Tuesday, July 28, 2009

country mouse, city mouse

I've gained a bit of an understanding on the country mouse, city mouse story.

In the countryside, in Boquete where we've been for the last three weeks:
  • There is one main street. There are shops for most of what you need, and the center of town is several blocks long.
  • If you want to travel anywhere or see a film or stop light, you have to go to David, which is 32 km away and 900 meters lower.
  • There are kids who walk up to 3 hours down from the mountains to get to school.
  • There are lots of Gnobe Bugle Indians in their traditional bright colored dresses walking around.
  • In the schools, which are made of cement and incredibly hard to hear out of when it rains, the desks are gifts from the Ministry of Education. (That's printed on each desk.)
  • The teachers have to pay for their own photocopies at the local internet cafes. There aren't copy machines in the schools. A normal starting teacher salary is $625/month.
  • Most of what Panama eats is grown. A number of people I met at the night school, trying to get their GEDs, work on farms during the day. Coffee is almost exclusively harvested by Gnoble, who are the poorest indigenous people in the Americas. I have heard several "reasons" as to why, flavored by various people's points of views.
  • You can get a huge meal for $2 at the local cafeteria, though even that is kind of pricey at it's at least half expats.
  • When you have to visit the big city, you say "I'm going to Panama." Even though the countryside is in Panama, too. The politicians are not very likely to speak to your issues.
  • If someone speaks English, they are either a) retired Americans b) visiting on vacation or c) working in tourism.

A mere 7-8 hours' bus ride away in "Panama," however:

  • It's hugely international. Most banks have a presence here. People live here from all over the world. Half of Panama's 3 million residents live here.
  • Prices are about doubled.
  • There are tons of sky scrapers built right up to the water's edge, and there are more being build.
  • There's still fresh fruit, but you don't know the grower.
  • There are the projects, built by the Americans to house the workers for the Canal. There is supposed to be a lot of drug selling in certain areas.
  • You can feel the former colonial presence. Our hotel is in the old American area, where those who oversaw the canal lived. It is tree-lined and lovely.
  • There's still fresh fruit, mostly shipped in from Boquete area, but you don't know the growers any more.
  • Tourist traps. Monuments. A mall to rival the Mall of America. The canal that funds all the projects in the country.
  • 20 degrees hotter, way more humidity, and less chance of rain. When it rains, the water doesn't know where to go.

The presence of history, particularly colonial history, is strong here. Here are two fun facts learned from today's here-is-where-you-can-buy-more-stuff "tour" of the city:

Balboa, that famous explorer, gave the Pacific ocean it's name right here in Panama City. He was the first European to cross on land to see the Pacific ocean (1500s) and it's so calm (pacifico) that he named it "Pacific." Amazing to think that if you set sail straight west from here, you might not hit anything for 3000 miles. Lots of stuff named after Balboa here: beer, a district of town, a short-lived attempt at their own money system before turning to $. There's a statue of him citing the ocean, except just a few years ago they finished this huge landfill project that now has him citing water from some half a mile inland.

From Panama City the Spaniards planned most of their invasions of the Incas. Here they brought the gold, silver, emeralds, etc., back to the Atlantic (via donkeys) to ship it back to Spain. The rich Panamanians rented out the donkeys. There were so many pearls left over from eating oysters that the indigenous people who lived in this area used to cover their canoes with them. But wealth has its price, and Captain Henry Morgan, that famous English pirate, demolished Panama City and stole all its riches. They rebuilt. The ruins of the old are still visible and tour-able. For his great deed, Captain Morgan was rewarded with the governorship of Jamaica. Poor Jamaicans!

