Lightning Strike

As the readers of this blog know we’ve had an unprecedented amount of rainfall here. Yesterday was the 29th consecutive day of it in July. The morning started off lovely as usual and I was able to get down the hill to David and do some grocery shopping and pick up my monthly allotment of Plavix, which makes me bleed and bruise like a hemophiliac, and get back to the house before the rain started.

Towards evening, just before sunset, as I was starting supper the off and on rain developed into a downpour complete with thunder and lightning. As I stood at the kitchen island looking out at the back veranda I saw a brilliant white spark on the concrete with a white streak of light zooming off into the back yard. There was a crack like a cap gun followed instantly by a resounding crash of thunder and the electricity was off.

This is the second time I’ve seen this happen in the same spot. I suspect there’s some rebar or metal grating under the concrete slab very close to the surface that’s acting sort of like a lightning rod.

There was nothing to do about it at the moment and there was just enough light left in the day to quickly cook my dinner before it went completely dark. Fortunately the stove is propane powered.

Down here less than nine degrees north of the equator there isn’t much lingering twilight time. Sun sets and you get perhaps 15 or 20 minutes and then it’s night. Bang. Just like that.

I don’t watch much television here. We have a satellite dish and I get movies in English along with such things as the History Channel, National Geographic, the Simpsons, Family Guy and the Discovery Channel. Unlike in the States where the t.v. was always on in the background it’s not like that here. The internet is where I spend most of my time. So, without television or the internet I resorted to that old standby; a real book. Not one of those Kindle things that run on batteries but an actual book with pages you turn by hand. There’s a nice battery-powered lantern in the house, sort of like the old Coleman lanterns we used to use when we spent the summers camping at Nickerson State Park in Brewster, Mass., when I was a kid, but without the hiss and the heat those lanterns produced.

This morning I was still able to have my morning cup of coffee. I buy my coffee as beans and grind each pot individually. But no electricity, no functioning grinder. Fortunately after a previous blackout I’d ground up several batches and there was still one left so I was able to de-grumpify myself before trying to attack the problem of no electricity.

A few nights earlier we experienced a blackout but it was area-wide. All the houses and even the street lights were out. But this time the street lights remained on though the houses below me were dark. The two houses above me showed light in their windows. I wasn’t sure if it was a partial area blackout or just me.

Unlike in the States where the main breaker for the house is actually IN the house it’s not like that here in Panama. At least not here in Chiriqui. The electric meter and the main breakers are located in structures like this.

This thing serves a dual purpose. It not only holds the electric meter and the main breaker switch for the house but the bottom is where the trash is deposited for pickup. If you examine the breaker box you’ll see it doesn’t have a cover to protect the breakers from the elements. None of them around here do. And how much protection from wind-blown rain do you think that little overhang offers? It’s certainly not conducive to trying to reset a blown breaker in the pouring rain.

And this thing isn’t even CLOSE to the house. You have to walk about two hundred yards down the main drive marked by the red X.

Then another 100 yards out to the dirt road

Being sufficiently caffeinated at this point I start the trek out to the main breaker structure hoping that nothing more serious had happened than that the breaker had tripped. Just a couple of days before the owners of the house left for the States we’d had a loss of electricity that involved Union Fenosa, the local electric company, and a private electrician in order to get service restored. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to go through all that again because it would mean I’d have to deal with people in Spanish over the phone.

I don’t have much of a problem getting Panamanians to understand what I’m trying to say even in my fractured butchering of their native tongue. The problem is ME understanding what they’re trying to say. At the risk of offending my Panamanian friends, Panamanians DON’T speak good Spanish. To my ear the average man-in-the-street Panamanian sounds like a shit salesmen with a mouth full of samples. They lop off the ends of their words with great abandon. Potrerillos ends up Potehrillo for example. Now, in their defense, I’m sure they’d be in the same situation if they were traveling around the U.S. where New Englanders drive cahs and hate those Castro fellers down in Cuber, and Texans drive around in pickemup trucks with gun racks in the rear windah padnah, or having someone in the Gentilly section of New Orleans telling them to wash up in the zinc.

