The Joy Of Not Understanding Panamanian Spanish

As I’ve said before, I often find it difficult understanding the Panamanian version of Spanish and sometimes it’s frustrating. Other times it has its advantages.

Yesterday when I boarded the bus to go on my photo expedition I sat down next to a tiny little man who could have been the inspiration for the Travelocity garden gnome. I chose to sit next to him because of his size and the fact that the seats on these buses weren’t made for people of normal size so sitting next to him I wouldn’t feel cramped. Not only are the seats designed for tiny butts but the aisle is so narrow that it can only be negotiated sideways. Only children can walk down one facing the direction they wish to travel.

As soon as I was seated the little man gave me a toothless grin and stuck out his hand for the customary dead fish handshake with a friendly “buenos” on his lips. “Buenos” is the customary greeting here, not “hola.” SometimesĀ  people will add a “dias” or “tarde” but for the majority a simple “buenos” is all encompassing. Even passing strangers in the street, if you catch their eye, will give you a “buenos.” I like that.

With the handshake over the old man proceeded on some kind of a rant. Not one that seemed to have any animosity attached to it; more of a protracted monologue. People in front of us turned to see what was going on. I had almost no idea of what he was saying. I caught a few words like “plata” (money) and “camino” which could either mean “I walk” or a route, or street or something, but understanding little else he was saying there was no way for me to put it into any context.

Even when the seats across the aisle emptied I remained where I was. He was harmless as far as I could tell and I knew if I moved a fat woman with two kids would get on at the next stop and sit next to me. The old man rambled on as we descended the mountain and on through Dolega. Eventually he trailed off and a few minutes later he was sound asleep.

At the bar of the “jardin” by the waterfall, however, I had a nice talk in Spanish with the young bartender, Fransisco, and understood at least 85% of what he was saying which is quite enough to follow the thread of a conversation. The few times I didn’t understand what he was trying to say he’d pause a moment and then approach his idea from another direction to make his point clear. It’s nice when people do that as it indicates a real desire to communicate with you. I don’t know how often the young man has an opportunity to talk to foreigners but I hope our little time together left him with a favorable impression of some of the gringos who have come to live in his country.

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