For me, part of the joy of exploring is finding those everyday stories that everyone has. My quest is aided by living in a place where I don’t have a car and really don’t need one, given the very sensible mix of retail places in every residential area. That means I either use the abundant forms of public transport or walk. Whenever I have the time (and it’s not pouring rain), I choose the latter. I try to stay off the main streets and travel the network of pathways that honeycomb the town. It gives a better view of how folks live.
A recent stroll took me down one of these small paved pathways near my apartment. The homes in my neighborhood are modest by American standards. They are neat, but generally not as well-maintained as in the U.S.– many have faded or peeling paint and torn or missing window screens. The yards are generously landscaped, but without grass lawns or neatly clipped shrubs – mostly unruly flowering plants and vines. As I wandered this sunny morning, I was suddenly stopped by the smell of delicious fried food, which I found wafting from an average looking home. When out came a short, wide jovial woman and sold a bag of her goods to a young man.
That’s when I met Sofia – or “Tia Sofia” as she likes to be called. As I passed by, I commented on the wonderful smell and on that basis, she invited me in. One of the many benefits of Peace Corps service is that we stand out as one of the few, or perhaps only, gringos in town. As such, we are curiosities and often get special attention, especially as we speak the language – unlike the tourists. So, over some very strong coffee (pre-mixed with sugar) and outstanding empanadas, Tia told me her story.
Sofia grew up in a tiny village upstream from the big Changuinola dam. When she was a small girl, her family made a trip to the “big city” of Almirante and she was hooked by the bustle and excitement. She decided that she wanted the city life and moved to Changuinola when she was 14. She worked for 10 years at Chiquita Bananas in their packing operation and sending money back to her family in the jungle. At some point she started bringing her home-made empanadas (corn tortillas with a spicy meat filling) into work with her for lunch. Some of her co-workers tasted her fare and soon she was bringing in extra empanadas and selling them to other workers. Soon, she added hojaldras (fried bread) and patacones (fried plantain discs) to her menu.
One day she realized that she was making as much from her cooking as she was getting paid to pack bananas and decided to strike out on her own, selling her wares in front of the Chiquita packing house. Then, she started selling to local roadside stands that just sold morning coffee and foods, but had no kitchen of their own. She bought a house and got married (her husband died 5 years ago) and got some of her family to move to town. They get up at 3am and start cooking, then distribute the food all over town, mostly on bicycles, but sometimes use public transport.
A few years back, due to public demand, she expanded into the tienda (general store) business. She has a little store in the front of the house that sells more things than can be imagined in such a small place. As we spoke about everything from the Peace Corps to Donald Trump, several folks came in for supplies and a neighbor came by to check out the gringo. She absolutely loves what she does, including giving credit to those tight for cash. Her joy of life is palpable and infectious. As I left, Tia stuffed more empanadas, hot from the kitchen, in my hands and made me promise to come back. I plan to do just that.
Such are the rewards of a simple morning walk to town in Changuinola, Panama. Tia and I became good friends. I couldn’t walk past her house without a wave and greeting or having some empanadas stuffed in my hands. That all changed one day during Panama’s World Cup soccer debut.
I headed over to Tia Sofia’s house in an early morning rain, to watch Panama’s last game in the 2018 World Cup against Tunisia – their best hope for a win. I found no Tia, but a small group, praying and led by a woman whose tones are usually reserved for Televangelists. I had the distinct impression that someone had died and stayed outside, until someone came down the street and informed me that Tia was in the hospital, having “fallen” while cooking her breakfast foods the day before.
I forgot the game and walked nervously to the nearby hospital. Raul Davila Mena is the big regional hospital, part of Panama’s public health system of universal health care. While the care is free, it may not be the best. The facility looked worn and crowded, but quite clean and neat. They must use the same disinfectant as the U.S., as the place had that distinctive “hospital smell”. Tia had no monitoring equipment attached and the room had no TV. The floors had that 60’s black and white checked tile pattern, with a green lane up the middle. The place looked deserted, with just one old fellow at the front desk, who directed me to Sofia’s room. The hallways, too, were void of activity except for the dull tones of the soccer game, playing in some far-off room. Tia and 3 other patients were packed into a room that was likely meant for 2 and was asleep. So, I walked home to watch the game alone in my room.
I arrived at my apartment just in time to see Panama score their first goal. From the reaction of the team and crowd, you’d have thought they had just won the finals. Two Tunisian goals quickly dampened early hopes of a Cup win for Panama, and they lost 2-1 and finished last in their initial Group G. While not a stellar performance in their first-ever World Cup, I will never forget the excited celebrations when they qualified to go to Russia nor the moment I was moved to tears at their pride as their team took to the World Cup field for the first time and stood for the anthem.
After the game, I went back to the hospital, now in pouring rain, to see Sofia. The place had returned to a normal hospital bustle, but Tia was still asleep. I finally found a cooperative nurse, who explained she was medicated and maybe I could come back that night or in the morning. Her remarks were curt and muddled, but I did hear “heart problem” and “blood clot”, neither were encouraging.
I returned to find Tia surrounded by a group of well-wishers, many of whom were clearly praying. She looked dazed and weak. When I shouted out her name, she had to ask someone who it was. I’m not sure if her vision is impaired. This morning’s visit was no more satisfying as she was sleeping again and no more information was forthcoming from the staff.
When Tia came home, I stopped by to visit her often, but she was never quite the same. She had suffered a heart attack and stroke that left her with a slurred speech and slow and bent body. It saddens me to see this woman, who is normally so vivacious and full of life and joy, laid low like this. But, such is life. It’s also a reminder that Peace Corps service allows us to share in not only the joyous moments, but suffer some not-so-happy ones, as well.
Greg “Goyo” Plimpton served as a PCV and PCVC in the water and sanitation sector in Peru (2011-2014) and did 3 Response services (2015-2018) in Panama. He is now the director of RPCV Global Village, a non-profit that brings RPCVs to SW Florida, where they can serve the local immigrant farm worker populations. www.rpcvglobalvillage.org