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Stalkers, Cockroaches, and the Northern Wind

In the "Cult of Escapism": Stalkers, Cockroaches, and the Northern Wind

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.


At November 12, 2010 at 7:12 AM , Blogger Lara said...

Great post Jack! Thanks for another fascinating update. We got your package, and I forwarded your instructions (unread) to Brian as directed.

Lara, Brian, Isaac and Sam

At November 14, 2010 at 9:46 AM , Blogger Sebastian said...

Ah yes. Raining fire on innocent and worldly babies alike. It is Satan's way.

At November 20, 2010 at 6:23 PM , OpenID Calvon said...


At November 9, 2012 at 6:12 AM , Blogger bama said...

Challenging in every way. I have so much respect for your fortitude! Billie


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