Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Portobelo: For an Aluminum Tubo

Waking up on Sunday morning to the church bells from the Iglesia de Cristo Negro ringing in a Congo rhythm doesn't allow you to forget where you are. It's the kind of pleasant accompaniment to the monotony of making coffee on a stove that Mary Poppins could appreciate. Except that it was Monday and I wasn't sure why the bells were ringing. Looking at the church from the boat a large green mountain with a shaved head rises sharply behind it. The trees on the hilltop are cutaway and the lighter green of the grass provides a nice contrast to the darkness of the surrounding jungle. Of course there is a large antennae at the peak which is why the trees are cutaway, it's not perfect but it's still nice to look at on a sunny Sunday or Monday morning.

It's around 8 am so I'm on my way to the Italian Panaderia for a fresh sandwich and if I'm lucky a jugo de maracuya {fresh passion fruit juice}. When I first get off the dock I see Dave Waller. Dave is an American from Texas and salvages boats in the area. Dave loves stuff, junk really, if he had a yard it'd be filled with old cars, engines and pieces of metal but since he lives on his boat he has a shack down by the water where he keeps used boat parts. Dave's shop is a microcosm of Portobelo, once nice but now mostly run down and rusty with a few unexpected treasures here and there. He runs his shop like a consignment shop so boaters can bring in their used or spare parts and unload them and hopefully sell them. Most people who love junk, enjoy the history of their junk as does Dave. He loves to talk and tell stories as much as he loves junk. And his stories are as filled with old time southern expressions as his shack is with old boat parts. Expressions like,
"Man I tell you what, I'm like a bull in a china shop. " or "He doesn't know shit from shinola."
When he makes a point it's emphasized with his Texas accent and as he finishes he makes his eyes big, bobs his head a little bit and then purses his lips. He wears khaki shorts with a belt, no shirt but lots of sweat and chest hair. He loves to take you through his shack and say,

"You know what this is? I got it off a big ol' steeeeammmmm ship that sank. You wouldn't believe it. But this is a radiator cap. Can you believe that? A damn radiator cap from a steeeeeammmm ship. Look here you know what that is? That is some kind of VHF microphone adapter kit, you know for the VHF radio, come off the boat that washed out of the Chagres. Can you believe that, it's as good as damn new {chuckling to himself}. Finer than a frogs hair. Damn microphone adapter can you believe it?

"What does it do?" I ask uninterested
Hell I don't know. Some way of adapting different kind of microphones to your VHF. Can you believe that?"

He'll take you through the shop and show you all the things he has that you don't need. And then if you tell him what you do need he'll say,
"You know, I did have one of those, I've seen it around here, shoot you know what, a guy came in here just the other day and bought it. "
Doesn't matter what it is, he had one just the other day.
So when I see Dave I'm careful to just say , "Heyya Dave." and keep on walking because there are no short conversations with Dave Waller.

The Panaderia is located at a fork where the main road that runs though Portobelo diverts, one road running between the square in the center of town and the Royal Custom House Museum while the main road runs a block up, between the square and the bus station. The road that runs to the Custom House is made of old beautiful pavers while the one on the main road is asphalt. The Panaderia is in a small Caribbean Pink building, with a patio with two plastic tables, red and green plastic chairs overlooked by a large open window. Inside there is only room for standing at the counter across which a young Latin Panamanian works everyday. She's short, a bit chubby, not fat, with large soft cheeks and large eyes.

The Italian flag waving at the entrance could be saying "You're no longer in Panama" because nothing about the Panaderia lets you know it is Panamanian. It isn't what they do, it's how they do things, well. The sanitation is not Panamanian, it's clean and the employees are consistently washing their hands. The menu isn't Panamanian, the speciality is the baguettes but they serve a variety of crepes and pressed sandwiches, croissants and on the weekend pizzas. They serve their food on colorful ceramic plates that have a unique design which is unusual, as Panama is a place where utility is more often valued than aesthetic. The only thing Panamanian is the girl behind the counter. She's friendly enough but not overtly. I see her everyday and she's never chatty but lately she has started to smile at me which I like to pretend is a sign of progress. Some days like today, I splurge and spend $2.5O for the jamon con queso sandwich. But if it wasn't for the Congo bells from the church making me do it I might limit my purchase to sixty cents and only leave with two giant baguettes, fresh enough where I feel their warmth through the paper bag. They were out of maracuya so I buy a large glass of fresh squeezed jugo de naranja {orange juice} for $1.5O. And as I was about to leave I was startled when the young lady asked about Anna returning. The awareness that Anna was absent and the curiosity to ask about it made me feel like I was a member of the community. I told her she'd return in about week, that she went to the States for her mother's birthday and best friend's wedding. The girl smiled and said "ahhh matrimonio bueno' and I left the Italian embassy at the Panaderia to wait in the square for a bus to Sabanitas.

