Jenny came and stayed the night at my little cabin. She was updating Peace Corps sites here in Panama that are very much worth visiting for a web site set up for real cultural tourism by a couple of my Peace Corps compatriots. Here is her post for Kateka.
Mostly I’ve been busy. Carla flew back to Brooklyn this morning; we blew kisses in the propwash. Very romantic. My community is pouring out cruces for a pile foundation over the water—a municipal building funded by the Floating Doctors: a post for healthcare workers in La Ensenada. The missionaries are funding wells, and I’ve had visitor after visitor since my folks in April ethnobotanizing, politicizing, midwiferizing.
But I’ve been putting my census off for a boat-building contest I’m putting up some prize money for. Some of the men told me they used to race model boats as kids with an outrigger called a timon. Think $40 to the boat, three feet maximum, that sails fastest and straightest. I’ll pick a target on the other side of the bay directly down wind and the first one makes it wins.
My boat: a Rounded Caraval, a Carrack, built from plans of the Santa Maria I downloaded from Panama Para Todos in Bahia Azul. In the rain.
Eliel cut down the balsa tree with an axe. Then he cut out pieces; let me swing the axe but I wasn’t fast or accurate enough. The diameter chunk I wanted was ten or twelve feet in the air, the tree had fallen across a gorge in the wet green riot of tropical finca. He climbed up and swung the axe down at his feet, slicing into the trunk as he was standing on it, slick bark, in the rain.
All my strength to carry it out. A 90lb sack of cement might be less wieldy.
The men on my porch cheered me in jest as I wobbled, trying to squat the trunkpiece onto my shoulders. I dropped it in front of my house.
Enrique loaned me a chainsaw and I carved the rough shape. Laughter every time I messed something up, El sabes, when I get it just so. Viste, el esta estudiando, when it comes out.
I hand planed the hull over the next couple of days. Tried it in the water, it listed and spun right out of control at the least push. Very heavy.
I carved out the inside of the hull with a chainsaw and milled the superstructure out of left over rough cut balsa with my handplane and crosscut saw. Epoxied the quarterdeck on. Glued on an even heavier keel of half inch by three inch steel. Painted it black.
Masts, rigging big square sails out of a white plastic bag all scaled off the drawing. I crossed a line running from two tiller arms to the mainsail yard so that it self corrects sailing downwind. On its trail run it self corrected like a drunken Pirate. Wouldn’t sail straight at all. pretty funny.
I added a keel all the way to the tip of the rudder with another piece of balsa.
Men came by and asked me how it goes. Drunken? Told me of theirs. I reminded them of the $40 prize. Ben said he’d put a prize in too. Wants to film the race.
With Carla in the front of my canoe we set the hull in the water of a glass calm in side the bay. It drifted to and fro. The sails filled now and again, it pointed downwind, ghosted along. I added an Iron Cross in red to the mainsail, the foresail, and a kite with a crest or another in red and white.
For our last evening we set in out at sunset. It sailed free with the light breeze, shivering its sails downwind now and again and then correcting itself beautifully. Carla took shots silhouetted in the glare. Into the wind its sail pushed the boat backwards, around, filled and eased off. I was very happy. Men paddled by and checked it out, said I’d win. But I won’t. It’s too fat and their boats are made for speed.
Perhaps during the final grand prize race I’ll set mine out first, and hundred yards off, and if one of theirs can touch mine, capture it as it were, he can have the Santa Maria, The Admiral’s flagship. That symbol of contact and the outside world.
As an update, I will be flying back to Arkansas on Sept 21st, my service Closed on the Solstice, the anniversary of my engagement to Carla. Two fall weddings in NYC, helicopter ride in the Grand Canyon, Thanksgiving back in Hot Springs. Winter in Brooklyn. Life races on.
Funds for this grant were provided by PEPFAR. Kristen Kaper solicited the funds and with Laura Geiken we wrote a proposal for a team of 13 Health Care professionals to offer free rapid HIV tests to an indigenous community without ready access to prevention basics like condoms and education. This is the story.
On the 14th of March, in Kusapin, I got an email from Dr Jurado at Fundacion ATENAS. He offered a thousand discuplas, but the boss was traveling overseas and had not authorized the use of the lancha for the ten planned days of our HIV tour. Could we reschedule. I thought not.
The Alcalde had offered his lancha in service to the project, so I knocked on his door, and told him I’d lost my boat. He said Archibold just gave Mendez, the Toro. Ask him.
The Toro is a big baby blue panga that used to run between Bahia Azul and Chiriqui Grande. Old Man Archibold used to run it a year ago, or have his sons. But the motor kept breaking down. He’s not getting any younger, and he likes to spend his time in town, away from his wife in Bahia Azul. The Archibolds are also notoriously difficult to do business with. The first time I ever saw him, on my site visit, he told Sergio and me his was the only boat to Ensanada. This was a lie. His nose flattened by some long ago fight gave him a fatherly look. He tried to overcharge us. The boat had to turn back because the sea was too rough, the boat so overloaded water was coming over the gunnels. And he yelled at me to bail.
So I went to Mendez, Son of Archibold. And said, You have a boat and a motor, will you help.
He said he’d like gas plus $50 a day.
I said no way. $500 total. You’ll be doing a favor to the whole community. He agreed, if I promised not to tell anyone he was doing it for so cheap. I could agree to that.
We shook hands and I told him I’d send him the first $50 by note if I needed to be picked up at 11am, Tuesday, the 19th of Feb. His hands are small and meaty and very strong. His arms hang akimbo—musclebound or because of his big belly. Bole kri in Ngabere. He’s an Archibold.
But so is the Alcalde.
On the 15th I met with Dr Jurado in David. He did not look well. I asked him if he’d been out all night—a joke. He said he hadn’t, he had a cold, a fever. He said he might not be able to go. He’d find the people. His boss was new and mixing things up. He looked under a lot of stress. On the way to buy the medical supplies, I made small talk, asked of his family. He told me he rarely gets to see his wife and kids because she works in Colon. Later, I asked him what the chances were that he would make the gira. He said, Fifty.
I can respect that.
In the morning I got an email that said that he couldn’t make it. And neither could any of the other nurses, or public health workers, or doctors. In fact nobody would come. That’s what que no podre asistir a la gira al igual que las personas que contacte de parte de atenas ya que tienen otros compromisos means. It’s an amazing thing the last minute excuse: impossible to attend, other previous commitments. He excused himself from any inconvenience. I like the guy, I felt like he is still on my side. Even though.
On Monday the 18th—the MINSA office alive inside the dark painted walls, the hum of an airconditioner. People coming and going, Dr Gantes pulled us all together, we sorted out all the particulars, transportation, supplies, reorganized schedules. We were down to one Doctor, Jenny, for three days starting tomorrow, one nurse, surely, and Uriel, the lab director for the Comarca, for four days. And four cases of Rapid HIV tests. Each worth $6000 wholesale.
All that really mattered I suppose.
Dr Gantes was on board. I called Roda, she fave the phone to Enrique, he promised to take to note to Mendez with the $50, the boat would pick us up. I could get these tests to the dock. Things were moving right along.
And then momentum kicked in. Kristen, from the Peace Corps office, offered us a ride in a White Stallion. Mysha Sissine, a Master’s student from North Carolina arrived to collect data for her International Public Health Thesis; which should shed light on the question: What motivates a Ngabe to want to take an HIV/AIDS test in the first place?
The next morning Uriel showed up outside Kristen’s Hotel, but the Doctora didn’t, We waited an hour or so on the busy streets of David. She probably had a previous commitment.
Half an hour late getting into Chiriqui Grande, Mendez, right there at the dock feigned indignation about how long suffering he’d been waiting for us. And he wanted everything up front. I told him no, $50 a day. He said he had to buy gas right now. 60 gal. Plus oil, $304. I said there you go. We walked his tanks over to the pumps, I made sure the receipt was signed.
We were five in his big panga, with his 40hp Yamaha, the most efficient balance of power and consumption of the outboard motors. Kristen, Laura Geiken, the GAD coordination and coauthor of the grant, Mysha, Uriel, and me. In a boat planned for 16. It was light and skimmed across the water into the dark ominous sky. It would rain for most of the next ten days.
In Bucori Mendez said, Oh, we sure used a lot of gas. He rattled the read five gallon tank. Eight gallons he said. A third of the way, I thought, He can’t complain. Probably use between 30 and 40 gallons total. He’d sell the rest at $6 a gallon. He asked for $20 walking around money. I gave it to him.
Bucori. Rhian was waiting in the drizzle. The local medico in the Puesto de Salud happy to see us. We stashed the boxes in the backroom, carried our bags to the office where we’d stay, rolled out or sleeping mats, hung the hammock and went back to give a quick charla. Later, laughter, stories over a huge plate of chicken and rice cooked by the medico’s wife.
