...Y CADA DÍA DESPUÉS (...AND EVERY DAY AFTER)
So is the trouble with you Americans. You expect nothing bad ever to happen, when the rest of the world expects only bad to happen. And they’re not disappointed.
- Svetlana Kirilenko, The Sopranos, Season 4, Episode 12, 2002
The sun rose from the ocean and set beyond the pasture.
We had water, or we didn't.
The tides ebbed and flowed.
The power went on and off.
The moon waxed and waned.
The internet ran out, and we reactivated it.
The winds blew and faded.
The water pump connections blew out, and were repaired.
We've had fully-functioning running water less than six full days during our month stay in Panama. When the city gives us water, the pump blows out. When the pump is fixed, the city stops giving us water, or we lose power to run the pump.
During this, our last week, we went eight days without a drop of water from the town. Beyond the fact that the area is in a drought, the owner found out that a turbine broke at the water plant and our water will be shut off until it is repaired. He has compensated us for our troubles and is working on a solution to provide water to his property when the town shuts it off.
I didn't get sick from the well water, and now we fill all our water bottles and milk jugs there whenever we go into town. Our visiting friends instructed us in the fine art of flushing a toilet with only one gallon of water, by chucking it directly into the bowl. Disgusting, but efficacious.
Occasionally we saw what looked like a water truck drive down the street. One day I flagged it down and asked if they could fill our tank. The truck only had a twenty foot hose, despite the fact that most people's tanks are in the back of their property, and the truck could carry more hose. A neighbor joked that this tells you everything you need to know about Panama.
Then we had a stroke of genius. We pulled the bags out of all the trash cans in the house and lined the cans up at the end of the driveway. The water truck showed up, laughed at us, and filled them all up. We've been flushing the toilets triumphantly ever since.
This tells you everything you need to know about Panama... almost.
Things aren't done right here. They're just done. It's an intricately woven web of dysfunctionality, from the pump, to the water truck, to the well water milk cartons, to the water plant turbine, and probably all the way back to the Canal.
But there's a logic to the absurdity. If you can't flush your toilets, you fill milk cartons with water. If there's no water in the tank, you don't bother to fix the pump. If your water truck isn't meant to go door to door, you only use a twenty foot hose. If there's a drought with no water to pump, you don't fix the water turbine. If you haven't had running water in a week, you do laundry in trash cans. If you don't know when your next shower will be, you grow a beard.
If the systems that your work depends upon are expected to fail, you don't invest as much time and energy into doing it right, especially if your efforts cost money that you don't have. You just do it, and fix it when it breaks. This becomes self-propagating throughout the infrastructure, escalating into the kind of systemic failures that prevented us from flushing our toilets. For us, it's a major inconvenience.
But the Panamanians seem to take it all in stride.
You can't be inconvenienced if you have no expectation of convenience to begin with. Instead, they have a scrappy resilience, adapting to adversity by hacking together whatever quick fix they can come up with using whatever is at hand, MacGyver style. When the system breaks again, they patch it back up and carry on.
In the middle of our stay a construction crew of three people showed up to an empty lot next door in a 1990's Toyota Tercel with a 50 gallon drum roped to the roof. They staked out a small footprint of a house. One worker walked into the neighboring pasture to get branches to hold up a corrugated metal roof, which served as their job trailer. They filled the 50 gallon drum with water when the truck came by. The next day they dug a shallow foundation trench with an adze and shovel. The following day they used a shovel to mix a pile of gravel with a pile of Portland cement and water, then dumped it bucket by bucket into the trench. They placed concrete blocks in this wet concrete footing. They transported a bundle of twenty-foot long bars of steel rebar in the back of an eight-foot long trailer, with the homeowner sitting on one end of the rebar to hold it in place while the other end dragged down the street making sparks. By the end of the week they had completed the masonry foundation.
No excavators. No concrete mixers. No concrete formwork. No porta-potty (I'm not sure how they dealt with that).
"Mucho trabajo," I said in conversation with one of the workers. To me, it looked like a lot of backbreaking work.
"Eh, asi-asi," he responded. Not so bad. He pointed across the street. "Playa bonita," he said. The beach was beautiful.
There's an ease with which Panamanians undertake their hardships. It often doesn't seem like an easy life, but for them, it's just life, and they get by.
What the twenty foot hose on the water truck doesn’t tell you about Panama is what makes it so much easier for the Panamanians to handle challenges that newcomers like us find maddening. They have something we don’t - each other.
The town we lived near was Las Tablas, a slightly larger version of the sleepy small town centers typical of Panama’s rural Azuero Peninsula. But for five days in February, Las Tablas comes alive with one of Panama’s wildest celebrations of Carnavales.
Our visiting friends wanted to witness the final night of the festival, and I joined them while Erin graciously remained home with the kids. We had seen some Carnavales festivities over the preceding days, with queens wearing colorful feathers (and not much else) dancing atop elaborate parade floats, followed by energetic horn bands pulled in trailers behind farm tractors. Revelers in skin-tight fluorescent clothes clamored around tanker trucks emblazoned with beer logos for swag being thrown down from above. They were just as likely to get a free T-shirt as they were to get blasted by a twenty-foot hose spraying water from the truck.
