Thanks to Nick Whelan for capturing the beauty of my community in a way that no one else could.
Panamá City is a city looking to find itself. What identity it once had lays shadowed beneath the towering behemoths of glass and steel that have filled the skyline over the last decade. The culture that was once a mosaic of Spanish, afro-antillean and indigenous- Latin in every which way- is quickly becoming an anachronism as the wealthy push Panamá to become a global, modern city; a benchmark by which all of Latin America will be measured.
And yet in the nooks and crannies of the callejones of the dilapidated barrios of old town one can find the growth of another culture, one that is purely Panamanian but shares in the expressive angst of youth from everyone continent of the world who struggle to retain a nationalist style amidst the ever-homogenizing effects of globalization. It's the art of the people. The murals they paint on crumbling walls and the songs written on street corners to an out of tune guitar. Created in a moment and lost in the next but I'm that brief span the story of a generation is told for a stranger's ear.
And this is Panamá- 500 years old and yet still in a growth spurt of adolescence. Where first world wealth resides but a block away from third world poverty. And a generation of youth who are trying to come to terms with it all, just trying to tell a story that's their own.
The day before their arrival, the citizens of Bayamon began preparing the village for the celebration where people from communities all across the area would be coming to celebrate the creation of the Comarca Embera-Wounaan. To the Embera the 8th of November is their independence day. It marks the beginning of their autonomy, long sought after centuries of living as second class citizens in the Latino dominated countries of Central America; but more than that, it is the day where their culture is celebrated by the dances, music and tales that link the people of today to the traditions that defined the tribe of their ancestral past. It is a chance for the elders- those that actually experienced these facets of their heritage- to indoctrinate the youth in the customs that otherwise would be lost forever.
And so the 6th of November was a busy day in Bayamon. While the 8th was to be celebrated in Peurto Indio, the larger neighboring community located on the river that acted as the conduit between the comarca and the outside world, the activities on the 7th were to be hosted here. Schools from across the comarca were invited to come, dressed in their best examples of Embera regalia, to compete over which community still knew the most about the old ways. So in the morning the Padres de Familia, the organization of parents in the school, came together to prepare Bayamon for the big event. The women were going to cook food to sell on the 7th, so it was up to the men to prepare the village for the arrival of the outsiders. The school had celebrated its anniversary only two weeks before, so we had already cleaned up the school, soccer field, and other public areas of the community. This task required the small army of fathers, machetes in hand, to form a line and walk across the village slashing all the grass that lay before us down to the nub from which it emerges from the earth. Our task on the 6th was much simpler in comparison. Around the meeting house of the town, the casa communal, is a fence. Our task was to decorate this fence with penca, or leafs, of a certain plant that grows in abundance in the forest. As a troop we went into the jungle to collect these leafs that grow up to 16 ft. long. When folded in the middle they served perfectly to cover both sides of the chain link fence.
Once this was done the next task for each individual family was to find the fruit, called jagua in Spanish or kipurrah in Embera, used to paint skin from nose to toes in the plethora of designs known by the tribe. The fruit will dye the skin for up to two weeks. Besides its pure aesthetic purpose, the jagua is used as a sunscreen and bug repellent, two things highly valuable to a nomadic people who spent their days traversing the mosquito infested jungle in search of food. Over time the designs have developed to represent everything from a certain fish to the hook used to hunt it, they have a design for the monkey, the tree, and even the aspects of different individual rivers. But to paint any one person fully requires about 5 of these fruits, and only a few families still have them on their land. By the end of the day we were able to find about 30 of the fruit, enough to paint my whole family with plenty to spare.
And so Saturday came and the village was as ready as it would get. The people arrived early and the new chiva obtained especially for this day continued to deliver them from Sambu throughout the day. From Dai Puru they came in the bed of a pick-up, at least 20 of them with my companero from Cuerpo de Paz Charlie, the giant of the village, towering over them all. In the afternoon the festivities began in the casa communal, but before this, those in the village who had their vestments to wear began gathering to dress themselves. For men the outfit was simple, it consisted of nothing more than the loincloth that ran between the legs, up and over before draping down to cover the more modest parts of our manhood. And then, for all but the most brazen of men, a decorative skirt went over this, made of beads, leaves, or simple clothe. Over the chest was worn thick strands of beads that crossed themselves across the sternum. For those who had the complete outfit there were also long, silver bands worn on the wrist and a small silver choker that crossed the neck.
