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In the "Cult of Escapism"

In the "Cult of Escapism": January 2011

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Tarantula + Scorpion = Torpion

I am looking for my underwear and instead I find a tarantula. I scream. 

No one in my host family reacts so I feign surprise and yell a second time, hoping they will come running with a flamethrower or another time-tested tarantula-killing weapon.  Again, no one reacts, so I shine my flashlight on the spider and ask my uncle, “What do you do with these?” (Translation: please kill this for me). He helpfully informs me that they are very dangerous and that we should probably kill it. He then points the flashlight at it and looks at me expectantly. Awesome.

I want to ask if anyone has a flamethrower handy but I think I remember my host dad taking it with him earlier that day, mentioning something about unicorn hunting, so I pick up the nearest weapon – a two liter bottle of Dasani. I swing, I miss, and now the tarantula is in a water bottle-proof corner, looking up at us as if to say, “Ha! This is one place the Coca Cola corporation can´t get to me!” Aggravated and embarrassed by his confidence, I shout, “Get a broom!” to no one in particular and my host sister retrieves one and hands it to my uncle.  He inches the broom handle to within maybe two centimeters of the spider and then strikes.  It moves, he misses, and now there is not a tarantula crouched neared my bed, there is a missing tarantula hiding near my bed.

We move bags, look under sleeping pads and shine the light in every crack on the wall. My host uncle’s light stops searching as he points to a new enemy - a scorpion tail sticking out from behind a board. He helpfully informs me that scorpions can sting and that we should probably kill it. He then jabs at it with the broom, misses, and now there are a scorpion and a tarantula hiding near my bed.


Normally, the creature that sleeps closest to me is a hen that lives in a box about four feet away (fresh eggs anyone?).  We find the tarantula in the box, eyeing the hen, and I have no doubt he intends to eat her. Compelled to prove my manhood in front of the family (and save the hen), I grab the broom and stab at the spider, missing again.  But this time, I keep at him, force him into a corner, and pulverize him. I don’t stop stabbing until he is reduced to pieces and even then, three full grown men have to grab my arms and subdue my blood rage. Satisfied, I am about to return the broom, when I remember the scorpion; we continue the hunt.

My host uncle stabs at the wall with a kitchen knife and I wait with the broom for the scorpion to appear. I, of course, miss and the scorpion scurries outside, only to meet a more capable foe – my host aunt. She kills him first try and while I can’t see her, I can only assume she used her bare hands and then sucked the poison out of the tail for fun.

For the first time in months, I was afraid to go to bed last night.  

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Rant about Radios and Ringing Phones

I like my third host family.  The kids seem wholly uninterested in my existence and the parents are good conversationalists.  Overall, they basically treat me like they are house sitting a cat for the first time – they are not sure exactly what to do but they know to feed it and make sure it doesn't poop on the floor. 

That said, they have reminded me of three habits that make me want to stab myself with a wrench.  Most would call the dislike of these habits “pet peeves,” but the magnitude of my annoyance surpasses peeving and I have therefore elevated them to hate level.  This is a rant.

In the movies, the protagonist waits breathlessly by the phone for a call that will change the course of the movie.  A classic suspense technique is to make the viewers watch while the protagonist looks at the ringing phone and hesitates, thinking, waiting, stalling, sweating, not…picking…up…THE PHONE!!  At this point, I hurl popcorn at the screen and scream, “PICK UP THE DAMN PHONE!!” Then the person next to me screams, “You threw my popcorn away!”  Then someone else screams, “BE QUIET!” Then a wild-west style brawl erupts in the audience.  This happens about every three times I go to the movies.  Maybe I should start buying my own popcorn.

My host family runs a small shop out of the front of their house (this is extremely common – in some smaller towns, almost every house has a small store in front) and they don’t tend it, per se, but someone is always around and ready to sell if a customer comes knocking.  Here’s where the customers become phones and my host family becomes the protagonist.  At times, I’ve been in the room adjacent to the store, surrounded by five family members, all capable shopkeepers, and all five will ignore steady knocking for a full two minutes – un-phased, unhurried. Multiple times, I have almost attended the store myself, assigning random prices with no regard to profitability, just to stop the knocking. If there had been popcorn around, I would probably have thrown it at the nearest family member.

