This is a guest submission by friend living in Boquete Panama. The opinions and observations are his.
We met Bernardino at 9:00 a.m. at Super Baru on the Interamericana in David, Panama. He pulled up, pretty much on time for a Panamanian, and Pon and I jumped in his truck for the ride to Soloy.
I had been contacted a few weeks earlier by a friend in the local Lion?s Club that there was a very disabled young girl who could not walk and needed a wheelchair. Eager for things to do with my time and experience in building unique devices with PVC plastic, I seek out these cases. I am not a do-gooder, just call it selfish in that I don?t have to sit and rust like so many do.
Bernardino told us that he was from Soloy and still had family there. He worked in David with the Radio Bha’i Network. I once dated a lady who was a Bha’i, and as religions go, it is better than most. I consider myself anywhere from neutral to vehemently opposed to organized religions, based on anything from the wars they start in the name of god and peace to the vulgar subjugation of their constituents and the mind control exerted. But I rant. The Bha’i's are low-key, and to the best of my knowledge, have never started a war, institutionalized pedophilia, trained six year-old street preachers or thrived on killing all non-believers.
Soloy is in a province of the Republic of Panama known as Comarca Ngobe Bugle, or as it would be known in the U.S., an Indian reservation. In Panama, however, the people are referred to as indigenos, without stigma. Or much of one. The Ngobe Bugle are perhaps the most populous of the indigenos, and are used extensively as coffee pickers, one element of agriculture here not yet mechanized.
To get to Soloy, you go east from David on the Interamericana about 45 minutes to Horconcito. That intersection gives the traveler three distinct choices. You can go straight, and a little over six hours later find yourself in Panama City, you can go right and travel the newly improved road past all of the new real estate offices all the way to Boca Chica, one of the few easily accessible ports on the Pacific side of the country and the center of balls-on-fire real estate speculation. Or you can turn left and go to Soloy.
We turned left and went through very sparsely populated, yet incredibly picturesque countryside with breathtaking vistas, beautiful rolling hills and mountains, roaring whitewater rivers, and one of the loveliest roadside waterfalls I have seen. In some ways it reminded me of driving through Appalachia, only with worse roads, and as Pon noted a few miles after the turnoff, no electric wires. Pon grew up in rural northern Thailand, and she was beginning to sit up and take note of things.The few houses were modest by any standard, and the further we got from the Interamericana, the more humble they became. In Panama, block construction is standard. We began to see wood homes. Wood construction in Panama’s climate is like using an egg timer with not enough sand. There are wood-eating bugs that crawl, fly, and jump. The changes in humidity from rainy season to dry season cause even kiln-dried lumber to both swell shut and then grow gaps you can see through. Putting it mildly, wood is not a building material of choice. But that is a key thought.
Many of these people have no choice. And no money. Wood is available, and mostly free. I am always amazed when I watch a Panamanian with a chain saw cut nearly perfect two-by-fours from a felled tree. Tell them the dimension you want, they will cut it. And it works, until the wood dries.
As we travelled on, we went from block construction with finished stucco exteriors to just block construction to block construction with decorative concrete block for windows to clapboard houses. The clapboard houses had their own continuum. The better ones had horizontal planks, mostly well-fitted. Others were not quite as well-fitted, then we got to the vertical planked houses. They too were on a continuum. But we were not yet in Soloy, and a good half-hour from the Comarca.
Not seeing much crop usage, I asked Bernardino what the land was mostly used for. Cattle grazing, he told me, but not big farmers, he said, mostly campesinos, the local family landowners. If I were a cattle baron, which I am not, I would want my cattle to graze there. But I counted more chickens than cattle.
As we neared Soloy, it was obvious why Bernardino had a 4 x 4 truck with high ground clearance. Being rainy season, there were areas where a standard two-wheel drive vehicle simply could not pass through the deep mud ruts. Bernardino began honking his horn when he entered the hairpin turns, a courtesy to alert vehicles and pedestrians that may be coming the opposite direction.
