About 3.5 million people reside in this country, with more than half of the population in the canal corridor between Panama City and the Caribbean port of Colon.
Panama is ethnically diverse. Some 70 percent are of mixed African, native “Indian” and European ancestry; about 10 percent are Caucasian. Except for the gringos, everybody has dark skin — from light brown to black. (One uniquely un-American experience I’ve gotten used to is walking alone at night down desolate streets and seeing only Hispanics and black people … and not being afraid, not one little bit.) The U.S. State Department claims that unemployment is about 7 percent. I don’t buy that anymore than I accept the State’s assessment of a 92 percent literacy rate. I see too many Panamanians sitting around, doing nothing. And I’ve never seen an adult Panamanian reading a book; neither has my amiga Linda Murdock, and she’s been here for three years.
The social classes are polarized. Yes, there is a middle class, but the difference between the uber-rich and the poverty-stricken (almost a third of the population) is dramatic and, for me, terribly depressing.
The rich are different than you and me. They have lots of money.
Yesterday, I returned to my rowhouse in San Carlos. During a recent rainstorm, which lasted about an hour as most rainstorms do, the roof started leaking and the ceiling started crumbling. Bed, bureau, nightstands — lots of things got soaked. My landlady, the gracious Mrs. X., suggested that I stay in her villa, also in San Carlos but right on the beach, during the repair. So I moved into a guestroom (there are six bedrooms, plus eight bathrooms) for a couple of days after which the roofers claimed the repair work was complete, so I moved back into the casita for a few days — till another rain and another leaky ceiling — and back I went to the villa.
I’ve included photos, so you can appreciate the lap of luxury I was sitting in. On the first floor, where a gate leads to a lagoon created by a river than runs into the ocean, is a garden and basketball court. The second floor has a swimming pool and patios. The third floor has a pool table and recreation room, more patios and servant’s quarters. (Panamanian homes and many apartments have been built with servant’s quarters; they are tiny but have their own bathrooms and often their own small kitchens. My roommate, the effervescent Abel, has been living in Mrs. X’s servant quarters for three years.) The fourth floor, the main floor, has a lovely kitchen, large living room, humungous terrace, three bedrooms, three baths and, behind the driveway to the street, a carport and laundry room. I slept on the fifth floor, which has two bedrooms and two bathrooms.
Yesterday, I climbed onto the stone wall separating my casita from my neighbor Mama’s house and hosed down the roof for half an hour. No leaks yet, so I have returned. Mrs. X wanted me out of the villa. Next week is a holy week, culminating in parades and Easter festivities. Most of her family fills the villa and Mrs. A needed to get the place prepared, she told me.
As I point out in another article (“Environmental Impact Report”), the nicer-to-really-nice homes and apartments outside of Panama City are largely uninhabited; only on weekends do lights appear in skyscraper windows. These weekend and holiday homes are seldom visited by their city-dwelling owners. Some are investments by international bankers or drug dealers or foreigners, rented out occasionally to vagabonds like myself by rental agents in the area. Often a Panamanian servant lives there, picking up coconuts and mangos from the garden and mopping down the terrace now and then.
I’m beginning to think that these servants have a good thing going.
There are about 20,000 Jews in Panama, mostly orthodox. Two weeks ago, I attended a Sabbath service in the gated community of Coronado. (The town has a land mass comparable to San Francisco, but it’s entirely fenced in, and each lot is fenced in, and each home has bars on the windows and iron gates on the doors.) The synagogue is orthodox, so I found it alienating and upsetting.
First off, I had trouble getting into the place. The security guard would not let me in. (Even with all these bars and gates, everything in Panama has a security guard: apartment buildings, parking lots, doctors’ offices, schools, banks have at least three guards, supermarkets, many private homes.) A guy and his son walked by; I stopped him, told him I was a Jew from San Francisco, California, and wanted to attend the service. The guy talked with the guard but then disappeared into the temple. The next guy going to the service asked me lots of questions and then, grudgingly, told the guard to let me in. The temple and its grounds were right out of Beverly Hills — elegant, extravagant, exclusive.
Three dozen Panamanian men — no gringos, no women, of course — prattled their whiney chants ad nauseum. The service was so incomprehensible and unfamiliar that, even with a prayer book, I had no idea when they said the sh’ma. I spent most of the service contemplating the advantages of being Unitarian.
Mercifully, it lasted only 40 minutes.
Rich Jews in Panama City (almost all of whom are orthodox) spend half of their weekends in ritzy Coronado. They own these huge villas on the beach. They’re orthodox, so they can’t “work” on the Sabbath, and that includes driving. So they built this beautiful synagogue (the only one within hours of the City) walking distance from their mansions. They arrive Friday evening and walk to temple and walk home.
After this Friday-night service, the men milled about for a few moments outside the synagogue. I didn’t want to offend anyone by using my cell phone (using a phone is deemed “work”), so I ambled along trying to get clear of the crowd. But I ended up walking with a couple of guys — Mr. A, his brother Mr. D and his son-in-law Mr. N. We started chatting in Spanglish. Mr. A invited me to Shabbat dinner.
Many a tit has its tat. The festive meal more than compensated for the religious service.
I spent three hours in their palatial mansion: several stories, tons of rooms, pool overlooking a private beach, huge picture windows. Lots of people sat around the table: Mr. D, his wife, children and grandchildren, Mr. A, his wife, children and grandchildren, and their 88-year-old mother originally from Lebanon. Dinner, presented in installments by four servants, included chicken, brisket, artichokes stuffed with some kind of meat, Lebanese delights, rice, radicchio salad with dried cranberries and slivered nuts, etc. For dessert, there was apple tea, apple strudel, homemade brownies and a dessert platter with the biggest mangos slices I’ve ever seen.
(During my first week back in Panama, I’d walk down streets filled with sticky, globby goo and check the bottom of my sandals for dog poop. It took me a while to realize that the stuff was smashed, rotting mangos that had fallen from trees. This is mango season; mangos are everywhere. My angel Stephen Johnson picks newly fallen mangos off the street and eats them right then and there, juice dripping down his Hawaiian shirt.) After dinner, I commented on the size of the mango slices to Mr. A; he proudly told me, “They are imported.”
At least three things were confirmed that Friday night:
1. You never know. Things can turn out terrible, but they can also turn out terrific.
2. There are Jews everywhere, and Jews stick together. Orthodox Jews have tedious services and their dogma is disturbing, but they can be kind, generous, warm and helpful.
3. I wish I were rich.
During my remaining time in Panama, I will cultivate certain relationships and try to ingratiate myself, however possible, with rich people. I’ve been thinking about those caretakers who live in those empty villas, sometimes cleaning kitchen countertops and watering plants, sometimes cleaning swimming pools and repairing water lines, usually doing nothing, just sitting around doing nothing. I could be a servant. I can do nothing as well as the next guy.