A late lunch was quickly turning into an early dinner as Jill and I wandered through various small towns looking for the right place to eat. Our hunger was distracted by the beautiful scenery of the mountains surrounding Volcan Baru in the NW corner of Panama. We entered the one horse town of Cerro Punta and soon passed what looked like the perfect little restaurant, equipped with large windows and a view of the surrounding peaks. We pulled big blue into the driveway of the small restaurant which was attached to a residence. There were few signs indicating it was open and soon our suspicions were confirmed when our polite knocking received no response. We hopped back in the van and I shifted the Astro into reverse, pressing my foot to the brake pedal. Instead of the expected resistance, the brake pedal fell quickly to the floor. We had lost complete pressure in our brake lines.
I was head deep in the hood when a woman in her mid-forties came out of the house in her PJ’s holding an umbrella to investigate why the couple who had just knocked on the door to her restaurant hadn’t left yet. When she noticed that we were obviously having some car trouble she asked if we needed a mechanic. We said very much please.
Jill walked across the street with Zani to a mechanic’s shop. As it was Saturday afternoon, the mechanic and his friends were busy constructing a mountain of empty beer cans. They returned with a mechanic who although smelling like Gary Busey seemed genuinely concerned about our situation. He was able to find the pin hole leak in the brake lines that was spewing fluid. Though not sober enough to offer much help, he promised to return between 8 and 9 the following morning to perform the job in a more stable state. We soon met Zani’s brother Raul and mother Angela, who had recently returned home. Without hesitation they all agreed would stay there as long as necessary and they even offered up the use of their restrooms behind the restaurant. Our van didn’t have much of a choice – she wasn’t going anywhere – but we could have easily checked in to the hotel down the street. But they insisted. We were now their guests.
The following morning we were not overly surprised when the mechanic failed to show up by nine. Raul suggested that he call his personal mechanic from the next town over who, he was quick to mention, doesn’t drink. While we waited for the mechanic to arrive we were invited inside their home. We poured over maps, showing Zani and Raul where we’ve been, and talked about their culture and Panamanian current events. We were worried that our Spanish was going to take a while to come back after our long hiatus; however we now found ourselves forced us to dust the cobwebs off. Although we’re only about 20% efficient at picking up what is said to us, it’s enough to keep the conversation moving forward.
When the mechanic arrived he cut a section of our pipe and told us he’d return with the parts from the hardware store. We had some time to burn so Raul offered to drive us around in his truck and give us a tour of the town and surrounding villages. Later, we were happy to return a fraction of their hospitality by taking them out to lunch. This was special as a tour around a foreign menu is equally as valuable as a tour around town. We soon learned all about the various Panamanian specialties. Raul, Angela and Zani are extremely special people. They are full of energy and were genuinely interested in these two strangers that happened to fall into their lives. Their hospitality did not seem to have any bounds and continued to make us feel comfortable staying at their home.
The mechanic returned with the spare parts, installed the 3 inch section of pipe and topped off the brake fluid. When I asked for the bill, which would cover 2 hours or more of labor plus an hour of transit time, he shrugged and said, “$10” only slightly less than a mechanic back in the states.
Because it was already late in the day and because we were enjoying the company of this family so much, we stayed one more night in their driveway. Angela cooked dinner for everyone and we sat around the dinner table discussing life, food, and Panama. Although we struggled to understand some of the more complex ideas, it continues to amaze me how much can be communicated with the little Spanish we have. It only goes to show that when both parties truly want to communicate, the lack of a common language is only a small obstacle. Through patience, hand gestures, facial expressions and very creative uses of a small pool of shared words, we were able connect. By the end of our two days in Cerro Punta, our new friends insisted that we refer to them as our Panamanian family. It was with long faces that we said our adios’s that last morning. Angela was quick to correct us: it’s not adios but rather hasta luego, or until later.