In the morning we tested many more women than men. Rhian, from Detriot, lives in Bucori, explained what Adquiera means, the A in SIDA. It was a tough task. Men asked questions, he put a condom on four fingers. Showed them how to pull it off, tie it up, not throw it on the ground where anyone might find it. He’d use that joke again and again.
We tested 77 people that first day. The tests were run inside the puesto, results read in private, with follow-up counseling and questioning. This would have been the task of the doctor, psychologist, or nurse. But it fell to us in the Peace Corps. A huge learning moment. For us and them. If they didn’t have a question, I would ask, How can you guard yourself against HIV? Answers were mostly half condoms, half fidelity. The women said they were faithful, but only one said she knew that her husband was too. Most of the women would take some condoms.
For dinner we had lobster and daichin, a delicious purple tuber that eats like a lavender potato and tastes delicious. With lobster.
That night I puked. I wouldn’t be able to eat heartily for the rest of the tour. No coffee no soda no asprin half portions. Discomfort. Loose five pounds. I tried not to be too dull. I had to nap now and again.
Playa Verde. Evan was waiting for us. We set up outside the school after outwaiting the rough weather. Mendez asked me for another $20. He said he’d had to pay for room and board. You told me he was your uncle! I said. He said, Yeah, but you are gringos and he thinks I’m making a lot of money off of you. I said, Then it’s up to you to disabuse him of that notion. I gave him the $20.
We tested a good amount of folks. The Floating Doctors arrived, but didn’t have the necessary permissions to run a full clinic and therefore couldn’t do much but watch Uriel pricking fingers and running the tests. Dr Ben had brought a few pounds of beef so we had a delicious beef dinner and left them with their hammock hanging under the eves of the public rancho.
Our boatride to Bahia Azul was beautiful. Rainbows and massive kettles of raptors. Rosendo was outside his house burning trash. I thought, excellent, he’s waiting for us. I walked up to him and he had this strange look on his face. He said, Oh, I didn’t know when you were coming. You didn’t give me a date. I already rented out the house you were going to stay in to the teachers.
I pointed to the bills posted on the front door of his store. The flyer that said Bahia Azul, with the date of March 23rd. I said, This is the date we agreed on. This one posted on your door.
I like the guy. He’s always been good to me. I asked him where we might stay for the next four days. He pointed to a rough house on the corner and said it was open. I talked to the owner, explained that we were here on a gira to give HIV tests, and asked him if he would let us use his house, help us out. He said absolutely. Mendez’ brother waddled over to help hammer some rungs on the joists that had been the stairs. A rapid fix.
Mysha said Rhian was teaching her how to tell an Archibold by his bole kri. Bahia Azul: Archibold central.
Rosendo let us use his shower, his flush toilet.
Punta Sirain. Kristen left us early in the morning, in the middle of a rainstorm, bitten by chitras. We had breakfast up at the only little public spot in town, coffee, eggs, crema.
We boated to Punta Sirain as the sun came out. Up on the hill a slow day. Entertained by Mamacita—an old lady who told funny lies and floated along elegantly—asked us to guard her crema. We tested a little over 20 people.
The sun came out, empanadas for lunch. Laura said I couldn’t ask Uriel to stay another day, it would be unfair. He had already worked so hard. It was true. But tomorrow we’d loose half the day, and Bahia Azul would prove to be a big testing site. And what if the next lab tech never showed?
What if I asked real nice? I offered. She shook her head. I kind of had to agree. I joked that she loved MINSA so much, she’d defend Uriel to the end. We laughed.
Mendez had us wait for a half an hour on the dock, motoring back from around Punta Valiente. Took us back to Bahia Azul where the ladies had a chicken dinner waiting for us. I ate little and made it through the night.
Bahia Azul. The next morning at six I told Uriel the boat was coming. He said he’d decided to stay another day. I was surprised and pleased. Laura said as much herself.
We set up shop in the offices of the school while Rhian and Laura gave the charlas in the cafeteria.
Mendez pulled me aside and asked me how much I still owed him.
$90 I said.
He said, Oh oh. 90 palos for six more days! I’m loosing money on the trip. He said he had a business to run, and he needed to send some money back to Kusapin. He said he just couldn’t afford to take us the rest of the way without more money up front.
I had expected this. I was already spending money on food for him and his son, his helper.
He said, If you give me $300 more dollars I can do it.
I said, That’s not what we agreed on. I told you in the beginning that I would not pay $50 a day. And I’m not even using you all the days. Plus this boat doesn’t weigh and you’re using less gas.
He said, Oh no! I’ve already used up more than half the gas!
I told him, I’ll give you $100 more. $200 right now, so he could take some money back to his wife. And that I’d pay $50 when we get to the dock in Chiriqui Grande.
He agreed. Told me not to tell anyone.
Whitney and Tito, the lab tech from Kankintu arrived on the afternoon boat. Now we had a crew! And we tested 78 people. The most yet, admittedly with mine and Whit and Laura’s thrown in. Rhian said those tests didn’t count.
That evening we went to Cantina Archibald, where my bills were still posted on the wall. We all had a couple of beers, and I played Juni at pool. I dominated the table, beating him even at his own game. We played for the table. And I must admit, it felt good beating an Archibold at his own game.
Punta Alegre. A beautiful morning. Laura and Uriel left on the first boat.
The owner of our house came by and wanted to talk to me. He said I owed him $5 a person for the use of his house. This was $25, for a house that might rent for $40 a month. I told him I’d give him $15. He feigned indignation, which kind of upset me a little. I went in on him. I told him that I understood that he had offered us his place to help us out, to help out the community. We could have stayed in the artisan’s house for free. And now he was trying to take advantage of us, because why? He thought we had a lot of money? We were gringos? I told him we’d leave today, move out directly, and he would get nothing. $25 dollars? Who did he think we were?
And all this in front of Tito. The man paled.
After breakfast I came back and gave him $10. Told him I felt abused. An Abuso! He said I wasn’t being abused. I told him he had to tell me his terms up front! $5 a person! For that house! I would have told him, NO from the beginning. That’s not how business is done, and didn’t he have any sense of community?
We packed our stuff, stored it in the artisan house and left for Punta Alegre. Tito asked me how much I was paying Mendez. $650 I said. He said that was plenty. I said I thought so, and told him about doing business with the Archibolds.
Tito said Mendez had asked him how much I was paying him; that he was fishing for more money. Tito said, I told him he wasn’t paying me anything. He started calling him bole kri.
Punta Alegre went well. Lots of church going folk came by for tests. Whitney and Giro giving the charlas. It was quite in the afternoon, a stalled boat drifted past. The Kusapin corregirador, essentially the local judge, gave me some of the sweetest coconuts I’d ever tasted. My stomach was acting up. I felt horrible. He took pitty on me, thanked us for our work. The church group gave us a thick chicken soup in thanks as well. I couldn’t eat it.
Mendez came and picked us up. An half hour late. We went to Bahia Azul, had another dinner, and left for La Ensenada and my little house.
I put up Whitney, Mysha and Rhian. Tito slept in Roda’s house. He seemed well received there.
I told Mendez to come pick us up in three days, at 8am. Told him not to be late.
La Ensenada. In the morning Whitney left us. I was worried that we would be short handed for the rest of the gira. We PCVs were covering a lot that had been intended to be covered by the doctors and pshycologists. This made me a little sad.
La Ensenada would be the worst turnout. My own site!
First thing in the morning Anesio brought in his three and a half year old granddaughter in to get tested. Her mother had died of AIDS soon after she was born. The little girl had been getting treatment ever since.
She tested negative.
I read the test results to Anasio and his wife. She put her arm around my shoulders and pulled me in and said softly to me in Ngabere, What you have done is good. Very good. Ka koin. I felt the wave of love pass through her embrace. The little girl held the cotton ball on her pricked finger.
Further good news. Another young man that has been struggling with an unknown disease, very similar in symptoms to tuberculosis brought his wife in. Both tested negative. He told me his brother had died of AIDS in Bucori, and that he had lived a very reckless life a few years ago. Now he was one with God, and gracias a dios we had come with these tests.
The other members of my community pretty much let me down. Refused to get tested. Hid behind a door in the new school. His brother came though, and a couple of the other young toughs.
I talked to Dr Gantes on the phone. I told him that no doctors had arrived. He seemed surprised. I told him they probably had other commitments. He told me he would see what he could do. None would ever show.
We ate granja chicken and fried yuka for dinner.
Guacamayo. A rollicking good reception! We set up in the Puesto de Salud and Alexi was there waiting for us, with a crowd. We had hiked up to Guacamayo from La Ensenada and weren’t there for fifteen minutes when Osi, aka Maggie from Playa Balsa showed. I put her to work immediately reading results and asking folks if they had any questions.
