Sarah Yates meets a local who makes a real impression in Panama. A string-bean of a Panamanian, he’d have to be 6ft 4. He walks the street of Bocas town with a guitar, playing in the restaurants to earn a living. We heard him play twice and both times moved me to my core.
The first time was at night, dinner on a deck over the water. No electric light, there were candles everywhere and we had watched the moon rise to shine brightly across the ocean. Joe arrived and I paid almost no attention to him at first. Little by little he entered my consciousness, and he began to play “Knocking On Heaven’s Door”. One by one the people sitting with us on the deck raised their heads too. One by one they joined in the words. You could hear them, quietly singing, their voices together making a chilling harmony that complemented Joe’s soulful face. I looked around, I could see people singing out of the corners of my eyes, but when you looked directly at a person, no ones mouth was moving.
The second time we were lucky enough to have dinner with Joe, the owner of our four-bedroom B&B and the other patrons who were staying there. Joe was a friend of the owner. He talked to us, told us he had saved for years to reach his one life-goal – to have his teeth removed and replaced with dentures. And he had.
Joe is as dark as midnight, with a delightful Caribbean afro and the whitest teeth you’ve ever seen. He smiles all the time and it is now easy to see why. He is showing off his life savings. He told us now he had new teeth, he was going to save to get a room to sleep in instead of a hammock open to the elements.
The owner of our B&B was a singer too, and they jammed together while we waited for our food. It was another moonlight light, full of candles and lapping water. Inevitably, the chords of “knocking on heaven’s door” started. The words followed….
“Mama take this badge from me, I cant use it anymore. Its getting dark, too dark to see, Feels like I’m knocking on heavens door”
I raised my eyes and looked around me. To my left was a US Marine, discharged with honors after three tours of Afghanistan. He lost friends in that
war, men who bled out into the dust of the desert. To my right was a man whose friends and colleagues died in 9/11, who were not able to make it out of the towers before they fell. People who died in the noise and terror of that morning.
And in front of me was Joe. A man who wanted nothing more from life than a new set of chompers. He did not aspire to power, there was no race for glory, status or political aspirations. Joe will fade out of the world having left no earth shattering impact, no worldly possessions save a glorious set of dentures.
After the song finished and Joe left, no one spoke. Finally I said “He has so much less than I do, but that man is happier than I am”. No one at the table disagreed. Sarah Yates