The local buses in Panama are twenty to thirty year old school buses from the U.S. They're brought here repaired and painted extravagantly with murals of women, unicorns, Beauty and the Beast and Jesus. They're adorned with hot pink, chrome everything, plastic shark fins attached to the roof, plastic bubble tops on the roof and rope lighting on the hood and around the windshield. Inside they're pretty much a school bus except the driver's area is often adorned with shiny hot pink plastic and several feather boas surrounding the windshield in order to minimize the driver's vision. Each bus has a different name, always a woman's name. They play loud Latin music as they move the majority of Panamanians from one place to another.

Papeeta walked by with a beer in hand and yelled "todo bien?" and thrust his arm in the air as I climbed aboard Princess Jessica. The entire bus was filled with kids in school uniforms. I find a seat near the back next to a ten year old school girl in a long navy skirt and bleach whitened shirt. There are no school buses so the kids all ride the same buses that serve for public transportation. The girl in the seat across the aisle was leaning forward whispering something to the girl in my seat about the boys behind her. Then she turned around and slapped one of the boys in the head. I looked at the boy, smiled and he started to laugh. The kids are much better behaved on the buses than we ever were. The flirtatious play continued between the girls and the boys. Paper balls were being thrown as we wove around the hillside over looking the Caribbean sea. One part of me felt good about the familiarity, reminded of being a kid on a bus back home, the other part of me couldn't find any commonality with the drastic scenery outdoors, the Latin Music pumping through the speakers and the bank employee on her way to work in her pant suit sitting two seats up who got hit in the head by a pencil thrown by one of the kids. The plaque above the driver's head that read, Registered to Allen County Schools, Indiana, USA only emphasized the difference. When I'm on the buses here I like to imagine the two lives of the particular bus. What was life like for Princess Jessica before she was Princess Jessica? Sometimes I look for evidence, old American graffiti, things like, Guns & Roses Rulez, or Tammy is a bitch scrawled into the old vinyl seats but since Princess Jessica had her seats recovered with a cheap velvet material none was visible.

After an hour on the bus, a few kilometers passed Sabanitas, I missed my stop and yelled "parada" {stop}. I was looking for an aluminum pole for our wind generator and Dennis had told me about a place half way to Colon. I got off the bus and immediately got in a taxi back to the place I'd missed. I'd prepared myself for the conversation I was about to  have with the aluminum man. I had a list of words I'd written down that morning to explain what I needed. I need a one and half inch schedule forty aluminum pole. I wrote down five Spanish synonyms for pole {polo, poste, polaco, palo, mastil}. I may as well have been asking for an aluminum bathing suit. They had no idea what I needed. It took thirty minutes of them showing me things in the warehouse when I learned what we call a pole they call a tube or "tubo." We all celebrated realizing what I needed was a "tubo" but that quickly ended when he told me they don't sell aluminum tubos. He suggested a place up the road but I was confident now that I had the word "tubo" with me. After four more taxis and four more stops at places that didn't have any tubos I decided to walk to the fifth place thirty minutes up the road. On the way I buy a half of pollo carbon {roasted chicken} for $2.5O. I eat it on the side of the road and wipe the grease on the inside of my t-shirt and keep walking. The large trucks driving by flung gravel and bits of asphalt at my back and neck but I still enjoyed the walk. At my final stop I found the tubo I needed. I bought the tubo and have to return on Thursday for the other parts I need. Then I walk the thirty minutes back to the intersection where I can get a bus back to Portobelo.