This may be all I'm able to write for the next week, as we'll be out and about. Thankfully all our time won't be spent in the city before we head back to the States.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

eco tourism

Generally, I'm not a fan of touristy stuff. I like museums and all, but in general, if it's carefully geared for the comfort of tourists, I get antsy to leave. I want to see the real stuff, the real daily life and food and points of view of whatever place I'm in. Nothing like a home-stay to accomplish that. But, eco-tourism. That, I could get into. So far this trip (whose outings were not planned by me, though I've been pleased with them) I've gone horseback riding in the mountains, zip-lining, and white water rafting. I'm in love with rafting. We got on the river in Panamá and got off in Costa Rica, and in between was 17 km of level 3 rapids with just enough of a pause in between each set for you to see the water water coming up and start to get worried again. And the entire time, when you're not timing your stroke with the guy in front of you or sitting in front thinking "we're going through that!?" you're looking up at the rain forest on both sides, with steep banks and vines hanging down into the water. I want to learn more about eco-tourism, which is kind of a new word for me. My thinking is that if it is supportive of the environment and gives people jobs while giving me a chance to really get into the countryside, that's a good thing.

Tomorrow hopefully Matt and I will go hiking up a trail called the Camino Quetzale that runs out of town up the mountain. We'll bring a picnic and our binoculars and see what we see. Only four more full days in Boquete. Yikes. Time flies, I suppose, when the mornings are filled with writing.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

now featuring pictures!

A house in Cerro Punto, Panama, tucked in by the mountain. I hope you can see how steep the fields are.

A primary school in Guadalupe, Panama, built against the mountain side. Note the Panamanian flag on the right-hand side.

Most of the food in Panama is grown in Chiriqui, the region where we are staying. (This region wants independence--they check your passport when you enter, and they have their own prominently displayed flag--but they're too valuable for Panama to let go.) Most of the food in Chiriqui is grown in Cerro Punto, a gorgeous little farming town on the other side of the volcano, whose name means, appropriately "near the summit." Every bit of available land is used to grow lettuce, carrots, onions, celery, strawberries, flowers--everything is fresh and beautiful. Oh, there are lush mountains on all sides. There's no way to really take a picture of that. Please imagine. This was the first place in Panama that has completely wowed me.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Of Fincas (Farms) and Fighting Cocks

Over the past two days, we have been learning quite a bit about Panamanian life from our host father (C.). Fighting roosters is a popular sport here and in much of Latin America, and though C. retired 6 months ago from the fights, he still raises and sells fighting cocks for a tidy sum. He has, he says, a good reputation, and the backyard is alive with crowing. Yesterday at lunch he walked in with a rooster underneath his arm and said "This one's ready. Let's test him out!" The rooster held impressively still while C. tied protective pads around the long spurs on the back of its legs--so that it wouldn't hurt the other, younger rooster it would be pitted against. Then he simply pitched them both one by one out into the yard, and they went at it, flapping and pecking at each other´s heads. He did not let them go for long, and they were not hurt. Still. C. showed us his prize rooster who'd won 7 fights and now sires highly prized chicks. This rooster had lost both its eyes in the last fight, which he still won. Matt and I, both in sandals, sidled away as it went after any nearby rooster as well as C's jeans. "You're crazy," he said, laughing and pushing it aside.
Buy-in for a fight is $100, but there's not limit on betting. A good rooster (untrained) can be sold for up to $300, and the trainer takes 20% of winnings. This is in a country where $8 per day is an excellent wage. Fights last 15 minutes or until one loses by
a) lying down and refusing for fight back for a full minute
b) running away 3 times (smart bird)

So, winning 7 fights means defying death 7 times. This is a brutal sport. Don't get me started on the turtle-shell spurs they tie onto the roosters' legs for the fights.

Speaking of betting, the lottery is incredibly popular here. Numbers are sold on little stands on the street. I feel just a bit like I'm on the scene of 100 Years of Solitude.

On a more peaceful note, today C. took us to his coffee farm (finca in Spanish refers to a small farm) high up on the volcano next to the national park/rain forest. Three of us in the cab of his 18 year-old truck with his partner standing up in the back, we rocked (literally) our way up roads that not even an SUV add would feature--logs and rocks and partial ditches--up to his farm with a gorgeous view of the city. The coffee trees were planted in close rows on the hillside, their branches hitting at face and chest level as you pass. Tight green coffee beans (red or yellow when they ripen in November) clung to every branch. C. spoke of fertilizer and a fungus (imaginatively called "they eye of the rooster") that strikes trees at random during the rainy summer season. We trailed behind, noting how Washington orange, banana, plantain, and avocado trees grew mixed right in with them.

