Tuesday, April 21, 2009

End of our tether

Sunday 22nd March 2009

6 weeks on, and we are still in Panama City, having planned to be here for 2-4 weeks. I guess selling a car isn't that straightforward. Well, this will be the last car I ever own. My girlfriend and I are nearing the end of our tether, not much hair left to tear out. We are couchsurfing, and have stayed for free with Christian and Kadir for the last 6 weeks.

These 2 are jokers, one is a straight air steward, the other works on boats (what else in Panama City?). We are sleeping on the sofa in their living room. Which is the first time I've slept on someone's sofa. What I hadn't prepared myself for is that this means slinking off to bed is not an option – either last to bed or going to sleep in the thick of things. Which is fine... for a while. Nonetheless, they have been wonderfully accomodating, and with the other Canadian girls staying it's a bit like a hostel, which is exactly the vibe they're trying to create.

It's been great having a kitchen. We have been busy making delicious wholemeal bread, rye bread, ceviche, iced coffee, yum yum... check out recipes and more pics at this blog.

The highlight of the last few weeks has to be Carnivale! We were invited to go with Marco to Las Tablas – apparently the place to go. And it was out of this world. A 4 day affair, what makes this one special is that there is a 50 year tradition of rivalry between carnival queens. One is from Calle Arriba (upper street) and the other from Calle Abajo (lower street). Each has their own float, and entourage. And we were with Calle Arriba – the posh lot – by virtue of our hosts. We had a place to stay nearby, with the family of Lourdes, one of the kru.

Before arriving in Panama, a Colombian friend back home suggested I look up a friend of his in Panama. What has developed is an extremely interesting social phenomenon. She is a trusted friend of my good and trusted friend. So, I have discovered for myself the law of triangular friendship/trust relationships – it seems like we have known each other for years. And her brother with whom she lives has bent over backwards to help us with the car selling. And Marco is her ex-boyfriend, and her brother's business partner, and now also a friend of ours. Visiting another city where you have friends has been wonderful at helping feel connected to the place.

So one morning at Las Tablas I woke up with an intense hangover, and came into the living room. On the TV was coverage of the Carnival. Looking closer at the TV presenter, I realised it was none other than Lourdes. How peculiar. After a quick breakfast, we proceeded for what turned out to be the daily routine – hit the carnival for the daytime session, check out the floats and get drunk. Every session (day/night) each Queen had a new float, as well as their princesses. So that's 32 different themed floats for the Carnival! Then back home, a quick bite and a nap, then back out on the streets for the night-time. We had been warned about looking after ourselves – but being with a local, Marco, and Ariel (a 6ft4 American football player) made it the safest place to be.

Back in Panama City, with my laptop charger bust in a flood, I have devoured books. Having spent 6 years at uni, reading was not something I enjoyed doing in my spare time. But now, a thirst is being quenched. Days of War, Nights of Love is a book by the CrimethInc Collective written in the 90s, a highly inspiration collection of anarcho-inspired readings. Then The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, a disturbing dystopian story parodying contemporary patriarchy and government control. And Cuban Anarchism, translated by Frank Fernandez, a concise history chronicling the hard work put in by Cuban anarchists prior to the Revolution, and the bitter disagreements amongst anarchists over supporting Castro's version it during his reign. Then Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, who fictionalises the 1930s wave of forced migration by US peasants to California in search of the American Dream. Finally Adelle Davis' 1950 Let's Eat Right To Keep Fit, a handy summary of the importance of vitamins, fats and protein in the diet and plenty of scientific anecdotes (unfortunately all involving animal testing). The library in Panama City has some crackers (not all the above though – 2 were from the Anarchist Bookstore in San Francisco).

Furthering our bourgeious dalliance at the Carnival, we were invited to a cheese and wine evening at a penthouse apartment in a skyrise last week – quite a view. A bit more down to earth, two bars are my joint favourite.

The first is Baños Publicos – yep, that translates as public toilets – a squatted place in the heart of Casco Antiquo, the original city that got ransacked by the infamous Welsh pirate Henry Morgan in 1671 and left in photogenic decay ever since. And it has a real squat vibe, with live salsa and reggae, a BYO alcohol policy and replete with porcelain toilet pan. The other is Bar de Cuba, which is a great place given the classy San Francisco neighbourhood, with arcade games, a pool table and $1 beers. On that note, from the Chino (local shop run by Chinese folk – as is every local shop) beer is cheaper than well-known soft drinks here (hurray!) - 40 US cents – 25 pence a bottle!

