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In the "Cult of Escapism"

In the "Cult of Escapism": December 2011

Friday, December 30, 2011

Dislocating my Intestines in the Philippines

Dodging mud puddles, sweating and swatting insects – it’s a standard Peace Corps kind of day. Except I’m on vacation with my family, 6,000 miles from Panama, supposedly escaping those types of conditions. What the hell?

I’m visiting my family in the Philippines, which happens to be on almost the same latitude as Panama and houses many similarly itchy insects. We spent the past four days at a small beach resort on one the islands – a resort that mostly specializes in diving a nearby reef. Unfortunately, none of us are divers so we had to look into the other activities offered by the resort. My dad read me the options our first day there:
“There’s a jet ski, ATVs, snorkeling, and a hike into the jungle.”
“I’ll do anything but the hike.”
We ended up doing the hike.

I live and hike in the jungle every day, so I wasn’t thrilled about the trip, but luckily, it turned out to be more of a cultural experience than I had anticipated.

A jeepney, with silly white people on top

This began with riding on a Jeepney – an American army jeep retrofitted into a roughly twelve passenger van. Like many dangerous forms of transport in developing countries, Jeepnies often ride at triple their maximum capacity, with people crushed inside like tuna fish and spilling out and on top of the roof. Riding the roof is one of those things people do only if there are no actual seats left. It’s an inconvenience and a hardship that any rational Filipino would rather avoid, but like most idiotic tourists, we wanted the “real” experience, so we happily climbed on to the roof for the 45 minute drive.

Roof Riding consists of dodging a lot of power lines, branches and other passengers that lose their grip and fly off the back. Just kidding! There’s weren’t many branches over the road. But seriously, the ride was a butt-banging, intestine-dislodging experience. But at least it was scenic.

Knee deep in rice
The Filipino countryside is beautiful, albeit very similar to Panama. That is, deep green tropical trees everywhere, mountains in the distance and wooden houses with zinc roofs in between. The big difference is that Panamanians don’t do rice patties. Here, we were consistently surrounded by the quadrants of green-brown patties and their farmers hunched over and knee deep in the mud. 

We made our turn off the main road and the houses were even more rustic, though again, the similarities struck me. Like Panama, people ran small stores out of a window of their houses; most houses were made of some combination of cinderblocks, wood, thatched roof and zinc; each house was swarming with farm animals and children; houses with electricity had TVs blasting; everyone carried a machete. Unlike Panama however, more people here seemed to have pigs and I saw a lot of goats and water buffalo, which I’ve never seen in Panama.

We arrived at the end of the dirt road, butts soar and intestines relocated or missing altogether, and began the hike. Everyone was impressed with the serenity of the countryside and the simplicity of country living. I took like 75 pictures of water buffalos - I don’t know why, I just got a huge kick out of those damn water buffalo.

The hike ended at a pool created by a river; large rocks jutted from the water and our guide told us that we could jump off of them. And jump we did. Fifteen white people (including my family and other resort guests) awkwardly climbing the rocks and timidly jumping, holding our noses as we fell. I am particularly proud of my mom for jumping twice, despite being 55 years old and not a fan of jumping off of things. What a badass.

Go momma
As we jumped and swam, local kids began to gather and watch. They just stared and absorbed the novelty until it seemed like us white folk were done, then they dove in and embarrassed us, climbing the rocks like ladders and jumping without hesitation and from heights that we didn’t dare attempt.

After taking our turn at staring at the kids, we had a picnic lunch on the shore and the kids lined up again to stare. My dad was visibly uncomfortable, “I don’t know what to do, should we give them food?” I ate with ease. If nothing else, my Peace Corps experience has made me impervious to people staring at me – particularly kids. I could tell these kids, while poor, were far from starving and were partly continuing to absorb the novelty vapors emanating from our persons and partly waiting for leftovers. We ended up cooking them some fish and giving them a good amount of food. Silly white people and your white guilty sympathy.

