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In the "Cult of Escapism"

In the "Cult of Escapism": December 2010

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Axis of Evil...Grocers

The Arabs are coming – and they´re bringing groceries.

Angry store owners from Soloy and neighboring towns crowded into the mayor´s office this morning to protest the potential arrival of ¨The Arabs.¨ Rumor has it that an Arab* family is trying to purchase land in the area to open a grocery store.  This sounds pretty good to me, but to them, it is increased competition and they will have none of it.   
*I´m going to continue to refer to them as Arab because I don´t know what country they are from.

Lately, I´ve been hearing a lot of concerns regarding the Chinese and the Arabs.  I never knew they had such a strong alliance but apparently when it comes to setting up convenience and grocery stores, they are the Axis of Evil. 

The Chinese in Panamá are the equivalent to the stereotypical Indian shopkeeper in the U.S.  Chinese owned stores are so prevalent in fact that many people simply refer to the corner store as the Chino (literally, Chinese).  When speaking to shopkeepers, people will simply refer to them as Chino or China, depending on their gender.  Literally translated, this is an example of a common conversation among customers and Chinese store owners here:
Panamanian Customer - ¨Hey Chinese, how much does this cost?¨
Chinese Owner – ¨$2.50 and my name is Yungling.¨
Panamanian Customer - ¨Don´t be ridiculous, Chinese people don´t have names

I´m yet to actually see an Arab person in Panamá, let alone an Arab owned store, but apparently they wield groceries like scimitars and more competitively than the locals.  Site-mate Laura recently attended a town hall meeting (she goes to these purely for the comic value), where many community members proposed that they set up a checkpoint at the entrance of the town and screen all entering cars for foreigners.  We don´t have one single policeman in the town, ever, and they want to set up a checkpoint.  They also insisted on prohibiting the Chinese and Arabs from setting up stores, the main argument being that they´re just too damn good at it.  Every time they said something xenophobic however, they would turn to Laura and say, ¨But not you, you´re different.¨

The increased competition argument is an interesting one for me, as an American and a student of business and a consumer in the town but the store owners have another weapon – property rights.  Foreigners are not allowed to purchase land in the Comarca (unless it is underground…hence the Canadian mine).   This of course, cannot stop foreigners (like me) from renting space, so I feel that their argument will not get them very far and the only weapon left in their arsenal is full on, unfiltered, discrimination.
The meeting is happening as I write this and I am conveniently far away from it, maintaining my neutrality.  I have no idea what will end up happening but I feel like the Arabs will soon have a store.  Hopefully they sell beef jerky.  

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Sharp Teeth are Better for Biting Red Bananas

               I am a dominant force of unspeakable power.  I enter the arena like an earthquake, play like a thunderstorm, and exit like a tornado, leaving all my victims confused, damaged, and deeply afraid.

                Last week, I started playing volleyball in preparation for an inter-community tournament.  At 5’9, and having played volleyball a few times in P.E., I have a distinct height and experience advantage over most players and have been assigned the roll of “Face Crusher.”  
Jebay vs Balsa (2nd and 3rd Place Teams)

In the first day alone, I broke three noses, sent a child to the hospital, and decapitated someone.  One particularly well struck spike ended a marriage.  Fellow players and random passerby have begun to refer to me as, “Crema Pura,” or roughly translated, “Tornado-Smash-Explosion-Annihilator-Cream.”  It’s quite flattering, but I’m beginning to worry this violent domination of the net will hurt my reputation as a professional and “Peace” Corps volunteer.  Just the other day, most members of an agricultural cooperative did not show up to a meeting, worried that I might bring a volleyball and a rain of pain. 
          In all seriousness, I’ve played volleyball every day since last week and it’s been a lot of fun, especially since this will probably the only time in my life I play volleyball as one of the tallest people on the court.  I played for the Soloy team in the tournament and we went 5-1, winning the championship and beating our rival team, Boca de Balsa (roughly translated, “Pansies”) twice in a row.  Our team won a trophy and a cash prize, amounting to $1 per person.  I’m considering going professional. 