It has been nice to escape the city regularly at weekends. Last weekend we took a 3 hour trip back down the Panamerican Highway to El Valle, a town in the crater of a massive volcano, surrounded by a ring a hills. Inside is a special place, with a magical feel. We stayed at Shwami's campsite [link], a hippy campsite run by a sound Panamanian rasta, the black sheep of his family. We had time to check out the cool waterfall, but not the hot springs, as we were invited to lunch at Rico's parents' place. They designed and built it themselves and filled it full of their own stunning artwork. And a little bit of magic happened when we saw a hummingbird fly to its nest on a windchime actually on the patio area, to feed its 2 hungry mouthed children, right in front of our faces.

And the best bit of news – we both got our scholarship tickets to Burning Man for this year! To finish the trip in style! So $110 instead of $260, for a week of delectable hedonist debauchery – underlined by the principle of mutual aid - in the middle of the Nevada desert.


Friday 13th February 2009

Sipping gin and tonic on a balcony overlooking a park, hearing that Bonjovi track in the background behind. This is the life of a couchsurfer. My feet hurt, I could say I'm tired but the gin won't let me. Today has been spent hanging around at the mechanic's, who was fitting a replacement Oxygen Sensor on the car (these measure the mixture of fuel and air before and after the catalytic converter, returning a voltage between 0 and 1 Volt to the car's computer). The thing being broken means the "Check Engine" light is on on the dash, which needs to not be on to sell it.

That's the ostensible aim here in Panama City, to sell the damn car. It seems actually quite a good place to do that: there appears to be quite a lot of money around here. It's quite out of place in Central America after these months on the road. From Mexico southward, things got slowly more, different, relaxed, poor, rural, dusty. Then from leaving Nicaragua into Costa Rica, things took a turn for the worse. More expensive, more mimicry of Western capitalism. The large U.S. expat and holidaying "community" make travelling in a US vehicle less of a thing I want to be a part of.

our couchsurfing host, Christian

I'm glad I brought my chameleon suit (does that make me a metachameleon?). We got to Panama City quite lost, and ended up driving for 3 hours in Friday afternoon rush hour traffic trying to find Casco Antiguo. This is the old part of town that the infamous Welsh pirate Henry Morgan sacked in 17something when he decided he didn't like the Spanish but did want their gold. So we found our hotel, which looks like it hasn't changed much since Henry Morgan was here. Which of course made it a wonderful place to be, crumbling wallpaper, high ceilings, an amazing tiled lobby complete with an art deco garden table and 4 chairs, a splendid rooftop patio (no breakfasts here though), and finally nothing better than the cheapest digs in town at 11 bucks a night for us both.

Hotel Colón

So, the chameleon... get on with it. A friend from home gave me a contact of a friend of his from Bogota, who now lives in Panama. So on Saturday night, we met up and hit the town. First stop was Bennigans, the now-defunct-in-the-US chain restaurant. It's really bizzare - in Central American big cities, U.S. chain restaurants (McDonalds et al) are actually the preserve of the middle/upper class, by a considerable price margin. Well, we had a couple of beers in this place, jammed to the rafters with posh Panamanians. Then, through our friend's friends, hung out in what appeared to be the most exclusive club in town.

I think the best way to describe the theme was arctic. Air conditioning down to the max (or min...) and white everywhere. The way to drink is to buy a bottle of vodka and some flaggons of cranberry, and serve yerself DIY style. Luckily I didn't see the bill. Then after a while of shaking rhymically to stay warm and alive, we headed next door for more vodka and reggaeton.

The next day, we were invited to a barbeque at our friend's best friend's house, and had a classic Sunday sojourn. Supping and munching pretty much all day and well into the evening, it was a much needed day off before the missions with the car. I had my chameleon suit on (with tact tie in a windsor knot) when I got in a long conversation with a chap who in the end offered me a job with his "lead generation" company, in perfect American English. Lead generation (as in business leads, pronounced leeds, not lead, as in piping) involves facilitating the expansion of businesses - I highly suspect that this involves fuelling the greed of our not-so-favourite multinational corporations - and thought I was very tactful in my polite declination. I have to confess I did say that if my tax refund cheque doesn't arrive soon I would (be forced) take his kind offer.

