Thursday, September 07, 2006

Chiva fresh in the big city

I'm writing this entry knowing that it may be weeks before I can put it up on the web. Our chiva ride back to Chitra took almost five and a half hours this past time, and that misery is a pretty good dissuader of frivolous trips out. I feel a little wussy now, since a 100 year old woman was in the same chiva, though she rode in the cab. I can't imagine the change she has lived through: imagine being born shortly after your country seceded from another, living through it being mostly rural with one chunk occupied and modernized by the U.S. military, seeing the arrival of a road and electricity (though those only recently), and such wonders as television, telephones, airplanes, cars, plastic, etc. It is amazing, and makes me wonder what the next 100 years will be like.
Anyway, life is going along up here in Chitra. Wake up, sharpen the machete on the big rock, drink coffee, have breakfast, head out and do some work. Usually shortly into said work I'm demoted from actually using my machete to clean-up of the cut stuff, since I tend to believe that my machete skills are so freakin' good that I'm making the locals feel somewhat embarrassed and inadequate. Or they don't want to carry me down the hill after I cut off my kneecap. Still, we are out working, which is good, and also pretty mysterious. We never know for how long we'll be working on any given day, or if there will be food, or what exactly we are supposed to do, and even what the heck that guy with like 6 teeth is even saying to us.
I would like to address the language gap we are facing now. Our understanding and speaking abilities are improving, but while we are getting around 50-85% of what is said, sometimes that remainder is really important, involving questions regarding where we want to live, if we would like to attend church this sunday, and even if we want some food. So more and more, we tell people that we don't understand when we don't, which itself brings some interesting reactions. Our host family is great and will repeat what they said or explain it again patiently with different words. Others just keep going, or laugh, or are obviously uncomfortable and don't know what to do. But still, it is getting better.
That leads me to the people here. As uncomfortable and at times scary the chiva ride the other day was, what amazed me more was how cheery everyone on it was. Let me describe this situation a little better. Everyone was at the bus stop at 3:30am, cramming 16 people into a pick-up truck. We drove around, picking up bags and chunks of wood in Santiago for half an hour before heading up the hill. One guy had diarrhea, and has to holler for the truck to stop occasionally to run off and take care of it. Even though the road is fairly dry, there are still ruts and muddy spots big enough to get the truck stuck and bottomed out; sometimes we bounce through them, tipping precariously to the side while the women shriek, "Dios mio!", other times the driver stops and fills in the holes with rocks before trying it. Some parts we even walk because they are too scary. Throughout this over five hour ride, everyone on the chiva and almost everyone we see on the trip is all smiles, friendly, joking, laughing. I can hardly believe this. The same thing is the case up here most of the time; as we go around meeting people, they are mostly happy and friendly, even to gringos speaking terrible spanish and asking them to repeat themselves. They offer us food and coffee, help us sharpen our machetes correctly, and offer us fermented juices of weird fruits. It is impressive, and I'm glad to be living here.
I realize that machetes have come up in almost every tale on here, so at some point I will elaborate on the importance of the machete here, but lets just say that machetes are to rural Panama what cars are to the U.S. Everyone has one, everyone can use it without even thinking, and they are both tools that are inseparable from the culture of Panama and the U.S. I'm taking to bringing my machete pretty much everywhere, because there is always some task that needs it, even just whacking open a coconut for juice or cutting up some sugar cane for the same thing. Oh, speaking of coconuts, as I was pulling some down out of the tree today, I pulled a good sized one directly onto my head. It hurt almost as much as it does when I walk into a low rafter or doorway here, which happens about once a week, since the locals are short and build for their height. At least both events have good entertainment value. And really, what more perfect tropical experience can you have than pulling down coconuts, husking them (of course, with a machete), drinking the water, and eating them?
And while I'm thinking about the tropics, last night is was cold enough here that people were putting on warm hats, sweaters, etc. Even I pulled on a wool shirt. It was a frigid 78 degrees farenheit. Crazy. We really are becoming acclimatized. We have been here 3 months, and in some ways it feels longer, and in other ways, so short. It sort of feels like time stopped when we arrived, since many things were so different. Yet the parts that feel odd now are the American-feeling experiences: sipping coffee and eating pastries in a cafe, shopping in a big, well-lit supermarket, hot showers, air conditioning, meals that involve something other than rice. In fact, these are also a big part of staying sane. Many volunteers have remarked that they crave certain experiences here that they would avoid in the U.S., like McDonald's hamburgers, going shopping at the mall, or watching bad action movies. Even when you are acclimatizing and happy, you still miss what you know, even when you know it isn't all that good.