I am so impressed with people who speak the language of growing things, who see with their hands as well as their eyes.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

bella vistas

Ever wondered what it was like to go on a 2-hour horseback ride through the mountains of Panamá with 14 school psychologists? You spend a lot of time, basically all of the time, analyzing and discussing the personalities of the horses. Mine was on an eating tour of the mountain, and the grass was always greener off the path. The ride was absolutely gorgeous. I'll try to get pictures uploaded. The paths were steep, and the earth was deep red underneath the bright green grass and trees. A countryside of cows who looked at us curiously from across the fences, of streams, of more mountains in the distance and a glimpse of the Pacific ocean beyond that. If you stand on top of the volcano at dawn on a clear day, you can see both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Panamá is, as our host father says, "the center of the world" (or at least of the Americas.) I caught a glimpes of why people love horses. How amazing it must be to have such a connection with your horse. What magnificent animals.

After horseback riding came a visit to the hotsprings, along a gravel road that few tourists would ever find. Natural hotsprings...what a gift.

Finally, one more view of Panamá from the top. On Sunday we piled into a truck that, if it ever had shocks, doesn´t anymore, drove up more steep mountaint roads, and arrived at this in high up in the rainforested mountains where we went ziplining. What a thrill. I don't know how it is in other places, but after a short demonstration of do's and don'ts we drove farther up the mountain and came out to our first landing...next to a waterfall. The zip-line crossed that river, though you could barely see it below. This was the "baby line." Guess there's only one way to learn!!! It took me until about the fourth line to start looking down below the zip-line, and I wouldn't recommend this trip as a way to get up close with nature, but what a thrill to go flying through the canopy up to 90 feet in the air.

Friday, July 10, 2009

rainy season

Mornings dawn cool and lovely, announced at regular intervals by the rooster behind our house. First thing in the morning is the time to run errands, line dry clothes, walk to town. Picture it: the road goes straight for almost 3 miles with houses and shops spaced neatly on its side, then suddenly the road turns and you are surrounded by mountains, green and jagged on top, which drop off steeply into a red-roofed pueblo. Take a good look; by 10 or 11 the mountains start to disappear behind fog and gray clouds. You see it raining in the mountains first, then by noon, just as the day is really getting hot, the gray has covered the blue sky and thickened. Around noon it begins to rain, sometimes a drizzle, sometimes in a thunderclap that turns the hilly streets of town into rivers. There is a reason all the shops and schools have awnings. The university we´re attending for Spanish classes has no entrance or exit doors, only open hallways of classrooms, buildings connected by awning-covered sidewalks. If it never gets cold, why close yourself off?

And with guaranteed rain everyday, what better thing is there to do than take a siesta, or brew a cup of Panamanian coffee and write?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

welcoming strangers.

I am forming a list of things I resolve to do when situations reverse and I meet people who are new arrivals in my country. I will

  • offer food. It´s amazing how, with the uncertainty of the first few days in a new place-new schedule-new customs, etc., food is often on our minds. We eat well, don´t get me wrong, and our host family cooks delicious food--often meat with rice and some sort of salad. yum! But I think it´s safe to assume that new arrivals to a new place have food on the brain. If you can´t offer any, show them where they can buy some. Tell them how much it costs, what people normally eat, what time.
  • Show them where to find or purchase the essentials. (today I bought an alarm clock for $2.42. Yes, less than $3 including battery.)
  • Speak slowly. Enunciate. Use charades. In the U.S. I get so concerned about insulting someone´s intelligence, but when my host mom gestures and speaks slowly, I´m so grateful! It´s amazing how much you can understand through body language. I¨m becoming fluent in charades.

