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Panama, A Far Cry From Home

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Written by Matt   
Tuesday, 24 March 2009 14:28
I met Elida through an acquaintance and knew our relationship would last when, shop on her first day of work, she color-coded the contents of my refrigerator starting with white on top. Elida has a peaceful, unruffled demeanor that affords her the ability to walk in, clean a room, and leave with all the disruption of a titmouse. She has a sense of humor and outgoingness that only comes out when you prompt it, almost like a social switch that goes on and off catering perfectly to my emotional swings. When she eats, Elida eats standing up: usually smallish rations such as one piece of toast or half a banana.  When we were first introduced, it was roughly four years ago and she took to calling me Senor Mateo. "What do you say we drop the senor part?" I once asked her. "What do you say we just stick with Mateo? Would that be alright with you?"

"Sure, Senor Mateo" Elida said. "That's alright with me."  

Like the majority of Panama's lower class, Elida lives in a suburb of Panama City: a modest or slightly ghetto area depending on you are in describing it. The bus she takes into the City costs about a ninety cents and takes roughly an hour and a half including the myriad of stops, which means that, in order to drop her daughter off at school by seven o'clock, Elida wakes up every day around five in the morning. She then retraces her way home to catch some sleep before reporting to work at my office at ten. During her lunch break, Elida visits her daughter at school, and after work, she picks up her daughter and together they ride the bus home. Life for her, I imagine, is somewhat mechanical and crude: a meager yet content lifestyle you can see on the humble faces of Panama's lower class guarding mini-tiendas or driving broken taxis.

One holiday season, I asked Elida how you say in Spanish someone who doesn't celebrate Christmas but rather something else like Hanukah or Kwanza.

"I'd say...I'm sorry?" was her response.

Besides her daughter who is arguably the cutest little girl on the planet and thinks my ears are huge - in the time I practice English with her, she calls me orejon which means, "the big eared one" - Elida also has a son, Angelo, who is mentally challenged. In the States, he'd ride in a special school bus, sit in a special class, and be taught by special teachers who have a knack for dealing with special students. But in Panama, things aren't quite so straightforward. Due to constant disturbances and his inherently slow ability to keep up with his fellow classmates, Angelo has been dis-enrolled from a number of schools, all of which are publicly funded yet unkempt compared to anything you'd be familiar with at home. (Schools start later and later each year in Panama due to lack of funding and administrators wield the underprivileged power ax when it comes to anything out of order.)

His special needs, paired with his family's socio-economic standing as second-class citizens, had kept Angelo out of school and hypothetically out of options for almost an entire semester when Elida began telling me this story. I knew Angelo was upset about it because the last time I saw him, he told me he was upset about it.

Few people have been as much a part of my time in Panama as has Elida, so it seemed only fitting that I took Angelo's dilemma with a private, almost personal-grudge-like grain of salt. Upon discovering they had exhausted all their options, I asked Elida if she minded me reverting to the near-dead art of letter writing. "Estimada Dama Primera," my letter began. I'm writing humbly as a guest in this country, to share with you a story.

You should know that Panama's First Lady, Ms. Vivian Torijjos, too has a handicapped son and, realizing there may be some compassion, I went to work using an old-fashioned pen and paper, just what Elida, as a Panamanian, meant to me. I wrote about her dedication, I wrote about her keenness, and I wrote about her hardships, trying my best in broken Spanish to explain just what a role model and quasi-heroic Panamanian Elida was to me. "Elida. She very important to my life," my letter read. "Elida, she have all my trust and...and she almost like a mother number two for me. Matt."

I explained in the letter that our relationship surpassed past one of employment, and straddled the waters of family and friendship. "Elida, she make me soup when I sick and she help me wash clothes when they dirty. But Elida, she have son who no can go to school anymore...sad for Elida. Sad for me." Looking back, I'd wager that no letter written to the First Lady of any country, not even scrawled on tree bark by a starving child in Africa, had been so remedial. But semantics weren't what I was going for: the message was there.

I signed the letter, looked desperately for my old school dripping wax, the kind that Sherlock Holmes might have used, wasn't able to find it, sealed the letter using the traditional sticky glue in an envelope, and delivered it personally to the front door of the Presidential Palace where a tough looking guard fronted me, then retreated into the offices and returned with fat woman in a suit who smiled, accepted the letter, and promised she'd deliver it to the desk of the First Lady.

I couldn't help but to imagine doing such a thing in the United States. Besides not being allowed within hundreds of yards of the White House, there would be no tough guard bringing no fat lady in a suit, and there would certainly be no assurance that my letter would ever reach its recipient. "You want me to do what?" a Homeland Security soldier might say. "Son, you're going to have to put that in the mailbox like everybody else."

I was still ruminating at the ease of what, in reality, was probably a stab in the Panamanian dark - a last-ditch effort to get Elida's son Angelo the schooling he rightfully deserves - when, something like two hours later, my doorbell rang. It was the fat woman. She asked if she could come in.
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My heart started to tingle at the prospects of what was about to happen. The hairs on my arms were standing on end, which made me think they were saluting. I called Elida up and asked her to come into the office. Not only had the fat woman personally walked the several blocks from the Presidential Palace to my apartment, which would have been strenuous for her considering fat people can have shortages of breath, and not only had she delivered my letter just as promised to the First Lady, but she carried in her hands a small stack of approved paperwork, as per decree of Miss Vivian Torijjos, for enrollment at Angelo's new school, a foundation in Casco Viejo with several spots allocated to special students. As she explained the offer put forth, both Elida and I started to cry a little bit.

The arrangement was not without contingencies, mainly that someone was responsible for dropping Angelo off and picking him up personally on time every day, something with which Elida was more than happy to comply. "So if you're OK with this, we'd like to get Angelo started tomorrow morning," she said. "Would that be alright with you?"

"Yes," Elida said. "That's alright with me."

*  *  *

While I'd love to take full credit for this accomplishment, or even begin to refer to myself as some sort of academic medicine man who could get wealthy parents' kids into leading universities with the brush of a stroke, my efforts were really quite nominal: something anyone could have done had they realized its potential. There are certain things in Panama that simply wouldn't fly in the United States: bribing a policeman with Abuelo rum for example, or calling a coworker fat ass. Or, say, taking twenty minutes out of your busy day to write a simple letter: one that might reach greater lengths and have far greater impact than someone from the first world could ever imagine.

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touching
written by Mary B.. , March 24, 2009
matt your piece touched me in a way not a lot of things do. you may not consider the letter to have been a big thing, but it clearly made a world of a difference. the article was also a great change from your normal humorous style - lots of kudos from ontario
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yes!
written by La Mer , March 25, 2009
This tone, accounts like this one make this "real estate and travel" site turn inside out and reach... well, no more, no less than Truth -- something extremely valuable that each of us can relate to.
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Settling In Panama
written by George Taylor , April 14, 2009
Sirs,

I rate your article greatly. Settling in Panama is an excellent choice and the blessed one for every true and honest Citizen of the United States of America who wishes to see our country whole again.

Thank you for your article,
George
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Right on
written by Jason , April 20, 2009
Great read. Good work!

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