One Saturday in August I was playing baseball with the guys. We had played 5 of 6 innings. The score was Ojo de Agua 3- Las Barretas 2. Of course, I would come to the plate with two outs and a man on second. Not often do the crowds in El Potrero (where the field was) get to see a gringo from the big leagues in this situation. The air was as thick as ice. Now, when trying to integrate yourself into a community where you are the only one of your gringo kind within shooting distance, you better get a hit and win the game. Otherwise, you shall suffer the irreparable damage of a choke, that age, culture, race, sport old crumbling under pressure, which spreads from mouth to mouth like a determined wildfire, leaving barren the forged reputation. At the time of the first pitch, all I could think to myself was, "Gringo, hit it and run," a typical male reaction to a variety of situations.
I swung at the first pitch. Aiming for the fences always proves to be strike one. The second pitch was the high heat. Ball one. The third pitch was cheap meat. I hit it, though not as hard nor as far as my imagination thought capable. A pity of a ground ball to the shortstop. I ran as if running from two years of certain shame. Suddenly, first base was only a body length away.
A fraction of a second before reaching first base, I thought of this--wasn't there a Mythbusters episode about baseball. Among the common explosive and velocity driven experiments aimed at testosterone juicing, there was a segment on sliding. The conclusion was that diving into a base was a fraction of a second faster than actually running upright to the base. At this conclusion I heaved my body feet first towards first base; as the shortstop hurled his gringo beating baseball towards the first baseman. I landed on my right wrist with my feet touching the bag. Safe, rang out through the land. I made it, but with a definite throbbing emanating from my wrist.
We went on to win the game that afternoon with cheers and beers enjoyed all the way back to Ojo de agua. Though, I remained in pain for a good month before I decided to get it checked out. As it turned out, I had major problems with my wrist. The cartilage between my metacarpals was displaced due to the fall. A common, slow healing, and painful injury. The Doc put an elbow cast on me for an initial period of three weeks. This was unbearable. It was difficult, if not impossible to live and work without electricity, in the wet jungle with one static arm. I couldn't work with the agriculturists. All I could do was walk around and talk to people. And talking was all I did. I became frustrated when trying to teach because I could not show a person how, I could only direct them how. Most do not enjoy being directed and even fewer learn from it. After three weeks, I went back to the doc. I was still in pain. The doc put another cast on me. This one was just below my elbow. I was not excited about three more weeks in a cast with an indefinite period with a cast after that. So, I went to the medical office and decided to end my service. Difficult decision, but the right one. I couldn't do the work I wanted to do with the cast. Being frustrated and in pain not only affected me, it affected my community. I think I made the best choice.
Thanks for reading
Mark Field DiNatale
Dart frog. A killer fungus is attacking central america. It has killed a majority of the rare frog species around my site. Que triste!
We picked beans for about two hours then headed back town on the much wider and more traveled path.
The dominoes fall again signaling a new gust of the wise old wind. This time, the wind carries with it the unmistakable sound of a sharpened blade slicing through the living fibers of a hearty grass. Someone nearby must be cleaning their vegtable garden. Perhaps, a farmer is cutting down the underbrush so his crops may have the space, air, water, sun, and nutrients necessary for continued growth. The iron blade of the farmers machete is forged in the furnace of reason. The machete is a tool that helps the cultivater manage his crop. Without this tool, planting and harvesting the crop would be more difficult for the farmer. The machete is a tool of subsistence. Of course, this farmer has the natural impulse to survive. And the farmer is cutting the ¨natural¨ growth for the natural desire to survive with the natural blade of reason. What is the wind getting at here? Is the sound of the farmer cutting the weeds, this connectivity, natural? Is this farmers more closely in-touch with nature than the unattended banana leaf scraping against the tin roof?
As the farmer cuts the last of the bad grass down a piercing, pounding ¨bam, bam, bam¨ echoes throughout the valley. The thunderous noise repeats with classic frequency and everyone knows this sound. I imagine that somewhere in the valley, a man is holding the wooden handle of an iron hammer. With great accuracy and forethought, the man aims the hammer at the head of an iron nail. Bam! Bam! Bam! The nail wedges its way into the sculpted carcass of an old dead tree. The tree has arrived at its final resting place where it will stand as an epitaph to the resiliance and usefulness of nature until nature itself molds the board into soil where another tree might grow. The sound is at once beautiful and tragic. It is beautiful that the raw resources given by nature are able to be molded by man in such a way as to make our modern world possible. But also, the tragic death of natural existence as the man uses an iron hammer to fasten an iron nail into a board, as another man uses an iron saw to sculpt a fallowed tree into a board, as yet another uses an iron axe to cut down the mighty tree. The wind has spoken and so has the carpenter. The death of natural existence, I begin to think, may originate in the unrestrained use of reason to shape our modern world. Did man drive the nail of reason into the coffin of natural existence?