I was extremely please that she came out. It was difficult to fill out the forms, run charlas and give results with only two volunteers. And now the balance was back, two women, Mysha and Maggie, and Rhian and I. I remember feeling that now, for the first time, that it was all going to work out.
We had an excellent turnout. Many of which were in the 15-40 year old range, muchachos. Laughter and attention paid to the charlas, running smoothly. Gave out more than a hundred condoms, kept Tito busy. Had a wonderful walk home, a beautiful day, Tito and Mysha taking photos along the way. His first time out here on the Peninsula.
Playa Balsa. We got up, and started packing. At about 7:20 I heard my name yelled with indignation. Tito came by and told me Bole Kri wanted my attention. I walked out and he shouted, pointing to his watch. I made some vulgar motions towards him with my arm and thumbed him off with a cry equally loud to his. The folks in my community laughed.
Breakfast, crema, fishy eggs. I gave him two of my ojaldras. He and his son ate them with pleasure. We loaded the boat at 8 o’clock and headed out.
As we were passing by Punta Valiente a group of people flagged us down. Mendez looked at me, I nodded, and we pulled the boat it. 15 or so folks jumped in and we motored into Kusapin. It was the day when the Red de Opportunidad was paid out. Everyone stacking their cash.
We pulled up at his business, which he pointed out to Tito proudly, and unloaded the people. His wife yelled out to make sure they were all charged for their ride. At $2 a person…you can do the math.
The cut through the reef into Playa Balsa was known to Mendez. Even so, as we approached, the swell sucked the reef dry on either side, with twenty feet to pass through. We unloaded just before the rain and tested as high a percentage of folks as we had yet, a back of the envelope figure: nearly a quarter of the residents.
For dinner we had a simple meal of rice and lentils. Tito slept in the guest house, we slung our hammocks at Osi’s (aka Maggie).
Cayo Paloma. We walked in the rain to the Puesto de Salud. Leopoldo, the local medico, was waiting for us, and assured us when the rain let up, we’d have a steady stream of people to test. And we did.
Our work getting smoother and smoother, we gave out condoms and presented our charlas. Momentul building, more and more folks.
Hot johniecakes for lunch. And a pleasant walk home.
Julian, our host in Playa Blasa told stories of ancient Ngabe lore. The white monkey that climbed the tree in a lightning storm and when the lightning struck, turned him black, from head to foot, all except for his monkey testicles, which he was holding in his hand. And that is why, to this day, a howler monkey junk is not black!
Tobobe. Our last stop. Rain squalls in the morning, Julian spotted Mendez racing out front of the line. A great boat ride, stormy, Mysha grinning, a solid swell running, shot a photo of me and posted it on Instagram. The technology that happens while I’m gone!
Another Red de Oportunidad day, lines down in the sidewalk, people standing, mired in mud. The crowd awaiting us at the puesto larger than any we had seen. Dora, the doctora, smiling and waiting for us. We tested over a hundred people throughout the day. There had been concern that HIV had reached Tobobe.
Tito called me in, showed me the result, a small red line next to the HIV mark. Our first positive. I called the young man’s name, after a few other negative results. I told him he would need to get his blood drawn.
He hung his head.
He said, I knew it.
Tito took his blood during a break in the testing, no one the wiser, and the handsome young man walked off down the sidewalk. He would be the only positive of the entire gira.
The sun sets fast in the tropics.
Epilogue. Maggie and I returned to Tobobe a couple of weeks later to find our young man. Lab tests had confirmed his HIV status. We talked with Dora and she said she had a boat but no gas. So I bought five gallons of gas and the Corrigedor drove us.
We motored across incredibly clear water, glass and a low swell. Once we’d managed to locate his house, his sister told us he had paddled to Tobobe. We found him on the sidewalk right where we’d put the boat in. He had a huge smile when he saw me.
He said he had seen us pull out, but didn’t think it was for him. He said thank you for coming. I told him the lab test had confirmed his status, and he told me again that he had suspected as much.
He told me he understood the treatment process, had a friend in Changinola that was getting treatment. He told me he was waiting to get paid so he could go to San Felix and start treatment. He said he would go Monday, if he could.
Incredible sweet. A magnetic personality. I told him we would help him, cover his expenses to San Felix this one time so he could talk to the doctor, the psychologist; figure out how to get his meds in the future. He smiled his handsome smile, sitting there on a beached dugout canoe.
I gave him $60, boat and bus fair round trip. Directions to the clinic, phone numbers.
He said, Thank you, Thank God you came.
I shook his hand. Maggie shook his hand. I think he would have
Mil gracias, he said one last time, A thousand thanks.
On the negative results of the little girl:
October 6, 2011 (Chicago, Illinois) — The loss of HIV-specific antibodies can lead to false-negative results on rapid HIV tests in children and adolescents after successful long-term antiretroviral therapy, according to results presented here at the 51st Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy (ICAAC).
Another anecdote from La Ensenada. Here, January has been a slow month for rain, only 220mm and it’s the 18th, a good month for surf, the sand bars finally set up and the swell has been consistent.
But this is not an anecdote about rain or surf, it’s about a boat hauling junta. It starts like this: late in the evening Alejandro (of supreme athletic ability, climber of trees, father of infants, the only muchacho in the village to have served prison time) invites me to join in the fun. Tomorrow at 6:00am, we go with motor, he says. Well, tomorrow at 6:30 we paddle. Rubber boots, water bottle, camera in a chakra, paddle. And we paddled across the bay to Kani Kute, place of the cows. We paddled hard, fast, folks talked about us, Alejandro said I was strong, paddled to Playa Verde in one hour, 45 min; ten minutes faster than the return trip with Sili and a tail wind. Four johnnycakes and warm sugary Ngabe coffee with a spoonful of NiceFish.
We hiked in fortyfive minutes. My boot got stuck in the clay, came off my foot. Edji pushed me as I was stuck my foot back in, misstep, planted in the muck. Mud in my boot. A solid reason not to wear socks. Easily washed in the creek.
Over the hill, with a view to the Caribbean sea. Two long dugout canoes, roughed from a single trunk of mayo. One perhaps 20ft, the other 16 or so.
Eniel nailed branches on the gunnels, enough overlap for a handhold, places for 18 people. In the head, Alejandro and I, he takes my scorpion hat: One Two Three, Huhhh, lift, as the rest push—the boat moves forward a foot at a time. Edji takes Eniel’s ZooYork hat. Everyone wants my gorahe says—a gift from Carla’s first visit. Up the hill, through the jungle, a rhythm to the work, all in sync, lift & push, breath one two three, lift & push, a foot at a time. After ten minutes we’d rest, heart hammering, faint of breath. Then at it again. Half an hour to make it up a hundred yards of steep jungle clad clay, to the path, over the crest, another hour down hill, industrial webbing to break the decent, wrapped on a tree.
At the bottom, Edji said, Chotri, lets go help with the other boat. So we climbed back up the hill and down to where the second boat awaited. Ten of us, space for sixteen hands. Ercidio sent achi to call for more men. We wrestled with the boat short handed. My hands already broken open with two blisters. Other hands too.
The initial accent, steepest, my shoulder square on the butt of the boat. Pushing. They told me I wasn’t pushing quite right, I held back, the count of three: nothing. I put my shoulder into it, in my own style, the count of three: we move a foot. Cheering. See! You need the merigini! The new chant: Vamos merigini, vamos merigini, vamos merigini, I throw my back into it, the boat inches upwards. A hour later, and a hundred yards uphill, the women bring us spaghetti and rice and yamewith NiceFish sauce, wrapped in a banana leaf. A half gallon of chicha, insufficient to slake our collective thirst.
We sit, catch our breath, collect our strength. Push the boat along, over the hill, a little flatter now, and just at the down slope, the rest of the gira returns. Now we have twenty some odd men, for sixteen handholds. I take a video. The crying starts, Alejandro at the head, cheering, yelling, chanting in a din of voices and the boat moves through the jungle at a trot. I take video. Chombo clowns.
Into the swampo, the boat carving out wakes of clay, red on top, grey below, the end of the Paleocene, the beginning of the Eocene: 56 million years ago. Everyone marches on, buoyed by shouts and clowning at the breaks. Chombo poses for photos, kisses the owner—invites me to be godfather of his panza. I take a photo of his belly bloated from chicha to the laughter of his friends, falling in the mud, Edji kisses and posses; The proud father I say, another wave of muddy mirth. Alejandro walks out of the jungle,
wants a picture of the tent in his pants; I angle to shoot it, and he says later, with a knowing grin. One of the chicha girls comes out from behind the riot of greenery, shy.
