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In the "Cult of Escapism"

In the "Cult of Escapism": February 2012

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Balseria Part 2: Balsa Against Manny Pacquiao

After about five hours at Balseria, we had consumed nothing but fermented liquor in its various forms and it was HOT. Like, there's-no-shade-and-we're-in-Panama-which-is-very-close-to-the-equator HOT. So we were ready to leave. However, I had told myself and many others that I would throw the balsa with someone this year and I would have been seriously disappointed with myself if after two consecutive years, I never even tried.

We wandered towards the balsa crowd, hoping to find a friendly challenger. Almost anyone there would probably have wanted to throw against me, but I didn't want to face some gringo-hating balsa master, who just wanted to break my knees. I may be adventurous, but I'm not a masochist.

After some short interviews, we settled on a guy who had been friendly to us throughout our balseria experience. The night before, we had watched him literally beat the snot out of a guy and then jump around yelling “I'm Pacquiao! I'm Pacquiao!” But a good boxer doesn't necessarily make a good balsero, plus I liked him for two key reasons: he admitted that he wasn't very good and he was extremely drunk.

So we grabbed a balsa and made a space for ourselves. We then huddled and discussed the terms: two throws each and we take turns throwing. Two throws, by the way, is nothing - 25 throws is real sport and even 8 is considered casual. This was just novelty.
Not dodged

He threw and I dodged it and everything changed. Within seconds, a massive crowd had formed around us, “A gringo is playing a Ngäbe!” I hit him in the ankle with my first throw and the crowd Oooed. We both missed our second throws and he immediately said we should do two more. I agreed. This wasn't novelty anymore.

He threw and grazed my left leg as I dodged. I started chanting Jochi, Chorcha! - my name and my region. Everyone told me that's what I had to do while I played, so that's what I did. I got him again in the shin. Two more!

We ended up throwing ten times each. He hit me three times: twice on my left leg, though just grazing blows, and once, hard, straight into my right calf muscle. Between the adrenaline and the chicha, none of them hurt at the time, though I could tell he had hit me well in the calf. I hit him four times, all in the shins and the feet. He also fell over on the last throw, but just because he tripped on the stick, not because it hit him straight.

Got him
In theory, I wouldn't have minded continuing – it's a rush. But the match was attracting a lot of attention, not all of it positive. Gringo playing balsa doesn't jive with everyone. So we called it and shook hands and an onlooker rushed over to give me a small bottle of chicha, which I shared with Pacquiao.

After about twenty minutes, my leg started to hurt and I checked and realized he had drawn blood. After a few hours, I was limping. I really want to know what his legs look like.

Another volunteer and I have decided to take this to the States. I feel like there are some rednecks, northern and southern, that are crazy enough to play this. Frat houses could use it as a form of hazing. Personally, when I have a family, I'm going to use a balsa stick as a tool for settling arguments between my kids - “Now Timmy, it's your turn to do the dishes, but if you can best Johnny in 12 throws, you can watch TV instead.”

Is that legal?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Balseria Part 1: Balseria 2012

Despite its reputation in Panamanian media, Balseria is more than just drunken Indians punching each other and throwing logs – it's the combination of a sport and a festival and a unique cultural blend of competition, camaraderie and celebration. On the night of February 17th and day of February 18th, I attended my second balseria.

On this blog, I almost always try to make posts short, interesting and funny. However, balseria is one of the most interesting events I've ever been to and deserves more than 500 words. I have thus broken my overall experience into three posts: A long and analytical look at balseria; my deul with Pacquiao; and my post-balseria reputation in site. Enjoy.

Balseria Part 1: Balseria 2012

This year's balseria was held in my friend Jess's site, on the other side of the Comarca. I arrived the day before the games to do some technical work with Jess and to get a first impression of the event. Four other volunteers joined us – another girl and three guys.

Balseria is held once or twice a year, during the dry season. One town invites (challenges) another and is thus responsible for hosting the event. Four is a significant number in Ngabe culture - I'm still trying to figure out why - so balseria is technically a four day event. Day one and four are arrival and departure. On day two, officially, the host feeds the challengers food and fermented liquors (chicha fuerte) and prepare for the match. Unofficially, everyone parties. Day three is the day of the games, which begin at dawn and end at dusk.

The following observations and experiences were gathered the night before and the morning of the games.

The Ceremony
Day three of balseria (the games) begins with a ceremony at dawn. We (the volunteers) walked the grounds in the predawn, wondering where the ceremony would be held. Minutes later, we could make out two large groups forming on either side of an open field. People ran to join one of the groups (which were people from my town and people from Jess's) and there was a chorus of horns, whistles and wild yelling from all sides. The best balseros (men who compete in the balsa) led each group toward each other, until they formed a tight circle, twelve people deep, with maybe six people in the middle.
The "Ceremony"

 At this point, I was expecting something formal to happen. Instead, the men in the middle grabbed balsa sticks and started hurling. Spectators fought to recover the balsas and when they did, they squared off and hurled as well. Horns blared, whistles squealed and everyone was either chanting or yelling. Much hurling occurred, but definitely no ceremony. This happened for maybe fifteen minutes and then, inexplicably, the large circle dispersed and balseros approached each other and began the games. Someone standing next to me said, “the ceremony is over.” What ceremony?

