I spent some time talking with an old man on the corner in a small Jamacian flavored town in Panama. Before I tell you what he said, I want to describe the town for you.
It used to big a bustling port for Chiquita Banana. The best bananas in all of Central America are grown here. But due to modern machinery and a drop in the banana market, the town was all but deserted of its high rollers and the 1000 plus jobs at the port were reduced to just a couple hundred.
Now tall wooden houses stand, ravaged by time and subdivided into small apartments. Some are leaning a little too much and some have literally fallen into the sea. A few newer concrete homes have sprung up and heavy gates and bars guard their windows.
To walk the streets, one would think the place poor. More than poor.
The people who live in the more touristy nearby islands speak of this town using words like "unhealthy," "poor," and "dirty."
So when I came to spend a few days here, I was not sure what I would run into. I walked the back alleys and wandered the streets. I ate at the little rice and beans joints and slept in the best hotel in town ($25 a night). I even looked at some homes to rent and got to see first hand what they looked like inside. I must admit, I was not sure if the floors would fall out from under me.
So when I sat on the street corner and talked with an old black man with a white beard, yellowed teeth, and a sparkling brown eyes, I was pleasantly surprised.
My time in Central America continually challenges my ideas of poverty.
The old man said, "We live real good here. Ever'one is taken care of. No one is homeless. Ever'body has a roof over his head. Nobody smells bad. Nobody don' have clean clothes. Nobody hungry. Life is good. Real good."
We talked about the good old days when a man could make 400 dollars a week. We talked about the greed of the big banana company in the recent years. We talked about how they used to hire people for life but now they hire for 3 months and then fire and move on to different workers so they don;t have to pay any benefits. And we talked about how the old man had a pension of $700 a month and he "live good" on it. We talked about how his sister went to the United States and worked for years and she got a pension for $4,000 a month, but it wasn't enough to live on and she had to move south to survive.
I left the old man with a smile and a warm handshake and a, "Le' me know eef I can he'p you."
He was a gentle old soul.
Then this morning I went out for breakfast, well me and Lee. We ordered fried dough called ojaldra, scrambled eggs with sweet peppers, onions, and hot dogs, and coffee with milk.
A middle aged gentleman whose face was screwed on a little crooked pulled up a chair and asked if her could join us. We welcomed him and finished our breakfast while chatting with him in Spanglish. He sells lottery tickets in the street. He had a little trouble forming words because of the crookedness of his features and in all honesty, if I had seen him in a different setting I would have thought him homeless and a beggar to boot.
I must admit, sometimes these people make me a little uncomfortable. Sometimes I don't know quite what to say. But Lee is so relaxed, he laughs and jokes and pushes them past their own comfort zones.
Soon a tall black man walked in and patted the seeming beggar on the back.
"You know this guy?" Lee asked in a relaxed fashion. "Of course," said the tall man. "He my brother!"
A few more jokes. A few more people walking in. A few more pats on the back for our breakfast guest.
We finished our coffee and ordered more. We ordered our guest a cup too. The beggery looking fellow shared his secrets for living in town with us. He explained that we should only pay $5 for the water taxi and not the going rate of $6. He told us where the best beaches were. He told us where the best neighbor hood was. And as he talked, a lot of passersby smiled at us. By buying coffee for a crooked faced man and sharing our time with him, we had won their respect.
The old man on the corner was right. They live good here. A man with the air of a homeless man was well cared for in what appeared to be a poverty stricken community.