And we paddle out, Alejandro puts me in back, we race the other boats. cruising around the tight meanders, he: fluttering the paddle in front. Back in Kani Kote, a banana leaf wrapped luncheof rice, spaghetti, buchu & yame, topped with two fist sized fishsteaks. A bundle as large of two college organic chemistry textbooks. A heavy parcel of food.
Too much for me to eat, I’ll gift it to the young couple tending the community store. But before that we stop on the Island where I had my homestay, eat yet more food, the grandmother asks me to come visit more often, says she has something she wants to say in secret. I promise to return day after tomorrow. Ercidio motors by with his lancha and gives us a tow back to La Ensenada.
That’s how a boat hauling junta is supposed to go. Proud happy men feeling manly—blistered hands and swollen bellies. The folks in town, those that hadn’t been invited, sad at the opportunity missed, jealous of the presa they wouldn’t be eating.
May the New Year bless you with opportunity and plates ever topped with presa.
It’s November and it’s raining, which should come as no surprise. The boat ride back to La Ensenada on Sunday was wet and intense. I sat next to Roda, my hairy leg rubbing against hers felt awkward, she’d recount to Doli, later the next day. I sat next to Roda, and in her lap was an infant, a boy no more that two months old, that may be christened after me, Erik. The Ngäbe wait for months to name their babies. Make sure they are going to live and all. But this is about the boat ride: the wind and the rain and the seas that rolled over the sides of the open panga. I held a sheet of clear plastic up over our heads, the baby wrapped in a blanket, the boat tossing and bucking, water sloshing in the bottom, a foot deep. The man at the outboard motor was the father of the child, his wife on Roda’s other side holding her part of the carpeta.
Punta Toro, stacking swell, Ercidio idled the motor, yelled out to me, Chotri! Que rico! I stood and marveled at the turquoise water stacked and feathering, advancing on our small craft, as the wind lifted the awning and tried to carry it away. I held it down, put the posts back in their mounts. Watched the waves rolling in—que rico indeed. Isiah, in strained tones, demanded we move, charge, gun the motor, anything; get us out of there. Fear in his voice. Women whimpered, Ericidio timed the roll, and motored us over each one in turn, grinning like a Cheshire cat.
Later, after we’d rounded the point, Roda changed places with Luzmilda. She sat next to me, the driest place for a baby, and breastfed under the clear plastic sheet.
This morning I gave a charla to the wee school kids. Handed out toothbrushes, sanctioned by the schoolmaster, funded by my Uncle. The kids were very young, first through forth grades, and their grueling 8am to 11am schoolday seems to prepare them little. Critical thinking skills are nearly nonexistent. Most can read a sign, the hand painted one on my porch that reads, in translation: Doli is available. They sound out the words, Doli es disponible. I ask them what is means. Not yet have I had an answer to what it signifies. Embarassment—a sly smile—and patience. An answer must be forthcoming. It means: She’d come for a couple of days, to visit, to pasear.
And so I ditch my lesson plans: gums, enamel, gingivitis. Instead I go for a mantra, a call and response. Who has teeth? Hands raised. Who wants holes in their teeth? Those that raise their hands, learn quickly not to. Who wants clean teeth? Hands raised now with confidence. Who wants to loose their teeth? I ask the question: How many times a day do you brush your teeth? Two. Why do you brush your teeth? To keep them sano. (literally sane, which I like, means: strong, healthy, stable.) And do you need Colgate? No is the answer I look for, and before I give each child a brush, I ask one of these questions. By the end of the lesson, most can answer even the concept one with a quiet meek: sano?
But is this enough? The teacher in me starts to think I’ve wasted my time and my uncle’s treasure. How many children will get their brushes home? How will they know how to brush their teeth? To be effective, I need to give their parents training. Brushes of their own. How long will they last—these quality toothbrushes in thatched roof houses without running water?
What’s sustainable about this endeavor?
I’m reading the Wealth and Poverty of Nations. A paperback version rife with printsetting errors, but no typos. Missing pages and irregular alignment, but no obvious misspellings or grammatically incorrect sentences. Odd.
My reading orchestrates my thoughts, fills my mind with comparison, my educated first world life, one of critical thinking and forethought. I worry about the decent of our nation’s popular intellect, after the election, a rural red center stupified in its pursuit of Christian uniformity. Can’t anyone learn from the past? Look what became of Portugal! The most innovative explorers of the 15th & 16th centuries dulled by complaisance.
Our cities are still humming along, an open-minded creature here and there, steeping themselves in curiosity and dissent—the leaven of thought. But I’m worried about the middle. I’m scared lest we become dulled by whatever it is that’s blunting our inventiveness. Decades of larger and larger classes, lesser and lesser education, longer hours for teachers whose income fails to keep pace with inflation. When will our nation become like this one? Cartoons in the classroom? Three hours of lessons, a mass of sweet smiling faces devoid of any ability to answer the questions. What does Doli is NOT available mean?
I’m sent down here to provide technical assistance; the bare necessities. How to mix cement, how to cure it, how to brush your teeth. I read Natioal Geographic magazines with the youth on my porch, in the Spanish, but the words so often fail to penetrate. Do you understand what you’re reading? So many of us don’t.
Are we to become a nation of illiterates too? Or a nation of a hand full of intellects for every crowd of madding hands keen to work, left blind by neglect, by lack of access or opportunity for edification in the rational, the skeptical, the ability to think? Where’s the potential in that?
We’re made pretty much of cornflakes. Stacy Doris wrote this. On Caribbean Isle much like where I live: Roatan, Honduras. She was sandwitching the Popul Vuh with Patterson, Ligpa, Pindar and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. She is dead now. Died of tumors the size of grapefruits growing in her pelvis. She told me I should go to Panama, that I was incapable of living without passion, the antithesis of bellicose stasis. The life of a poet as recognized by a poet. And still, we’re made pretty much of cornflakes. All of us. Except here you could argue the Ngäbes are pretty much made of bananas. Which arguably go well with cornflakes. But that is not my point.
Where or when do we become these different people? Self centered debtors with massive amounts of access to education and knowledge; or happy folk secure in their beauty, well fed off the land, subject to intestinal worms and lacking (or free from) logic? Steeped in love, the kids on my porch want to be able to answer my question, they desire to please me, make me happy, proud. But their minds fail where their heart beats true.
So what is a good life? Paris and New York and five languages? A last walk on the wind swept seashore, tumors where your womb was? A grandbaby in your lap, clear plastic held over your head, warm tropical waves standing, washing over the gunwales? A toothbrush with a teddy-bear shaped handle when your milk teeth are already blackening?
If were all pretty much made of cornflakes, what will your life look like?
I’ve been reading a book about debt, an anthropological treatise, an history written by a David Graeber from the University of London. Makes me think: governments, the world over, would have us adhere to the sacred principle that we all must pay our debts. But, he argues quite compellingly: We don’t “all” have to pay our debts. (Think big bank bailouts, treasury bonds, countries with stockpiles of gold, financiers clever enough whisk reserves into existence through pieces of arcane magic none of us understand.) Which seems to mean, only some of us do.
The last paragraph of his book Debt is worth quoting in entirety:
What is debt, anyway? A debt is just the perversion of a promise. It is a promise corrupted by both math and violence. If freedom (real freedom) is the ability to make friends, then it is also, necessarily, the ability to make real promises. What sorts of promises might genuinely free men and women make to one another? At this point we can’t even say. It’s more a question of how we can get to a place that will allow us to find out. And the first step in that journey, in turn, is to accept that in the largest scheme of things, just as no one has the right to tell us our true value, no one has the right to tell us what we truly owe.
This brings me to the Ngäbe. Here is such a place where men and women make promises to one another all the time, without money involved. These folk are nothing if not debt free (in the cash sense). We in the United States and England have been bred into debt, they haven’t. Nothing owed to a bank, no credit cards, no interest, no school loans. Farm plots handed down from generation to generation are farmed for food. Food is shared quickly before it spoils. No one is homeless; no one goes hungry. Going out to eat is visiting a neighbor, mentioning hunger, sharing a dinner. This is a human context; everyone is always a little in debt to everyone else. Perhaps that’s why no one says: Please. No one says: It’s nothing. No one says: Think what you owe me. Everybody owes a little full belly to everyone else.
I’ve discovered this: Many of my first world peers, especially in Peace Corps, warn me that we’re in danger of habituating paternalism in “them,” as if “they” may somehow become dependant upon us. This: the hubris of “us.”
The Panamanian government has protected their homeland— disenfranchisement here in the Comarca is an unknown. The human context has been preserved straight down from their stone-age ancestors (as little as a 100 years ago?). As far back as anyone can remember, this hill is where our grandfather lived, his name is your name: Chotri. He was valiente, he lived for ninety years, he worked hard, he had many women. How many of us can point to a hill where we look for food and where our valiant grandfather lived?