The only people we saw along the road were indigenos, the women wearing the customary colorful handmade voluminous dresses, the men in their dark work pants and solid color shirt, most with machete in hand.
On the outskirts of Soloy, Bernardino told us that there were about 1,500 people living in ?Soloy proper? not counting those out in the rural areas. We passed what Bernardino proudly pointed out as their hospital, a series of several one-story block buildings painted green and yellow. Next, we passed the two schools, one for lower grades and the other for upper. There were dozens of adults mingling outside of the windows to the schools, in what appeared to be an effort to learn a little bit themselves of what was being taught to their children. With nothing to do, why not learn? An interesting approach.
Our progress slowed once in Soloy, as Bernardino knew almost everyone and we stopped to exchange handshakes and pleasantries. I made the assumption that there were few visitors. The only other vehicles we saw were government vehicles and delivery trucks supplying the three facilities that boasted hand-lettered Restaurante signs or the small Aboraterrias that were Soloy’s equivalent of a Seven-Eleven. We passed the local police station and noted the cockfighting ring behind the building. Probably one of the main events on Saturday night.
Soloy was built along the Rio Fonseca, which provided a love-hate relationship for the townspeople. It provided life-giving water, but it also taketh away. When the river crested, usually several times during rainy season, it would wash away homes that were located too close to its banks, leaving an already destitute family more so. These river crestings could also leave some of the people isolated from the town, and without food. Typically, these are not newsworthy events for the rest of the country, certainly not for CNN or the rest of the world.
You have two choices for transportation in Soloy on foot or horseback. The great majority were on foot. We saw some children who appeared very young ably handling horses, and horses were able to get up the muddy slopes to some of the more remote homes where it would be difficult to get by foot. Eventually that day, we did see Soloy’s version of public transportation a decrepit 4 x 4 Land Rover wagon with David Soloy emblazoned across the windshield. It looked more like a castoff from the old TV show Wild Kingdom than a public bus, but it was packed to the rooftop with those either coming or going.
Since Soloy was built along a river in mountainous country, greater downtown Soloy consisted of a three-way intersection, and as you proceeded further into town, the hillside on the left was obviously the population center. Had I not walked through refugee camps in Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, I would have been shocked, and in fact the housing along the hillside resembled one of those far-off refugee camps much more than a permanent town in Panama. Gone, for the most part, was block construction. Most of the homes, or more appropriately huts, were of the one-room variety, randomly placed, some with outhouses, others none. Construction was not of block or board, but of sticks lashed vertically under a thatched roof. The lucky ones had random pieces of tin on the roof, probably over chronic leaks. Chickens were common, and brown stripes marked the muddy paths that wound from hut to hut and eventually into town. There was no evidence of water lines going to these homes.
There was activity in and around the town, but no apparent industry, just people walking here and there. Most everyone waved to us, recognizing Bernardino’s truck. We were hailed by a group of middle-aged men, although in these conditions I am sure that youth disappears quickly. One of the men was introduced as the grandfather of the little girl we had come to see, and he explained that they were some distance away, since the river had crested yet again and cut off the main path to the house. To get to them, we would have to hike it overland.
We proceeded through the town to the other side, and when we arrived at the river, it was obvious that it was impassable. Bernardino explained that he would try to find the father and would meet us back at the truck. We waited about twenty-five minutes, and as we stood outside the truck, became the village curiosities. It was obvious that Soloy saw few white men about six feet tall, and fewer still small Asian ladies. Everyone was pleasant, many were shy around these strangers, but most smiled and exchanged greetings with us. The house we had stopped at was that of Bernardino’s family, and it was a mix of a block foundation with relatively well-fitted board sides and a tin roof. It sat along the river, but at an elevation that made it less prone to flooding. One signature of the status this family enjoyed was the two-foot by two-foot solar panel on a pole outside, an antenna, and the tell-tale sound of the television it powered being watched by a full room of people inside. The only other solar panels we had seen were at the hospital.
