|On Halloween Night 1977, a wise man
told Morty Wendens and Robert Dopp to "avoid Panama in October" but
failed to elaborate further. At the time, that piece of advice seemed
at the time very reasonable but twenty-five years later, to the day,
Morty found himself in Panama City at the end of October. This trip
came about as a favor-based request from an old friend and as such,
Morty was without input or discretion. So when faced with torrential
rains and washed out roads, he finally remembered the advice, albeit a
bit late, but he couldn't help smile at the timely irony and realized
he had no one to blame but himself. As he slogged through the shin deep
mud, he was amazed at the anguish caused by the drenching combination
of mother nature and physics. Historically, the fall in Central America
is cruelly reserved for the locals as all the hotels and tourist
attractions were basically shutdown except for a few unlucky winners of
trips and the day to day activities had changed from hustling tourists
to watching in wonder the absolute kick-ass power of erosion so Morty
had to declare himself a contest winner of something as he entered the
generic shelter immediately next to the tarmac.
Buildings in Panama have one only purpose: to shield its inhabitant from the rain. They are drafty, hastily built and foundationally suspect but if the roof holds and the rain is funneled, in some manner away from the structure, it is considered a structural success. Morty had been coming down to Central America for many years during the dry season but the circumstances of time and location had finally collided as everything he owned was wet before he was in country for five minutes. As he slogged towards the open air customs tent for an impression from a child's stamp pad, he always found entering the country a lot easier than leaving it. They were always happy to see him and had never, not once, ever slowed him down, searched his luggage or asked him a question. As he stood in line, he made a few futile attempts to wipe away the rain but it was to no avail: he was going to be moist for the next several hours and nothing to change the situation existed or could be even imagined to help him out.
Central America, like many poorer regions of the world, invests nothing in public infrastructure and seems to be about fifteen minutes away from true catastrophe. Combining that approach with the brutal truth of non-strategic thinking, no money and the ongoing inability for an entire country to achieve paved roads, plumbing, water filtration and telecommunications resulted in yet another rainy season from Hell. Morty was coming down to lend a hand to his friend Solomon, and to see if he could pick up a few tricks from the locals. While Morty was driving out of Panama City on Halloween morning, the dated thoughts about October was being pounded in his head with each sheet of rain battered his crappy little rental car. As an individual who had taken advice easily since he was a small child, the epiphany of the now-ancient advice had not fully hit him until he found himself finally putting some distance from the tarmac. But as he drove away from the Panama City International Airport and Truck Stop and to his first destination, he felt both stupid and wet .... but more wet than stupid.
The first time Morty visited the country, it was because of the cashew and over the years, he realized that he knew almost everything available about it but it wasn't because of his advanced degree in Agriculture and his doctorate in Horticulture. He had been around the world and saw significant investments in cashew production in Northern Australian, Sri Lanka, Brazil and India but he knew one thing: the only place in the world producing the best cashews was a two hundred mile strip between Costa Rica and Panama. You can talk all day about the nut but the discussion on its location lasted about ten seconds. At this point of his life, Morty was a man of limited interests and while he concentrated on the export of all nuts, the only love in his life was the cashew. He rarely took the bait when someone would extol the virtue of the cashew nut (it is really basically a seed), as he was never interested in the momentary holder of the truth.
In the world of research, having truth on his side was just something which slowed him down and these days, decades away from academia, it was the last thing on this list. His business interests began to stray from academics fairly quickly after receiving his degrees but he felt having some knowledge and not directly utilizing it was better than having no knowledge and marching forward with hopes of enlightenment after the face. These days he was dealing with far larger goals and this trip with Solomon was looking more an more like a real adventure. The entire Central American corridor was just begging for some good old North American exploitation; so close to the United States and brimming with natural resources. He wanted to help kick start the growth process because ten minutes after the peasants got used to air conditioning, roads and internet cable, the sky would be the limit. They had seen ripe opportunities before but Central American was positioning itself for exponential growth and he wanted to be near the ground floor and enjoy the ride to the top. However, he was pursuing his dream on his own schedule and this trip to Panama was just a favor for an old friend who needed his help in some way. He didn't ask why he had called because it really didn't matter; a friend had called and usually providing wisdom and cliché from fifteen hundred miles away rarely solved problems.
