NOVEMBER 2005: “Did ya want fries with that mondongo?”

Being a Scorpio, November is usually a good month for me; and this one started out that way. Eleuterio—our builder, for those of you just joining us—told us it was time for our mondongada, time to celebrate the almost-completed roof, and time to stew up a pot of cow guts! "COW GUTS!" What the flipping hell? That ain't no reason to party; that's reason to run...literally, and from the other end, if you catch my drift.
Nevertheless, it was time, and on Saturday, November 5th, the day before my birthday, we threw our mondongada—"threw" being the operative word, as in "threw most of it out!" But, that was then, this is now. Traditionally, the party was just for los muchachos, a way of thanking them for the work done to that point. But, nowadays, a mondongada is a social event: the first time you host a shindig at your new house. And that's what we did, although I insisted on some pollo for those of us not particularly fond of cow intestines. They say it's an acquired "taste," but as for me, I was born with an intrinsic distaste. And, as it turned out, I wasn't the only one; we should have ordered triple the amount of chicken.
Fortunately, there is a woman, Lola, who owns a very small fonda (inn or eatery) in Sorá, the closest pueblocito (small town) to Altos del Maria. It's fortunate because she specializes in preparing tripe for mondongada's. We placed an order for 60 guests, figuring we'd have about 30 muchachos and roughly the same number of neighbors and friends.
Lola stewed a huge pot of mondongo (there's vegetables and stuff in there with it), another of rice, and a couple of traditional side dishes I never did learn the name for, but which seemed to disappear a lot faster than our selection of bovine alimentary canal. TC and I bought the roasted chicken at the supermarket, and we were ready to go. Well, except where desserts were concerned—the only reason for eating in the first place.
You see, not only was it our mondongada and my birthday weekend, but two other Altos residents (we're calling ourselves "Altoids" now) were also celebrating birthdays: Dee Braden's on the 4th, Bob Emerick's on the 5th, and of course, yours truly on Sunday. A trifecta! So, cakes were in order, and TC was going to rise to the occasion and bake two. At least that was the plan. We got all the fixings the same time we got the chicken, and Friday night she started mixing things. There would also be a tray of brownies for anyone not partial to cake (I can't imagine such a thing!), and the brownies were in the oven when the first black-out occurred...
Without the electronic ignition, the oven wouldn't work. The brownies, barely warmed when the lights went out, were put in the refrigerator with the hope they could be baked when the juice came back on. But, you see, while the brownies had been in the oven, TC had also been mixing the cake batter. So, now she had a tray of runny brownies and a bowl of batter in the 'frig, hoping they might be salvageable. An hour or so later the electricity came back on, and TC decided to scratch the brownies and pop the cake in the oven. It was baking and she was mixing the batter for the second cake, when the lights went out again.
"ˇAllã la peste!" (A Panamanian phrase of frusration.)
Needless to say, especially after one more off-and-on cycle that night, the brownies and the two cakes were not fit for friends' consumption. That doesn't mean they weren't made, or that we didn't eat them over a period of several days, but they were not ready for prime time. Instead, we jumped in the car the next morning, the morning of our party, and hurried down the hill, about 30 kilometers, to the supermarket and bought a cake. We even had the woman write the three birthday names on it. Unfortunately, that trip made everything hectic, and you know how I am with hectic. We were driving around like chickens with our heads cut off.
Fortunately, Gustavo and Tammy brought a cake, too, a scrumptious, chocolatey, but not-too-sweet (although I didn't especially cater that part) work of art, which Gustavo said was "the best cake in Panamá!" If only the mondongo had been as good as the cake. But of course, how could it be: it was cow belly!
At any rate, flustered, sweaty and barely ready, we set up the "buffet" and, according to tradition, los muchachos hit the grub line first. But, by the time they all had their plates full, the pollo was gone! "ˇAllã la peste!"—even the so-called die-hard mondongada goers didn't like the tripe. As it turned out, Lola didn't clean the intestines as well as she should have, which meant the mondongo smelled and, according to some who tried it, tasted like shit, literally. I wouldn't know. I always make it a practice NOT to eat anything that's been touched by feces, no matter how well it's cleaned...
Fortunately, some of our friends brought potluck plates, so everyone was able to eat something—naturally, yours truly just waited on the cake. Nevertheless, I think the writing is on the wall where the future of mondongadas is concerned...