If I’m ever grudgingly, tear-inducingly forced to listen to the radio, I absolutely do not tolerate static.  At the slightest scratching, I change stations, or turn off the radio. Silence is better than scratching. In this sense, portable radios have become my third most significant enemy, after malaria and dengue fever.  Radios play host to tipica, the most popular style of music in Panama, which features a lot of accordion (a Godless, abomination of an instrument) and a singing style that sounds like a constipated female is yodeling, while being punched in the stomach, while a cat has sex in the background.  It’s this, or crappy, auto-tuned hip hop (would somebody please hire good singers to make music, instead of autotuning shitty ones?).  So, the music is bad, but people’s tolerance for static is what sends the popcorn flying.

Yes, those cheap radios are hard to keep tuned, but if they’re sitting on your lap anyway, why not extend thumb and forefinger and get a clear sound?  I’d rather not listen to “Stairway to Heaven” than listen to static “Stairway.”  Nevertheless, everyone and their mom (quite literally) tunes into Static FM, turns up the volume and doesn’t bother to tune.  If only autotuning was something that existed on cheap radios…

Note – the day after I wrote this, I was making coffee with the coffee group and one of the members turned on the radio.  He tuned it for a bit, got nothing but static and instead of turning it off, he just left it.  “I love this type of music” I finally said to him and he digested the statement for a few minutes before turning the radio off.  Really?

I was in middle school when cell phones became more commonplace.  People were excited to play Tetris, make calls, and pick ringtones.  I’ve hated ringtones since before Bin Laden and before I had seen enough movies to hate Steven Seagal.  It was as if people did not have homes and were forced to choose ringtones on crowded buses and other public areas.  I still have a slight limp from kicking so many people in the spinal column (this was before I started hurling popcorn).

As I wrote this, my host brothers were scrolling through the ringtones on the family cell phone, just to hear the music.  It wouldn’t surprise me if the radio stations started playing digital, high pitched versions of “Hall of the Mountain King,” instead of tipica (this could be a slight improvement). Now, my brothers are young and kids like to make noises just for fun.  But there were adults around who did nothing to stop them!  AHHH!! 

I am about to head to the supermarket to buy $700 worth of popcorn.  This way, whenever I walk by a person playing Static FM at full volume, I can hurl fistfuls of popcorn at them.  And God help them if they are not answering a ringing phone.  