Part of an indigenous town
After eating, we visited a nearby town of indigenous Filipinos. This was particularly interesting for me, since I live with indigenous in Panama. With its thatched roofs and elevated wooden structures, the town reminded me more of an Emberra or Wounaan village in Panama (rather than the Ngabes that I live with). One of the more memorable differences for me was the makeshift basketball hoop in the town center – a common structure in rural Philippines. Panama has many makeshift soccer fields and as an American, I still just assume that every other country worships soccer, but here, they worship Manny Pacquiao. And basketball. 
Makeshift basketball

So while the mud and the jungle weren’t particularly thrilling, I enjoyed the cultural comparison. The Philippines is definitely poorer than Panama (this is a fact but also clear after casual observation) and much larger. I’m guessing the Peace Corps experience here can be more intense (in terms of how poor it is), more isolated (many volunteers literally live on an island) and more linguistically challenging (the official language is English but there are dozens of dialects, depending on your province). I admire those serving here and hope for their sake that their butts are thicker than mine and their intestines more securely fastened inside of them. 

This blog post was brought to you by this guy

Sunday, December 25, 2011

I Finally Fell

I have excellent balance. I say this without ego, because I know it’s true. I’ve noticed this in particular here in Peace Corps Panamá because it’s muddy most of the year where we live and almost every volunteer has at least a few embarrassing stories of wiping out and getting laughed at. Until now, a year and a month in, I hadn’t had a bad spill, but today I absolutely ate it.

Descending a muddy hill in fake Crocs, I was approaching a friend’s house to visit and buy soap from their store. On the last little slope, I looked up to greet the eight family members on the porch. “Good morningWHAAA!!!”


My right foot kicked straight out instead of planting and my body was momentarily parallel with the ground and then Ground and I were getting intimate. Painfully intimate.

I’ve almost fallen many times, but I always managed to right myself or stop myself with my hands. Each times this happens, onlookers light up, ready to laugh at my big spill. But each time, I’ve recovered, showed them my clean backside to prove it wasn’t a full fall, then triumphantly left them disappointed. Not this time.

I fell hard but rebounded quickly, hoping that only my arms were dirty, but no, my black shorts were brown with mud and my forearms weren’t just dirty, they had a thick layer of mud.

Raucous laugher. Uncontrollable laughter. I laughed too but was disappointed that my perfect streak was over. I was so proud of that. The witty barbs followed:

“You fell!”
“Haha, Jack, you just fell!”
“Hey, Jack just fell!”

Maybe witty was the wrong word.

I commented that Laura (my site mate) is the one who usually falls and I never do. They reminded me, “You just fell!”


Their reaction highlights two tendencies I’ve noticed in backwoods Panamá. First, locals like to claim that things that happen to us gringos don’t happen to them, because they’re “accustomed.” For example, everyone claims that they’re used to the water and that they never get sick, even though they, uh, do. People will see me treating my water and boast that they’re “accustomed” and I’m not. Except, that time last week when they had diarrhea, and two months ago when they had worms. Also, I’ve only had one stomach issue since I’ve been here.

Similarly, most claim that they never fall in the mud. If I slip a little, they claim that I fall because I’m a gringo and not accustomed. Except that I never had. Which is part of why I was so proud – I could throw it back at them and they would be visibly surprised and probably scrambling to think about something else to boast about.

Secondly, it’s another reminder of how much people here love stupid, slapstick humor. I have endless examples of this but I’ll settle with a night during training when my host dad was watching “Candid Camera.” The prank that night was jumping out at people and startling them*. There were five pranks and each prank was repeated four or five times. I was studying Spanish in the chair next to him, but it was difficult to concentrate, because he would tap me excitedly at the beginning of each prank, “Watch this.” Someone would get jumped out at. And he would laugh out loud. Every time. Twenty five times. I thought he was just a simple guy, or maybe drunk (extremely likely), but I think he’s just your average country Panamanian – loves that stupid humor.

So at least I have a go-to conversation topic for the next two weeks: “Remember when I fell?” Raucous laughter. But at the expense of being more gringo. If I really want to integrate, I should just start lying. “I never get sick; I never get blisters, etc.” But I’ll have to lie standing up, cause my ass hurts – that was a serious fall. 

*Is that always the prank?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

I Gave Her Rice, Because She Never Asks

My old lady neighbor (OLN) will probably never understand why I’m so nice to her, even though I told her exactly why. “I’m white, so a lot of people ask me for things, but you've never asked me for anything. And I know I travel a lot and do a lot of strange things but you never, ever ask me any questions.” She smiled, probably not because she understood, but because I was handing her five pounds of rice and some root vegetables.

