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In the "Cult of Escapism"

In the "Cult of Escapism": March 2012

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Means were the End

Over a month ago, community friend and work counterpart, Ruben, invited me to hike north and advise a new cooperative. At this point in my service, I enjoy working with cooperatives about as much as a swift kick in the chin, but I do enjoy hiking north in the dry season and spending the night with the really rural Ngäbes.

When hiking north with a counterpart, I usually keep up through sheer pride and force of will. The mountain Ngäbes walk like machines – not that fast, but absolutely never stopping or altering their pace or drinking water or eating. Sometimes they don't even sweat – that's when I lightly cut them with my pocket knife to make sure they bleed red blood.

However, Ruben is what we agreed to call “well fed” and also has a hurt leg, so this time I set the pace. We also left so late that we had to hike two of the three hours at night, which means its cooler but that we're more likely to see snakes. Luckily, we only saw one snake, about 27 feet long, and I killed it with my bare hands. Then I did a bunch of other manly stuff.

We arrived at his cousin's(?) place and had roughly 12 cups of coffee while they talked about local politics in Ngäberre. I got bored and lost after four seconds and busied myself staring at my over-caffeinated, trembling hands and the embers of the fire. Eventually, I dived into the conversation and we covered a couple of pretty important topics.

Sleeping accommodations in the mountains
They were complaining about lack of government assistance and I pointed out that they live in a semi-autonomous region that they fought hard for and don't pay any taxes to the government, so in a sense, the government doesn't owe them anything. I've been here before and usually the listener will either not know what taxes are or bring up something about the hundreds of years of forced relocation, rape, murder and trickery committed by the Spanish and then Panamanians. Which is a solid argument. But our host had a better one:

“We could pay taxes. I could pay taxes on my land and the money I make. And the municipal office would gather our taxes and promise us a road and then never build one. I don't know exactly what they would do with the money, but we would never benefit from it.”

True dat, mountain Ngäbe man.

He had another intuitive thought:

“In the Bible, it explains that we all now speak different languages because of the tower [of Babel]. But I read that story and there were no Indians building that tower. Why do we have to speak a different language then too?”

Good question, brother.

I offered that God was covering his bases, making sure no one tried it again. He retorted that Ngäbes would probably never try to build a tower like that and his tone implied that they wouldn't abstain out of respect, but because it just seemed like a silly idea in the first place. Love these mountain Ngäbes.


Morning view from our host's house
Our host's house is on the side of the crest of a mountain that creates two valleys – the one I live in that eventually leads to the ocean and the one leading to the gigantic Mordor mountains that create a living border between provinces. At night, you can see the lights of highway towns and in the distance, of David, the second largest city in Panama. In my valley, which is way more developed, the night is just dark and if you shine a light, you see jungle. But up there, in the poorest and most rural place I've ever been to, you can see the lights of the city in the distance. I wonder how this makes them feel. Tempted? Fascinated? Jealous? Wary? Or maybe they don't think on it – maybe it's just part of the landscape. All I could think was how such extreme differences exist, while still being close together.


In the morning, I noticed that our host had an unused light bulb hanging from his roof and I asked him about it. He pulled out a broken generator, which prompted the three of us to do the manly task of standing around the generator, looking thoughtful and pretending to think about possible solutions, when in fact we were hoping an actual manly man would come along and fix it and we could live vicariously through his biceps.

I even asked Ruben if he knew how to fix it and he said no, but that of course didn't stop him from opening the generator and poking at it with a screwdriver. Meanwhile, I viewed the generator from multiple angles, looking thoughtful, but not even mentally attempting to find an answer. It was the manly thing to do.


The walking robot (right) and Ruben dig the view
Later that day, I hiked down with a man who was walking two hours down to another town so that he could get three sheets of zinc and then immediately, without resting or eating or drinking water, walk five hours back up the mountains to his house. I cut him with my pocket knife and saw circuits.

My bathing tank was empty when I got home, so rather than wait for it to fill, I just hosed off. The dirt and sweat seemed to be competing for most square inches of body covered and they somehow both seemed to be winning.

