4 days after I arrived in Azuero, Panama, I was at a briefing sight learning that Henry, my new partner and I would be spending the next month and a half in Sabana Grande. My supervisor shared with me some facts about our new community, telling us how my house was on a cemetery and Henry lived with 15 other people. 2 days later, my host brother, Jota, and the representante of the town (Henry’s host dad), picked us up and piled our 50 liter backpacks into a van and drove us to our new homes. Mama Mara scurried out of the house on top of a hill, sure enough, right next to the cemetery. She held a tattered cardboard sign that read “!Bienvenidos!” I knew I was home.
I quickly learned that the house would always be filled with my host mom, Mama Mara, my host dad, Ufe, my host brothers, Jota and Juan Diego, Liam, my little nephew, and the constant stream of community members, family, and neighbors. I rarely saw my host dad as he was always working. He left the house at 5 pm on the cattle trucks to work in the plantations and then returned at dawn ready for all of his odd jobs in the community. I never saw him sleep, eat, or shower. My host mom was always cooking and cleaning although she would stop every once in awhile in the afternoon to gossip with other ladies who would stop by. She also went on a daily trip to bring Abuela Lu food at night which I would regularly accompany her. Jota and Juan Diego, both almost at the age of 40, left early for their jobs managing the tienda in the next town over and working with the representante of the community. Even with my host brothers and dad off to work, somehow the house was always the meeting point for the tiny neighborhood kids to come to play and the one baby that always seemed to be running through the house naked. It took only a short while before I was fully accustomed to my new Panamanian lifestyle.
A couple weeks later, Mama Mara, closed the metal-like door behind her and proceeded down the hilltop and through the cemetery; her hands filled with cow tongue on a clay plate and a pitcher of water balanced on her shoulder. Why I chose to stay back from sweet Abuela Lu’s this one day, I don’t recall.
So there I was, sitting in my house, drenched in sweat and pondering over my options of what to do with my first free time I had had in Panama. Henry was at his house, a 30 minute walk away, but because it was past dinner, I refrained from going over so I wouldn’t have to walk back in the dark. Jota and Juan Diego, I knew wouldn’t return till late. I began thinking… I could take a nice solo hike up a mountain to watch the sunset? Should I maybe eat some of my hidden stash of peanut butter I had so carefully hidden in my backpack from home? Perhaps I could read the only book in the house, a bible in Spanish? Back in Texas, I would’ve never gotten so excited to be by myself for 2 hours.
Something just didn’t settle within me though with all the choices I had laid out for myself. Sure I could read a book, take a hike, eat something sweet but, I realized I could do that anywhere. Life here, in the quaint and uneventful but somehow fulfilling community of Sabana Grande, was to me, such an adventure every day. I met strangers one day and the next they were family. Every single day I passed by house after house, yelling out “Buenas,” to everyone in sight just to be invited inside for rice or the traditional drink of chicha. It was all overwhelming and tiring being in such a different environment but I loved my little life here because of all the new people. There I was ruling out all my options and trying to come up with new ones when I remembered my host dad and his family.
Ufe was a quiet man who I only got to share a couple of conversations with. His face was always caked with dirt, his hair thin and matted on his head all from his previous night at work. Mama Mara would always explain over and over when he left of their poor state and how sorry her husband was that he couldn’t give me a better meal for lunch or a pillow to sleep on. Although I rarely saw Ufe at all, I was in constant awe of his work ethic and capability of working all day and night without thinking about himself and just others. My host mom was always complaining to me about how her husband would never accompany her to the church at night when he got 30 minutes of free time at home. Since he worked throughout the night, this 30 minutes was his only chance to sleep until he would repeat the schedule all over again.
I suddenly recalled my first day of community when I met my host dad and him taking me by hand out the door of my house and to the one behind it. Ufe walked right in and I slowly trailed behind him. I was uncomfortable and not yet accustomed to the Panamanian way of just barging in everywhere you go. It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the darkness and a rancid odor permeating the room. An old man sitting on a chair smiled toothlessly at me and to the back of the house sat a bed with an old lady who was unable to see who I was. Ufe explained to me that these were my abuelos. His parents. That they were very old and unable to do many things. That when he got home he would bring over food from our house and help my abuela go to the bathroom. I nodded trying to take in all this information — in Spanish none the less. I made small talk with them as they smiled back at me, toothlessly, until we made our way back to my new house.
