Thursday, November 25, 2010

Respite for The Weary Teacher, and Guerilla Fighter?

Respite for the Weary Teacher, and Guerilla Fighter?

November is a good month to be a school teacher in Panama. Nov. 2 is the traditional Day of the Dead celebration so no school that day. Nov. 3 celebrates Panama’s separation from Colombia, followed by Flag Day on Nov. 4. Then came Friday, Nov. 5 which isn’t a holiday, but school was cancelled anyway. Nov. 10 celebrates some uprising, followed by Panama’s version of July 4th on Nov. 28. No problem if teachers and students still feel run down after all the festivities—summer vacation starts in mid- December.

Jaque is a peaceful little town but gets lots of unfavorable publicity due to its proximity to the Colombian border. An older version of the popular “Lonely Planet” travel guide had this to say about the village, “Unless you’re here to surf out front of town or explore the Rio Jaque, there’s really no good reason to come here.” The latest version has no mention of Jaque.

A 2004 article in “Outside” magazine about Panama’s Darien Gap mentioned the author’s visit to “Jaque, a village of a few thousand where the guerrillas buy groceries and get their cavities filled.” (he forgot to mention them taking surfing lessons). Then there’s that billboard sponsored by the Colombian government a block from our house calling on the guerillas to turn themselves in for an amnesty program (see attached photo). With an image like this no wonder tourists never visit Jaque, which suits me just fine.

REVOLUTIONS: The Journey (part 2); Graduate Studies at Hitchhikers University

The first ride was liberating, the adventure door flung wide open-- free transportation, new people and places, and unfiltered exposure to human nature . Remarkable freedom, crashing anyplace I landed: the side of the road, under bridges, in the woods, in people’s yards.
The hitchhiking culture of the 1970s provided the opportunity; a hobo by choice. I had a book, “Hitchhikers Bible,” with all kinds of advice. One trip I traveled with a banjo getting rides even faster, no matter that I was just learning to play.
For many the hitchhiking journey was a rite of passage. My two best friends in high school also hitched west. We read and were fascinated by Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road.”
But times have changed; the age of homeland security and perpetual war has arrived. Signs warn against picking up hitchhikers near prisons, as prisons expand like wildfire.
The legacy of the hobo now lies mainly with those traveling out of necessity-- migrant workers. For house repairs I once hired a man from Mexico who was missing half of one foot due to an injury from hopping a freight train. He’s now picking grapes in California, and paying for his daughter’s college education.
The hitchhiking journey may no longer be popular, but certainly not extinct. Chris McCandless, traveling as Alexander Supertramp, did his trip in 1990-92, finding people just as generous as I did fifteen years earlier. Stories like “Into The Wild” show that accepting a ride from a stranger, or picking up a stranger, isn’t just another risk to be avoided, but a potentially life changing experience.
I haven’t completely retired. Several years ago the bus I was riding broke down in Mexico, where hitchhiking is common, so I decided to hitch instead of waiting. I was relieved to discover that after thirty years my thumb still had the magic touch.

“I have walked 25,000 miles as a penniless pilgrim…. without ever asking for anything, I have been supplied with everything needed for my journey, which shows you how good people really are.” Peace Pilgrim (born Mildred Lisette Norman, 1908-1981)

The best teacher is experience and not through someone's distorted point of view." from "On The Road." by Jack Kerouac (1922-1969)