A Balsa Match
A balsa match is initiated with a challenge. The most competitive and interesting match I saw all day began like this: six men from my town approached a known balsero from Jess's town and proposed a match of four men, 25 throws each. The balsero accepted and recruited three of the best men he could think of to represent their region. The “captains” then met, decided on the order and the location and sent their first two balseros to face off. A rectangle of spectators formed around the match and the attention from then on fell only on the two competing balseros.
Alexi throws mid-match

The first balsero threw 25 balsas in succession, receiving fresh sticks from a teammate holding a vertical stack of maybe 10 sticks (the thrown balsas are recovered by teammates and spectators and placed back in the stack). The balsero may take as long and get as close to his opponent as he wants. Some prefer to dance and feint quite a bit before each throw, others throw rapid fire. Meanwhile, the opponent dances in place, rhythmically blowing a whistle and carefully watching the thrower. The thrower must hit his opponent below the knees, otherwise both sides break into argument and potentially a brawl.

There is no point system, the only way to win is by incapacitating your opponent (i.e. he can no longer stand). Click here for a short video of a balsa match. Note that I'm trying to secretly film from the hip.

After the match, the teams sit together and drink chicha. I saw three fights break out between Jess's boys and mine, yet after the match they were all drinking chicha together. Camaraderie above all.

Despite the madness captured in your first glance, balsa is a sport. It is quien es mas macho at the most primordial level and if you enjoy boxing, UFC, wrestling, or any other type of sport martial art, you would enjoy a well-regulated balsa match.

Balseria taps into the basic enjoyment we derive from regional and national rivalries – think Boston vs. New York, Barcelona vs. Madrid, or USA vs. China in the Olympics. In the month leading up to the event, the participant towns choose their balseros and blow horns and whistles every night to signal the impending competition. Like most sporting events, not everyone attends, but most know who will be competing and afterward, who won.

Balseria has been criticized for the ubiquity of fighting during the event. If you don't like seeing two shirtless men punch each other in the face, the criticism is valid. However, these fights are different from what we typically see in bar brawls and street fights.

In a balseria fight, you can only punch in the head - no kicking, no body shots. The fight never goes to the ground and weapons are never used. The majority of fights that I saw began with one man challenging another, the two removing their shirts and squaring off and a group forming around the fighters, to watch and to regulate. The fighters punch each other and if one falls, the other simply waits to see if he wants to get up and continue.

An argument
When someone has had enough, a spectator (I'm guessing a friend) usually steps between the fighters and waves his hands in front of his chest, like a ref in a boxing match. Mostly, the fighters then go opposite ways, but sometimes they will share a drink and talk for a while. When fighters break the rules (e.g. by kicking or sucker-punching), spectators typically break them up or otherwise prevent them from deteriorating into a “dirty” brawl.

Women fights are the most brutal – it's all hair grabbing and hammer fists to the face. While the men typically look intense and concentrated during a fight, the women look furious and insane. I'd much rather fight a Ngäbe man.

Chicha Fuerte
I drank four kinds of fermented corn liquor during balseria, all presented in the sketchiest containers you can imagine (one was literally a former kerosene bottle). My reigning favorite thing to ferment (out here) is still corn and as such, I drank mostly corn liquor. I also had fermented banana, which they refer to as “witch juice,” as well as palm wine and something called guarapo. I don't know what guarapo is made of but it smells and tastes like vomit. Seriously. I was convinced that I had consumed someone else's vomit, until I returned to my town and someone explained that that's just how it tastes.

A half liter bottle of whatever was 25 cents, though in about eight total hours (between two days) of consistent consumption, I probably only spent a dollar. Being gringos and therefore inherently fascinating, there was a constant flow of random people approaching us and insisting that we drink with them. Although, their interpretation of drinking “with” them sometimes involved them handing us a sketchy container, with a sketchier fermented liquid and watching us drink the whole thing in one go. Most people assumed we would pass it around, but some would force us, sometimes physically, to finish the contents of the container.
Would you like some chicha?

One guy, who we started calling “The Feeder,” insisted on pouring the drink into our mouths himself. This was a problem since he was like five feet tall and so drunk that he couldn't stand still. So he would reach up, wobbling, and attempt to feed us. At one point, he poured the chicha straight down my shirt, missing my mouth entirely and I uttered the now infamous line, “You have to put it in my mouth!” I actually said that. I'll never live that one down.

