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By JD Byous
A child walks down the main road in the village of El Piro, Panama past palm-thatched houses found along the Pan American Highway.
Sweat pours from my forehead, my shirt is soaked from within. I feel like if I walk I will slosh. It’s hot. I don’t like hot. Our trip along the Pan American Highway is about to be interrupted. My driver, Pablo, slows as two Panamanian policemen question motorists. Some cars are ordered to the side of the road, others continue at the officers’ direction. One policeman stands on the double yellow line, the other, an Uzi in his hands, sits on the fender of the patrol car smoking a cigarette. The car looks new, about a year old, 1997, maybe 1998. Cars move forward. Now it’s our turn.
A palm-thatched home along the Pan American Highway in Veraguas, Panama.
My Spanish is rusty… very rusty. I can barely communicate. Pablo greets the official. He instructs Pablo to the shoulder of the highway.
Me, in broken Spanish, “What’s up?”
Pablo, in broken English, “Don’t know. I’ll be back,” he says and walks slowly back toward the two well-armed men.
I have two Nikon cameras in my lap. My instinct is to raise one to my eye and shoot photos. I hesitate. The policeman and Pablo are pointing toward me. It’s a serious conversation. I put the camera down on the seat. Pablo jogs back and leans in the window.
“We have to pay a fine,” he informs me.
“How much?” I ask.
Pablo searches for the words then answers, “Cinco dollars.”
An Ngobe mother brings her sick child to the clinic at El Piro.
In Panama, they use U.S. Dollars. They have their own currency, the Balboa. But I guess the dollar makes it easier for tourists to pay bribes. I reach into my wallet and hand him two five-dollar bills. He grabs them, turns without looking at them and jogs back to the policemen. They converse a bit more, this time friendlier. Pablo walks briskly back, climbs into the small pickup with me and we drive away.
“What did we do? Why were we fined?” I asked.
“Stopping in the highway,” he said, a grin grows on his lips. “Against law to stop in highway.”
“A bribe,” I say.
“Si, mordida… a bribe. They make extra money. Everybody pay mordida,” he says as he hands the second five-dollar bill back to me. Mordida is a good term. It means to bribe, but it also means to bite. I guess they are the same in these situations.
I push the money back to him. “Para la problema. Para usted.” I think I said it right. He handled the situation well. I wanted him to keep the extra money. I would still have to pay for the truck and gas that he “rented” from his cousin. Later ten dollars would cover the four-hour round trip toward the town of David, near the Costa Rica border.
We had started in Canazas, a corregimiento, or small town, in the province of Veraguas, Panama.
Downtown Canazas, Panama, 1998.
I am shooting pictures for a team of doctors and dentists who were organized by a mission group from Southside Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia. At this time, 1998, the village is supported by the Santa Rosa gold mine. Protests are now organized as a weekly occurrence by the chief of the Ngobe people. Pronounced, “un-gobe” they are often referred to as the Guaymi tribe. I will learn later that the mine management would close it down to pacify the locals, only to reopen many years later when gold prices soared.
It is said the Canazas is authentic Panama. If you want to experience the country at its core, visit the Canazas area. I agree. The population of the village is mostly Mestizo people who are a mixture of Spanish and Native American. The Ngobe speak their native language along with Spanish, a necessity for commerce. In the jungle there are many villages where Ngobe is the only language, making communication with outsiders difficult.
An Ngobe (Guaymi) mother and her daughters wearing traditional naguas dresses.
Our road trip to the western part of the country is to find an area where indigenous people offer trade goods. It’s there that I’ve heard that one can buy a chaquira, a wide, beaded, lacy-looking, traditional neckwear now worn by the native women on special occasions. And, I want to buy directly from someone who makes them… I want one from a Ngobe craftsman, not imported for the tourists. My studies have told me that the torque-like jewelry was originally close to twelve to fourteen inches in diameter and worn by men. That account is from records made shortly after Columbus visited the area in 1502. I asked one Mestizo man if Ngobe men still wore the ornate neckpieces he laughed and informed me that the chaquira was for women only. He emphasizes, “only.” I guess I am 500 years off in my data. History is corrected and tersely delivered to me. I will later learn that some men wear the older style chaquira in ceremonies and when doing a traditional dance called the Jeki. Guess he was wrong.
