I felt something crawling on my hand. I fidgeted and woke up, staring at the peeling, diluted yellow paint on the walls of my cuarto (room) on Calle 16 en Ciudad Radial, Panama City, Panama. The day before, I’d cemented a hole in Bishop’s floor, when he was living in Ciudad Radial long before he’d experienced the enticing growl of the cougar. When I poured the cement-mix into a hole on the floor in Bishop’s cuarto, sporadically cement covered mice scurried out of the hole and into his apartment. We’d laid out sticky traps and whichever mice managed to evade those traps either found their way out of the cuarto, into a hidden crevice, or met the sharp end of our machetes. Critters were commonplace and that feeling of having your skin crawling became normal.
I got out of bed and headed to the bathroom. I must’ve interrupted an orgy of cockroaches. Most of them escaped post haste, but the two that were the slowest now laid there together. I swept them up and out of my shower and snapped this foto, thinking it would be a good promo pic for the future. Don’t be surprised if this becomes the cover for “Buscando” off of my upcoming project L.y.l.e. Dry Season.
After I stomped the roaches and disposed of them, I realized I never put any shoes on! My bare feet squished the life out of those roaches and the thought of putting on sandals first didn’t cross my mind. I was sick of them. Yeah, they could survive a nuclear winter, but I was not about to be intimidated by their brood.
I only had running water 3 to 4 times a week and it was always late at night between midnight and 3am. I would have tanks, bottles, and buckets of water saved up from rain water, outside hose water, or from my shower when we had running water. I proceeded to commence my bathing ritual. I’d dip my washcloth in soap, give my body the twice over and drop a cold liter of water over me for the rinse. I tried to hook up my bathroom as best as I could. Was it a little grimey? Yes. But it felt at home.
I was changing,transforming, becoming one with the habitat. The same dude who’d carry hand sanitizer was now squashing roaches with his bare feet and using the sweat from the back of his neck to clean his hands when there was no water. Riding packed Diablo Rojos from Juan Diaz to Panama City, I got used to soaking in the sweat of others. Like sardines in a tropical sauna, people are packed into these cartoon and graffiti draped cheese-buses too damaged to be legally driven in the US as the main mode of public transportation. 25 cents can get you about anywhere on these vehicles, but there are hazards like drunk bus drivers, maliantes, near-death engines, and sometimes they race one another for passengers, often causing mayhem on the road. A young man and his pregnant girlfriend were hit and killed by a racing Diablo Rojo in Concepcion while I was living there.
The other option for transportation was hailing a taxi. There were tons of taxis, but that didn’t mean they stopped for me. I’d made myself as “non-threatening” as possible, cutting off all my hair and trying my best to look, sound, and act like Bryant Gumbell or Tiger Woods, yet still I had trouble catching a taxi. I remember one time Bishop and I were going to meet up with P.O.C. and we took a taxi where the driver was drinking while driving. I didn’t notice it until it was time for us to pay and leave. I gave him the money and Bishop exited the vehicle. I was in the passengers seat and as I was leaving, he grabbed my arm. Bishop and I thought he was trying to rob me or something. “Yo quiero aprender! I want learn english!” he yelled in his Panamanian Spanglish accent. The tension eased and we discussed classes. Never heard from or saw that guy, but I remember what I thought when he grabbed my arm.
If you didn’t want to ride a Diablo Rojo or take a taxi, there is the Metrobus, which used to cost $1.25 but now its more and you have to buy a Metrobus card and put money on it. Initially they were a step up because they weren’t as crowded, they would get you on the Corridor which helped you beat the traffic and they were air conditioned. After a couple of months, they became as crowded as Diablo Rojos and the air conditioning went, so they were more expensive Diablo Rojos with access to the Corridor.
Or you could always foot it. Walking in Ciudad Radial, you had to watch for your occasional stick up kid (chacal or maliante), corrupt police (which I’ll get into later), and tumor-ridden, pus-spewing packs of dogs that would run down on you if you had food nibbling at your limbs until you let go of your grocery bags, which become their reward for the raid and ambush.
Any way I looked at it, there were tons of risks living in the 3rd world, but I developed a real faith that has guided me, opened my mind and freed me. To make history you must take risks and explore new lands. Lets troop it.