Oh, crap, getting philosophical, sorry. I wish I could relate the many funny and valuable experiences, like watching a meeting slam to a halt so everyone could go chase and kill a snake spotted nearby, or realizing we are pretty much drinking water out of the river and not getting sick, or especially the 9 hour hike we did, leaving at 1am, to a "neighboring" town. It was perfect, with a full moon and lost gringos, scary bridges and bad directions, dumbfounded locals wondering where we had come from and hot showers waiting at the end. I want to do more hiking around here, and soon, since putting things off often means you realize it was a mistake to put things off as you pack up to go home.

"Stupidity transcends culture"
I said that walking back from a meeting yesterday. It started 2 hours late, which is the median so far for meetings in Chitra. We were talking about such concepts as cultural sensitivity, adjusting our expectations, and how to deal with things like this. I'm of the opinion that starting that late is just simply stupid: everyone who shows up on time gets bored well before people run out of things they want to say, and even those who were late often lose interest, especially when the meetings digress to other often contentious topics (that come up again and again). It would be stupid in our country, and it remains stupid here, since it just isn't a good thing. At least yesterday the guy running it kept things rolling, since he had to leave Chitra after the meeting, and if the rains come in the afternoon, as they almost always do this time of year, the river crossings become dangerous to impossible. One other meeting started almost 3 hours late and then lasted 3 hours; by the end I felt like I'd been beat up, especially since there had been no food. And in defense of myself, there are plenty of cultural things that are different that are just fine, and I'm ok with those (how magnanimous!). These things include stuff that would be frowned upon in our culture, like spending the whole day drunk, or making plans with someone to do some work when you really don't want to and just not showing up as a better alternative to actually telling them that you don't want to. Maybe its just because those haven't impacted me a whole lot yet, and mostly because I don't care: if people don't want to work with us, I'm totally fine with that, even if it is for ridiculous reasons. But I'm digressing, back to stupidity. There is a ton of stuff going on in the U.S. that could be considered culture, but that I also think is just stupid, like our wasteful driving habits, consumption rates, and most popular country music.
Thunder is rolling hard in the background, as it does pretty much every day. We're lucky here, since we live right in the shadow of the Continental Divide, we can watch storms pour over the peaks. There seems to be a lower spot to the east that the badass storms come through, giving us the show without the downpour. Almost every night the sky is clear enough and there are enough storms around that the sky is punctuated by frequent lightning flashes, most too far away to hear the thunder. It is quite lovely, especially considering how crisp it can be at night: I need a blanket and wool socks or I wake up cold.
We have found the house we are 90% certain we will move into around the beginning of October. We really like the family we live with; they're warm, funny, patient, and willing to teach us stuff. But more and more, the simple attractions of living on our own beckon. Primary among these is dietary self-determination- being able to eat something I like when I'm hungry. This is not the case now, and I spend too much time hungry and waiting for food. And when the food does come, it is too often too low on protein and too high on rice. I say 90% certain, because the house needs certain, uh, repairs before we can move it. In other words, its a wreck: rotten roof beams, rusted out ripped up roof, rotting furniture inside, standing water in the living room, tons of bats. But the owner's brother, who we're renting it through, has said he can have it fixed up within a month (this was accompanied by a reflective stare off into the distance that could have several meanings. I hope that, "there is no way I can lie so blatantly to these gringos while looking them in the eye" isn't one of them). We like the location, the layout, the rent, and the yard, which is perfect for a small garden. The owner's brother is also the store owner, and as such is likely to have the capital to put up for said improvements, plus we think he's a good guy overall. And a bonus is that the peace corps cell phone will work a short walk up the hill from it, so we can even be in contact without waiting in the dreaded Pueblo Nuevo phone queue, which may be a good topic for another rant.
A few other things that are worth sharing. I may be the first gringo to go mountain biking around here. I base this on the stupendous knowledge and memory locals have for events out of the ordinary: a visit by a couple of gringos eight years ago to go hiking around here is recalled by many. I get stares that are almost comical; I could throw a baseball into their mouths their jaws drop so far. People are shocked by how far I ride, and seem to chose not to really believe me sometimes. But its fun, and breaks the ice, since when we go around visiting, many have already seen me or heard about me.