I also brushed the coffee out of my teeth. I think I honestly drank about 17 cups of coffee in 24 hours.


You'll notice I didn't mention the meeting with the cooperative. The actual meeting was not even worth mentioning, so I skipped it entirely. The above interactions and the 24 hours of hiking, amazing views, simple life and extra-stoic Ngäbes made the trip worth taking. For me, the means were actually the ends.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

New Articles

Three new articles on policymic:

Dying For Your Green Energy: What Will You Sacrifice?

7 Ways to Shrink Government By Being a Better Tourist

How to Save the World, Without Quitting Your Day Job

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Smelly Wind

The wind wants to take my house apart.

In Spanish, they call it brisa, which is still strange to me, since a breeze in English inherently implies gentle. Anything stronger than gentle is called 'wind'. But brisa's the word and a slight brisa that caresses your cheek is the same as one that rips the roof off your house.

We're having particularly strong winds this year and while it helps offset the heat of the dry season, it also presents daily problems in various forms.

Perhaps the biggest downside is that I keep pissing on myself. I usually pee into the jungle behind my house and of course try to position myself so that: A) I'm not peeing into the wind; B) No one can see my junk. However, the wind is so wild these days that even in the short span of a twenty second pee, it inevitably changes directions several times, which causes me, hands still steadying my stream, to shuffle in circles such that I fulfill criteria A and B. So I usually end up peeing on myself a little. Just a little.

Cooking has been another consistent problem. Since it's not only windy, but cloudlessly sunny, the sun heats my zinc-roofed house during the day and if I don't open all the windows and doors, it's like being inside of an oven that's inside of a sauna. Except there's only one naked hairy guy allowed in this sauna. However, if I keep the doors and windows open, the wind often blows out the flame on my stove, which makes it difficult to cook anything. My choice is thus to constantly re-light the stove, or sweat profusely while I cook. Maybe I could just cook everything on top of the actual roof*.

The Monty Shower
My shower consistently receives the biggest beating. For over a year, I showered in a bathing suit, since my shower only had three walls of tarp. In January, Laura kindly gave me a fresh tarp so that I could enjoy the unmatchable experience of showering nude. Unfortunately, the tarp doesn't quite wrap around even three sides, so I've jury-rigged two older, badly torn tarps to cover the other sides. Without the wind, the shower would be fine, but as it is so sloppily strung together, the wind kicks the crap of it all day and night and there are some now gaping holes. If the wind blows just so, the holes expose me and I have to freeze, Full Monty-style, and hide my junk behind the hollowed bowl that I use to shower.

Luckily, at least my roof was clearly attached by an actual power drill, which is rare around here. Many people simply lay zinc sheets on to the wooden house frame and then pile rocks and logs on top of it to hold it down. With wind like this, many households thus watch their roofs flung from the frames.

The wind is particularly hectic this year and unfortunately I can't explain to you why, because I understand almost nothing about weather. And I'm torn, because when the wind stops, it's going to get really, really humid and disgusting, but as long as it continues, I'm going to pee on myself a little bit each day. Can't a man get a better heat to urine ratio?

*In middle school, I tried to cook two eggs on a paved road and ended up with two broken eggs lying on a paved road. Is idea actually possible?  

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Let's Get Medical

(From 03/12/12)

If I ever bring a traveling clinic to a poor country, I'm making sure to pack lots of bead necklaces and peanut butter crackers.

Today, some doctors and nurses from Alabama came to my community with about 10,000 pounds of medicine and held a free clinic that included a dentist, an optometrist and an 'everything else' doctor. These three would see patients, then refer them to three nurses, who ran a make-shift pharmacy with the 10,000 pounds of medicine. After making a goody bags with the diagnosed medicine, some candy and a bead necklace, the nurses would hand the bags to Laura and I and we would translate the dosages to the patients.

Joan surrounded by a room full of medicine
The dosages were clearly written on little cards that accompanied the medicine, but this didn't necessarily mean that the people would understand them. We often had to explain, for example, why it was important to take all of the antibiotics, even if you started feeling better. We also had to do all this while competing for attention with the bead necklaces. And we often lost.