Panama gives out cash money each month—the Red de Oportunidad, a net of opportunity—to women with children in school. Buy cheap cloths, batteries, pens, a gas stove. Panama is inaugurating their culture into the cash economy. The nickeling away coin by coin for a pocket full of candy. How I’m admonished for not nickeling away my money. Time and again I’m told: You have a lot of money; your government makes money. Which is both incredibly naïve, and commonsensically prescient.
My government does make money. But how? Oversimplified to be sure, and paraphrased from Graeber’s book: the Federal Reserve Bank “loans” money it whisked into existence (arcane magic?) to the US government by purchasing treasury bonds. The United States promises to pay these bonds back in so many years at such and such interest. The Fed is then permitted to print money, or add it to a bank’s spreadsheet, in an amount the US has promised to pay back. The Fed then circulates the money in cash or loans the money out to other lesser banks that loan it to people and businesses and countries that have to pay it back with interest. As long as everyone has faith in the US government’s commitment to pay back or protect (with violence if need be) these dollars, and as long as any country store will trade soda or salt or gas for these pieces of green cotton paper, the whole system works.
So why wouldn’t the Ngäbe assume our government prints money for us? It’s why we gringos are all rich. Their government gives them dollars, so why wouldn’t ours? But no one here has yet to have to pay their cash back at interest. Here in the Comarca at least no one can sell their land and they have nothing anyone with cash would otherwise want to try and mortgage.
Which is fine. And in a way makes my community members richer than I. They can continue on being nonindustrious poor. Enjoying life, not hurting anyone. Sure there is a certain amount of helpless indignation when the petroleum spill wipes out their fish (which has happened over the last couple of weeks) and their boiled bananas are without presa. But what can be done about it? No one goes hungry.
I have tried for years to figure out what money is. We all take it for granted that money is made by working or selling something and that we should all pay our debts. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. But the Ngabe see things differently. A fruit tree drops a load of fruit; what are you going to do? Share it as quickly as possible otherwise it will rot. Life has always been one great series of windfalls. We come along and expect differently, but how does our action look to some whose entire experience goes against saving (or letting it rot)? I find that we often mistake that nature of share as quickly as possible for one of dependence or addiction to paternalism. We do seem to have a windfall of money, and many of us come (as tourists) to their beautiful spot, profligate as we are, and expect a windfall culture to suddenly adhere to our debt mores we’ve learned from our savings and loan society. Are we crazy or just blind? How can we assume to know what might owed when we don’t even understand the tender?
The latino teachers show cartoons in the classroom while they teach. MEDUCA gave them a tv and a solar panel to power it. I showed Abenito how to connect a power strip, and now the radio blares without the generator, cell phones and computers are charged for fifty cents that go to the school (but later disappeared.) What are the kids learning?
Chivo came by the other evening. He speaks no Spanish. Said he was hungry. Showed me his belly. Thin as a rail. I fried up some buchu that fell prematurely in front of my house. The bananas were barely edible, thin little bits of fruitmeat. I carved off the peal and fried them in coconut oil and topped the fries with two fried eggs I got from the community granja. Handed him a plate. He put the fork aside and ate the runny eggs with his fingers. Kept stealing glances at a hummingbird feeder my mother gave me. Bonuare, sukiare, he repeated over and over. He speaks no Spanish, but these words I know: How pretty, how sweet. He climbed up on my bench and leaned out and touched the feeder, sugar water dripped out. I asked him not to. He repeated, bonuare, sugiare, plaintively. He asked me for an onion, he asked me for my radio. I tired. Went up on the hill to make a phone call so he would go.
A while later Pinzon came by, asked me for an onion, I told him I had already given it to Chivo. He mocked indignation at Chivo for snaking his onion. The next morning, while I was on the hill talking on the cell, I noticed Chivo on my porch. When I came back I noticed my feeder was drained. Koro came by and he taught me how to say—Chivo, Ñübta makwe michi tomnai ñani? The literal: Why you hummingbird water drink?
I practiced for a day. Went to Nidori, walked up to his house. Everyone happy to see me. I asked Chivo, in front of his mother, sister, brother. He bowed his head. He rattled off a few sentences in Ngäbere, I told him, Makwe ñani. He ran out. His sister told me, he didn’t drink it, because it all spilled. He came back in. The grandmother grave. She showed me the onion he had brought, that I had given him. She said we are saving it for when we finally have some fish.
His sister asked, —What are you going to do? Take him to prison?
His grandmother offered, —This is nothing.
I said, —No No! I like Chivo. He’s my friend. At which his face lit up. He jumped up, fired a sentence at me with the word blasi in it. He grabbed a machete, ran out of the house.
His sister said to me, —Chivo is crazy.
I know, I said, —Yo se. I just had to tell him he can’t do that. I like Chivo, he’s my friend.
A few minutes later he returned with a heavy stem of two full ripe hands of blasi, the thick reddish banana. It made my arm sore carrying it home.
I accepted the gift because I knew by accepting the gift we would be square, our friendship would be free of guilt, or debt. That’s what I really wanted. Release him, in my mind. In his as well.
And this is what I am learning from the Ngäbe: How to navigate in a community of people that are free from debt peonage. Where the women all feel attractive and the men naturally desire them. No magazines have corrupted their body image, fat is healthy, full thighs are as sexy as it gets. I charge a cell phone for an old woman, a bag of pixva and taine appears on my porch. Abenito, who loaned my best hat to a drunk from Punta Sirain the evening of the school’s anniversary, comes by for kerosene, a cucumber, some cabbage too. —You take care of us, he says.
I really hope I get my hat back—it’s the hand woven kind that keeps me cool in the tropical sun, shades my red neck, and keeps my nose from getting sunburned.
When someone names a baby after my fiancee, when I’m asked to be a padrino, I’m in for it, free to cement my friendships with generosity and debt. But not cash debt, some other kind. I’ll never get my $20 back, and for not insisting my community protects me fiercely. The more we give to one another, with faith that it will come back around in a manner of the other’s choosing, the stronger our bonds. I realize my value is measured in good will and not cash—who really owes me anything? I only hope my promise of friendship, freely given, is worthy.
Thanks you all.
One year in. And I’m more humbled than ever. My cat is not afraid to swipe at my feet, herd me to his food bowl, with a swift whack and paw, a white-orange ball of teeth and claw the more I deign to ignore him. The neighbor kids come by, ask for colored pens. An octogenarian hobbles up on cane, weary of the bridge to my porch, rests in my Ngabe Adirondack, tries on reading glasses. No. 2.
I’ve made friends. This, more apparent than ever, since I’ve come back from a trip to Brooklyn—to Unity. Oro was worried I’d been robbed. Sili heard a rumor in Playa Balsa someone had stolen my tank of gas. It seems one of my absentee house visitors forgot to close my kitchen window. Oro closed it for me, up in arms. The rumor mill already at work. My tank of gas, nor anything else missing from inside. I was gone for nearly a month.
What was missing was outside, orchids I had been gifted and transplanted from Quebrada Guabo, Sara Hayman’s site, were chopped down; and any grass I had been cultivating: denuded to the bare red clay. My banana plants. Lidia asked me this morning, at the store, if I’d forgive her, said she’d had no idea they were flowers. Why would a gringo grow flowers anyhow? The epiphytes taking to in my outdoor bathroom, orchids that bloom for a morning, ferns of different type, a mystery to visitors, basura, trash. Mysterious behavior.
Lidia pets my beard, picks at my nose, coos in my ear. Her husband has been away for months now, no bones made about a blue-eyed baby. Okwä blüre. The other women laugh, I mock nonplussed: Why, I ask, would anyone want a baby with a beard? Any baby of mine would have a beard! Lidia’s crazy! The women have a way of leaning over in laughter, deep rolling mirth, heaving from their trunks, eyes pressed shut, peeling across the commons. Oh, Chotri.
They said on our first day of orientation in Washington—Look around, you will make friends with the people in this room, some of you may find the love of your life. I have, but she wasn’t in the room. She was on a dock on Isla Careneros for Carnival, February 16th. Hopped in a boat with me and three drunken Ngäbe men, her and her highschool girlfriends. Carla.
Big brown eyes, might have been Panamanian if not for her perfect Standard English. Her Ivy League way of talking, offering a beer; confidence in spades. She decided to make this me happen. I was ready. Everyone called her Miss Carla, her Spanish better than mine, babbling on with Bernardino, overjoyed to host three gringas. A little to forward for their company though. He: married and a school teacher from my village.