Luckily, I would place the liquor's strength at about 3% (a beer is usually about 5%) and not everyone was as aggressive as The Feeder, so I never got drunk drunk. Tipsy yes, but drunk no. Which is against the spirit of balseria, but probably a good move for a gringo.

Being a Gringo at Balseria
The majority of people were excited that we were there. Hence all the free fermented liquor. Many were wary and only maybe three people the whole day were hostile. The few hostile interactions were basically fueled by suspicion and xenophobia and are otherwise not even worth mentioning.

Look at that gringo blow

Our most consistent conflict was that many did not want any pictures of the event. We were repeatedly warned not to sell the photos we had taken. Unfortunately, journalists have attended balserias and presented the event as nothing more than a large gathering of drunken Indians punching and throwing logs at each other. Racism against the indigenous is already widespread in Panama and a negatively painted article about their only festival exacerbates their images as stupid, drunken Indians.

That obviously wasn't our motivation for taking pictures, but I can understand why people were wary. However, even those who asked us not to take pictures were ultimately friendly. One balsero threatened to take my camera away and five minutes later handed me a bowl of banana liquor. The message: I'm glad your here, sharing our culture, just don't take any fucking pictures. Fair enough.

Keeping with ancient tradition, many of the participants from my town walked three days across the Comarca to reach the balseria. On arrival, they were greeted with chicha and food and escorted to their accommodations (a field). They could have, like me, taken public buses and arrived in less than five hours, but they wanted to do things the traditional way (that is, they are masochists).

In addition to the game itself, balseria, is a festival of cultural survival. While the Ngäbe population may be growing, the language and culture are dying through neglect and dilution with outside influences. Balseria is the only Ngäbe festival that I am aware of and involves a sport unique to the Ngäbes. Those in attendance dress and decorate themselves traditionally, painting their faces and wearing hats with feathers, jewelry and animal skins. There is deliberate effort to speak only Ngäberre and some even sing in Sabanero – a dialect that will probably die in the next 20 years. Ngäbes are always proud, stubborn and strong and I've never seen them more proud than at balseria.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Chronicles of the Cow Patty League - Week 2

Week 2
This week, I played like a pile of dog turd. In doing so, I learned a few important Cow Patty League lessons:
  1. Bring at least twelve liters of water.
  2. The most amazing pitch in the game is the curveball, therefore every pitcher will attempt to throw it, every single pitch.
  3. Never strike out.

This week was much more competitive; the first strings were back, which meant both teams had better bats and could play their One Good Pitcher – one being the maximum number of good pitchers you can have in the Cow-Patty League (CPL). As such, I had a really boring game at center and a colorful game offensively.

After placing me as the tentative and very politically neutral seventh batter in the first game, the captain evidently saw that I steal bases faster than the Fonzi steals virginities, and thus had me batting second. I rewarded them with a single and ended up on third after another single. Enter the colorfulness.

No one in this league runs bases very well. They're conservative and consider even the smallest lead fairly ballsy. They replace good leads with obnoxious antics like clapping and taunting the pitcher, which is sort of funny if you're not the pitcher, but not great baseball. No one ever dives back to the base.

I've thus quickly earned a reputation for being crazy because my leads involve two shuffle steps (which they should) and require a dive back to the base in the event of a pick off. I'm convinced they've never seen this in the CPL.

This crucial circumstantial evidence in mind, here's what happened: I was aggressively leading off third and the pitcher tried several times to pick me off and failed. Except the third time the ump called me out. Consider that none of you would even know about this game, let alone this play, unless I was blogging about it and thus consider that I have no motivation to lie. He did not get me. Not even close. But ump calls me out and I pop up, screaming profanities.

I haven't been that angry in a long time, but luckily, I was at least together enough to use the secret dialect of English. What f*cking game are you watching? Are you KIDDING me? THIS IS B*LLSHIT!

Among others.

I've never even come close to losing my temper in site. In fact, I almost never lose my temper in general. So my team was a little shocked. A few people told me to calm down and a few reassured me that it was indeed a bogus call. After a few innings though, they suddenly realized it was probably the highlight of their week and I think every member of the team at some point approached me to helpfully point out, “Hey Jax, you got mad in the first inning!” Indeed.

After cooking (internally and externally) in center field for a half-inning, I approached the ump and apologized for yelling. He was clearly surprised and smiled, “No problem!” His expression said, “Of course you were yelling, everybody yells at the ump!” So true.

I then proceeded to strike out three times in a row. I'm not sure exactly how I managed that, since the pitcher wasn't very good (he threw exclusively weak curveballs – the holy pitch), but I can tell you that I was treated like a leper thereafter. Never mind that I went two for five, with a run and multiple stolen bases and that my overall offensive contribution on this team has been productive outside of those strikeouts – the captain benched my ass that second game without a second thought. He, I will mention, also went two for five that game, but he only struck out once (I'm not bitter).