The truck full of water. The irony was not lost on us.
For the final night in Las Tablas, I expected a drunken mob scene of waterlogged twenty-somethings. But as we approached the town square on foot, it looked like we had missed the party. We walked down the middle of the empty street right into the square, past trash tumbleweeds, food stands hawking the days’ leftovers, and locals lingering in lawn chairs on the sidewalks.
We heard some faint drumming and singing from the other end of the square. A large flag was waving back and forth, and began to approach us as the music got louder. A crowd came behind the flagbearer, and an informal parade of dancers passed before us.
Girls twirled slowly, with flowery beaded hairpieces sparkling as their hands raised the sides of their hand-embroidered lace dresses. One in a more elaborate blue dress with a large pink pom-pom at the neckline appeared to be the Carnaval queen. Boys wearing white button-down shirts and tightly woven straw hats made half-turn steps with one hand raised toward their partner. Some looked almost as young as Vera, and their parents and grandparents followed along.
The dancers were followed by a circle of hand-drummers bouncing in rhythmic waves. It truly was a circle, with some drummers walking backwards. In the center was a woman singing a single line over and over, in a call and response with the crowd around her. The singing was punctuated by primal sounding calls by the men, perhaps akin to a wounded seagull.
When the parade had passed, we walked through the once again quiet square to the far corner to get a beer. The parade turned the corner and came back up the street towards us. The flagbearer gave a seagull cry and stopped the group where we were standing. He guided the Carnaval queen out of the crowd, where a woman reapplied her make-up. He handed off his flag and turned to a friend who produced a clear bottle and small plastic shot glasses out of a woven satchel. The flagbearer and his friend each took a shot, then he pulled out four more shot glasses and turned to us.
“Seco?” he offered.
Seco Herrerano may be my new favorite liquor. I had picked up a bottle the week before after seeing it promoted in the grocery store. A 70-proof clear liquor distilled from sugarcane, it is to Panama what tequila is to Mexico. Seco is relatively light tasting with a touch of sweetness, and the alcohol flavor all but vanishes when mixed with fruit juices (grapefruit and pineapple are preferred). Some even mix it with milk (not good) or coconut milk (even worse).
So I knew the answer to his question.
We accepted the shot glasses, and the two of them each took another shot with us. Then the flagbearer took his flag back, gave a seagull cry, and circled back into the square with the crowd rallying behind him.
The dancers had stopped, but everyone milled about in our corner for a while. The drummers kept drumming, the singer kept singing, and soon there was a crowd of locals huddled around them, bouncing along with them and joining in the song. They all knew the words, and they seemed to all know each other. I couldn't help but be reminded of my family's famous Christmas singalongs with our friends and neighbors.
This wasn’t a performance for us, it was a celebration for themselves. It wasn’t a dramatic reenactment of some historical notion of their cultural identity, this was their culture. This was how they celebrated. This celebration wasn’t some temporary escape from an otherwise grueling existence, it was the necessary reinforcement of their most essential tool for thriving amidst the uncertain fortunes of this place. They were celebrating their community and these traditions that bound it together. They were celebrating each other.
I’ve never felt like such an outsider, yet so welcome at the same time.
The Carnaval queen posed for photographs with parade goers, while families and friends gathered for selfies. I watched one grandfather in his white shirt and woven hat as he stood behind his eight or nine-year-old granddaughter in her beaded hairpiece and embroidered dress while her grandmother took a picture.
He was beaming from ear to ear with pride, proud of his family, of this tradition, of this place. This place, where his granddaughter would grow up just as he did, just as his grandfather did before him.
Before the Canal. Before the cell phone towers. Before electricity. Before the water turbines and the water trucks and the water pumps. When buildings were built by men with just their hands. When boys carried jugs of water home from the well in a wheelbarrow. When ranchers on horseback drove their cattle down the highway. When farmers sold watermelons from trailers at the side of the road. When families gathered outdoors in the evenings and sang and danced in the streets for Carnavales.
They helped each other do what needed to be done. They did all of this then, as they do now. It was a simple, sometimes hard, sometimes joyous life. It was just life, and they got by.
On the surface, this traditional way of life appears anachronistic. But it is not antiquated. It’s timeless, adaptable, and resilient. Our modernity requires a dependence on an intricate infrastructure of soulless failsafe systems that grant us independence from everyone else. They cannot rely on these systems, so they need to be part of an interdependent community that can rally together in the face of adversity to scrap together a solution.
If an earthquake struck tomorrow and took out the Canal and the water turbines and the cell phone towers and the power lines, I think these Panamanians would still get by. I'm not sure I can say the same for most of the rest of us.
But at least we'll know how to flush the toilet. And we'll do it triumphantly.