                The volleyball tournament, while a highlight for me, was actually just a side activity and overall, fairly insignificant part of a four day Agriculture, Culture, Artisan, and Food fair (with no official title, those who referred to the fair would often mention all of the kinds of vendors present instead) put together by site-mate Laura and several community members.  Fairs of this kind, while familiar to many in more developed areas (think art or produce fair), are not common in the Comarca and the community thought it would be a fun way to get some cash flow going and give groups a chance to sell their products/produce.
Fair Games - You Reap What
You Can Get a Ring Around

          While preparing, the organizers were worried about vendor participation and spent a lot of time recruiting, collecting money, and educating potential groups, leaving themselves little time for advertising.  As a result, the fair was well armed with fresh produce, artisan goods, parlor games, government agency stands, and nine little restaurants, all ready for action.  Unfortunately, the turnout was underwhelming but still enough to make people realize that this is a good idea. 

Agriculture Stand - they have roughly
nine kinds of bananas in
Panama (e.g. the yellow and red
in the foreground); the
oranges here are also green (of course!)
On the last day of the fair, I went to each stand and did a quick interview, asking each vendor to evaluate the fair.  All noted that it could be improved, many providing specific examples (my favorite being one man who suggested that we have more activities and competitions, like racing across the river with rocks on one’s shoulders), but mainly people were just excited to try again next year.  This is encouraging and I took good notes, because Laura is way more interested in teaching English than she is in doing tourism activities, so I will probably be taking the torch in 2011. 

Naguas on Display at an Artisan Stand

How Tough are Ngobes?
I have come up with six reasons why Ngobes are the toughest people on the planet.  Much of my justification is based on observation, but some (the historical and medical portions) is based on pure hearsay and I have not fact-checked or provided citations.  To those who want that type of information, I’m sticking my tongue out at you as you read this. 

1) Perhaps most mundanely, almost all Ngobes currently live on, in, or around mountains and have to scale them on a daily basis to do just about anything.  Most have farms located as far as possible from their houses, to maximize pain and minimize convenience.  Many members of one cooperative I work with live nine hours from Soloy, yet carry their product (vegetables, coffee) in on a weekly or biweekly basis to be sold.  I once asked why they didn’t move closer to Soloy and they scoffed at me as if to say, “That would be too easy!”

2) Ngobes love fighting and their particular brand (friendly or not) consists of punching exclusively in the face until the other person falls to the ground.  If it’s a “friendly” fight (they often fight, literally, just for fun, with no ill-intentions whatsoever), the victor stops when the loser falls.  If it’s not friendly…well things don’t turn out very well for the man on the bottom.  In a recent poll, Ngobes listed their top three favorite activities as follows: 1-Eating free food; 2-Watching TV (when possible); 3-Getting punched in the face. 

This is also not an activity exclusive to men.  Last night, there was a community dance and at one point, despite an absence of alcohol (it was a dry dance), two women began fighting.  Unfortunately, I was not present, but site-mate Laura told me that the fight was so intense that she thought one woman might end up in the hospital, but the first thing the women did when it was over was hug.  They walked away laughing. 

3) Ngobes sharpen their teeth.  Moreover, they do it with the same tool used to sharpen a machete.  Occasionally, they just replace all their teeth with machete blades.  That’s not true but they do actually sharpen their teeth and I’ve heard unanimously that this is done for cosmetic reasons – like applying make-up, or gelling your hair.  I’ve also heard a minority report that it is done for combat purposes - you can bite when you can’t use your fists, and when you get punched in the mouth, it’s more like you’re stabbing your opponent’s fist with your face*. 

4) When the Spanish were pounding their way through Central America, they managed to push the Ngobes into what is now the area of the Comarca.  The Spaniards wanted the Comarca as well but they gave up because they were tired of fighting the frighteningly fierce Ngobe warriors.