After every strike out, a player would ask, “Jax, what happened?” Like I accidentally walked into a telephone poll or something. “How did you manage to do that?” I have no good answer. Maybe it's cause I drank one liter of water in seven hours of shadeless baseball. Ngäbes by the way, as far as I can tell, never drink water.

I've now vowed to never strike out, no matter what I need to do to prevent it. If I need to lay down a desperation bunt, I'll do it. If I need to club the pitcher's knee cap, I'll do it.

I also refuse to be more conservative on the base path, even if that requires more secret dialect outbursts. Maybe he'll be intimidated enough to start calling me safe every time. Or maybe he thinks my anger is just as funny as everyone else does. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Chronicles of the Cow Patty League - Week 1

Guys that I played soccer with have been inviting me to play baseball in the league for weeks. I warned them that I hadn't played a game of competitive baseball in five years but that doesn't matter at all – they just wanted the gringo on the team. I realized that I had started every game on the districtsoccer team, on my gringoness alone, and I hadn't played competitive soccer since like second grade. Which is to say, I had never played competitive soccer.

I've played baseball my whole life and actually played on the actual varsity team in high school. Impressed? They definitely weren't, cause I don't think they were listening when I started trying to give them real justification for playing me; sight unseen, they had convinced themselves with the whole, 'He's a gringo' line of logic and there was no need to defend myself further.

Despite their non-existent standards for my actual play, I was determined to be a productive member of the team, unlike in soccer, when I mostly just slam into people and try not to get tired too quickly (and I always fail). We practiced once before the first game and as I shagged fly balls from the outfield, I tried to remember what Coach Seevers taught me in high school. Hand next to the glove; step towards it while catching it; ignore the cow patties. He didn't say that last one, but that's cause there were 100% fewer cow patties on our high school field. Here in site, there were many cow patties and some actual cows as well. One of your duties as an outfielder here is to chase away errant cows and horses.

The poop minefield thus engaged, I was happy with how quickly my muscle memory remembered everything; after five years, my hands were much more confident than my mind. No batting practice but hey, who needs to practice when you have arms as white and hairy as mine (I'm practicing their line of logic)?

Week 1
Game day, I showed up in cleats, soccer shorts, a free hat and a Nike wicking sleeveless workout shirt. With the heat, this was definitely the most practical sports outfit I could put together from my wardrobe, but of course it didn't match the uniform standards of the league.

“There are rules about what you can wear?” I asked, flabbergasted.
“Yes Jax, you need a shirt with sleeves and long pants.”
“But we're in the middle of fucking nowhere and it's 1,000 degrees out, who cares what we wear?” is what I didn't say but mentally screamed. Instead, I ran home and changed.

When I returned, I asked for the glove they had promised to lend me for the game. “It's out there, Jax” the captain replied, pointing to center field. I looked at the field and there were nine gloves, one left at each position by the other team's defense.

Inventory between both teams: One black metal bat with no grips; one helmet; nine gloves that can loosely be associated with each of the nine positions; stringent dress code. Check check check check check.

I pulled on an already sweaty glove and situated myself between three cow patties, thinking, 'This seems like a good spot.' The first batter promptly hit the ball over my head.

So, I chose some deeper cow patties and played the rest of the game from there. Which was a good move, cause the pitching was pretty horrendous. I lost track of how many pitchers we used at five, which is not a good sign when there are only seven innings and you only have ten total players on your team.

I was active defensively, which is also a bad sign for your team, but after the first error, I locked it down. Coach Seevers guided me through each fly ball like Obe-Won's* ghost in Star Wars: Crow hop and touch your opposite tow on the follow-through; hit the cut off man in the chest; trust your instincts. The sun was pretty punishing, but it felt so damn good to be playing baseball again that I didn't care.

I had been worried about batting since I hadn't hit fast pitch in five years but this wasn't particularly fast pitch so the learning curve was quick. Squash the bug; head down; left foot on thin ice. The one black bat burned in the 1:00pm sun, so it was definitely in my interest to hit one of the first pitches. I watched the pitches as the captain batted ahead of me. Weak curveball, weak curveball aaaand a weak curveball. I got up with a vague idea what he might throw.

His first few pitches, he was clearly attempting a curveball, but it really just sagged a little as it reached the plate and I eventually saw a good one and hit it between left and center. The outfielders scrambled after it and threw it back towards the diamond, though not to a particular player. Someone eventually claimed responsibility and tried to throw the runner out at home. Meanwhile, I rounded first and reached second without anyone noticing – a breathtaking RBI double. Maybe it'll make the ESPN Top Ten.