Right now, I am not sure where Pablo and I are. I suspect we are approaching La Pita, a wide-spot-in-the-road in the province of Chiriqui which is an area that borders Costa Rica and has the country’s highest mountain, Volcán Barú. Pablo knows of one woman who sells chaquiras in a roadside stand. It’s a long drive, but absolutely stunning landscape… except for the policemen.
The jungle terrain along the Pan American Highway between Canazas and El Piro.
Later I will learn that this area will grow to be a tourist destination. The Los Quetzales Trail that spans the mountains, Pacific side to the Atlantic side, will become a favorite trek to hikers. The northern city of Boquete will become a haven to ex-pats, American, European, Canadian, and will become a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. Jazz festivals will flourish. But that’s in the future. Today few people hike the path.
The glass-bead chaquira from our adventure on the Pan American Highway.
Ahead on the left is a small, palm-covered hut. On the open front wall, palm fronds flutter in a light wind above three bamboo racks that hold pendants, necklaces, and chiquiras. A lady in a brightly colored, red and white, moomoo like, naguas dress greets us from inside. I spot two chiquiras that I like, one is red and white beads in a band about three inches wide. The other is smaller, around 2-and-one-half inches wide. It has rows of “X” shaped bead patterns in primary colors. It’s beautiful.
“Cuantos es?” I asked using my latest acquired local lingo for “How much?”
“Diez,” she answered.
I looked at Pablo. “Ten dollars each… good price,” I say studying the lacy, glass-beaded pieces.
“No,” he said. “Ten dollars for both. About right.”
Cultural tradition requires no smiles during a picture. She would stop me if she started grinning.
It is hard to believe, five dollars for a necklace of tightly-woven glass beads. It must have taken several hours to make it. I handed the lady a ten-dollar bill and walked to the pickup for the ride back to Canazas. We do not see the policemen on the return trip. When we arrive, I settle the final fare with Pablo and he returns the pickup to his cousin. It was an interesting trip.
Grabbing my cameras, I walked to the local hospital. Hospital is a loose term.
In reality, it isn’t more than a clinic. An archaic clinic. The Georgia doctors are to be here one week only. Word has spread across the province, so lines are long. The locals aren’t in a hurry. They stand in long lines, chests to backs, as they wait their turns.
An Ngobe boy in El Piro.
Some of the Indian families had walked three days through the jungle to have a chance to see a physician. Some came that far simply to have their children checked, wanting to make sure they are alright. This may be their only visit with a doctor or nurse. Free healthcare is rare or non-existent in this region of the country.
Volunteer Barbara Grimm takes a break in the sweltering heat. Local kids, used to the heat, wear their Sunday best to visit the doctors.
The doctors at the hospital charge everyone regardless of their need… no pay no healthcare. The clinic physician is already upset because the Gringos are cutting in on his paycheck. Our free medicine is a major thorn in his cash balloon because he gets a cut from all of the med purchases. We Americans must walk gently, else he may banish us from the clinic.
An Ngobe mother and her children.
When I discredit the term “hospital” I am serious. The small, multi-winged facility is mostly open-air wards. Outside on the sidewalk and in the courtyard chickens and skinny, malnourished dogs walk about freely. There is no nursing staff. Families must stay with patients to give them basic care. Our volunteers who support our medical staff are busy. They fight the heat and stale air in the poorly ventilated rooms. Everyone is disheveled and sweaty.
A Panamanian man who helped build the canal.
I meet an old man who as a young man helped build the Panama Canal. His strong frame can still be seen under his frail exterior and his face is rutted with character lines. I snap a few photos as he stands in the corridor. He is friendly and proud that I am taking his photo. A chicken pecks its way past his feet. Excusing myself I say goodbye to shoot a few more images of the corridors, then walk outside to find a breeze.