Ometepe and Costa Rica

Maybe one day I'll write more about staying with Damian in Ometepe, a volcanic island in Nicaragua, Finca Bonafide - the permaculture farm, getting stuck on the island for 3 days because there weren't any boats cos of bad weather, forgetting my camera at Damian's campsite, cycling 30 miles to go back to get it, him not being there and me returning empty-handed, reading Rising Up, Rising Down - a history of violence by William Vollman, then driving through Costa Rica, and the trip to Panama City. Maybe not.

Puerto 3

As I fluff up the blanket that separates my body from my wickered bed, a cockroach jumps out, surprised. I quickly reach for a cup and trap it, unsure whether I want to try and kill it or spare its life. I throw it out of the front of the house. Mercy.

Later on, I wait for the power to return to the town after an absence now several hours long. I go for a walk to smoke a cigarette, needing to use the internet at the Alcadia to download a Linux distribution for the computer workshop I'm doing tomorrow.

Earlier, I bump into the headteacher, and I explain how I'm was getting on with the computers, and my plan to get a bunch of kids involved. Virginia, my adoptive mother here, is a teacher at the school, and she said she'd find some kids for me that would be interested. So the headteacher gets all controlfreaked, and tells me she wants a written plan for what I want to do. Balking at this meaningless exercise in bureaucracy, I tell her if it's going to be complicated, I'd rather not actually bother involving the kids at all, for that would actually be easier for me. She backs off, and in the end wants me to explain to her afterwards what we got up to.

As I take a drag on my cigarette, I notice the sheep sat at the Western edge of the shade provided by the shelter of the baseball pitch. Clever, the coolest spot. A horse trots past, seeking pasture. Behind me pigs snuffle through the piles of smouldering leaves and rubbish in the street.

I walk back home, and past a tired looking dog. This is summer, although the coolest months of the year. It's 1pm, and 35ºC. Winter is hotter, but it rains. Dogs roam the streets, lean, wary of people. People walk slowly, in the shade, minimising beads of sweat which are soaking my clothing.

As I sit in the front patio reading, a grubby girl of no more than 5 clutching a coin comes up to the front gate. I know already what she's going to say. Posicle [poh-sikh-lay]. The sisters inside play an imaginary game of spoof that the youngest always loses, who emerges, with a small plastic bag, steaming and hard filled with something white and frozen. I have yet to decipher it's contents, but kids bite a corner of the bag and suck it. I think it's some kind of rice and milk and cinnamon concoction.

I scratch my leg, having resisted for at least 90 seconds now. The sancudos are a bitch, worst around dusk but fight around the clock. It's a war of attrition, and the combat gear is long trousers and a shirt. Not ideal in these conditions, but it's a case of survival.

The trackpad on my laptop is playing up. I guess it works by relative heat sensitivity, and so I suppose the ambient temperature must be approaching 37ºC now.

This morning I experience my second worst ever feeling, next to discovering I had worms for the first time in my life while tripping. I awoke to the sound of what seemed like water bubbling out of my ear, you know the feeling after emerging from being underwater. The strange thing was that I didn't sleep underwater. Focussing on the sensation, I remembered that seconds earlier in that pre-awake state I'd scratched an itch, inside my ear. It now turned into a sound, repeating regularly, matched by a ticklish feeling inside my ear, like one that prompts the instinctive "bug swat" reaction. So I swotted the side of my head, trying to get whatever was burrowing into my ear out, to no avail as it just burrowed further. I spent the next half an hour listening to this creature either dying, or laying its eggs, inside my ear.

Hmmm, maybe it's worse than tripping with worms. The jury's out.

Puerto Morazan - Part 2

Monday 26th January 2009

"Gingo! Ey Gingo!" is the sound I awoke to this morning. That was 4 year old Esteben Benito Frambir (his name is one or all of the above, at least he gets called that by his family). He is of course calling to me, the cultural nuances of British folk not technically being gringos seemingly lost on him. I've explained about 6 times now. I guess 4 year olds don't really get it.

It was funny on Sunday though, at the baseball game, when I overheard some guy saying something possibly derogatory, probably not, involving the word gringo, which I assumed to be about me and not meant to be heard or at least understood by me, given that I'm the only gringo around (I've actually accepted the title gracefully). The funny part was that I then smiled at the chap, and asked him very politely how sir was doing this morning, in Spanish. He spent the next few minutes uncomfortably explaining that he didn't realise that I spoke Spanish as most gringos that come to the village don't. From that reaction I assume his initial comment to be derogatory and I told him I wasn't actually a gringo anyway. Well, I felt good about myself. Maybe it was that I was mildly hungover and had a bit of a grouch on. I wonder if the word gringo bears any sort of significance of cultural laden value, of "political incorrectness" to 'paki' in English.

