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In the "Cult of Escapism"

In the "Cult of Escapism": September 2011

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Fortress Home

It’s finally over. After everything I’ve tried, I think I can finally say I beat the bats. Or,

For the past seven months, I’ve had bats entering my home at night, flapping in and waking me up just in time to see them pooping on the floor. Each morning, I’ve cleaned bat feces from at least one, but usually several spots throughout the house. This week, I screened the space between wall and ceiling, creating a bat-proof, bat free fortress. Booyah.
Seven months of silly, ineffective schemes preceded this current strategy. At first, I simply slept lightly and jumped awake with broom in hand, hoping to scare the bats away forever. They returned, pooping, and I tried some PETA friendly tactics. Throughout the process, my bat bloodlust increased and I killed two with blunt force (stick and broom) and switched to poisoning bananas, which may have killed about a half dozen bats (though none died on the spot, so I can’t confirm anything).

Chibri, nailing in the screen

Finally, I realized that the volume of feces had actually increased, despite my manic efforts, and I decided to swallow the cost and buy screening in the city. Fifty five dollars later, I had 74 feet of screen and a pound of nails. It was on.
I contracted my landlord’s very handy son, Chibri, (who had already built my latrine, shower, and all of my windows) and with a pair of ladders and hammers, we spent the morning sealing the house.
Early on in the process, a bat crawled out of a space in my wall and flew just past Chibri. They had been nesting inside and I had been unable to find them (they’re tiny). Later that morning, I was on the ladder, nailing in some screen, when a bat tried to crawl out and got stuck in the screening. Bad move. I beat him to death with the hammer and later took the picture at the top of this post (I told you I had a bloodlust…I’m a little worried about myself).
We also had to set fire to two bees’ nests and then climb, headfirst, into the spot where they were swarming and trying to rebuild. Ten tense minutes later, I descended the ladder unharmed – Panamanian bees definitely aren’t as angry or aggressive as American bees.

The screen closes the space between wall and ceiling

Two bees nests, two bats, and a pound of nails later, the house was closed. That night, Laura stopped by and caught me swinging the broom at a bat that couldn’t escape. He flew towards what were once wide entrances and found the screen instead. I had considered closing the door and making the house a sealed Killing Floor – just me against them - but decided it was best to just leave the doors open and let them leave (the broom was extra persuasion).
For some reason, I had assumed the bats would fly repeatedly into the screen, even though I knew they used radar to avoid objects (imagine if they didn’t: Flap, flap, WHAM – ok, not there…flap, flap, flap, WHAM – ok, maybe left…).
I now sit in a feces-free house that I’ve renamed Fortress Home. Some sparrows and beetles have tried and failed to fly in and I assume bats have been similarly deterred and this makes me extremely happy. If this fortress fails, I’m renaming my screen-wall the Maginot Line. Or maybe just setting my house on fire.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Being a Gringo for the Weekend

(From Sept. 5)
There are three kinds of white people in Panama: Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) and other white people that work here; tourists; and gringos. The past few days, my aunt treated me to some resort time and we were exposed to and even sometimes acted like gringos. I swear I’ll never do it again.
To clarify, I think we’re all familiar with tourists, who are pretty much the same everywhere, and if you’re reading this blog, you should be familiar with who and what PCVs are (that is, insecure former idealists with recently lowered standards of living). So then what are gringos?
Gringos are a mutation of the ex-patriot (expat) concept. American expats are Americans living overseas. Gringos are Americans that retire in Panama and are, by definition, out of their forking minds. Some true examples:
- A gringo in a bar once told me that I shouldn’t be trying to help the Ngäbes because “they believe in natural selection, which is why they don’t use hospitals.” Of course. It couldn’t be that they often can’t afford medical care. Someone should naturally select that guy with a pistol.
- Many gringos expect every Panamanian citizen to speak fluent English. While in the Post Office getting a package, a gringo entered the office in front of me and the attendant told him (shockingly, in Spanish) to wait a few minutes while they found his package. Clearly annoyed, he responded, “No Spanish, lady.” Of course not. It’s probably her fault.
- A gringa explained to my friend her plan to save an endangered species of African rhinoceros by shipping it to Panama. By itself. She admitted there could be a few logistical problems.
In summary, insane. They’re giving Americans a bad image down here and I try my damndest not to be associated with them. I’ve confused many a Panamanian by adamantly stating, “I’m not a gringo, I’m American!” 
My aunt is renting a place in Costa Rica (neighboring country) and is actively trying not to be a gringa by doing things like: studying Spanish; not being insane; tipping. However, while visiting me, we succumbed to a few at least touristy, at worst, gringo-y habits.
For example, we (and I do mean both of us) complained about common Panamanian inconveniences, such as receiving poor service, waiting for buses, and sweating. During meals, I finally realized why gringos don’t finish all their food – they don’t burn 29,000 calories a day like us volunteers. I sat, totally defeated by unfinished vegetables and slabs of meat that would generally last no longer than an anorexic midget in the ring with a young Mike Tyson. I blame flat screened TVs and TNT movies.
I did however, manage to speak Spanish and refrain from talking about rhinos.
Also, despite the luxurious environments, my volunteerness still permeated. By which I mean I pooped a lot. The drastic change in diet destroyed the fragile harmony in my body and sent me toilet-bound more times than I care to guess (which is to say, about three times a day). I hereby formally apologize to my aunt for the terrible things I did.
I did some other volunteery things like eating her home made oatmeal chocolate chip cookies by the fistful (it’s been a while) and contemplating washing my socks in the sink, but nothing as disgusting or disruptive as the bowel flows.
Despite this, we managed to enjoy a day in the beautiful highlands of Panama and another at the beach.
Honestly, we were more like tourists than gringos and I’m not too worried about the impression we left on the locals (though I think the staff thought we were a couple although she’s 60 and I’m 23 and, you know, my aunt). I am however, still concerned about two things. First, these loud, spoiled, relatively rich, maniac gringos are making it difficult for us volunteers to proudly represent our country. We strive to be hard working, empathetic, frugal development workers and as such we stand in contrast to our fellow American residents.
The bigger concern then is: who are the accurate reflections of Americans?  