When Bernardino returned, he was accompanied by a smiling handsome young man who appeared to be between eighteen and twenty years of age. Bernardino explained that we would have to hike overland to where the girl was, as the home had been cut off from the usual trails by the river. He said it would take about thirty minutes each way, and I told him it would take me no more than fifteen minutes to get the necessary measurements for the wheelchair. Bernardino said he would meet us back at the truck in about an hour.
I was wearing blue jeans and walking shoes, but Pon only had with her a pair of sandals with elevated heels. Trooper that she is, she said “No problem.”
The young man introduced himself to us as Roosevelt, and asked if we were sure we wanted to walk to the house. He explained that if we were willing to wait, he would go get the little girl and bring her to us. With the skies threatening to open again at any moment, we continued on. Our first task was to cross the raging Rio Fonseca, which was facilitated by a footbridge of the suspension variety with thick rusty cables and piecemeal stepping points of sheet metal. The steps ascending and descending to and from the walkway had long since disappeared, so we had to find footholds on the diagonal I-beams that led up to the walkway. The consistent thing about bridges like this is that they like to dance and sway as you are crossing. I have never been or wanted to be a dancer, and the handholds were of a height for the typical indigeno, with few over 5’7″ for the men, so my dancing and swaying had to be accompanied by walking stooped as I crossed. We had an audience of six or seven on either end of the bridge, watching to see if these aliens would make it. We did.
On the other side of the bridge, we proceeded through the muddy flood plain, and gradually turned uphill. Our path was cut not by modern means, but by many feet over the many years that followed the ruts cut by the rushing water racing downhill to the river. We passed several very old women cutting rice in the fields on the side of the mountain. Pon commented as to how different it was from the way rice was managed in Thailand, with level irrigated paddies. The ladies hollered at us, asking where we lived and where Pon was from. Friendly curiosity, nothing concealed. Most of the indigenos who spoke to us were relatively easy to understand if you had a good grasp of Spanish and listened carefully. As the age of the speaker or distance from town increased, the degree of difficulty increased, and when they spoke among themselves, I found it almost impossible to understand.
The trail grew narrower and less recognizable as the incline increased, and I found myself breaking out in a profuse sweat. Looking back, Pon had shed her sandals, and was happily walking barefoot up the steep muddy trail. We crossed a ridge, followed by a level area with a profound view. No electric lines, other towns, or roads in sight. Roosevelt stopped and backtracked to where we were standing catching our breath. He thanked us very sincerely for coming to visit at their house. He told us they had been in this house for three years and no one had ever come to visit. He was honored.
After catching our breath, we proceeded on the downhill path, perhaps more difficult than the uphill, as one slip would have sent us careening down the muddy slope. Below us lay a tranquil wooded area with mature trees and cooler air. About fifty yards into this wooded area, we could see a structure, basically a thatched roof supported by poles, open on the sides. Roosevelt smiled and said, “Welcome to my house”. We have been here three years, with obvious pride. In town, this would have been one of the worst of the worst, but out here, it was all there was and nothing else to compare it to. The poles supporting the roof were surrounded by chicken wire about four feet high. Smiling again, Roosevelt told us that they shared the house with the chickens. The hut was roughly divided into two areas. One had a couple of planks supported into a makeshift table, with one folding chair visible. A pole above the table held Roosevelt?s one change of clothes, neatly placed on hangers. Two hammocks were slung for the two adults and two children. In an attempt to make it more homelike, Roosevelt had designed two doors using branches and chicken wire, one for an entry and the other to divide the two rooms. No sign of a water source other than the river, which we could hear in the distance, and no sanitary facilities.
A woman in traditional dress approached, a baby under one arm. Nothing was volunteered, so I asked her name. Lilly, Roosevelt responded.
And the baby? I asked.
Tatyana, Lilly told me. Six months.
About ten yards away, sitting in a PVC chair someone had been good enough to make, slumped another young child, obviously developmentally delayed and with severe motor problems. The chair was leaned backwards against a tree, as one of the front legs had broken off. She was wearing a t-shirt and panties, nothing else. Pon walked over to brush some mosquitoes off of her, This is Rosie, Lilly told me.