Actually, that play wouldn't even make the top ten plays of that inning, since most plays the whole game happened about the same way: mediocre batters take advantage of weak pitching and sloppy, first grade style defense, which occasionally, accidentally, gets somebody out, but mostly doesn't.

Unfortunately, our team was playing its second string, since most of the first string was at the protests and despite what would usually be an impressive three for four, with two singles, a double, an RBI and a run, I didn't quite contribute enough to get the win. The final score was 20-18, which means each player needed at least two RBIs, plus three. That's a lot of run support.

I'm looking forward to practicing and playing more and getting my game back. I finally understand why those old white dudes in bars still talk about their glory days in high school football. I've had to stop myself from telling teammates about just how much better I was when I was 18 and how I played on a championship team and waka waka waka. Just got to keep stealing the shit out of the bases, hitting one of the first pitches so my hands don't explode, and remember Obe-Wonton's timeless advice: be the ball, but more importantly if you want to keep starting, be the gringo.

*How the hell do you spell that? And did you ever realize it sounds like a Chinese dish? I'll have one order of fried dumplings, two Obe Wons and a bowl of chow mein.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Keychain Eater

January 29, 2012

This is a familiar feeling. Disgust, annoyance, repulsion and violent stirrings, all blended into a special kind of hatred reserved for rodents that eat your food and poop on your floor while you sleep.

Dedicated readers of this blog know of my long struggle with bats. I've lived four months bat-free and I consider bat-proofing my house one of the most significant accomplishments of my service*. Yesterday, a mouse placed himself, like pigeon poop on a windshield, irrevocably on my radar and by doing so has provoked war.

For days, I've been finding little turds. I mean little turds. So I was having trouble diagnosing the poop. Mouse? Giant gecko? Other? But, like America during WW2, I just kept watch without acting. Then Mouse bombed Pearl Harbor.

In November, another volunteer who often says I remind her of her son, gave me a key chain made out of string, beads, and two local seeds that many use as necklaces. It was cool and I was touched to receive a hand made gift for no particular reason.

Then the mouse fucking ate it.

I wake up, walk to my dresser to get breakfast stuff, and my key chain is in pieces. This would have baffled me if mice didn't have the IQs of postage stamps. There were mystery turds all around but now in such quantities that they were unmistakably mouse turds. I mean really, if he had just pooped somewhere else, I might not have figured out how the key chain broke. Because, if food is missing or partially eaten, then yeah, I figure something ate it. But a key chain made of string, beads and seeds?

Already enraged, I checked the only food I had left out of Tupperware – three pounds of fresh beans I had purchased the day before. Sure enough, there were beans scattered around, with incriminating turds close by. Moron. Does he realize who he's dealing with?

Later that day, I mentioned the Key Chain Incident to a community member and they nodded and told me the mouse was using the string and beads to make a nest.

A nest?! Oh HELL no.

When I got home, I heard a sound on the rafters of my house and looked up to see the perpetrator himself. He froze and I pointed right at him and said, “You're gonna die.” I actually did that. I worry about myself sometimes.

Another community member lent me his mouse trap – a cage. Tonight, the key chain is gone and the only food outside of Tupperware is inside the mouse trap. I don't know what I'll do if I catch him, but I think it might involve a machete.

*Is that sad?

January 31, 2012

I caught him. And then he friggin escaped. Here's the story:

After finishing the above blog post, I went to bed and was just dozing off when WHAM, I hear the cage snap shut. For a few minutes, I just lay there smiling. This was so EASY, I was thinking. It took me like six months to finally end my bat problems and I dealt with this mouse thing in ONE DAY, I was thinking.

The villain
So up I go, optimistic and filled with violent ideas that I probably shouldn’t publish on the public domain, and there he is, Mouse, darting around the cage, looking for an escape. I taunted him. I took his picture. I put on a pair of work gloves and brought the cage outside. I remember thinking that the door closed in a particularly ominous fashion.

The trap's door opens like, well, a trap door, and every time I started opening it, the Mouse would make for the exit. Strategizing, I finally decided to shake him to the bottom, open the door just enough and quickly grab him. I did this. I missed. Mouse made for the forest. Cursing, I ran after him, feeling suddenly foolish running doubled over in the night in my boxers, headlamp and work gloves.

Mouse showed me how his species has survived so many years on our competitive planet. Always against the wall, he ran fast and dodged skillfully and eventually I lost him.

I returned to bed, angry and wondering if I had lost my one good chance to get him in that cage. After all, we use mice for brain experiments right?

Today, I used my massive human brain to concoct a plan: disguise the cage and put it somewhere else. I'm counting on that postage stamp IQ. The cage now has a raisin box carpet and brand new rag paneling. In this way, it looks just like a a cage with a shirt draped over it. He'll never know.
Hopefully, I'm dealing with Pinky and not Brain.