The locals drink freaking rubbing alcohol. This was told to us by our host-family, who say that the hard core drunks, of which there are too many, prefer it, because its dirt cheap and is actually close to drinkable when mixed with milk and sugar and water. I guess it gets you really drunk fast as well, which is seemingly the sole reason to imbibe. Even our host-dad, a generally level-headed and responsible guy, won't eat anything when he goes on a "chicha" (fermented sweet corn beverage) bender, since he claims it "hace dano" (causes damage, yeah, but only to his buzz). Nobody seems to be on board with the concept of having a drink or two with dinner or after dinner, it "hace dano" for some reason.
I realize I haven't really talked about our host family. We live with a couple, their 7 year old girl who is cute but can also be a bit of a terror, and their semi-crazy grandma. They are farmers and focus on vegetables and organic methods more than most other local farmers. Most just plant the staples of rice, beans and corn, so the frequent cucumbers and tomatoes are a rare treat. The wife is a hell of a cook for the limited ingredients she has, and last night we had delicious fried armadillo with a really garlicky spicy sauce. The girl enjoys being wild and torturing the three dogs, who put up with it surprisingly well. The grandma often takes off barefoot for hours into the local woods collecting huge piles of firewood; she also spends enough time talking to herself and inanimate objects that I have a tough time knowing if she's talking to me. It doesn't really seem to matter, since I can barely understand her at all.
A regular cast of mostly guys comes around to socialize, and fortunately this is mostly alcohol free, and sometimes interesting, though a bunch of them seem to mumble a lot which makes comprehending and following the conversations exhausting. Plus, they have a decades long common context of events and people, so much of the talk is about people we don't know and events we haven't experienced. We live in a cinderblock house with dirt floors. There are holes in the walls for nice big windows, but those holes are completely boarded up, so the house is kind of cave-like. They have many home improvement projects envisioned, and I think that the real windows that are expected are still far off. I don't like dirt floors, though it isn't terrible, and the lack of natural light just means we spend most of the time out in the "dining room", which is a curious mix of half-done projects and half-destroyed projects. The kitchen is the sole remaining room of an old wattle and daub house, though the next room out has an intact roof and most of the beams, so that is where we eat. Central to that part is an 8 foot deep pit, surrounded by wood piles, and fairly creepy looking. Its the planned location for a septic system when the kitchen building is demolished or collapses and they move it into the house. Sometimes small chickens fall through the wood down the Pit (which definitely ranks a capital letter), and it seems like the wife has drawn the permanent short straw for rescue operations. She gets to climb down through the wood and grab it; this trip is scarier than it sounds, due to the Pit seeming to be a perfect environment for spiders and scorpions. Oh, speaking of which, saw one of the little painful scorpions in the house recently, right next to where I'd blindly put my hand a couple seconds before. And we've also run into big coral snakes and water snakes pretty close to the house, by big I mean over five feet, and by run into I mean like almost stepping on or totally walking right under. I'm bad with these digressions, but at least I'm not bitching about food this time.
But to get back to the rubbing alcohol: this town has a lot of drunks. Today is sunday, so just walking through the central part of town is almost a guarantee of getting accosted by someone or several someones who can barely stand up, but still want to chat with the gringos. It is definitely sad to see, even just from the economic standpoint. Most of these guys work, when they are working, as laborers for $3/day, or maybe $4/day for hard stuff. Beers cost $0.40 each, which goes a long way to explaining the popularity of rubbing alcohol.
Another event is noteworthy just by its lack: illness. No "explosiva", no vomiting. I find this surprising, considering some of the dodgy beverages I've had out of 5 gallon buckets with scary cups, but hey, I'm not missing it at all. In fact, we have gotten off easily so far, just some minor funky fungal stuff that is a given in the tropics. Though I have to admit that the malaria medication is living up to its reputation for increasingly vivid dreams. I generally get woken up several times a night by mine, but I guess it is a small price to pay.
Ok, ideally this blog will be accompanied by a selection of beautiful photos of this area, but let me reinforce that idea: it is gorgeous here. Cool shady waterfall-ridden rivers, tall arid mountains, the continual bank of clouds spilling over the continental divide, walking on trails though lovely coffee plantations, more stars at night than seems fair, and many wild butterflies. Sometimes the scenery looks like eastern Washington in the spring, complete with scattered stands of pine trees on the ridges, other times it looks like a place that a dinosaur would feel right in. I urge any of you who are tempted to come and visit to do so, and do it during the summer (Dec-March) when the road is better and the rain has gone.