Real Panama

Trip Start May 12, 2009
Trip End Sep 29, 2009

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Where I stayed
Private Home

Flag of Panama  , Chiriquí,
Sunday, June 7, 2009

Ahora, I am staying at the home of a multi-millionaire.
Por verdad. ( It is the truth).
His name is "Bob" and he lives in the house that Noriega held some of his drug fests and orgies in. The house is known locally as La Pagoda. It is, incredible.
Where to start? It is surrounded by acres of gardens. I am given my own private guest room that is the size of my Denver apartment- and then there is a luxurious bathroom attached. There is a staff. By this, I mean that there is a cook, maid, and servant. It is so different for me. Velky is the servant, and makes herself of use bringing me anything I could want. If I left my book in the other room, she will go get it. That is her job. This is just as foreign to me as living in a hut with no running water. Actually, perhaps I have more second-hand experience with the reality of poverty than I do with knowing how to respond to having a servant.
The next question I am sure you have is "How?" How do you get to do this? Answer: It is amazing what an inquisitive mind and positive attitude can bring about. I struck up a conversation with Bob in downtown Boquete about local politics, and he asked me if I would like to learn more.
Learn, I have. For me, this experience is like living with a favorite college professor. He has lectured to me on many topics over the past few days: law, religion, money. Investing, land capital, estate planning, the rule of law, the rule of populism. Obama, Noriega, Menchu, Torrijos, Martinelli, Balbina, Reagan, Ahmadinejad, Netanyahu. Fiji, St Kitts, off-shore bank accounts, USA visas, occupancy permits, cocaine, quetzals. And the more mundane things in life, which make us human- orchids, dog crap, salmon, potholes, mangos, and taxes. And death.
 It is hard to know where to begin. I could either chronicle my actual experiences, or elaborate on what I have realized in the past few days.
This is a world of material comfort that Bob lives in, and most of the time rest follows as well. Yet there is turbulence and there are problems I do not envy. I sat in on a conference call with him and his lawyer. When that much money is at stake, it is hard not to become emotional about the charters being negotiated.
Panamena life is full of contradictions. Sometimes, a palm needs to be greased with a propina (tip) to get the job done, even with elected officials. Panamenas strive for democracy and the rule of law, yet acknowlegde that life is not ideal, a pay the propina when practical.
A surprising fact here is that marriage is rare. This story summarizes it: the gardener who works for Bob said that he went with his father to a government office for some paperwork (paperwork: the national pastime of Panama). The clerk asked his father if he was married or single. He said single. The gardener was surprised and said "you must explain to me! I thought you and mother have been married all these years!" The father, who lived with gardeners mother for 40-50 years, is the father of 5 and the grandfather of about 8, replied that he "Never could stand for commitment."
So, almost no one is married. In fact, I never met a couple who said they were married. None. Not the gardener and his own wife, or the couple who hosted me, or the man who owned the hostel I stayed at, or a clerk in the store. People don't marry unless a they are in the public eye or closely affiliated with the Church.
The Church. The reason why people don't like to marry. Getting a divorce is next to impossible in the Church in Panama, where 90% or more of the population is Roman Catholic. But living together is easy to overlook. So, it is better to live together than ever approach the mortal sin of divorce.
This is just another of the contradictions that Panama is. Panamenas embrace these contradictions without creating a cognitive dissonance, in the way only a Latin country can do it: with flare.
The 5 main tribes: the Embera, Ngube Bogle, Kuna Yala, Bri Bri, and another. They live on their land in much way they wish on comarcas. Comarcas are similar to American reservations, yet are legally a whole different animal because they are set up very differently legally. Much more sovereignty with their own people, but the government changes the boundaries of their land holdings with almost every new administration. These people live in cinderblock shacks, cooking outside, using the jungle as a bathroom. Average yearly income PER FAMILY is 700 USD. Meanwhile, "white" Panamenas live in Panama City with 2 cars or more, a condo in a gated community, bilingual private schools, shopping malls, Beyonce, and the Atkins Diet. Average income here is similar to the US, with European vacations.
Interesting fact: when the shah of Iran was ousted, Khomeini decided to re-settle in the Pearl Islands off the coast of Panama near Panama City. He is close to every technological convenience, included high tech security systems, yet also secluded on a paradise of white sand beaches, turquoise waters, pearls, tropical fish, and fresh fruits.
Also, in Panama people react very positively to Americans. "Ah, America? What part? I have a sister in Miami and I went to San Fran for Christmas last year." Panama is a close friend of the US, even now, after handing back the canal. People here are familiar with respecting a leader while being aware of their vices, incompetency, or both. (Usually both).
I encountered no questions about Bush or Obama from Panamenas. While Europeans sometimes ask me "how could you let your government do that?", Panamenas understand. It simply is. You try for better at the next election, and pay bribes in the meantime.
Panama will be inaugerating their own new president, Martinelli, on July 1. The administation is walking into office with most of the budget for this fiscal year already having been spent, so no one expects change until 2010.
Gas: runs about $2-3 here. $2.15/gal for diesel, and $2.70- $2.90 for gas. I heard that gas jumped 20% in May back home? Also, it is sold at octanes 91 and 95 at this altitude, as opposed to 85 and 87 in Colorado. Competition is very tight and the prices tightly match each other at all the stations.
Hostels: Staying at a hostel is an experience similar to going to an international high school. It is an experience of great diversity, but not always great maturity. I was sitting the porch with Omer from Israel listening to the I-pod of a girl from Quebec. We were making fun of her music...Hanson, Spice Girls, and other abominations!
Music: I never cease to be amazed how other countries import the worst of American music. In Egypt, there is Backstreet Boys everywhere. In Brazil, you hear Madonna. Here, I hear Jennifer Lopez and a rapper called Chamillionaire or "Lil' Someone".
If you have read this far, I congratulate you on your interest in foreign affairs, and in humanity. ;)
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