Tuesday afternoon running errands in Penonome

You’re dealing with a bus rider, a guy on a limited budget who is neither singing the blues nor hitting you up for the money to buy an SUV. This is actually an out-the window picture from the bus about to head home, from the bus piquera on the east end of the El Boulevard shopping center, looking north with the mountains of Cocle in the distance.

Errands in Penonome

photos and notes by Eric Jackson

The town of Penonome is a fascinating little place, including for a history major like I was and for a long-time urban policy observer. The city center is this congested stronghold of small and medium-sized businesses, from the sidewalk stalls of informal vendors to the often ethnic Chinese or Arab owned stores to the public market. The place, said to be named after the Spanish conquerors’ execution of an indigenous resistance leader named Nomé — “aquí penó Nomé — was a place for ranchers and farmers to buy what they needed and sell what they could, around which a provincial government and religious center grew up. Much later came the internal combustion engine, which made the city center terribly congested, one part of which was nightmarish to find parking. There have been adaptations over the years but the downtown is still pretty bad in that sense.

This reporter has seen it much worse, but too many cars is a feature of downtown Penonome. Would it be a heresy over which political careers would be destroyed if parking on the street were limited and pay-to-park structures erected at spots around the downtown. Probably. Bear in mind that car owners are outnumbered by bus riders but the former include almost all of the political donor base.

What’s a would-be small-time capitalist to do? Grab a space on the sidewalk. Sell from the back of a truck. Set up shop in one of the alleys or walkways between the rows of storefronts. Open a shop upstairs in a place that used to be home for the owner of a downstairs business.

Conversion of old land uses is an interesting feature of Penonome, surely the stuff of dissertations and books on legal, architectural and economic history if there are enough nerds like this reporter to buy them. However, seeing something and knowing that it must have a history is not the same thing as knowing that history. Part of the problem in Panama is the legacy of criminal defamation laws wherein alleged defamation of a dead person could be considered a crime, EVEN IF what is published is absolutely true but makes some historical figure with that sort of a living relative who would press charges look bad. The crime is “injuria,” as in ‘You damaged my late great-grandfather’s reputation by telling the tale of this affair he had with a teenager when he was in his 50s and the urban policy consequences of that’ — even if the story is true.

In any case, it makes for enhanced charm, mystery and opportunities when shopping in downtown Penonome. 

‘Come with me to the Kasbah!’ Penonome is not a North African citadel, but it’s not such a huge stretch of the imagination to see a line of urban culture that runs right back through Arab Spain. I go to other barbers but I may be back here to get new eyeglasses. And is the Internet cafe upstairs from one of these warrens still in business?

So, through the built-up alley to the next street over to more stops on my mission. Food for myself, bones for the dogs, maybe a fish to share — Penonome’s public market! On this Tuesday afternoon the place wasn’t very full or busy — nothing much in the butchers’ and seafood vendors’ section. The pickings would likely have been much better there had it been a morning visit. Broccoli, piva nuts and onions, ¡sí hay! And some tools that I need to get but don’t care to carry with me on this afternoon. Just got me a chacara in El Valle, but that and other handicrafts are in an upstairs loft at the market. And then on the corner, in the same building as the market but apart from it, the little bakery with the excellent cheese bread that I can’t resist when in the area.

Along the side street that runs by the market, there are all of these little hardware and farm supply businesses. I go to some of these in search of garden seeds, and on the other side of the street sometimes the informal plant vendors have some worthy things for the garden, usually more on the decorative than the food production side. But I was in search of dog medicine here. Did not find what I needed at Melo, in front of which this unfortunate little guy was camped out. A couple of doors down I found the mite spray for dogs that I needed.

I could have found the rest of the items for which I specifically searched at the mini-supers in the area, but as a bus rider there are limitations. Often times, how much I can afford is not so nearly as important as how much I can — or want to — carry. 

Plus, as the COVID epidemic was about to hit us, the local government was making a move against congestion. The main terminal for Penonome to Panama buses was moved just across the Pan-American Highway from the entrance to the downtown area, and the main place to get a bus to other destinations in Cocle province moved to the east side of the El Boulevard shopping center. This move made that place, economically, and I wonder about the details of that set of political decisions. In any case, the move of most of the bus congestion out of the downtown area made urban planning sense from that perspective, even if it meant urban sprawl to the west.

The new configuration, for me, meant that I could go to El Boulevard and there shop at El Rey for dinner for myself, the cats and the dogs, pick up some things at the bakery, grab a cold little bottle of a South American soft drink, get me a couple of pieces of hsiu mai to snack upon, AND catch a bus that would let me off very close to my home in El Bajito de Juan Diaz de Anton. How much I have to carry, how far — AND how many buses I need to take — all figured into the calculation.

HOW FAR to the west, along the Pan-American Highway, should Penonome sprawl? This is looking west from the west end of El Boulevard, with a ticky-tack subdivision in the background and windmills beyond that. Do not let the windmills coat everything in your mind in shades of green. Urban sprawl is a hydra-headed set of environmental issues in its own right. Even when it helps to solve some downtown congestion problems. 

On the way home, I noticed banners and spray-painted slogans against the mining colony project. But on this afternoon the broad masses of workers, peasants and revolutionary intellectuals were not blocking traffic.

The cars, buses and trucks DID slow down a bit to watch a street juggler, a young man talented at what he does. People were opening their windows to give him money for his service. Life and the informal economy in Cocle’s provincial seat.


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