Trying to talk to someone in a language other than your own on the phone is one of the hardest things there is to do. I found that out in France where even after three years I dreaded having to talk to someone in French on the phone. You get no visual clues as to what the other person is trying to convey.

Another problem with the Panamanian’s use of the language is that they zip through a sentence as though they were being charged by the minute. I swear I listen to them talking to each other and I just KNOW the other person can’t understand one word in ten the speaker is saying so they do what I do which is simply smile and nod their head as if they do, indeed, understand speaker.

Yesterday morning, I met a remarkable man whose name I promptly forgot. He supervises the corn field below us and he came up to chat with me for a few moments. He speaks some English but our conversation was almost completely in Spanish. I find it exceptionally rude to speak English to people whose language I can use no matter how limited my facility with it might be. I felt the same way living in France. It came to the point where I felt uncomfortable speaking with the French in English even if they spoke it well themselves. When I told this gentleman that I had a problem understanding the Panamanian version of Spanish and the rapidity with which they spoke it  he made a real effort to speak to me distinctly and slowly and I understood at least 95% of everything he said. One thing I’ve noticed in my journeys through foreign language encounters is after you ask someone to speak slowly they do so for a half dozen words or so before getting back up to speed and losing you again. But this gentleman had the ability to recognize the problem and to consciously moderate himself so we each had an enjoyable encounter. I hope to be able to spend more time with him in the future.

But I do digress, don’t I?

When I got to the breaker box I found that it had, in fact, been tripped. I reset it and coming back up the driveway I could see the lights in the kitchen sparkling through the windows. The first thing I did after turning on the computer was to grind up enough coffee so I’ll be able to brew up four cups without needing the grinder. Note to self: next trip to the grocery buy a small bag of ground coffee. Some day the electricity might be off longer than four cups-full.

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3 Comments

Filed under Living Abroad, panama, Retirement Abroad

3 responses to “Lightning Strike

  1. Hi Richard:

    Loved your comments about linguistics. Everything you said is true.

    In Panama City, the main breaker is located in the house, usually next to the outside porch, where the utility company can read it. Ours has been working for more than 30 years like a Swiss clock.

    How’s Mr. Columbus son doing?

    Regards,

    Omar.-

    Thanks for your comments, Omar. You know, the man I spoke with yesterday adjusted his speech in an honest effort to establish communication without being condescending in the least bit. Truly a gentleman. I try and talk to as many Panamanians as I can no matter how briefly. I talk to the checkout girls at the supermarket, to people waiting at the bus stops and to people I sit next to on the bus. It’s my attempt to try and improve my Spanish and to also try and show them that not all gringos are insular and standoffish. The other day I had an appointment with a dentist. She speaks very good English and we conducted the important parts, to me anyway, in English, but probably half of the time we spent speaking Spanish because I really DO feel uncomfortable speaking English to the natives. But I have to admit our time together was totally in English. The next time we’ll try Spanish.

    By your last comment I assume you’re referring to my book. As you know, the narrator of the story is an old man. Some days we have a good conversation together. Other days the bastard won’t utter a word.

    • Hola Richard:

      Con todo gusto hablaremos en Español, o mejor dicho en Castellano, que es el término correcto.

      Me gustaría saber para cuándo piensas tener terminado el libro. Recuerda que yo sería tu primer cliente.

      Saludos,

      Omar.-

  2. Interesting – in Liberia, I was 7 degrees north, and you’re exactly right about the twilight, or lack thereof.

    I smiled at that lantern, too. I have two Colemans with fluorescent tubes that run on batteries. It costs a bit to fire them up with all those D cells, but both of them went through our down time with Rita and Ike without a hitch. The best part is that you can read by their light – well, that and the “coolth”.

    When I was a kid ball lightning came in our house from who knows where, zoomed through the kitchen and out the back door. Mom and I were in the kitchen. Dad wouldn’t believe us until he got home and saw the scorch marks on the linoleum.

    Smart move, that ground coffee.

    I would freak out without my morning cup of coffee. I’m not one of those people who drink it all day long, but I do need it to kick start the juices in the morning. At most I might have a cup after supper once or twice a week, but that’s it.