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In the "Cult of Escapism"

In the "Cult of Escapism": June 2012

Monday, June 25, 2012

On Tour

These days, I’ve been travelling a lot as the “Business Plan Coordinator” and giving a seminar about basic business skills. I’ve done most of these trips with my friend and co-coordinator, David. We’re currently in the middle of what has amounted to a coast to coast (i.e. border to border) trip across Panama, beginning near the Costan Rican border and ending in the jungle that borders Colombia.

Dave teaches the 5 Ps of Marketing
It’s fun seeing other volunteers’ sites around the country and teaching a subject in which I have a lot of experience. I feel like in the Peace Corps, I often end up waxing poetic about a subject I know almost nothing about, or fielding questions about, say, architectural plans for a school. Or explaining how money is made (“In a factory…?”). By now, I’ve done the same exact seminar three times and taught the subject matter for about two years, so I can anticipate the questions and challenges that participants will have. Plus, at least for now, I’m splitting the presentation time with Dave, so we’re funky fresh the entire time we’re presenting.
Blowing a conch to call the participants
One downside is being on busses every three days for multiple hours, which requires some creative time-killing. Fortunately, I’m creatively time-killing with Dave. Unfortunately, I think we are already drying up on conversation topics, considering at the end of our latest trip, we had a serious argument about, if jet packs became commercially available, how many people would crash into buildings. (I say fewer, he says more)
We’ll have to come up with more topics though, since our trip tomorrow, to the jungle, will take about 10 hours, one way. Including a three hour boat ride, which I’m absolutely dreading. I get super sea-sick, so I think our conversations will go something like:
Dave: “So do you still think we’ll face a  double-dip recession?”
Dave: “I agree. And by the way, you just threw up all over the captain.”
I’ll update again after this trip, should be some interesting stories.
A rainstorm headed towards us in one of the central provinces

Fielding some questions

A community near Costa Rica

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Fifth Dimensional Adult

In Men in Black 3, there is an alien that sees five dimensions at once – can see past, present and future in multiple possible realities simultaneously. Sometimes, I feel like that alien, like I have infinitely more knowledge than those around me, who only see in three dimensions.

I'm constantly asked what life is like in America. Which is fine – talking about America is literally 1/3 of my job description. It gets fifth dimensional though when I start realizing the scope of my community members' ignorance.

“Jack, what does the inside of a plane look like?”
“Jack, where do they manufacture the money?”
“Why is it that if America has economic problems, we do too?”
“Are there Chinese people in America?”
“If your president is black, how can he be from America?”
“Are there poor people in America?”

Perhaps fifth dimensional vision is a strong statement – here's a more accurate comparison: when I was six, I asked my Dad a string of what I thought were pretty profound questions. I don't remember what they were, but I remember that he answered them all to my satisfaction. I then asked him if I would also know everything when I grew up. He laughed and said he didn't know everything. An obvious answer in retrospect, but it puzzled me at the time. He clearly knows everything, so why would he claim that he doesn't?

A week ago, I was helping two community members (grown men) with high school algebra. At first forgetting, I shook the dust off and eventually cruised through explaining most of the questions. But one stumped me, and after ten minutes of trying to solve it, I gave up and told them they'd have to ask the teacher about that one. They were confused, “How can you not solve it?” I explained that I hadn't done algebra in six years but they weren't convinced. But you know everything.

At 24, it feels strange to be considered, basically, a wise man. Especially because many of the unknown answers I simply learned from being a middle class white American. Rarely does my private university education or my training have any impact on the knowledge I impart to the people, I just have an incomparably broader world vision. A fifth dimension.

Maybe I should start my own religion.

Monday, June 11, 2012


I once saw an interview where Malcom Gladwell criticized standardized testing. He argued, convincingly, that the tests were skewed against the poor because they often included words like “regatta” that may literally never come up in a poor child's life. In their wording then, he continued, the tests were both classist and racist and perpetuated inequality in public education. I saw evidence of a similar bias today while helping a neighbor with his English homework.

After struggling to pronounce “roller skates,” Emilio hesitated, “What is that?” After my own struggle with translation, I replied, “I don't think anyone here has ever done that.” Regatta. I had to explain that you put wheels on the bottom of shoes and roll around. For fun. He said, “OK,” but his expression said, “Whatever you say, crazy white man.”

We continued down the list: golf, sailing, trampoline, ice skating, tennis, skiing. Really? Skiing in Panama? Why would the Ministry of Education even consider that a valid example here? Regatta!

