An Observation of Latin Culture
June 22, 2015
An Observation of Latin Culture
One of the purposes of the drive through Mexico and now in Central America on my way to South America is to immerse myself in the Latin culture. By this I really mean that it was not about taking the drive to visit the piles of rocks called cathedrals or Mayan pyramids, rather to closely watch and observe the people just doing what people are doing as they live, in the cities, in the truck stops, in the mercado, along the beaches and in their villages along the highways and byways of the countries I have driven a little over 5000 miles through.
First thing I really noticed is that many of these people are very strong physically without the benefit of a local gym or any kind of attention to superfoods or good nutrition: just working their lives makes them really strong. The older ones that look like me with my wrinkled face and loose muscles are in fact easily 10 to 20 years younger than I am: they weather as much as they mature, especially the men.
They are invariably Spanish speaking but their Spanish varies with the country they live in, even in the areas of the countries they live in. And they speak in an automatic fire, staccato style that really is impossible for me to understand. To attempt to learn from them would be equally unfeasible.
To add to this, there are some localized indigenous Indian dialects that are encountered in smaller areas. For instance, I cruised through a large, newly built, rather spare and neat looking housing area in the Yaqui area along the west coast of mainland Mexico noting the differences of their speech when I went into the local store just to take a look at what kind of edibles are on their shelves.
I already know that I will have to go to school to learn to speak Spanish with any kind of facility. Then, when I do understand the rules of grammar for instance, I might be able to learn to keep up with some of them, although that seems quite remote just at this stage.
In the meantime I depend on my ability to laugh and joke with them even talking in English or with my ‘unpoquito’ Spanish phrases and a little vocabulary, I am understood enough to buy vegetables at the aborrates or gas at the pump or order something in a ‘tipica’ café.
And I have made myself understood when I really needed help: the police were called, they looked after my van with all my possessions and I was driven in a police ambulance to a clinic when it was evident to me that I needed some medical attention. After 24 hours, being pronounced ‘just fine,” I could not be charged because they could not find an address for me. The same police drove me 20 miles back to Rio Claro where I had begun in the first place. This was in Costa Rica.
The border crossings were land mined. I managed to stay away enough to mostly avoid inspection or confiscation of my vehicle by paying the ubiquitous border rats that extort penance for their bilingual services. Not speaking Spanish was costly and not understanding how the culture of graft and bribery works was also expensive.
I made it through the trials with my household intact simply because I intended that it be so and, particularly in El Salvador, with the aid and assistance of a fine, friendly bi-lingual El Salvadorean; “No, you can’t!” was changed to “Here is your passport stamped for entry”. His method was straight forward because the young female immigration officer was his family’s neighbor: “You mean to tell me that you are not going to allow your 75 year old grandmother into El Salvador just because she does not have a stamp from Mexico? What is the matter with you?”
Now I have made it to Panama and I will have a little more exposure here as I assimilate my current situation and regroup the project. I will be living here in El Valle de Anton for a while although it is not clear at this point just how long that will be.
The most interesting point about the Journey of the Lotus is that no matter where I am or what I might be doing today, it is always the Journey.
Right away I noted a marked dichotomy between the Indian Panamanian and the expat white folk. The mercado, the farmer’s market and the alongside craft markets are all owned and worked by Panamanian people. There are generally fewer women working with their men in the farmer’s area but the craft people are more balanced men and women.
It is the men who weave the bleached in the sun, palm frond traditional Panama hats, cast or carve and paint the plaques depicting the jungle flora and fauna and traditional villages. Women’s work is the famous ‘mola’ which are layers of colored mostly cotton cloth cut into patterns and sewn by hand. I have also seen their bead work bracelets and earrings.
Latin ladies are known for their spectacular grooming, eye makeup and all the right dresses. The young girls typically wear skinny jeans in the latest faded designs or patterned tights with the same kind of stretch tops we might choose at Marshalls.
The married and older ladies have more ‘traditional’ type dresses or aprons over their dresses depending on their country. In El Salvador, the ladies had very fancy flounced, embroidered aprons slung under their protruding bellies that were obviously from a sweat shop overseas somewhere taking the place of those that were formerly made in their own circles by hand.
Their culture is insular in nature. The style of their minds is to focus only on what is going on be it riding their bikes, walking along the road, shopping the stores, or talking together in their small groups. They are not sophisticated about the world. Theirs is a much smaller world to live where they are deeply nurtured within their family circles, their Spanish language, and centuries of local living.
The larger stores, the mall markets with the big supermarket, the dollar store, the sporting goods, the real estate offices, the Geek store are owned and operated by white and Asian peoples. It seems their older traditions for commerce and level of education are conducive to their establishments here in this territory as well.
They know opportunities for enterprise that are beyond the range and experience of native peoples focusing on simpler endeavors: food, craft, transportation. Many Panamanian men have taxi licenses and drive the ubiquitous buses.
