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Christmas in Panama: A Love Story

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Written by Matt   
Wednesday, 08 November 2006 15:04

Spending Christmas in Panama, stuff I recently came across an article that listed Panamanians as the fourth happiest people in the world. When I envisioned this study, I saw hundreds of little surveyors running around the city with their clipboards and nametags shouting, “Hey, come back. It'll only take a few minutes.” Actually though, the study was done by the British think-tank New Economics Foundation (NEF), a group that puts together a Happy Planet Index every year, and they do so by evaluating a population's satisfaction, life expectation, and environmental footprint. A pretty legit census.

I must admit that Panama's people are a big part of what drew me to this country in the first place, and it's nice to see my viewpoint validated by scientists and economists and, on a more fundamental level, someone who wears shoes to work.

Maybe it's all the holidays they have? It seems that Panamanians will use any historical figure or event to invent a holiday. (Take this week for example: there are a total of four different holidays in the span of 10 days.) During these holidays, most Panamanians flock to the interior where rural strip malls and bumpy beach roads transform into the stomping grounds of spring break-style sin and glorious alcohol-induced debauchery. From coast to coast, there seems to be this unwritten code that if you're awake during these holidays, you should be intoxicated. At the end of these holidays, when life returns to normal, most Panamanians are left trying to recalibrate their moral compasses. "Which way is work?" They say.

On my way to undergo the revelry that is Fiestas Patrias (celebration of independence from Columbia and Spain), I stopped at a sleepy roadside canteen where the dust from the road appeared to float in and settle on the tables and chairs. A small happy man came out, in the shape of a toad, and told me what I would be eating for lunch: pasta and basil sauce. “I find the best basil all myself” he said modestly. I pictured my toad-man dodging in and out of a small basil forest, jumping and grabbing at only the choicest leaves. He brought out the pasta and basil sauce, then propped himself up on a stool in the corner and watched—swollen with pride—as I took my first bite. I could have been eating a spoonful of snake bile Jell-O and I would have said it tasted great because the man's culinary ego was at stake. Christmas in Panama was off to a good start.

The shopping center in Coronado was so jammed that parking was a four-point process. In El Rey, the grocery store, getting to the beer aisle was like an exercise in cattle herding—happy people everywhere loading everything party into their carts: grills, beers, meats, hats. I even saw one guy trying to exit the store on a small pink bicycle which had pompoms coming off the handlebars: the kind of thing you might see a four year-old girl pedaling in her driveway as she eats an ice pop. This man appeared to be under some sort of influence because when—to make small talk—I asked him what he was going to do with the bike, he looked at me with this satanic ogle then, appearing to lose his balance, collapsed onto the floor and passed out.

The small roads of beach towns were besieged by idle cars with open doors and people atop them drinking and dancing to bouncy reggeaton music. At certain intersections, the normal driving lanes had been confusingly re-arranged, the cleanly paved entrance to one hotel reverted to a narrow crack-riddled sidewalk. With a million crazy partiers trying to squeeze their obese SUVs through these new traffic configurations, it was impossible to get anywhere. It was like one of those chess sets that tries to be cool by having abstract, non-descript pieces from which you cannot tell one another: common guys, you're just making an already-difficult thing more awkward.

I always notice a distinct difference between Panama City folk and Panama country bumpkins. Similar to most countries, the people in the city here are a little bit colder and more pushy than you'll find out in, say, Cocle where a simple wave to a family on the side of the road elicits this thrilled set of white teeth and fluttering hands.

For the weekend, everyone and their sister was out at the beach doing hippie things: digging their happy little toes into the warm sand and sucking down cold cervezas on sale at little shacks for half a dollar. The social scene in Panama is very much like that of a high-school prom, where not only does everyone know each other, but they also all want a swig of your flask. During Fiestas Patrias, I observed two drunkards, independent of each other, making fools of themselves:

- Saturday 11:26 AM: middle aged man wearing construction boots and a fanny pack, passed out in an empty and deflated baby pool.

- Saturday 11:23 PM: A young girl appearing to report—in this all-enthused drunkenness—on the baby pool incident claiming she was a lead anchor in Canada.

- Saturday 11:35 AM: middle aged man wearing construction boots and a fanny pack staggering in circles, seemingly sleep walking, holding an unopened Bacardi Breezer.


*Note: The automatic speller on my computer refused to accept the fact that cerveza is indeed a word, trying relentlessly to change it to—among other words—cervix.

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Last Updated on Monday, 11 August 2008 22:48