The women’s attire came from the same materials but was adorned differently. Instead of the loincloth was the peruma, a colorful skirt worn by almost every Embera women on a daily basis. The chest, like that of the men, was left bare save for the necklace of beads worn about the neck. At times they would also have a beaded necklace interwoven with the silver coins of Colombia. They too had the bracelets and chokers with earrings made in the same style and a beaded headband with a tail that trailed down the back. The imagination cannot capture these clothes correctly without first taking in this room of painted men, women and children, each with bodies the dark blue-black of the night sky just as the last light of day fades into the horizon, each individual covered in a design that is absolutely unique to them.
From the start the casa communal was full, participants from four schools had come to compete along with their retinues from their villages to cheer them on. The competitions consisted of dances, singing, storytelling, even archery, but what made the events such a thing to see was the purity, the complete lack of awkwardness that comes when adult women put on the same show for groups of tourists. These children performed for no one other than themselves, and, besides myself and the dozen other members of Peace Corps sitting ostentatiously in the back row, it was a moment for the Embera to take stock in who they were and were they came from and to take pride in that.
The performances lasted well into the evening but with the coming dark the event itself changed as well. After the archery contest the chin-bon-bon players began the dancing music. At first it was just the children dancing with each other but as the music became more raucous every one began to find themselves dancing with a partner in hand. Night came on fully now but the event still held its composure, it would not be until the last of the children left that the alcohol would start pouring in over the fence from the cantina next door. The drums bellowed and the turtle shell and marimbas rattled as the flute danced it’s away above the mayhem of the rhythm, dragging it behind it and it pranced ahead in its gaiety. By this time most of other gringos from Cuerpo de Paz had made it back to Sambu and there was no one left but Charlie and me who would head into Puerto Indio in the morning. Each time we tried to leave the casa communal there was someone on the fringe of the crowd dragging us back in.
The next day we walked the hour and a half it took us to get to Peurto Indio where the celebration of the actual 8th of November was to take place. We arrived in the village to find it bustling as I had never seen it before. The people from villages all around the area had flocked to Peurto Indio for the festivities, dressed in their best traditional attire and painted in a plethora of designs. The Peace Corps house was filled with the visitors but for the better part of the day there were people out participating in one event or another. It started with a basketball game between the slapped together team of Peace Corps volunteers and the well-practiced opponents from Bayamon. While we had strategy and height to our advantage, we rightfully lost to our more talented opponents. Next came a round of tug-of-war between the women of the different villages and our own team from Cuerpo de Paz. Nobody cared who won, the entertainment gained from watching opposing teams getting dragged through the mud, tripping over one another as they struggled to dig into the fresh mud was prize enough for spectators and participants alike. A breath holding competition came next, taking place in the Rio Sabalo as a fresh rain fell on our heads.
As the sun began to set we started the last event of the day, a game called Gallo Enterrado, or Buried Chicken. For this one they buried a chicken in the ground up to its neck and then it was up to a blindfolded person wielding a stick to strike the head off of the bird with the meal provided by the chicken going to the winner. It’s like a cross between pin the tail on the donkey and a piñata, dinner included. I was told that the game is normally played with a machete and after watching it for a while I think that this may be a more humane way of playing. A person could only locate the bird by listening to the advice of the shouting crowd, so more often than not the person ended up beating at the grass until it was someone else’s turn. We entered a contestant, thinking that it would be hard for him to get confused when all he had to do was listen to the only English speakers present to locate the bird. Well it worked and his two allotted swings hit the chicken right on the head, but the blunt stick did no more than raise a squawk where as a real machete would have brought the humiliating death of the bird to a quick, someone clean end. But alas, the game continued for an hour more when a winner was declared after a glancing blow on account of the setting sun.
That night everyone crowded into the casa communal to watch another round of traditional song and dance. Nico, the volunteer living in Peurto Indio, was surprised when he was brought up to the stage for a naming ceremony that involved chugging corn liquor out of a split gourd while a gaggle of girls danced circles around him. Soon after we were invited to present a dance. Well not to disappoint the crowd, four of our men went up there with the girls, dressed in nothing more than perumas, or the traditional skirts worn by the women. The dance was butchered but the crowd was entertained none the less.
