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A Panama Day in June

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Written by Matt   
Wednesday, 03 June 2009 07:30
When in Panama, and I like to reserve Tuesday exclusively for errands. I could do these things any day of the week, but lumping them all together in one 24-hour period gives the feel of a scavenger hunt: some substance to the middle of my week. On this particular Tuesday in Panama, I search for the meaning of corned beef, consort with gang members, and rub shoulders with hardworking Panamanians. 7:45 AM
I woke up to call several different supermarkets to see if anyone had corned beef. Somewhere a few seconds into the first conversation, I realized I didn't know the word for corned beef. It's one of those things that, translated word for word, sounds silly and fantasy-like: a cow that's covered in corn. But as if that wasn't enough of a hurdle, in trying to describe corned beef to a lady on the phone at Super Kosher, I realized I don't even really know what corned beef is. I tried a strategy that works only when the missing word has a clear and defined complimentary partner (such as peanut butter and _____). "I am looking for a sandwich of pastrami and _____," I told the woman -- grunting briefly in the blank.

The woman reacted like she'd been rendered clueless on an exam.

8:12 AM
Walking down the street in Casco Viejo, I said my usual salutation, "que es lo que es," to a group of gangsters who responded with their usual "que sopa matteo." The night before, one gangster had rung my doorbell to tell me I had left the back window in my car open, and that if I didn't close it, someone might try to steal something from inside. I told him he was "una persona muy linda," a beautiful person. Just past the gang hangout is a local grocery store of bare essentials: to rephrase that, they offer a wide variety of products such as meats, dairy, and pickled fish, but the only products I'd ever buy due to sanitation issues are the bare essentials: things like toilet paper, soda, fruit.

I purchased one half of a cantaloupe, one slice of watermelon, and a bottle of Dasani water: I only recently learned that Coca Cola publicly admitted Dasani is nothing more than tap water, but I still buy the large bottle for $1.50 out of habit. Upon paying, the owner of the grocery, a Chinese man in his twenties named Kevin, called me "pura fruta." He then turned to the several people next to me in line. "This man. He is pure fruit," Kevin said. Everyone laughed. I don't know why, but I felt somehow bullied.

10:55 AM
I bought an expensive pair of blue jeans at Multiplaza Mall from a salesman so unhelpful and downbeat that the store would make more money with consented shoplifting. When asked if he thought I should buy the pants, the salesman said, "pues, si los necesita" or "well, only if you need them."

11:45 AM
The word for seamstress in Panama is "sasteria" and, upon entering the one I normally use in El Cangrejo, I asked the apprentice if there was a way for them to make my new jeans "more more short." While she was measuring and pinning my pant leg, I asked if the pants would "do the opposite of grow" when put in the wash for the first time. She laughed and said "No. What are you crazy gringo?"

I underline the words hem and shrink in my notebook next to the word idiota.

Before walking out the door, I asked the seamstress, "Do you know where is a store that I could find corned beef to eat?" She smiled and waved me goodbye as if I had given my regards to her uncle.

1:22 PM
Coming from laps in the pool and a quick workout, I walked down passed the Veneto hotel where a man in a pressed white shirt offered me a ride in his taxi, anywhere in Panama City, for twenty dollars. I told him I had my car but in the future, should it break, I'd think of him. I was then approached by young woman wearing a sandwich-sign who suggested I try her $3.95 buffet lunch. I said I wasn't hungry but on another day, if I was hungry, I would know exactly where to satisfy myself. Before I reached my car, I passed a real estate office and noticed the bevy of preconstruction projects for sale in the window. A man in the office perceived my interest and motioned for me to come inside. Once inside, he introduced himself and said that I looked like the kind of gentleman that might be in the market for some real estate. "Well it's your lucky day," the man said to me. "We've got some special properties on sale today. Have you ever heard of Herman Bern?" I told him I wasn't in the market for real estate today, but if I became interested some day in the future, I would email him first thing.

2:05 PM
I walked into a chinito to buy credit for my phone but it was packed with about thirty construction workers trying to buy soda. I tried to make my way to the counter but they kept rubbing up against me and transferring sweat and body heat. Half-way to the counter, I decided it'd be better buy the card somewhere else.

2:08 PM
I had lunch at Casa Vegetariana in El Cangrejo, a Chinese-owned vegetable restaurant where nothing costs more than fifty cents. It is frequented by students, bank employees, Rastafarians, homeless people, and a man who drives a motorcycle and always sits in the corner with his black helmet. The owners are almost creepily nice, my personal favorite is the guy who smiles revealing teeth that look like rotting corn kernals. Before returning my change, he asked me the English word for berejena. "Eggplant," I told him. "Ickplan?" he responded.

"No, eggplant."


"Yep, you got it!" I felt ambassador-like in being so helpful.

3:30 PM
I needed a copy of the Boston Globe. Perusing the news aisle at Arrocha Farmacy on Avenida Balboa, I am always first amazed at the variety of English-language magazines they have and shortly thereafter disenchanted to find that most come from 3-6 months back. "Who will lead our great nation?" one of the magazines read, showing pictures of Barack Obama and John McCain. I know who, I giggled. In that same issue was advertised a list of Washington DC's Top 10 Jewish delicatessens which reminded me about my corned beef mission. I called my friend Oved who owns a club on Calle Uruguay and a kosher food distribution business and asked him which part of the cow does corned beef come from? He said he didn't know but he thought it was the cuello. The neck.

4:24 PM
Driving down Via Espana entering Caledonia, I thought back to the seamstress calling me crazy when I saw a legitimately crazy man sitting pensively on a stool set up in the middle of the four-lane road. He had traffic stopped up for several blocks and when screamed at by one bus driver, the man raised his shirt to reveal a nipple resembling a rusted bolt.

4:26 PM
I get a text message on my phone from Oved. "Is the ass," he says.

6:08 PM
I spent some time doing a crossword puzzle in Plaza Mayor. After the challenges of a day in Panama, solving Will Shortz is like taking candy from a baby. I sat on a bench and sipped on a bottle of cold cider I bought at the local gourmet deli. From 5:30 to about 7:00 there's this really magical air about Casco Viejo. The light shines into the plaza through alleyways and rundown buildings, shaved ice vendors push their carts on the cobblestone, the policemen blow a whistle that signifies everyone should stop what they're doing and salute the Panama flag as it's taken inside for the night and a well-deserved rest.

Comments (1)Add Comment
written by Omer , June 09, 2009
you have a way with words my friend - funny article
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Last Updated on Wednesday, 03 June 2009 07:41