These were my thoughts that saturday afternoon.
The very next day I read this in ¨The Epic of Latin America¨, ¨Man has cut himself from the tree of natural existence with the saw of reason.¨ This archeologists quote is terribly vague and, without context, deliriously overstated. However, the timing leads me to believe that I am on the right path of inquiry.
Today, after I ate fish soop for lunch, I gathered my things including a machete, canteen, sombrero, a che Guevara book, and a banana, and headed to the house I hope to stay in for some time, to check out the the land. I had heard there was a tree nursury and a small vegetable garden amongst a large plot of land. I began by walking down the unpaven road towards the river. I stopped at the mini-super (bare amenities store) to buy a candle so I would be able to write once the sun set. After a brief getting-to-know-you masquerade with the tienda owner, I headed onward to my destination. I strolled past the school, which was letting out for the day. A parade of giggling kids marched by happy to be free from class. So I stopped again, said some hellos, shook some hands and quized the third graders over the previous nights English homework. I asked one bravo kid, "Como se dice Rojo en Ingles?" He responded, "Red." Correct! I ask another little one, "Como se dice Azul en Ingles?" He answers, "Bluway." Blue is correct, but he pronounced it wrong. All the children pronounce blue this way because in the Spanish language, pronunciation is phonetical to the written word. In other words, the Spanish tounge follows from the Spanish eye. In the English language, there is a only a relative connection between tounge and eye. This being that both the tounge and the eye are on the same face. English speakers do not phonetically pronounce written words. Anyways, I hadn't the heart to correct the third graders for the simple reason that they can hardly read and write in their mother tounge which is phonetic and orderly. So, in this Panamanien mountain village, the English word blue is indeed correctly pronounced "Bluway."
Onward! I took the only left in town onto a dirt trail, nearing the river Sapillo, past cinder block houses filled with waving arms and restless children laughing as I fumbled with my greetings and salutations in toddlerish Spanish. Oh well, they were laughing, which is a good sign that what I was saying was both hilarious and not offensive. Onwards! A kid followed me on his bike for a while and took the left fork as I took the right.
And there I am, standing at the gates of my future house. Undoubtedly, the gate is locked. With an ease like that of a mute in a belching contest (?), I slide past the owners poor attempt to secure the property against intruders. The back of the house seems like the most workable place to see what's around. The weeds are high. No one has been here for quite some time. I decide to clean up the yard a bit, after all, it is summer-time in Georgia which means the grass a needs a cuttin'. I put down my water, book, banana and go to work cuttin' that bad grass down with the force of my machete while wearing my faithfully dim sombrero.
Out of no where, that kid who had forked left on his bicycle pokes me and says, "Your doing that wrong. Give it here, I'll show you how to do it." He proceeds to show me the "proper" technique for chopping weeds with a half-dull machete; all-the-while eating a fruit he clandestinely picked before approaching me. He knew what he was doing. He made it look easy. I went for the fruit hanging from a nearby tree thinking that the sweet enchantment from a freshly picked fruit might be the special sauce this kid used to gracefully slice the bad grass down. I took a bite. Delicious! But, didn't help to smooth my co-ordination. We took turns with the machette and cut down most of the tall stuff within a few minutes. I begin to realize during this time that I had been asking this 8yr old which is the "bad grass" and which is the sapling, vegetable, ornamental, or medicinal. We crawl along the freshley cut vegetation in search of plants I've never heard of. He tells me about different types of trees, each with its own use, fruit, flower and season. I am short-circuting at this point. We head into the cultivated forest to explore the exotic flora inside. We pick oranges, bananas, guavas, and mamons and I pick a glimpse into the mind of an eight year old who has lived his entire life without the electricity, without the means to buy expensive gadgets, with the space-of-mind filled with knowledge of nature that follows from a life of poverty in the remote Panamanian country side. ( If there is a limit to space of mind, I haven't the slightest clue.) He talked about trees, bushes, bugs, spiders, snakes, birds, soil, rain, planting, harvesting, the sun and the moon cycles. We walked for an hour talking about our surroundings while devouring our colorful fruits like candy. At this point, I felt like the 8yr old in the woods.
We finally made our way back to the house where we planted one of the saplings that was ready in the nursery. At this point, he told me in confidence, as we were planting, that his mother was ill and in the hospital. This being the case, he was the one responsible for cooking meals for his younger siblings. There is tragic irony here. The mother is ill with lung problems, probably due to cooking over an open fire, three times a day, for her entire life. Now, this boy was suffering the same fate, having to cook for his brothers and sisters while his mother was being treated in the city. What is there to do? I walked over to the small garden and picked the only vegetable growing inside, a small green pepper, which we lavashed praise over its delicate and delicious beauty. The boy left to cook dinner, pockets filled to the brim with fresh fruit and a single pepper. I gathered my things and walked back to my host house with an old man who showed up just after the boy disappeared.
