The term “old clothes” has a brand new meaning for me. In Panama City, I recently shared not just one but two different kinds of old clothes.
A culinary standby in Panama is “ropa vieja,” a traditional dish of spicy shredded beef and rice. “Ropa vieja” translates as “old clothes.” The name stems from a cook’s inclination to use up whatever is left over in the kitchen, just as all of us grab our old clothes whenever we’re at a loss for something to wear. Somehow Panamanian cooks got in the habit of throwing together shredded beef (often leftover steak) with rice and tomato sauce, plus some spices to perk it all up.
When I read a description of this spicy bit of local cuisine in a couple of guidebooks, it sounded like a dish I’d relish. So, from the moment I landed in Panama City, I couldn’t wait to try it. When I discovered El Trapiche, a restaurant featuring local dishes like ropa vieja, I wasn’t disappointed. The dish came steaming hot, and the meat tasted a lot like juicy brisket to me. Along with a hearty portion of rice, it was both filling and delicioso.
El Trapiche sits on Calle Argentina, not far from a number of other restaurants in the area called El Cangrejo. The décor is basic, and our fellow patrons were mostly city residents who’d come to indulge in local specialties like ropa vieja, sancocho (a traditional soup made from chicken and the popular yucca plant), tamales, arroz con pollo, and mondongo (tripe). The price was right: $6 for a large helping of ropa vieja, $4.50 for my companion’s order of arroz con pollo, and $4 for a large bowl of sancocho. We shared all three dishes, thereby sampling three different kinds of local cuisine. (A “tipico” platter featuring samples of a variety of things was available for $11.) A scoop of ice cream for dessert added a minimal $2.
After this hearty, totally satisfying meal, we walked to a nearby corner, flagged one of the city’s ubiquitous yellow taxis, and secured a ride back to our hotel for $3 (no tip required).
Sharing old clothes turned out to have a whole other meaning for me in Panama. As a frugal and immensely practical traveler, I like to pack well-worn clothes that I’m prepared to jettison either during or at the end of my trip. All year long, I look through my closet for things that no longer fit well or are somewhat out of date. I put these into my “jettison pile.” Then, when I pack for a trip, I peruse the pile and select those items that strike me as both appropriate and acceptable for the destinations I’m heading to.
For a trip to a location where most travelers wear casual garb, I’ll choose old t-shirts and pants that are now a bit baggy but will do just fine at my destination. For a trip to colder climes, I dig through my pile for sweaters and warm slacks I rarely wear now (I still harbor a collection of these items from my years in Chicago).
Another item I jettison is shoes that have seen better days. They tend to be a bit scuffed but still wearable.
One goal of this process is to carve out room in my suitcase for new purchases, like clothes or souvenirs that might otherwise require another bag.
If I need more items to wear and later jettison (to make room for new purchases), I scour local charity shops and frequently hit pay dirt. Before leaving for Panama City, I headed to a local shop that perennially features a $1 rack. I found a treasure trove of men’s white dress shirts and bought several to wear over my t-shirts to protect me from the hot sun while hiking or taking a boat trip. I happily left these behind, knowing I can always find more.
Who’s on the receiving end of my jettisoned items? I generally leave them behind in hotel rooms, hoping that the cleaning staff will make good use of them. I always leave a note (in the local language if I can manage it) specifically stating that I no longer want these items and the staff is welcome to them. (For example, in basic Spanish I’ve written: “Usted puede tener estas cosas. No quiero estas.”) Even if my Spanish or French isn’t perfect, I think I get my message across. I don’t want anyone at the hotel to think I left these things behind by mistake and send them back to me!
Of course, when my travels include seeing people I know or attending an event like a wedding, I eschew my jettison pile and instead pack flattering, current clothes and shoes. The jettison pile is reserved for trips, like my recent trip to Panama, when most of my encounters will be with total strangers–or close friends who already know my predilection for sharing old clothes.