Canazas is situated on a slight hillside that rises to the northeast. Most buildings along the highway have open entrances, some with doors, some without, some with chain gates to protect the interior from night visitors. Many are in bright colors. I have noticed that many impoverished
Stores have wide eves to provide shade on bright, sunny days.
countries and cultures use bright colors. I suppose they help a meager existence feel better. The tin-roof eaves of the town’s stores jut out several feet to provide shade as the sun moves overhead.
Villagers gather underneath to avoid the sun’s mid-day heat. One young, schoolgirl leans against a shaded wall. She is standing on a pile of gravel stored for future construction. I snap her photo then move on.
A young schoolgirl leaned against the wall to avoid the sun.
Ahead is a small saloon. It has no glass in the single window and no door to cover the entrance. The interior is dark with blank walls. A simple plank bar stretches most of the way across the 10 by 12-foot room. The barkeeper stares at me for a second, then swats a fly beside a stack of mismatched glassware. To my right, a man drinks beer from a long-neck bottle. He is the only customer and is sitting on a simple, strongly built, four-foot-long bench. It is painted white and shows signs of use from many years of service. I think the man is Ngobe, he looks too short and small to be Mestizo.
In one work he instructs me, “Portro.” The light from the door is dim so I steady the camera by bracing it on my cheek and brow. Holding my breath, I carefully press the shutter release and take his picture.
He eyes my cameras then stands, staggers, holds his hands up as if taking a picture, the bottle still in his hand, staggers again, then clicks his finger as if taking a picture. “Portro,” he says.
“Portro?” I say confused. I don’t know the Ngobe or Spanish word for portrait, so I assume he is trying to speak English.
“Si, portro!” he repeats. His face grows into a slight frown. He is upset that I don’t understand.
“Si,” I answer. He sits down on a wooden bench and strikes a pose. He is content.
He quickly loses interest and begins staring out the door, so I snap a few more images, then order something to drink.
It’s dark, outside it is heavily overcast. The light from the door is dim so I steady the camera by bracing it on my cheek and brow. Holding my breath, I carefully press the shutter release and take his picture. He smiles and swigs more of his drink. He loses interest and turns toward the doorway. I snap a few more shots and thank him. He does not respond so I turn to the bar to order a soft drink. It’s an orange soda that I’ve not seen before. It’s good. I am thirsty and extremely hot.
Nurse Heather Donnelly of Savannah, GA bathes a child with a skin rash in El Piro.
It’s time to go back to the hotel in Santiago so I walk back to the clinic and board the small, crowded vehicle for the ride to the hotel. It smells of body odor and peanut-butter sandwiches left from lunch. On the dash, a portable, twelve-volt television is duct-taped in place. We pull out on the road and wind through the hills down to the main road. The driver’s attention bounces from the road to the TV. The World Cup is on. Nothing diverts Panamanians from the World Cup, not traffic laws nor tickets.
On the main highway, our speed increases and fluctuates between 60 and 70 miles per hour. I can see the speedometer. As the action on the screen increases, our speed increases. A lull decreases our velocity. “Gooooaaaal!” the announcer yells. The driver bounces in his seat waving his fist in the air. Our speed increases. He is amazing. We have not veered nor varied from our lane… though many on the bus are openly praying. World Cup is king. We observe the ritual, like it or not.
Savannah Dentist Russ Clemmons listens to symptoms through a translator.
When we arrive at the hotel parking lot it is late, we are tired and hungry. A group of volunteers walk to the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant just down the road so I follow, order and eat. The smell is the same as home. Fried chicken is fried chicken, but the words on the overhead menu are hard to translate. The windows of the business grab my interest. The Panamanian climate is hot and humid. The air-conditioned interior causes the large array of plate-glass windows to sweat. Moisture is thick and blocks the view outside except for the wet lines where the water condenses and runs down the glass clearing the fog.