The same as the night before, as the night grew later and the families faded away, the festivities grew rowdier until everyone found themselves in one cantina or another, traditional music and dance exchanged for typica music. The next morning when I woke up there were still people up drinking as others stumbled their way home, the last drink of the fading night still cradled in arm. And so passed the celebration of the inauguration of the Comarca Embera-Wounaan. What my words failed to capture my memory will forever preserve. For two days I experienced that which set the native people of the isthmus apart from all other on this planet, and I am not talking only about the song, dress and dance. To know a people in their moments of joy is to see past the façade of skin and bones to glimpse the soul laid bare. Customs can be learned from a book, studied as all things empirical can be studied, but to know joy- to hear a laugh, see a smile- only through experience can one understand such a thing, only by sharing in that laughter, mirroring that smile, do we, as the Spanish language says, begin to conocer.
At 4:30 in the morning the village was as silent as I had ever heard it. Soon the women would be stirring the embers in their fires to cook the morning meal and the roosters would take up their chorus to alert the world to the coming day. But at this moment there was nothing but the screech of the bats. The electricity had left us during the night, most likely someone forgot to fill that big diesel generator that provides light to half a dozen towns. Without the streetlights the world was illuminated by the silver glow of the waning moon. A good moon as the people here say. The time when the moon is full and for the weeks after is when you plant your seeds, fell your trees and harvest your wood. Otherwise, I am told, your crop is sure to fail you.
The sky started to lighten around five, but by this time I was ready for the day. The night before two friends passing by my house invited me to go hunting. The hike to get to the mountain alone would take half the morning but we agreed then and there we wouldn’t come back without something to eat. I ran to my host-families’ house for my boots and my machete, and with that I was ready to go. I sat waiting for Edwin for near an hour before I gave up, assuming that last night being Saturday, he had ended up at the cantina. But as soon I decided to return to bed for an hour more of sleep I heard the sounds of his hounds working their way down the street. He handed me our weapon, a 7 foot long spear with a metal head, and off we went. On the other side of the river we found our other companion, sharpening his machete as he waited for us.
All things in Bayamon all talked about in regards to the River Sabalo. Heading away from the village to the headwaters of the river is considered up when you hear directions, just as heading in the direction of the current is considered down. All areas past the river’s flood plains was considered mountain and other landmarks consisted of swamps, waterfalls, named-hills, and tributaries that are as familiar to the people here as the neighbor the next house over. For our hunt we had to walk three hours to the headwater of the Sabalo. In the beginning we passed rice fields close enough to walk to and work every day but then further on there were small ranchitos where a man and his wife or cousins would stay for the length of the harvest, living off their rice and the jungle. We crossed and re-crossed the Sabalo until at last it became just a quarter of what it was after it joined with it sister streams to form the river that eventually fed into the Sambu. This far up the water was crystal clear and clean enough to cup your hand and drink from. In it were all the fish that had been overhunted farther down and river shrimp a foot long with claws as long as a finger.
We walked through the water looking for the tracks of conejo pintado as the dogs searched for a fresh scent. There is no other way to describe conejo pintado than to say that it looks like a giant rat, grey with white stripes. But once cooked and cleaned the meat is tender and full of flavor, incomparable to anything else I have ever tried. When we exhausted the likely places on the river we took to the far bank and began working our way up the mountain. We had left the trails behind us on the other side of the river, and every step forward had to be cut out with a few skillful strokes of the machete. In the jungle it seems as if every plant is armed with a weapon to ensure its survival. There are leaves with razor sharp edges that cut through skin at the slightest brush, others with barbs that grab you, digging deeper into cloth and flesh as you struggle; some trees are covered from base to crown with 3 inch long spikes strong enough to pierce the rubber sole of a boot and others dangle vines from the canopy above, ensnaring you as you move forward until you are forced to cut yourself lose with a few flails of the machete. And then of course there is the ever present threat of the snake, three types of which will kill you within twenty-four hours of a bite if left untreated by medicine, plant or prayer (depending on who you turn to for help).
