An Eye Opening Day With Aquiles…


An Interesting Experience…

Yesterday (Thursday) we were heading down to David to pick up some items from Elmec that we had ordered for the workshop studio. One of our workers, Aquiles, asked if he could come along because he needed to buy something. We of course agreed to take him with us. Let me tell you a little bit about Aquiles. He’s one of our Indigenous workers. We have two Panamanians and three Indigenous who work for us. For those of you who don’t know, Panama has several different tribes of Indigenous Indians native to the country. There are several different and distinct tribes many of whom live on lands set aside for them by the government called , Comarca’s. These lands are very similar to the reservations in the U.S. set aside for Native American Indians, although I assume these are much more remote and undeveloped, many have no electricity or running water. A large majority of the indigenous here in Boquete work as farm hands for the many coffee plantations , often seasonal workers traveling back and forth to their comarcas. The Finca owners usually provide very modest housing, or dormitories for these workers. They are almost always very poor and uneducated, and I think I can say correctly that none of them have cars or drive. I don’t consider myself an especially knowledgable person on this subject so I’m only telling you what I’ve learned and observed since living here.

The indigenous here all have very distinct physical characteristics many of the women wearing traditional clothing. They look almost Aztec, very dark skinned and short with dark , thick hair and very chiseled features. The women wear these long colorful moo-moo type dresses and the men wear more modern jeans or slacks. But you can always tell the Indians from the Panamanians. You really don’t see Panamanians and Indians together. It’s a fairly noticable class distinction , they don’t seem to co-mingle much, if at all. As a matter of fact, I think the Panamanians seem to sort of ‘look down’ on the Indians. The indian people I’ve been around are very humble, quiet, almost seemingly shy, but mostly friendly. When I greet them they always respond with a smile and a courteous Buenos Dias. They all seem to have large families and sometimes the men may even have more than one wife. The children all seem very happy and loved from what I’ve observed. But, as I’ve said, they are extremely poor and very rarely pursue and education. Although I do see some walking their young kids to school. I doubt they stay in school for long though as they often begin working at a fairly young age.

So Aquiles is from a Comarca that takes him about 4 busses to get to, it’s a long day of travel to get there. While he works here in Boquete he lives with friends and rents a room near our property. He has about 4 or5 children and at least one, maybe two wives who all live on the Comarca. He often travels back there to bring them money or other things. Sometimes one or two of his children come to visit and they like to hang out at our job site, often following Scott around like little shadows. They’re adorable and Scott is of course very kind to them, often even taking one along with him when he runs errands. Aquiles family is extremely poor and uneducated and he works hard to support them. From what we have been able to ascertain, he is a farmer or gardener. He seems to have unending amounts of knowledge about plants and about the land. But when he began working for us as a construction laborer he really hit the ‘big time’! Gardeners only make about $15.00-18.00 a day and construction workers make a minimum of $ 21.00 a day. He is likely making more money than he’s ever made in his life working on our job.

Of all the workers that we have, to be truthful, Aquiles is not the smartest. Mind you, I do not say such a thing to be mean,its just a fact. What he lacks in brains he makes up for in his ability to dig a hole like you’ve never seen!! He’s our official hole digger! We have plenty of foundation and digging for septic tanks and drainage ditches that keep him busy! The other workers tease him and call him Tractor- Aquiles. They all seem to do lots of joking around amongst themselves and no one seems to mind. But, not a day goes by that I don’t see Aquilles working his butt off, he is very strong and has such endurance.

Like I said, yesterday, (Thursday), he told Scott that he wanted to go to David to buy a solar panel to take to his family on the Comarca. They have no electricity there and they would be able to use a solar panel to charge cell phones so he could communicate with them. The interesting part about being with him in the city was that he was like a fish out of water. He was totally and completely out of place and seemed even nervous about interacting with people. We dropped him off at the first place that he wanted to look and told him we would be back to pick him up in half an hour after we went to Elmec. When we returned he was standing in front of the store waiting for us. The store did not have the solar panel. So we then took him to Do it center (Home Depotish) and as Scott went down the plumbing isle I watched as Aquiles tried to get the employees in the store to help him and I saw two employees kinda shrugg him off as though they wanted nothing to do with him. It was obviously not easy for him to figure out how to find what he wanted and no one wanted to help him, in the end he did find that they did not have the solar panel. Then when we went to another store to look, as he was leaving the store I saw him slowly walk towards the exit, looking very hesitant and he stopped and looked at the door before walking out. It was as if he was trying to make sure he knew how it worked before walking up to it, there were two of those security things flanking the automated doors and It looked as if he wasn’t quite sure what they were.

