It all started out because I had offered to take a new Panamanian friend and her little dog to the veterinarian in David. Maria (not her real name) had lived in the States for many years and had retired to Boquete. Like me, she is divorced and worked in the health field. She lives next door to the shop that does my laundry. I met her last week when she showed me a picture of her cute dog at the laundry and spoke to me in perfect American English.
She said her dog had not been doing well, had been steadily losing weight in spite of the best dog food sent every week by her sister in Panama City. I fawned over the picture of the dog she carried with her. She has an American attitude toward her dog, letting it sleep in bed with her. As someone who has slept with dogs for many years, I had to relate to her story. So I offered to let her ride with me to David because she doesn't have a car and can't afford a taxi. I was planning a trip for today anyway to get the ingredients for cooking San Antonio Tex-Mex Cheese Enchiladas for 150 people.
The cooking is for a charity event - Buenos Vecinos de Boquete is a local organization that donates food to people too poor to maintain adequate caloric intake and nutrition. It feeds eighty-five families regularly, but I know there are many more in need, mostly the Nagöbe-Buglé indigenous people who live here and work in the coffee fields. This is the wet season. The coffee has been harvested. Now there is less work for the people, and now more people are starving. So tomorrow Buenos Vecinos is having a charity Mexican Food Cook-Off at a local restaurant, where people will pay a $5 fee to taste the various entries and vote on the best of each category. And my San Antonio Tex-Mex Cheese Enchiladas were supposed to be among them.
So it was already an unusual day when I picked up Maria and her little dog in Boquete for the drive to David. The plan was to leave them at the vet - which is near the store where I needed to go for the groceries - and then pick them up after I had finished shopping for the trip back home. It seemed simple enough.
But unforeseen circumstances intervened to make it a day I shall never forget.
About halfway to David, I noticed the stick shift would not go into any gear. It was on a downhill stretch, so I was able to keep up with traffic at highway speed for a while. I knew I needed to pull over - and soon.
There was a driveway up ahead, and Maria said, "There." I obediently pulled into the driveway of a fairly nice looking house and stopped. There was a little dog at the house who resembled one of my favorite dogs from years past, and who was bravely defending her territory by yapping at us constantly. I was totally flummoxed, and it took me quite a while to find the emergency telephone number for road breakdowns that came as part of my auto insurance here.
Thank God (or whatever you call it) that my new friend was with me. She was able to explain everything over the cell phone to the agent for the road service. Even then, the person taking the call said she needed to call me back sometime indefinitely later to confirm that I had the necessary coverage. And she needed to know exactly where we would be towing the car.
Thank God (or whatever you call it), I remembered a posting from the "Gringos in David" Yahoo Group that highly recommended the mechanic at the Texaco station in David. In fact, I had been looking at this information only a few days ago, so it was fresh in my mind. I also knew that the Texaco station was just around the block from where Maria and the little dog live, so they would be able to get home without taking a taxi. So the Texaco station seemed like the place to go.
After about half an hour, the operator hadn't called back to confirm that we would be towed.
Thank God (or whatever you call it) I had the cell phone number of my insurance agent in the car. One phone call to her quickly produced a call-back from the roadside assistance company. The operator said it would be a thirty-minute wait for the tow truck.
Not too bad, I thought. But thirty minutes later, no tow truck was in sight.
The operator called again. It would be another thirty-five minutes.
Strangely, I was not upset. I felt very safe, in no danger, even though cars and trucks were whizzing by on the highway. In the meantime, I noticed that the little female dog at the house had stopped yapping and had come outside the gate to flirt with Maria's male dog. Maria's dog was thrilled at the prospect of having a girlfriend, and the two dogs started to play with each other.
About this time the owner of the house drove up. We knew about him already, because his housekeeper had visited with us earlier and told us all about him. He is a young Panamanian man who makes his living refurnishing furniture and also from organic farming.
The owner stayed with us by the highway to make sure we would be safe until the tow truck driver came. We talked of parents and families and life, thanks to my translator-friend Maria. He said his parents hadn't done right by him, and hadn't let him manage their farm. I told him that had made him be a stronger person. I thanked him for staying with us two older women - by this time it had been about an hour. He said that he lives his life to help others. I felt safe, surrounded by the love of these two people who until recently had been strangers.
Thank God (or whatever you call it) for leading me to these wonderful people.
After a while he asked my permission to look at the shift linkage. I said of course. He brought his tools out from his truck and took the stick shift apart. He said that a screw was missing, that it was a simple problem to fix. He said to tell this to the mechanic in Boquete so they wouldn't overcharge me.
Then the tow truck came. The driver said that my friend and her dog would have to ride in my car on the back of the tow truck, while I got to ride in the cab. The owner of the house kissed me goodbye on the cheek, much like a son would kiss his mother. He invited us to come back and visit anytime. And so we took off for Boquete with Maria and her little dog hanging on for dear life in my car on the the back of the tow truck.
We must have been quite a sight. I was hanging on to the Jesus strap in the cab because the tow truck driver insisted on passing traffic at will - and this was with a major highway construction project the entire length of the trip. I could only imagine what Maria and the dog were experiencing in the back.
We were stopped by the traffic control police at the usual place at the top of the hill in Boquete, where the road construction crew is removing part of a mountain to make room for the new four-lane highway. Someone was knocking on the side window of the tow truck next to me. It was the owner of the house, who had followed us all the way back to Boquete to give me the two nuts that had stuck in his socket wrench. Then he waved good-bye, got in his car and disappeared into the traffic.
It was all I could do to keep from crying at the extraordinary kindness of this young man.
We made it safely to the Texaco station. Maria and her dog stayed with me for quite some time, and she explained in detail to the mechanic what the problem was. Then she left to walk her little dog home, and I was left alone at the station.
During the two-hour wait, the mechanic rebuilt the part of the shift linkage where the screw was missing. He drilled out a different opening for a new screw, and used the powerful drill for tightening the screws that mechanics use on the lug nuts of wheels when changing tires. That new screw wasn't going anywhere. If this had happened in the States, I'm guessing the mechanic would have said that a new special-order part would have been necessary and the car would have been out of commission for a month or longer.
Bottom line: when I thought I was looking at having to get a new transmission, the mechanic charged me $20 - which was probably a gringo price but which I gladly paid. The previously mushy shift linkage, which was probably a symptom that the screw had been loose ever since I bought the used car - was nice and crisp. Just like new. Probably better than new.
The car was fixed. It was now 3:30 pm. I had to make a decision - should I go on to David or not to get the groceries? It was an hour's drive each way. It would have been so easy to forget the whole thing, after all I'd been through.
But I didn't. I went to David and bought the ingredients. And I'll be cooking tomorrow as if nothing had happened.
But life as I know it will never be quite the same, thanks to the wonderful people who helped me today.
And thanks to God (or whatever you call it) for bringing these wonderful people into my life.
Oh...and next Saturday I'm taking Maria and her little dog to the vet.