I pulled into Cope around five on a regular Sunday evening. The fog was billowing over the sharp mountains like a nervous volcano ready to release its million year old lunch. People were strolling about the streets, saying hello's and exchanging the day's telenovela-ish gossip. The last leg of my journey lay just around the corner and up the bend, some 45 minutes from where I was standing.
I walked to the bus stop to ask about the next chiva to my pueblo. The old chinese man who owns the store next door said a chiva for me was coming very shortly. A chiva for me? I didn't quite understand what that meant, so I chalked it up to my loose grasp of Spanish. While waiting for my chiva I bought a coke. Probably the last coke I would have for some time as my pueblo doesn't have electricity and therefore nothing can be cold. So I set my bags down, and took the time to enjoy the luxuriously quenching opal liquid whose magical bubbles tickled my throat.
Inbetween the extisy of a sip, I heard a rucus emenating from some unkown place around the bend. Before I was able to investigate the matter myself, a chiva pulled up and told me to hop in for a whirl around town. I gladly oblidged, threw my stuff in the back and gulped down the rest of my home town coke. We zoomed past a store, a resturaunt and the police station. The comotion grew louder with every turn of the wheels. The chiva slowed to a crawl as we turned the final corner.
And there it was, a 15 year old girls birthday party. A huge coming of age affair here in Panama. In this single story house there must have been over 60 people. And who was standing outside the party but about 12 guys I knew from my pueblo who were returning from their Sunday baseball game. They were celebrating two wins against difficult teams in the first round of the provincial tournament. I yelled out a traditional hello. !AUWEY! As we rolled by, one guy handed me a brew, another guy shook my hand, another was yelling Auwey, and another was telling me to get into the chiva waiting to take me to our pueblo. I handed off my bags, opened the beer, and climbed into the chiva.
So, 'my chiva' was waiting for me after all. The baseball team was there so we could all ride through the pale, fog obscured dusk to my new home. The queeey feeling of finality now seems to be the queesy feeling of beginning.
Waking at dawn is the only recourse for people living off the grid, without electricity. They must take advantage of every ounce of sunlight showered upon the earth. I have become so accustomed to artificial light over my short life that I have failed to ever fully appreciate the rising and setting of thesun as a natural way to wake and sleep. I find a simple and timelss beauty in this tradition; as if someone set a universal alarm at the perfect time billions of years ago so that a man living on and by the land could heard it ring forever tomorrow.
I didn't hear that age old alarm again today. So it goes for now. Breakfast greeted me as I sat down at the table, which happens to be outside. In front of me was a bowl, full of yucca harvested the day prior topped with a single fried egg which I had bought the day prior. I instantly noticed the difference in working to grow the food and working to buy the food. The yucca was much more plentiful and delicious. Though it went well with the fried remains of the egg. And of course, a hot cup of sweet coffee which I would see my host dad roasting later in the day. During breakfast, chickens were relentlessly entering my hosts bedroom. At first, my host father cursed at them and made awful hissing noises to warn them out. Chickens never learn. The last unlucky chicken to enter the bedroom was the one whom would have to learn his lesson. This final chicken had it coming. My host dad, hearing the not-so-subtle clucking coming from atop his bed, swiftly rose to his feet and entered the room, slowly closing the door behind him. A few tense seconds passed while everyone had stopped eating yucca to see how the chicken would fare against this weathered old man. The fight was on. The man suddenly unleashed a furry of angry curse words and the chicken started clucking bloody murder at the top of its lungs. I heard feet shuffling back and forth and wings furiously flapping. Then silence. and the door swung open. Out came my host father with a chicken in his hands and a big smile on his face. The chicken had learned its lesson. Needless to say, we ate chicken and rice for dinner.
I have decided upon some of the most striking cultural differences between The United States of America and Panama. I would like to write my views here, for everyone to consider and, if you’re feeling intercultural at the moment, to adopt.
Over the past few weeks I have used a number of bathrooms in and around Panama. The latrines I have used are normal latrines, concrete block over a big hole in the ground. Latrines are generally unpleasant, they are outside, they stink, there are insects hovering around and you can smell and see what you and everyone in your family did yesterday. If you’re lucky, and happen to be in a nice block house, there might be a luxurious flush-toilet available. Imagine, as you enter the bathroom, take your seat, and proceed to look up towards the door, you (invariably) see a sign. Of course this sign is laminated for sanitary reasons or I do rather mean the sign is shielded for clarity. Anyhow, the signs usually say a variation of the following sentence, “Please help us protect the environment, throw your used toilet paper in the trash can.” After your read this sign, your head involuntarily swings to the trashcan located in the nearest corner, which is now behind you because you have already sat down to dispose your bio-waste when your eyes happened upon the laminated sign. You see that the trashcan is full of off-white wads, wipe size, of toilet paper. At this moment, without realizing you are doing it, you take a big sniff, just to make sure your eyes aren’t deceiving you. And sure enough, the wretched smell is clearly more striking now than when you first entered the luxurious flush-toilet bathroom with stars in your eyes and, well, nose.
