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In the "Cult of Escapism"

In the "Cult of Escapism": November 2010

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Finding Love in a War Zone

Me:  You see in the States, you don´t have to marry the first woman you have a relationship with; you can have relationships for a few months or a few years and if you are no longer in love after a while, you can both see someone new.

Old, Extremely Short Ngöbe Woman I Wasn´t Talking to: I have a question…I am part of a religion, a religion where men respect women.  Can we still work together? 

Dating in the Comarca
I have been touring the various businesses of Soloy, giving a presentation that introduces Peace Corps, my particular program, and myself and my qualifications.  After finishing one such presentation to a group of women that own a local store, I got hit with the above dialogue and ended up trying to defend the American dating system to an old, extremely short Ngöbe woman (did I mention how short she was?).  She claimed that what I was describing was infedility - I countered saying that it is only infidelity if you have relations with someone else, while you are dating someone.

This didn´t work because dating doesn´t exist in Ngöbe society and I had to dodge a carefully aimed kick from her tiny leg.  There is often no official marraige ceremony, but the minute you start ¨seeing¨ someone, you are expected to spend the rest of your life with them and crank out 8-12 babies in the process.  This relationship typically begins around the ages of 13-17.  As such, there are a lot of single mothers in the Comarca and a lot of mistresses, extra marrital affairs, cases of domestic violence, etc.

So my first reaction to Shorty´s comment was, ¨Bullshit.¨    

Fearing a lifelong curse that would cause me to grow shorter each month, I didn´t say this out loud and instead tried to explain that Americans tend to try and marry out of love and you don´t always get it right the first try.  The other women understood this (I´ve had this conversation several times and the reaction is typically, ¨Hey, that sounds pretty good.¨)  But Shorty was not having it.  And the way she was talking to me, I was beginning to think that she was something more than just an extremely judgemental, conservative Catholic.  I asked her if this religion of hers was Mama Tata and she looked away without answering.  


Mama Tata
It was a dark and stormy night…except it was during the day and it wasn´t raining.  A young Ngöbe woman named Besiko was standing by the river, when all of a sudden the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ appeared in front of her, holding machetes and the severed heads of two newborn deer.  Ok, they weren´t actually holding those things but they did tell her that the Ngöbes have taken enough crap from the outside world and it was time to take pride in their heritage by way of a new religion.  From my understanding, the unoffical Five Commandments of Mama Tata are the following:

1 – Outsiders are the devil.
2 – Outsiders are not to be trusted, as they are, or closely resemble, the devil.
3 – Outsiders are nothing but trouble and may in fact be the devil.
4 –Did I mention not to trust outsiders?
5 – Apart from commandments 1-4, we will behave exactly like Christians.

I live in the district of Besiko.  This young prophet was born and buried in the town next mine and as such, there are a great many individuals that aren´t particularly exctied about my presence.  But in accordance with tenents 1-4 of their scripture, I do not know who these individuals are and rarely speak with them and generally and go about my work in ignorance.  Which is nice.

World War Three
Ironically, my first host family was Mama Tata.  They are apparently not very strict practicioners and do not seem to know much about the religion (at least, they don´t want to tell me).  I was in the middle of a normal conversation with my host brother the other day (i.e. He points to something I own, ¨How much does that cost?¨), when he asked me if I was going to fight in the impending war.  The conversation proceeded as follows:

Me – What now?
Him – Spain, Japan, and the US are going to attack the Ngöbes and then they are going to fight each other. 
Me – You mean, there will be World War Three?
Him – Yes, but first they all want to kill the Ngöbes. 
Me – I am from America and lived in Japan for four years and I never heard anything about this, I don´t think it´s going to happen.
Him – Yes it is.
His logic was difficult to argue with but I thought I knew where he was coming from.
Me – Does this have something to do with the mine?
Him – Yes, they want to kill the Ngöbes and use the mine.


There is a copper mine here in the Comarca that is extremely controversial.  The government claimed that no one could own property here in the Comarca except Ngöbes but a few years later, a Canadian company discovered an extremely rich source of copper, deep in the mountains.  So the government changed the law and said that all property in the Comarca had to be owned by a Ngöbe – unless it´s underground. 
The mining activity has feuled a lot of anti-foreigner feelings among Ngöbes but at the same time, it is widely misunderstood (hence the above conversation).  I tried to explain to my host brother that it was in fact a Canadian company that wanted profit from the Ngobe´s natural resources, not a country coming to kill them, but there was no convincing him.

This is a topic I avoid like syphillis, because we at Peace Corps  Panamá are officially neutral and I don´t even want to give someone a chance to interpret what I say as being for or against the mining.  With this is mind, I assured my host brother that there wasn´t going to be a war and then quickly changed the topic.  

Colored Hats with Strong Opinions
These incidents got me thinking about the root of their xenophobia, which innevitably got me thinking about the historical treatment of native populations.  I have always been, at best, vaguely aware of what has happened to native populations around the world.  I know that in the distant past, our European descendents took their land and their women and their lives and the New World was shaped out of this mix of violence, trade, sex, and death.  But these are distant issues and I never really thought about how these problems are perpetuated today. 

