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In the "Cult of Escapism"

In the "Cult of Escapism": November 2011

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Underwhelming the District

The day before the first game, the coach of our district’s soccer team informed me that I had been selected for the team. Which would imply that I was one of the best players in the district. “Are you sure?” I responded. I went on to remind him that I am a terrible soccer player and that a district team typically consists of the best in the entire district and that there had to be better men wishing they had been picked. “There are better players” Ruben (the coach) conceded, “but you’re tall and fast and can score goals with your head.”

I’ve played six games of soccer in the past 15 years of my life, all of which have been here. So I know that I am taller than almost every other player in the region (I’m 5’9, by the way) and I am fast and I have scored one apparently very famous goal with my head, but I still wasn’t convinced. I felt bad for whichever superior player was being passed over for me, so I tried to talk my way out:

“Ruben, I’ve scored one goal in my life.”
“It was a great goal.”
“I am fast, but I have poor stamina.”
“You just need to practice more and run one hour every day.”
“But I can’t dribble or pass or shoot the ball very well.”
“We play tomorrow at 7:00am.”

Ok then.

What Ruben never said was: “You’re the only white guy in the district – the novelty is impossible to resist.”
What I never said was: “This is an honor and I should start practicing more and work on my cardio and make everyone proud. But I probably won’t.”

We’ve since played three games and the beginning of every game is the same: the team gathers round the coach and captain (who are brothers), waiting to hear their names. I have started all three games. When mine is called, people look at me the way liberals looked at Obama in 2008 – eyes wide with hope and unrealistic expectations.  

Then I play forward and basically spend 30 minutes running short sprints down the field in pursuit of the ball, which I then inevitably give to the other team. Sometimes they steal it from me; sometimes I fail to control a pass and it rolls past me; sometimes I simply pass it directly to an opposing player. I try to make up for my errors by slamming into opposing players as often as possible. If I can’t intimidate them with my skill, I can at least make them wonder why I have so much arm hair and why I keep unnecessarily slamming into them. Eventually, the coach will realize that my presence is probably preventing real players from scoring actual goals and he subs me out.

And then it happens again the next game: the doe eyes, the expectations, the underwhelming 30 minute performance. It’s as if they think I’m a potential superstar that’s going to Lionel Messify the other team at any moment. I’m not sure what it will take, but I think my white skin and staggering height will continue to confuse and distract them. So will the hairy arms. At least I hope so – I kind of like wearing the cleats and the long socks. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

This is a fork, a knife and a spoon. I challenge you, dedicated readers, to name this. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Harvesting Coffee in the Mountains of Mordor

Mordor, redux
After celebrating one year of service at a beach resort and visiting some other volunteers across the country, I returned to site feeling like I needed to re-immerse. I’ve never been one to ease into a pool or drink anything short of the entire bottle of cough syrup if my throat hurts, so I knew I needed a quick, hearty dose of Ngäbe-ness when I got back. What better than a rigorous hike into the mountains, followed by two days of manual labor, followed by a rigorous hike back?   
The mountain children
A producer’s coop that I (occasionally) work with had invited me to harvest coffee and clear farm land with them, so the day after I returned, I joined ex-president and lifetime Ngäbe Eugenio for the hike up. Long-time readers of this blog may remember a post about following the Terminator up to the Mountains of Mordor. This was Terminator in Mordor* round two.

The hike is four hours, mostly uphill, but it’s not too punishing because you pass a lot of traditional little towns and consistently have a good view of the surrounding mountains, valleys, rivers and eventually, the ocean. Towards the end of the climb, you reach a peak that overlooks both the ocean and the valley leading to the destination Mordor Mountains. Unfortunately, my camera doesn’t take pictures in opposite directions at once so none of you can truly appreciate this panorama. I also didn’t successfully take a picture of either side, because my camera won’t focus if there are anything distractions like: sunlight, other objects to focus on, or anything worth photographing. Did I mention I bought the cheapest digital camera I could find?

As I attempt to focus, Eugenio asks, “Is there more ocean than land? Because you can see the end of the land but not the end of the ocean.” Indeed. This may seem like a dumb question to you well educated readers, but out here, that’s a topic that simply isn’t covered. Which means few people think about it. Which is why I like Eugenio. I think in another time, Eugenio would have been an explorer or at least a settler. But for now, he’s just a clever little Ngäbe dude guiding a gringo up a mountain.
We arrive at our host’s house and are greeted with Ngäbe hospitality – that is, we find a few people working in the kitchen, who glance at us, say “Hi” and return to their work (in this case, grinding coffee). No one smiles.