Here's some advice: if you're going to translate between American doctors and poor country folk, you should know the word for 'lice.' Because if you don't, the local nurse, who doesn't speak English, will ask you to send over some lice shampoo and when you don't know what she's asking you for, she'll give you a look that clearly says: And you're supposed to be the translator? This can be a blow to the confidence.

Here's something to look out for: old people. Old people out here in the indigenous mountains might not speak Spanish very well and may not be literate either. However, they'd often rather not look silly than actually understand what you're telling them, so they will nod when you say, “These are antibiotics. Take two of these each day, after meals, until you finish the whole bottle.” They will nod and pretend to understand, while they're actually thinking: What's a biotic? Why are his arms so hairy?

Me explaining and handing out the dosages
Luckily, I often teach basic accounting and other boring, incomprehensible, business-related subjects and can quickly spot this kind of false comprehension. So I used a very limited Ngäbe vocabulary and vigorous gestures to support my explanations, which I also repeated at least four times. Sometimes, a spectator would jump in and fully translate, if not, I just repeated in different ways until I saw the light in their eyes that indicated that they actually understood.

My personal highlight was definitely the food. I know the highlight is supposed to be the helping people part, but I was really just making the process smoother, not performing the actual help, or the complicated surgeries with writing utensils or even offering obvious diagnoses, such as: “The pain in your arm is probably caused by the giant railroad spike sticking out of it. My diagnosis is to remove the spike and use it to avenge your badly bleeding arm.”

Here's some more advice, straight from the actual doctor: if you're going to perform open heart surgery with a writing instrument, a ball point pen is the best option. You can also use a small tree as a splint. He actually did that once. That's so badass.

But seriously, the doctors and nurses were doing the heavy-lifting-helping, so my biggest satisfaction came from lunch, because they brought sliced whole wheat bread, mayonnaise, mustard, and sliced ham. I used to have sandwiches every day for lunch and I can't do that here and I miss them more than I ever thought I would. I definitely miss sandwiches more than my old pillow-top mattress.

Waiting to see the doctor
There were also some solid snack foods, including peanut butter crackers, which are a weakness of mine. I can't figure it out – I can get crackers and peanut butter here and I'm completely capable of spreading the peanut butter on to said crackers, but they just don't taste as good as the prepackaged ones. Isn't prepackaged stuff supposed to not be as good? What kind of granola-crunching-tree-hugging-organic-food-eating-hippy-Peace-Corps-volunteer am I?

Here's something you probably didn't know: one CC is one milliliter. Why in the hell is it called CC then? The doctors didn't know. I suspect it's another way for Americans to avoid the metric system. By the way, the metric system is better and we're nothing short of stubborn morons for not using it.

Anyway, when I began writing this post, I intended to educate you readers about common medical conditions out here in indigenous Panama. In a sentence: everyone has parasites, kids have skin infections, and more people need glasses than you might expect.

I enjoyed translating and working with the doctors – it was a day full of tangible victories and there wasn't any pressure on me. Plus there were peanut butter crackers and sandwiches.

(Update from March 17th: a lot of people are still wearing the bead necklaces) 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Ti Mubai

I'm the first born in my family, which, according to the locals, gives me special powers.

One night, I was playing cards with some kids in my house and there was a sound outside the door. They all looked over apprehensively, then looked at me and realized I hadn't even glanced up. “What was that?” they asked. I replied, “I don't know, probably a dog.”

They began talking quickly in Ngäberre and eventually asked me if I was the first born in my family. I said I was and they all nodded knowingly. Mä mubai they said, you're mubai (pronounced 'moo-bye').
One kid explained that the first born is fearless. What I would have called deductive reasoning (i.e. it's either a chicken or a dog and it sounded heavier than a chicken), they called lack of fear. But I'll take it.

Fearlessness is the first of my special powers.

Later, a community member, Juan, was telling me about a neighbor of mine whose house was being haunted by a witch. Apparently, the witch was throwing rocks at his house at night, booming them off the zinc roof. After a few days of this, his brother had a seizure in the house.
Do I look wicked fearless and stuff?

I suggested that his brother is probably epileptic and that kids are probably throwing rocks as a prank, but they dismissed these ideas in favor of the witch theory.

Anyway, Juan explained that unfortunately, at the time of the seizure, no mubai were around. If they had been, a single touch from the mubai would have stopped the seizure.

My second special power is stopping seizures.

This one touch remedy also apparently applies to demonic possession. Which means my third special power is exorcism. If only someone had told that dude from the movie, The Exorcist, he wouldn't have had to throw himself out of the window – he could have called his oldest brother.

The first and last born in a family are called mubai. Out here, that means only two of eight or twelve siblings are distinctive. However, I've pointed out to several community members that in many American families, including mine, that would mean all of the two children are mubai. Maybe that's why these powers don't work in the States – mubai saturation. Kind of like Superman isn't as awesome in Krypton.

Which means I need to test my powers down here, where they still work. I can't wait to yell “THE POWER OF CHRIST COMPELS YOU!” and then write a blog post about my one-touch exorcism.  

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Quiet in the Countryside The Quiet in the Countryside The Quiet in the Countryside

There's this rumor that one will sleep peacefully in the quiet countryside. Apparently this rumor was not written in Panama, because it is absolutely false. People in the country make it their priority to make noise at night.

In theory, most towns in rural Panama have almost ideal sleeping conditions – dark, quiet and cool. But the quiet in the countryside is consistently interrupted by chaotic noise. Battery-powered radios lead the audio assault with accordion-led tipico music – which just recently won a Grammy for Most Obnoxious Music Ever Created. And it goes all night. Until Peace Corps, I had never had violent fantasies involving a hammer and a battery powered radio.

When I lived with host families, they often spent the evenings with the radio off and only turned it on right before they went to sleep. Apparently for them, peace is not necessarily coupled with quiet. At first, I had to assume it was a prank on the gringo. I then theorized that the parents put the radio on so they could get down without being heard (How else do they do it? The entire family of 12 people lives in a house that is one big room). However, the host siblings were often the DJs, so that doesn't make sense. What child would want to facilitate their parents having sex in the same room as them?

I've since decided that most people out here are afraid of the dark. Seriously. Almost every person that's visited me in my house has asked if I get afraid at night. Even young men have asked me this, in front of their girlfriends, which is about the least macho thing I can think of doing, except maybe pulling on a pair of panties and painting your lips. So I assume that here, you're expected to be afraid of the dark. Sort of like how it's not feminine to lock your apartment in New York, it's just what you do.

I solidified my theory on my second trip to the Mordor Mountains, when I slept in a family's house. They had the radio off all day until about 9:00pm, when everyone was getting into bed. The next morning, they woke up at dawn and immediately turned it off. How else can you explain turning on the radio right before bed and turning it off when you wake up? Fear of the dark. That, or there's a Comarca-wide plot to torture me when I'm hosted at someone's house.

Luckily, I live alone and my nearest neighbors are within sight, but not close enough for me to hear them unless they are screaming. There is also no electricity in my town, so the nights in my neighborhood are quiet and dark. I've never slept better in my life. I grew up in cities and didn't think much of the traffic and sirens and people at night, but now that I live without that white noise, I realize how much better my sleeping conditions are.

I've floated this theory with other volunteers and they tend to agree. The white noise is comforting and it's better to hear the radio than the jungle at night.

I can't explain why the city kid is less afraid of the dark jungle than the natives – maybe because I don't believe in evil spirits. Or maybe because I'm not getting down with anyone.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Turning Twenty Four

Birthday bread - thanks Laura

On March 1st, I woke up a year older and thinking about how I'm now in my mid twenties, not my early twenties. Bummer. My parents called and among other things, pointed out that I'm almost a quarter of a century old. While I intend to live till I'm at least 140, statistically, I'm extremely unlikely to even make it to 100. So my life is definitely more than a quarter over. Double bummer.

In my view, I'm already late getting started on the living front. I spent too many teenage and college years in front of the TV, or otherwise failing to challenge myself, or explore, or do anything really worth writing about. I've since made a series of decisions about how I want to live that boil down to two words: create experiences.

By the time I'm 35, I want to have forgotten more awesome experiences than most people create in an entire life. This Peace Corps life consistently puts me in a position to create such experiences and when I'm done, I want to continue making more.

This in mind, I wanted an experience for my 24th, so I packed a light day pack and walked straight into the jungle behind my house. My vague destination was a waterfall and river up the mountain from where I live, but I deliberately avoided the path.

In the jungle
Instead, I just followed any lead that interested me. If a tree looked fun to climb, I climbed it. If there were two potential routes, I took the more difficult looking one. It was not a very efficient or comfortable way of reaching a destination, but it was uninhibited, which is an excellent way to be.

Following a dry creek, I dead-reckoned my way toward where I thought the path might be. By now, there was only thick brush around me and before each step, I had to hack myself a path with a large stick. I was surprised by how many plants inconsiderately decided to have thorns on them. At one point a vulture flew over me. Come back in 120 years, bro.

I was even more surprised when I saw a rusty barb wire fence, ducked it, and stepped on to the path. Now bleeding from various places, I continued on to the waterfall and then followed the river that flows from its base, rather than the return path, back to town. I had wanted to do this for a while but never had. Why do we put off stuff we want to do?

As far as jungle treks go, not exceptionally eventful, but at least I liked that on my 24th, I avoided conventional paths, even though it meant emerging bloody and burnt.


Ngäbes don't celebrate their birthdays. At most, someone will actually tell me it's their birthday. I used to ask what they planned to do, until every single person replied, “Nothing Jack, there's no money!”


In Panama, a typical birthday consists of the birthday person inviting over everyone they know and feeding them. There also might be heavy drinking involved (a borderless custom, it seems). Thus, celebrating is expensive. So no one celebrates.
Some kids singing happy birthday

Since we volunteers are meant to live like the locals and since there's no way in hell I'm using my stipend money to feed 50 people for my own birthday, I decided to be Ngäbe and do nothing.

Well, almost nothing. If an untrained observer were to stalk me the whole day, they would probably report that I didn't do anything special. But today was actually quite indulgent. I woke up at 8am, had a cold soda with lunch, ate ice cream in the afternoon, did not hesitate to snack on Trader Joe's goods sent from friends and relatives, and watched a movie on my laptop. I usually do each of these things a few times a week, at most, but never all in one day.

I know what you're thinking: “Slow down Jack, you had a cold soda and an ice cream. In ONE DAY?! It must be your birthday.”

It's all about the little things.

First dinner
I was going to call it at that, but a few community members managed to find out it was my birthday and I was invited to two dinners in a row. Which was sweet of them but fairly brutal on the stomach. This has happened to me multiple times – someone knows that I've already had dinner elsewhere, but yet they give me another massive plate of rice and chicken.

Thus stuffed but touched by the dinners, I waddled home to reminisce with Laura. Despite the double dinner, we still ate Trader Joe's Powerberries, which I'm convinced contain elements of heroin and should be illegal.

When I turned twenty four, I lived among the Ngäbes in an indigenous semi-autonomous region in Panama, traveled monthly, made my own schedule and consistently created experiences.

Looking ahead to the next 116 years of my life, I want that sentence to be at least the norm.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Cry Wolf

There once was a little boy that worked on a sheep farm. He got bored one day and started screaming “Wolf! Wolf!” just to see how everyone would react. The villagers rushed to the farm, pitchforks at the ready, and found only grazing sheep and a laughing little boy.

The first week of February, the Ngäbes blocked the highway for four days to protest the proposed mining and hydroelectric projects on their land. On February 5th, the riot police used tear gas, rubber bullets and shotguns loaded with rock-salt to remove the protesters. Bulldozers cleared the roads of burning tires, trees and other obstacles. The protesters did not leave without first throwing rocks and occasionally molotovs at the riot police and during these conflicts, many were injured and two killed.
Protests in February

In order to prevent further protests, the government and the Chief of the Comarca signed an agreement claiming there would never be mining in the Comarca. However, they did not come to an agreement about the hydroelectric projects and have been negotiating ever since.