My friend, Nicky Pipkin, and a doctor that I do not know sit with me. They have been in small rooms seeing patients all day. They are two of three doctors and two dentists in Canazas. Only one of three exam rooms has air conditioning, so the men switch off. The other two rooms are windowless. For the patient’s privacy, the door must remain closed, so no air circulates. It’s hot, energy-draining work.
People from Canazas and the jungle regions around wait in line to see a doctor or nurse. Chickens and dogs wander the corridors of the hospital.
Nicky, a surgeon, is a bit dejected. A young girl came to him who had a large growth on her neck. If not removed it would eventually cut off her breathing and she would suffocate. He does not have the tools nor the facility to perform the surgery. Conditions are too primitive. Tools for surgery are non-existent.
“At home, it is a simple procedure,” he says. “But, I can’t do anything about it.” A father of two daughters, he has a softened heart for others. He is not handling the hopelessness well. I doubt that he will return next year.
Waiting to see the dentist.
When we walk back toward the hotel it is dusk. The sun sets before we arrive. Passing through the lobby I continue to the outside courtyard and the colonnade that leads to my room. One light bulb illuminates each forty to fifty-foot section of walkway. It’s dark. To my left, a large, tall, Mestizo man in a baseball cap looms over me. A sawed-off shotgun held in his left hand rests over his shoulder. He is not smiling, but I see that he has no intention of harming me.
“Buenas.” I say, using the recently learned local slang for “Good evening.”
“Buenos,” he replies. He is telling me he is “good.” But he draws it out gruffly and deliberately, “Buueee…nos,” meaning, I assume, “I am watching for trouble… don’t bother me.” He is the night guard.
A child waits with her mother to see the doctor in Canazas.
I walk on to my room, crank the air conditioner to its highest setting, then fall into the bed. I am not tired, I am exhausted. In the morning I awake and step into the shower… cool water, not hot. It feels good. When I finish I grab a towel and step out onto the clay-colored terra-cotta tile. In front of me, between me and the door, a scorpion.
He is tan to beige colored, about four to five inches long. His tail is looped up and over his back just as all the photos and drawings depict. I don’t like bugs. I don’t like big bugs. I really don’t like big bugs that bite, or sting or look like spiders. This guy fits all the Jim’s-phobia traits. Scorpions are carnivores. I don’t think he will eat me, but he may cause me to kill myself getting away. My boots are past him in the next room and stomping him with a bare food is out of the question. I am perplexed.
The author with the “hospital.” Between is the bus with the TV taped to the dash. Look close and you can see it.
Stripping long strings of toilet paper from the roll next to me I wad them into a ball, lean over the invader and smash him into the tile. He is now mush. I am a satisfied, naked man gloating over his first scorpion kill. There was something primal in the moment. But, later my clothes and boots are closely inspected before I put them on. I don’t like bugs.
The ride to El Piro is a different vehicle; different driver, different route, with no live World Cup. We pass miles of jungle hills, cane fields and banana plantations that are spotted with small huts. Most have palm-thatched roofs and mud walls. On some, the walls are augmented with corrugated-tin panels. On others, the roofs shine with the silver-blue and rust gray metal coverings. Most buildings here, like those in Canazas, have construction material stacked or piled nearby. Many Panamanian houses and businesses are under constant construction, assembled as finances permit. Buy a few concrete blocks and store them until you have enough money to continue. Repeat until the job is finished; a pile of gravel here, a stack of tin there.
Vaqueros drive cattle down the center of the Pan American Highway in Veraguas Province, central Panama. Some wear sombreros pintados, real Panama hats made in the area.
We are at the half-way point. We slowly weave through a herd of cattle. We drive slowly to avoid scaring the animals that cover both lanes of the highway. One cowboy carries a caution flag several hundred feet behind so drivers have time to slow down. The others cover the herd’s flanks to hold them in and push them down the road. All have Sombrero Pintadas, Panamanian style cowboy hats of loosely woven palm with wide brims that are folded up in the front.
