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Sharp Teeth are Better for Biting Red Bananas

In the "Cult of Escapism": Sharp Teeth are Better for Biting Red Bananas

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


At July 2, 2012 at 6:48 AM , OpenID dcpierce said...

"vise a vi"



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