Miss Carla called me, wrote letters, came down to visit, a couple of weeks after my 40thbirthday. Three days in site and Carmen cries when she leaves, they cry together. Carmen’s granddaughter named Carlita. They hand her to me the day I get back in site, a heavy fat baby, with that barely comprehending look, the bobbing head. Not a peep out of her for a half an hour as I walk around, watch the work on the school, preparation for the 21st Anniversary party. I have to shift her from arm to arm, no one seems surprised Chotri is walking around with little Carlita. I tell them she’s going to be my wife.
In Brooklyn I’d asked Carla to marry me, on the last day of summer, dappled light under a tree already dropping its leaves. A perfect near fall day, still with the summer warmth, a breeze, children playing Frisbee, a couple getting photographed in their wedding finery. We popped a cork on a 2004 bottle of champagne—prosciutto, baguettes, blue cheese on auspicious hillside. I asked her if she wanted to spend the rest of her life with me, handed her an old blue ringbox from the local jeweler in Waterville, Maine. Her brown eyes larger than usual—if that could be possible. A tiny heirloom ring Bette had saved, antique floral setting, solitaire diamond, the band worn preciously thin from decades of wear. The story of love, ours to make.
And she said, Yes. Comprometido.
Sili and Rolli are leaving. Group 66 is Closing Out their Service. COSing, as it were. They’ve been good neighbors, Sili off to Ethiopia following his fiancée, a year of Peace Corps left for her. Rolli is marrying a local boy, moving to the Island. She came by for dinner tonight; we talked about love on the peninsula, promise, future, life.
So much to learn out here. Something about the community, happy to see the best. Ready to invent some juicy gossip, spread it around, peopletalk.
Happens whenever I walk with a white girl—Peace Corps Volunteer: I’m going to tell Carla, a grinning woman yells at me, leaning out her window, wagging a finger. Their favorite question: Is this your woman? And I’m going to tell Carla. Teasing is a kind of sport. More exciting than television.
The hummingbirds have taken to fighting over the feeder my mother sent with me. Three rufous tails, and a long billed hermit so far. They carve arcs in the air through the banana leaves, trailing after each other, with squeaks and pips, a rattle of rapidfire warning, a thrumming bass hum pitch Doplered by their dive under the house. The sun sets and a mosquito hums. The bell like calls of frogs in the green burbling stream.
I write a grant for PEPFAR funds—the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief—in that peculiar passive tone of professional science journals that’s unassailable in its ambiguity, rock solid in its fact.
Studies have shown that the success of HIV prevention programs depend upon three processes: Education, Prevention and Testing. Much work has been done on the part of Peace Corps Panama, MINSA and other governmental and non-governmental organizations to educate Panamanians on the nature of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. This is true for the ÑöKribu region in the District of Kusapin in Northern Panama. There is, however, a serious need for sustainable methods of prevention, namely condoms, and testing. The Health Center in Kusapin has a sporadic supply of prophylactics, the smaller rural Health Posts typically have none, and so access to condoms is essentially nonexistent for the majority of the population. Testing has not been carried out in any form on the peninsula, although a few residents have been tested (eight positive results since 2008 for the entire Kusapin District) at hospitals or centers in other districts.
With help from Laura and Tess and Kristin, our second in command, I hope to raise $3174 to pull together a proper testing tour of Peninsula Valiente. The young men come by and ask for condoms, ask if they really do prevent disease, if they can forgo worry: mujers en la calle, women in the street. No sickness, no pregnancy either. They ask for tests. The Panamanian ministry of health gave me a poster I have hung on my porch, diagrams of viruses and inner cell workings.
My favorite sentence of the grant:
The objective of this project is to assemble a collaborative group of doctors, nurses, psychologists and technicians from MINSA, Fundaciòn ATENAS, The Floating Doctors, and the Peace Corps to provide testing, education and condoms to an under resourced indigenous community in danger of an unchecked epidemic of AIDS.
This will be my work for the next few months. Making posters, traveling, paddling to communities, organizing. I look forward to it. I look forward to crafting bows and arrows with the men in my community—No need to go to the Darien, use what you have here. People will buy a bow that fires an arrow your grandfather used to knock monkeys out of trees, hand crafted, fiber woven from the jungle.
I look forward to helping the Floating Doctors build a clinic building, and chronicling some of the Ngäbe myths with Eliel. He and his wife came by for chocolate the other night. Pasearing on my porch. I look forward to:
One Year to go.
Some time back in the ‘90s the University of Arizona foolishly awarded me a science degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. I like to think that must be why the Peace Corps invited me to serve in Environmental Health. Maybe they got confused by the capital E’s, as if Ecology or Evolution had anything to do with the Environment….
But whatever: Now I’m here, smack in the middle of a very buggy, batty, muddy bit of jungle. The Bocas Ngäbes, who built this house with their own hands and a chainsaw for the previous volunteer, are smart. They build disposable houses on stilts because bugs crawl on the ground. Smart because it makes it hard for bugs, except the ones that can’t fly, or climb, to get into your living space. But climbing and flying includes all manner of spiders, not that they’re bugs at all, and ants, and termites and cockroaches and moths and mosquitoes and even chitras, which I still haven’t gotten used to.
So I got to thinking, I’m smart too, right? I’m a licensiadoed biologist—why shouldn’t I be able to manipulate these creatures into some kind of biological submission? I think they used to call it Biological Control before realizing it was more just an hubristic opportunity for biological folly.
First things first: The biting ants have to go. The previous volunteer used to empty cans of Off! (back when the Peace Corps provided that kind of thing) on the ants in an attempt to kill them. I found that it only really works to confuse them. Ants, it has been shown, can’t see that well, and mostly cruise about following the scent laid down by their sister ants, which means that a displaced ant that can’t pick up a scent trail will die. My house is a maze of scent trails, and all an ant needs to do is walk a few inches to find another one. So I got to thinking; ants can’t walk across water, right?
I followed the biting ant trail (more like a rush-hour biting ant freeway) to their nest, right under the post that barely holds up my stairs, and got me a shovel and pulled my boots on. Biting ants be damned, I plunged the shovel in, scooped out the queen’s chamber and hucked it across thequebrada. Word to the wise here: Wear a shirt when hucking biting ants, because when they rain down on your back, they will bite right where your hands can’t reach, unless you dislocate your shoulder, like I nearly did.
Ok, biting ants down. Excellent. In move my friends the sugar ants. They look like the biting ants, small and black, but are much nicer. And they live in my planter. You can tell the difference because when you move the Snickers upon which they are feasting they run around in a crazed speedy motion instead of crawling up your fingers and burying their formic acid laced mandibles into your skin. To me this is a big improvement. And it got me to thinking like an ecologist: If there is only so much food I leave around, and the sugar ants get it first, then the biting ants won’t have anything to eat and there will be fewer cockroaches! Ecology 101. All that tuition I still owe: paying dividends.
So if I have small sugar ants, why not let the nice big golden ants live with me too? They have taken up residence in my aluminum foil box. And maybe they help keep the cockroaches down. I did notice that no cockroaches lived in my aluminum foil box, and we all know how much roaches love a nice little tube in which to succor their foul spawn.
Visitors have marveled at the lack of roaches in my house, so maybe it’s working; but I’m not so sure. The other day I was cleaning out under my counter, a counter I built not three months back, and found a veritable roach subsidized housing unit. Like a trailer park of roachdom! Call it Roachview Estates or Cockroach Haven. My bad: Don’t save egg cartons. Roaches can fill a couple of cartons faster than a white trash clan can take over a whole acre of doublewides. And I bet they’re all inbred too, with their gross egg sacks hanging out of their cockroach butts…. I hate cockroaches.
Which brings me to why I love chickens: they relish pecking cockroaches to death. CHU CHU CHU CHU CHU, and my neighbors’ chickens come running, pecking the living hell out of the cockroaches pouring out of the roach mobile unit I’ve just tossed out the window. Wonderful sight. Except for the adult roaches that fly right back under my house. That just pisses me off.
So I channel this anger. Inspiration! Leave coffee cups out over night with a little sweet milky chocolate sludge in the bottom as bait. I’ve discovered that roaches of all ages—from little instars to full-fledged flying egg butt monsters—can crawl in but can’t climb out. Toss them out the window in the morning and the chickens come running. I recommend it: both for your mental health, but also as a way to lower the population density of Blattodids living under your kitchen counters, or behind the nice photo of your sister’s brand new baby boy.
In addition to biting ants, I was left with a tomcat: He’s great company, but not so good at eating cockroaches. In fact he’s indifferent. I think it’s because I feed him too much. So, now I feed him way less, because even worse than biting ants in his catfood bowl, is the horrible little scratch scratch scratch of roaches eating the dogfood I feed him in the middle of the night. I figure if maybe I feed him less, not only will there be no food left in the bowl for the roaches to rustle around in at four in the morning, but he might eat one or two.