Generally speaking the indigenous culture promotes a live and let live mentality. I lived in the van in the parking lot of the Bodhi hostel (owned by an Asian family) for 7 weeks here in El Valle, sometimes across the main road next to a chain link fence surrounding a large lot with huge arching trees and patches of grasses green among the piles of basura marring the areas: no one bothered me: no one vandalized the van when I was not in it: the police ignored me and so did people waiting for the bus just a foot from my rear bumper.
Sure, they all knew I was there and they were unconcerned. In the evenings some of the grubby ‘low lifes’ would build fires next to the building across the street without drawing any notice from anyone. Even the drunks staggering down the highway at early hours were not hassled. Parades and large gatherings were driven around when they spilled onto the highway.
There is a typical kind of ‘get the word out’ truck that drives through the town at least once a day and sometimes more when there is something big happening. Atop the roof are several bull horns powered by battery from the cars and used as speakers by the drivers who shout out the news, advertising, announcements of various kinds. The one driver has a most distinctive rasping tone that captures everyone’s attention. Local color, indeed!
Panamanians are mostly sober seeming people although my silliness and irrepressible joyfulness, jokes and wide smile always always bring forth a smiling response. The kids are a lot of fun the favorite being ‘hide and seek’: I hide my face for a minute and peer out at them with a big smile. They laugh at me and hide behind mother.
The young ones are wide eyed breaking into truly magnificent smiles when they crack with happiness: abuela, grandmother, gets them to smile and laugh every time. I sat in the cafeteria of a supermarket in Phenome talking to two young school age sisters: beautiful.
I drove with friends to Panama City one day; while they delivered a package I became the back seat tourist. The parts of the city I saw were quite typical of many Latin America cities and medium sized towns. Panama City or Ciudad de Panamá is the capital and largest city of the Republic. It has a population of 880,691, with a total metro population of 1,440,381. It is located at the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal, while Colon is on the Caribbean side.
Driving into the city by way of the Panamanian highway, the streets are crowded with car and truck traffic, bicycles and mototaxis churning over the many potholes. The back streets are dirty with piles of basura, lined by once-painted cement buildings many of them in disrepair, their second and third floors showing signs of slum dwellers that hang their laundry on the balustrades outside of their windowless apartments.
People are hanging out watching, men are animatedly talking in knots together at the corners and the ladies, always two or more together, are walking briskly as far away from them as possible on the way to their unknown destinations.
There is an air of mild despair and certainly feeling of directionlessness amongst the men especially. My observation is that they are very marginally employed so that living is tenuous especially for families. This situation also has a effect on the nutritional quotient meaning that their intelligence remains in the lower 25 percentile that limits their world view. The marginal malnutrition is endemic and long standing.
Our destination was in a large commercial complex with a guard house and a uniformed attendant with a gate that was lifted after we stated our business and approximately how long we would be.
We drove up a steeply sloping drive in a wide circle through an area tall with condominiums and offices built of fine cement and glass. While I waited in the drive, I watched two men, gardeners and a pool man cleaning an in-ground pool at the front area before one of the large complexes, glossy, finely painted in a classy beige tone.
All the huge windows at the ground were glossy and polished. Nearby was a two story round building with a patio atop the second floor planted with pots of palm and assorted flowering bushes. The whole place was quietly elegant and obviously for those people with a certain business there or residences. The money game is alive and well.
We drove around and down the circular drive way back through the automated gate to the dirty mean streets less than 500 yards away.
On the way out of the city we crossed one of their more famous bridges spanning the entrance to the Canal Zone. Bridge of the Americas is a spectacular suspension bridge built, I am told, by a German company with at least 3 story tall wide cement columns and silver white cables in a tall pyramid pattern.
At the highway level, though a stunning engineering feat, the cables are grayish with soot, the road way is littered with basura, the traffic with heavy trucks is noisy and crowded. At the road level some of the art is lost that is captured by photographs taken from across the canal or from the air.
Here I am in the southern half of Panama living in a small mountain town. It is a sweet time and I might be a better tourist if it were not for the imperative of my life to earn. For that, I have gotten out my sewing machine and work for the woman who has kindly given me a parking place under the roof over her driveway. I have also a pile of jeans to hem and 3 dresses to hem and size for a lovely Panamanian couple who live only about ½ mile away.
I believe that I can make it. My ideas for a project in Ecuador also occupy my mind as I seek revenue generating activity that may be computer and internet based. It is time to get creative with my outlook and once again to give myself attention to my health and my ability to respond to my life.
Your attention to this blog heartens me greatly. Not only does my new world inspire me but all my readers lend their quiet support of my writing. I hope to keep up the good work. Please let me know what you think, offer any suggestions you may have and once the donation button is fixed, please make a donation to the cause.
The visionary project is called: Etrusca Ecuador Permaculture Plantation and Healing Temple. Now you know something of what I am up to!