I must admit, I felt very protective of him and somewhat annoyed at the treatment he got from other Panamanians. I realize that it likely doesn’t faze him in the least. To him, it’s just life and he’s so accustomed to the way things have always been. I, for one, will always treat him with as much kindness and generosity and dignity as I would any other human being. And even though it hurts my heart to see, what I consider, injustice and to witness someone being treated as though he were ‘less-than’, I also understand that I’m living in a country who’s tradition and culture is not my own . I may not understand or sometimes like certain things that I see happening around me, but I’m a guest here and I don’t have to ‘like’ it, I just try to find peace in my heart that there are certain aspects to life here that are just different. I make and effort to adapt my thinking to one of acceptance instead of judgement. It’s a learning experience, for sure.

I don’t yet completely understand the dynamics here in terms of how the Panamanians and indigenous actually feel about one another but my limited observations have shown me that historically there is a natural tendency for the Panamanians to see the indigenous as lower than them. I could be totally wrong but there seems to be a mutual acceptance of this cultural segregation and an acceptance that its just the way it is. The Indigenous maintain a very minimalistic, uneducated, seemingly close-knit community. I suspect they just don’t have the same kind of drive to change the course of their lives and are mostly just concerned with surviving their day to day lives. They seem to want nothing more than to have enough money to provide themselves and their families with food and clothing and even minimal shelter seems to be fine to them. Although, it’s common knowledge that there’s a pretty big problem with alcoholism in the indigenous community and its not uncommon to see extremely inebriated indians stumbling down the side of the street or sleeping it off in the dirt on the side of the road. So, aside from food and clothing , many indigenous enjoy having enough money to go to the bar on the weekend. This is not any different from almost any other culture, there’s plenty of Panamanians as well as Americans who have been known to spend their fair share of time drinking their Friday night away! haha!

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the various Indigenous in Panama….
The Indigenous peoples of Panama are the native peoples of Panama. According to the 2000 census, there are 285,231 indigenous peoples living in Panama,[1] and they make up almost 5% of the overall population. The Guaymí and Ngöbe-Buglé comprise half of the indigenous peoples of Panama.[2]

Many of the tribes live on comarca indígenas,[1] which are administrative regions for an area with a substantial Indian populations. Three comarcas (Comarca Emberá-Wounaan, Kuna Yala,Ngöbe-Buglé) exist as equivalent to a province, with two smaller comarcas (Kuna de Madugandíand Kuna de Wargandí) subordinate to a province and considered equivalent to a corregimiento(municipality).

Learning to understand or simply to except differences in cultural behaviors is something I am really enjoying about my life here in Panama. I enjoy the people I meet and want so badly to express my appreciation of the differences while I learn to understand more about their culture and history. In time I look forward to becoming more knowledgable about these wonderfully warm people I now call my Vecinos! Life is good and new friends make it even better!

About hollycarter184

Life is Good! But it's time for a change, and more adventure! I'd like to share the whole experience of preparing then actually making a reality of expatriating, and moving to a new country. It's an exciting, and slightly scary move full of possibility . I'm looking forward to learning a new language and making new connections with the people who share our spirit of adventure. This blog is my way of continuing my connection with my friends and family in the States. Sooooo here it goes! :)

14 responses »

  1. Interesting… I have sensed frustration with the Indians in that there are programs and services to help them, but many of them don’t want to change and improve themselves, at least in the way most Panamanians define improvement. I was not aware that they would be treated like this in stores, however. Indians generally aren’t as social as Panamanians, but Panamanians are generally kind and helpful so that treatment surprises me.
    Did he ever find a solar panel? I will keep my eye out for one.
    I can imagine how foreign shopping in David could be to someone from the Comarca.

    • Yes, Kris, If you have never spent time in a store with an indigenous person you would never experience this type of situation. It’s not to say that these warm, kind, generous Panamanian people that we both know and love are not good people, its just a very different culture. But it is indeed different . I’ve tried to talk to Panamanians about this but it’s not really a subject they want to or are able to address, it just ‘Is’, ya know?

      • I wish I had been there. I did some asking around and my (Panamanian) friends are puzzled and don’t understand why he was treated that way. They say his money is as good as anyone’s and he should be treated accordingly. Is his Spanish adequate? Maybe they had trouble understanding him? That’s the only explanation they could think of.
        Then I’m thinking of my experiences at DoIt. Sometimes you have to track down someone and be a bit assertive in asking for help. We’re used to that but he probably finds that really difficult.

  2. I agree with 4sarge Holly, This was a very insightful and well written essay on these “invisible” residents of Panama. They are not intentionally discriminated against — but they are (often by choice) perceived as second class citizens. Interesting that you mention the solar cell charging stations. The small church we attend in Boquete began an outreach last Christmas (and will continue it this year) to provide these stations to N’Gobe homes with no electricity. We buy them in bulk and distribute them free of charge. I have met several of these gentle people who did come out of their “shell” and now own cars, work well paying jobs, and have assimilated into the Spanish community – our guide on a coffee tour was one such individual. Another great piece of journalism Holly.