5) In the 80’s, North American scientists discovered that Ngobes were resistant to HIV.  That bears repeating – Ngobes were resistant to HIV.  This is one of those un-cited hearsay statements, for which I can find no evidence on the internet, but just a rumor stating that an entire population is resistant to one of the world’s most deadly diseases must be a testament to their fortitude.  (Unfortunately for the Ngobes, the disease, being a virus, has since evolved and they are no longer resistant but many remember what the scientists said and insist that they are not in danger; HIV is on the rise in the Comarca)

6) Balserilla.  This a yearly festival in which one Ngobe town or family will invite another to compete against them in the Balsa (roughly, “wood”) competition.  The competition consists of two teams, standing on either side of a center line (like dodgeball) and taking turns throwing a huge stick at each other (like dodgeball, with broken legs).  There is only one stick.  You must hit the opponent below the knees for the shot to count (I asked what happens if you hit them too high and the man explaining smiled, punched his fist into his open hand and said, “The man who threw it will have problems”) and so the best defense is to “dance” in an attempt to avoid being struck.  Many men wear Naguas, the traditional female dress, to hide their legs while they dance.  While this does not happen as much anymore, men used to wager their wives as the prize for winning Balsa.

If you are competing, you tend to be super drunk.  If you are not competing, you tend to be extra super drunk and you will probably spend the day fighting (for fun of course).  I absolutely cannot wait to see this, but I also absolutely refuse to compete.  A well thrown stick tends to break your leg or at the very least, prevent you from walking for a few weeks.  I also don’t have a wife to wager and I’m afraid of what they might take instead.

What’s the moral of this lesson in Ngobe toughness?  I’ll explain “by way of” (roughly translated as “vise a vi”) a hypothetical situation.  If an average Ngobe male were to kidnap my family at machete point and tell me that the only thing I had to do to secure their release was to fight him, win or lose, I would point over his shoulder and say, “Man, check out the pointed teeth on that chick!” and then I’d run away. 

*I am actively trying to get a picture of sharpened teeth.  The problem is, Ngobes don't smile for pictures, and I'm a little afraid to ask someone with sharpened teeth if I can take a picture of their open mouth.   

A Monkey

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Showers Without Borders and a New Family

The Last of my First Host Family

Baby Julio
My last day with my first host family (November 30th) was much like any other.  I spent most of the day out of the house, for fear of being force-fed huge bowls of rice, then subsequently stalked by my host brother and barraged with questions by the other siblings.  When I finally did return, I played with Julio, my favorite member of the family, despite crying (screaming) every night at 2:00am (he has worms...what else would he do?).

Every Step You Take...
The stalker had backed off the last two weeks but my last few days with the family, he came on as strong as ever, hounding me to play cards with him while I was at home and resuming his habit of following me everywhere.  It was a little more tolerable than before, since I could feel the end so near but I could barely contain my excitement on the morning of my departure when I picked up my bag, dished out a series of extremely awkward hugs (Ngobes are not very warm, affectionate people) and took off.

A Meal
There were a lot of problems with the first family - the nasty shower/toilet situation, babies peeing on the ground of the house, oppressive siblings, limited diet, etc., but ultimately I think the lack of control over my privacy and personal schedule were what got me the worst.  Of course, a certain degree of this must be expected living with host families but it was particularly bad in this house and I'm happy to be in my new residence.  

House Upon a Hill
My new host family situation is a 180 from the first.  I have my own little living space, about thirty yards from the main house, the latrine and the latrine is far, far away from everything and the shower is far, far away from the latrine.  Also, the kitchen is nowhere near my room, so my clothes no longer smell like smoke and my lungs are being spared.  Additionally, we are literally on top of a mountain, so the air is clean, the area quiet, and the view spectacular.
Main House (Right), Kitchen (Left)

The family itself consists of my host mother, Cecilia, her two daughters, and their children (one each, a baby and a seven year old boy).  I really enjoy talking with Cecilia, she has a lot of stories and speaks good Spanish, which is rare in my community.  The seven year old is extremely hyper and the only time I haven't seen him moving was when I saw him sleeping once.  He also refuses to wear anything but a pair of underpants.  But he, like the rest of the family, generally just leaves me alone and I have enjoyed many undisturbed hours reading on the hammock outside of my living space.  I love it.
The Penthouse Sweet (aka my casita)

Rinse and Repeat
I soap my chest and stomach and start rubbing it in.  Ten feet to the left, Cecilia is chatting with her cousin on the porch.  There are no walls between us.  Occasionally, some kids playing soccer about twenty yards from me glance over and giggle.  I smile to myself and dump another bucketful of water over my head.

