Coming to a town that's renowned for flowers and coffee, and sharing conversations over a cup of java with Boquete's "Flower Man", was one of those unlikely encounters that even locals and expats met with suspicious eyes. Nevertheless, Oscar Valentino is the essence of these Chiriquí Highlands, both past and present. Not a day goes by that he can't be seen toddling through the streets, rain or shine, carrying a meticulous bouquet of flowers that he's helped himself to from people's yards and gardens.
As to what he does with these flowers, no one seems quite sure and after several days of observances, I'm still not either. There were no sales ever made or even complimentary poesies offered to those he passed. Actually, it would seem this rugged old mountain man was given a wide path, licensed with the insolence that tends to greet perceived down-and-outers of the world.
Justified or merely suspect, age has cordially liberated his need for anyone's approval. Uncertain mysteries only heighten potential shock values he conjures at will, nothing malicious, yet hinting of devilish gratifications perhaps enriching his life more so than daily rituals. Charged with purpose and self-sufficiency, Oscar Valentino certainly doesn't shy away from the spotlight he commands as Boquete's prime exhibition of Living History, even if he is a legend only by his own regards.
During initial explorations, I was passing along Avenida Central when finding one of those tantalizing photo opportunities. A frail creature was stroking a four-legged companion, but further seizing attention was the striking bouquet of flowers lying off to the side. Sitting facing the other way, quick study surmised the midday sun had warranted a shaded breather from what was presumed to be yard work.
Fumbling to retrieve camera, my subject had risen and was now delicately recompiling the floral collection. Distant click of the shutter announced presence, and the only thing more compelling than the profound eyes that locked into mine was the snow-white beard. So it wasn't a woman; didn't matter. The moment was spoiled from that self-inflicted guilt of shooting strangers in public, when no one's the wiser, and getting caught!
There were no exchanges, and I busied myself with distractions in high-tailing it down the street. Intrigue warranted a second glance from another safe distance. This gentleman was headed my way at a snail's pace, and could surely be recaptured using a zoom lens. Of course, that's when the sidewalk generated probably the highest level of foot-traffic for the day, and the senior's shufflings seemed to involve walking with head down to assure ginger steps.
"Come on, come on..." when suddenly, this subject idol threw his head back to penetrate straight through the lens. A split-second of panic and indecision strickened until realizing this old geezer wanted his picture taken, and was striking an exaggerated pose as if I were paparazzi! With such invitation, the best opportunity would've included an entire portfolio, but the dog wouldn't cooperate, background interference kept coming, and suspect as hell about any potential photo fees, a quick shot sufficed. He actually thanked me before I could extend the same courtesy, and further mumblings were excused when rushing off.
The following midday, an umpteenth wind was carrying through final stretches of a 20km ramble. Frivolities of food, shower and rest were waiting at the finish line back in Boquete, but there was no delirium when hearing someone desperately trying to get my attention in this area where I was still a newcomer. There, sitting under the shaded patio of Café Ruíz, was unmistakeably the same fellow, a signature bouquet laid on the table.
With eyes like a hawk, the vigilante had spotted my passing even from quite the distance. Raising quite the ruckus while hoisting a coffee cup, invitation was apparent but untimely. Thoughts of consuming anything hot were nauseating, and any pause would've likely collapsed into unfinished business. I smiled and waved, feigning ignorance to anything else, but the playful distraction fueled those last kilometers. Who was this old man, that certainly seemed to get around even if it took all day for doing it?
Propped up in the central plaza the following afternoon, fate charmed on this third consecutive day when glancing this new-found fixation meandering towards the park, bouquet in tow. There was no second guessing opportunity. Trying to anticipate his course of action, I should have known there'd be nothing predictable about this feisty old fart detouring away from any strategic positionings. After a third failed attempt of getting noticed, I threw caution to the wind and settled for the direct approach.
Introducing myself, a snaggled-tooth smile lit up as if he'd been expecting me. My invitation for coffee didn't seem to register as this puzzling individual drew almost too close, like an animal whose only means of comprehension came through scent. By now, every eye in the surrounding area was zeroed in on the tourist towering toe-to-toe over the village jester. A scene was certainly unfolding when he abruptly swung his walking stick up in the air, breaking into a tirade that startled everyone.
Talking gibberish, the crank began poking his stick through dead spots on overhead limbs as if enraged by conditions; commentary as indecipherable regarding puny-looking plants below. Wondering what I'd gotten myself into, focus was distracted by the growing audience. Re-declaring my coffee intentions for all to hear diffused any questionable predicament, but botany class had yet to be dismissed.
"¿Listo?", "ready", was eventually the first word which came out of his mouth that I understood. Waiting to escort my guest was met with indifference; my walking around to the steps while he opted for struggling over the wall like the old mountain goat that he was.
Rushing across the street to Central Park Cafe, a pair of black coffees were ordered and the girl indicated she'd bring them out to the patio. Her smile warmed once seeing my guest and fuss made over getting him settled. He thanked me and readily helped himself to the sugar packets I had no intention of using. Preparing his cup of coffee like it was some type of magic potion, I watched in silence while trying to read between the lines of his weathered face. Once he'd savored the first taste, conversation was apropos through general acquaintance.
So this was Oscar Valentino: an 89-year old native of these mountains surrounding Boquete. Through the highest esteem, probing questions would've been inappropriate so I let him talk between sips. Aside from proudly expounding his Spanish heritage, he was most enthused to divulge life's history as a musician involving guitar and piano. Particulars never went far, but it wasn't hard to imagine him creating music, countrified strains in whimsical settings of an era gone by. And like anyone disposed to the spotlight of performance, the streets of Boquete were now his stage for daily encores.
Tattered appearance had also done nothing for depreciating his other well-rehearsed expertise. Oscar Valentino was a lady's man, nothing uncertain about it. Cultured as a Latin lover, he scoffed at mention of Rudolph as if to assert himself as the original that could still charm the pants off of anyone. I joked about him collecting the flowers for the ladies. He answered only with the debonair look of a rascal, not that a gentleman would ever kiss and tell. But even I was spellbound from the same suave arrogance he'd inflamed when lusting for the camera during our first encounter.
With bouquet in hand, the tutorial resumed telling the flowers' names in Spanish, and intently listening to and processing the English equivalents. Rising from the lavender-hued collection was a plumed blossom he called pomarrosa in relation to manzana. A Canadian expat at the neighboring table, that had been all ears and eyes throughout parley, took that as cue to jump in by extending a bag of small rose apples which came from the plant producing this beautiful flower. His English spew of chatter, as if to really inform me about the individual I was sharing coffee with, was plausible even if the old codger didn't understand a word.
Oscar had busied himself digging through pockets, and produced what I thought was a rose apple. The taste was gritty until realizing it was a freshly dug potato. He watched with approval at my gnawings; readily offering more. I countered with suggesting another cup of coffee. Making excuses, he didn't hesitate asking for money to buy a cup later. I pulled out $2; he only took one.
Eyes are the windows to a person's soul, and boring deep into mine through his, he grasped my hand with genuine recognition. Drawing from Hemingway's Santiago and Manolo, the affect was stirring. Also, doomed once seeing him totter off like a rebel with sordid cause, stoked on a caffeine and sugar buzz more fresh than the bouquet he carried. A trio of teens scattered without him even acknowledging their presence, and I snickered with admiration.