A couple of days later, I watched Mama Mara as she cooked up rice and I asked her why only her husband ever went to see his parents and not anyone else. Her face suddenly switched from neutral to angry as she abruptly explained to me that she didn’t like them and neither did anyone else. I was shocked at how these two, seemingly cute and elderly abuelos, could be of dislike. Mama Mara told me nothing else besides they were not nice to anyone and that was that. She never mentioned them again. I didn’t dare ask either.
Since the first day, I only ever caught a glimpse of Ufe and his tattered motorbike as he went from job to job. I heard no more about Ufe’s parents other than the occasional complaint from my partner, Henry. Nightly, Ufe would drag him over to their house to lift the old lady to the toilet in the middle of the room. I didn’t think more about Mama Mara’s and apparently, everyone else’s dislike of them nor had I visited them since that first day.
Back to the chair; I sat reminiscing over the past few weeks and everything that’s happened. I suddenly stood up, peeling my sweaty legs, painfully off the chair and walked out the door just as Mama Mara had done 30 minutes prior.
Now extremely used to the Panamanian “always welcome” house rule, I strolled straight into the home of my abuelos and was not shocked to see them exactly where I’d left them, weeks before. My abuelo sprang, excitingly to his feet from his chair before groaning as he sat back down quickly. As I approached him, he motioned for me to bend down as he planted a scraggly kiss on my cheek. I laughed and started speaking as I sat down next to him. He pulled my hand onto his as his mouth gaped open, revealing only his unhealthy looking gums and half a bottom tooth. A couple of minutes into the conversation, my abuela groaned just as my abuelo had as she used all her strength to pull her head up to try and see what was happening from her bed. I went over to see her and she welcomed me just as he had, with a kiss on the cheek and the patting of the bed she lay on.
3 hours later I walked out of the house with 20 promises of my return but also with a feeling of uttermost confusion. My mouth was dry from conversing forever. My eyes wanted to close so bad. It was 9 pm and two hours past my usual Panamanian bedtime. My arms were sore from moving abuelo next to where I sat with his wife. My heart was scarred from holding abuela above the toilet for what seemed like an eternity of awkwardness to me but normalcy to her. Suddenly, I felt bad for Henry whom I hadn’t felt much sympathy towards on the days he’d complain to me. I had just witnessed the kindest of people. I was given some kind of juice concoction, a small angel-like ornament that was one of their only possessions, and a million and two kisses and words of gratitude. Abuela repeated herself over and over again, “we never have anyone other than Ufe visit us.”
I told them stories of my brother and his hobbies, trying my best to describe what scuba diving was. Abuelo told me about his wife’s back and how she had no mobility anymore and hadn’t moved from that very bed in years. He told me they never saw a doctor because they couldn’t get her there and had no money to pay either. These stories eventually turned into laughs with wide eyes of wonder as I explained to them what snow felt like, if I had a boyfriend, and that if you got salt water into your eyes, it would hurt.
I left shocked, pondering how everyone in Sabana Grande could think that these two 90-year-old elderly people with no teeth and the biggest hearts could be so unkind and unworthy of attention and affection.
I wasn’t upset with Mama Mara, my brothers, neighbors and anyone else who didn’t like them as there was maybe a reason for their dislike. However, I screamed at myself, mad that I had listened to the poor judgment of others and their reasons for hatred and never thought more than a second about it. I was willing to make a decision based on others’ experiences and not mine and in the end that came back to bite me.
Days later, I was no longer angry at myself. I had stayed true of my promise of multiple visits to the house behind mine, much to Mama Mara’s dismay and the slight approval I could see on Ufe’s face every time I announced I was going. One day, I brought over a helping of peanut butter that I had been rationing in secret my whole trip and let them try little servings of it.
I was leaving Sabana Grande thankful for my memories with all the school kids, teachers, Mama Mara, Ufe, Jota and Juan Diego, little Liam, Henry, the tienda owners, neighbors, relatives, of course the dog, Kicha, and just within the last two weeks, Abuela and Abuelo Ramariez perhaps the two people of my Panamanian family that taught me the most.
Abuela – Grandma
Abuelo – Grandpa
Abuelos – Grandparents
Tienda – Little Store
Bienvenidos – Welcome
Representante – Representative
Buenas – This word is a shortened version of “Buenas Dias” which means good morning.
Chicha – A traditional Panamanian drink that tastes similar to fruit punch.