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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

PANAMA -- Chapter II: The Interior

PANAMA – Chapter II

In my writings about Panama I will tell it like it is. Perhaps, readers or Panamanians might be offended, but the truth is the truth, no matter how the pie is sliced. In order to appreciate people’s culture, the totality of the culture must be considered – the how and the why’s of how live the way they do. It is not for anyone to judge, but only to appreciate the great varieties of cultures existing on this planet we call Earth.


There is an area here in Panama the Panamanians refer to as “El Interior” – The Interior. It is the area known as the Herrera State in the Azuera Peninsular. As one looks at a map of Panama it is a large protrusion to the south of the narrow elongated country of Panama.

I had the unique opportunity to visit this area because of very personal reasons and, since I now travel there very often, I am getting to know the people and their customs. I am sure there are people of wealth in the area but I will describe my associations with common, quite frequently very poor, people living there.

While on my first visit, I sat under a thatched roof shack writing the following in pencil because I had not had access to my computer:

“The Interior of Panama: First Day:

You can never believe the poverty. I left Panama City Friday afternoon with my future wife and several of her family living in Arraijan: her sister, aunt, nephew, and niece. We traveled by car deep into The Interior of Herrera. After we left the well-constructed Autopista highway we traveled along secondary roads with more pot holes than Swiss Cheese.

I suspect that the state does not closely monitor the quality of materials used in the construction of these secondary roads. As in the US and probably every where in the world, contractors will use sub standard materials to make more profits. Consider the tunnel collapse in Boston in 2005, and perhaps the bridge collapse in Minneapolis in August 2007. This latter may well have been due to poor bridge upkeep than to poor materials in the original construction.

It is inconceivable to me that when a bridge is partly anchored along the sides of a muddy river – the Mississippi has been called “The Great Muddy” for years – there is not sufficient care in inspecting the anchorage as logic would indicate would slowly erode in time.

Back to traveling to Herrera which all in Panama City refer to as “The Interior.” Although the roads are fair to mediocre, the countryside is most beautiful. I was told by my broker to expect to be reminded of Tuscany. But, although the hills and valleys might be similar, the vegetation is not. As I remember, Tuscany is dry in the summer and cold in the winter, but not cold enough not to support the growth of olives and figs. Here in Panama, it is dry only in the “dry season” from late December to April and wet during the “wet season” from May to December, warm to hot most all year long, and humid, more during the rainy season.

But as I already said, the terrain of Herrera is mountainous, the climate is warm to hot during the day, an occasional downpour because we are in the middle of the rainy season, and quite cool at night because of the altitude. One can sleep without AC. Best of all the air is fresh and pure. One’s health would be great here.

But let me say a few words about the poverty. I have never seen such poverty, probably except for my one visit to India. At the place where I was staying there were 5-8 people, living in a small house, 30 X 30 with a kitchen and living area and two bedrooms. I was offered one of the bedrooms; the other was shared by 7 people – 3 adults, and a 16, 13, 8, and 4 year olds.

The kitchen had a small 4-burner butane stove with an oven. The butane tank was inside the house next to the stove. I went to a local (18 Kilometers away) supply store and bought two 2 X 20 X 20 inch cement slabs so that the butane tank could be situated outside the house for safety purposes. Inside the house there was the potential of harmful gas leaks and explosion. Two months later, the tanks were still inside the house.

There was no electricity, light only by candles and flashlight and a battery radio. I slept on one of the beds, the mattress consisting of coiled wire springs with a flimsy sheet on top. Believe me when I say it was quite an experience with the springs digging into my body all night, but I slept because I was tired and also because the air was so fresh and energizing. On my next trip I purchased two air mattresses which improved the quality of sleeping. One of the mattresses sprung a leak later that week because two fat female relatives thought it was fun jumping up and down on the mattress which are designed to take such abuse. Oh well, this is life in The Interior!

The first night I got so sick with what I believed to be intestinal flu. I do not think it was something I ate because I ate only a whole fried fish with something like cole slaw, rice and lentils. Maybe it was the mayo-like dressing on the cole slaw. At the end of dinner I needed to go to the bathroom and the country restaurant had no toilet. The owner directed me to the outside and pointed to a palm tree. He directed me to urinate there at the base of the tree in full view of people across the street sitting on the porch of their house probably no more than 35 feet away. I did what I was told. (Two weeks later when I returned to town, the palm tree was not there any longer. I hope I did not kill it!)

As I said I was sick throughout the night with explosive diarrhea. I did not know where the toilet was, if there even was one. I went outside on the ground in the pitch dark. Luckily I found some toilet paper. I made a mess outside. The following day the entire household saw my mess, but they took everything in stride and buried my mess beneath the ground. I was so embarrassed. But, as I said they took all in stride. I was not used to such down-to-earth non assuming honest people. But they were poor.

Third Day:

On my third day they decided I needed a shower. They all bathe in cold water. But here I draw the line. I will NOT bathe in cold water. So they prepared me a bucket of lukewarm water, and in a small protected 6 feet square outside cabana , I took my bath with soap and a small bowel to pour the water over me.. This experience reminded me of the TV sitcom many years ago, I think it might have been “The Dukes of Hazzard,” where the buxom beautiful young girls bathed in the water tank of the local train depot. Then I shaved using a 4 X 6 inch mirror. I will never forget my first bath in Herrera. I did feel cleaner after, but I longed for the showering facilities back in my apartment in Panama City.

After taking my shower, having a beautiful young (sic) lady dry you off with a towel and putting on your briefs, pans, shirt, socks, and shoes is like dying and going to heaven. It surely is turning out to be a remarkable journey into The Interior of Panama!

The previous evening I took the entire family of 5 to the local town where there was a celebration for the Festival of the Queen. I was tired and could not walk anymore so I went home leaving my young future bride at the festival surrounded by all those young Panamanian Turks. She promised she would be good and return home at 7:30 about two hours later.

I returned to the house. My internal alarm clock awoke me. It was 7:30 but no fiancé. Then came 9:30, 10:30, 11:30, and finally at 12:30 she arrived home having walked the entire 8 kilometers (5 miles) from the town because there were no taxis. I was upset at myself for having left her with all those Panamanian “young Turks” back at the fiesta. But, did she have a tale to tell!

Well, it so happened that one of her cousins got into a fight and was arrested for disturbing the peace. Trying to defend him, my fiancee almost got maced herself by the police until she backed away. My fiancee was so apologetic that I easily forgave her for having to walk home was punishment enough. The following night got even worse. The following day they asked me to go to town to get their cousin out of jail. When we arrived, the jail was closed. We were told to returned later. Later, back at the house they asked me again to go to the jail. I refused telling them perhaps the cousin would act more civilized the next time, if he suffered more time in jail. The cousin arrived about 2 hours later at the house having made it there on his own.

On the following evening, one of the cousins met a young lady who before the night was over rolled him stealing his expensive gold watch, gold necklace, gold bracelet, and his hat. Luckily she left him with his boots. These people just do not realize the peril existing at such a festival. All the men are in a stuporous drunken state with a bottle of good Panamanian rum in one hand. At such festivals, there are other individuals – a woman in the case of the cousin – who are not so drunk watching for the next person to roll. Easy targets like that and their money and valuables are easily parted. He learned his lesson. Considering the money he makes, it will take him a year or more to replace his valuables. He will be careful attending his next fiesta – I believe!

The rest of the weekend was uneventful. I returned to Panama City lusting for the modern bathroom facilities.

My next installment will be about the pig and cattle!

nicola michael c. Tauraso, M.D.
Director, Tauraso Medical Clinic


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