A stooped man, his face rutted with lines etched by the blazing Panamanian sun, rights the paper hat that has tilted askew as he waves us through to a narrow parking space.
Oscar, my Barbados-born, Panama-raised guide, has led me to best spot in all of Panama City to get authentic, scorching hot sauce. We are at the central fish market, a noisy, smelly, sloppy wet place that flogs fish from the Caribbean and Pacific, much of it fresh enough to flop. Here, there are shrimp as large as lion's paws, jowly fish that resemble Nixon more than they do any grouper sold in the U.S, and spiked spiny creatures that apparently defy a name in any language, though Oscar tells me that some locals call them "little roughs."
This market is Central America's more vibrant version of Seattle's Pike Place and it alone has proven worthy of the five-hour plane ride from Washington, DC, but on this winter day I am not here for fish. I am in search of the elusive hot sauce, a sauce said to be so multi-layered, so fiery, so robust that it's been known to spark addictions.
When I first learned of the hot sauce made with a pepper so hot it makes habaenros look like baby food, I was all ears. No matter where I travel, I make it a point to try two things: local beer and local hot sauce. This winter afternoon I'm in search of the sauce.
Many friends who have traveled to Panama lament finding what they have described as bland food. It's true many restaurants and hotels don't serve spicy food, and when you ask for hot sauce you're most likely to receive a tiny Tabasco, courtesy of Louisiana. Why, I ponder aloud to Oscar, if Panama knows how to get its heat on, doesn't it share that with visitors?
Oscar widens his eyes and laughs. "It's ours," he purrs.
Lifting our pant legs out of the murky water, fish guts and crunchy scales that coat the floor of the indoor market, we trek outside, around a corner, and past a few stalls where women sell fish cakes and deep-fried fish. Just behind these sanctioned stalls lies a makeshift market. There, next to an Embera woman and her children, selling tribal baskets woven from palm fronds, is the source: the man with the elusive bootleg hot sauce.
The recycled liquor bottles in which he contains the sauce loll on the striped woven blanket he has strewn on the ground. The sauce inside the bottles is impossibly orange and red and gold all at once, like a Hollywood sunset. I lift a bottle and admire it, flecked as it is with the pulp of hot pepper, mango and papaya.
Will he give us a taste, Oscar asks? The man will not. I can't buy a bottle because I have to fly home later that afternoon. I have take-on bags and the sauce will not clear security. We are here, though. Can I buy one for Oscar? I want to show my appreciation for him leading me here, but no matter how hard I press, he refuses my offer.
Back in the parking lot, the old man, his paper hat once again titled on his head -- this tempers his irritable demeanor with a jaunty 1950's air -- guides us from the narrow space. Oscar presses some coins into the old man's hand, which he pockets without a word, pivoting to let the next car into the coveted space, raising and lowering his hands as if conducting a silent orchestra.
I ask Oscar why he wouldn't let me buy him some hot sauce. "Oh, his may be the best out here, but I make better at home. Everyone in Panama knows how to make it. We just don't tell anyone."
Before we can leave the parking lot, a pockmarked drunk who has been weaving between stalls inside the market finds his way out into the blazing sunlight. His appearance provokes a deafening shriek from a barefoot little girl in a magenta dress so bright that the dirt and stains can't suppress its good cheer. He staggers to our car and asks Oscar for money. As he leans in the window, I notice a bead of sweat so plump and perfect that it looks like a tear.
The afternoon is pressing down on us, my plane is waiting, and so Oscar whisks me off the airport. I never did try the underground hot sauce, but just the thought of it has given me another reason return to Panama.