I asked Roosevelt and Lilly some basic questions about her motor skills, speech, etc. At three years, she could not speak and could not use her legs. Sliding my forefinger into her fist, she had some muscle tone in her arms and could give a slight squeeze. She was able to follow objects with her eyes, and was obviously curious about this interruption in her private forest.
Roosevelt said, During dry season, we can walk to town along the riverbank, and it is much easier and closer. “Thank you for visiting us.”
I took the critical measurements so that I could begin making her a chair adapted to her needs that would be mobile in this environment. When I was done, I asked, ” Can I take a picture of you and your family?”Roosevelt and Lilly beamed. I told them that when I returned with the chair, I would bring them copies.
So Roosevelt and Lilly posed with both children, then one with Pon and Rosie, then Pon took one of me with the family.
Roosevelt walked back with us to the village, and no one said much. The return trip seemed easier. The bridge seemed easier. Things could have been a lot more difficult.
We found Bernardino’s truck, but it was locked and he was nowhere to be found. The hike had taken an hour each way. The clouds were still holding back their cargo, so we waited. We would wind up waiting for three hours, but it wasn?t so bad. Like I said, things could have been a lot worse.
We noticed once again that we had become objects of curiosity, not only for the pedestrian traffic along the road, but for three, sometimes four, curious young faces that would peer around the corner of the house. I began making faces each time they looked around, and pretty soon they would do the same and began laughing. We had broken the ice.
Two little girls and a little boy bravely walked toward us, the oldest six, the youngest three. They told me their names when asked, but the main object of their fascination was Pon. Most of the indigeno women above the age of twelve are fairly heavy set, often a byproduct of both poor diet and remaining almost perpetually pregnant. An Asian woman of one-hundred pounds certainly deserved scrutiny.
I pulled out my bandana, palmed a dime out of my pocket, and made the dime appear from behind the ear of the three year old, then again for the oldest. In utter amazement, they took the dimes around to the front of the house to show to the women gathered around the television. In about two minutes, a very elderly lady appeared with the six year old in tow, and pointed to the dime. She told me that she couldn’t talk much because her head hurt and most of the time her whole body hurt and she was very old. Perhaps I could look behind her ears and find some money to help her feel better and get well. I told her I wasn’t sure, but I would look. I waved the bandana, showed both sides, showed both sides of my hands, and proceeded to locate a quarter from behind her left ear. That was great, but she needed more. She certainly wasn’t giving up the quarter, but she had a quiet resignation that twenty-five cents wasn’t the same as the fountain of youth she had hoped for.
Waiting for Bernardino, we walked up and down the road a few times, feeling conspicuously obvious, and enjoying the smiles and greetings we shared with all who passed. Some actively came up to us just to talk for a while. Only once did we encounter a surly youth of about eighteen, sneering at us from his front porch, acknowledging our “Hola” with a scowl and a slight movement of his head. It made me think about how comfortable I would feel in a similar socioeconomic neighborhood in my own former country. I wonder if the residents of Watts or downtown Atlanta would smile, share our greetings and allow us to walk unimpeded, unchallenged through their neighborhoods? I had some cash in my pocket, and wondered how long I would have kept it in that situation in the U.S.? Would we even make it out of those neighborhoods alive? Would Pon, an attractive young lady, escape intact?
It was a far away thought of a far away land that I had once known and chosen to leave, so I came back to Soloy. I am sure that Soloy has its share of problems, perhaps more than its share of domestic abuse, weekend drinking and fighting. There are health problems that go unattended. The schools may not be the tops, and most have to go to the river for water.
But I will come back here to bring Rosie her chair. I would like to visit the hospital. I would like to spend more time talking to the people. I can?t remember when I received so many smiles. Roosevelt asked me before we left if I could give him some ideas for his new house when he builds it. He told me that he would only be able to build just one house, and he knew Rosie would need special help all her life. How wide should the doors be? I smiled. “At least thirty-six inches,” I told him. He had plans, and he had dreams.
That night, back at our house, Pon worried about the mosquitoes on Rosie, and whether she would be cold. She didn’t remember seeing any blankets.