Check out pictures of Boquete here.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Boquete, land of poets

Greetings from Boquete, the land, I´m told, that has inspired many poets. I can start to see why: rolling mountains, a dormant volcano, rainforest, coffee plantations, two rushing rivers with rapids. Chiquiri, the province in which we are located, grows most of the food in Panama. Oh boy. It´s the rainy season, which means it´s sunny in the morning, and just when it starts to get really hot around noon, it rains, and it stays raining on and off for the rest of the afternoon. It´s almost noon now, so I´m typing quickly at this internet cafe, racing the rain.

Back in Panama City, we drove up to the top of a large hill from which the Americans oversaw the construction of the Panama Canal. On top of said hill, there is a statue of a woman poet. She wrote of her love for the land and her sorrow that its people did not own it. A statue of a poet. Good country.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

in Panama

It's strange to think how simple travel has become. You wake up in Chicago, board a plane, sleep, board another plane, read, watch a dumb movie, eat your proffered peanuts, you go through customs which looks just like other customs you've gone through, and, a mere 8 hours later, you're in Panama, hungry but not at all worse for wear. Perhaps if you had taken a steamer several weeks over rough seas and gratefully found land, perhaps then it would hit you immediately that you had arrived somewhere ELSE. As it is, it will take you a few days to adjust, to really realize that you are in Central America, a part of the world where you have never been, and you will be here for a month.

There have, of course, been a few signs of somewhere new:
  • Everyone speaks Spanish, of course, and you're proud of yourself if you can conjugate "to be" and find enough words for a sentence. For now, this is enough. You managed your first successful exchange in Spanish by walking up to the waitress at breakfast and saying without preamble "Que hora es?" only to realize when she brightly greets you back with "buenas dias" that there should have been some sort of preamble along the lines of "excuse me, but..." if only you knew the words. You sound out every billboard you pass.
  • It's so humid, your glasses fog when you step out of the air conditioning.
  • There's a quadimundo outside the sliding glass doors at breakfast. It's like a raccoon but with less hair, and when eventually some man cracks the door to feed it papaya, it chomps that fruit with impressive teeth, holding the remainder with impressive claws. It does not chomp the man's fingers, and you figure this thing's got a great racket going, pacing and getting fed. It's got cute little swiveling ears and a long quivering nose. You'd like to pet it, but of course you won't.
  • Palm trees. Mango trees, the mangos on them green and the size of your fist.
  • The jungle is behind your hotel. Literally. The Panama canal is five minutes away. Later in the day, you will visit the Miraflores locks and watch, awestruck, for an hour as three freighter ships, each carrying uncounted loads of shipping containers (each the size of a semi) are moved through three locks, the water system raised and lowered with stunning efficiency. The length and width of every ship in the world (that does not want to venture around Cape Horn) is controlled by the size of these locks, built from Pittsburgh steel in 1914.

You know you're in a fantastic new place. You know you're seeing amazing things. But it will take a few more days before it really sinks in that YOU are HERE.

Until then.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


Lately, Matt and I have been watching through old seasons of West Wing. I just love the witty dialogue of that show and the way it addresses issues. It was one of many factors that brought me from "What's the difference between republican and democrat again?" in college to my current, more engaged state. But my point is this: last week, after I'd seen several such episodes, I turned on the radio on my way to work to hear President Obama giving a short speech speaking firmly to Iran, then taking questions. And the way he answered his questions, cracking witty jokes, identifying the important issues in each question, putting it all into perspective...it was as though I was watching West Wing. I cannot tell you how grateful I am to have a president in the office who is as smart and compassionate and capable as one dreamed up by brilliant writers.

On a more regional note, Minnesota FINALLY has TWO senators! Franken's in, and any disagreement I might have with him is replaced by my relief of having Minnesota fully represented...8 months after the election. (And having 60 Democrats rocks, too!)

Central America

Summer school comes to an end tomorrow, and Saturday we get on a plane to go to Panama for a month. (I confess I'm disappointed to miss the fireworks.) I'll keep posting from there and try to let this blog be a window into what is for me a new world. In the mean time, courtesy of my friend Mark, here are two articles with rather different views of the coup in Honduras:

BBC New: Honduran Leader Forced into Exile
Wall Street Journal: Honduras Defends its Democracy