The bus ride back to Portobelo is always different than the ride leaving Portobelo. The reason is the buses back to Portobelo are packed with one hundred people on a sixty person school bus, people standing from the front to the back like cattle, hanging out the door and nearly sitting on the driver's lap. You're sweating on yourself and other people but it's okay, they're sweating is getting on you. Every possible place to hold onto has a hand on it so you just have to balance really well as the bus driver takes curves at speeds better than Richard Petty. The bus back to Portobelo will ruin any image you have of Latin men being gentleman. When the bus arrives for Portobelo they will push over old women, women with children, children on their own it doesn't matter. If you're fortunate enough to make it onto the bus the young men who are sitting down will not give you there seat if you are an woman with one leg, if you are nursing a baby on each breast or if you're having a stroke. It is pure individual survival. The area between Portobelo and Sabanitas is lightly populated. Most of the people know each other. It's not like being ruthless to a a total stranger, it's being ruthless to someone you might have over for a bbq.

As we get farther from Sabinitas the bus slowly empties out and it's possible to sit down. It starts raining which makes the bus steamy as everyone closes the windows but the sound of the air brakes fools me into considering if the bus is steam powered. Along the way the driver honks and yells out the window to everyone he knows. He knows everyone we pass.

When we arrive in Portobelo it's five o'clock, I'm sweaty and tired when I realize all I did was buy an aluminum tubo. As I pass Dave on my way through town he says,
"Shit man you look like tired."
"I know I just got back from Sabinatas, I went to buy an aluminum tubo, I mean pole for my wind generator and had to go to five places."
"What kind of pole did you need? Aluminum like ten foot long? You know what I think I have one of those. Where did I see that pole? You know what? I just sold it the other day, this guy from uhh what's that boat, I don't know a big dutch guy came and bought it, uhh-uh yep sure enough did, just sold it the other day."
"Alright. well thanks Dave."

I see Papeeta walking down the road and he sees me, possibly realizes I'm tired and says, "todo bien?"
"Si, Papeeta, necesito una cerveza y tu."
"Si, tambien necesito una cerveza."  
My "y tu" was to ask if everything with him was good, not if he needed a beer but his cleverness made me smile so I bought Papeeta and I a beer, we sit in the square and drink and it feels good to be home in Portobelo.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The People of Portobelo

What kind of people would live in a town I described in the introduction?

Cast of Characters
The Chinese girl-We're you expecting the first person to be a Chinese girl?
The people who do not stand in line-everyone in Portobelo
The boy at the dock-a boy
The scowling lady-a lady
Jack-Co-owner of Captain Jacks/Captain of S/V Fantasy
Dennis-Co-owner of Captain Jacks
Negrita-Dennis' wife/Cooks at Captain Jacks 
Lorraina-Jack's girlfriend/Cook at Captain Jacks/Mate on Fantasy 
Penguin-Dennis and Negrita's daughter real name Jacklyn 
Vern-Dennis's adopted drunk