Morty had been married at least four times with unofficial girlfriends in every city but his emerging and local social calendar would likely be limited due to the assumed circumstances of Solomon's call. He rarely heard from old partners because of the fear of guilt by association but always respected the history which had been created. Once a job was done, it was always recommended to part ways quietly and find a new arena to work. This trip was going against all the usual guidelines because not only would Morty team up with old friends; they would be doing their work in a very familiar territory. The pursuit of power would not be in growing of the cashew or paving a few roads, it would be established via distribution and cooperative governments working with a few large corporations seeking opportunity. These corporations could focus the bribes and the inefficiencies into a more organized process and as a much more powerful entity. The trouble with Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua wasn't the litany of bribes and payoffs; the trouble was you couldn't go to one place to make the payment. Every person along the line; whether it was licensing, real estate, communications or services, wanted their colones, balboas or cordobas delivered face to face. The bribes were relatively small but it took six months to get a phone legally working but it was a far simpler request to have someone illegally tap a cable; that could be done in an hour and you knew when you were done.
He had seen similar circumstances as large ports in Vietnam, India and Brazil were currently the centers of activity but fifteen years ago, there was nothing but wide open spaces. He had always prided himself on being where the next big thing would appear but it wasn't looking to attractive at this moment. Whether it was called acajou, maranon, jambu terong or kasoy, a cashew (or whatever the mark was going to be) by any other name would sell as well. Originally spread from Brazil by the Portuguese, the cashew tree is now cultivated in all regions with a sufficiently warm and humid climate but there were only a few places in which the cashew thrived. As most things good, these places were harsh on the local agriculture but the cashew endured with its own resilient nature. Its survival based on many of its components, the little seed that could usually did quite well in the driest, crappiest places on the earth. He had no idea if the project involved agriculture but he was ready for it if it happened.
Most people have never seen a cashew tree and if walking by it (or driving by in air-conditioned Range Rovers), the uninitiated would assume the tree was growing miniature red bell peppers. However, the casing of the cashew, the cashew apple, is used for pulp and is eaten raw or made into tart local jams and/or chutneys for the folks within walking distance of the trees. Sometimes, the juice is processed and distilled into powerful liquor or knocked down and diluted into a sugary drink for the kids. While all mothers of invention are worthwhile, the sad fact is a vast majority of the fruit is just tossed aside to get to the real prize resting on top but within the waxy casing. Morty had worked so long with cashews and had honed his nose and touch to a point where he didn't need to see the cashew to know its quality. For the people in the know, the cashew is really the only nut worth talking about. Slightly more regal than its macadamian cousin, the cashew's journey to your table is one of wonder. Harvested like a pear, the cashew is cleaned, roasted, salted and split with extreme energy and dropped off in front of you with dozens of its idiot cousins. Morty had orchestrated his version of the story but the biggest factor is that it is repeated about five 5 gazillion times per year: no story teller could successfully communicate the truly incomprehensible volumes but Morty didn't like to dwell on the finite and was happy to be on the road again, whatever the reason. He hadn't worked in this area for several years so it was good to circle back to some familiar issues while he drove north to meet with Solomon and whomever else has been assigned to this job. He had assumed Dopp would be there and that in itself, made the trip worthwhile.
As he drove, the two things he remembered about foreign countries was the quality of the people and the quality of the coffee. If both were lacking, he would strike the country off his list; no matter the circumstances. He could put up with a failure of one of the two but never both. However he learned many years ago a good lesson on not making any type of judgment on anything he saw for the first time because it would cast him as both an ugly and ignorant American and he felt one of the two was enough. Through mutual friends, he had received a Canadian passport which came in handy when he traveled to places which hated Americans. Unfortunately for Morty, these places were increasing so he relied on his Canadian passport more and more because people always loved Canadians. However, time was getting close and he had to find Solomon and of course, Robert H. Dopp. He had heard the Robert had disappeared a few years back so what was so important for him to return for an extended vacation?
Finally, Morty got to his first destination of Santiago in the early evening. The quality of the road and complete lack of contingencies made any further night travel far too risky. The roads in Central America, even the main ones, are suspect at best and while appearing friendly and straight-forward on a map are always challenging and time-consuming. Morty knew Santiago fairly well and still had a few close friends in the city. Panama is filled with expatriates and as such, an interesting bunch. Expatriates stumble into that status with an approach starting off as a temporary adventure but once placed in the host country, any thoughts of returning to their home country fade quickly. They will complain about the differences and threaten to leave but most never actually return because the motivation to leave their home country is usually far stronger than the frustration resulting in a few shortcomings. Robert H. Dopp was officially an ex-pat in Panama but had dropped off the radar back in 1977 with a declared intention of going deep due to the overall fatigue of the business they had chosen to pursue. Dopp had carefully erased his tracks and literally disappeared to the point where it was naturally assumed in their collective circles and from the folks back home, he was really dead. Morty had always gotten along well with Dopp and always found his exit to be impressive enough not to find out the truth because it wouldn't be as interesting as the stories he had created in his own internal dialogue.