This inspired me to create my own fill in the blank English practice test. Maybe the Ministry of Education can add it to its curricula:

  1. I like to eat __________.
Choices: Sashimi; Humpback Whale; Beaver; Caviar.

  1. In my spare time, I ________.
Choices: Play Laser Tag; Play the Cello; Count Piles of Money; Trade Currencies on the International Market.

  1. Despite living in the fastest growing country in Latin America, I live in a region with 93% extreme poverty because _______.
Choices: I'm ignored; I'm educated in an antiquated, inadequate and racist education system. (Note: you may choose multiple answers in Question 3)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Semi, Semi-Finals of the CPL

Normally when there are four teams left in a tournament, we call that stage the “semi-finals.” Not in the Cow Patty League. Here, when four teams are left, we have TWO semi-final games. I've taken to calling them the semi, semi-finals (SSF). Today was one such game.

We lost our first SSF game, which, according to the rules of double semi-finals, meant that we had one more chance to keep playing. It was win or go home, though even if we won, we would have to play a third semi-final tie-breaker before advancing to the ridiculously elusive championship game.

I shouldn't complain though – the league has been full of second and even fourth chances and we've needed all of them to stay in it. Some teams cruise smoothly on to the playoff rounds – not us, we drag ourselves by our fingertips and chew dirt as we drag. It's our own fault, but that doesn't make it less dramatic.

Our do or die game pitted us against The Veterans – those rejected by younger teams and bound by their mutual rejection and aging shoulders. I love playing this team because they actually manage to be scrappier than us.

Many teams have all their players wearing the same uniform and warm up as a group and shout encouragement from the sideline. I think four people on my team have an actual uniform and maybe two people warm up before each game. While the opposing team stands in a circle and stretches, my teammates and I sit on the grass and adjust our netherregions and make stupid jokes. When the game begins, we slowly, almost grudgingly, take the field. We don't shout much encouragement but we're damn good at heckling.

But The Veterans manage to be scrappier still. The team is inherently scrappy – it's the only squad that doesn't take a town name, just a reference to their age. Every player wears a uniform, but every uniform is different and not one of them says Veteranos. With every play in the field, they look like they're about to fall over or drop the ball, but damn if they don't pull it off almost every time (this league generally sees a lot of errors, from any team). And through it all, they've survived from 12 to 4 teams and it was do or die for them today as well.

Luckily for us, our One Good Pitcher, Jorge, was here and he's yet to lose a game. Outside of games, he's almost always smiling and cracking jokes – a sort of life of the party. However when he pitches, he's all business, all about pitching. He hits well, but you can tell it's not his priority. Between innings, he paces by himself near our bench, twirling a rock to keep his wrist nimble and muttering to himself. If I didn't know better, I'd think he was about to throw the rock at someone or suddenly translate an ancient scripture.

Additionally, we had about the best turnout we could hope for. In a region with 93% unemployment, our team has an unusual amount of men with actual jobs. We have a teacher, an engineer, two cops, me. This is great for the families of my teammates, but not great for the team, since players often have to go work instead of play. Lame, right? But with our good turnout and Jorge on the mound, I felt supremely confident that we'd win.

The game went back and forth: 1-0, 1-1, 2-1, 3-3. Almost every inning, there was a tie or a new lead, which made every at bat, every fly ball more intense. Additionally, the coach and captain had everyone on a tight leash and a single error probably meant substitution.

I had a few good running catches and no errors, which was crucial because I hit like a pile of cow poop. 0-4 with a strikeout (which is batting-order suicide in this league). My only redemption was a massive hit to deep center field, which their center fielder miraculously caught with a jump and a roll. Their center fielder was also their only player in his twenties. Cheater. Despite the out, I still got high fives all around and people mentioned the almost hit after the game, apparently forgetting my overall batting failure. That's how it goes in the CPL – flashy is better than fundamental.

Anyway, in the seventh, we pulled away, 6-3, and the old dudes never caught up. Jorge focused on each batter like a SEALS sniper and I could tell he was going to put the game away without much resistance. Which he did.

So next week, we play our tie-breaking semi, semi-final game with a town called Ax. They're one of those teams with matching uniforms and coordinated stretches and that kind of nonsense. Jorge won't be there next week (he's a cop, who has duties and stuff), so we're gonna have to get extra scrappy. Though win or lose, I'll just be happy to exit this month long semi-final round.  

Thursday, June 7, 2012

A Pig Roast

Warning: there are some other graphic photos in this post

Oblivious to his imminent death, the pig lay contently in his nest of burrowed sand. Meanwhile, Josh aimed a long ax, blunt side out, between the pig's ears. He confessed to nerves, “it feels like bases loaded, bottom of the ninth, two strikes.” That is, he didn't want to miss and make this any messier than it was already going to be. Face contorted in concentration, he raised the ax and smashed the skull with a dull thunk. The pig swayed a little, one leg trembled and the eyes closed. Knock out. Home run. Seeing this, Josh lowered the again poised ax and jumped on the pig's back. Kevin handed him a knife, Scott held the convulsing legs and about a minute later, the pig was very, very dead.
Josh, bottom of the ninth

Every four months, we have required Regional Meetings with all the other volunteers in our region and representatives from the office. The office shares news, changes in policy, the next round of things we're going to lose from budget cuts (every time!) and generally get a chance to do a sweeping check of each region. We volunteers also have a chance to share our projects with one another, request technical support and exchange ideas. And uh, we also go to the beach.
Scott digs the hole

Our Regional Leader (RL), Erin, is a third year extension volunteer and is in charge of volunteer support, new site development and maintaining relations with local government agencies. She's been an absolute rock star of an RL and this was to be her last Regional Meeting, so we decided to go big and go pig.

Getting the pig was a process in itself, since we decided to make a local purchase from a volunteer named Jason's community. Around 2:00am the night before Jason was to hike the hour and a half out of his site with the pig, the pig escaped and took off into the forest. Even days later, the exasperation on Jason's face hadn't worn off, “you have no idea what it's like chasing a pig through the forest in the middle of the night.” That's true, Jason, I don't.
Kevin with the kill
Once down from the mountains, the pig spent a night at Erin's house and was then given to two volunteers, Laura and Kendra, to bring 20 minutes down road to the beach. It seemed simple enough, except no cab drivers wanted a pig in their car or even their truck bed. Eventually, Kendra ran into someone from her community with a pickup who was willing to bring the pig down. The cabbies' trepidation was well placed – the pig shat in the truck bed on the way down and cost the girls an extra $4 as a result.
Jason fans the flames
Excitement was high as volunteers arrived in small groups and everyone swung by the pig for a pre-slaughter look at our future meal. We also spent much of the day gathering firewood and rocks and digging the cook hole. There may or may not have been beers involved.
Wrapped and ready
As temporary country-dwellers, we are all now fairly adapted to swinging a machete, chopping firewood and digging holes, but only two of us had any experience with a genuine pig roast. Luckily for everyone, Erin's boyfriend Josh, another volunteer, is a bona fide, overall-wearing country boy with plenty of pig roasting experience. So we put him in charge.
In the hole

He mostly oversaw the efforts the night before the roast and abstained from drinking, knowing that he would be up at dawn to do some pig killin. And sure enough, at dawn, Josh, Kevin, Scott, Ian and I tended the fire and brought the pig right up next to the hole. Josh then knocked it unconscious with an ax and him and Kevin cut its throat, while Scott held the reflexively kicking legs. Hours later, Kevin and Josh would commend each other, in southern accents, over a quick, efficient and effective neck cut. “I really got that jugular pretty good” I heard Kevin saying, with a big smile, and I realized that him and I grew up living very different lives.
Preparing more firewood

We dug about a four foot hole the night before and layered the bottom with a foot of coal. Which was a serious pain in the ass, because all the wood was wet and air doesn't exactly flow through a fire in a four foot hole, so one or two people were constantly fanning the flames and trying to dodge the ensuing smoke, always in vain. On my turn to fan, I cried more than a teenage girl watching Titanic for the first time and spent a good few minutes coughing violently after I tagged out.
Jake axing; what a beach

We left the hard-earned coals to burn overnight and in the morning, covered them with a layer of rocks. The rocks heated as we killed the pig and then stripped the hair. And by we, I mean Josh and Ian, who painstakingly poured almost boiling water over the body and then rubbed the hair off with a dull machete (it was supposed to be dull). Right around this time, every other volunteer had to go to our Meeting – the true purpose of us all being there – and we left Ian and Josh, who are from other provinces, to strip the hair, gut the pig and cut the head off.
My machete contribution

When we got back from the Meeting, we found what just looked like a regular camp fire. They had wrapped the pig in banana leaves, then tin foil, then wire – to hold it together and keep the sand out – and then lowered it on top of the heated rocks. They then covered the body with sand, for insulation, and built another fire on top of it. That way, the pig cooked from top and bottom simultaneously, without us having to do much of anything except wait 10 hours.
Josh - our country boy

So ten hours of sunbathing, swimming, chatting, drinking and Frisbee-playing later, we dug up the pig, took its temperature, fried the meat a little in separate pots for good measure, and then ate the hell out of it. It was a great, greasy mess and damn was it delicious. I ate my fill and then continued eating for another ten minutes. Which I don't recommend doing, but I cut a lot of wood and carried a lot of rocks to get that meat and I wasn't about to eat too little.
Unwrapping the feast

Major props to Josh, who has given me a target level of manliness that will take years of dedicated work to achieve. Also props to Ian, for working his ass off while we all sat in a circle discussing the latest depressing budget cuts and solar light projects. And finally to Erin, cause we did this for and because of her, cause she's been a kick ass Regional Leader and a model volunteer.

