Saturday, April 19, 2008

Cordillera Crossing

We did it- We hiked across Panama´s Cordillera!
So here is just a quick view of what we encountered:

0.1 People! While Jess, Alberto, and I encountered many travelling Ngabe folk, some cultural changes were visible as we progressed closer and closer to the Caribbean coast. Our familiar Nole-Duima region of the Comarca isn't wildly different from the "interior" - little girls in nagwas and chakaras exploding with "pena" easily represented my own neighbors.

0.2 Lots of students were going to and from their schools, lots of kids were travelling between the communities - valley by valley, lots of goods - pounds of rice and alimentos were carried up and down each loma on strong shoulders.

1. View from the drop-off point at the entrada to Hacha. This was a $20 per person trip since we were the only passengers who wanted to go all the way up there (literally the end of the road as you drive up from San Felix). This is a view roughly south looking out toward Cerro Petante (sp.) with the Pacific Ocean further away in the background. Since we are starting so high up, our trip will ¨all be downhill from here.¨ By stepping out of the truck, we are crossing The Divide and continuing North to our destination located on the Río Cricrimola.

2. ¨We,¨ who´s ¨we¨? It was me, Jessica Mehl (in the pink nagwa), and our guide (bodyguard with the straw hat) Alberto. Here we are talking to a person waiting to see if he can take the same car downhill, back toward San Felix. I believe he considered us crazy since we explained that we will walk all the way to Canquintú, in the Province of Bocas Del Toro. The truck driver is far in the background, probably shaking off the dust of the road while we get set to hike.

3. We would hike 2.5 days north along small trails passing tiny villages like these. We actually bumped into 2 volunteers along the way. This was encouraging! They had a lot of good things to say about the trip. They were hiking South while we hiked North. I think I prefer the hike we chose, it meant a lot more downhill hiking and ending up at the Caribbean Sea instead of the Pacific side. To end in a whole different part of Panamá and yet still remain in the Comarca Ngäbe-Bugle was a very rewarding experience! We would be able to see cultural changes along the way as we walked from the heart of the Comarca toward the fringe where idioms, houses, clothing, foodstuffs, and the entire environment is different from our Distrito Nole Duima.

4. Some fun surprises along the way! While sticking then sliding through orange mud, we would sometimes come to friendly changes in the trail. Despite how much rain fell during the trip, I still think we were lucky. We were never caught in any downpours (although at night we could hear a few passing by). There was a constant mist except with a few outbursts of sunshine. Sometimes our nagwas dried a bit around the hems, but for the most part we were dripping wet during the hike.

5. As we hiked and dropped in elevation, the houses began to change style, many were very large, still made of penca but round. This was the center of ¨town¨ in Kremonte, this is the next significant pueblo after Tolothe. The rain was already on it´s way, rising up from the valley. Alberto told us that the palms used for the roofs here are really the best. It´s hard to find ¨penca¨like that on our side of the mountains. Not only is it tougher, it has wider leaves and can provide a better roof than what we encounter (or, in my case, what I live in).

6. Some exhilarating surprises along the way! We had to cross Quebrada Negra where it joined the Río Cricrimola. Pretty deep in some places! Alberto tested it out for us and after helping me across, he also led the way for Jessica. After getting soaked and almost swimming part of the distance across this river, I never dried off until I got to David 2 days later. The waterproof socks didn´t matter after that point, but at least the first day was spent with partly comfortable toes.

7. During our last day on foot, we were climbing fewer and fewer hills but crossing and recrossing the Cricri more times than I could count. We encountered numerous bridges, zip-lines, and boggy crossings. I began looking forward to them, the extra height allowed interesting views.

8. The Río Cricrimola toward the end: We finished our journey in Canquintú, where we stayed overnight and then took a skiff back to Chiriqui Grande. Here I looked out at the last of the high cerros in the South and realized I could also see beautiful rounded river cobbles as well as white cows in the distance. Such an unobstructed view was rare, this is a clearcut located just 1 hour South of Canquintú. A final photographing spot we reached before returning to civilization.

9. The final journey to reach Chiriqui Grande was by boat. A long skiff, holding roughly 20 people left from Canquintú at 5:30am. Our trio was a little unlucky that we were travelling on a Saturday, the boat was filled by very eager teachers who were taking their weekend "afuera del campo" and had practically leapt into the skiff as it bobbed and spun away from the shore. As soon as I sat down on the wooden bench and felt the swaying, I felt giddy and suddenly exhilarated. In that moment, it seemed that the trip had closure: we had successfully crossed the Cordillera on foot and we would float to the sea. For roughly 3 hours, the skiff would motor down the Río Cricrimola, enter the Caribbean Sea, and make port at Chiriqui Grande - and I wouldn't have to lift a foot to get there. I was also moved by nostalgia... I really missed boats!