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


The strategies are in: cheat, but not effectively. I´m playing war in my house with three kids that often visit me and by now, I know what I´m getting into: a single game that could last up to six days if it weren´t for limited attention spans and some strategic cheating of my own. Here´s a typical game from my eyes.

Irma deals – this takes approximately 20 minutes, which gives me time to sweep the floor. Once we´re dealt, I pick up my cards and lean back to watch as the kids look at each card and arrange them (remember this is War). I´m not sure what a strategic War arrangement entails and given the effectiveness of this strategy, neither do they.

We begin, so to speak. Each player tries to wait for the others to throw first so they can pick the next card. I toss mine on the table and lean back and wonder why they settled on such a shitty trailer for the new Batman movie, which yes, I´m already looking forward to even though it comes out next summer. Eventually, cards appear on the table and they all stare at them. The perceptive listener can actually hear gears grinding. Eventually, I tell them who won and push the cards towards that person. They ask me to put on some music.

By “some music,” I know they mean Michael Jackson – they love Michael Jackson. Unfortunately for me, I only have his Ones album on my iPod, so we always hear the same 15 songs (there are 19 songs on the album, but they skip the slow ones). Occasionally, if I´m not feeling the King of Pop, I put on Jamiroquai and it takes them a few songs to realize it isn´t MJ.

We slowly play according to the “select-a-card” strategy. Occasionally, I throw a card, leave the table, do a household chore for a few minutes and return with still only three of four cards down.

The bottleneck today is Irma, who is suddenly more interested in arranging her cards in a fan shape than in actually playing any of them. Each card, we prompt her and each card, she seems surprised (“Oh, it´s my turn?”)

Papito wearing my life vest and holding a dog
My favorite of these kids is Papito because he always rocks a button down shirt but almost never buttons it. When he does, he never buttons it correctly, which appears to be a conscious choice (Laura once tried to button his shirt properly and he slapped her hand away – gotta love that dedication). When I catch him cheating, he draws a quick breath, then smiles and vigorously rubs his forehead with his palm. Also, his name is Papito.

After most of “Ones,” it´s down to Chameleon (I swear that´s his name) and I. This is why I question the card arranging strategy, which I have not been employing. Papito and Irma pick up some Time magazines and look at the pictures. Chameleon is futilely trying to organize his cards. He is the youngest and never has any idea what´s going on, he just sits there smiling and throwing his cards out face down (every time). I evaluate stack sizes and begin my own strategy: lose faster.

Chameleon has more cards and is therefore closer to winning, so I put my biggest cards on the bottom of my deck and make him throw first. This speeds up the game and allows me to chose when to lose my high cards (e.g. “Oh look at that, your Ace beat my King, what a pity”). And yes, if I have more cards, I’ll cheat to win. I never said I was a role model.

We pause while I try in vain (for like the 14th time) to translate the monologue at the end of “Thriller” and when I return to the game, I find Chameleon, rather than organizing the cards he won, has sat on them. Fantastic.

I sit and watch to see where he´ll go with this. He carefully places one card on the armrest. He arranges six cards face down in a row on the table. He takes the remaining cards in his hand and arranges them according to the previously mentioned “arrangement strategy” that worked so well for the other two. He then throws a card face down on the table.

I´m only concerned because I know he´s sitting on both Jokers and three Aces, most of which I painstakingly lost to him in rigged wars. But before I can ask him to stand up, the album ends and Irma decides she´s seen enough pictures from May of last year (old magazines are better than no magazines). She collects Chameleon and Papito and they leave.

I think it´s about time I taught them Crazy 8s and maybe bought some more MJ music.