I know I’m weird to everyone here. And taller. And hairier. And I enjoy answering questions about some of my habits, my heritage and my chest hair (especially my chest hair). Hell, Goal 2 of Peace Corps is cultural exchange. But if someone visits my house, they’re not usually culturally exchanging, they’re usually indirectly asking for something.

Some people come to my house and scan the walls. “How much did that cost?” “Where’d you get that?” “When you leave, what are you going to do with that shirt?” I’m gonna wear it, asshole. And why are you asking how much my machete costs when you have the same one? Panamanians and especially Ngäbes are indirect, but the implication in these situations is always clear: you’re white, so you must be rich; I’m not, so you should give me stuff.

Americans are direct and I’m considered direct by American standards, so these types of comments and questions really bother me. I prefer the kids that walk in, see crackers on my table and say, “Give me those crackers.” Then I laugh and say no and they laugh but stay and talk or play cards.

In contrast, if an adult comes, they may spend 30 minutes talking with me before they arrive at their actual purpose – “I need $5.” Did they actually care about anything we just talked about? It’s likely that they did, but the request casts doubt.

To be fair, I do usually have nicer things and more disposable cash and that is largely thanks to where I was born and the color of my skin. But it’s also because I haven’t accidentally impregnated anyone (five times), so all the money I earn is just for me. And I don’t spend more than I have (usually…thanks Laura, thanks Scott). The point is, the whiteness is significant, but there are other factors and I wish people would acknowledge them, instead of throwing it all up to skin color. Because when that’s the only factor, I feel not like a friend in need is asking for help, but that someone is taking advantage of me. Which is unpleasant.

Additionally, while I don’t usually mind questions about my habits, it can be grating in a small town. “Where are you going?” “Why?” “Why don’t you have any coffee in your house?” “You’re up late today.” I don’t have coffee because I don’t drink coffee and I’m up late because I’m tired and have nothing to do this morning anyway. And neither do you, so why do you care?!


This stuff bothers me less now than it used to, but it can still slip under the skin sometimes.

Which is why I love OLN. I have to pass her house to get to the main road, so she is most familiar with my daily and travel habits. Plus, she’s really poor. As in, everyone here is poor, but even they say she’s poor. And she has never, not once, not ever asked me where I’m going with my huge backpack, what I’m doing, why I’m carrying a bamboo pole to my house, or whether that volunteer that’s visiting is my wife or my sister. She just smiles and greets me and occasionally gives me food for absolutely no reason. She gave me so many mangos during mango season. Damn, I miss mango season. And today she gave me a fish. De-scaled and pre-salted. That’s huge.

So on Mother’s Day last week (which is a national holiday – which sounds good for moms here except most of them end up cooking all day while the men get drunk … so yeah), I asked her what she was doing and she said, “Nothing. I have no food!” Now, this is a common answer (if I’m asking) and is usually an indirect way of asking for food/money. It’s also usually an exaggeration. But her rock stove was dormant and her granddaughter looked at me as if to say, “No, seriously.” I knew she was telling the truth*.

So I bought her food and explained why and I don’t think she got it and probably never will but anyway, if you’re holding a drink right now, raise it and say, “Here’s to OLN.” Because she doesn’t ask questions.

*Ever realize that “lying” is a verb but not “truthing”? Why?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Chicken gives you HIV

I bet you didn't know that. 

Indeed, according to a government worker from the Panamanian equivalent of the EPA, buying chicken from outside of the community can give you HIV. He stated this to a mass of women in my site waiting to receive their welfare checks a few weeks ago.

He began well enough, encouraging everyone to keep the money in the community and buy locally raised chickens, instead of the chicken imported from other regions (trucked in and sold to the few stores that have solar panels and refrigerators). I thought he would continue talking about the economic benefits but he apparently decided that wasn’t convincing enough.

I really hope he was just trying to scare the “stupid Indians” into buying local and doesn't actually believe what he said. God, I really hope so. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Burying Jahir

In the last week of November, a one and half year old boy wandered into the river and drowned. His body was discovered by his aunt’s boyfriend a few hours later, when he saw a hand sticking out of the water and the body being pushed into a rock.

“Julia” is the mother and a friend of mine in site. I found out about the death on a social visit to her family’s house and quickly became part of the multi-day burial process that is Ngäbe culture.