Our first sign of games came from the dogs when we heard them off barking somewhere off under the canopy. We split apart are went in after them, stopping every minute or so to let out a howl and wait for the dogs to reply so we would know where they were. By giving me the spear to carry they were bestowing on me what in their eyes was the honor of making the kill, so it was up to me to keep up and be ready when the dogs ran they prey our way. We had been hoping for a conejo, but as the barking of the dogs got further away we came across where they had gotten ahold of the prey for a brief scrap. Some grey fur was left atop tracks of dog and beast in the thick debris of the forest floor, showing that the dogs were instead chasing a gato solo, the jungle cousin of the American raccoon. Seeing this we turned about and went on towards the mountain, yelling for the dogs as we went to signal that the prey we seek awaited us still.
It was another hour before the dogs caught the scent. We fanned out and started jabbing into every likely hole where the conejo could be hiding. Soon enough the dogs were on the run with the conejo fleeing before them, working its way to the river to hide. With the spear in one and the machete in the other, I took off running for the water, all caution set aside. My companions, natives to the jungle, soon outpaced me as I stumbled my way along with them. By the time I made it the river they had already found where the conejo had holed up under a bank. One went downstream to guard against an escape while the other showed me where it was hiding. With the spear in both hands I waded into the waist deep river. I couldn’t see where the animal in the water, but I followed where my friend was pointing and thrust the spear with all my might. I felt the spear point slip across the skin of the conejo and then it was gone. I stabbed at the water again but the beast was too fast for my wild jabs. I threw the spear downstream where Edwin was blocking its escape. I watched as the well-seasoned hunter caught the spear and within a heartbeat drove it into the water. I worked my way downstream to see the conejo pinned to the river bed by a spear driven clean through its heart.
After the excitement of the kill wore off we sat down on the river bank for a lunch of rice eaten off of the leaves of platano. We had plenty of daylight left so afterwards we went back into the woods to see what else we could find. We worked out way further up the mountain until eventually the dogs caught the scent of a deer. We tried for the better part of two hours to keep up with dogs and deer, intent on taking it down with machete and spear. But finally we lost it in a swamp. We walked the banks looking for track as the dogs lost themselves in the woods looking for the scent. As we walked along they told me that their grandparents had believed this swamp to be a haunted place.
When we finally called off the hunt we worked our way back down to the river, calling in the dogs who had scattered looking for the scent. At the river I stripped down and jumped in to fish. For this we had goggles and a small fishing lance, like a long barbed needle with a rubber-band on the back you hook through your thumb to launch it. I only got one shrimp, about a foot long. But when my friend tried his luck he came out with a dozen fish and shrimp of all different types. There on a beach with the waterfall Chorito trickling down behind us we built a fire and cooked our catch in the flames. The two Embera men I was with started laughing, saying that we were eating in the mountains like Chimaron. In the legends of the Embera they have many tales about the spirits that live in the mountains. They've told me about the animal-like dwarf men that attack those they catch walking in the hills. There is another about an old woman who walks about looking for her children that were stolen from her. And then there is the story of the Chimaron. When the Spaniards came they captured all the indigenous people and forced them to live in a compound where they were slaughtered or died of illness almost to a man. The Embera that survive today are the descendants of those that escaped from their prison and fled into the mountains where they escaped persecution by living nomadically. Eventually some of these people lost their weariness of these outsiders, whom at this point were called Latinos, and they began living in villages again. But the Chimaron were the ones who could never forget the crimes their ancestors suffered at the hands of these others and, as legend has it, they live to this day walking about the mountains, sneaking into villages to steal salt and tools from the houses. One can think of this story what they will, but I for one believe that all legends are rooted in truth. It was only 100 years ago or so that the Embera left their nomadic way of life, drawn to living in villages by the lure of schools and health clinics.
After our hunger was satiated, we began our long journey back. In a bag on my back I carried the canejo. We stopped every now and then to gather things we came across in the forest, a root from this plant, fruit from another. I came across 10 tagwa seeds that are used for carving figurines and jewelry. As we came closer to the village we began to see other people who had gone out that day to gather their rice or hunt. We saw my neighbor running down the trail with a rifle in his hand, heading after a deer that we joked we had scared down his way so it was rightfully ours. We crossed the river to arrive in Bayamon just as the sun was setting. From sunrise to sunset we had gone out hunting, and for our efforts we would know a few days of meat on our plates. So is the life here, all that you eat is acquired by the efforts of your own two hands.