Golden Week is a perfect example of holidays created for the sake of having holidays. The U.S. has Labor Day and President’s Day

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Day in the Life

I´m often asked what a “day in the life” is like in Peace Corps and my response is often several minutes of babbling, during which the listener loses interest and finds someone more interesting to talk to. I don’t have a concise answer because I don´t have a daily schedule. Which is good. Coming from college and Cubicle America, I prefer a self-made schedule that´s different every day – it just makes it difficult to write this post. But here´s an attempt – maybe this will help me next time I´m asked in person. Unless it´s not the babbling so much as the body odor... 

(Note: The following could be any day of the week, except Sunday, which is soccer day. In an area with about 90% unemployment, Saturdays are like any other day.)

6:30am – 9:00am
Wake up, eat breakfast (either cereal or peanut butter smeared bread) and clean up bat poop. If I have time, I read for about a half hour.

9:00am – Midday
This has nothing to do with this post
Meet somebody to do something. So vague but the best way to specify is through examples: I may be meeting with a group (cooperative, organization, etc.), or following up with small business owners, or teaching a group better management practices, or meeting tourists. It may be none of these things, but those are pretty common activities of mine.

Midday (I stopped wearing a watch a few months ago because in Panamá, time is nearly irrelevant, so “Midday” is what you get.)
Return home, put some music on and exercise. Shower and de-stink just long enough to cook lunch (rice and root vegetables or rice and vegetables, if I have any). Prepare for an afternoon meeting.

3:00pm ish until Late Afternoon
Meeting. Depending on the group, participants will arrive 30 minutes to 2 hours and 30 minutes late. This is normal. My tourism group is the best – we consistently start about 45 minutes late. Cooperatives are the worst – if they say 8:00, show up at 11:00 and you still might be early. Generally, I´m either facilitating a meeting or co-facilitating (as is the case with the tourism group when I work with site-mate Laura).

This does - me facilitating an in-site seminar
This means I steer the meeting without many personal contributions – opening discussions, clarifying, and keeping the group focused. In this setting, it´s critical that the group generates the content – this is more sustainable than telling them what to do. I will step in if I feel the ideas are off-topic or simply don´t make sense, but mostly I just bite my lip when shitty ideas get tossed around and hope they figure it out on their own.

Late Afternoon
If I´m free by 4:00 or 5:00, I´ll play volleyball or soccer till sunset, which is consistently from 6:30 – 7:00pm, and head home.

7:00pm – 10:00pm
Cook dinner, do dishes, write in journal (the birthplace of blog posts), read in my hammock, maybe play harmonica. In bed, mosquito net tucked in, by ten.

That´s what I´d call a “day with work.” Looking back at my July calendar, there were 15 such days. Knocking out Soccer Sundays, that´s 57% of my days. In July. June and August probably look totally different but I don´t have those calendars in front of me and I´ll be damned if I go find them just for you.

Non-“day with work” days in site typically feature laundry (done by hand with a brush), walking around and visiting peoples´ houses and a healthy dose of hammock time. Then about twice a month, I´m either in the city or otherwise out of site for something (e.g. a seminar, helping another volunteer in their site, etc.).

I like the largely unpredictable, constantly changing schedule and I think this is the right time of my life for this type of living (for those who don’t know, I’m 23).

I´m not sure if that post was any more concise than usual, but hey, at least you can´t smell me through the computer. 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Reclaiming the House

There´s poop everywhere. My stored food has been replaced by 600 large cockroaches and the walls are black and throbbing with the movement of ants. An adult tiger with a severed leg in its mouth lies on my bed and growls as if to say, “I´m a Yankees fan.”

This is what I dread discovering when I come back from a long trip. Spending more than two or three consecutive days out of site is like sending an open invitation to Nature with the headline, “Open Bar and Toilet” – I know I´ll be invaded, I just don´t know to what extent or by whom.

So after a week out of site, I walk up to my house and wonder: flooding? Infestation? Break in? Radioactive super-sized cockroaches with large teeth and semi-automatic weapons? Only one thing is certain – there will be bat poop.

On August 18th, I returned from a week away and approached my house with these concerns. Taking a deep breath, I pushed the door open and prepared to be surprised. I did a quick sweep to check for new residents – rats, bats, tigers, etc. – then swept the floor with a flashlight beam to assess the Poop Situation.

About ten separate bat droppings and several unidentified turds. Luckily, I´m Extremely Intelligent and put newspaper under popular bat “hangouts” (hahahahahahahahaha), so cleanup was quick. As I recovered the droppings, I found two frogs, who seemed shocked that I had the gall to move back into my own house.

Not bad. I hadn´t left any food out and nothing new had added its name to the mailbox. An hour of house recovery and cleaning is remarkably low.

Leaving means losing ground. Some face rodent or insect infestation, leaks, flooding, snakes, or scorpions. One volunteer found a parrot. I´m mentally and generally physically prepared for any of these occurrences. But God help me if I find a Yankee-loving tiger.