Steve-Bartender /Manager of Captain Jacks
Palo-Owns a place called Restaurant, it's a restaurant
As I mentioned the majority of the people of Portobelo are black. They descend from Africa, Trinidad and Jamaica. Additionally, there are a large number of people that look like what you'd expect Latin Americans to look like tan caramel colored skin with dark hair. There are many Juan Valdez-ish men wearing brown slacks, a white button up shirt, open at the chest and a Panama Hat. There are Chinese, they run all the supermarkets. There are indigenous people Kuna, Guaymi or Ngawbe, Embera, and Waunan. There are even a few whites.Then of course there are some people who have features that appear Chinese mixed with Latin, indigenous mixed with black, Latin and black, Chinese black and Latin. Sometimes I'm on a bus sitting next to a black guy, he looks just like a black guy from home. I look at him and think this guy speaks English."
I look back at him again, he doesn't look like he speaks Spanish.
Eventually I'll decide he definitely speaks English and then I'll say, "what up bro?"
He'll look at me and smile and say "Que? No entiendo. No hablo ingles.
If you're from the States black people don't speak Spanish, it's a rule, they just don't. I've been around a lot of black people, they never ever spoke Spanish. The other people who do not speak Spanish according to my narrow and limited experience in the world is Chinese people. Chinese people speak Chinese and English minus the letter "L," that is it, no Spanish. But since the grocery stores are all owned and operated by Chinese and since most Panamanians don't speak Chinese the Chinese speak Spanish. It's a nice experience to be an American speaking Spanish to a Chinese woman in Panama. There is a young Chinese girl, probably eighteen years old. She works at one of the Chinese markets at the register from 7:wears her hair in a messy pony tail, the sides tucked behind her ears. She wears eyeglasses and
The dock where you tie your dinghy up when coming ashore is at the Escuelita del Ritmo {Little School of Rhythm} which is adorned nicely with paintings of bongo drums and musical notes. The kids in the town have learned to ask if they can watch your dinghy in exchange for a dollar. If anyone ever felt a sense of security from the vigilance of a ten year old I couldn't say. Three or four kids will crowd the dock trying to take your line but since they are standing where you need to step you end up looking like an awkward gringo that can't get out of his own boat. The boy and his family who live inside the school building at the dock are always friendly and polite. The boy is soft spoken and has a saddish face. That was until the boy, maybe twelve or thirteen, decided he has a thing for Anna. One day when I was loading the boat with groceries Anna was stuck at the dock with him. It was only fifteen minutes but from then on he was in love. When I returned to a fill water jug later in the day sans Anna he told me,
"Tu chica es muy bonita." {Your girl is very beautiful} he said, and raised his eyebrows slightly and smiled
"Muy linda" he said, {Very pretty} this time with a bit bigger smile.
"Muy sexy,"{horny little bastard} and now I can see his teeth.
 From then on, anytime I'm at the dock without her he asks, 
"Donde es tu chica?" {Where is your girl?}
To which I always reply with a very large smile,
"Mi chica se desnuda en el velero" {My girl is naked on the sailboat.}
There is a woman I see almost everyday when I'm in Portobelo. I see her as she walks down the hill near Captain Jack's where she lives or waiting for the bus to Colon. She wears dark solid color dresses, typically green or blue without any frills, her appearance is nun-like and she always carries an umbrella. Along with her conservative dress she always wears a scowl. When I pass her I smile oafishly and say "bwaaaaynos." She nods her head solemnly, very faintly her scowl eases to a pained smile and she says, "bwaynos." Once I tried not saying anything, we passed each other without acknowledgement. After a few steps I turned and looked back at her and she turned to look back at me. We didn't nod our heads or say anything, we just kept walking.  Since then I've gone back to saying "bwaaaaynos."
Captain Jack, has a hostel he recently opened in Portobelo with his friend Dennis. Initially they were here to build a yacht club but realized they needed a bar to hang out at so they opened one. The black and white sign reads Captain Jacks: Beds, Beers and Burgers it directs you up a hill to the establishment.  Jack takes backpackers to Columbia in the same, 50' Vagabond ketch, Fantasy, he circumnavigated in. A boat which looks as pirate-esque as you'd expect from someone so appropriately named Captain Jack. Jack has long brown hair to the middle of his back, hoop earrings and even his laugh sounds a little pirate-ish. Jack plays the role of the responsible but fun loving, pirate, bar owner, sailor, Motown singer and even Wyatt Earp style law enforcer. I once saw Jack go through town with a baseball bat to find kids who were causing trouble with an American and Australian couple. He cares about Portobelo being a safe place and since it's Panama, but really since it's Portobelo, that means you can't sit around and wait for the police to deal with it.

Dennis his partner is sweaty, short, stalky with fluffy white and grey hair and a general disheveled appearance. He's from Connecticut and something about the shape of his head reminds me of Ted Kennedy although it could be just his drinking. He drinks heavily, but then, so does everyone else. But because Dennis will say anything that enters his mind and since what enters his mind is often offensive he is a great source of entertainment.Dennis' wife is a black Dominican woman named Negrita who works in the kitchen at the restaurant along with Lorraina, Jack's Columbian girlfriend. Negrita is always sweet and smiles and waves real big and says, "HOLLLLLLLAAAA Jeff" as if you haven't seen her months, though I may have seen her just a few hours before. Though she doesn't speak much English, if Dennis gets to worked up she likes to say, "easssssssy peasssy Dennis, easssssy peassssy."

