Seated at Boquete Garden Inn’s small bar in Panama, my wife Joyce, our friend Bill and I, struck up a conversation with Dennis, the owner of the inn. Dennis’s wavy blond hair, chiseled, stern and weathered face was tough and thoughtful, but young at the same time. I chalked him up to the middle-aged surfer type.
Having access to someone like Dennis, a veritable treasure trove of local information on tap, beats even the best tips that any Frommer’s or Lonely Planet guide has to offer. He rattled off a list of main attractions- the Café Ruiz coffee plantation, nature hikes, decent bars and the least touristy and most authentic restaurants in town.
Sensing my lackluster response, Dennis raised an eyebrow and leaned forward. “There is one other experience. If you go, watch it from a distance,” he warned.
In downtown Boquete, there is a bar that is frequented by the Ngobe Indians, native Panamanians that are non-Spanish speaking. The Ngobe are the primary labor force behind Boquete’s vibrant coffee plantation operations. After a hard day’s work picking coffee beans, they unwind at the bar with friends and family.
Ngobe Indian men have a unique form of conflict resolution. Whenever a serious dispute arises, the men engage in an one-on-one fist fight, usually on top of broken shards of glass bottles, in an alleyway leading to the bar. The last man standing is the winner with the conflict resolved in his favor.
The icing on the cake? The winner also acquires the loser’s wife as a prize. Essentially, the wife gets transferred like property. While Dennis didn’t go to the extent of calling this slavery or even indentured servitude, I can’t quite find any other applicable name for it.
As legend would have it, there is a very conflict prone Ngobe Indian with Mike Tyson like boxing skill. Over the years, he’s acquired over twenty wives through the wife fights. (Having twenty wives hardly sounds like a winning scenario. Sorry ladies!)
Joyce, Bill and I are accustomed to hearing tall tales during our travels and we’re also used to taking them with the proverbial grain of salt. Nonetheless, we, the adventurous and sometimes foolhardy trio that we are, ventured into downtown Boquete to find the location that Dennis identified as ground zero of the wife fights.
“The Boquete wife fights.”
A run-down bar, Bar La Taberna, stood in neglect at the end of a dilapidated alleyway. The walls were made of cardboard and scrap sheet metal. It looked more like a slum than a place of business. The lights were off and the alleyway was quiet. We left dismayed.
The second night, we returned. Still… nothing out of the ordinary.
Our last evening in Boquete, we somewhat reluctantly decided to give the bar another chance after dinner. Toting along some cheap beer to make our stakeout more productive, we stood guard over the alleyway once again.
Immediately, there was something noticeably different. Broken glass was strewn throughout the alleyway; there was an old man, laying on the sidewalk in a drunken stupor, unable to get up; muffled thumping bass, possibly from Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax – or maybe some other 80’s hit, emanated from the bar.
The doors burst open and a group of thirty or so Ngobe Indian natives streamed out, chanting and smashing beer bottles against the ground. A circle formed with two men taking center over the shards of broken glass. Their shirts, promptly ripped off, were flung to the side. Fists flew, legs kicked and in an instant, the fight became a radiant blur from our distant vantage point. The distinct thud of fist against face was our only play-by-play.
Reaching into my pocket, I felt around for my camera. Before I could grab it, a man spectating the fight caught our gaze and walked hastily toward us. No more than four and a half feet tall, he had Arnold Schwarzenegger’s muscle mass (during his pre-Governator years) condensed into his small frame. His neck was the size of my thighs and I have no doubts that he could’ve arm-wrestled all of us, at the same time, into tearful oblivion.
Locking eyes with us, he curled his upper lip into the best Elvis impression, grunted like a howler monkey and smashed his empty beer bottle against the ground just a few yards away. My hand, still on the camera in my pocket, went limp. The man continued on, either displeased with the outcome of the fight or maybe simply because his bottle was empty.
There was clearly a winner to the fight. While the loser wasn’t pummeled into unconsciousness as we all expected, the less injured fighter was declared winner. The influence of alcohol wearing off, the crowd dispersed back into the bar after the man presumably asserted his stance on the conflict to be resolved in his favor.
While women were present, we didn’t actually witness a wife transaction. Perhaps it occurred back inside the bar or maybe the losing man presented the winner with a wife I.O.U so that he could get his marital affairs in order before the transfer of title. I don’t know… your guess is as good as mine, Joyce’s or Bill’s… and maybe even Dennis’s.
What we do know is that Dennis’s tale turned out to be true. Had we dismissed it completely, Joyce, Bill and I would have missed out on the strangest travel experience we’ve all had to date. It was a poignant reminder that we travel not only to see the similarities in people, but to see the intense, and sometimes shocking, differences. It’s one of the many ways travel can be personally transformative and enriching.
At the very least, it’s given me a new appreciation for the various (civilized) tools we have for resolving conflict, and that none of these risk the loss of my wife. Or, even worse… accumulating twenty.
Stephen May is an Internet marketing business owner by day and a travel and food blogger by night. He and his wife catalogue their various travel adventures around the globe at www.TrayTablesUp.com.
photography by Stephen May and by asirap via Flickr common license.