For those of you squeamish, gentrified northerners like me that have never had the pleasure of doing something so country as a pig roast, I highly recommend it. It's a porking good time.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Ila and John's Visit

This past week, two of my friends from college visited me here in Panama for a few days. This trip was fairly significant to me, since these are the first friends that planned a trip to Panama for the sole purpose of visiting me. So props to them. By the way, this post may start to sound like an advertising campaign aimed at getting you to visit me. Which is fine, because you really should visit me.
John and I, with Panama City in the background

With only two full days to use, I decided to bring them to a friend's site near the city. She lives in an indigenous community as well, has no electricity and otherwise has a fairly similar living situation to me. But it only takes 3 ½, rather than 8 hours to get to her site.

We boarded an old school bus, or diablo rojo, at the bus terminal and Ila and John had their first experience with blasting music, uncomfortable seats and Panama's heat. John promptly fell asleep. The most redeeming part of this bus ride was that the driver was playing exclusively Marvin Gaye-style sexy music, rather than the usual shitty accordion music. This is the first time that's ever happened to me and I sincerely hope the trend catches on. (By the way, what the hell does, “You're once, twice, three times the lady” mean?)

Sara's site is only accessible by boat, so we disembarked near the port and walked about ten minutes through grass and mud. In the first three minutes, Ila managed to get both of her legs trapped knee deep in mud and stood there laughing helplessly. John and a local man pulled her out, while I contributed by taking pictures and laughing at her. She got so stuck that they actually pulled her out of her shoes and the local man spent a full three minutes digging the shoes out of the mud.
Walking to the boats; the offending mud ahead

The mud thus conquered, we got to the boats and were told that we'd be piggybacking on a few tourist boats that happened to be going to Sara's community at the same time. When we arrived, the boat drivers were wearing shorts and tee shirts and reading newspapers. When they saw the tourists arrive at the port, they quickly took off their shirts, hid the newspapers and exchanged their shorts for loin clothes. Most of them had their bodies painted.

Once the tourists arrived, we piled into two dugout canoes with motors strapped to their backs and began the two hour boat ride up river to the community. The Chagres river feeds the Panama Canal watershed and thus all the jungle around us was protected and therefore dense and beautiful. With such scenery, the ride went by quickly. John later told me that, despite being in the very front of a speeding boat, he briefly fell asleep.

Pushing the boat - note the tourists are still seated
The river was so low that we had to get out and push the boat many times. I didn't mind this, since the water felt nice and it was kind of an adventurous thing to do. However, whenever we ran aground and had to push, Ila, the drivers and I would quickly jump out of the boat and the six other tourists would remain seated. Including this dude who had to be around 300 pounds. No exaggeration. He didn't get out and push once. He didn't even get out, which would have probably helped a great deal. Douche.

Anyway, as we turned the final corner of our trip, the community seemed to pop out of what had otherwise been undisturbed jungle. Suddenly there were stilted wooden houses with thatched roofs and, because of the tourists, the townspeople lined the shore in full indigenous garb, pounding tribal drums. And by full indigenous garb, I mean they were wearing almost nothing and covered in tribal tattoos. I took an instant liking to them.
Welcome committee

The indigenous we visited are the Embera, who have pockets of population near Panama City and also further west, near the Colombian border. They're fairly similarly featured to the Ngäbes that I live with, but I noticed the Embera were, on average, much thinner and more naked. It was a striking contrast to see topless women in short skirts, rather than rotund women, wearing what look like full-length cult dresses. Perhaps I chose the wrong indigenous group...

Ila and our driver
We met up with Sara and she took us to her house, which is wooden, stilted and has no walls. Actually, she does have a “more private area” with a four foot wall, so you can change your pants. The house is also made out of a bendy wood and is constantly in flux. Even the slightest movement makes the entire house move and since many of her things are hanging from strings, the house is basically consistently swaying gently. We decided that Sara's house was perfectly out of balance in such a way that it was always perfectly balanced. Like a drunken boxer. It was kind of relaxing.

We spent the day talking with Sara and touring the town. We also piggybacked the tourist's activities, which means we got to see everything they did, without paying. This included a demonstration of a traditional dance and a presentation of their artisan goods. Around dinner, we settled into Sara's house and John discovered the hammock.

