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.


  1. Jeff, I love your description of Dennis. Total Ted Kennedy head!! Please keep write these blogs. Ralph and I are hooked! They are great!!

    Karen -formerly of Five Islands

  2. Thanks Karen! It is nice to hear. And it's funny that you were able to figure out the complicated process of posting a comment where as Kevin from Solange IV was unable......And don't say formerly Five Islands-that's so sad....