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Paranoid About Bacteria in Panama

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Written by Matt   
Monday, 23 February 2009 12:10
Bacteria In PanamaI was in a bistro café in downtown Manhattan when a friend from college ordered a juicy rare hamburger and was told it could not be done. "What do you mean you're not allowed to serve that?" he said. "You grill the fucking thing, there you put it on a plate, and you bring it over here." While I didn't particularly care one way or another as I just wanted some fries, purchase we were politely escorted out the door and asked to instead try the butcher shop down the road. It's not something I ever thought about too much, America's paranoia about things like rare hamburgers, primarily because I don't like hamburgers and never order them. For me, the worm-like pucks of meat always conjured up images of blood and near-death experiences, probably the last thing I'd want to think about at the dinner table. I'd come across the story of a man who accidentally stuck his hand all the way up to his elbow, in the mechanical meat grinder before passing out on the floor of the kitchen: in the meantime, the yield fed into a larger meat mountain that would then be distributed to fast food chains across the country. This happened back in the 1990's, but the thought of eating ground arm lasts a lifetime.

Not unlike political parties, I felt obliged to align myself with something rather than nothing, so instead of hamburgers I chose to enjoy hotdogs. I ate so many hotdogs as a kid that I became a connoisseur by the time I graduated middle school, and while the logic of my dietary preferences tended to baffle friends and family - choosing hotdogs, arguably America's most grotesque processed food, over hamburgers - I could always fall back on the National Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods, a committee I read about in Newsweek magazine, who likened underdone hamburgers to small congealed patties of E. coli.

Not two weeks later in New Jersey, I came across a supermarket chain who recalled nearly $50,000 worth of eggs after they had been accidentally left unfrigerated for twenty minutes. Is it just Americans, or does this fear persist all over the world? Yesterday in Panama, I ate a piece of fish that had been fried in the basin of an old car rim.

In Panama, at the local convenient store where I do the majority of my small-scale shopping, health code standards seem to be about as stringent as the tendons that hold together the chicken thighs, which sit limp like small sandbags in a room-temperature display case. The first time I ever wandered inside, a side of cow was being de-boned on a piece of cardboard, the area swarming with hungry flies and wreaking humidly of the deceased. Maybe it was the novelty of it all, but instead of thinking ugh, this is gross, I might catch something from just standing here, I remember asking whether the whole thing could be purchased at a discounted rate for a beach barbeque I was throwing.

My business partner in Panama came to work one day, his leg riddled with the early stages of Leishmanisis. Sometime over the previous two years, he'd been bit by sand flies who bore eggs into his skin, eggs which decided to hatch and start feasting on this particular morning in this particular patch of skin just below his knee. I asked if we could give names to each of the new hatchlings like Marianella or Vladimir, but Keenan was busy with the prospects of amputation and sat quietly marveling at the small colony with a magnifying glass and a bottle of scotch.

Nearly everyone I know that's lived in Panama for years has had some kind of weird disease. Whether it's a mysterious rash or spontaneous bacteria, the odds of contacting something gross and tropical are hard to beat. Tropical temperatures make great breeding grounds and obligatory destinations like rainforests or deserted beaches are home to any number of threats. You rarely hear about Panamanians or foreigners for that matter dying from raw meat. Rather, it's the tainted tubes of toothpaste and the car accidents that claim lives.
One day in Panama, you may look at your leg and see a bevy of small maggots crawling out. You may walk into a grocery store and see a Chinese man quartering a pork belly on the sullied ground. Or, you may encounter cesspool-like jars of pickled fish and quail eggs for sale during Panama's sweltering outdoor soccer matches. If these things don't make you cringe, I don't know what will. But Panama's people seem to have survived. Maybe their stomachs or minds have been conditioned, maybe they just don't care. Or, maybe it only seems strange by comparison, coming from a country where even the smallest bit of uncooked hamburger is a cause for concern.


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Last Updated on Monday, 23 February 2009 12:15