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Strangers Visiting Panama

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Written by Matt   
Wednesday, 14 October 2009 05:36
My childhood friend Adam lives in Manhattan and occupies a lucrative job placing executives who are looking for work. I say lucrative because, cheap on paper, he makes more than ten people my age in Panama combined. He enjoys this disparity when he visits Central America, buying dollar beers and $0.25 hotdogs from vendors in the street. I imagine it's like going to the plate after shedding a batting donut: this sudden sensation of power and might. I arrived to meet him at Tocumen International sometime last June just as he emerged from the customs area. Walking beside him was a guy I'd come to know as Elton: a tall red oak of a man with skinny jeans and a pony tail slithering out the back of a well-worn NASCAR hat. Adam had met Elton on the plane and offered him a ride into the city on behalf of my car. "Well hot damn," Elton said as we left the terminal. "This here be some hot ass tropics. I'll tell ya what Matty..." We had known each other for roughly two minutes and he was already calling me a name I forbid from anyone over the age of four.

"I'll tell ya what Matty, I thought Tampa got my balls hot. This right here's a gosh darn sweatbox! Hey Matty, any way we can stop for a margarita? Get all Jimmy Buffet up in the house?"

Adam looked at me the way you do when you realize too late that you've adopted the wrong dog: the feeling after months of training classes when you come home to find the house destroyed and shit all over the living room rug?

Elton used our ride into the City to offer color commentary on the passing landscape.

"Hot damn look at them itty bitty houses over there. I speak a little Mexican here and there. Pour favor! Cerveza mee ameeego. Actually got me a couple Mexicans mowing my lawn back in Tampa. Ya'll ever been to Tampa? One helluva City I can tell you that. Cold beers, hot ladies, and the Tampa Buccaneers! Yeee hawww!"

"What hotel did you say you were staying at?" I asked.

We arrived at the Veneto Hotel to drop off Elton and he graciously accepted the help of a bellboy saying "Now amigo, the name's Elton and I'm a biiiiig American boy. So don't be droppin that suitcase now, ya hear?" The Spanish-speaking bellboy smiled and said "Hello mister," then "Welcome to you."

I suppose it's this last part that struck the biggest cord with me. Visiting Americans receive about as much warmth in North Korea as they do in Panama, a country who's tourism motto is founded on the slogan "Yeah, you're here, so what?" (At least that's the rough translation I interpret from its coat of arms.) Most Americans living in Panama came down here to escape people like Elton who spoke of Miller and Chevrolet like cherished family members. And in turn, the Panamanian public is simply not ready for this level of temper and sound.

It was with miraculously bad luck that we happened to run into Elton on the street a few days later. He had purchased a Panama hat along with a cigar and was making demonstrative gestures to the waitress at Manolos. "I would like two pancakes roughly the size of my belly," he seemed to be saying.

When we approached, Elton stood up and yelled across the restaurant porch. "Matty Moe and Adamers. You guys never called! You want some bacon? It's the best dang bacon I ever tried." He held a ribbon of bacon up to my mouth and, not wanting to embarrass ourselves further, I bit it and admitted it was select. Elton was dressed in a Hawaiian t-shirt and when the waitress returned, she complimented him on it saying the fabric was very fine. He then turned to the man and woman behind him and said, "this lady, I'll tell you what. She's got an eye for style all right."

Looking around the restaurant, I came to the realization that this place was, in fact, Elton central. Everyone had some bit of tourist showing - a fanny pack or a bucket hat - the waitresses seemingly well acclimated to this breed of traveling monsters. You're starting to see it more and more in Panama: bigger scale tourism good on paper yet lacking in intimacy or sophistocation. Wondering who's going to buy an ocean front unit at the Hard Rock Coronado? It's Elton!

"I'll tell you what Matty Moo Moo," Elton said. "These here are some of the friendliest Panaymeeans I ever met."

"It's pronounced Pa-na-may-nians," I wanted to say. But I let Elton's comments go, figuring he was getting along just fine.

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Last Updated on Wednesday, 14 October 2009 05:42