The cat will eat krugies though. Gheckos: little chirping lizards that lay the coolest pairs of eggs in my seashells. He loves eating them, but they eat the ants, and potentially the infant roaches. What can I do? Ecology is nothing if not complex. How can I say no? It’s so fun to watch him pin down a cute little wriggling lizard running for its life with a well placed paw. He really likes them. Crunch crunch crunch. A licking of his kitty lips, expectant eyes asking, More?
And how about the termites? A month ago, right after a deluge, there was a termite hatching. Fine, ten thousand little winged insects fly up in the air and make sweet termite love, storing up a lifetime’s worth of little termite sperm, and then they all fall to the ground, drop their forty thousand wings, and try to set up shop. One tried in my egg cartons, but I think the roaches got it. Another pretty successful female got going under the lid to my Axion lemon scented soap. I was only gone for a little while: Language Training, 4th of July, some ministry visits (to justify my vaction days?), and then PML. Seriously, how many eggs can one termite hatch in three weeks?
Ok, I scraped the termites up, tossed their queen’s chambers out the window, dug up the biting ants, threw the roaches to the chickens, fed a krugie or two to my cat, let the sugar ants live in my planter, the golden ants in my aluminum foil roll, the spiders build webs, but none of them addressed my chitra/mosquito problem.
Here’s where my real stroke of Biological genius backfired on me.
Bats. They love to come in and swoop around my house at night. Swoop swoop flutter flutter. Not a problem, I think to myself, they’re eating the mossies. What else could they be doing? I shine my light on them and they give me that shivery batty little look, hanging upside down, squeaking imperceptibly, on the clothesline I strung up in the peak of my zinc roof. (To keep my clothes from mildewing, becoming ant nests, or worse, cockroach projects.) This whole time I’m thinking I’m really smart. Then one night, I’m awoken by the oddest thing: little drops, usually three of them, on my chest— or worse, my face. Is my roof leaking, on an otherwise rain free night? Nope, that’s bat piss. And it smells bad too. Bats pee on me in my sleep. Ask me how smart I feel now?
Bat pee, albeit, one step below roaches crawling on you in terms of disgusting impossible things to sleep through, is disgusting. I take an offensive tack. When they flutter in and fly around and land on my clothesline, I beat them with my broom. Line it up, take aim, and bat the bat with all I have. But bats don’t die. Bats it turns out, are the little superhero batmen of mammals. Nearly impossible to kill, perhaps even as tough as roaches. Batted bats stunned and pinned, tangled in clothes hangers, flutter off. Bats are much smarter than roaches, though, and know enough not to come back.
That and the fact that I took some advice from a friend of mine who was raised up here. Bats hate aluminum foil, he said. So I hung aluminum foil strips all along my clothes line right above where I sleep, (which caused my golden ants to move into a paper bag) but which had the effect of making the bats not like to hang on my clothesline above where I sleep and therefore not pee on me. Which is good. Because I’m trying to convince this wickedly cute girl to visit me again. But she might not want to on account of the first time she visited, bats peed on her cheek.
You ask her how smart I felt. Nothing sets the mood quite like a little bat pee on the cheek. Take it from me, I’m licensiadoed.
–previously published in La Viana
This is the text of my Volunteer Reporting Form. I wrote it with you all in mind, threading the story together…
My integration into my community is continuing apace. I feel lucky. The Ngabe in my village are an open, caring, curious people that make me feel welcome, appreciated. Rarely does a morning pass when I don’t have five or six visitors with suggestions to improve my Ngabere, drinking coffee, asking questions about health, viruses, the ecosystem, cultural differences. I’ve discovered that selfishness is the vice that ranks. Mesquino is a very bad thing to be, therefore many men and women seem opposed to saving. Saving is avaricious, at worst pleonexic. The Apostle’s pastor has set aside a few hectares of boggy forest that he owns, a couple of pitches of closed canopy that shelters the last couple of howler monkeys heard calling in the morning. Some in the community are against him—feel he is hording the remaining trees and monkeys. Monkey meat cures asthma. Most of the big trees have been cut by a proliferation of chainsaws. People need boats, houses. His conservation is met with covetous grumbling. I shook his hand and told him I appreciated his work, his foresight, his worldly thinking. Huge smile. A chicken lunch.
And yet, overcoming their tendency to use all of what is at hand right now has become an almost humorous challenge. We installed a rainwater tank that had pretty much been abandoned. Missionaries called me, asked me what kind of water project they could bring. I suggested moving and plumbing the tank so that the school’s kitchen would have ready water from a spigot. That first night we had the few inches of rain sufficient to fill the tank. In the morning dish washing, a steady stream of children drinking from the sink tap, washing their hands. Leaving the tap open at times. I’d admonish them. A few days later, after a heavy night of rain I noticed the tank was empty. I asked the women cooking—they told me the tank didn’t work. It was hooked up wrong. I checked, trouble shot. Discovered the tap was open. Left open. Always. Every time I’d close it, someone would come and open it, check to see if there was water. Walk away without closing it again. No water now, no water now. End of story. My biggest behavior change challenge yet.
I am learning not to take my, our Stateside ability to plan, strategize, implement for granted. My community is very present, rich in resources, never been disenfranchised. They are happy, carefree. Ask me if we people as poor as them in our country. I say, We have worse, people in the street, with no place to sleep. They sleep in the street like dogs? We don’t have that here, the men tell me, with pride. I know I say, You are rich in resources. And they are, but might be using them up a little fast, a little recklessly. So I’m learning not to think of them as needy—unprepared perhaps—but not needy. To the task of planning and squirreling away their resources and analyzing critically in ways we find second nature, they’re innocent. And so on my porch, with the proud mother of five surviving children, I say your imminent threat may be overpopulation. Especially because so many of your children are surviving. Here, clean water. You’re rich, all you have to do is turn the tap off.
So I am trying to teach the strategies of logic. Of planning. Trying to bring critical thinking skills, as soft as they are. Talking, cajoling, planting ideas. An admixture of compassion and flattery earns the trust capital to spend on admonishment and incredulity. Grown men and the women then blame the little ones. The chis are the one leaving the tap open. We have to educate them, get their parents to talk to them. And we smile and drink coffee and little by little they begin to admonish their children for throwing their wrappers off my porch. Even make them pick them up. The child wide-eyed with wonder. Why does this American care where we throw trash? As if something has changed, subtly, they are the first to feel the shifting mores.
It comes off of the roof. My water. And I always seem to have water. Even in this dry month of May, only about 6 inches of rain so far. And I have a tap plumbed into my tank, with which I can was my dishes. My visitors, salute me with a request, simple and direct. I want water, or perhaps, give me water. Sometimes I insist on a please or a thank you. Now the adults will prompt their children, the regulars already in the habit of gracias if not por favor. Wide-eyed with wonder. Whatis the magic word?
In Nidori the aqueduct is plumbed. Houses have water to wash dishes, in their sinks, which are a collection of old dugout canoes tacked to the side of a house, pieces of zinc. The president of the water committee did the work, cajoling, haranguing, negotiating. Now the water runs. But for how long? He told me on Friday he was going to pasear in the capital. Might be back in December. No one has collected any money, no one has paid their deposit. And now the vocal is afraid to collect. And so my major success story is likely to be my next biggest challenge. Which is probably the truest. Maintaining an aqueduct is way tougher than building one.
We shall see. But one day, after sweating and digging and filling and trenching, a woman leaned out the window and said to me, ka koin sribiri, all three words of which I know. How Good and Work. It’s the kindest thanks I’ve had. I felt the magic in those words. Success.
I have received 35 letters from the fine middle-schoolers at Brett Hart Middle School in Hayward, California, and they have asked me a slew of interesting questions. It seems they have been reading all the emails I have sent out so far. So this one is going to go out to all the 12 and 13 year olds in Mr McHugh’s 6th period World History Class.
First of all, I would like to say thanks for all the letters. I had to guffaw greatly and loudly; almost every letter cracked me up. These letters were funny. Second of all, I know I talked a lot about ketchup (and too much does get nasty after a while) but now that I live in my own house, and cook a lot of my own food, I don’t eat much ketchup. I don’t even own any, but I do own a lot of hot sauces. Yesterday I bought two bottles of delicious home-made yellow hot sauce bottled in recycled pint-sized seco bottles. Very delicious, and picante too!
This morning I went over to the socio to buy some johnie cakes, but they were out. A woman, however, was weighing out 75 pounds of yuka, which gave me an idea. I went back to my yard and pulled a yuka plant out of the ground, cleaned off the tubers, and boiled them. Then I fried them in coconut oil, salted them like french fries and tossed a couple of over easy eggs on top. Fried yuka with hot sauce and eggs—sooo yummy.