The Ngöbes are famous for being a mountainous people, only because the hispanics pushed them out of the lowlands and the beach front properties to the south and east.  Native Americans in the States are known for living in the desert, on reservations that either boast giant casinos or are plagued with poverty and meth addiction, because the Europeans drove them there.  Similar stories exist with Mayans and Aboriginies and Hawaiians and we all have that friend that, at Thanksgiving, won´t stop talking about how we are really celebrating genocide.  I tend to ignore this person and stuff myself full of turkey and watch the Lions lose to whoever they are playing but, after two years of working with a native group, I may start at least giving this idea some thought during the commercial breaks.    

Honestly and seriously, it´s too early in my service to know how to feel about this.   Every country was born from some type of struggle and my white liberal background tells me to judge and villainize my own ancestors, whereas my traditional, hyper-American, Friedman-based economics and business education tells me that anyone can rise out of any situation if they work hard enough and behave like a good capitalist – so the natives should stop complaining about the past and start producing something.

There is obviously no right answer and I figue in the next two years, after exchanging black hats for white ones for more black ones, I will end up with a dull shade of grey, more knowledageable and more experienced, but just as confused as I am today.       
PS - One of the cooperatives that I work with had a vote on what should be my Ngöbe name.  The options were: Nuzy (in the sky with diamonds?), Jochi, Krätchy (pronounced crotchy - it means skinny), and Ochi.  Jochi won with 6 votes.  

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Stalkers, Cockroaches, and the Northern Wind

Body wet, clothes molding, surrounded by the stench of human waste, I turn to see my stalker still stands silently behind me.  I raise my sandal and wonder if it should be used to strike him or the two-inch cockroach that just crawled out from behind my pillow.

The Northern Wind
To say it rained five of my first six days in my community would be a laughable understatement. To describe it as a steady downpour wouldn´t quite cut it.  It was more like God straddled the sky, aiming a fire hose straight down and then laughed as the river swelled and the people scrambled to fight the mold, insects and creeping mud.  It rained for three straight days, dusk till dawn and then back to dusk and on the third day I stood, 25 feet from my house, watching the rising river rush past my feet and wondering if it would ever stop swelling.  I asked my host brother if the river ever flooded the house and he replied, simply, ¨Yes.¨

Fortunately, the northern wind brought the sun and with it the summer, which promises to be dry almost all of the time for the next few months.  While I am happy now, I am also sweating, and will no doubt come to miss the coolness that came with the rain.

Folks, settle in once again because this is going to be the 25 minute¨Dazed and Confused¨of blog posts. 
Note - this internet can´t handle uploading pictures but I will be in the city for Thanksgiving and will do a picture dump when I get a chance.

Finding Housing through Alcohol
While I will live with host families these first three months, it´s good to get a head start on finding a future home, so I have been scouting the area for rentable looking properties.  One such property is a sturdy looking little house sitting shoulder to shoulder with the town´s only bar.  We are not supposed to live near bars (drunk stranger danger) but at the time of this story, my only other option was a stilted, tree house like property with a broken staircase and a roof with more holes than palm leaves.  As such, I approached the bar and inquired within.

Beer heavy on his breath, the owner told me his uncle owns the building in question and it is indeed open for rent.  He insisted on joining me while I talked with his uncle, claiming that it would be better if he translated Ngoberre to Spanish, making the interaction faster and more efficient.  Despite his innebriation, he had a point, as many older Ngobes speak little Spanish, so we struggled up a muddy hill behind the bar, him slipping from intoxication and me slipping in my inexperience with giant rubber boots.

Uncle is an old Ngoberre man with a hunch and a long walking stick, his wife is the female equivalent and about six feathers short of a being a witch doctor.  Her only input during our negotiations was to hobble up next to me, uncomfortably close, rasping and cackling and making me wonder if I was now doomed to a life with no children or a receding hairline.

The bar owner swayed and smoked a cigarrette and while I appreciated his translating during the unavoidable small talk that precedes every interaction here, I realized he wasn´t entirely necessary for the negotiation since the words for ¨rent¨and ¨$30 per month¨don´t exist in Ngoberre anyway (btw $30 has been the average price per month for a house here so far).

In the end, I told the bar owner I would help him with his business, thinking, ¨man, Peace Corps would hate it if I helped out a bar¨and telling the uncle that the house is on my list, but not a sure thing. I probably won´t end up living near or working with my intoxicated interpreter, since most people I have met and am set to work with are extremely religious and holding a bottle of beer would be roughly the same as holding Satan´s hand while he showered fire on innocent babies.  Besides, I have since found better options. I just hope the witch doctor doesn´t turn me into a frog.