A month ago an American man, new in town, walked up to the bar and said, 
"Who's the head nigger around here." 
Dennis, without hesitation smiled and said "She's in the kitchen, shall I get her."
Dennis likes to refer to his mixed race baby, Jacklyn as Penguin and announces she table dances for $1. He is highly intelligent and adept at playing the role of someone who doesn't always know what's going on or doesn't care. He knows. Dennis, who speaks excellent Spanish will purposely speak as if he's sounding out the words from a textbook, "COOMOO EEEEEEESTAAAAA YOUSTEAD" he'll say. His attitude being, "you're going to treat me like a dumb gringo I'm going to be a dumb gringo." I'm not saying Dennis isn't crazy, he is. But he's also brilliant.

Our first time at Captain Jack's we met a deeply tanned middle aged man with a Tom Selleck moustche and a deep American voice. He introduced himself as Vernon. Anna asked if he was on a boat and had we met. He said, no I just live here, at the hostel. Anna swore she'd met him some where and a few hours later we realized he was a guy our friends helped rescue. A month or so previous we were in the West Lemon Cays of San Blas, one of the only places in San Blas that has internet.  He'd used Anna's computer to send an email but had also been drinking glorious amounts of rum. When the Captain of Vern's boat, also gloriously drunk, attempted to row back to the boat against a twenty knot wind, Vern for one reason or another decided he could breath underwater. He literally passed out, with his head underwater being dragged behind the dinghy. Our friends alerted the Captain that Vern likely did not have gills and the correct place for humans to breath is above the water.

Vern does a little work for Dennis and Jack but overall he mostly drinks. Dennis assigns him to fill propane tanks and gasoline for people on sailboats so he spends a good part of his timw drinking and smoking in a non-air conditioned unventilated building inhaling fumes. I can't say this has effected him in any way. Vern's trademark is to tell people to go fuck themselves and so accordingly Dennis has given him the title of Director of Hospitality. Lately Vernon has begun the annoying habit of imitating a cack cack cack sound he attributes to Popeye. In between every other sentence he'll insert a cack cack cack, everyone has just accepted that it's part of having a conversation with Vern, I don't think people even notice it anymore.

Steve is the bartender/manager of Captain Jacks. He has reddish hair and since he's English he's incredibly white skinned and has a habit of pulling his shirt away from his body. Steve works from 8 am until the bar closes at midnight, every day. He goes through periods of exhaustion but when he's chipper, there is nothing like a chipper English accent to greet you at the bar. Before Steve was the bartender Vernon was the original bartender, that lasted for a day, when Dennis and Jack realized it would never work. Steve was at the hostel as a guest when Dennis told him you, alright, Vernon's out, you cover the bar. Steve wasn't looking for a job, he was just a guest, Dennis just decided it was assigned to him. It stuck....something stuck. 
Palo is an Argentinian man who recently partially opened a restaurant in Portobelo. He's also a face contortionist. His restaurant is meant to be a tapas bar though he's often out of food with the exception of chicken and potato chips. It's located on a street of ancient pavers that are potholed and ruptured but in a way that is endearing. Indoors he's done a nice job refurbishing an ancient building, he sanded down the walls to the mortar and brick and hung a painting of Henry Morgan over a bar way to elegant for Portobelo. He also created a nice atmosphere outdoors amid partially standing five hundred year old walls, he sets up square silver tables on a dirt floor in between the two narrow walls and has hung art on them which adds a nice touch. It's lighted with a few tiki torches. The reason it's partially open is because he's often not around. I'm not sure where he is but the restaurant is closed as much as it is open. When he's there he's on a serious amount of cocaine and he smiles like he may eat you and grinds his teeth. He gestures manically as he speaks and winks every few seconds and gives a naught laugh. His face is partially made of putty and it contorts in sync with his manic hands for emphasis.Once he offered to let me and Anna stay at his house but because of his excessive winking and his decadent laugh I'm afraid of what he might have been implying.
Papeeta is our only local friend. When I see him on the street he raises one arm in the air and shouts across the street to me "Todo Bien?" {Everything good?}. He is our dog watcher when we have to stay over night in Panama City. Frexi no longer barks at him and they seem to enjoy walking each other around.  He is tall with greying hair and large pouty lips. He is an alcoholic skinny black man and occasional crack user. He is such a drunk that in a town of drunks everyone considers him an alcoholic. When I catch the bus at 7:If he's awake there is a beer in his hand. Even when he's sleeping there is often a beer in his hand. One morning on the way to the bakery with Frexi she literally walked on top of his body which was strewn across a stairway. He didn't budge. He is partially homeless which means he only occasionally passes out in the streets. When he hasn't passed out in the street he finds shelter in Portobelo's many buildings that are missing chunks of walls or doors in the way you'd expect if a bomb went off. Despite his slurring Papeeta is a nice guy, very polite, and totally harmless. Sometimes he washes cars or the local buses for beer money. Occasionally he helps Dennis out with projects, sometimes his job is just to go back to the store and buy beer for everyone. He always returns with the proper amount of change and beers, todo bien.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Beautiful Port: An Introduction

