By Janet LoSole
With considerable embarrassment, I admit that after one year traipsing around Central America, the underwear situation in our family was in such — ahem — tatters that we discarded the old to start anew. For the girls and my husband, Lloyd, this was a simple matter of submitting to any one of the dozens of discount stores on the main street of David, Panama’s third-largest city, to pick out a few pairs, and fait accompli.
Not so for the larger-sized female of the family. Not to say that I am a larger-sized female (not that there’s anything wrong with that) — it’s to clarify that I am bigger than the other two females with whom I was traveling who could select whatever they liked from the children’s sections. I only mention all of this to justify, perhaps only to myself, why I bought men’s underwear.
But first, a bit about David, a city that offers little to travelers other than cheap shopping and respite from the long distance between Panama City and the Costa Rican border. Outrageously low prices advertised on hand-painted cardboard signs littered the downtown shopping district:
¡Camisetas – veinticinco centavos! (T-shirts – twenty-five cents!)
¡Ropa Interior – Tres por un dólar! (Underwear – Three for a dollar!)
Flip flops, bathing suits, souvenirs, watches — all for a buck or less. We descended on the shops like aged Canadians at a Florida all-you-can-eat buffet. We relaxed a bit on our budget and had supper at an excellent Chinese restaurant so we could idle in the air-conditioning after a day traipsing up and down the frying pan that doubled as a sidewalk. Afterwards, we strolled into the immense Supermercado Rey and bought huge jars of peanut butter and paid less than 40 cents for cans of Balboa beer (an indicator of the true cost of living, verdad?).
But back to the underwear.
It baffled me. It frustrated me. It confounded me that underwear worn by the women of Panama was fabricated from polyester and could not even be called underwear. They were thongs. Market stalls overflowed with huge baskets of them, trimmed with lace in hundreds of shades. Who could bring themselves to wear these sections of dental floss? In the unbearable heat of the tropics, how could anyone be willing to wedge a scratchy piece of lace between the butt cheeks of life? The Latina women wore their clothes tight, very tight. The itchy, abominable items were visible through the strained fabric of their skirts.
I searched in vain for large, soft, cotton undies that fit from stem to stern — sometimes over the belt line, but nonetheless, the type that enclosed the butt cheeks, not exposed them, if you know what I mean. But I could not find any. Therefore, I was forced to purchase cottony soft men’s underwear in such feminine colors as mustard, gray, charcoal, black, and navy.
The humiliation endured by buying undergarments had only just begun. I still had bras to buy. I left everybody back at the pension the next day so that I could concentrate. Filtering in and out of the stores, I eventually found discounted bras displayed adjacent to bargain bins brimming with socks. Nearby, two workmen stood on a ladder repairing something in the ceiling. I was peering up at them when a saleslady floated over to me.
I pointed to the bras. “Can I try these on?”
She furrowed her brow, then called over to a fellow employee, and together they nodded their approval. I dumbly waited for them to show me the way to the changing room, but one snuck around behind me while the other took a bra from a hanger. Before I knew what was happening, they had the bra around me, trying to hook it up. Repairmen fiddled with wires overhead, and the busy street thrummed with shoppers just a few feet away. The clerks assured me that the item fit perfectly, snapping straps into place and wedging parts of my body into cups with me dying of mortification right in the middle of the store. To paint the picture, I was now wearing a bra over top of my clothes, standing helplessly and bewildered at what had just taken place.
How I managed to get out of there with my self-esteem still intact is a mystery. It made for a great story later over cold Chinese food leftovers. By the way, I managed to complete my purchases at a nearby department store. The saleslady nodded affirmatively to me when I asked her if I could use the changing room.
“¡Cómo no!” (“Certainly!”)
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