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In the "Cult of Escapism"

In the "Cult of Escapism": March 2011

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Cockfight

Let the feathers fly.

Five rows surround the ring and men lean over railings, encouraging, criticizing, screaming at the cocks in a futile effort to alter the course of the fight. A brown and red rooster circles left, jumps with a violent flapping and punctures the jugular vein of his opponent.  Everyone jumps to their feet, cheering, jeering, trading bets with their neighbors. Welcome to the cockfights in Santiago, Panama.

Rows of cages precede the ring; the roosters crow and pace excitedly in anticipation. A crowd lingers just outside, discussing the fights, drinking beer, talking to the owners of the cocks. We enter the stadium to a standing, screaming crowd of roughly 60 people and a standstill fight in its twelfth minute. Excusing ourselves, we pushed past the crowd and take our position in the third row back.

Fights are a maximum of fifteen minutes. If both cocks can still stand after that, the fight is a draw and all bets are pushed. Most fights end with one rooster either dead or completely incapacitated; both are generally bleeding profusely. Each rooster has a blade strapped to their claws and they kill by jumping and stabbing the neck of their opponent with this claw. Some matches are as quick as thirty seconds, most last about six minutes, with a clear winner emerging around the third minute. The fights themselves are not particularly entertaining, mostly a lot of flapping, pecking and circling one another. The betting makes it all worth it.

I love the betting system. As the cocks are brought in, the owners let them walk around, then pick them up and let them peck at each other while people evaluate. When you decide on your favorite, you simply survey the surrounding crowd for someone willing to bet against you. A typical bet begins like this:

You – Which one do you want?
Other person – Blue! Blue!
You – Ok, I’ll take red; how much?
Other person – Five dollars, five dollars (this other person tends to repeat themselves).
You – Ok, deal.

People climb up on the railings to scout bets and use hand gestures to begin a bet long-distance. Once the match starts, people lean way over the railing and scream at their cock (great sentence). “Jump! Jump!” “Yes!” “No!” “That’s it..JUMP!!”

When the match ends, you simply turn to the person you bet with and pay them. Everyone always pays. This is the part I love – a completely self-sustaining, self-regulating market, with no middle men or bet collectors. Beautiful.

My winnings fluctuated throughout the night, but I ended with $15 in profit. Thus, cockfights are treating me a lot better than the blackjack table and I have just added another cultural experience and another variation to my increasing list of vices. 

This video might say it better than I:

Thursday, March 24, 2011


For the eyes there are drunken men sleeping scattered in a field, straddled by shirtless, bloody boxers and men in dresses throwing logs. For the ears there are whistles – plastic and tin – conch shells, bull horns and shouting. Thick, humid air and a lack of shade draw the sweat out in a steady pour and stain painted faces black and red. The nose detects blood, sweat and fermented corn alcohol. The senses thus assaulted, we entered Balserilla.

About Balserilla: Balserilla is a longstanding Ngöbe tradition with disputed roots. Many claim it is a Ngöbe invention but I’ve heard it may have originated in Africa. Either way, when a town feels they have sufficient funds and desire to host a Balserilla, they invite (challenge) another town to come face them. The host is responsible for three days’ worth of food and chicha fuerte (fermented corn alcohol), an acceptable location (i.e. a field), and a massive pile of balsa sticks. Those invited form a “team” to formally bring to the host town. This generally consists of the best Balseros (best players) and maybe a few notoriously tough fighters. However, once word is out, many others are likely to come (like curious Peace Corps volunteers), though the host is not responsible for feeding all. I’ve heard that in the past, it was just about the game - now it is more of an opportunity for hundreds to gather and get drunk and fight and throw sticks at each other. Balserilla is a three day event.

Day One: The challengers arrive and the hosts feed them and the two sides spend all day trying to intoxicate the opponent in order to decrease their ability during the game. Many others will be present, drinking, fighting and generally enjoying themselves but the game-related activity centers around the official participants.

Day Two: The Game. At 5:00am, the best Balseros face off, one man against another, throwing anywhere from 20 to 60 balsa sticks (made from balsa wood, the sticks are about four feet long and five inches wide; see picture below) while the other dances. The thrower tries to hit the dancer below the knee, while the dancer dodges. There are no lines, no limits – the thrower can get as close as he wants and wait as long as he wants to throw. While he feints, the dancer blows a whistle and more or less runs in place, doing a mini-splits at the last second to dodge the stick. If the dancer can still stand after all sticks are thrown, it’s his turn.

