We rode the escalator up from the Cinco de Mayo subway station to gray skies. Just 20 minutes earlier, at the Albrook train station, it had been mostly sunny. Even after two years of living in Panama, I still forget how quickly clouds can get painted on a blue sky during rainy season.
I was with my family enjoying a Sunday outing, on the way to Panama’s famous fish market. The fish market wasn’t far, but with three children in tow, a cab was a must. It was Daddy Time. With the youngest—our 9-month-old son, Joshua— in a pink papoose on my chest, I had one hand for each remaining child—Aria and Caleb. Taking their little hands in mine, I turned to my wife… “Go get ‘em, babe.”
My wife Nena is Panamanian; I’m Mike the gringo. For the most part, she does all the talking as I reel the kids in from trouble.
Nena swallowed the swarm of comments nesting in her wry smile, and hailed a cab whose driver, after a quick argument with a traffic cop, pulled up to the curb. She leaned into the window and began to haggle. Usually, in order to avoid the gringo discount, she makes me hide, but with no cover available, she was forced take her opponent head on.
A quick but heated debate ended with Nena giving me a hand wave… signaling she’d won.
For those who don’t know what the gringo discount is, in Panama, gringos can find themselves on the receiving end of a 10% to 30% markup—if they aren’t savvy. My wallet thanks Nena quite often.
Nena’s face beamed, “US$2.25.”
Panamanians love to haggle and win.
The cabbie told us his name was Juan and struck up a conversation with Nena, relaying all the ins and outs of the fish market for the remainder of the ride… in Spanish, of course—the gringo again thanked his lovely translator.
We arrived in under ten minutes. After another small argument with another traffic cop, Juan pulled the cab up to the curb in front of the fish market where, at the end of a paved walkway, stood a large two-story building with vegetable stands in front. To the right of the building, separated by a wall, was a row of smaller structures with large blue tents in front that stretched nearly to the water. Juan said the gray building in front of us was where the more expensive prices were and the walkway to the right led to cheaper prices and a multitude of restaurants.
We entered the main building, drawn by the buzz of activity inside that made the little one in the papoose start flailing his hands and feet in excitement.
“Look at all that fish—I told you we should have come here sooner,” my wife shouted to be heard above the commotion.
Half the size of a football field in all directions, the fish market was packed with customers, spectators, and workers operating around dozens of booths. Everything from tuna to lobster, shrimp to octopus, and scallops to corvina were being cut, flayed, packaged, and sold—and it smelled like it… which my 5-year-old son made sure to remind me of with a rapid fire of “It smells Daddy.”
Being from Long Island, New York, I was on either boat or beach most days of summer from diapers to graduation. To me, the smell of fish is a sweet aroma. So, I was in my element.
The fish was fresh—I couldn’t spot a bit of discoloration on the gills. It was well preserved in ice that was constantly being replenished. The fish was constantly going out of the market by either the nearby restaurants or the customers. In a lot of ways, I felt as if I was in just another fish market in Manhattan—except here, the shoppers were composed of equal parts Panamanians and expats.
I had a “silly me” moment when we came across a selection of lobsters that were clawless. I had Nena ask the owner, “Where are all the claws?” His confused look jarred my memory to a crucial fact I had forgotten: Lobsters down here don’t have claws… silly gringo.
We retreated from the lobsters and stumbled upon a booth where ceviche was sold. It was run by Elsa, a personable woman with a big smile who immediately offered us samples. The wave of goodwill had my wife dumbstruck. For those of you who don’t already know, getting pleasant customer service in Panama is as rare as brush up with a chupacabra.
We sampled three types of ceviche: Mediteráneo, Mexicano, and regular, then bought a cup of each, US$3 for the specialties and US$2.25 for the regular.
Afterwards, a white ceviche caught my eye. Nena asked what kind it was.
Elsa smiled. “Cóctel de corvina,” she said.
She quickly gave my wife and me a sample… My, oh my, was it good!
It contained apple, grapes, almonds, and, obviously, fish. Elsa was coy about the rest of the ingredients. I asked Nena to press further, but Elsa just smiled.
A lady keeps her secrets, it appears.
At this point, poor Caleb was teetering on a meltdown… and Aria’s attempt at consolation—although, astute eyes might see provocation—wasn’t helping matters; but with “carpe diem” in mind, Nena and I decided to take a quick look upstairs at the restaurant anyway.
It was a quaint place with 20 or so tables. The waitress said we could buy fish downstairs and have it brought up to be cooked.
As we looked down on the market, it appeared even more impressive. After snapping some quick shots, with Caleb on my shoulders and Aria in Nena’s arms, we retreated to the exit.
Blue skies were again hosting a bright sun as we stepped outside.
“You guys were super-duper,” I told the kids, “I think you both deserve Coca Cola with lunch.”
Caleb and Aria cheered as if given the keys to Fort Knox, and then, like crazed sled dogs, they pulled me around the wall separating the two areas. Moments after turning the corner, we were dive-bombed by two waiters from two different restaurants, both jockeying for our patronage. Their manner wasn’t bothersome, but with Spanish coming my way fast and furious, Dad needed to take control again: “Babe, you’re up.”
I promptly exited stage left, picking up Aria and Caleb as Nena haggled, playing one waiter against the other.
When she reached terms of her liking, we headed to an outdoor table under a blue tent. Before we could sit, Nena decided family-photo time was in order. After snapping a few pics, Nena took the baby, and, as we all sat down, the drinks arrived. There was silence (aside from the kids slurping on Cokes)… until Nena began telling us how much she had saved ordering for us all.
I shrugged my shoulders and smiled, “To the victor goes the spoils.”
When the feast arrived (US$38 with tip), the table was stacked with food. (We ate the leftovers for the next two days.)
It was then that a sudden pitter-patter on the tarp covering us quickly built to a roar of another, sudden downpour. But it didn’t matter, because a good day and good food— together—was all the sun we needed.