Tuesday, April 15, 2008


“Wow….I’m so sorry to hear that…….that must be very hard for you”.

This is what I told her as we sat in the hostel one day. I mean what else could I say? I certainly couldn’t solve any of these problems. I saw no way to intervene and “fix” things. All I could do was listen, show some compassion, and try to understand. Sometimes though, even the best intentions are met with less than favorable outcomes.

Marta was the lady that worked at “El Refugio del Rio”……the place where I enjoyed living for about 6 weeks in Panama. She lived across the street with her family (husband and son) and spent her days doing “domestic” work around the hostel (cleaning, laundry, etc.) She was Ngobe, which meant that she was of “native Panamanian” decent (i.e. the people who were around BEFORE the Spaniards showed up). It also meant that Spanish was her second language, and that I had a REALLY hard time understanding anything through her thick accent. This was the primary factor that kept the conversations to a minimum for the first few weeks. There were, of course, the daily greetings…….”Hello”…..”How are you”…….etc. etc., but nothing beyond that. But the longer I was around the hostel, the more I began to notice her sadness and regular crying during the work day.
Initially, she would just say “nothing” in response to my questioning. I mean how many times could I walk by someone in apparent misery with only a cheerful “good-day” and a smile? After a while, you have to at least ask “what’s wrong”, right? Well, eventually her “nothing” answer changed to “OK…you really want to know?” “Sure”, I said, and with that we sat down for a chat. The conversation that followed involved primarily a description of her difficult living situation…….how her husband was on his 7th girlfriend (very openly)……how he was regularly abusing her……how she wanted to leave but was very fearful and had no place to go…….how her family lived far away……how she wanted to go live with them but couldn’t see a way to do that…….etc. etc. etc………..unfortunately, an EXTREMELY common story around there. It also seemed apparent to me that she had no real community to speak of…..no friends…..nobody to hang out with......just the husband and the kid (and some random hostel guest named Jason).
As the days went on though, I began to notice a change in her responses to the “what’s wrong….you look really sad today……why are you crying” questions. Rather than the “oh, my husband is hitting me again” or “he’s out with his girlfriend again”, or even the “you’ll never understand”………..there began to be an increasing number of questions for ME. “Hey, where are you going? What time are you going to be back? Got class today? Whacha doin’ now? “ Or “so HOW long are you staying at the hostel? How many more days?”
Hmmmmmm…….was it possible that I was misinterpreting the new vibe in the air around Refugio del Rio? Let me rephrase that…..was there ANY HOPE that I was reading this situation incorrectly? How about this…..Let’s say you “hypothetically” ask someone why they are “down” on a particular day……and let’s say that they “hypothetically” say that they are sad because YOU weren’t around that day. UUUUUHHHHHHh……is there ANY other way to interpret that? Nope….I didn’t think so.
At this point in my life though, my greatest source of frustration suddenly became my greatest ally. Because if you spend enough of your time “not understanding” things, it’s not too much of a stretch to PRETEND you don’t understand things. And at that moment, my level of linguistic ignorance took a dramatic and purposeful turn in an upward direction……….thank you “language barrier”…….my old and faithful friend.

In the end, after a couple of weeks of keeping a very safe distance, playing ignorant, graciously declining the occasional offer for some random social outing, and tip toeing through the hostel, I caught an early bus out of town. The night before, I said a very light-hearted goodbye to the hostel staff, as I gave her kid a video game (we had also become friends), gave my email address to crazy Armando (I’m sure he forgot who’s email address was in his pocket within a 10 minute window), and took a little journey back the fourth grade, as Marta handed me a small scrap of paper folded 2,937 times into something the size of a tic tac. Her instructions were to not open it until I got to “David” (town about an hour away) and were given to me with a look of humiliation and a hasty exit.

That was pretty much it for my time in Panama. I spent the final night hanging out with some friends from town, packed up my room in the hostel, said good bye to Boquete, and caught the 6AM bus out of town. Looking back in hindsight, I’m sure there were things I COULD have or maybe SHOULD have done differently. And YES…….I know…..it’s true……I really DID care (what can I say). As I said before though, I suppose that sometimes, even the best intentions result in some less than favorable outcomes. Lesson learned.