February 1st, 2012

A better mouse trap
Definitely Pinky. At 3:00am last night, I heard the now familiar snapping of the trap door. I considered sleeping through it and doing some killing in the morning. Would you like some murder with your oatmeal? But Mouse was shaking, rattling and almost rolling the cage in his futile efforts to escape and the noise just didn't jive with my desire to sleep. So up I went.

Multiple people in my town had suggested killing the mouse with a stick, so that I wouldn't have to open the door and risk another escape. So I grabbed a pointed object and tried to stab. Those multiple people clearly hadn't actually tried killing a mouse like this, because I don't think it's possible. Mice are, like, fast and stuff, and trying to poke it through the cage allowed limited mobility. After trying this for all of 25 seconds, I chose my backup plan – setting the mouse on fire with mind bullets.

After 25 minutes of intense but fruitless concentration, I moved on to plan C: I put a garbage bag on the door end of the cage and shook Mouse into it. If you like mice or are an animal rights activist, you should probably stop reading before I tell you about how I slammed the bag into the ground a few times and thus avenged my key chain. I figure this can't be any worse than getting chopped in half by a mouse trap.

So ended my mouse problem. I hope. Today, I've lived in this house for one year and mice haven't been an issue until this little keychain-eater, so I'm hoping this was an anomaly. I'm also hoping that avenging a key chain doesn't indicate that I've completely lost it, because it really seemed like a logical course of action.

Friday, February 10, 2012

I've been telling myself I need to write a better report on why the indigenous have be protesting, but another volunteer down here wrote the following blog post, which I think covers it. This allows me to continue writing about less professional things like fighting mice and slipping in the mud.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Great GAD Rescue

“Why do we have to get there before 5:00pm?”
“That's when the riot police are supposed to arrive.”
“What happens then?”
“I don't know, but the protestors have Molotovs...”


The sun rises and I'm in my hammock, doing nothing, with nothing planned for the day. I need to do laundry, but I'm just not feeling it. I consider reading for a few hours but instead leave to see if I can get a free cell phone recharge and maybe some news about the anti-mining protests. About as mundane a Friday as I can have.

On my cell phone mission, I encounter my site mate, Laura Geiken, talking to Frank in his store; she's working the logistics of getting 40 teenagers past two barricaded intersections. Suddenly, my laundry doesn't matter so much and I'm joining Laura and the other volunteers in what will amount to a kind of rescue mission. I feel just like Ethan Hunt, only better looking.

The volunteer organization Gender and Development (GAD) conducts various GAD camps around the country. These are week long camps, run by volunteers, that educate teenagers about making good decisions, sexual health, and other coming of age related issues. Volunteers can either send eligible teenagers from their town to the camp or go with them. For various reasons, Laura and I decided to send a combined three teens from our town, without attending the camp with them. Laura had dropped them off on Monday and since then, anti-mining protests had escalated and five crossroads were blocked on the Inter-American highway – the only major road across Panama. Three of these blockades happened to be between the GAD participants and home and the coordinator of the camp, Jessica K, called Laura, hoping she knew of a way to get them out.

Awesome-Rocking Map
Please refer to my awesome-rocking map. Typically, to travel from San Felix to David, you would take the bigger, blacker road to the crossing, turn right and go straight on the Inter-American highway. However, that crossing was blocked by over a thousand angry protestors. San Lorenzo was blocked by truckers (and their trucks) and Horconcitos was blocked by the lovely people of my district. We needed to get fifty people through these three blocked intersections. (So you know, Tole and Vigui were also blocked, but they don't factor into our story.)

While there are trucks bringing people down to the protest, Frank insists on driving us down to the crossing so we could scope the situation. Frank has a huge crush on Laura and this won't be the only time her charm helps us today.

Protesters at Horconcitos
At Horconcitos, there are burning tires and branches blocking the road, backed by around a hundred people with faces painted and a megaphone blaring, “The government is lying; they want to destroy our rivers and infect our children.”

As Peace Corps volunteers, we are meant to be neutral with regard to the potential mine. Most of the people we work with are against it and therefore the government, but Peace Corps operates in a country with the permission of the host government. To take a side would inherently betray one of our relationships and so we remain neutral. As such, the last place we want to be in these situations is at one of the protests, especially if the press is around. A press photo and an invented caption like “Peace Corps volunteer supporting the protest efforts” could be trouble, so we tried to minimize our time at the actual blockade. Nonetheless, we are approached by many of our work counterparts and acquaintances from the town. Our interactions consisted of thrilling dialogues like:

Someone - “It's hot out here.”
Me - “Man, it sure is hot out here.”

We approach megaphone man, who was more or less the leader of the efforts, and ask permission to drive through the blockade (with Frank) and on to San Lorenzo, where we hope to find a bus willing to take us to San Felix. He says no. We try various persuasion techniques:

Reason – “You don't even have to do anything, we'll just slip past the trees and burning tires and be on our way.”

