When we were deciding to move overseas, and then choosing the place to move to, my husband and I were intrigued by Las Tablas’ reputation as the folkloric center of Panama. Of course, it’s well known that Las Tablas is the place to attend Carnaval, with the town’s population swelling from 10,000 to over 100,000 during the festivities.
In the neighboring town of Guarare, there’s an annual music festival featuring the mejorana, a Panamanian five-string guitar. Las Tablas also hosts two separate events each year honoring the pollera, the lovely national dress.The pollera is a two-piece, full-length dress that uses up to 12 meters of fabric and is covered with embroidery and lace. The skirt is so full you can grasp it at the hem and lift your arms as high as they’ll go, and you’ll still have lots of fabric at the ground!
Polleras are not manufactured, they’re still made by hand. There’s tremendous artistry in making them, and it can take a dozen seamstresses, embroiderers and lace makers up to a year to create a single pollera. The little fishing village of La Enea, which sits between Guarare and the Pacific ocean just north of Las Tablas, is known for its pollera makers.
In fact, the pollera is such a big part of life in this small part of the world that there’s a museum devoted to pollera in Guarare.
Just before my husband and I left Las Tablas to return to the US, our friend Bonnie threw a party.
Bonnie had arrived in Guarare in 1967 as a Peace Corps volunteer. After the Peace Corps, she lived abroad as an International Consultant. When she retired in 2006, Bonnie decided to return to Guarare. She bought a house in La Enea, and on a bluff overlooking the ocean, just south of where the Rio Guarare meets the sea, she enjoys world-class ocean views.
Bonnie’s friendly and hospitable, and she promptly turned her house into a Bed and Breakfast. Over the years she’s added to it, acquiring the property next door, extending the porch, and making other improvements.
She’s still active within the Peace Corps community. One day my husband and I were eating lunch in Las Tablas when an American man came over to our table and introduced himself. When I discovered he was in the Peace Corps, I asked him, “Oh, do you know Bonnie?”
“Everybody knows Bonnie,” was his smiling response.
Bonnie’s also a pollera historian, of sorts, and has written a book about them.
Last summer, Bonnie finished adding an outdoor kitchen to the second house on the property, just before an important local event.
Every year, residents of the fishing village of La Enea parade the Virgen de Carmen along the waterfront in a parade of boats. They start in the Rio Guarare, then head out into the ocean.
This year Bonnie decided to make the Virgen parade into a multi-pronged party.
In the afternoon, she welcomed friends – local folks, expats and visitors – to watch the parade from her porch and ocean-facing lawn. At the appointed time, boats emerged from the mouth of the river onto the open water of the Pacific Ocean. They paraded slowly past the house, heading south, a small flotilla of fishing boats of various sizes and shapes.
When the boat carrying the saint appeared near the end of the parade. It was on the return to the river that the boats went into a frenzy of activity. They zoomed in circles, held various formations, and generally showed their excitement at escorting la Virgen. Then, at some signal unseen by me, they proceeded at a sedate place back up the river.
The local folks who’d come for the Open House thanked Bonnie and made their way back to their cars, parked along the road. That ushered in the next stage of the celebration.
Bonnie had invited a group of special friends to stay after the boat parade to enjoy a meal prepared in the new outdoor kitchen. As well as inaugurating the new cocina, it was also a bon voyage of sorts.
My husband and I were to leave Panama in three weeks’ time. Another couple, Dick and Anita, were leaving Panama in a few days.
Dick and Anita represent a growing trend among US retirees – those who travel full time.
The previous year, they had sold everything in the US and embarked on a tour of discovery. They made their way through Mexico and Central America, spending time in Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica before arriving in Panama. (You can read about their travels here.) Their itinerary after leaving Panama includes South America – Ecuador, Colombia and Peru – the Caribbean, then Europe and eventually Asia.
They had stayed with Bonnie (on my recommendation, I’m happy to say) for several weeks, and had a wonderful time.
We had been living in Las Tablas for about 2-½ years at that point, and had made a lot of friends we were going to miss dreadfully.
So Bonnie decided to give the four of us a send off we’d remember.
In addition to wonderful barbeque, she provided entertainment. Several local ladies danced for us. A local group presented a skit which, even though in Spanish, poked fun at people we knew in ways we completely understood.
Then Bonnie came over and whispered in my ear, “would you like to try on a pollera?”
I was thrilled!
She took me away from the revelry for a few minutes, and dressed me in her own pollera. When I returned to the party, one of the actors from the skit settled two large, dark, fake braids on my head. I discovered my husband, wearing the traditional man’s shirt with the Panamanian man-bag slung across his body.
Then came the real fun! My friend Soraya began teaching us the traditional dance. It was fairly easy to pick up, as I’d seen it several times before at various festivals and parades. And I really enjoyed swishing those full skirts around!
When I couldn’t dance another step, the singing began. Bonnie has deep roots in the community (she refers to herself as “the gringa from Guarare”) and knows musicians, artists, artisans, and other cultural icons.
For that evening, she had asked two young women to play guitar and sing for us. The songs were all in Spanish, of course, but lovely. Then the singers decided it was time for the expats to entertain them!
After some coughing and foot shuffling, we obliged with some old American folk standards like “This Land is Your Land.”
I have to say, that evening was one of the most enjoyable of my stay in Panama. It was in a lovely setting, with good friends and friendly people to meet for the first time. The food was yummy, and we enjoyed hearing and seeing more of the Panamanian culture.
And I got to wear a genuine pollera.
If you ever have the chance to visit Panama’s Azuero Peninsula, plan a stop in Guarare at Bonnie’s place, the Casa del Puerto. Tell her Susanna sent you.
by Susanna Perkins.
Susanna always wanted to experience life in another culture – she just never imagined it would become the “sensible” option. Believing that, when life hands you lemons you learn to juggle, she found herself with an entire crate full of citrus following the financial meltdown in the US. She started tossing fruit around and ended up, with her husband and three small dogs, in Las Tablas, Panama. With a more-or-less reliable internet connection she works as a freelance writer and shares her expat insights and experiences on her website, Future Expats Forum, and teaches non-technical people about WordPress at WordPress Building Blocks
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