Sunday, January 9, 2011

New Years´ Past

The end of 2010 had me thinking about New Years’ past, so I’ve come up with my Top Five Most Memorable. 
December 31, 1999
I am in a fallout shelter in the Kentucky mountains, surrounded by seven years’ worth of Campbell’s soup, beef jerky, and duct tape.  The machines have taken over and we humans have taken to caves and sewers and are adjusting to a dark, desperate life. 
The reason ’99-’00 was so memorable was because it was not so memorable.  The computers didn’t crash, traffic signs signaled the same as ever and legions of terminators did not roam the streets.  I drank apple juice out of an imitation champagne bottle at my cousin’s house in Westford, MA and watched the Boston fireworks in the distance.  I anticipate this is exactly what the transition from 2011-2012 will be like, despite the apocalyptic predictions.  Except by then, of course, we will have flying cars and meals in pill form.  The future!
December 31, 2000 or 2001
Either 2000 or 2001 works because both years I was in Middle School and both years I was in Hong Kong, sitting near the harbor, the city behind me and my attention on the waterfront.
During the holidays, the buildings of Hong Kong are gilded with Christmas lights from the ground floors to the rooftops.  I’ll never forget one building – it had a twenty story Santa that spent the night waving at the water, as if to say, “Look! My Christmas decoration is larger and more expensive than everybody else’s!”  Renting “junks” (boats) is very popular this time of year and many run routes up and down the harbor, dishing out drinks and pointing out lights.  On New Year’s, the harbor also hosts the fireworks.
For thirty minutes, the water goes up in flames and no matter where you look, there is something exploding in front of you (there are enough glass building that turning away from the water means seeing the flames in a dark, distorted mirror).  There is no champagne in these memories either but I wouldn’t trade those fireworks for the best bottle of Dom.
December 31, 2005
It’s 11:50pm and nothing is awake.  My parents, my sister, the sheep, and the neighbors have all decided that eight hours and rising early are more important than counting down.  Did you say, “Sheep?” 
My family and I are in New Zealand and just finished a 33 mile hike, which brought us up mountains, down mountains, under waterfalls, and through valleys, whose terrain varied so much and so often that they could have filmed Jurassic Park, Lord of the Rings, and the Sound of Music all within five miles of one another. 
We are now touring the country, attempting to prove that there really are more sheep than people (there are).  As such, we are sleeping near a pasture in what I remember as a bungalow or very upscale trailer without wheels (and without the barbeque pit and stereotypical undershirt-clad, redneck family).  It is green and beautiful and dark and quiet and very much the opposite of Times Square. 
I’m convinced that without the ten second countdown, we’ll never get to 2006, so I’m awake, dutifully checking my watch and hoping that maybe the sheep will set off some fireworks.  I count down the ten seconds alone, whispering in the dark.  Nothing happens.  The sheep set off a few fireworks, but mostly just sparklers. 
I’m 17 and three months from getting into college.  Alcohol and women have climbed my list of interests and college seems rife with both.  Additionally, popular depiction of New Year’s Eve is people screaming, champagne flowing, strangers French-kissing in the streets.  Convinced that this was happening everywhere except in this pasture, I vowed to do something epic for every New Year’s hence.  One year later, I had the best New Year’s of my life.
December 31, 2006
I have never seen so many people in one place.  It feels like all six million residents of Taipei are going downtown – each with ten or fifteen family members who flew in from southern China.  Mike, Megan, and I are on our way downtown to meet our Taiwanese friend and my future roommate, Wayne.  We had earlier agreed to meet at Taipei 101, the largest building in the world and host of the fireworks display.  This was a terrible idea.
People kept telling me about how crowded the trains were on New Year’s Eve.  Having lived in Tokyo and routinely used Shinjuku station – the world’s busiest station and transit point of over one million people per day – I shrugged the warnings and boarded at the station nearest my house, about 40 minutes outside of the city.  Here, the train was crowded but not crushingly so.  Soon however, the train was what I (and any other sane person) would deem “full.”   We were all bound for the same destination and no one ever got off.  Nevertheless, the conductor braved each stop, daring the train to accommodate another 50, another 80 bodies.
You couldn’t move anything, not your hand, not your foot – you could barely turn your head.  If someone had put a gun to my head (impossible, since he would never get his arm up that high) and told me to take a step in any direction, I would have failed and he would have shot me.  But this is a feeling I have experienced at concerts, when the lights go black and the crowd surges forward, crushing everyone against the stage. It was also similar to riding the train in Tokyo during rush hour, when station attendants push people on and hold them until the door closes – like leaning on a full suitcase and forcing the zipper.  What I was not prepared for was the station upon arrival.
We stepped off the train, only to stand still.  Even on the busiest day in Shinjuku station, there are hundreds of thousands of people but they are all moving.  Here, the trains on either side were stuck, unable to deposit their passengers because there was quite literally no room left on the platform to accommodate another body.  The rest of the station was the same, with everyone shuffling towards the same transfer point.  What was normally a three minute walk from one train to the next took over an hour. 
This may sound miserable, but unlike rush hour, when everyone is either exhausted and grumpy from lack of sleep (going) or from a long day (returning), everyone here was laughing and chattering and enjoying themselves.  The ridiculously crowded station was only a minor obstacle between these people and a night of partying and arguably the best fireworks display in the world.  So, despite 2.5 hours dedicated to a 40 minute trip, my friends and I were in good spirits.