The slow turning clock of the harvest time. Early to bed, early to rise. Bones sore, skin blistered and cut, feet weary. As the eastern sky begins to change, the rustling in the kitchen begins. Breakfast is eaten, machetes sharpened, lunches packed, all before the sun rises. The finca is nearly an hour away, leaving you already tired when you arrive. And then its time for the work. The field is a golden sea of bowing tassels amidst the jungle green on the periphery. A slice of the machete takes down the bushel in one strike and you leave it in a bundle on the ground, ready to saltar, or jump. You work always with one eye on the ground around you, weary of the snakes that hunt the mice that eat your corn. The other day I saw someone, an older man who still works the fields and walks the trail barefooted, who had the two purple fang-marks of the snake on his swollen foot. It had been two weeks since he’d been bit and the swelling continued to grow. He had been looking for the right plant to apply as medicine but it could not be found.
One clean cut and the bushel is free in your hand, the rewarding thrash of steel slicing through plant singing from every laborer there, all of them family, the women and children who at other times are too small to work the field, working for the food that fill the bellies until the next harvest. The sun is up now and it is hot. Hot and the air is thick as if you were cooking in it. As hot as your hand gets when you stick it in the oven to check the bread. A few minutes rest in the shade could save your life, but before long it will be noon and there will be no shade left to give you shelter.
Once the rice is down its time to free the kernels from the stock. For this you have a canoe, maybe 5 feet long and 3 high. Carved in one solid piece from the hollowed out trunk of a nodo tree. With the bundle of rice in both hands you slam the tassels into the tapered walls of the canoe and the kernels jump into the pile at the bottom. Lift, hit, shake. Lift, hit, shake. From plant to burlap sack in a process that has unlikely changed for millennia. On a good day with a clean area to cut and 4 seasoned workers you can get nearly 100 pounds of rice loaded into sacks and slung on the back of your horse to take it back to the house.
By the time the hike through the jungle ends and you the start seeing the traffic of the village on the trail it is nearly two o’clock. And in this time of year, with the true start of the rainy season weeks or days away, you look up at the mountains to the south, east, and west, to see where the clouds are coming in from today. If there is time you lay the rice out to dry in the sun on whatever clean surface you’ve got- a tarp, the campaign posters from July’s election, the zinc roofing the government gave you without ever stopping to ask why you prefer the cool roofs of chunga leafs instead. When the rain comes the children rush out to return the drying kernal to the bag.
When Saturday comes around the whole village lines up at the building of the machine. Without this incredible device, itself a gift from the Spanish priest that for 10 years lived and prayed with the Embera, the work of the women would be so much more. They return to the traditional method when the piladora needs a new belt or the cords have to be rewired. It involves a tree trunk waste high, its top hollowed out into a deep mortar where the unshucked rice grains are placed. The women stand over it with an arm length, heavy pestol in hand. The rhythmic thud of the rice slammed between the wood is the harvest song of the village, the tune playing from the yard of every house. But on the Saturdays when the machine is functional, the women and children line up at the building where it resides, alerted to its use by one of its operators who shouts that today is the today as he himself walks down the street to begin a long day of work. The women appear quickly, hoping for a place in line amongst their friends, heavy bags of rice strung over their shoulders and dragged behind them by their kids. The operators clean out its crevasses ceremoniously, a ritual befitting the church of the almighty machine. The belts are pushed and pulled to test for tension. Screws are tightened and retightened. The floor swept and the scale takes its place on its string hanging from the rafters. Ready, the men look at each other, and then at the women, and then all as one look anxiously at the machine. As the flick is switched an unspoken prayer is mouthed by all present, some delivering their petitions to the machine itself. And then the current is released, the motor takes up a hum, and the gears and the belts and the blades start to turning.
The shouter jumps up on a table and takes the first bucket of rice and pours vigorously into the hopper, feeding it in with a stick. The head operator, wearing the glasses he wears only for occasions of such solemn importance as this, sticks his hand in to the rice as it pours out, shaking his head like a worried father when it does not come out clean enough. Bolts are tightened, the metal hit and pounded in just the right spot, and the grain comes out the perfect white rice that for the months to come will feed and nourish every member of this community. As each women passes through after her rice is done, the bag is weighed and the price of the use of the machine is paid in silver or grain so that new parts can be acquired, belts replaced, and the miracle of the piladora can carry on to the next season.