Between 1975-1977, after graduating from high school, I made three trips to the western U.S. Following are excerpts from my travel journal (summarized and recreated in large part after losing much of the original), starting off with a couple of prior formative experiences.
South Fork New River, Blue Ridge Mtns. N.C.- summer 1972—Did a float trip on the New River in a cheap inflatable rubber raft; the first day with my Father and then alone. The third day I stopped near Jefferson at an old farm house to ask for matches, and ended up staying several days with the Lyalls family, who were quite poor with no car or indoor plumbing but incredibly hospitable. After that break floated downriver four more days finishing in Virginia, where I saw a deer swim across the river just before taking out. Called my Father to come get me— he was on the verge of calling the sheriff’s department since he hadn’t heard from me in a week.
Elkin, N.C.—1973. Hopped a freight train today. All the box cars were closed so a friend and I climbed on top of one. Only complication was my friend’s aunt and uncle spotting us from their back yard by the tracks—we innocently waved. When the train made a stop railroad employees came for us. They were real friendly letting us ride in the engine to the end of the line at North Wilkesboro, and then told us what time to meet them for the trip back to Elkin.
Idaho, summer 1975Working with the U.S. Forest Service on backcountry patrols in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area. Before Idaho I hitched to Yellowstone and Olympic National Parks to visit friends working there. Hitchhiking has been a breeze. Only one bad experience when some drunken men in Washington State found out I was from N.C. and responded, “Out here we kill Tarheels!” I didn’t take them seriously but their driving terrified me and I pleaded to be let out.
Banner Elk, N.C.—Winter 1976. Today I worked my first and last day as a ski-lift operator at Beech Mtn. Resort, which involved standing in an unheated booth all day. Had to shut down the lift down at one point, but never got the return call to restart, so watched helpless skiers swinging on the cold metal seats with artificial snow blowing all over them, for close to an hour. I was lucky I didn’t get fired on the spot, as I had accidentally left the phone off the hook preventing return calls. I’m hitchhiking south tomorrow to Florida and warmer climates. They can keep my wages.
Key West, FL Hitchhiked straight here from N.C. in only a couple of days, getting long rides, one all night. Last night myself and another traveler were offered a place to stay by this hustler at a bar. His pad turned out to be sleeping under a truck trailer near some discarded fish parts, the three of us lying side by side wedged between the tires.
Belle Glade, FL-- Had my backpack stolen, with my money foolishly stored inside it, by a man who took off when I got out for a bathroom break. An elderly couple at the rest stop gave me a sandwich and ten bucks. I hitched into Belle Glade, the closest town, acquired a blanket, and am sleeping behind a fallen tree beside a convenience store. Bought a cup of coffee at the store with remaining pocket change and chatted with a black youth whose Mother works there. Later he came out to my tree to give me some bags of chips and cookies. The second night here night a rare cold snap hit south Florida, with temperatures in the upper 40s. Couldn’t sleep so walked the streets to stay warm, and was questioned by police. Then disaster hit-- in the darkness I walked right into some sort of sludge pit. Crawled out in shock, covered up to my chest with a coat of wet slime. My salvation turned out to be some motel’s flood lights which I huddled around for warmth and to dry my clothes. A day later I went down to the town center at 5 a.m. where hundreds of mostly Jamaicans and Haitians assembled to take buses to the fields. Got on a bus taking African-Americans to pick green beans. I was so pitiful at this task that my fellow workers threw handfuls of beans into my basket to help fill it. At the lunch break I pulled out my peanut butter sandwich which was covered with ants. I asked the guy sitting sitting next to me if he thought it’d still be ok to eat it. He replied “If you’re hungry enough, you’ll eat anything,” so I did. Finally bit the bullet and called my Father to wire me some cash, then heading to the Southwest.
El Paso, TXSpent the night at the Salvation Army, my first night in a bed in weeks. Before supper we all had to attend a short chapel service which some slept through. Told there’s work building a bridge in Yuma. Met a drunken hobo by the train tracks who I asked about trains going west but he just rambled on about being a Mason and how the Masons would take care of him wherever he was. Gave up and decided to hitchhike.
Tucson, AZ--Rode into Tucson with a fugitive, returning to turn himself after a drug bust a year ago. We spent the night at his brother’s house, where they threw a big welcome home party. As I was leaving the next morning I asked if he was still going to turn himself in, and he replied, “I don’t know, I’m having too good a time.”
Yuma, AZ.—In downtown Tucson a man who had obviously been drinking approached and offered me a ride if I would drive him towards Las Vegas. He rode in the back seat drinking whiskey and boasting about his skills as a short-change artist. At one stop he tried unsuccessfully to convince a store clerk he had given her a twenty dollar bill instead of the ten. When he passed out cold I decided to drive myself on to Yuma. He woke up just as we arrived, so I pulled over and hopped out before he realized where we were . A man in an old car with “Junior” painted on the side offered me a ride to where I could stay for free, which was the home of an African-American woman named Dorothy, who is Yuma’s saint for the down and out. She lets everyone stay in several travel trailers in her backyard. I’m sharing a little trailer with a guy named Utah who just got out of jail. No luck on the bridge job; weren’t hiring.
Oklahoma, summer 1977 Got stuck for most of the day in a horrible location for hitching. In the heat my frustration boiled over and I started yelling at passing cars; no cussing or words at all, just a loud primal yell. Finally a car pulled over—the man told me after hearing my desperate yelling he had doubled back to pick me up.
Tuba City, AZ.-- Hitchhiked across the Navajo and Hopi reservations with a young Navajo, Robert, who invited me to visit his home. Hitching is real easy here as many locals depend on it. We stayed at his grandparents’ place, who spoke little English. I slept on the ground in a traditional hogan behind the house.
Gallup, N.M .-- Walked into a little roadside carnival where a carny called me over for a free turn at a ring toss game. After several throws I was convinced it was a sure bet to win several hundred dollars if I just kept playing. When it finally struck me that the game was rigged it was too late. I stared into my wallet which led him to point to a sign stating “Don’t Overspend.” I had blown $125 and had $15 left for the trip back to N.C. My luck improved after that—a friendly young couple with a cooler full of food took me all the way to Oklahoma.
Memphis, TN, Aug. 18, 1977-- As my ride approached Memphis traffic suddenly began backing up for miles, it wasn’t rush hour so I asked the driver if he had any idea what happened. He responded, “They’re going to Elvis Presley’s funeral.” It was also the last day of my final cross-country hitchhiking trip.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Hollywood's Marlin; Revolutions: Supertramp, Burro Lady, and Ben Linder