Yeah, the food here is really good. Even if the only kind of cheese they have is the square yellow processed kind, and it is always kinda melty. And although a lot of the food is fried, the Ngäbe typically have really low blood-pressure because they don’t eat any processed foods like chips or anything from McDonalds. Mostly they eat boiled bananas, and I have three kinds right now stored up for when I get hungry. (Actually, I am going to let some of them mature and get sweet, these bananas down here make the ones up there taste like cardboard they’re that sweet and full of tropical goodness!) They also eat a lot of fish, caught fresh in the bay or out in the Caribbean Sea, and one of the things I like best is the sardines. Fried up, after the heads are popped off, and sprinkled like fishy coconut flakes on buchu (another type of banana) or eaten with johnie cakes.
More than a few of the letters asked me what inspired me to join the Peace Corps. And how did I come to be placed in Panama. Well, the application takes a long time, more than a year, and you have to have graduated from college. I was looking for an adventure, and even though surfing with Mr McHugh is very adventurous (he is a really good surfer) I have always loved traveling and I figured it would be a great opportunity to really get my Spanish down. So after a year I got a letter in the mail saying that I was invited to volunteer in Panama working in Environmental Health, but that I might not use much of my Spanish as I would have to learn a new language: Ngäbe. I had ten days to decide, and after three I said, “Well, Yes!” and fired off an email and signed a letter accepting the invitation. You don’t get to choose where you go in the Peace Corps, you are there to serve, wherever you are needed, I just lucked out and got placed in one of the most beautiful places on earth, with really happy wonderful people who love to laugh and smile and eat good food.
And in the Peace Corps, we don’t “give” them anything other than expertise. We are here to provide support and help provide with knowledge and technical assistance. For example, I am helping build an aqueduct, and teaching about the importance of clean water and maybe bring them a helth clinic staffed by the Floating Doctors. Other members of the Peace Corps teach English, some help with business planning and the like.
La Ensenada, where I live, and where I will work for my whole two-year tour, is not much like the rest of Panama. I live on an Indian reservation called the Comarca Ngäbe/Bugle, on a peninsula, near the town of Kusapin. The Ngäbe don’t have a lot of cultural traditions, (aside from a health fear of brujos) no music to speak of, and a lot of what they consider theirs came from missionaries, including many of their names. Like, Williams, Baker or Beker, Miller, Julian, Smith, Stonestreet, and Archibald. What they do have is wonderful land, forests, and fincas. There is no electricity, so not one person I know here in town has ever surfed the internet. The internet is a strange thing to the Ngäbe, known about, but not understood. The other day when I printed out a contract to sign people up for the aqueduct in Nidori, the president of the water committee held up the contract and told everyone that I had, “put it through the internet.” Folks were impressed.
The culture here is very different from the culture in the United States. For example, there are no refrigerators. This means that meat goes bad in a day or two. So if someone kills a cow, everyone comes and shares in it as quickly as possible. Imagine twenty or so indigenous women covered in blood, putting bits of tripe and meat and a cow’s hoof in a plastic bag, and carrying it off with a great big smile. Tonight everyone in town will eat beef! The last time I had beef was for Christmas.
Since nothing lasts very long here, everybody shares. It is very bad to be considered mesquino or stingy. Almost every house I go to gives me food to eat. If I visit too many houses, I have to eat a lot of boiled bananas. Whenever anyone comes to my house I share my food with them, or I will makeñuba, which is the chocolate drink they so love. And since I am generous, many families will drop by some green bananas or some yame for me to cook up later. I sometimes realize that almost everything I’m eating for dinner was given to me. And for this reason, no one really saves for a rainy day, or thinks about tomorrow. It seems to be cultural: Let’s do whatever is easiest today to have a full belly. Which makes it difficult to get everyone together to work on a water project because where’s the payoff today? Even so, the only way to get people to come out for work is to plan on having a great big meal served up at two or three in the afternoon, after everyone is done working. The average wage here is $8 a day. So how hard would you work for $8?
Pooping in the quebradas is another example. Today it is just plain easy to poop in a stream and have the rain wash it away. In fact they think it is really disgusting if people don’t poop in the creeks because then the poop isn’t washed away. And it rains so much here that flush toilets don’t really work, because there is no place for the water to go other than in the stream. Even pit latrines are hard to justify because they too fill up with water, and then you have poop mosquitoes swarming out of your latrine hole. Poop mosquitoes are possibly the most disgusting thing on earth. That’s one of the biggest challenges here: what to do with all the poop!
Crime here is really really low. I can’t think of one house that has a door that locks on it. They lock up the stores, or in the case of the socio people take turns living in the store for a month at a time. That way no one can come in and take all of the canned sardines or candy. But people don’t lock up their houses, in fact, most of the houses don’t even have doors on them. And they have a lot of chickens running around underneath, not that they deter crime in any way.
There are no homeless people here. People here often ask if there are poor people in the United States. Many folks think that our government makes money and then gives it to all of us to bring down here and spend. When I tell them that we have homeless people, they are shocked. No one here is homeless. Everyone has some family or another they can go to. They think that only dogs sleep in parks or on the street. Not that there are any streets here, only a sidewalk here and there so you don’t have to step in the mud. It would be very bad indeed to make someone from your family sleep outside in the rain and mud. The whole town would talk about what a bad person you were.
Yesterday I washed my hammock. I love sleeping in a hammock—the one I have I bought in Mexico years ago and it is very big and very comfortable. I washed my hammock for two reasons, first of all it started to smell bad, and secondly, I needed to use up all the water in my tank so that I could replace the spigot with a PVC pipe that would bring water to my sink in my kitchen where I wash dishes. The tank was full of fifty gallons of rainwater from my roof, so it weighed more than 400 lbs. After I emptied it, it weighed no more than ten. And I hooked up my pipes, and now, as soon as it rains again, I will have water in my kitchen sink! Although it’s not really a sink, it’s more of a piece of tin I used to make a platform out the window, and it drains down onto some dauchin, which is a kind of tropical plant with tubers that are tasty.
So I washed my hammock, which was a good thing, because at night sometimes I think the bats are peeing on me. But I can’t prove it. I just know that sometime I hear them fluttering around, and then something liquid drops on me, wakes me up, and I go wash it off. Well, last night, something dripped on me twice, and I got up and lit a candle and looked for the drip and it looked just like water and didn’t smell at all. So I really don’t have any idea what it is. Do you?
Anyway, I like the bats because they eat bugs. The geckos eat bugs too, and I dug out the ants that bit really hard. Now I have some nicer ants that love to eat all the sugary things I leave in the sink and never bite. The bugs I like least are the cockroaches, but they are everywhere. But not in the day. If I want to keep cockroaches out of my food, which I do, I have to keep it in plastic containers that are sealed tight. That said, I also hate the no-see-ums. They are little biting flies, sometimes called sandflies, or here chitras, and they hurt when they bite! Luckily one of the floating doctors showed me that coconut oil rubbed on your skin (it also makes it so soft) keeps them from biting. So now I always put little coconut oil on my ankles before I go anywhere at sunset.
I am also happy to say that I got rid of the armpit bugs. That was one of my favorite questions from the letters: “Did the armpit bugs go away?” Yes they did, thank you very much.
To everyone who thinks I’m like a superhero, thanks. I’m not, but it’s quit a nice compliment. Maybe after college you can join the Peace Corps and be super-heroish too! The best part about being a volunteer is getting to practice all kinds of kindness every day. I am surrounded by people all the time. Yesterday I had something like 20 people come visit, and even though I was feeling a little sick, I made some of them lunch and some chocolate and kept others entertained and loaned both my canoes out even as I hung up my sheet and hammock to dry.
I apologize too for not sending that photo of my canoe along—the internet connection was so slow that I would have missed my boat! I just barely got the email off and then the boat driver said I had to go, and he meant it! This time though I have a picture set up to send, with some of the kids from the school right next door on the porch of my house, so you can see what it looks like.
And lastly, I do miss my friends and family a lot. I think about them every day. But I am also making a lot of friends here too. And many of the older women and men treat me like I am family. Which is very warm and comforts me tremendously. So all in all I think this part of Panama treats me like a 9 on a scale of 1 to 10. And I will turn 40 on May 10th—we are planning a birthday party at a friend’s house in Kusapin. I can’t wait to open all the presents sent to me from the United States with my new friends down here.
Thanks for all the great questions and the drawings and I loved reading each and every letter. I hope you can figure out which things I said as an answer to your own questions, because while I wrote this, I reread all of your letters and answered at least one favorite question from each one. You guys rule.