I found this to be odd, and i still don't understand why they throw used toilet paper in the trash can.
Coming from Atlanta, the city that loves to hate its transportation system or as I would say "It's harda to ride MARTA", I was curious to find out how a transportation system which is actually needed by the people functions. Let me try to be more clear. Atlanta is a concrete jungle. You need a car to get from point A to point B because, either there is no public transportation or the distance is great enough to rule out walking/biking. Moreover, many people in the Atlanta area are affluent enough to afford a car, which decreases the demand for an extensive public transportation system. MARTA is highly organized with specific routes that arrive and depart at regulated times throught the day and night. You pay a flat fee when you get on and can, for the most part, stop where ever you like. I would venture to say that the Atlanta public transportation system is organized but not much used.
Panama, on the other hand, is a living jungle. The majority of people cannot afford cars and even if they could, there may not be a paved road to their community if it is more than 5 miles off the interamericana interstate. Here, I should explain the interamericana. The interamericana is the spinal chord of Panama. It is a 4 lane interstate that runs from Mexico to the Frontier of Panama. In Panama, the most developed towns and the richest people are near the interamericana. Businesses and cities have grown along side the interestate simply because the interamericana offers quick and reliable access to goods and services otherwise unreachable in the campo. People have to get to work, they have to shop, and they have to visit family. So, the majority of people need public transportation to move around the country. How does it work?
In Panama City, there is a national bus terminal. Lets start with the "Diablo Rojos" (Red Devils). The buses that people who live in and around Panama City use are old American "Blue Bird" school buses called diablo rojos. However, each diablo rojo is owned and operated as a private enterprise. So the owner of the diablo rojo can decorate it however they want. This is where Panamanian culture enters the picture. Some buses have elaborate murals of the jungle, others have Disney cartoon characters painted on the side, others have American movie stars like Bruce Willi (yes, it was a picture of Bruce Willis with a gun with his name underneath that read Bruce Willi), some have religious symbolism, others have half naked women, and still others have fantasic murals of fantasy worlds with unicorns, fairies, cyclops, minotaurs, castles ect. Moreover, the inside of the buses are also decorated with various colored lights, pictures, quotes, ect. The diablo rojos are an awesome part of the culture. I think MARTA needs to spice up their buses with original artwork or something to make them more atractive. I mean, when a diablo rojo rolls by, oh, you will not miss the tremendous cacouphany that accompanies the bus, everyone looks to see the artwork, which makes public transportation much more noticable and acceptable within the society.
So, all the diablo rojos start from the central terminal and follow a predermined path to their destination. The name of the destination is painted in Olde English along the front winshield. During the trip to your destination, the bus stops whenever someone wants to get on or off. This can get annoying because you will stop and pick up three people, and 15 seconds later you will stop and pick up another 5 and 10 seconds later you will stop and let 2 off and so on. But it works because people can just walk from where ever they are to the nearest paved road to wait for a bus. Once the bus arrives at its destination, it turns around and heads back to the national terminal, picking up people along the way.
The cost of the trip depends on where you get on and off. When you get on the bus the driver gives you a poker chip denoting where he picked you up. When you get off, you return the chip and pay the price, it maybe anywhere from 25 cents to 85 cents.
The diablo rojos are known for driving at high speeds along shoddily paven roads in the center of the street, with someone hanging out the door, the music blaring and the horn constantly honking. The ride is always sensational, to say the least. A little about honking. In The United States of America, for the most part, people honk to caution others, and do so sparingly. In Panama, the honk is used to say hello and goodbye, to let someone know you're going to pass, to get the attention of a pedestrian, to flirt with women, when you like a song, when you are happy, when you are sad, and i'm sure there are other uses I have yet to see or hear. But it is safe to say that in Panama, the honk of a horn has a hundred hues.
To get anywhere out side of Panama proper, you get on a big charter bus heading to a city along the interamericana. These buses are more regulated and do not stop as often. You can also catch what is called a busito, or small bus, which is essentially a converted van that serves as an express bus because once it fills up it heads straight for the destination city. These buses cost from 2.00 to 14.00 depending on how far you travel. I traveled clear across the country on a charter bus and it cost me 13 dollars and took 6 hours. Oh yes, the charter bus drivers like to blast the airconditiong, which is refreshing at first, but results in near hypothermia after 6 hours. However, the cold bus helps to keep the passengers relatively calm and quiet.
I just realized I spent half an hour writing about transportation systems. I don't think I can pay attention to this topic anymore right now. I would rather look at a picture book.Buenos,