Sympathy – “They are kids from your home town; they're scared and crying and want to go home.”

Sex appeal – Laura takes her shirt off.

Ok, that didn't really happen, but maybe it should have, because we couldn't convince him. This is understandable from his perspective – for the protestors to make their point, they can't just mostly block the road, they gotta block it entirely. No exceptions.

Luckily, two other friends of ours from the town overhear our pleas and tell us that there are indeed buses running between San Lorenzo and San Felix and we just need to walk 20 minutes down the highway to San Lorenzo.

So that's what we do.

Laura walking through the truck blockade in San Lorenzo
The blockade at San Lorenzo was no joke. Around fifty 18 wheelers were parked on the road, the drivers supporting the Ngäbes. While one could probably navigate the trees and tires at Horconcitos in a vehicle, here there is no chance of passing. The feel is different too, the trucks' ominous presence is louder than any megaphone and more intimidating than any number of burning tires. The drivers sleep in the trucks or string up hammocks underneath. Some had opened the backs to reveal, and presumably consume, rotting produce. We greet them as we pass and they smile and wave.

It takes around ten minutes to walk through the blockade and towards the end, a restaurant owner from my town stops and greets me. His face is painted black and he has a bandana pulled tight down to his eyes. He carries a large, full, white sack. We talk for a few seconds, exchanging mandatory statements about the heat, and as we do, I look into the sack. It is filled with empty bottles. He follows my eyes and before I can say anything, he says, “For making bombs.” “Molotovs?” I ask. “Yes.”


He tells me the police are coming at 5:00pm and they want to “be prepared.” It is 3:00pm and San Felix is an hour round trip from San Lorenzo.


I say good bye and catch up with Laura to tell her about the new deadline. We hurry towards San Lorenzo.

Almost right away, we see a bus poised in the direction of San Felix, passengers on board. Laura approaches the driver and tells him we have over 40 people in San Felix that need to get back here. This is the equivalent of saying, “I guarantee you $80 for making a trip you were about to make anyway.” He nods slowly and I get on to make sure the transition goes smoothly. Laura stays to keep abreast of the 5:00pm rumor and to call a bus driver from our town that we both know is attracted to her.

Between the blockades, transport buses line both sides of the road and passengers sit on their cargo and on the grassy hills of the highway towns. They were probably headed for Panama City and now they're stranded, seven hours drive from their destination and behind three more blockades.

The rescuees
In San Felix, I see Jessica K, who rallied Laura that morning and had been on the other end of Laura's phone calls all day. We exchange information while we walk down a side street to get the waiting campers. At that point, the San Felix protest was the biggest in the country, with over a thousand people blocking the highway. We can't even see the people from where we are but there are trees blocking the road as far as I can see.

We turn the corner and Jess yells to the volunteers, “Let's go!” Forty Panamanian teenagers and ten Peace Corps volunteers parade towards us, the volunteers herding and comforting the teens like camp counselors. The two girls from my town are clearly terrified and give me huge hugs, which is almost unheard of where I live. A few volunteers are confused as to why I'm there – they didn't even know I was involved. I explain that Laura's been orchestrating, while I follow and that I happened to be the one fetching them on the bus. It was Laura's hero moment but she prefers to work behind the scenes.

It's 4:15pm and we're cruising back to San Lorenzo, the bus so full that many are seated on laps and there is no extra room to stand. I update the volunteers on the situation and the teens giggle and pass notes and play music from their cell phones. I have Molotovs on my mind.

Reunited with our campers
As we reach San Lorenzo, Laura is on the phone with a bus driver on the other side of Horconcitos blockade – he's waiting for us. Her charm has worked again. Unfortunately, it's 4:45pm and a 20 minute walk to Horconcitos. We hustle.

We arrive at Horconcitos at almost exactly 5:00pm and there are more people and more branches, but no riot police and no improvised explosives being thrown. We walk right through the protest (there's no other way), greeting confused but friendly protestors (“What's with all the gringos and teenagers and why are they following Jack and Laura?”). If only we had had a Moses stick - “Let my people through!”

As the teens approach the bus, they begin to run in their excitement. A girl faints. I can't help but think, “We go through all that and now that it's over, now you faint?” A traffic cop who has been keeping track of the protest from his motorcycle approaches Jess and asks her how the hell we got here from San Felix. We both laugh.
Home free

The bus heads for David and Laura and I go back through the protest to get a truck back to site. The transport truck drivers have been running people from our town to the protest all day, non-stop. Liquid courage arrives in the form of tanks of fermented corn liquor just as we roll away.

The sun sets on a weird, exciting, and unexpected day as I hang off the back of the full truck that is heading back to my site. Laura is the hero of the day and I have been her assistant and now narrator. Also, major props to Jessica for leading fifty people, including 40 extremely emotional teenagers, through an uncertain and potentially dangerous situation, without once loosing her calm.