This trip was no vacation. I feel like some part of my Peace Corps experience was just given tremendous satisfaction. Not only did we get a cross-section view of the Comarca, we just completed the longest, most ambitious ¨pasear¨ I will ever do while living here as a PCV. With our gregarious navigator and icebreaker/sometimes interpreter, Alberto, we hiked, visited, chatted, accepted snacks, and exchanged greetings with every friendly soul we encountered. Also, I also achieved a record: I succeeded in wearing my blue nagwa for 3 complete days - ¡Que reto!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Winter Again

Here it comes, the rain is coming back!

I can just imagine the windy days with dewy tulips and the smell of warming earth that tells the senses in New England that, yes! Spring is on its way! I admit that I miss that weather. Here on the south shore of Panamá the hot, dry days are suddenly more sticky-humid and thunder rattles the bamboo huts each afternoon. Just yesterday an aguacero visited and I think that´s it - the Winter season is back.

This makes me sad because my memories of muddy feet and mold-green boots are still fresh from December. But also, I´m planning a long hike next week and I suspect there will be some suffering along the way. Time to bring out the Water Socks, ponchos, and ZipLocks! I look forward to the next chance to blog, I should have some interesting (or just soggy) photos and stories.

Oh, but some recent and exciting news is that I´m finally living in my house. My bamboo and palm hut is finished AND has a door. So I moved in as quickly as I could and commandeered the gas stove. Here´s my kitchen:
I agree that the space seems a bit dark, even for all of those spaces between the bamboo, but it´s very cozy. I have yet to see how it fares in a rainstorm, though, vamos a ver si hay problemas de agua.

Where do I sleep? Very high up off the ground, there´s a loft about 6 ft up. There in the left-hand corner of the next photo you can see the bottom of the hand-carved ladder. The ladder provides mini-adventures each evening. While I think it is a fantastically clever design, I´ve noticed some problems. The wood has dried very quickly and is full of tiny little holes that sort of rattle when I subir the steps. I think it could fall apart within the next few months. For that reason, I bought a tow rope. I´m keeping that line handy for when I need to swing up to bed - exciting times!

Here´s my loft/bed: Also in this photo is one of the 4 dresses that was gifted to me last month. Not sure if I´ve already written about the clothing problem of mine... so I should explain.

About Nagwas: The dresses are called "nagwas" and are worn by all traditional Ngäbe women and girls. The large photo below shows my neighbors in action wearing traditional garb. The design is very interesting and represents a mix of indigenous and modern ideas. From what I understand, the fringe details (called dientes because they are often triangles or zigzags like "teeth") come from very early Ngäbe art. The earliest people in Panamá didn´t wear dresses or pants; my neighbor Román told me that they might have had some kind of covering made of natural materials (bark or leaves etc) but when missionaries encountered the people, they were considered "naked." As a solution to provide clothing, the missionaries introduced a concealing form of dress. The nagwa is a very conservative style that only reveals the arms, but less conservative was the decision to sew very poofy sleeves to the shoulders.

Part of the responsibility of Peace Corps Volunteers is to join the community and integrate with the people. This is very important but I am wrestling with the idea that I should wear the nagwas. My neighbors, Jessica and Jesse, LOVE the dresses and are putting me to shame because they can walk miles, in perfect comfort, in the nagwa. What is my hangup? Why do I feel terribly out of place wearing this clothing? I can´t form a good argument in my defense... but everyday I look at the purple, blue, and black phenomenons hanging in my closet and I freeze up. It´s just unnatural for me to pull the dresses over my ears and around my ankles and I´ll keep mulling this over for as long as it takes before I can explain my mental problem with nagwas.
While standing on the highest hill in my valley, I was checking phonemail when two of my neighbors passed by. They were returning from a long day searching for the shrubby plants called something like "escolá." These are the best plants to use when you want to clean your patio. You cut the roots first, then wrap a line/cord of grass around them and then attach a stick and, next to the machete, that broom is your best tool to use in the campo.

Here are some recent house-guests:

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Not 9-to-5

A few days ago I was inspired to call a good friend of mine - it had been a long time since I had heard how things were going on his side of the world but I also just quadrupled my phone minutes, so there would actually be enough time to chat.

So I looked for a quiet corner in the bus terminal´s restaurant and sat down with my coffee. I dialed the number for his desk phone and, determined not to leave silly messages, I tried the general office number when he didn´t pick up. Hmm, no one there... Okay, so I decided to wait a half hour, finish my coffee, then try again.
I let 20 minutes go by and tried all of the numbers again, even the people who would be in the other offices. No one was there! Had there been an evacuation? Had I considered time-zone changes? Did I try all of the normal numbers? Is he screening all calls?

Then it hit me - Ah-ha! I forgot something important: This is a Saturday afternoon. Of course I can´t talk to my friends in that office so many miles away from here; this is a weekend!

Note to self: Normal work hours exist in other parts of the world; not everybody works like a Peace Corps volunteer.