Wednesday, March 19, 2008

What´s New?

Now that it´s the middle of the dry season, different fruits are growing on the trees. No more oranges and grapefruits, this is the season of marañón, guava (or something like guava), guanabana, and mango. Later, toward the beginning of the rainy season, I can look forward to membrillo (quince) and bread fruit. I haven´t completely accepted the idea, but most of these fruits are eaten while they´re still green. There are so many birds (like this one) that snatch up the fruits before they can be collected, so many that it´s better to gather the fruits early.

I´m not clear on the name of this bird, by my neighbors insisted it is a ¨loro¨but it looks very much like a kind of bird of prey, so I´m not sure how to name it. There are definitely small hawks in my valley, but for the most part I see large vultures, small green parrots, and black ¨chacareras.¨ Those black birds are fairly large and build nests like these:

The name for these birds comes from the Ngäbe word ¨chacara¨ which is a kind of crocheted bag. I don´t think I´ve mentioned these before, but this is an important part of the culture in my area of Panama. The handmade bags can be all sizes - some the size to hold a toothbrush others a size to carry huge amounts of corn - and they were originally made from the tough fibers of the ¨pita¨ plant. Now-a-days you´ll see the bags made of plastic fibers (cheaper and doesn´t rot, but chafes like something awful). Hanging in my room, above the platano are two chakras (photo to the right). Normally, they have at least one color worked into the pattern, but here the example is far fancier.

More news: Since my house has been ¨empty¨I have a new guia. He is a nephew of my host family and he is 12 years old. My host sister - Eugenia - is away working in Bocas del Toro (she´s an elementary school teacher), her husband - Eliecer - is away working in Lajero or other communities with health clinics, and my host mother - Gabriela - is still away in David. Unfortunately, Gabriela is still ill and is staying in the regional hospital. That´s part of the reason why I´m out of site writing this blog. I´ll try to visit her today and I´m bringing along some homemade goodies: rice with 2 fried eggs and coffee: ¡Que sabroso!

So my 12-year-old guide is named Elmer Chavez. He is more like a self-proclaimed guide but he was given the responsibility of guarding the house while the ¨dueños¨ are away. My own house is still under construction, so it isn´t very secure and since Eliecer is raising so many chickens, someone needs to keep an eye out so they don´t start disappearing. Elmer is about to go back to school - classes are just restarting now - but he has been dutifully staying by the house, cooking for me when it appears that I´ve forgotten to cook, collecting wood, and explaining important concepts to me such as marañón.

What are marañón? They are the fruits that produce cashew nuts. When I saw these apple-red fruits appearing on trees, I was confused, they have a strange nob at the end that looks like a lure (see photo). Have you ever wondered why cashews are so expensive? Well, I understand it now.

Here is Elmer collecting the marañón. The ¨cashew apple¨ needs to be gathered just like an apple, or simply climb into the tree and jump up and down shaking every branch you can grab. The fruit is fairly soft when it is red like in the photo. When you twist off the nut, the juice is already dripping down your hands and, like me, you might be slow to realize that it´s better to do this over a jar. The juice from the fruit is very good - especially if you dilute it and add sugar (making a ¨chicha dulce¨). You can try eating the fruit, but it is kind of stringy and is more bitter than the pure juice. The nut itself has a black shell, but is kind of soft and can´t be eaten as-is. Put the nut into a metal can, add kerosene, and cook/burn it up to a crisp - allowing flames is perfectly fine. Once you are convinced that the nut has suffered enough, let it cool and carefully smash it. If you can break off the blackened cask, you´ve got yourself one tiny pile of cashew pieces ready to eat.

In my opinion, the tasty morsel requires a bit too much work, but this was a good adventure. Both Elmer and his cousin Karina taught me the magical ways of the marañón. Ah-ha! But I should mention one more thing, all of the acrid smoke that flew up from the fire hurts the eyes but is pretty bad for sensitive people like me. Have you ever burned poison ivy? Well, the rash I noticed on all of my limbs the following day was remeniscent of what toxic smoke can do. Clearly, I´m learning local lessons "poco-a-poco."

Friday, March 7, 2008

Solution: Travel

February 25-March 8:
"Sometimes it's a little better to travel than to arrive."*
It seems that I don´t have as much to report as I expected. The weeks following my advisor´s visit were filled with non-volcanological activities, but this is not to say that simply nothing has happened since.
  Summary: In-Service Training, 2 water committee meetings, 2 botched aqueduct-type visits, and a day helping my neighboring PCV throw a plancha for the final composting latrine in her community.
In-Service Training took up roughly 4 days: 4 days of charlas, presentations, extra Spanish lessons, regret for not taking extra Ngäbere lessons, planning a visit with a springbox technician, quick visit to the beach, and general regrouping with the Group 60 crew. The trip out to IST was fairly long but still, since Swear In, I´ve made several long bus trips back and forth across Panama and I´m not yet feeling the strain.

It´s no secret that I love to travel, but only recently I´m understanding why (even during the most stressful and maddening journeys) I get a deep satisfaction out of the process of travel. It is easy to say that I enjoy seeing new places and it´s fun to see so much terrain slip by without lifting a foot to walk across it. But when I´m traveling more economically (por ejemplo, por pie), it also won´t seem surprising or novel to admit that I prefer walking out my front door and across a hillside instead of staying rooted at home. But I only just realized that another aspect of travel has missed assessment: What responsibilities do you have as a traveler? Is there any other weighty obligation more important than completing the journey while executing the journey? No, my answer is no. So I am concluding that few endeavors offer such satisfying, single-minded, laziness: Traveling is wonderful!

While I haven´t crossed the equator, haven´t been to Africa, only got within 2,000 miles of Asia, lack experience in grizzly bear country, remain tantalized by the terraced islands within the Indian Ocean, have no concept of Down-Under, and desire first-hand knowledge of how east is East, luck has been with me to allow significant travels. So I've had some time to mull over why it is that I am compelled to not only relocate myself but also shell out the considerable funds (often rearranging plans to accommodate lofty travel goals).

Authors of all genres have many things to say about the virtues of travel: the romance, the mind-broadening process, as well as the uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous possibilities. I recently read an opinion of Sherlock Holmes: he referred to travel as a waste of energy that muddles the mind [my paraphrasing]. But a comment that fits my sentiment comes from Paul Theroux. He begins the Great Railway Bazaar with an odd explanation. There are some people who view the act of travel as a kind of solution. More than: "go take a hike" or "you need to get out more," travel can be therapeutic. Need some changes in life? Need a new perspective? Need to grow? Feel a cold coming on? Travel. Well, that was how Theroux presented the argument: I feel a stuffiness in my nose and there´s a rattle in my throat; I´d better book a train to cross Europe. [again, my paraphrasing - I don´t have his book handy]

Have I had a bothersome cold that needed several flight tickets to clear up? Well, yes, but a cold less like a sniffle and more like an infirmity of perspective. Enough sharp minds and well-learned writers have explained this particular theme: gaining worldliness.

So I´ll throw in my lot with Theroux but also suggest that a guilt-free sensation of irresponsibility can come from travel.
Sorry, I´m on the bus, I´ll get back to you in 6 hours.

*Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: Robert M. Pirsig