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.

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