Ngäbe hospitality is subtle. My host, Simon, strings up the only hammock and walks away. I sit and he soon returns and silently hands me a cup of freshly ground, but cold, coffee and again walks away. I don’t get any lunch, but I do get multiple cups of cold coffee to suppress my appetite and leave me wide-eyed and shaking (I don’t usually drink coffee, so my tolerance is low).

I smile because I know that I’m back in the Comarca and among my people.
My bed for the weekend
Simon walks me around the house, pointing out plants and explaining their uses. Every few minutes, he covers his mouth and giggles without provocation. The rest of the family has been doing the same since I arrived. Clearly, Simon had prepped them for my arrival and asked them to treat me like any other guest. But the novelty of a young white guy touring their garden and sitting in their hammock occasionally overwhelms them and they periodically lose it and giggle and stare with mouths so wide open, I can see their molars.

That night, I sleep on a table, using two traditional dresses as a pillow. As I lay down, Simon’s son puts on the radio and cranks up the volume. Ah, host family life all over again.
The next morning, I wake to the radio and the rising sun and rise to receive a bowl of rice and a large cup of coffee. Eugenio hands me a hip basket and walks away. I follow him to the coffee field.

Eugenio, the Terminator
Picking coffee is easy. You pick the beans off the tree and drop them in your hip basket. This requires little strength (if you have to bend the branch to reach the beans) and even less brainpower, which is why I thought, for once in my farm work experiences, I wouldn’t get embarrassed.

Almost true. While no one laughed out loud at me (a typical response to my farming efforts), I picked about half as much coffee as my counter-parts. I realized this was happening after about half an hour, so I studied Eugenio for tips.

After careful analysis of his technique, his hip basket placement, and dozens of other neurogastrointestinal factors, I realized: he’s picking the beans exactly the same as me, but faster. As the four time winner of the “Baserunning Award**” in high school baseball, I figured if speed was all I lacked, I could step up my game and close the gap. Among other clichés.

I never caught up. By day’s end, I had worked just as much, with half the output. Damn. Out-farmed again. But I learned a valuable lesson: picking coffee is really boring.

My young helper
We harvested for six hours and it wasn’t tiring, just boring. Pick the bean, put it in the basket. Like 12,000 times. Since their coffee is shade grown, I never even broke a sweat. The most entertainment I received was a child who started helping me harvest. He was the only one slower than I, which was a confidence booster. Plus, he was cute and only spoke Ngäberre, so we had many riveting conversations like:

Him: “Nede kure kuin.”
Me: “Yes?”
Him: “Krugore gain nobta.”
Me: “You take that back!”

Unfortunately, after 30 minutes or so, he decided sitting on the ground and sucking his finger was a better use of his time and I couldn’t really argue with him. So I went back to picking and thinking about how the Matrix Trilogy ended so dismally when it started so well.

After we finished harvesting, we brought the beans back to Simon’s house and de-pulped them. Spinning the de-pulper (Word’s telling me that’s not a word, but you get the idea) wheel gave me a callous on my pointer finger and the men finally got their chance to laugh at me, since by now in their lives, blisters are as rare as flat screen TVs. This blister would also prove significant the next morning.
The next morning, we “cleaned” or cleared the brush on Evangelio’s coffee farm with machetes. This consisted of chopping away all but the coffee trees and a few other useful plants. Before we started, the men pointed out the useful and therefore untouchable plants. I could at least recognize the coffee trees but the rest of the plants looked exactly alike (i.e. green and leafy) and no doubt now lay dead and stemless on the jungle floor.

But I did try. I would look for plants and then chop, look and chop and sometimes I felt like every plant was untouchable, other times none. So I alternated between wholesale carnage and unnecessary mercy and was just happy not to kill any fledgling coffee trees. Here are five minutes of cleaning:

Minute 1 – I scope the landscape and see no signs of children or untouchable plant life. CHOP. I swing back and forth, taking pleasure in the slicing sound and the smell of freshly cut grass.
The chopping crew
Minute 2 – I pull back mid-swing, realizing that I just partially cut a small coffee root. Looking around, I furtively straighten the root and hope that it will heal (and that no one noticed my error).
Minute 3 – I wonder why Leonardo DiCaprio never does comedies.  
Minute 4 – I stop to sharpen my machete and to rest my now blistered hand.
Minute 5 – Carnage resumes. Does this mean I’m like Smog from Fern Gully?

We chopped for four hours and by the end, my stroke was pretty weak, due to exhaustion and a badly blistered hand (damn you, de-pupler). We stopped for lunch and multiple cups of coffee and extremely questionable looking juice and then Eugenio and I began our four hour descent. The other men kept working.
This whole experience rejuvenated me. First, my town has a road and cell signal and lots of people, which makes it an anomaly in the Comarca. Most towns are more like Mordorville and even the people living in more populous locations are from somewhere in the mountains, so re-connecting with those people and that lifestyle reminded me who and what I’m here for.

