Holiday shopping for a guy who doesn’t do Christmas presents as such

Peno 1
Upstairs at the Penonome public market there is a section for handicrafts vendors. If “authentic Panamanian” and “support artisans and tiny businesses” and modestly utilitarian purchases are among your things, it can be a good place to Christmas shop. Or in the editor’s case, to do some December purchases for a Christmas destined to be in the company of cats and dogs.

In search of a chacara, and…, but NOT…

a photo essay by Eric Jackson

Hippies are SUPPOSED to be different. Even when they get old and stop growing their hair that long. Even when back living in Latin America after having embraced the freak style as an adolescent and young adult in the USA.

Plus, even if you may actually make a living as a small-time capitalist parts of your freaky thing is to hold fast to socialist values and to laugh at conspicuous consumption as a lifestyle, there are needs, constraints and cravings to take into account in daily life.

If you ride the bus and don’t have a car – much less an expensive SUV – and live about half a mile from the bus stop, then carrying things becomes an important lifestyle consideration. Perhaps the exercise will make for a longer life. Perhaps the strain will lead to an untimely death. Perhaps God knows, but she / he / it ain’t telling. The conventional wisdom is that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but what sort of self-respecting hippie gives too much credence to convention?

Anyway, in our tropical climate if you buy too much dog food or cat food, it will go bad before it can all be used, unless one wants to get into the expense of special storage facilities. Moreover, how much you buy of anything becomes a function of how much you can carry for a kilometer or so, unless you want to go to the extra expense of taxi service. Some sort of bags, and the need for regular cat food runs into town, become necessary.

The norm here is some sort of knapsack, most often make of synthetic fibers somewhere in Asia. But if you want to buy Panamanian? If you want to support the poorest of this country’s poor communities, by way of buying the work of their traditional artisans? Then you want to buy one or more chacaras, the hand-woven, expandable with use, bags the Ngabe and Bugle craft workers – generally women – make in their respective styles. They come in many sizes, but I’m interested in the bigger ones. I like the ones designed to be carried with a broadened strap that fits well on the forehead, although I am one to shorten the strap with a knot and carry it over one shoulder or the other. The usual style for the smaller bags is to carry them with the strap across the body, but I also shorten the straps on such chacaras to carry over one shoulder, in part because over the years I have been robbed or assaulted a number of times and it seems that in a fight or flight situation one can move more effectively and deny an assailant an easier way to strangle you if you don’t wear your chacara strapped across your body. It’s a consideration, with pros and cons, for a guy who usually carries a camera, usually concealed from view by others. The social considerations? Hippies are SUPPOSED to look weird.

handicrafts in Penonome
Chacaras on display upstairs at the Penonome public market. They didn’t have and of the big ones I sought. I also checked out the belts, but they didn’t have my extra-gordo sizes. My style of headwear? Not the healthiest thing from a skin cancer perspective but my preference is a Detroit Tigers baseball cap — which is also different in this country full of New York Yankees fans.


Another upstairs vendor will dress a little girl PANAMANIAN.


This particular tradition has been co-opted by Catholicism and its narratives for a very long time, so a diablito mask is more in the nature of a cool decorative Christmas present for somebody to hang up on his or her wall than as a satanic anti-Christmas protest. There are regional variations on diablito apparel, but upstairs at the Penonome public market you’ll find Central Provinces expressions.


Looking down to the main section of the market, for produce, it was a slow morning. The meat, seafood and poultry section was even slower.

There are other vendors outside of the market selling bags, belts, hats and decorations, and then folks selling produce on the street. Plus any number of places nearby that could meet this day’s need to comply with the ancient Prime Directive, as inscribe in the Egyptian tombs: FEED THE CAT. 

However, this was a roundabout, round-trip bus excursion. There would be much less carrying of cat and dog food if I were to take the next bus to the El Boulevard shopping center and buy those supplies there, where they have a piquera from whence I can easily catch a bus that goes right back to my bus stop in El Bajito. That was the plan.

BUT FIRST, in the area around the public market there are also these farm supply stores. One of these in particular sells seeds for Chinese crops, as in at this point in the year one of my major planter box and dietary staple, the long Chinese green beans. A poverty rations dinner that will get you by? Ramen noodles with Chinese green beans. I’ve done it many times. Plant them as dry season is setting in and you of course need to water them. They climb, and if you leave the remains of last season’s sticks, strings and vines in place they will add to a functional and pretty enough to weird hippie eyes trellis.

The good stuff — a couple of bucks’ worth of Chinese green bean seeds.

On to the plasticine new shopping center on the west side of town. Which had the misfortune of having just opened as the COVID epidemic hit us.

A lot of money has been invested, some of the prices are slightly higher, but to balance that off more or less Penonome’s main bus terminal has been relocated there. Might I do some more usual Christmas shopping there? Probably not. I did do my grocery shopping, mainly at El Rey. I did get a few things at some of the smaller businesses. I did grab lunch before getting a bus back home. 

But then, there was one item on sale for which I had no use, even if there were puppies at home who would love to destroy it. That I once had a northern Michigan job harvesting Christmas trees affect my tastes in this matter? Perhaps.

But Christmas? It’s about the birth of this guy who went on to challenge the backslid local religious authorities, the pathetic lackeys of an occupying army and the mighty at the time Roman Empire itself. You don’t have to be a weird hippie, nor to have gone to Sunday school, to appreciate — but it helps. 

An imported Christmas tree? Meh.


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