A Balsa stick

Here, at dawn, is where legends are made and hosts either defend their honor or suffer a humiliating upset loss. Once finished, these titans of Balsa resume drinking and eating through till day three, when they drink and eat and fight some more and then depart. Unfortunately, I learned all this three days after I went to Balserilla and in my ignorance, showed up promptly at 9:00am – the height of amateur hour.

Deep in the mountains of the Comarca, myself and five female volunteers heard the field before we saw it. The horns and whistles were loud but the dull, drunken chorus of shouting was what caused pause in the group. We agreed to stay together and leave if things got bad. Balserilla’s date and location are unknown outside of the Comarca and foreigners are not invited. Additionally, foreign females are coveted and we had only one male (that’d be me).

The first fifteen minutes were the worst of the day. We were immediately surrounded upon entering – some were curious and some angry. Some asked if we were journalists and warned us not to take pictures or tell anyone about this (whoops). Eyes level, determined and angry, a stocky Ngöbe woman with a black eye punched her open hand and approached my friend Carolyn. I stepped between them and stopped the woman with an outstretched arm. She didn’t even look at me. Eyes on Carolyn, she repeatedly tried to go around until her friends pulled her back. Surrounded and overwhelmed, we struggled to understand drunken questions, explained repeatedly who we were and why we were there (just to watch), and turned down marriage requests and fight challenges.

With such a friendly reception, we decided to keep moving and fortunately myself and another volunteer found community members in the crowd and were able to relax and look around.
The scene: There are hundreds of people and everyone is drunk. About ¼ of the people are paired off and fighting; another ¼ are splayed passed out on the ground; ¼ are mingling, drinking, watching, and the final ¼ are playing the Balsa.

With some chicha fuerte and a feathered community member

At this point in the day, the real Balseros were done and those still competing were playing with only eight sticks (which seemed like a lot to me at the time). There was no tournament or even system, one man simply approaches another and challenges him and they begin. The only rule I heard of was that those from the same town never face one another.

The dress: Many paint their faces with black and red stripes. Some men wear a typical Panamanian farmer’s hat with feathers sticking out of the top and others wear traditional female dresses to hide their legs while they dance for the game. A handful wore dried animal carcasses like backpacks (I found out afterwards that those with mountain lion carcasses or large bull horns are true Balseros). Many blow conch shells or bull horns, like air horns at a basketball game. Almost everyone had either a tin or plastic whistle.

Shell, whistle, painted faces, and back right is a man in a dress

Once we settled, we talked with community members and drunken passerby. The women turned down more marriage proposals and I earned a lot of respect when I would explain that all five were “with me.” We had a chance to take some pictures and some video without too much harassment. A stranger challenged me to the game – my chance. Worried that he was only challenging me in order to serve a gringo a whopping, I declined. There are few things I regret more in my life. Next year…

After about three hours, the heat and chicha fuerte had us woozy and burned (inside and out) and we decided to hike back out. At the entrance, I turned back for one last picture. As I set up the shot, one man knocked another to the ground and as I hit the shudder, he kicked him in the back. Turning, I stepped over a splayed body and walked away from the drunken violence. 
A last look; note shirtless man kicking fallen red shirt

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Rare Victory for the Indigenous

The Ngöbes won. On March 1st, the government rescinded the law which facilitated mining in the Comarca, promised further protection of the environment, and offered medical care to those injured during the protests. This is an unprecedented victory for an indigenous people, considering a worldwide history of being ignored or manipulated or taken advantage of; so how did they do it?

There were three main factors – the political climate, international pressure, and the Inter-Americana. First, administrations in Panama run for five years and cannot run for re-election. The same party yes, the same people no. And the same way we in the U.S. begin talking about the 2012 election in about 2004, political pushes begin early in Panama. The heat intensifies later this year as we pass the halfway point for the current administration (2009-2014) and enter the primaries. Controversial moves are to be avoided. As such, the window for the current administration to get the mining going is closing and they know it and so did the Ngöbes.

On February 7th, the Ngöbes donned shirts saying “We Die Before we Kneel” and blocked the highway just outside of the Comarca and were eventually tear gassed and dispersed by the riot police. A three year old girl died, a man was paralyzed, and many others were injured. On February 15th, the United Nations officially denounced the government’s actions against the indigenous and international pressure and criticism mounted. To avoid further international controversy, the Panamanian president (Ricardo Martinelli) ordered the riot police not to tear gas protestors anymore and decided to ignore the protests and let them disburse organically. The entire last week of February, over 10,000 Ngöbes blocked the Inter-Americana in four spots.

The Inter-Americana is the main highway across Panama. All commerce and travel is conducted along this road and in many locations, there are literally no alternative routes for cars*. Most Ngöbes are subsistence farmers with maybe a little side project for extra income. Few have daily jobs to get to and none have a problem sleeping on the ground, so they chose four crucial, no-alternate-route spots on the highway and camped.

Northwest was cut off from West, West from East, and East from everything (keep going east and the road simply ends and the jungle begins). Several cities ran out of gasoline; tourists got stuck; Panama City ran out of vegetables; Tiny Tim got boiled rocks in his stocking. Things were getting desperate. Overwhelmed and out of options, the government promised a meeting in exchange for open highways.

They shocked everyone. Many expected the government to bureaucrat it up, talk endlessly, and buy a few days of open highway while they thought about how to handle the situation. Instead, the President came, rescinded the law, claimed that Panamanians don’t yet understand the benefits of mining, but that’s ok because the government has other important governmenty things to do like build schools and win elections in three years.

So the Ngöbes win, for now.

*I’ve been trying to come up with a comparison to a road this crucial in the States but I don’t think it exists. Even if a big highway like 95 gets blocked, there’s always another highway, or backstreets. Not here – there’s just the Inter-Americana. 

Thursday, March 17, 2011


From – March 8th, 2011 – the day I returned from Carnaval

The gay trucker on ecstasy is back in indigenous territory. My body hurts and I’m still not thinking straight. Carnaval didn’t quite conquer me but it was a bloody fight and I barely made it out with my money, my shirt, and my dignity (at least, most of it).

Right - David's hat and David; Left - Me, the Gay Trucker on Ecstasy

The best way to summarize Carnaval is chronologically, so here’s my itinerary from the two days:
7:00 – We (Peace Corps volunteers and visitors) wake up because our body clocks are fixed on “dawn mode” and because the neighbors begin blasting music. Everyone tries to sleep longer and everyone fails.

8:00-10:00am – By now, we’ve all accepted that sleeping off the hangover is impossible and are limping around, avoiding direct sunlight and trying to remember what happened the night before. We eat breakfast and address various injuries (e.g. one volunteer ran full speed into a barbed wire fence; another, immediately afterwards tried to jump the same fence and failed – these are the kinds of intelligent decisions made during Carnaval).

(For a shot of the soon-mentioned square, the floats, and the seven million people, search “Carnaval Panama” on Google images)

10:00am – 3:00pm – Reboot. We start drinking again during breakfast, put on our colors and ridiculous outfits and proceed to the center of town with approximately seven million other people. The center is a square – each side about two blocks of street with a “park” in the center (all concrete). The streets are completely empty except for the giant floats, the tractors pulling the giant floats, the tanker trucks filled with water and the seven million people. As such, elbow room is bountiful and trips back and forth across the square definitely do not take 45 minutes of pushing, being pushed, tripping on coolers, stepping in putrid water and eventually failing to escape.

Approximately six of the seven million people are pickpockets, the rest are not fit to operate a motor vehicle, or even a cell phone. Anyone not wearing a bathing suit and a plain t-shirt is wearing bright colors or something really revealing (this category included women and transvestites and me, because my friend ripped my button down shirt open). 

There are three floats – one with the queen of the Lower Street, one with the Upper, and one with the band. The queens stand among giant snakes or musical instruments or peacocks and are dressed accordingly. The floats change each of the six days. Queens smile and sort of dance. Similarly dressed but less attractive women stand at each corner and do the same. Apparently, Upper and Lower queen compete but I don’t know how. What I do know is the tractors slowly drag the floats through the crowd, like a fist slowly pushing through a soft chocolate cake. You can either follow the flow away or press against the sides and feel the crush as they pass. Either way, pickpockets follow the floats and we had many victims.

One friend caught a pickpocket with his phone in hand and my friend grabbed it back and put the guy in a headlock. Another vigilant friend caught a man with his hand in my pocket, clutching a free t-shirt (I had all valuables around my neck). He pushed the man around and yelled at him until the man ran away. The unlucky lost $20, $130 and a credit card, and $100 and a phone, respectively. Those successfully stolen from left the next day and were among those I consider conquered by Carnaval.