Me, sporting my hip basket
Additionally, re-living with host families, even for just two nights, has made me re-appreciate living alone. Radio on all night, staring kids, total lack of privacy, being force fed bland food and drink from questionable sources, never sleeping past 5 am – these are all aspects of an almost forgotten life that I lived for my first three months. Now, when I sleep in silence till 7am and eat vegetables with my rice, I’ll remember that I’m lucky to be doing so.

Finally, I always enjoy walking and working with the Terminator and his men. Hopefully they don’t figure out just how many useful plants I destroyed.

*What an excellent movie idea: The Terminator in Mordor. We could have Arnold fighting Sauron (the humanoid one, not the giant, flaming eye) for two hours. Christian Bale would somehow be involved, perhaps as The Dark Knight or his character from The Fighter (just to spice things up). Also, Scarlet Johansson.
**Given to those unworthy of real awards.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Dating in the Comarca

Me: “I had a girlfriend, but we stopped being together because I came here.”
Old Mountain Woman: “Well, I belong to a religion, where men respect women…”
Me: “Bull. Shit.”

Ok, I didn’t really say “bullshit,” but it was the first thing I thought. Who is she talking about? Which men? Is she actually from a different planet, where all men actually respect women, and just pretending to be an old, xenophobic, mountain Ngäbe woman?

I was explaining to a group of women the concept of dating – i.e. be with one person until it doesn’t work out, then be with somebody else, until you find “the right one.” All the women were shocked and mountain woman was downright hostile. Because dating doesn’t exactly exist in the Comarca. At least, it’s not supposed to.

Supposedly, all Ngäbes meet someone they’re interested in during their mid-teens. Then through a mysterious (to me) and private process, they meet up, talk to one another, have mountain sex and build a house together (putting up a zinc roof over a shared structure is as close as they get to a marriage ceremony). Then they spend their lives faithfully together in strictly enforced gender roles and have ten children.

In reality, teens meet up and have mountain sex until the girl gets pregnant and then the guy abandons her. There are currently more American astronauts than men paying alimony in the Comarca. Cheating is so common, it’s basically a given and there are almost never repercussions for spousal abuse.

So, like humans have throughout history, the Ngäbes claim to be respectful, faithfully monogamous mates and are, on average, everything but. Which is why the mountain lady’s comment (accusation) annoyed me. Who exactly was she talking about? Ten to one her husband has another family.

Given the depressing and often opposite reality, I’m constantly surprised by people’s receptions to my explaining dating. I have to suppress myself when single moms, with kids from three different men, hear my explanation and say, “That’s bad.”

Really? I’ve never cheated on, let alone impregnated and abandoned anyone (to my knowledge), so how is my preferred dating system so despicable?

I suppose dating sounds too promiscuous. And while their ideal relationship situation is rarely achieved, at least it ideally involves monogamy for life. Whereas, the way I explain it to them, dating probably sounds inherently promiscuous, like you’re not even trying to have just one person. Which of course, isn’t quite true. The end game, generally, is marriage. But to them, it seems like the means are just too sleazy.

To qualify, western dating also produces abandoned children and involves infidelity. No doubt. But there are many people that at least admit that they might not get it right the first time, so they protect themselves and if the guy suddenly disappears, there are hurt feelings but not children. There are also those who save sex for marriage, which is an excellent way of increasing your shot at lifelong monogamy (in theory).

So it’s not their ideal that bothers me, it’s their denial. I can think of one family that fits the ideal criteria (my third host family). Off the top of my head, in under 20 seconds, I can think of 14 single moms in the community. Empirical system? No, but still, probably an accurate reflection of the reality of relationships here.

I think, more than anything, ignorance and shame are birthing so many fatherless children here. Ignorance in that people are shocked by the idea of western dating. Not like a Hassidic is shocked by a shellfish and swine buffet, but like a stoner was no doubt shocked by the advent of delivery pizza (you mean, they like, bring it here? They can do that!?). When I talk about dating, there’s inevitably a woman who says something like, “You mean, I get to test them out first?” Exactly. Like trying on pants at the store. Only pants can’t give you HIV.

But unprotected sex sure can. Yet there’s a shame surrounding condom use here. Women are ashamed to ask and men are ashamed to admit they might need one. Hence the single mothers and rising incidence of HIV in the Comarca.

Western dating won’t prevent pregnancy or HIV, but smart and safe dating will definitely help. Because clearly, abstinence and monogamy aren’t common, so maybe it’s time to try something that caters to the realities of basic human desire.

Or we could all just move to the mountain lady’s planet.