As I’m preparing to go to Panama in a little over a week, I’m thinking about the hotel stay that Minga and I will share. She will relish the quiet; right now, she’s staying with a daughter who has a high schooler + boyfriend at home plus a grade schooler, an elder daughter with two little boys living there, and other small children who come for the day while their mothers work. It’s a busy household, and not a place that offers Minga much tranquility.
Minga will enjoy the quiet of staying with me. But the hotel bed will still be unfamiliar, as is the experience of room service or eating downstairs in the restaurant. The food will be fancier than she’s used to, fancier than she likes. She doesn’t drink, and won’t be drawn to the bar. She won’t use any of the amenities, like the spa or workout room or pool. She likes to watch telenovelas on TV, and the daily lottery, so the big flat screen in her room adjacent to mine will be a treat. I imagine her TV will be on low all the time, background to our conversation.
No one at the hotel will know her, unlike home where everyone knows her. She is deeply familiar with the rhythms of the village where she’s always lived, but not the rhythms of a hotel where things get more lively as the day goes on and guests gravitate toward the lobby bar as evening approaches. She goes to bed early, gets up early.
I think I understand my dear Panamanian friend, but always have to be aware of how our lives are different, and how the chance for miscalculation is there. I am comfortable in a hotel, and enjoy making the most of the amenities. I like high end hotel sheets and thick towels and firm king mattresses. Minga, I know, would much prefer her own small bed, her old coverlet, a lumpy but very familiar mattress.
That simple and very concrete difference is a metaphor for a larger cultural difference that I have to keep in mind when I ask Minga what she really wants going forward, and promise to help her get there. Absent any sort of government safety net, she is far more vulnerable and far more dependent on her adult offspring than I am on mine. I may believe that decisions about how she spends the rest of her life are in large measure hers, but the line between her desires and what her sons and daughters want for her may not be as bright as I would like to believe.