On the dark blue sea a boat suddenly approached carrying two men holding weapons, one staring menacingly through a black ski mask. The entire front of the boat displayed the image of a shark with its mouth wide open as if to swallow us up. Just a routine police check as we approached the Tropic Star Lodge, Panama’s most famous fishing resort.

The students disembarked into a foreign world where the wealthy fish for the prized black and blue marlin. John Wayne and Lee Marvin spent time here, as have presidents. Our group of students arrived during the off season, so no jet set to mingle with.

The last field trip to the Tropic Star two years ago was an unforgettable ordeal since some students refused to depart Jaque through the “boca” or mouth of the river, so we had to hike over a mountain in a terrible downpour. Coming back we almost had to spend the night outdoors in the rain with two umbrellas and no food. A police boat rescued us as darkness fell.

Running the boca requires skill and nerve. Weekly cargo boats use an experienced local man to pilot them in and out. Smaller boats come and go regularly, relying on perfect timing to avoid breaking waves, but during rough seas traffic shuts down as the boca becomes treacherous.

This time due to good weather and gung-ho students we went for it. It was a thrilling ride on a maritime roller coaster, students whooping and hollering as we bounced over the waves.

Two men who volunteered to drive the boat that day and one of the students in the group were survivors of the terrible tragedy at sea in March, 2009, that claimed the lives of 12 youth. Two of the victims were students from the school. Two students traveling with us lost family members. The trip was an encouraging sign that the grip of grief and trauma has lessened.

On another note a new crop of baby sea turtles is being released from the hatchery. Before the project most turtle eggs were eaten. Now several people patrol the beach, collect the eggs, and then are paid for delivering them to the project.

Revolutions: The Journey (part 1)

“The rebel and the revolutionary find it easier to obey the demands of religious life, because this obedience is revolutionary—one has to rebel against oneself in order to achieve it.” Ernesto Cardenal, “Vida Perdida”

Currently reading “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy. Earlier this year I saw an excellent movie about him, “The Last Station,” with Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy and Helen Mirren as his wife, Sophie Behrs. After the movie I checked out some Tolstoy short stories out of the library and sampled his brilliance for the first time.

Tolstoy, who died in 1910, was a great inspiration to one of the 20th century’s most redeeming figures, Mahatma Gandhi, who called Tolstoy “the greatest apostle of non-violence that the present age has produced.” The two men had a regular correspondence in the last year of Tolstoy’s life. Gandhi named his ashram in South Africa “Tolstoy Farm.”

“The Last Station” culminates in Tolstoy leaving home to escape his unhappy marriage and his wife’s obsession with preserving family wealth, a decision which tormented him for decades. When the moment finally came he was 82 and in poor health. Tolstoy died at a train stop not far from his home.