Besides, what made the party special for los muchachos was the slide show I had running on our Powerbook. It looped through ninety-two images of the boys working, photos taken during the previous six months. And, at the same time in order to liven things up a bit, the Powerbook was playing Panamanian salsa music through wireless speakers. And it was all a tremendous hit.
I get sick every time I remember not taking one picture of los muchachos crowded around the laptop. What was I thinking!?!? (And this harkens back to that hectic thingy.) In fact, I didn't take one damn picture during the whole darn party. "Have I been hit by Al's hammer or what!?" Thank god some guests used their cameras or there wouldn't be any proof our mondongada actually happened at all. Sadly, however, none of them got a shot of los muchachos gathered around the slide show, either.
"Old photographers never die, they just forget to shoot."
At any rate, Casa Ingaso handled the numbers (at the height of the party we guestimated 80-100 people!) without a hitch, auguring great things to come. And the pool wasn't even available yet...or was it?
Yeah, well, we just couldn't pass up the opportunity to try it out. The pool was undergoing a leak test, a fill to see whether all the plumbing was good and whether the water-proof coat of Xypex was good—they were! So, we knew it would be emptied soon, and not refilled until sometime after the tile was installed, which could mean weeks. Therefore..."Kersplash!"
We're not installing a heater, so come prepared for invigorating dips. But, seeing as the tile is black, the pool is relatively shallow (4'6" throughout), and our air temperature never drops below 70F—despite Altos ads' claims—we're pretty sure swimming at Ingaso will be a pleasure...coolish, but fun! "Last one in is a huevo podrido!" (...oh, you figure it out.)
Meanwhile, the highlight of my birthday? I broke another chair. That makes five during the time TC and I have been together. Can't explain it, but I seem to be hard on chairs. The one in question was at an Altoid's house where we were invited for an afternoon BBQ on my birthday, though there was no connection. At any rate, I was sitting on the patio in a plastic chair, and I had the strangest sensation that either the table was getting taller or I was sinking lower. The truth of it became readily apparent when the back legs on the chair reached their limit and snapped off, sending me cascading over onto my back. Now, I know that's bad, I know I should lose weight, I know there is no silver-lining when you break a chair and spill on the floor, especially in front of twelve people, but you should have seen my recovery: a backward somersault off the patio and on to my feet: "Ta-da!"
Suh-weet, I still got it! No one's sure what it is, but I still got it...maybe there's medication? Weight Watchers?
Here would be a good place to mention social interaction. It's amazing, but TC and I have met and made more friends here in Altos than at any other time in our lives, good friends. We both felt coming in that our lives up in these mountains might be a little too isolated, a little too lonely, but nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, our social calendar is too full. I mean, I like to sit and, like, contemplate my navel on occasion, but I can tell you, my navel is feeling neglected and unwanted. I'm going to have to do something special to make-up with it...cake?
Well, if my memory serves (and you know how that goes...), the weekend after our mondongada we volunteered to haul local village people to a charity event in another isolated village. Actually, there are six or seven or twenty isolated villages scattered about the mountains near Altos. Villages as in: no electricity, no running water, no nothing! And "nothing" includes no paved roads; if ya ain't got a 4x4, don't bother. We do. So, on that Sunday morning we picked-up six people, mostly teens with two young women, and headed out for Manglarito.
The village was only about 5 kilometers from the main road, but damn!, it was five of the funnest klicks you'll ever be happy you never saw. The road would be better described as a stream bed, boulders and all. In fact, at one point we actually did drive through a stream, but that was the easiest section. It was the steep hills with ruts the depth of our tires, loose gravel like ice patches, and large "ice berg" like rocks sunken into the dirt. Yeah, that was fun.
[Click the image for more pictures of the fiesta...]
All the really small, isolated villages here appear to revolve around their schools, and that's where this event was held: the Manglarito escuela de primario (primary school). When we got there, maybe twenty cars were already parked around and the area was swarming with people—our job was to pickup the last stragglers from Picacho village, six Panamanians and us. Yes, we were full! The event was sponsored by a Panamanian Hindu group, and they provided the food, a chef, party gifts, birthday cakes for each village, more gifts, and a great time.

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