    • Thanks Jerry, If you ever do come across and extra solar panel, I’d love to know how I could get one for Aquiles. Glad you like my post, it is a hard thing to write about because I didn’t want to come across as though I were judging the way the culture is here, just trying to share my experience.

  3. Holly, this is a very insightful post. It is interesting to get to know the indigenous people through the eyes of an expat. Your comment to Kris is an eye opener, ” I’ve tried to talk to Panamanians about this but it’s not really a subject they want to or are able to address, it just ‘Is’, ya know?” Fascinating, compassionate, and sincere post. Thanks for being YOU!

    • Thanks Debbie! I just love the diversity that we are exposed to living in central America. Both the Panamanians as well as the Indigenous are fascinating and I love learning about how they live. I hope, when I write about my experiences and perspectives that I never come across as being judgmental or thinking that their way is “wrong”, only to share what life here is like.

  4. Hi, Holly!

    When I first read your post, I must admit that I teared up a little about Aquiles in the Do It Center — a lost soul in a strange world who just needed a little help. It also made me wonder where the expat community and the US itself fit into the perceived and actual social structure in Panama.

    My wife and I just saw “Snowpiercer” — a rather good “film” with a great cast (but a profoundly flawed story) that explores life aboard a train after the planet is suddenly thrown into an ice age, killing everyone and everything except the 1000 people who were “lucky” enough to get on the train, which has now been in constant motion for the past 17 years. There’s a strict social order with the 1% enjoying luxury in the front of the “sacred” train and living conditions becoming less desirable as one moves toward the back, ending in destitution. Everyone must accept their lot in life and stay in their assigned places or chaos ensues.

    Tilda Swinton (as her character, Mason, a cruel and aloof spiritual leader from the front of the train) delivers a speech to the dwellers of the tail section: “Order is the barrier that holds back the flood of death. We must all of us on this train of life remain in our allotted station. We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position. Would you wear a shoe on your head? Of course you wouldn’t wear a shoe on your head. A shoe doesn’t belong on your head. A shoe belongs on your foot. A hat belongs on your head. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot. Yes? So it is. In the beginning, order was proscribed by your ticket: First Class, Economy, and freeloaders like you. Eternal order is prescribed by the sacred engine: all things flow from the sacred engine, all things in their place, all passengers in their section, all water flowing. all heat rising, pays homage to the sacred engine, in its own particular preordained position. So it is. Now, as in the beginning, I belong to the front. You belong to the tail. When the foot seeks the place of the head, the sacred line is crossed. Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe.”

    I didn’t mean for my comment to become a philosophical treatise (or a movie review), but your story about Aquiles just touched me — as so much of your writing does.


    (Just 35 more days until we arrive in Boquete!!)

    • Oh Tim…you never stop making me laugh with you delightful comments! Thank you so much for expressing your pleasure with my writing and for letting me know in such creative and always funny ways! I do look forward to your comments when I publish a post! I too really love to learn about how different people live their lives and although some of the traditions and differences can be hard to understand, I like to think that it’s ‘their’ way and they may not feel the same as I do about what I perceive as ‘injustice’. Who’s to say that the way we do things is always the right way??? Life is good! Looking forward to your visit to Boquete!!

  5. Our Ngobe gardener may be the exception, but he is very outgoing, inquisitive, bright and talkative. Most other Ngobes we meet tend to be rather shy and retiring. He is also very motivated to learn English, and on his breaks he is eager to learn some English from my husband and teaches my husband a little Ngobe. It seems that some Panamanians and Gringos do not like the fact that he is so uncharacteristically forward. He has ambitions for himself and his children and wants to buy a motorcycle some day to replace the bicycle he often uses now to get to his various jobs, although mostly for downhill as the incline on our roads is rather steep. He works very hard but still can’t afford to pay for his children to ride the van to school so they walk at least an hour or more each way. I enjoy following your blog Holly and look forward to more pictures of the progress on your casita. Susan

    • Susan, thanks for your insightful comment about your experience with these lovely people! And your right, It doesn’t matter what culture or tradition one has lived with in their life, people are people and we are all very different. Even within the indigenous community, like all communities, there are some who step out of their box and expand their life, and often want more than what is commonly expected out of their experience. It sound like your gardener is quite an impressive person, I love to hear about people with the spirit to go for what their heart desires and to be productive human beings. I love to hear about people like that..thanks for sharing!

  6. Continuing on my “catching up on Holly’s blog” quest!

    Eye-opener indeed. I think a lot of people move to Panama looking for utopia and thinking that everything will be different (better) than here in the States. But racism is everywhere, and I think we as expats (or to-be expats) need to be able to see it in the context of the larger culture, as you have done so excellently. And I also appreciate your compassion for Aquiles. It must have taken a lot of courage for him to go into that Panamanian store knowing that he might not get the help he needed, or even a polite word. I hope he’s found his solar panel.

    I’m getting Panama fever 🙂 Can we please move now??

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