I took note years ago that “War and Peace” was one of the favorite books of Chris McCandless, whose life was chronicled in one of my favorite books, “Into The Wild” by Jon Krakauer. At 22 McCandless made his break giving away his entire savings, burning the remaining cash in his wallet, and assuming a new identity-- Alexander Supertramp.

After two years on the road, during which time he had no contact with family or friends, McCandless arrived at his ultimate destination -- the Alaskan wilderness. Shortly after hiking in with a 10 lb. bag of rice and a hunting rifle McCandless wrote, “Ultimate freedom. An extremist. An aesthetic voyager whose home is the road. Escaped from Atlanta. Thou shalt not return, cause “the West is the best.”And now after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure. The climatic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual pilgrimage. Ten days and nights of freight trains and hitchhiking bring him to the Great White North. No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild.”

After a couple of months surviving off the land, McCandless tried to return to civilization but a swollen river prolonged his stay. During his last month he became ill and severely under nourished, but the exact cause of death is unclear. He knew the end was imminent and made a final self-portrait showing his emaciated yet smiling figure holding a note, “I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!”

Some have hammered McCandless as a foolish and reckless youth, while others are attracted like a powerful magnet, admiring his independence and freedom, rejection of comfort, fearlessness in taking risks, and his quest for truth and meaning.

When I lived in West Texas I often saw a woman riding a donkey along rural roads. She was known as the “burro lady” and slept on blankets on the ground, covering herself with a tarp in inclement weather. I had a short conversation with her once at a truck stop--she was friendly enough, but not very talkative, never accepting charity and never discussing her past.

She died in the winter of 2007 after which newspaper articles revealed her name as Judy Ann Magers, 65 years-old. A store owner said she would always buy a sour apple lollipop for her beloved donkey “Merle” every time she came in. A restaurant owner told how she would come by for a hamburger but would leave when it got too crowded, always leaving a tip for local musicians who entertained.

Magers had five grown children who were contacted to attend her funeral in Terlingua, TX. They had no knowledge of her whereabouts during the twenty years she traveled Texas’s Big Bend at a donkey’s pace.

Magers seemed perfectly content with her lifestyle, but her inner thoughts remain a mystery. McCandless however kept a journal recording his often ecstatic reactions to the things he experienced. His poignant final note and photo from death’s doorstep, a time of profound regret for many, is practically a celebration.

McCandless’s life reminded me of Ben Linder, who was killed by the U.S.-backed Contras in Nicaragua in 1987 at age of 27. His journey was made as an engineer bringing electricity to rural villages and thrilling kids as a juggling clown on a unicycle. His story is told in the excellent book, “The Death of Ben Linder” by Joan Kruckewitt.

Linder worked closely with the Nicaraguan government knowing that the Contras routinely murdered anyone associated with the revolution, even if they only voiced support. Ironically the day Linder died in a Contra ambush, April 28, was also the date Chris McCandless hiked into the wilds of Alaska five years later.

During my time in Nicaragua I visited the site where Linder died with two Nicaraguan coworkers, where they were building a small scale hydroelectric project (it was eventually completed). A community solidarity center in Managua is named after him, Casa Ben Linder.

The year Benjamin Ernest Linder was born, 1959, was also the year Ernesto “Che” Guevara and his guerilla force overthrew the Batista dictatorship in Cuba. Seven years earlier Guevara, then 23, set out on his journey of self discovery wonderfully portrayed in the film, “Motorcycle Diaries,” which shows the beginning of the young man’s transformation from an aristocratic youth to the legendary revolutionary.

Guevara kept a journal during his travels and wrote aboard a ship in the Pacific Ocean: “At night after the exhausting games of canasta, we would look out over the immense sea, full of white-flecked and green reflections, the two of us leaning side by side on the railing, each of us far away, flying his own aircraft to the stratospheric regions of his own dreams. There we understood that our vocation, our true vocation, was to move for eternity along the roads and seas of the world. Always curious, looking into everything that came before our eyes, sniffing out each corner but only very faintly—not setting down roots in any land or staying long enough to see the substratum of things; the outer limits would suffice.

To Be Continued

Attached Photos: Trip to the Tropic Star Lodge

Link to article about Judy Lee Magers and photo:

Link to short video tribute to Chris McCandless:

Link to the song "Fragile" by Sting, written for Ben Linder: