This is from my Panama Newsletter in 2008.
Robert is a neighborhood character. He makes a living of sorts doing odd jobs. He used to live in the US, but the story is that he killed a man there and fled home to Panama. Everyone in my neighborhood, regardless of economic circumstance, gets treated with respect, but Robert may command just a bit more than others. Whatever the truth about what happened up North, Robert is a good worker and keeps himself busy doing the hard, dirty jobs that others don’t want to do.
Last week Robert came to my house and wanted to talk about something he had found. There had been a burst water pipe just up the street from our house, and when IDAAN finally (after 6 weeks) got around to fixing it, they dug a very large hole, leaving a big mound of dirt and clay in the street. Each rain since washed away a bit of that dirt, until a plastic bag with some coins and the remains of a chicken were exposed. Robert found the bag and removed the coins, but was afraid to spend them so he had come to me for advice.
It is quite common in Panama to make a sacrifice before moving into a new home or remodeling. The sacrifice usually consists of a chicken and a few coins, and is believed to appease the evil spirits who can cause any number of bad things to come into your life. Such a sacrifice is what Robert had found. I suspect that if one dug up every yard in my neighborhood, a large number of coins and chicken bones would be found. Robert lives a hand-to-mouth existence, and any found money is welcome, so I knew what he wanted to hear, but also knew what he needed to hear, so I advised him to return the money to where he found it. Of course Robert already knew the answer, because while I respect the belief, he believes it. He said “I knew you were going to say that”. Then he went to get a second opinion, and was again told, this time by a Panamanian, the same thing I told him. So Robert very reluctantly compromised by giving the money (74 cents) to a friend who doesn’t believe in evil spirits. 74 cents may not seem like a big deal to you or me, but in Robert’s world it can mean a full meal today instead of not quite enough, or a couple of cold beers at the Chino’s.
Not unexpectedly, Robert dropped by the following day to “borrow” a quarter so he could get a cup of coffee. I told him I was fresh out of quarters and he would have to settle for a dollar, and remarked that God had probably arranged it that way to reward him for doing the right thing with the found money.