The water trucks were more fun than the pickpockets. For mid-day, mid-summer, in a windless area near the equator, it is surprisingly hot during the day. So companies sponsor tankers filled with water and their promoters stand on top and throw free stuff and hose down the crowd. The water feels incredible but the street drains get clogged and dirt, beer, and urine flow along the curbs. I walked through this in sandals at one point and miraculously, am yet to get a staph infection.

3:00pm – 8:00pm – We return to our rented house, dirty, soaking, sun-burned and drunk. Most sleep on mats, sleeping bags, or directly on the floor. Some stay up and talk. Showers and throwing up are popular activities.

8:00pm – 10:00pm – We rise and nurse hangovers with more beer or cheap rum and have the healthiest fried food that $2.00 can buy. Most abandon the day clothes for something slightly more respectful, like jeans. I preferred free t-shirts.

10:00pm - …am – P.H. I don’t remember what that stands for but that’s what they call the outdoor dance club, no matter what city you’re in. There are multiple bars and a stage in front. Much dancing. More drinking. The apparent goal is to fit the population of Central America into an area a little smaller than a football field. I’d like to tell you more about what happens at P.H. but I honestly don’t remember.

The crew at home before heading out

…am – Stumble home. Run into barbed wire fences. Bless the backyard with your stomach contents. One inspired volunteer jumped into our neighbor’s backyard pool and did a few laps, then ran soaking and screaming through the house we had rented. No one sleeps more than three or four hours.
Carnaval goes on for six days. I was there for two. Some were conquered by Carnaval, falling at the hands of pickpockets and the handles of alcohol. The rest leave dazed and hungover and full of stories that should never be repeated. As I left the house, I said goodbye to my friend Tyler:

Me – “Tyler, that was fun man, I’ll see you soon and let’s do it again sometime.”
Tyler (tightening his grip on a black coffee and slouching in his seat) – “Let’s never do that again.”

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Latrines and Your Enjoyment

Note: Women probably will not be able to relate to this blog post*.

Latrines prevent you from enjoying a good poop. So do grimy public bathrooms. Think about when you’re at home, a comfortable toilet at your disposal – pooping is a relaxing, enjoyable experience.

Now think about this. You have a big report due tomorrow and it’s not done. If you pause and watch a few minutes of TV, you feel guilty, if you get side-tracked on the internet and check the sports pages, you feel guilty. Hell, you even eat your meals quickly and work while you eat so as not to waste precious time. But if you need to poop, once you sit down, that’s your time and no level of obligation will take it from you.

You sit down and feel the release and relax with the thought, even if unconscious, that you have these minutes to yourself. It’s between you and the toilet bowl. You could receive a phone call saying your family is trapped in a burning building across the street and you would keep sitting, cause this is your time.

Latrines take that time. They befoul it with their stench and uncomfortable seats and insect assaults. Nights are even worse as the bugs seem to double their numbers and you feel like at any moment, the Candyman will attack from the deep with his hook**. You poop in latrines because you absolutely have to, wishing you didn’t and hoping it will end soon. It’s terrible. It’s unreasonable for God’s sake.

That’s why I propose a new arm of development work – the Toilet Seat arm. Every year, thousands of volunteers from the rich world go abroad to do charity work – in medicine, construction, poverty reduction, etc. The Toilet Seaters, as we will call ourselves, will bring crates full of toilet seats and distribute accordingly. Education will of course be important – the poor don’t yet know how much they can really enjoy themselves on the crapper. We can use live demonstrations and interactive participation to teach and to excite. These events will probably be attended entirely by men.

The world is crying out for our help and we sit idly on our porcelain thrones. After you’re done, it’s time to act, to bring an essential comfort to the billions of poor around the world.

It’s what Jesus would do.

*I think by now we can safely say the talking about pooping is something women just don’t enjoy the way men do. This is not sexist, it’s just a fact.
**50 points to anyone who got this reference. 