Some Notes About Death
My second day in site was the national holiday, Day of the Dead, and I had the opportunity to join some locals while they visited the cemetery.  Some interesting differences between death here and death there:

- Ngobes bury their dead with all their possessions, the most important/expensive below with the body and the rest on top of the grave.  By the way, when I say all their possessions, I do mean ALL.  I came accross one grave that appeared to be covered in garbage - a bottle of Clorox, half a bag of rice, an old sandal, a molded hand bag.  Once a person dies, it is unthinkable to use any of their possessions, no matter how arbitrary or mundane and they all end up on top or inside the grave.  I told the old man explaining this to me that it is almost the opposite in the States, that the family gives away all the deseased´s possessions.  For example, I told him my sister sometimes wears my grandmother´s necklace and he squinted, then widened his eyes in confusion, informing me that this was a very strange thing to do.

-String is often arranged by way of a network of sticks on the graves to ward of evil spirits (pictures to follow in two weeks). 

-All women put their hair up and men wear hats when visiting a cemetery, because if any hair falls and touches the ground, the rest will begin to fall out.

Coffee Club
After ten minutes of work, my hands are calloused and both arms are shaking, but yet I have barely made a dent in what needs to be done.

A few days ago, a member of the coffee group I am working with showed me how to pilar coffee.  The work involves placing shelled coffee beans into a partially hollowed out tree stump and slamming the be-Jesus out of it with a large stick. The goal is to seperate the beans from the shells, so the beans can be ground and then sold.

My companion led the way, smashing with a strength and assertiveness that comes with a lifetime of manual farm labor.  He completed a stump full of beans in about 7 minutes, emptied it and then handed me the stick.  I noticed a small sweat stain on the front of his shirt but not a trace on his head or arms.  It´s always a bad sign to see a Panamanian sweating and I took the stick knowing roughly what I had in store.

We had strategically positioned the stump in the sun, to maximize sweat and minimize pleasure, and after the same six or seven minutes of pounding, I had completed about 1/5 of what he had done.  I paused to ask him a question about the process, thinking this a clever way to rest without appearing too pathetic.  We talked for a bit and then I continued.  After about 25 seconds, my companion apparently felt that at this rate, he was going to miss his five year old daughter´s seventh birthday, so he put his hand out and I conceded the stick.

¿Quien es mas macho? It wasn´t even a contest; I never entered the ring.  I was skinny when I left the States and I´ve lost weight since then (mostly muscle weight it seems).  However, hopefully he realizes, as I do, that my benefit to the organization will come through the flexing of my brain muslces and that my knowledge of basic accounting and marketing far surpasses my bean pounding skills.

A Typical Conversation with my Host Mother
(In Ngoberre)
Me - Hello!
Her - Hello.
Me - How are you?
Her - Ti nunanga kuin kubu kuio deo mgongo.
(I give her a thumbs up)
Me - Good!
(I walk away)

My Tail
He stalks me. I wake up with him walking about my room, silent and smiling.  Wherever I go, he is sure to follow, patiently waiting in doorways while I talk with business owners and then trailing me to my next location.  Nothing deters him and he has watched me while I read several chapters of a book, sat with a fellow volunteer and spoke English for two hours and literally joined me in climbing a mountain, just to see where I was going.

My 12 year old host brother does not lead a very exciting life.  Some days, I see him walking around the house, throwing a crumpled piece of paper in the air, or kicking a deflated soccer ball repeatedly against the wall.  As such, he´s decided that everything I do/own is way more interesting and has taken to following me around.

At first, I thought it was cute and saw it as an opportunity to learn more about the town and the language.  I imagined  kid/Doctor Jones-esque relationship emerging, the two of us riding runaway mine carts in order to escape scimitar wielding vaillains.  Turns out, he´s not much of a conversationalist and he often responds to simple question by simply giggling.  While pleased that I am more interesting than a crumpled up piece of paper, his only possible utility gone, he has become the most challenging part of my life here.

I am an extremely social person and not one to go to a movie alone or take long, reflective walks on the beach.  But I never realized how much I appreciated alone time and personal space until my stalker took it away from me.

This development, if nothing else, has taught me something about poor Ngobe families.  Most houses are one big, open room, with beds lining the walls and all 15 family members sharing the same space.  Growing up in this type of environment means personal space and privacy literally do not exist at home and Ngobes are consistently confused when volunteers chose to live alone for two years.

¨Aren´t you lonely, Isn´t your bed cold?¨are common questions and every member of my host family (including adults) stares at the mystery of me, sitting alone, reading a book.  ¨Are you studying?¨ they innevitably ask and no matter how many times I tell them I am just reading for pleasure, this concept comes accross like a 3 in a binary sequence and I get the same question again the next time.

Given his upbringing, it´s no wonder my tail sees no problem with playing shadow.  But until he starts playing Robin to my Batman or Watson to my Holmes, he will continue to creep me out with his persistence.  As such, I will let him walk first when crossing the bridge, lest I wake up dead in the river, while he carefully places a lock of my hair at the base of his shrine.