PANAMA SOLVES A PRESSING PROBLEM
AND HEARS A STORY
San Ignacio, Belize, January 26, 2007 - -
It is Friday.
Yesterday in Belize City, before Paris and
Britney had checked into the dormitory room
with me, under somber grey skies, I walked
over to the terminal where the tourists
come to catch a bit of Belize, sanitized
for their protection.
A band was playing.
It seems odd to me that people would come
so far to hear "O Bla Di" and "Red Red
Wine", though I can approve of "Stir It
Up". Please do not write and patiently
explain to me that the first two songs
mentioned fit quite nicely into the
Caribbean framework...I didn't hear me no
"Yellow Bird Up High in Banana Tree,"
either, but it would have been A-OK with
The Hawaiian shirts and Dorothy Lamour
sarongs worn by some of the tourists still
seemed somehow gruesomely appropriate on
the bodies of folks who would rather be in
Maui. Bob Marley remains an icon here, his
doubtless royalty-ignoring countenance is
everywhere. Jah, mon.
On my way out of the terminal and back to
the other side of the bridge that is real
Belize City, I caught a glimpse of myself
in a window. These days in the tropics
have begun to make me walk with a Robert
Mitchum roll, I swear.
I was just getting ready to cross the
bridge when I heard a voice say, "Excuse me,
sir, I have just one question: What would
you like to be doing at this very moment?"
"Lying on my bed at the guest house and
taking a nap," I reply.
"Just one more question, sir: Are you here
with your wife?"
Aha! Don't take me long...
Still being Mitchum, I reply: "One of them,
A simple yes would have sufficed and been a
white lie, but when one is among liars it's
better to be able to tell a bigger one.
The other day, while Bageant and I were in
a music store, I bent over to pick up my
guitar case and broke the buckle on my
fanny pack. It is a constant convenience
at home but an absolute necessity here. I
had fussed about a lot and ended up tying
it around my waist. That worked, but I did
not look dashing for the papparazzi.
After crossing the bridge from the tourist
terminal I turned right and went to a store
whose owner Joe had introduced me to my
first day in Belize City. I turned into
the store (it's called the "something
Shopping Center") and asked for the owner.
"Ah! My brother! It is good to see you
again. How can I help you?"
I explained that the buckle and catch on my
fanny pack had broken and that simply
buying another fanny pack would not do, as
most of them make you have a kind of shelf
sticking out that is most unflattering.
"I think I can help you," he said. "I have
a waist pack that I cannot sell because the
zipper is broken. I can cut the buckle off
it and you can sew it onto yours."
"Only three dollars fifty Belizean."
"Excellent. Can you sell me a needle and
"Of course. But why don't you stay here
for a while and I will sew them on for you.
We can talk while I do."
And so I heard his story:
"My name is Ishmael. I am from Burma. Now
they call it Myanmar. I am a merchant, as
you can see. But in Burma I owned a
company which sold road-building equipment.
Perhaps you know that there was a military
coup there, my brother, and as these things
go, it came about that my life was in grave
While he was talking he was cutting the
buckle and catch off his fanny pack and
slicing through the straps of mine. He
took a lighter and melted the cut ends of
my straps so they would not unravel.
"My wife and I and her brother and his wife
came here some years ago. We had a little
money with us, enough to start a small
store. But my brother and sister could not
get away in time and I do not know their
A little creole boy came in and asked to
buy a fish hook. "That will be ten cents,
my little friend," he said, trading the
hook for the dime. "And if you catch a
fish this big" - indicating with his hands
-"bring it to me and I will buy it from you
for my dinner."
"You may have noticed, my brother, that in
Belize the Chinese have all the grocery
stores and the East Indians own the
merchandise stores. So our path was very
clear. We opened this store and for the
most part we have been happy."
He had been meticulously sewing the buckle
and the catch onto my fanny pack as he
spoke, tying the ends of the monofilament
line when each strap was done and then
melting the knots together with the
"It is finished," he said.
"Thank you, it was very kind of you to go
to so much trouble for three dollars
fifty," I replied, trying out my salvaged
treasure. "It is better than new!"
"It is a small thing to do. Did not Jesus
say we should serve each other and that he
who serves is more exalted than he who is
I looked at him again. "Are you a
Christian?" I asked.
"No, I am born a Muslim, but first we are
all people, all children of God, all
brothers under our skins."
I bought a few more items and paid Ishmael.
And as I was leaving, yet a third belief
system crept in.
"Namaste, Panama, my brother."