 Don't go to Portobelo

 "Did a storm hit here?" My friend Philip asked shortly after arriving in Portobelo.

 "No. What do you mean?" I asked knowing exactly what he meant but just wanting him to say it.

 "I don't know, I just thought the way all of the buildings looked maybe a storm hit here."

"No, that is just the look."

The truth is I love this place. For me it's perfect. But for you, you shouldn't come to Portobelo. You won't like it. It's hot. The moisture from the surrounding mountains sinks down into the town and the equatorial sun cooks the moisture into what amounts to a thoroughly unpleasant steam. It's dirty. If you were to take all possible meanings of the word "dirt" Portobelo can find a way to represent them all. Exhaust from the old school buses that take people to Colon buries itself anywhere your skin comes together: neck, elbows, knees. I love walking through town and feeling like I'm marinating in trash.  Shit from the worm ravaged dogs that roam the streets in search of food and shade decorates the sidewalks. I love the worm ravaged dogs. And when I walk my dog around town I don't have to carry a bag and clean up after her, she just contributes to the decor. It's charmingly dirty. Like I said it's perfect.

I love the people here. Overall the people are unattractive, lazy, drunks that aren't overly friendly. Why do I like them? Unattractive people make me feel good about myself, lazy people make me feel productive, drunks make me feel okay about my personal consumption rate. And the people here are black. Really black. African black. And they're experienced with racism so unless you're black, they may not warm up to you immediately. I know what you're thinking, "drunk blacks, is it safe?" It's completely safe. Crime takes effort and these people are just to laid back for crime. You can do whatever you like in Portobelo. No one cares. You can do nothing as well, no cares if you do that either because that is what everyone is doing, nothing. In Portobelo unlike the rest of Panama you can buy booze on religious holidays. You can walk down the street with a beer unlike the rest of Panama. In Portobelo you do what you want.

Even the buzzards here are a special breed of extra ugly buzzards. They like to hang out on the bridges that cross the few canals that drain the rain from the surrounding mountains. These rivers of trash are filled with diapers, plastic wrappers of Festival Cookies and Balboa cans and the buzzards like to pick through the watery waste for scraps. The town has no trash cans and even if it did the residents wouldn't care to use them it's they're way of saying "fuck you Columbus, for naming it Portobelo {"beautiful port"}. If Henry Morgan came back from the dead and returned to Portobelo he'd be content that nothing he and his men could do to the town would make it any worse off than it is and he'd simply move on.

How can I say this? After all, Portobelo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. When you come to Portobelo you will realize that being a UNESCO World Heritage Site comes with one benefit, you get a sign that says, "UNESCO World Heritage Site." What you won't see when you get to Portobelo is any hint of the $77,that it was once the most important city in the Spanish Main. You won't see any evidence of the massive riches that flowed from Peru and the rest of South America to be loaded onto ships in Portobelo. You won't see any green or khaki wearing tour guides at the ruins. There are no animatronic pirates. There is no entrance fee and no pamphlets for reading. Like I said it's perfect. You can walk right into a five hundred year old fort and allow your dog to take a shit and no one will even notice. I've done it.

What you really shouldn't do is clean it up. I say, "leave Portobelo dirty!" If you aren't immediately repulsed by the entire aura of Portobelo you may be inclined to walk around the town and imagine it through your Westernized/Disney-esque idea of what it should  or could look like "Well if they cleaned up the trash, with a little paint and landscaping...." Don't do it. If that is what you're looking for go back to your planned community with your New Urbanism garages hidden in the back and your desire to make everything quaint. Like I said you shouldn't come here. You won't like it.

