Living in Panama takes a special attitude. T. Robb Brown shares a life-changing experience that illustrates one of the better cultural differences.

Living in Panama
Pigs is Pigs

by T. Robb Brown

Art Buchwald once remarked: “Ever since my grandfather immigrated to this country, we’ve have had nothing but trouble with these foreigners”

Now I am the foreigner.

live in Panama workersWhat must these Panamanians think of us, with our strange North American ways?

When I arrived here a few years ago, I was appalled to discover there was no composting bin at my house. I searched in vain for composting enzymes (try asking for THAT in Spanish). I even smuggled some back from Canada. Like some crack cocaine dealer, I cleverly hid them in my underwear. Who would ever think to look in another mans underwear?

For the next week I carefully set aside my eggshells, used coffee grounds, and vegetable peelings and placed them on the ground out behind the garage. I intended on building a concrete composting pit with my bare hands.

I am a man, I have tools, and I have walked on cement thousands of times. I have watched construction workers mixing cement. I mean how hard (excuse the pun) could it be? If my wife can make a cake, then I sure as hell can make some cement.

I had forgotten that my wife couldn’t bake a cake to save her life. I mean I love her to death, and she is so talented in so many areas, but to be honest, she is no Betty Crocker.

I promised her that I would never tell the story of her rock-hard drop cookies that even soaking in milk for ten minutes did not render them edible. So I won’t.

live in Panama toolsHowever, I am a man determined to build something. I gather my tools. I really don’t know why I brought the electric drill along, but it made me feel more prepared somehow. In case something needed to get screwed, I told myself. I go out to my composting spot behind the garage only to find my gardener had cleaned everything up. It was spotless. Not even a bit of eggshell remained.

My gardener must think I am one outrageous boor, and that we are pigs to boot. I mean, what kind of people come to a new country and dumps garbage on their lawns for their gardener to clean up? I try to explain. He smiles and nods. He does not understand a word I am saying.

A few weeks later, I decided to show everyone that I am a man of the earth, and not too proud to do a good days work. I never ask anyone to do anything for me that I would not be willing to do myself.

So, I marched out to the front gate, my trusty (brand-spanking-new) weed-whacker in tow. I pulled and I primed and I tugged. Nothing. I choked the thing. I checked the fuel. It was full so I pulled again and again.

I was red-faced and sweating like a pig. I tossed down the mower in frustration. A gardener from across the street came over and flipped the on/off switch for me.

It was much, much easier to start after that.

The other workers in the area were laughing to themselves, but I could see them.

I will show them that we white boys can work just as hard as they can, I thought.

That is not what they were laughing at. Within a minute they were howling as I tore off screaming across the lawn, yelping in pain as fire ants stung me, hundreds of tiny red tormentors swarming all over my feet and legs.

I dove right into the swimming pool with my clothes on, destroying the first of many cell phones.

live in Panama workersI have a new gardener now, and she is terrific. I discovered that in Panama, your social standing is determined by what you can have done for you, not by the work you do yourself.

In fact you lose face doing menial tasks. “I am not lazy”, I tell my wife. “I am building my “guish”, my social influence”.

I love this country.

©2009 T. Robb Brown