Upon arrival, I attempted to phone Wayne to find out where he was.  Unfortunately, six million people in a three mile radius had the same idea and the network was overloaded.  But we figured if we went to 101, things would work themselves out. 
The goal for every Taiwanese citizen that day is to get as close to 101 as possible and make camp in preparation for the show.  Some show up early in the morning with blankets and provisions and wait for 15 hours for the fireworks.  It was about 8:00pm and we had to step over and on top of people to get to the tower, but as long as you were not trying to sit down, nobody seemed to care.  So we got to the tower, but as you might have guessed, the tallest building in the world has a rather wide base and simply planning to meet “at 101” is pretty worthless.  We kept at the phone but the chances of a call going through were about as slim as Steven Seagal winning Best Actor.
Losing hope, we continued circumnavigating the building, when suddenly two teenage, Taiwanese females called out, “Jack! Michael!”  Stunned, we turned to see Wayne smiling back at us from the screen of a digital camera.  The girls told us that they did not know him, but Wayne had approached them and instructed them to look for three white people, two male, one female, and to show us this picture and make us wait.  Meanwhile, Wayne was at the other corner of the tower, scanning the crowd and periodically checking back with the girls.  One of the girls called Wayne and somehow got through.  Then Steven Seagal walked by with a two foot golden statue.  Then Wayne came and took us to the best place in the city to watch the fireworks.
Wayne has a close friend who I’ll call Tom, who is extremely wealthy.  He is also extremely generous and fun to party with and within minutes of entering his house, we were fed and offered full reign of the alcohol.  It is here I learned that wealthy families do not stock Busch Light for their parties.  The rest of the night, my lips knew nothing short of Johnny Walker Black and there were bottles behind bottles on top of bottles of champagne.  Everyone was young and fun and well dressed; Tom’s girlfriend was literally a professional model.  This is pretty much what I had in mind in the pasture the year before. 
At first, it was all very classy, with everyone “socializing” and ice cubes quietly clinking inside glasses.  Then someone suggested we play drinking games and things got hectic.  Taiwanese love drinking games.  At some point in the middle of the laughter and debauchery, my friend Mike produced some berries he had purchased from a street vendor.  These berries alter your taste buds and make limes sweet, hot sauce mild, Steven Seagal movies entertaining, etc.  We passed them around and spent the next two hours biting limes and laughing hysterically at our impervious tongues. (Note – I am not using “berry” as a pseudonym from “ecstasy” or any other drug – this is an actual berry sold on the streets of Taiwan, among the mangos and the vegetables.)
It was so much fun the countdown almost seemed like an interruption, until we climbed to the roof.  Tom’s building is not only directly across the street from 101, it’s tall and designed for human use.  The city glowed in anticipation below and around us and we glowed with it.  At 11:58, the lights on 101 went out and you could hear six million people gasp at once.  Ten seconds counted up the side of the building and we screamed it out, trying to drown out the rest of the city and failing miserably.  Then Taipei 101 exploded.
December 31, 2010
I can’t see him, because the light is directly behind his head and I can’t understand him, because he is speaking Sabonera, a subset of the indigenous language Ngoberre reserved for mystics and medicine men.  I’m thinking, “I come to Panama and learn Spanish, then I get put in the Comarca and have to learn Ngoberre, and now you’re telling me there’s another indigenous language that I don’t understand?  Damn.”
To say the man I’m talking to is drunk would be a serious understatement.  Minutes after he is done talking at me, he decides his time is better spent sleeping in a chair and periodically throwing up.  He is not alone.  Soloy is just as drunk and has been since morning.  In a five minute walk down any given part of the street, one is likely to see six people passed out in the road and at least ten fights. 
I am sitting on a hammock on someone’s patio, waiting to be fed so I can politely leave and try my luck elsewhere.  Drunken men are taking turns approaching me, apologizing for the others (“Sorry, he’s drunk”), and then babbling for about twenty minutes, the same way the last man did.  I listen as best I can and hastily finish my food.  Changing locations doesn’t improve my situation much but at least I have fresh drunk people to listen to. 
Two hours pass and I have been pretending to drink, receiving shots in a Styrofoam cup and then tossing them over my shoulder when no one is looking.  More food is served (the highlight of the night) and at 11:59, a middle aged man is trying to speak English with me and not doing so well.  With ten seconds left, I cut him off mid-sentence and point to my watch.  “Look! Ten seconds left in 2010!”  I count down, trying to encourage him to join me; he looks confused.  I finish the countdown alone and look around, no one seems to have noticed.  At about 12:05, one man declared, “It’s midnight!” and started shooting off cheap fireworks. 
The Panamanians also have a tradition of creating straw men, filled with fireworks, and setting them off at midnight.  The act represents the passing of the old year and I have been looking forward to it all night, imagining people gathered round a flaming effigy, cursing the old year as spectacular fireworks spray from the body.  Instead, Mr. 2010 is tossed unceremoniously into the yard and lit on fire.  Then everyone goes back to what they are doing.  I watch intently, waiting for the fireworks, and am disappointed with a few pops and a lot of smoke.  At 12:30, I call it a night and go to bed, stepping over sleeping street bodies and skirting fights. 
As I left to meet other volunteers at the beach the next morning, many were still drinking, still fighting, and still sleeping in the street.   I was later told that they did not disburse until around 1:00pm – more than 24 straight hours of intoxication and violence.  Next year, I’m going home for the holidays.