That evening John spent about three hours in the hammock, as we all talked and made dinner (he did help with dinner). Then he slept a full nine hours in the hammock. Then after breakfast the next morning he spent about another five hours in it. We all went for a quick hike and then Ila and I swam and chilled in the river. John declined and instead slept in the hammock with Sara's cat, which, during our two days, spent about 98% of the time asleep. They were perfect for each other.
John in the hammock - a rare moment awake

John's instant unquenchable desire to sit in the hammock made me think that he's already ready to be a Peace Corps volunteer. Combine his hammock lust with his extreme patience and tolerance of public transportation (I've never fallen asleep on a diable rojo) and a taste for rice, beans and chicken and you have a man ready for the Peace Corps.

On that note, I have to give props to both Ila and John for taking everything in stride during our trip. Just being in Panama can be challenging, but traveling is particularly stressful and I think throughout all our travels, I complained more than they did. They also never judged me for being cheap as hell, which was nice.

Back in Panama City, we had a few hours to see the Canal before their afternoon flight, so we headed to the Miraflores Locks to see the museum and hopefully a boat go through the first locks system of the Pacific side.

John in the front of his dugout
We got lucky – a big boat was arriving just as we were and we got to watch it get raised up and on to the next water level. The whole Canal is an incredible feat of engineering, but what seriously impresses me is that we have not changed or even updated any of the original technology from 1913. I mean, talk about getting it right. Panama is expanding the Canal and the new locks will have a slightly different design, but otherwise in 100 years, we haven't found almost a single way to make the Canal physically better. Impressive. So impressive.

Beyond the touristy stuff that we did, which was fun, I enjoyed just having a chance to talk to two of my best friends. I saw both of them when I went back to Boston a few weeks ago, but the trip was such a whirlwind, I didn't have a chance to really sit down and catch up. Plus, John and I share an equally terrible, often unforgivable sense of humor that none of the volunteers in Panama seem to appreciate. And Ila at least tolerates, if not contributes to our terrible comments. Which was great.
At the Miraflores locks

Here's hoping that John and Ila enjoyed the trip as much as they claim they did and that they had a good flight home. I assume John slept the entire flight.

Friday, June 1, 2012


(From April 28th – May 3rd)

I was walking home last night when this dog started following me. This was a bizarre move on his part since I wasn't carrying any food, or any future intention to feed him. But there's something comforting about a dog companion, especially at night, so I didn't make to get rid of him.

When we got back, I made some food for myself and a little extra for him. He gobbled it up and then promptly fell asleep on my porch. He's pretty much been there ever since.

Today, he followed me while I made my daily tour of the town and everyone asked if he was mine. I could ask them the same thing.
Bule in his natural position

At one point, I was walking with my site-mate, Laura, and we started brainstorming names. She pointed out that Spot would be an obvious choice, given his propensity to leave giant spots of drool on my porch. Or maybe it was for the spots all over his body. I wanted Indiana (In Scottish accent: “We named the dog Indiana”) but he wouldn't respond when I called out Indiana or Indy. Laura then suggested Bule (pronounced 'booley') – the Ngabe word for belly – and I called out and he responded immediately. That settled it. He doesn't have much of a bule but he responds to it and it's kind of fun yelling out “Belly!”

This might be sort of a transit experience for Bule – maybe he wanders the community, looking for food and temporary masters. Maybe he'll be gone after a few days of this. Maybe he somehow knows that Peace Corps volunteers don't beat the shit out of dogs the way most of our community members do.

I've deliberately avoided acquiring an animal during my service. Too much work, too much commitment. Plus, I don't want to stress leaving my house for multiple days, because I do that at least once a month. But this dog just sort of showed up and now I feel obligated to take care of him.

Add caption
Thing is, I like Bule – I feel like we understand each other. We both plan our days around eating and we both like sleeping gratuitously and peeing on bushes. He's also big and chill. Little dogs always annoy me, yipping and jumping around for attention. Plus a little dog tried to bite me when I was seven and I've never quite gotten over it. Bule is quiet and when other little yippy dogs yip after him, he completely ignores them. He seems oblivious to their presence.

He also seemed to enjoy walking around the community almost as much as he enjoys laying on my porch, which is good if he wants to roll with me cause those two activities make up about 98% of my time.

I've decided that as long as he's around, I'll keep feeding him, but he has to fend for himself when I'm not here. We haven't exactly discussed this explicitly, but I assume if he's not in agreement then he'll wander off to the next house and slobber on their porch.