Our shower is outside and has no walls.  So each day, I put on a bathing suit, sit down on one of the wood planks and rinse and repeat in plain sight of everyone.  Occasionally, I even have a conversation while scrubbing my legs with soap.  It was a bit uncomfortable at first but, like every other weird thing here, I've gotten used to it.  By the way, I highly recommend sitting in the shower to anyone who has never tried, very relaxing.
The Shower/Laundry Room - Host Mom

The Windy Latrine Expose
While I have grown to love and welcome the northern wind here in Soloy, the other day it caused me some problems.  Our latrine has a curtain for a door and is plain sight of the house and surrounding yard.  As I approached the latrine, the wind was feeling particularly relentless and I realized that this might turn out to be a problem.

As I sat to do the deed, the curtain flew up over my head and I could plainly see my host mother washing clothes to the right, and a group of boys playing soccer to the left.  I grabbed the curtain with one hand and held tightly, willing the wind to relax for just a few minutes.  With this system, I managed to do what was necessary and I rose to enter the final act, which is when the real problem arose.  How was I going to stand and...finish...while still blocking the curtain?

I strategized for literally a few minutes before I found a position capable of both attacking and defending.  Crisis averted, I finished with expedience and exited stage center.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

I'll See Your Amoebas, and Raise You a Bacterial Infection

The nurse pushes my wheelchair past the waiting room and I self-consciously adjust my hospital gown to cover my shoulder.  A fellow Peace Corps volunteer sits in line and as I roll past, he looks at me, looks at the wheelchair, and then cracks up.

“What the hell happened to you, man?”

For the past ten days or so, I’ve been coughing like a lifelong chain smoker and spitting up yellow phlegm.  While I might normally consider this a bad sign and get it checked out, I kept comparing it to the wide spectrum of exotic illnesses that Peace Corps volunteers (PCV’s) contract and decided that since I didn’t have dengue fever or stomach parasites, I wasn’t actually sick. 

Before I go on, I should say that in my site the weather is extremely humid, everyone cooks on an open fire and burns trash in their backyards, all of which flows directly into anywhere your face happens to be.  And I’m coughing?  That’s weird. 

Monday, I was supposed to do a five hour hike up and down mountains with the ex-president of the coffee group to visit a neighboring town and meet more members.  Sunday afternoon, I got to the top of my little mountain and almost fell over I was coughing so hard and for the second night in a row, I had trouble sleeping.  I figured it might be best to skip the strenuous hike and see a doctor instead. 
Fellow volunteer and site-mate Laura had a cough last week that turned into bronchitis; she went to the clinic in the city, got some pills and was on her way.  I figured I was in for something similar so I packed my laptop and some money, with a leisurely city day in mind – after a quick hospital visit of course.

Four hours after arriving in the hospital, I presented my x-rays and blood tests to the doctor.  Glancing at my watch, I was thinking more about what time the post office closed and whether or not I could still get matinee price at the theater.  But instead of handing me antibiotics and pointing to the door, the doctor handed me nothing and pointed me to a nurse, who escorted me to a room and needled my hand into an IV machine. 

I hate needles.  And I hate being kept overnight in hospitals.  I protested all I could, asking if I could just go out and grab some dinner, maybe a book from the nearby hostel (PCV’s have a little book dump there, which I was planning on perusing after my brief hospital visit).  Instead, the nurse turned on the TV, fixed a breathing machine to the front of my face, and left the room.  The TV was set to a music channel, which was playing the new Creed song.  I laughed out loud. 

