This past weekend, Christine and I went to the small town of La Pintada to visit our Peace Corps friend Gabby, who’s been the town’s English specialist for the past couple of years. Besides an opportunity to get out of our mostly-English-speaking, honking-traffic-filled bubble here in Panama City, the town was also having their seventh annual regional Festival of the Painted Sombrero, or Festival Del Sombrero Pintado (or Pinta’o, since folks like dropping the D here).

After three hours on a tiny chiva-bus (those winding hills and turns never felt so strenuous on the much larger Santiago bus, despite being on the same one and only highway through Panama) we were happy to see Gabby and meet her 2.5 cats – Luna and Valentine, her sibling housecats, and a recently fostered scruffy and tough looking black cat she’d named Zeus. Poor Zeus was looking a lot more scruffy then his street-wise life usually caused; he’d had a pot of boiling water thrown on him by (luckily unknown, for their safety from me reciprocating) local children. Gabby had seen him around the neighborhood for months but after seeing him limping and staggering around the market with pus-covered wounds on his back and most of his hair missing, she swept in, took him to her backyard and got him all the salves and ointments he’d need to start his way toward recovery. Even in pain, he was cordially friendly towards Christine and I, purring quietly, bumping his leathery black-skinned head onto our hands, and accepting chin scratches. Zeus needs a home; Gabby’s two plump and spoiled Panamanian housecats are spooked enough just seeing him out the window, much less seeing his scruffy head inside the house (which he was able to poke through the door once despite our attempts to stop it; he knows a good place when he smells it).

Zeus the poor boiled cat

Zeus: Burned but not beaten (mentally, at least)

After Gabby fed us and her other visiting friends a chili dinner, we wandered in the darkness of the warm evening toward the festival grounds. They were filled with food and trinket vendors ($1 Atlas beers!), carnival rides, and an obnoxious, screaming DJ running a dance pit called “Zoomba Live”

We watched some fireworks, meandered the trinket vendors, chatted with the Panamanian friends of Gabby and her fellow American Peace Corps friends, and rode the bumper cars. They have an interesting system here for that – instead of waiting in line for the ride with your money or tickets, I paid $2 for a little pink chit from a window, and then just….walked out onto the bumper car floor when everyone stopped. I was intrigued to see each bumper car had a little chit slot in it, and once deposited and the floor timer started, we all zoomed off. There were no lines at all; if you had bought 20 chits you could theoretically be bumpin’ all night. Everyone off the floor just had to watch and wait for when someone got up and left, then run out quickly to claim a car. I bumped many a small Latino child in the 3 minutes my chit bought me.

Pintada bumper cars

Gabby and friends at the bumper wheels

The highlight of the evening was watching the stage show – couplets of traditionally-dressed dancers, musicians in the background, and then the (8? I think?) ladies that were the queens of their towns in the Pintada district of Panama. Of course the La Pintada local woman got huge, deafening cheers since she was the hometown favorite, but all the other ladies, each with their own teams of local fans sporting balloons and flags in different bright colors, got resounding applause as well.

Flags and balloons wave as the regional winners all take the stage at once

After that, we checked out the dance party we’d been hearing for hours. We paid our $2 admission to the fenced off area (at least the beers were still $1 inside) and watched the Panamanians….standing around and checking their phones. No one was dancing, or even wobbling from side to side. I’ll admit that the typical Panamanian radio and live DJ style doesn’t exactly lend itself to ecstatic dancing – basically, every 30 seconds to 2 minutes, the DJ will scream out something in rapid Spanish like “put your hands in the air!” “if you’re with a special someone raise your hands!” “if you’re from here in Pinta’a raise your hands!” and by far his most frequent one “ZOOOOOOOMBA LIIIIIIIIIVE!!” (or a pre-recorded, deep, movie trailer announcement of the company name) It was, to our dainty little USA ears, hilariously inappropriate and we guffawed whenever the DJ would interrupt the music he was paid to present to scream the name of his company (which was also plastered on every surface). We couldn’t imagine a DJ in the USA doing this, and we wondered why Panamanians were okay with the music constantly, constantly being interrupted by repetitive, unimportant drivel. If it was a bit of banter between songs or tracks, or every couple of minutes, that’d be one thing…but it was every minute!

how does I hammock?

I’m a professional hammocker

Ares the Perrito

The cutest god of war

The following day, well rested from my night of sleeping on a wicker bench in my case and in a hammock for Christine, we joined our hardy Peace Corps friends at Gabby’s host family’s house. Every Peace Corps member lives with a local family in their community for about 3 months after arriving in their region, and Gabby loves her host family, especially her “little sister” Linda. Linda, in high school and a master of melodrama, was overheard telling Gabby “how could you not take me to the Zoomba last night!” (she was underage was why) and then a minutes later, “No tengo una hermana!” However, playful melodrama aside, she was very sweet and got all of us fried pork and yucca to snack on from her grandma’s kitchen, which we ate while petting the family’s newest puppy, an adorable brown lab mix named Ares.

With the hatmaker

With the 35-year veteran of the hatmaking industry and the maker of my new hat, Reynaldo Quiros

I was quite intrigued by the giant paper mache hats taking shape in the family’s front yard. It turned out that Linda and her family would be representing their barrio, or neighborhood, in the afternoon’s parade, and the black and white painted hats would be mounted on the family’s pickup truck with streamers and palm fronds. After a morning spent vendor-shopping for headwear (Christine bought a reed headband and I bought a lightweight hat with the word “PANAMA” across the brim – I’ll be careful to wear it in a flattering way, as Gabby defines on her personal blog) we returned to the house to see the Linda and her friends, plus the truck, fully dolled up in parade finery and ready to strut.

Pintada that sombrero!

One of Gabby’s host siblings paints the barrio’s sombrero

Music everywhere on La Pintada’s main street! There were yoked oxen carrying finely dressed children on their backs, several trucks like Linda’s with dancing people on them, men launching fireworks out of their hands (shades of the fireworks-filled wedding at Tibna, Jordan flashed back in my head), elaborately dressed teams of regional dancers spinning and singing, and unfortunately, beer cans and trash everywhere. To everyone’s credit, there weren’t trash cans anywhere in the festival area; the ground seemed to be the accepted and recommended place to put your trash. The good news for the beer cans, at least, is that the ones we’d seen on Saturday night had already disappeared by Sunday morning – just as in the USA, recyclers will pay a few cents for each empty and enterprising locals make sure to get every single one within hours.


One of Linda’s friends allowed me to photograph the beautiful and intricate beadwork on her head, called tembleques

Queens on the Float

The local queens on their float. The winner, from the Llano Grande village, is far left with the crown

After we watched the slow-moving parade to completion (despite only needing to travel 3-4 blocks or a total of 500 meters, it had taken an hour to traverse since the parade watchers often became parade participants whenever the urge struck them, and the oxen and trucks needed to stop and start constantly) we knew we needed to get back to Panama City and the kitten who we were sure was angrily waiting for us. It was her first time spending a night by herself and, happily, she was not angry at all but instead purringly sleepy and cuddly. She even got into the Sombrero Pintado spirit herself!

Riba with her Sombrero

Tiny hat: $1….Tiny kitten: free (some expenses required)…. adorable moment: priceless