Portobelo at a Glance

A blue sky breaks into the sleeping eye, a sky that will turn gray for an hour a few times a day as the quick moving rain showers push off the surrounding mountains. From my boat I hear howler monkeys and the air brakes from the local buses as they round the bend which lead into the town. When you're in the bus as it rounds the bend overlooking the bay you may be inclined to think you're somewhere perfect if at that time the sun happens to be putting on a light show with the water in the bay, the greens on the surrounding mountains are singing Bob Marley and the sixty something sailboats lightly dancing on their anchor. What you'll realize when you get off the bus is that you'll wish you were back on the bus.

Foreshadowing the town to perfection, if you're approaching the town by sea, is a sailboat on it's side, partially submerged, it's mast points towards 1as it deteriorates in rhythm with the town. Accompanying it, in the bay, are the remains of a few ideally dilapidated structures, poking above the water line.  Caribbean Pink, Green, Yellow and Blue shacks perch on ancient coral stone walls carpeted with patches of green moss. Small satellite dishes atop the rusty tin roofs receive HGTV and Fox News.

In town the streets of old coral pavers are breaking apart in a way that looks artistic and charming and run parallel to open drainage canals that serve a supplementary function of carrying trash into the bay. Many of the walls of the buildings of crumbling concrete block and wood are painted with murals of a devil with a muppet like face, his mouth a grapefruit halved, with flames painted around his head. Some of the murals have worshippers, represented by drawing the same man over and over again, moving toward the devil with a cross. The walls that aren't painted with devils are mostly painted with advertising for Atlas Beer and Moviestar or Claro phone service. Moviestar seems to be the most predominant which is unfortunate as their colors features a bile green accompanied by an unattractive blue as if part of their marketing strategy is to gain your attention by revolting you with color. And juxtaposed among these walls of devils and advertising are bits and pieces of walls that are ruins from the fort and town dating back to the 15

In the center of town, across from the bus stop is a large square in front of the scenic Royal Custom House Museum which dates from 1597. The square is a nicely covered in coral pavers and one must step up two steps to cross it. The added elevation would suit a concert nicely if one were so inclined but no one is inclined and thus there are never concerts here. Amid the square are four large square landscaping planters displaying unmanicured grass, palm trees and trash. It's common to spot a dog wandering in the planter, it's nose to the ground, he will take three turns and then squat and take a dump. Last week I noticed an enterprising man had taken his trash and dumped it in the planter and set it on fire. No one cared or noticed. Beautiful. Around the planters are many concrete  benches painted in Moviestar colors all of which are broken and collapsing with the exception of two or three. At the Royal Customs House Museum there is no evidence of any employees or formal volunteers of this museum, only men who sit in it's shade in metal folding chairs drinking Balboas and staring a their charmingly ugly town. I say Bwwwaaaaaenos to the men as I pass through the museum and the men smile and say "Bwaaaaaaanos" back.

If you were reading a guide book it'd probably tell you about Festival El Diablo in Portobelo and Feast day of the Cristo Negro which is the Festival of the Black Christ where for some reason unknown to even the participants the Black Christ is honored as a miracle and sixty thousand people walk from as far as Costa Rica to honor it. What the guide book won't tell you about Portobelo is that all these people do is have festivals. They have a festival almost every week, it is the only thing they do. Near the church are sad looking booths, most of which are never open, others which are always open. The open ones are worked by fat women and skinny girls who will be fat soon enough. All of them dress in the kind of cheap slutty clothes common among poor blacks in the States like awkwardly tight fitting jeans adorned with excessive golds and silvers and overly accessorized matching gold and silver body and hair decorations. At the booths you'll find Black Jesus statues of varying sizes, Black Jesus necklaces,  Black Jesus hats, Black Jesus coffee mugs, Black Jesus shirts, Black Jesus pins even a Black Jesus USB stick.

If you google Portobelo all the pictures you'll see are beautiful panoramas, photos of the fort overlooking the bay. If that is what you're looking for print out the photos and leave it at that. But if you're like me and you like your ugliness right out front where you can keep an eye on it, examine it, interact with it and play with it well then you might say this place is portobelo.

Still to come are the following People of Portobelo and Life in Portobelo....