After a person dies, the family holds candlelight vigils every night up to the burial and then for four days afterwards. Most of the extended family stays up late each night, accompanying the dead’s nuclear family. Visitors bring food and coffee and condolences. The night before the burial, the family and friends stay up till dawn, guarding the body and keeping candles lit throughout the house.

The morning of, I visited the family and during conversation they asked, “So are you staying up till dawn with us tonight?” This seemed like one of those questions where you have to say yes. I wasn’t sure exactly how I would support them that night, but I figured at the very least, I could entertain them with my white skin and hairy arms.
That night, I arrived around ten with a bag of coffee. There were people and candles surrounding and filling the house and spreading over the yard. My site mate, Laura, had arrived ahead of me and since everyone assumes we do everything together, they asked where I had been. “I was fighting witches in my house with a broom” I replied. They laughed and asked, “Were they pretty witches or ugly witches?” “Ugly” I replied, “That’s why I was fighting them off!!” Raucous laughter. Nothing like some simple country humor to lighten the mood. I hugged Julia and she motioned for me to sit next to her.

For twenty minutes or so, I continued joking about ugly witches invading my house and my subsequent broom fights and realized that this would be my contribution for the rest of the night – comic relief. This is a role I’m comfortable with, since I can sometimes generate laughter here by simply walking into a room (“My God, he’s just so hairy! Har, har, har.”)

While I know the jokes and hairy arms probably helped, laughter felt foreign on such a sad night. For a few minutes, we would pass a joke around and everyone would smile. But when the joke faded, the sadness returned. A year and a half – there’s no laughing that off.

I spent most of the night inside the house with Julia and her sisters and their kids but occasionally, I would go out to the kitchen area (which is outside of the house) and talk with the men. Julia’s father, uncle and several other men had tasked themselves with watching the coffin, which is surrounded by candles and must be monitored the entire night.

The first time I approached the vigilant men, I opened my mouth to greet them, saw the coffin and was stunned silent. It was about as long as my arm. Again, the conversation, the joking, the focus on attending the candles and watching the kids – all this had distracted me from the reason why we were there and the coffin was a small, white, illuminated reminder.

Each time I spoke with the men, they would ask if I was tired and then, regardless of my answer, give me advice on staying up all night. “Just walk around a little.” “Talk to people; don’t sit alone.” “Drink coffee.” Maybe they thought white people never stay up late. Although the actual advice wasn’t particularly helpful, I enjoyed talking with the men and felt more holistically accepted into the wake process.

The children slept first and each hour, more people left or fell asleep, three to five people curled up on mattresses scattered on the ground. Around 2:30 am, Julia handed me a pillow and told me I could sleep if I wanted to. I leaned back widthwise on a corner of one of the mattresses, my feet sticking off and a child curled up beside me. The last thing I saw before sleeping was Julia’s father sitting in front of me and holding up three fingers. Three AM.
At 5:30, I woke with the first light of morning and went home to sleep for a few hours before the funeral. Everyone was asleep except the men, who still sat vigilantly over the small coffin, determined to keep the evil spirits away.

Jahir's grave - the leaves deter evil spirits from eating the body

I went to the graveyard around 11am and several men were just finishing digging the grave. The family and attendees stood watching, some talking, but most silent. Julia and her sisters were sitting on a log nearby and I went to them. Julia said, “This is the second child that I’ve lost. Both were under two years old.” I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. This is the only thing she said to me the entire day. 

Another typical grave, with all the dead's possessions on top
A Jehovah’s witness spoke and so did an Evangelical pastor, which just shows that around here, it doesn’t matter what kind of Christian you are, as long as you’re Christian. When the pastor finished, the gravediggers lined the side of the grave with thick branches. I asked a friend, Mariela, why they did this. She said that it prevents evil spirits from entering and eating the body. She also said that it prevents the earth from caving in on the coffin. I hesitated, “Isn’t that the point of burying the coffin?” She laughed and nodded, which means she made that last part up.

As the coffin was lowered, Julia lost control and tried to run for the grave. Her sisters and dad held her back and eventually had to carry her out of the graveyard. Others cried silently as each attendee took turns throwing a few handfuls of dirt on the grave. Once properly buried, the gravediggers place a certain plant on top that stings the mouth when chewed; the witch that tried to eat the body is thus deterred and later identifiable by the red marks on the mouth.

I left with a crowd, my shoulder damp with others’ tears and my cheeks damp with my own.