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In the "Cult of Escapism"

In the "Cult of Escapism": April 2011

Monday, April 25, 2011

Some friends and I climbed the highest volcano (11,398 ft) in Panama a few days ago. It took five and a half hours to climb and four hours to descend. The hardest part was that we arrived two and half hours before the sun rose and spent the entire time huddling together for warmth. I'm pressed for time to write this post so I decided to let some pictures do the talking.
One of the Craters Above the Clouds

The Highest Point we Could Find

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Better Run Through the Jungle

In the Jungle

For the third time in an hour, Dave and I face a river dividing our path. He scopes for a shallow crossing while I look at my hiking boots. I could take them off and roll up my pants like I did before, or I could balance beam across a fallen log and jump to the other side. The river narrows and funnels between two rock cliffs and Dave helpfully reminds me that it would be very dangerous to get funneled downriver and smashed into these rocks. Thanks Dave.

Crossing the River
Rewind. Why are we in this position? Weeks ago, I agreed to come co-facilitate a session on inventory management in a town near my friend Dave’s community. After six hours on public busses, I met him for the final leg – a twenty kilometer ride in the back of a pickup truck into the jungle that takes two hours.

The ride takes you at extreme angles up and down mountains; the road is either mud or gravel. Sliding at the mercy of the angles, it feels like a fat guy is lying on top of you while his friend punches you in the stomach. Wheels spinning helplessly in the mud at one point, Dave informed me that we were probably going to die. Thanks again Dave.We survived (as you might have guessed) and confusion overtook nausea as Most Prominent Sensation.

“Where the hell are we?” I asked.
Dave laughed. “Guabal.”

Guabal is not on the map. It is, however, literally in the middle of the jungle. It’s as if God made a crop circle in the jungle a dropped a few people into it. In every direction are mid-sized mountains with giant-sized clouds on top. It rains most of the time. There’s no electricity or running water and the nearest cell signal is two hours away by car. There are sharks with laser beams attached to their foreheads roaming the streets.
A Wet Arrival

Seriously though, Dave has an isolated site. The surrounding mountains and clouds, compounded with the lack of communication options makes you feel like you’re inside a snow global. Luckily, Dave is a tough-minded individual who likes to read and hates electric lighting and refrigeration.

Dave's House
An hour from this tropical paradise, five co-owners of a store were awaiting a session on inventory management. So, the morning after my arrival, we began a one hour hike that would take an hour and a half and soak every centimeter of our bodies.

It was drizzling when we left, so we shed the rain jackets to stay cool and hiked with optimism down a muddy but manageable trail. Twenty minutes in, we crossed our first river, Dave charging through in his tall rubber boots and me walking barefoot, slowly and carefully, with hiking boots in hand. Forty minutes in, we were jumping from rock to rock to log to rock to stay out of deep mud. Fifty minutes in, and the sky was crying (apparently after a pretty tough break up).

Now dripping, we are facing the river from the beginning of this post. Wider and deeper and angrier than the first two, Dave and I are hesitant to use our normal approach. We decide that we will probably, whichever way, fall in the river. So we decide to film me crossing and then jumping from the fallen log. That way we can at least laugh about it later.

Crawling like a cat and jumping like a frog, I landed like and animal that doesn’t land gracefully on the opposite shore. Dave follows and we discuss our sanity and strange zeal for inventory management. When we arrive, our students admit that they weren’t expecting us with all the rain.
A Shoeless Consultant

Some highlights from the session:
-         - We ask each person to write one reason why they want to learn accounting and inventory management and one man writes “Accounting” as a response.
-         - Dave and I pretend not to notice that one participant is breastfeeding her child.
-         - My fingers go numb from being cold and wet.
-         - They feed us at the end of the session and the meal includes a juice box. I love juice boxes.

Friday, April 8, 2011

To the Mountains of Mordor

Thick grey clouds bubble over the distant mountaintops like boiling water over the rim of a pot. We’re headed straight for them and they seem to say, “Go ahead and try, white boy.” I think of Mordor and wonder if, after six hours of hiking straight up, my companion Mamerto will have to carry me, Sam and Frodo style, up the final leg.
Mamerto is the president of one of the farmer’s cooperatives that I work with (“The Coffee Guys”) and we are going deep into the Comarca to meet the members closer to home. Most of the members live three to nine hours away from Soloy and come down once a month to make coffee together and have a meeting. The March turnout was pitiful so I suggested that, instead of waiting a month and hoping for better results, we go to a location more convenient (for everyone except Mamerto and I). So we rode a truck until the road ended and then began what would be a four hour hike.
A note about Ngöbe hiking  - all Ngöbes live in the mountains and must frequently hike multiple hours to do basic activities like visit other towns, buy rice, brush their hair, etc. When not attending the cooperative’s store in Soloy, Mamerto lives eight hours into the mountains and makes the trip at least once per month. So he’s pretty good at it. Like most Ngöbes, Mamerto carries no water, no food, and hikes in a pair of cheap plastic shoes with the breathability of garbage bags. He rarely stops and his sweating seems more like a polite gesture to me, rather than an uncomfortable strain for him.
In contrast – Me. Nalgene bottle full of treated water, bag of “Omega Optimized” trail mix, North Face hiking pants, and extra breathable, quick dry, hyper-intense-super-performance-maximizizing Asolo hiking boots.
Fast forward three hours. Mamerto’s pace (fast) has not changed and we have stopped twice, though he did not sit down. He walks purposefully, like the Terminator looking for Sarah Connor. In tow – a clumsy-footed gringo sweating enough to drown a family of five. I’m still under the impression that we will hike for six total hours and I’m wondering what kind of shape I’ll be in after three more hours; will the hike end in the crater of an active volcano? Will I finally get rid of this increasingly heavy ring around my neck?
Fortunately for my trail mix and I, the hike is only four hours and Golem does not meet us at the top and bite our fingers off (ok I’ll stop with the Lord of the Rings references). We arrive at our host’s (the Vice President) house and finally sit down. Mamerto is yet to drink or eat anything since leaving and his fast continues until dinner four hours after our arrival. I, however, immediately fill what will be my fourth liter of water that day. The men keep asking me if I am tired and I act nonchalant, saying “I’m fine…it wasn’t that bad.” To prove it, I do 27 laps around the house at full speed.
Conference Room

Ok, that didn’t happen, but I did get a tour of the area and the nearby coffee farms (that’s another blog post).
The middle of the Comarca is picturesque. Untouched by all but a few thousand Ngöbes, deep green mountains dip and peak as far as you can see. In the distant south lies the Pacific and in the not so distant north, a wall of gigantic mountains, whose peaks are obscured by thick clouds (the Mordor Mountains). I’m told the mountains are a border between us and the next province and I can’t think of a better border, except perhaps a raging river inhabited by sharks with laser beams attached to their foreheads.
The next day, I lead what turns out to be a six hour seminar on short and long term planning (also its own blog post). It is late afternoon when we finish, which means most of the hike down will be in the dark. Ngöbes hike at night all the time (it’s cooler); I had never done it before. So naturally, Mamerto decided to take a different route down – a route going directly through the jungle (trails are so overrated).
In the fading light, I run to catch up with Mamerto, jumping rocks and ducking vines. He surges on, undeterred by minor obstacles like large trees and bears and I hear him muttering something softly to himself. Listening closely, I can make out only the words “Sarah Connor” as he continues relentlessly forward.
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