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Cursing in Panama

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Written by Matt   
Thursday, 15 October 2009 05:58
Cursing in PanamaI was trying to cross five lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic on Via Espana over the combined distance of about twenty feet. This may sound like an audacious attempt, cure but in Panama it's fair game and most drivers will concede to your effort and let you through. This is not to say everyone is so kind however. I was only one lane away from completing my mission when a man in a rusted Windstar lurched forward effectively blocking my last remaining angle, inching so close to the car ahead of him that, even on a bicycle, I would not have been able to squeeze through. It was a really late model van with the type of calcified paint that spoke of far too many soccer practices or acid storms or something. Even from inside my truck, I could hear the sounds this van was making, heaving and roaring like a seriously dehydrated robot. On the back window was prominently displayed a For Sale sign. "Se Vende Hoy," the sticker read, then a phone number below if anyone high enough on household bleach happened to feel so inclined.

"Excuse me," I mouthed through my open window at the driver, pointing tenderly in the desired direction. "Excuse me, I can go that way?" This is a tactic I've found works wonders in Panama or anywhere in the world for that matter. Inside our cars with our windows up we are nothing but emotionless drones, all vying for a top position in the race. But in a standstill scenario, the moment you open the window, catch some eye contact, then frown a little bit, as if to say, "sympathize with me here my driving brethren," the deal is elevated to a new, almost spiritually personal level that nobody will turn down.

But if this man wasn't Satan, he was a classmate or a close relative. He looked me in the eye, even paused for a moment and said quite matter of factly, "No." Then he shook his finger like Dikembe Mutombo and said "No. No you may not."

At first I interpreted this as a crass little joke: like sarcastically turning down food to a starving orphan. "Hahaha," I chuckled. "Very fun. But in serious, I can go that way?" The man held his ground and said no again, this over the course of about ten seconds. It was as if he decided to make it his personal goal to block me from completing my mission. I was a soldier unable to return to his base. I grew annoyed as he inched even closer to the car ahead, proving his power and dominance.

The cars behind me had started to back up and honk. I became flustered and in an act of fury, shouted at the Windstar the following line. "You never are going to sell your car."

The moment I said it, I realized how stupid and formal it sounded. In the States, I would have used some slang. Something like, "Yo, no one'll buy that piece of shit." Hell, in the States I probably would have fetched curse words from the deepest and most callous annals of my vocabulary. But in Spanish, my statement had come out as articulate in the gayest sort of way. In terms of fightin' words, "You are never going to sell your car," were probably relatively low on his list. I appeased the man and drove off, doing a 12-minute loop around the block to arrive late to my afternoon meeting.

When I tell people in Panama this story, they usually they take it upon themselves in a very serious, educational sort of way, to teach me a whole new list of curses that would have been far more appropriate and effective. "Chupame el peson," my friend Fernando suggested. "That is how you say, ‘suck a nipple!' And the nicest part is that you can use it in other situations too."

As foreigners, we have two types of swearing in Spanish. One consists of poorly pronounced words we've learned in restaurant kitchens and the other consists of screaming absentminded English. The latter is the preference of most gringos in Panama and has a way of coming off as psychotic. I know because I remember standing in a bar in Moscow, Russia one time as the owner began screaming at this drunk dude for pissing in the corner. His rant sounded comical if not phony: like he was a cartoon character. He then pointed to a sign in Russian, a written language that looks like cake decoration to me. "No pissing in corners," I'm guessing the sign said, but again, I was all but desensitized to his wrath.

It is one of the things they don't teach you in Spanish classes: what to say when you get really angry. The first class is usually dedicated to happy things like "Mmmm, this tastes good," and "I like you." But there's a rather large void on the other side of the pleasure scale, leaving us to describe feelings like a kick to the gut as, "sort of nice."

I never got to see the reaction of my Windstar line, nor do I really care one way or the other. Had the man been amused with my stab, it would have defeated the purpose of ruining him. Had he, for some lucky reason, taken the bait and become protective of his car and thus enraged with me, it would simply persuade me to continue using offbeat slurs which the general public would not understand.

I've practiced my new list of expletives every morning now for the past few months and I like to envision what my neighbors are thinking in the apartment next door. "What's up with him and that nipple?" they must keep saying to themselves.

Note: Image found at

Comments (2)Add Comment
written by Rouse , December 03, 2009
Matty, Next Time you can say: " Vete a la VERGA, IMBECIL!! " , is like F**uck you idiot!
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un poco atrevido, no?
written by Juan Valdez , February 01, 2010
I think VERGA means cock in spanish and IMBECIL is more or less asshole. So we have; "go to the cock, asshole." It works for me although you better be a super fluent spanish Rambo before you fling such bon mots around here. Something more healthy might be: PEDAZO DE CHATARRA piece of scrap metal.
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Last Updated on Thursday, 15 October 2009 06:29