One hundred yards in front of them we stop the car. I need a picture. Stepping out of the front passenger door I click off a few photos with my telephoto as they walk closer. As I turn to get back in the car the cattle spook and scatter into the trees and brush along the roadside. Cowboys scramble. Cattle run. I jump into the car.
“Let’s get out of here before I get shot,” I order. The car speeds away. I feel guilty, but… I got my pictures.
A few miles farther and we turn off the highway and follow a dirt road a short distance to El Piro. Huts line the road, partially concealed from view by banana plants and jungle growth. Halfway through the village is a plain rectangular building with a flat roof – the clinic. Dr. Harry McGee greets us at the car. He has been treating the locals for the past two days. He stands tall for his 72 years, especially since he was told earlier that his heart had given out and he would soon die. That was several years back. He had found alternative treatments and defied the experts. He is still going strong.
Watching the exam rooms while waiting.
Here in El Piro, there is no air conditioning to rotate into as do the doctors do in Canazas. He doesn’t mind. Harry is also from Savannah. His home and practice had been in Monterey Square a few doors away from the Mercer House, during the time when Jim Williams’ antics there influenced the best-selling book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Harry gave up his practice after his diagnosis. Now he was working for free and seemed to be loving it. I have not seen him without a smile on his face since we arrived.
Later he asks me if I want to photograph him working in the exam room. Exam room is a loose term describing a plastered bay with a wide, uncovered window that looks out to the side yard. Spectators stand outside waiting, their turns and watch as the exams run their course. I continue to click, sometimes blocking an onlooker’s view. After several patient consultations using tongue depressors, syringes, and blood-pressure cuffs the time comes for a Ngobe woman’s pelvic exam.
“Let’s get started,” Harry says, sliding the lady’s nagua up to her knees as she lay on the table. He turns to catch my eyes. He has a glint in his.
“Catch you later,” I say, and leave to find other things to record.
Nearby, under a modern pole-barn-styled pavilion, nurse Heather Donnelly bathes a toddler in a shallow pan. The basin contains a creamy-colored mixture. She dips her glove-covered palm in the liquid and rubs it over the rash-speckled body of the child. The baby is covered with tiny red spots. A chill runs down my back as I watch and shoot. The crying child fidgets. Rashes do that to me too. I don’t have to break out to start my own fidgeting. The spots make me itch so I move on.
A few feet beyond is my backdrop. My intention is to make portraits of the indigenous people. The bright-colored dresses make perfect subjects so I’ll concentrate on that for a while. I shoot a few portraits of mothers and children. Only one man volunteers to participate. Across a patch of grass stands a young girl holding a baby. I motion to her asking if I can take her picture. She smiles and nods. I shoot several frames then approach her to talk.
An 11-year-old Ngobe girl and her daughter.
“How old are you?” I ask.
“Eleven,” she answers.
“Is this your little sister?” I point to the baby.
“No,” she smiles. “My daughter.”
I find out later that incest and children having children is common in the culture. There are other practices that I am not accustomed to. One young woman has lost many of her fingers in a workplace accident. She severed part of her hand with the swing a razor-sharp machete while cutting sugar cane.
“I will have to have children with my father,” she tells a volunteer. “With my hand like this, no one will marry me.” She is matter of fact, as if it’s just a fact of life. Incest is common and the custom if a young woman can’t find a husband.
Harry McGee steps out of the clinic to cool off. I walk over to talk. A baby cries from a hut across the main dirt road about 100 yards away.
“Want to photograph a newborn?” he asks.
“Sure. Did you deliver it?”
“No, the nurse did. Tell her I sent you over.”
The nurse with Tomassasina’s newborn in the doorway of the wattle and daub home.
I walk to the hut. It’s woven bamboo and sticks covered with mud – typical wattle and daub construction, a method that is used around the world. The nurse meets me at the door. She is holding the new baby so I pose her in the door and take a photo. She then escorts me inside and prepares the mother for pictures. The structure has four small rooms. Each is no larger than eight by eight feet. The construction is hap-hazard. Lines are not straight; the room sizes were obviously sighted and squared without measuring tools. The nurse calls me into the bedroom where on a plank bed covered with cardboard Tomassasina Mendosa lies holding the child. She smiles. I shoot a few frames.
