Thursday, November 25, 2010
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.
“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.
Monday, November 1, 2010
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: http://www.thelongridersguild.com/burro.htm
Link to short video tribute to Chris McCandless: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8MRbpocetZM&feature=related
Link to the song "Fragile" by Sting, written for Ben Linder: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dwPp05rQlgU