However, I got extremely lucky in that the hospital has cable, which has ESPN, which had Monday Night Football, which featured the Patriots against the Jets, which is my favorite team against my least favorite – and the Pats beat the snot out of them.  I’ve also been able to watch movies, which is something I miss a lot.  I’m also able to write this blog post, though I wouldn’t recommend anyone do the same with a needle in their hand.

It turns out, I had severe bronchitis in my lower chest – i.e. a bacterial infection.  It is now day two in the hospital and I have been waiting for a doctor to come give me the ok to leave.  The problem is that Peace Corps sends all of its regional volunteers to this hospital and foots the bill, with minimal questions asked.  As a result, the hospital tends to over-test us and loves to insist that we stay the night.  

Classic example - I had a friend who threw up 30 times in 12 hours and the hospital insisted that he get a stomach x-ray; he tried to remind them that x-rays are generally used to look at bones but they did it anyway.  The x-ray revealed nothing but other tests showed that he had worms.  That’s weird. 

About 20 minutes ago, the nurse wanted me to take some follow up x-rays of my head (despite the hard evidence from the day before that the infection is in my lower right chest) and came into the room with a wheelchair.  I looked at it, looked at her, and laughed out loud.

“I can walk, you know.”

“Yes, but you should sit in the chair, it will be more comfortable.”

With a huge smile on my face, I adjusted my gown, sat in the wheelchair, and then adjusted my gown some more.  She saw me adjusting my, ahem, lower regions of the gown and folded my bed sheet and laid it over my legs.  I laughed again and shook my head as we exited the room.

En route, I saw a fellow PCV in the lobby.  I had seen him the week before at our Thanksgiving get together and he laughed before even saying anything and we had a quick conversation, him leading with classic volunteer to volunteer encouragement.   

“You look like shit!”

I laughed.  “I have bronchitis but they’re treating me like a paraplegic.  I didn’t even know bronchitis necessitated a hospital stay!  What’s up with you?”

“Yeah, they just want the money.” He said as he rubbed his fingers together. Then he shrugged, “I probably have amoebas.” 

I nodded understandingly and we exchanged well wishings as I was rolled away. 

The experience here has made me reflect on two interesting aspects of Peace Corps life, one being our fantastic medical coverage, which requires us to simply show an ID and sign a form.  And while the hospitals exploit the little things, the unquestioning support of the office no doubt prevents a lot of illnesses from getting worse, if not out of hand. 

I am one who generally lets things draw out too long, hoping they will take care of themselves.  Part of this is my loathing for waiting rooms and needles and the general atmosphere of hospitals but I also stress the paperwork and the parade of bills that follows each visit.  With this medical coverage though, the stresses are lessened and the cost simply isn’t a factor, which makes it a lot easier to motivate yourself to the clinic.

Secondly, I have been thinking about PCV’s general attitudes towards sickness.  Like my conversation in the waiting room, saying something like, “I have worms!” or “A fly borrowed a hole into my skin and has been nesting there for weeks!*” just simply doesn’t have the same punch that it does in the States.  Yes, those things are bad, but we all go through them eventually and have become adept at looking at them as something to laugh about.  Who knows, maybe a year and half from now, I will return to the hospital and find a fellow PCV in the waiting room and have the following conversation:
“Hey man!  What are you in for?  I have fungus growing behind my ears and a twelve inch parasite lunching on my lower intestine!”

“Yeah parasites are rugged man, had em’ last year… A squirrel laid eggs in my nasal cavity and produced two flesh-eating babies, which have been chomping on my brain stem and I have this four foot sharpened stick impaling my shoulder.  You want to catch a matinee after this, maybe get some pizza?  I haven’t had pizza in months…”

Note – since almost exclusively family and friends read this blog, I feel it is necessary to say that while I wrote this from the hospital, I am posting it from a hostel in the city and am feeling better and am heavily armed with antibiotics.  Also, I will be setting two more blog posts to go up in the next few days, so be ready.  

*I’m not making this up and surprisingly, this doesn’t necessitate a hospital visit, just a piece of duct tape and a pair of tweezers (the duct tape suffocates the fly, causing it to come out for air, at which point you grab it).  It’s called a bot fly.