Thursday, September 23, 2010

Snapshots from Panama: Descent to Emptiness

plastic Buddha found washed up on the beach

September 2010

Descent to Emptiness

As the plane flew into the rainstorm I began to fidget in my seat. Only moments ago the rugged coastline of Panama’s Darien Gap had been visible on final approach to Jaque. I nervously pondered landing in zero visibility.

The copilot was a young woman who looked like a teenager—the cushion she sat on still didn’t elevate her forehead above the control panel. I had snapped photos of her earlier to show the students.

I always make a point not to drink much before these flights, but was beginning to regret the sole cup of coffee I had that morning. I was the only passenger on the plane but still would have been self-conscious using a plastic bag for an emergency pee break—a tactic I resorted to once during a long bus trip as a Peace Corps volunteer.

However my personal drama quickly ended as we dipped below the clouds and were safely deposited on the ground. There was no welcoming committee as family and friends never heard the plane land in the rain. It’s best to start out here with disappointment. High expectations can lead to a quick downfall.

One of my favorite endings to a book comes in Peter Matthiessen’s “The Snow Leopard.” After spending several months on an expedition with a group of Sherpa guides, he arranges to meet up with one of them named Tukten upon returning to Katmandu. A devout Buddhist, Tukten was also a scoundrel at times, getting into fights and trying to steal from others.

In Matthiessens’s eyes Tukten seems to redeem himself and their friendship strengthens. He decides to help Tukten find a job as a head trekking guide back in Katmandu despite others’ objections that he is too unreliable. Matthiessen arrives at the appointed meeting place on the outskirts of Katmandu but Tukten is nowhere in sight. Near a Buddhist temple where Tukten said he stayed with a relative no one has ever heard of him. The book’s final line, “Under the Bodhi Eye, I get on my bicycle again and return along gray December roads to Katmandu.”

Once I helped a former student who had moved to Panama City get a small scholarship from a foundation to finish high school there. He was an excellent student and seemed destined to go places. However after a few months he quit collecting the scholarship money. No one has heard from him since.

The High Seas of the Classroom

The original group of older students we began working with two years ago are gone, the first to finish high school in Jaque. Now I sorely miss them and struggle with the current student body of adolescents. There is one particular tenth grader who is always attentive and helpful, a life preserver in the stormy seas.

For my first class this year about half the students showed up and half of them tried to walk out shortly after. They hesitated at the door waiting to see how I would react. I asked if there was a problem which drew no response and they finally returned to their seats.

Last week several of the 10th grade boys tried out the school’s inflatable kayaks in the ocean. Two boys headed out too far, got swamped by a big wave, and were so shaken up by the experience they wouldn’t go back out. Then a large wave slammed into my kayak shoving my paddle into my lower lip causing a bloody mess. The next kayak clinic will be on the river.

For the third year we watched a documentary at the school about the life of Chilean singer-songwriter Victor Jara on the anniversary of his assassination in Chile on Sept. 16, 1973. The students grew restless about halfway through so I decided to switch to another movie and show the rest of the Jara documentary the following day.

I had shown “Sleep Dealer,” (a remarkable film—a kind of Blade Runner on the U.S.-MX border) to inmates at the Mexican prison where I help facilitate Alternatives to Violence workshops. One inmate, Pedro, an AVP regular, asked me to loan him the DVD which he returned it at the annual graduation ceremony last June.

Pedro spoke at the ceremony and stated that “one must always use transforming power in every situation, all the time.” Transforming power is the AVP concept which simply means trying to act in a way that will turn a negative situation into a more positive one. Pedro’s was the best speech of the day and I’ve thought of it often.

So I pull “Sleep Dealer” out of the case and pop it in to show the students. Then an entirely different movie begins playing, some blurry pirated film I’d never seen. I had not opened the case since Pedro returned it. I ejected the unknown movie and put it back in the box.

Snapshots from the Isthmus

Many of the local indigenous people make me think of the Sherpa culture I’ve read about in the Himalayas —always doing every task with great enthusiasm and a sense of humor. Roberto lives in a village upriver and seems to be doing something for the benefit of the entire community all the time. You usually find Abelares “rozando” or cutting the grass around town with a machete—a human lawn mower. His incredibly muscular body has led to the nickname, “el gigante” (the giant) though he is of short stature.

One of my favorite students, 25-year-old Jhon, didn’t return to school this year for his last semester and no one had news of him. Jhon was always the first to volunteer for any task at hand. Out of the blue I got a call from him. He’s working in Panama City and doing fine. Last year he was often flat broke with two young kids to feed. The last time I saw Jhon was on a field trip last Jan. to the Smithsonian marine museum. Many of the photos taken that day show him proudly displaying the 20 dollar bill given as a travel stipend.

Our grandmother graduate, Olga, is doing well and continues her little tortilla business. She’s planning to start raising chickens for extra cash.

It’s now been three years since the death of one of Jaque’s most unforgettable people, Tito, who had Down Syndrome but was extremely intelligent and performed political speeches with exaggerated hand motions making unintelligible noises the whole time. The act was hilarious and reminded me of Cantinflas satirizing politicians. When not performing, Tito pushed a heavy metal cart around town collecting aluminum cans with a group of kids in tow.

Felipe is mentally challenged and spends the day walking around town with a radio around his neck. He can sing along with all the popular songs and is an incredible dancer. He has performed at our kids’ birthday parties. A few years ago some locals decided his talent was so unique he should perform in Panama City. However when the big moment came Felipe refused to walk out on stage.

Every year brings a different twist on the local security situation sponsored by the Panamanian and U.S. governments. The biggest news lately was two Panamanian police losing limbs to land mines on a remote beach closer to the Colombian border. Most think they stepped on their own mines.

While the Colombian refugee population that came in mass in 1999 is still allowed to stay in Jaque, most still don’t have permanent status. However new refugees that arrive are deported immediately, regardless of the danger they face back in Colombia.


I recently read that Ann Frank’s beloved tree had blown down—the tree she observed from the secret annex and that gave her much pleasure for the two years she was in hiding with her family. In her diary, she wrote extensively about her love of nature; “It’s a better medicine than either Valerian or bromine. Mother Nature makes me humble and prepared to face every blow courageously.”

Was great to hear about my friend Dan Millis’s littering conviction being overturned by a court of appeals. Dan’s “littering” was putting out water bottles for migrants crossing the desert, part of his work with the Tucson group No More Deaths. Two days prior to his “crime” Dan found the body of 14-year-old girl from El Salvador who had died in the crossing, which was chronicled in a book, “The Death of Josseline,” by Margaret Regan.

Link to view the great documentary “El Derecho de Vivir En Paz” about the life of Victor Jara: 

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