I tell Laura I feel just like Ethan Hunt and she points out that James Bond is way cooler and also never played by Tom Cruise. Good point. With protests escalating throughout the country, they may call us again; I'm working on my Scottish accent. Because we all know you'd rather get rescued by a young Sean Connery than a young Tom Cruise.

All Clear

The two sides have come to a tentative agreement and the protests are over for now. The agreement has been presented to the president and the country awaits his response; the Ngabes are literally waiting on the side of the highway. If he signs it, the Ngabes will go home, if he doesn't, they will block the highway again and the protests will continue.

I'm honestly not too familiar with all the details of what happened this year, as I've been depending on local news sources, which tend to focus on the sensation, rather than the cause of the issue (i.e. pictures of people throwing rocks and an updated death toll, rather than why the conflict is happening).

In terms of sensation, three police stations, an infoplaza and a library were set on fire (in three different towns) and two Ngabes died while clashing with the police.

Peace Corps has given us the "All Clear," so I'm in David to see if I get a package I've been expecting, do some grocery shopping and eat a steak. I'll also be putting up some blog posts that will come up over the next few days, so heads up for that.

Btw, if you want to know a bit more about the mining issue that's causing the protests, read this article I wrote for PolicyMic last year:

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


After protests spread to 25 separate locations accross the country yesterday, the government sent ministers to speak with Comarca representaives. I have no idea how they went but Ive heard the roads are open around the country and the government reopened cell signal in the Comarca (it had been shut down for the past few days). Protestors burned down a police station las night in a town called Volcan but today I havent heard of any violence or clashing.

I continue to chill in my site. Almost everyone is still at th highway though I hear theyre not blocking it, just maintaining a presence. No idea what tomorrow will bring.

Btw I have been striving to simply report what ive heard and have been careful not to express an opinion in either of the last two blog posts. If you identify a bias or a position from what Ive written, it is a misinterpretation on your part and nothing more. I am totally neutral with regard to the mine and only hope that no one else gets hurt from either side.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Panama in Protest

You probably havent heard about the protests in Panama since I havent been able to find mention of them on CNN or the BBC. Heres whats going on.

(By the way im on my new kindle in site which has built in 3G. Thats how ive scanned the news, thats how im wiritng this and thats also why there will be almost total neglect of punctuation except periods cause those are easy to do on a kindle. I also apologize for any spelling errors as it takes a long time to move up to and fix an error and I dont have the patience.)

Last week, the government changed an article in the anti-mining legislation and then tried to force it through the equivalent of the senate. The legislature would allow minig and hydroelectric activities in the semi autonomous indigenous Comarca in which I live.

This has been a sensitive topic for years, with the Ngabes pushing for NO mining and the government making various concessions and deals and promises with companies and individuals. They seemed to drop the issue last year after fierce protests from the Ngabes, who blocked the Interamericana highway for a week. This prvented vegetables from getting to Panama city and gas from getting to the west of the country and tourists from leaving. After riot police crackdowns turned violent, the UN chastised the president for abusing the indigenous. More protets followed and he refused to use violence and instead made an agreement.

The Ngabes now claim he has completely disregarded the agreement and he claims to have done nothing wrong.

The protests started with simply blocking one lane and allowing cars to pass in the other. The government repeatedly invited the heads of the Comarca to discuss the issue in Panama City in the presidential palace. The leaders refused claiming that the government would try and bribe or trick them behind closed doors. So they waited in the Comarca, inviting the government to come talk in front of the press and public. As far as I know, the sides are yet to sit down in the same place and talk.

So the Ngabes closed the road and the president gave them a deadline to reopne. They did not comply. He sent in the riot police yesterday and they clashed with thousands of Ngabes for most of the day. There are many injured and four dead, including a youth from my town who I did not know. The roads are technically open but no one is  traveling them because the police are still occassionally clashing with protesters and using tear gas and rubber bullets and rock salt. The protesters are also throwing rocks at passing cars.

Im totally fine - my town is an hours drive from the highway and the protests. Many many people from my town are there and its extremely quiet here. I cant do any work and can barely visit with people as theyre all camped by the highway. All volunteers in the area are on Standfast which means stay where you are. Luckily Im in my town. Some others happened to be in transit and are stuck in provincial capitals. Im writing his from my hammock.

No one knows what will happen next. If the government deals,the protests will stop. If they dont, there will be more clashes. Today the protests spread from the west of the country all the way to he capital and almost every province has protesters somewhere, supporting the Ngabes.

Im nervous because if this gets worse, ill probably have to leave site for a while. Theres also unofficial talk of removing volunteers from the Comarca.

Heres hoping the two sides can come to an agreemnt, for everyones sake.