I had a hangover (not really, I only had a couple of beers) from the night before, going out on the town with my sista - Leyris - who is 17, her cousin, her boyfriend (don't tell her parents), and a couple of others who formed their cru. I say sista meaning adoptive relative, being retroactively sad about being one of 3 brothers. We hit the second fiesta, after the first one (which is next to the Mayor's house) was empty, despite the arrayed stack of speakers that most Bristol clubs would be proud of. I felt kinda bad for them, there was a massive truck outside that had obviously been hired to bring the system. I hope no-one (nor the local council) was out of pocket for that. Having a window from the street inside the club is a recipe for disaster though - who's going to pay to be the first people in? So we hit the second party, which was considerably more populated.

I felt a bit of a granddad, going out with a group of 15-17 year olds. I bought them a couple of beers to share, not being made of money. They concealed them proudly, if such a thing is possible. Yes, I'm a bad person.

The night was fun, then a fight ended in the 3-man police squad for the town / municipality being stationed right in the middle of the club for the rest of the night, which made it less fun. It seems that you have to have a partner to dance, even if it's to house music, which the occasional song is. That mixed (well, played overlappingly, mixing is too gracious) with a bunch of reggaeton, and then 6 really slow tunes all in a row. Weird.

francisco and his grannie

So earlier on on Saturday we went to visit Francisco's grannie, about an hour away. They hadn't seen her in years, and she's about to escape life. I had said a few days earlier that as they didn't have a car, while I was there if they wanted to make use of it they just needed to say. So we packed em in, Francisco, his dad, Virginia, her mum, and the 3 kids, Leyris, Francis and Frambi all in the Jeep and hit the road. The visit was fairly procedural, nice to meet the old lady, took a bunch of nice photos, and Virginia and Francisco were very happy to have made it and spent some time with her. She's in her nineties, a right fighter, and made a sharp wisecrack about my now fairly long hair.

After returning home, we headed to the outskirts of town, where in a large field lay a profuse network of well-staked plots of land. We went to one of them, for some slash and burn action. Well, the slashing was done, more raking and burning. It doesn't sound as good though, rake and burn. Meanwhile, Francisco and his dad stuck a few more poles in. Clearly these were plots of land for someone, and I thought I heard Virginia explain that they were for homeless people. My thoughts of altriusm were put to rest when Francisco explained later that the land was owned by some teachers, and that all these plots were for teachers. Nice job, nonetheless. It would be interesting to find out if Sandinistan politics had anything to do with it.

The next day, Sunday, I got some great footage for the film at the baseball game, the conveniently timed Municipal Final. I gave a chap a lift on the way up, which only turned out to be 5 minutes away, and later on he brought me a sack full of plantain and oranges. An extraordinary act of kindness that I can't get my head around. Maybe it's the capitalist money-exchange culture I grew up in.

Speaking of which, the film is trundling along nicely. Plenty of footage (in 30 second clips) to work from. I've got the script finalised and a shoot lined up tomorrow with the photogenic and beautiful 12 year old Francis. I'm having to fake the school section a bit, as the schools are all on holiday. The mayor did offer to get them all in for me though, kind chap that he is.

While I was talking to the school principal, an experience as unpleasant at the age of 26 as any other time, I found my niche here though. As soon as the conversation began to sour towards the different things the school wants money for I felt awkward in that position I described before. Par for the course, I suppose, with the now stock response that the best way would be to formulate a proposal through Gioconda, that I'm here to offer practical help but am not the person to talk to about wanting money.

The niche though, is that what seems like at least a year ago, a whole bunch of computers were donated to the school. They've been sat neatly but without use, providing shelter for rodent families, since their arrival. So I spent the day starting an inventory, to build some systems that work, and put Linux on them.

After spending the day getting through half of 'em, I needed something inspirational to get the rest done. That came in the form of the plan to do a one day workshop with a small group of kids, teaching them about hardware and software, and basically how to build computers. It's not rocket science, more like lego, and with some interested kids it'll be fun and also be a team to look after the computers and give the project some sustainability. Well that's the plan anyway. In Latin America, plans tend to change more often than not.