Monday, March 7, 2011

What I Learned from Host Family Living

I lived with host families for six months and it was educational, challenging frustrating, fun, infuriating, and lots of other adjectives. I’m glad I did it but damn am I happy to live alone. Here’s what I learned:
  • Don’t stay up late because you’ll never be able to sleep in. Especially in the Comarca, when the sun is up, so are you. And if you put something over your eyes and roll over, you’ve got maybe five minutes before the radio comes on or the baby starts crying…and there’s always a baby
  • There’s always a baby
  • Babies cry a lot
  • Babies are very cute, but they all have worms
  • Don’t hide, talk to the family. I studied Spanish in middle school and high school but I didn’t speak it until the end of training. I credit my first host mom, who was always willing to sit and talk. In your site, you can also learn a lot about the town and the culture if you ask lots of questions. However…
  • Be patient – Ngobes are quiet and conservative and slow to get a conversation going. Endure the awkward silence talk about the weather, space out for a while and eventually the flame of conversation heats up
  • Don’t take out food unless you’re willing to share. Ngobes always share – it’s not polite, it’s assumed
  • Only take out your computer if you enjoy watching five kids draw in Paint until the battery dies
  • Only take out your iPod if you are willing to tell them it costs $250, because they will ask
  • Use your mosquito net – there are not that many mosquitoes in the Comarca, but there are plenty of sancudos (tiny biting flies) who are very inconsiderate of one’s beauty rest
  • Eat all your food. When Peace Corps interviewed my host mom from training to make sure I was behaving myself, the only thing she told them was that I ate all my food every day. This is apparently the highest compliment. If you can’t finish your meal, there are generally dogs around that can
  • Chicken feet taste like chicken but have no sustenance
  • A bowl of rice is filling for about 20 minutes
  • You might go to bed hungry
  • Find an escape. I went to the river a lot at night because nobody else goes to the river at night. In a house with 8-12 other people, sometimes you need to be alone.
  • If you like sports, play sports. If you like music, play your instrument. If you like stabbing people with ice picks, maybe wait until you get back to the States where you’ll have a more defensible argument for owning an ice pick.

Two Quick Stories

First Quick Story - killed a tarantula with a jar of peanut butter the other day. He shriveled and died on top of a book titled A Good Day to Die.

Second Quick Story - On move-in day, I woke up, put on my boots and spent the entire day walking and working on the house. That evening, I pulled my foot out of its boot and a scorpion fell out. I stared at it. It was missing its stinger so I upended the boot and out it came. Eight hours I walked, literally, on top of a scorpion. Peace Corps lesson – always shake your shoes out before putting them on.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Little Drummer Boy and the Drunk Entourage

I’m struggling to keep the beat and I’ve already given up trying to understand my host’s nonsensical, tri-lingual speeches. It’s sunset on the side of the mountain overlooking the valley and I’m playing tamboritos (literally, little drums) with a drunk couple as their friends watch and nod in and out of consciousness. As the sun descends, so does their ability to play and speak coherently. I take another sip of the bitter, stinging chicha fuerte (literally, strong juice – it’s a fermented grain alcohol with corn in it) and wonder if it’s worth drinking faster to try to catch up.

The wife bangs inconsistently with one broken and one complete drumstick, singing the same three songs in succession, as her husband strokes a ribbed gourd (like a washboard), swaying a little with either the rhythm or the chicha. I’m alternating between a hand drum and my harmonica. The drunken spectators are big fans of the harmonica and I enjoy watching them lurch awake and jeer when I play so I soon abandon the drum. We mostly play like this, completing as much of a song as possible until the wife inevitably loses the beat, starts laughing, and then shakes my hand. Then there’s a monologue.

By now, I speak Spanish confidently and rarely have trouble communicating. But I don’t yet speak drunken Spanish and I certainly don’t speak drunken Spanish-English-Ngoberre (Spenglerre?). “What is your name!” the wife hollers at me and then doubles over laughing. Then comes a sentence that begins in Ngoberre and ends in Spanish. I try to distinguish questions from statements based on her tone. If it feels like a statement, I nod knowingly and say “Yeah, yeah” or “That’s true.” Questions are tough, so I generally just answer “Yes” and that seems to satisfy her. A classic drunk conversation strategy.

A few times, the hosts ask me to sing. Now, I played the drums in college, an instrument known for its lack of vocal contributions. But I figured my gringo-ness and some cover-up harmonica playing might deceive them and I belted out Roadhouse Blues by the Doors. This earned applause from the drunken spectators, so later in the night I butchered other classics like Whipping Post and Fire and Rain by James Taylor.

After two hours of chicha on an empty stomach, I thought it best to go home and feed, so I left the folks how I found them – all sloshed, some singing and the rest slouched over.

PS - Check out on Saturday for an article of mine titled "Stabilizing – Spend Less and Send Less"