So, every few days for the past month, people in my town have claimed there will be more road-closings and violent protests. “Things are going to get serious, Jack. There will be war.”

At first, I listened intently and expected a repeat of the early February action. However, with each rumored day, I lost faith in their assertions.

The villagers returned home, annoyed, as the little boy smiled gleefully. Two days later, he again cried wolf and the villagers came running.

“Jack, we are closing the road on Friday.”

“We close the road on Monday.”


“This time, the people are serious. We close the road on Wednesday.”

Wolf, wolf, wolf wolf wolf.

Blocked road
To be fair to my people, unlike the boy in the story, they genuinely think they see wolves in the distance. The Chief has set several deadlines for the negotiations and has repeatedly told the Ngäbes to stay alert and wait for her word. And they have. And she hasn't sent them yet.

The emerging issue for the Ngäbes is that, in early February, they enjoyed support across the country. There were 25 separate protests on February 5th, many of them outside heavily Ngäbe areas. Recently however, Panamanians are counter-protesting against the Ngäbes. These protesters carry signs saying, “Move the Ngäbes,” which essentially advocate keeping the road open.

Many Panamanians feel that the Ngäbes won enough with the mining agreement and would now be unduly inconveniencing their fellow countrymen by blocking commerce and civilian travel. The government also promises lower power costs after hydroelectric construction.

A latino supporter
This week, the United Nations stepped in as a facilitator and the negotiations will be held in the UN offices, which are essentially a neutral location. Official press releases of important decisions will also be presented after each session, to prevent the local media from twisting the issue and misinforming the country (most local papers are like the National Enquirer, only not as classy). If anything is to be resolved, this is the environment.

When you cry wolf too often, you lose the trust of your people. The Ngäbes won the mining battle (for now) and made enough noise to attract international involvement. Yet, they threaten to close the road every two or three days and no one believes them anymore. In doing so, they've created a new, larger and more powerful threat for themselves – isolation from their countrymen.

In some versions of the fairy tale, the little boy watches as all the livestock is eaten by the wolf. In the version I'm familiar with, the wolf eats the boy. In the new, Panamanian version, the Ngäbes busily cry wolf, when they should really be concerned about the bear.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Balseria Part 3: Post Balseria Self-Promotion

(February 19 – 22)

Now, if I'm going to unnecessarily take a four foot branch to the leg, I want some credit.

A few hours later
Back in my site, I made it my mission to show everyone my injured leg, in order to prove that I played. So, the morning after balseria, I limped out of my house, intending to flash my leg and tell my story to anyone willing to listen. I've been doing this ever since. The way I see this wound, I only have about another day, max two days, to milk this. Then I'll just be walking around telling people that I threw balsa, without the marks to prove it. That's a short window for self-promotion.

Everyone's first reaction is laughter of disbelief. Reenactments have had people doubled over laughing. While everyone may know about balseria, few (relative to the total population) ever actually play. So I'm getting mad respect. Especially when I tell them that I hit the other guy more than he hit me.

During my self-promotion, one guy told me that I only got hit because a pregnant woman was watching and slowed my jumping. He said I should have immediately applied some of her saliva to the wound after getting hit. Sometimes the right answer is also the most obvious one.

The promotion is working too - I've had multiple people stop me on the street and ask if it was true that I played balsa. I flash my leg and tell the story. Word of mouth, baby.

On Saturday (the day of), I didn't think I'd be able to walk the next morning. My leg hurt so much that night, I applied the most Panamanian medicine possible - Vicks. No matter what happens to you here - catch cold, bruised leg, severed arm - they apply Vicks.

While I definitely limped on Sunday, I also played two games of baseball, so I guess I didn't get hit as hard as I was thinking I did.

A week later
This may sound strange, but I'm actually slightly disappointed that I didn't sustain a more serious injury. Maybe every two days, I'll jab my leg with a balsa stick on the exact spot of the injury to maintain the wound. Then I would be the stuff of legends: the gringo that threw balsa with the locals and sustained an injury that never healed.

In any case, I guarantee one thing: I will not be remembered for the work I did in this community, I will be remembered as the gringo that threw balsa and got tagged in the leg. And I'm fine with that.