The Mendosa home in El Piro.
With a background in historical archaeology, it’s a must-do – I ask Tomassasina if I can measure and record her house. I will pay her ten dollars if she will give me her okay. Her eyes light up. “Si,” she says excitedly. Reaching into my pocket I realize I only have a twenty-dollar bill. The Chiquiras and the Panamanian-Police-officer incident took my smaller bills, so I hand her the money.
“Here’s twenty dollars,” I say in Spanish. Ten for measuring the house and ten for the baby.” She is grateful. I take my notebook and tape measure from my pack and start measuring. Working my way through the house I follow the rooms to a “porch” section on the back that serves as a kitchen. A waist-high bench made from bamboo and branches holds a woven-palm cooktop where sand and ashes insulate an open-fire stove. It’s primitive, but genius.
Tomassasina Mendosa and her newborn in the bedroom of her home.
Walking to the front yard of the house I meet Tomassasina’s mother and sister who sit under a palm-thatched hacienda pavilion, caring for several children. An infant swings in a basket that is suspended on ropes from a crossbeam. The grandmother is upset. She walks past me and into the house glaring as she passes. A few minutes later she returns. She is all smiles, asking if I have any questions and how she can help. The nurse leans toward me and says, “You gave them twenty dollars. That’s one month’s salary here.” We carry on a friendly, translated conversation until the nurse has to leave.
I pack my gear and say goodbye to the nurse and to the family. Across the street, next door to the clinic, a group of men gather in an open section of one house. It is the only house that I can see that has electricity. The assembly’s attraction is a small, compact, black and white television set. A makeshift wire antenna stretches upward nodding and waving under the palm thatching. About thirty men have come in from the fields to watch Panama play in the World Cup. World Cup is king here, too. In unison, they cheer when a player scores. I smile. At least they are not driving.
My ride is ready to leave. I tell Harry goodbye and that I would see him on the plane ride home. He still looks fresh. He has beaten the odds for life. He will die of a heart attack six years later while counseling a friend on the phone. Harry was a tough and good man. I miss him.
Grandma was not happy with me at first. It changed later.
In Panama City, we check into our hotel rooms. The group is meeting for dinner in a nearby restaurant. After having trouble finding my way I arrive late to the dinner, so I order quickly. It’s decent food. Nothing to brag about. Others have ordered coffee. It arrives in small, white, ceramic cups that hold about eight ounces. We talk. They drink. They finish. The waiter removes the cups.
“Is the coffee good?” I ask. Several tell me that it is very good. They emphasize, “very.” So, I call the waiter and try to order through my lacking, Spanish vocabulary.
“Uno café, por favor,” I say.
He speaks quickly, but I don’t understand. I think he is asking if I want a small or large cup.
“Un piquito,” I say. He looks confused. I’ve used the wrong words.
“una pequeña taza?” he asks.
“Yeh., I guess. Pequeña taza.” He leaves and brings a cup to me. It’s smaller. Quite a bit smaller.
“Oh, you ordered an espresso,” the lady next to me says.
“Did I? I just wanted a small cup of coffee.”
A line to see the nurse at the Canazas Hospital. Hundreds of people were seen by the mission group from Savannah.
It’s good,” she says smiling, then turns to talk to the lady beside her. I add sugar and cream and take a sip. She’s right, it is the best coffee I have ever tasted. I drink it all.
We return to the hotel and the caffeine kicks in. There is no sleeping. At three-o’clock a.m. I am sitting by the pool on the hotel roof smoking a local cigar watching the ships line up to enter the canal.
“She was right,” I say. “It was a great-tasting coffee,” I take another puff from the stogie.
“This was an interesting trip,” I say to myself.
My plan is to come back and ride horses across the mountains of Canazas Province from the Pacific to the Atlantic. I never will.
That was twenty years ago.
It was an interesting trip.
It is an interesting memory.
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