The next day is another day, and there is work to be done. Fields to clear and plant, the rest of the harvest to collect, everyday another struggle to keep one step ahead of an empty bag of grain and a child’s plate bereft of a meal.
As the embers of the fogone died down the glow of the bare light bulb overhead gave off its steady light. Idio sat at the table beneath the bulb, his legs hidden from the mosquitoes beneath the flowing excess of his cotton pants. Under his shirt was his small, solid frame, the body of an athlete or soldier, not the 58 year old man that he was. I sat at the table with him, his wife sat in a chair in the corner working away at her artisan work. Between La Senora and me sat their granddaughter on a step, her 15 year old body twisted and left small from the birth defect that caused her mother to abandon to the care of her grandparents. The conversation soon ventured far from wherever it was that it began. We spoke of the Embera culture and the threat it faced of being lost by a generation of youths that place more value on the culture of the outside world- on reggaeton and hip hop, materialism and fatalism. In his words were echoed the fears of the small peoples of the world, those whose children will see their language and culture lost forever. Cultures that survived the bloody onset of the conquistadors, persevered through the persecution of the church, they will now soon die at the very hands of their own people, by not remembering, not caring, they condemn them to die.
From there the conversation took a turn towards religions, both old and new. Wee spoke of God and the many ways the world interprets the meaning of that word. Idio is a Catholic but it was interesting to hear how the church has changed in its role in development. In the Comarca the Catholics are some of the most outspoken champions in the defense of the culture of the Embera. From the church Idio has learned terms such as Mother Earth, equal rights and cultural preservation. The conversation turned from there to the unspoken knowledge of the Embera, their familiarity with the plants and the jungle that has revealed to them all its secrets. He told me with a grin that the men from outside- the whites, blacks and latinos- fight with guns and knifes, but the weapon of the Embera is the plant. The shamans among them call kill with a substance sprinkled unknowingly in the hair or left in wait on a pair of sandals. They also know the plants that can heal. Take this leaf for pain, this root for cancer, and that bark to quit growing hair. Those men and women that know these secrets do not speak of it. It is a knowledge of the cunandero.
Cerro Name, Comarca Ngöbe-Buglé
This is the week of site visits where aspiring volunteers go to visit their counterparts in Sustainable Agriculture or Environmental Health in their communities across the country to experience firsthand the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer. I am visiting a fellow by the name of Jed in the village of Cerro Name in the Comarca Ngöbe-Buglé, an indigenous reservation in the northwest of the country. With a population of 120,000, the Ngobe are the largest indigenous group in Panama. Even outside of the Comarca they are easily recognizable. The women wear a dress called a nagwa which is more or less a mumu while men wear a pattern on their shirts and pants called "dientes", a throwback from their past when they would decorate themselves with jewelry made of teeth.
I took a westbound bus on the inter-american highway and got off in Tole where Jed met me at a roadside cantina where we watched Brazil's embarrassing defeat to Germany in the World Cup. From there a taxi took us to the chiva stand in Tole. Apart from buses an taxis, chivas are the only way to get around rural Panama. Imagine a pickup truck with a tent over the bed, benches built into the side and then a line of stools running down the middle, and then imagine the site of this contraption when it is packed full with over 25 men, women and children, bumping along a dirt mountain road and you'll have a good idea how one travels in Panama. We got let off on the roadside where we began the 2 hour hike into Jed's community. Jed dropped in to speak with neighbors along the way and we stopped for a while to play a quick game of soccer with some kids.
We split off from the main route to take a single track trail down to a creek and up the other side to get to Jed's hut. To go anywhere in the Comarca you have to climb down a mountain and then back up again. For Jed to get water, for example, he had to descend down to a creek and haul the water back up with him in buckets. Jed built his house himself after the termites and locals carried off what remained of the home of the last volunteer that lived in the community. It was a traditional Ngobe home with the exception of the roof which was made of zinc. The upper walls were made of penca, the lower half of bamboo slats, he had a wooden floor made of boards cut to size with a chainsaw and, most interesting of all, a door that was too small for even the smallest children that visited the house. To get in you had to get down on hands and knees and crawl. At night his neighbors come over and sit in silence, but it is a silence shared in company, a noble silence of a people who through the generations have exhausted the source of small talk leaving nothing left but the contemplation of the crickets to occupy the nights. Jed had brought in with him a few newspapers which the neighbors huddled around reverently, those who could read describing the context of the photos for those who couldn't. For those among them who had never left the village it was a window into a Panama that was a world apart from the one that they lived in.
History has always only known them as a people primitive and unchanging, in the 500 years since the old world conquered the new they have been the same static, loincloth garbed natives, the unwanted bastards sired by the violent coupling of half a millennium of destitution, derision and inequality. In literature they have never been more than the archetype- nameless, voiceless- always written about by others, descripted in the same way one would talk about the scenery.
Today I visited the heart of the village where Jed worked. We went to the school to talk with the parents gathered there for a meeting with the teachers, all of whom are Latinos. The meeting was about the needs of the school, about how the children were eating their lunches by hand, served up on plantain leaves for lack of plates and spoons. The teachers were asking for contributions from the parents, knowing in truth the futility of asking for money that they just didn't have to give. The women in the crowd, standing in groups on the side or crowded on benches in the back row, all wore their nagwas, those bright, colorful dresses so easy to make from home. Their feet left bare with their toes digging into the dust of the earth. Every person in the assembly had the same dark, earthy skin, red like the clay soils of the mountains. Their hair of every women there was as black and bright as obsidian, as black as a starless night sky but shining like the reflection of the moon in a pond. The men sat up near the front or slouched themselves against the wooden pillars. They wore baggy trousers tucked into the cusps of their rubber boots, they all wore their good shirts for the event, and on their head a woven hat dipped over their brow hiding half their face.
They say I have been here for 8 days, but already it feels like much long. For the last week everyday has been the same. I wake up at 6:30, take a shower with the water from a bucket on the side of the house, then come in to eat my breakfast while my abuela sits besides me watching me eat. She speaks and I pretend to understand, though in truth I barely make out a fraction of what she tells me. While I eat one of the Spanish teachers usually arrives and I amuse her with my painstaking attempt to converse with her in Spanish. At 8 o'clock my language class begins on a neighbor's porch. For four hours we learn this new language that will be my sole means of communicating for the next two years. It is a slow and difficult process and I leave everyday afraid that I will just never get it.
When I return home mi abuela has lunch waiting for me. Carmen's daughter might be there and there's usually a handful of children running about. I sit and talk with them until our conversations stretch my grasp of Spanish to the breaking point, that moment where I just want to walk away and stop trying, stop pushing my brain to grasp onto this language that it is not accustomed to. At one I go to my technical class in the junta communal and return gratefully to living in English again. For the last week we have been discussing all of the government mandated subjects of political correctness, dwelling on every detail of race, culture and gender, ensuring that every required word in the government script is touched upon. And then at five we are released. I return home to my supper and then have maybe two hours before the sun goes down and the town begins to drift to sleep.
It is a tight schedule and I know from my description of it everyday sounds like a monotonous repetition of the day before. But my real life exists in the margins of this schedule, in those moments outside of classes where I laugh, sing, dance and talk. The moment when my host sister shows me her husband's fighting cocks or when my niece pulls out a book about New York and asks me about the places and buildings shown in the photos. These are the moments that keep me going. The moments of community where people that a few days ago were total strangers treat me like a new and curious member of the family.
It has been a week now since I left home. I went first to Washington where the fifty Peace Corps Volunteers I will spend the next two years with gathered in the hotel conference room to begin our lives as volunteers. From there we flew to Panama City and from there to the compound where our indoctrination into the Peace Corps began. Since then we have spent all our time in classes on safety and bureaucratic procedures, signing government mandated waivers to prove that we know anything and everything they are not liable for.
But today is when it truly all begins. We have left the compound and then English speaking world. There is no more air conditioning and familiar comforts. For the next 10 weeks I will be staying with a host family in the small community of Santa Clara along with the other 27 volunteers of the sustainable agriculture program. My host mother is a small but loud abuela by the name of Carmen, a matriarch of a family of women. Toothless but smiley, she yells at me in Spanish I can't understand and I respond in Spanish that makes no sense to her. When I ask her to repeat herself, she just talks louder and faster until she has to physical pull me to whatever it was she was talking about. All that I have understood so far is that I absolutely have to take at least two showers a day and a small part of a story about something that crawls through the windows at night that could kill me. It is sure to be an interesting next 10 weeks.