Once dry and safely lodged in a local hotel, Morty decided to wander down to a friendly watering hole to see if he knew anybody hanging around Santiago. If others were flying in, Panama City would be the likely arrival point due to fairly lax security and a lot of direct flights. Walking toward the tavern, he realized how much he missed the region and was quietly pleased he was going to see a few old friends and still had the opportunity to surround himself with lovely but grossly underdeveloped country. He walked in and took a seat in the corner of the bar; he spoke the language fluently and motioned the bartender over and quickly ordered some food and a drink. The bartender seemed quietly impressed with his speech; not often does an Anglo come into this kind of a bar but it is even more rare when he sounds like he has been living around the corner as his life. Once his beer came, Morty took a long pull and waited for his meal. It was going to be delicious and filling; a good end to the first day of his latest adventure.
For the rest of the night, he always kept an eye on his satellite phone for any updates and the other eye at the front door of the bar. It was still early for formal news and he had at least a day's driving ahead of him so there was no worries at this time and decided it was time to get some sleep. He paid his bill in cash, complete with a large tip, and wandered back to his hotel after confirming that his car was still secure. It would be broken into sometime during the adventure (because rental cars always broken into) but he had learned a long time ago not to travel with anything which could not be easily replaced. Other than a few passports (hidden away nicely) and a satellite phone (which would be disposed of in a few days), he traveled extremely light. He washed up and went to bed but, by his nature, woke up fairly early and noticed someone was at his door, pounding quietly but with an appropriate level of urgency. He quickly put on a shirt and went to the door and peered out and saw a familiar face.
"Good morning, sunshine" said Robert H. Dopp. "Have you heard from anyone yet?"
"Not a word," said Morty. "Come in. I will be ready for breakfast in a few minutes since you yanked me from my beauty sleep."
Robert Dopp looked at him and said, "I should have let you sleep a bit longer."
"No argument from me. Also, you look pretty good for a dead guy. I assume the folks in Marathon light a candle a few times a year."
"Thanks. It means a lot coming from you."
Morty was getting ready to respond with some witty comment when a familiar chirp of his satellite phone broke the banter cycle. They both looked at the phone and Morty grabbed it and said to Dopp, "It's about time but no matter what happens, we are still eating breakfast."
Morty answered the phone and listened to the brief instructions and said, "Okay. I understand." He pressed the disconnect button and said, "Okay, we will see our pal later today, about lunch time. Let's eat."
While neither one would admit their excitement for a paying job, they quickly ate their local breakfast of eggs, plantains, black beans and tomatoes and engaged in chit-chat. Both had lived in country for years so there was no worries of any gastronomical events; they learned to eat or drink anytime the possibilities presented themselves because external circumstances could easily cause them to be away from creature comforts at any time and when the time came to pack the hump, you packed it. Within thirty minutes of the call, they were heading out of Santiago with a brisk sense of purpose and a fairly impossible agenda to complete. The roads were always a crap shoot; ten miles of crappy asphalt would quickly morph into ten miles of rutted, dusty dirt roads and just as quickly, crappy asphalt again. The roads were not for the squeamish or the tardy; drive like hell and gas up anytime you saw a sign because one literally had no idea what was around the next corner.
"I estimate we will see our friends in about three hours if these roads hold," said Morty. He was looking straight ahead; when traveling in this environment, one didn't waste time reading a map or looking out a side window. It was necessary to all available sets of eyes to be constantly scanning the horizon for any unseen variables including cattle, enormous pot holes, local police authorities and unplanned endings of the road. They drove along with senses heightened but underneath the pleasant buzz of adrenaline, it was just nice to get out of the office.
"Central America was the only place," said Dopp, "in which a road just ends. There isn't any notice or some low-tech path or clue of something else, the road just ends."
Morty agreed and they both knew, in those cases, one had to quickly reverse their tracks and find alternative routes which headed in the same general direction. As a result of these types of issues, it was always discouraged to call out any type of ETA's because it seemed everytime someone guessed on an arrival time, something bad would happen.
"Well, so far so good." said Morty.
"Thanks for the estimate. I hope your underlying optimism doesn't kill us," said Dopp. "I can only die so many times."
If you drive down U.S. Highway 1 towards the
Florida Keys, pay attention when you arrive in Marathon. On the
northern side of the city, you will notice a Chevron gas station in the
southeast corner of the Highway and some dusty, bleached-out crossing
street. Take a left (east) at the light and go down about a quarter of
a mile and cross the Robert H. Dopp Memorial Bridge. And as you cross
it, remember two things: One, size isn't everything and two, there is
no jumping or diving allowed from the bridge.
This one seems to have interesting direction...
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