We had a few hours to kill in Changuinola, Panama before jumping on a boat that would take us to Bocas island.
Already on edge after my lunch with a local family that included soup that still had a hoof of some sort in it, I was wondering what else might come our way while we wandered around this working banana plantation town on the Caribbean coast of Panama.
Mainly, I wondered at what point either my stomach or my intestines would completely explode, and, at that moment when the inevitable occurred, where would I be able to do anything about it.
This was decades before people would go on to make millions on TV eating crazy shit in foreign countries. I had even had the food on the AeroPerlas flight from Panama City where of course the flight attendants chatted us up because they knew Popi’s house where we would be staying.
They didn’t bother to pick up the tray before we landed. No raise your seat back, no raise your tray table.
Aero Perilous indeed.
After taking a few laps around the block we stumbled upon the perfect working man’s bar, right out of the travel stories I had read my whole life but was now living on my own. An open-air concrete building, the sliding doors were raised to allow what little breeze there was to ventilate the stagnate cell.
There were a couple of pool tables inside and a faded mural of a buxom topless woman, the kind of 1940s pin-up you would see painted on the side of a bomber, blonde of course, and tall.
A strange alien creature, unlike anything you could possibly see around this part of the world.
This seemed like as good a place as any to spend the time, getting my white ass out of the intense sun while my guts churned.
Changuinola isn’t a tourist town and isn’t going to pop up on any top ten lists of places to see before you die. It’s a working company town for the local banana plantations and a way point for people making their way to the islands, although most people just skip this step and fly directly.
What you are seeing here is real local life, not some adulterated tourist trap version of what gringos from the north want it to look like.
Here we were basically ignored, not in any rude way, just in the same way you would be treated walking down the street in your own hometown – inconsequential until proven otherwise.
We didn’t know the way things worked in this particular pool hall, but rightfully assumed that there was a system, and something about bars and pool tables are universal.
Sitting with the two pool tables inside the cinderblock room, a man lounged on the one beer cooler. Not a bar per se, but a system for keeping the beer cold and safe at the same time. Clearly, he has in charge and that was his space.
We would find that nothing here was DIY actually.
Ballar? He asked approaching the table and us. Cervezas?
Life was uncomplicated here among the dark-skinned men with their yellowing white straw cowboy hats and collared shirts that reminded you of cowboys and laborers basically anywhere in the world, the ones who know you need to protect yourself from the sun not go looking for it like the vacationers from up north.
What other things could you possibly want?
I guess you don’t always need to play pool. In fact, there were a few guys just watching or sitting at the folding tables out on the sidewalk.
We nodded without being grinning idiots or offering our Norte, overexuberant ‘Holas!’. He came over to rack the balls, then opened up the cooler he was sitting on to grab a couple of cold Panama beers in frosty green bottles which instantly began to sweat in the humid tropical air.
We could be from out of town without being tourists. Otherwise, we would have been at the restaurant with the menus with English on one side that didn’t even exist in this town.
When the game was done the man from the cooler would get up and come over and rack the balls for us again.
I loved the simplicity of this place. There was no pretension of pool halls at home.
And a man whose job it was to make both of those things happen for you.
I wondered what else he could make happen for us, guns, drugs, women, young girls.
Things could get dark in a place like this pretty fast if you stuck around too long or started asking the wrong questions. I fantasized that he could make all sorts of things arrive, but also disappear, quite easily.
I stuck to the beer.
We worked our way around the table for a few games, drinking cold beer like water as it went in then poured right out through your skin, always having to step over or straddle the trickle of water that poured along the floor and into the drain that was conveniently placed right under our table.
Returning from taking a piss, my buddy was grinning a bit and started chuckling.
‘Nothing. Pisser is over there.’ he replied.
Heading into the corner of the room, there was a tiled wall with a low, one-brick high, step up and trough to piss in.
There was no ladies room here.
Naturally, it was slightly clogged and overflowing just a little.
We realized that that little trickle of water wasn’t condensation from some beer cooler but was actually urine overflowing from the trough and making its meandering way to the drain under our table.
Flip flops were a bad idea, I thought.
We played a couple more games, taking even greater care to straddle the stream, or even trying to leave the cue ball in just the right place to make the other guy have to stand in it.
‘Mother fucker. Nice leave.’
Eventually it was time to settle up and pay the man.
He had left a bottle cap on the edge of the table to count our games and just took a quick count of the empty beer bottles on the side rail against the wall to count our beer tab.
Just a few dollars all told did the trick and we wandered back into the blazing heat, but now with a more appropriate head on for the boat ride that lied ahead.