casino were just echoes in a dark hall as my mind reeled with what I had seen in the city. And though we had been in Panama only less than three days, I felt a thousand years older. The rain forest. The indigenous village. The whole world was there waiting for me to discover it. Our guides I think knew this about us. They knew our sentimentalities and prepared for them by showing us parts of the world we needed to see. And show us they did. We remember the tribal drums we heard on our descent from the rain forest on that gondola gliding between the trees. Tomorrow we shall return. And we shall find the drums.