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Ila and John's Visit

In the "Cult of Escapism": Ila and John's Visit

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.



1 Comments:

At August 29, 2012 at 1:32 PM , Blogger John Larigakis said...

I laughed, I cried, this post was amazing. Can't wait for you to return to the motherland brother.

 

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