Pirates, beer, and church *

Last week arrived a new batch of police officers. At any given time there are about eight police officers here keeping the beach under 24 hour surveillance. Their permanent station here began seven years ago when the beach was repeatedly raided by Colombian guerillas. Something of a Pirate pillage. Riquard told me the story the other night. It goes something like this… seven years ago, on three occasions, Playa Muerto was raided by a ship of Colombian guerillas. Each instance was in the dark of night. The looters were violent and most of all terrifying, sticking guns to the heads of the villagers until they handed over their goods. The second time they came, the villagers heard gunshots from the beach and took for the woods When the Columbians landed they found the town abandoned and ransacked the place, taking boat motors, farm tools, money, food, and the materials from the store, leaving the villagers foodless, and without the means to have a good quality of life or even conduct their daily lives in a meager fashion. At this point the inhabitants of Playa Muerto decided that they needed to kill the invaders. They formed a defense force of five of their men who would wait with rifles in a bunker they had constructed on the beach. The next time the Columbians showed up, my dear Embera friends fired back, killing one of the Columbians. The enemy retreated, never to return, but ever since, there has been a police force here that keeps 24 hour watch over Playa Muerto, and has had to raid ships on several occasions that tried to land here with cocaine they intended to then haul over land out of the Darien gap.

At night, rocking back and fourth in the hammock that hangs in Riquard’s kitchen and drinking coffee, I stare out into the platano groves, bathed in thick, black night. Cries and panicked barefoot steps rise from the stalks like a ptsd flashback as I try to envision what those nights must have been like, abandoning everything material, but your children and taking for the woods, running for your lives, from the gunfire and into the cold, dark, thick jungle… scattering and zig-zagging, propelled by your autonomic nervous system and knowing not the stealth of your predator in the playing field of the backwoods. And then waiting, till the distant sounds of ransacking have ceased, till the commotion has subsided, till absolutely nothing is left, including the men but also including all your belongings, to return home.

Something you should know about the police in Panama. It is in the Panamanian constitution that they shall never have a military. But the police on the frontera (boarder) are kind of a hybrid between police and military personnel. They dress in camo and combat boots, carry rifles and walkie talkies at all times, live in huts built with bullet-proof sand bags, covered in netting, and have military training for defensive purposes. In this last batch that arrived, was an unlikely member. The police commitment once you sign up is 30 years before you can retire with benefits (I’m kind of unclear if you can quit before that), and the lot of the group is composed of lost, motivationless types. Kind of like stray dogs who never had a mentor, and spend their time here in Playa Muerto smoking cigarettes, looking at porn reruns on their cell phones, and hitting on the 13 year old indigenous girls. But Raul rose to the surface like a bottle that couldn’t me submerged under the water and bobbed there, glowing and full of life. The difference was that he was also a psychologist. And he would tell me that in boot camp he was given much harassment for this. The machismo ere of Panamanians disregard this doctoral title for the abstration of the mind with a sort of arrogance. The added abuse of being in a military setting and pursuing such an interest… he was constantly made to do extra sets of pushups by his higher-ups and to perform humiliating tasks like carrying equipment for the others. And Raul told me that it took putting up with a lot for a long time, and a hard fight to show his competence to compete to gain respect from the others, but he never let go of his conviction. I found in him great respite- a fellow intellectual I could talk analysis with. He had a very interesting perspective as a psychologist in the military and here I was, an English major in a sub-desarollado community. Every night I would meet him on the beach and we would talk for hours. It’s amazing when you and another person come from two such totally different backgrounds, with virtually nothing in common, yet in terms of ideas, meet like two wires flying independently through the air and fusing together upon contact. We “spoke the same language” and obviously I don’t mean literally. We passed ideas back and fourth like a tennis ball between rackets and together made a beautiful dance of a game. Back to the subject of Panamanian’s opinion about psychology… apparently Latinos have a long-standing belief in the supernatural. And this does not ground the ephemeral, abstract things like thoughts in science, but in legends, in spells, and witchcraft, and spirits. “They have a spirit for anything they can’t explain” Raul tells me, “like the tide.” There is a spirit, she is a bad spirit and I can’t remember her name but she controls the tide. This is still very commonly believed even amongst the younger generation and in this day and age. Rather than assuming a scientific explanation for the tide like the magnetic force of the moon, they believe this spirit is responsible for its ebb and flow and decides when it will grow and when it will shrink away again. We talked about the extinction of the culture here as Latin influences infiltrate, and how the indios induct these changes without even realizing it and it is as true as being immersed in any context, that the subject does not realize the changes he is bringing upon himself. Raul confirmed, as I suspected, that the indios here do have a problem with alcohol like the native Americans of the northern continent, although the indios themselves will tell you they don’t. They don’t drink all the time but when they get a new shipment of beer, or if it’s a Saturday, a portion of the men will head down to the bar, and I have never seen grown men reduced to such infantile-like drunkenness… the gross kind where their eyes are glazed over and they invade your personal space, sloppily searching for the words to gush their heart out, all while slobbering and teetering, red in the face and hot to the touch and exuding a sour odor that is the porous expel of the toxin. In broad daylight, amongst all the children, and by five o clock they are out of business and by 2am, in the middle of a thunder and lightning storm, in torrential downpour with the sudden and imminent urge to throw up I run to the outhouse, only to find when I enter by no more light in the moonless night than an instantaneous flash of lightning, the silhouette of a man with his head hung, sleeping with his but cradled in the mouth of the trash bin, the bin filled with every shit stained wad of toilet paper that doesn’t get flushed down the toilet here, and the stench of just that wafting up like a cloud of tear gas that hangs in the outhouse, and for which I hold my breath and get out of there as quickly as possible every time I go. He had been locked in that horrid place… imagine being locked in a port-o-potty sickly drunk and with the impending need to sleep and no space, or hope of escape, and resorting to curling up in the pile of poopy wipes. Not to mention the fact that I didn’t discover this someone until I was about one foot away from him, in the middle of the night, in the middle of an ominous storm and moments away from projectile vomiting. Stone-cold horrified, I turned and ran to the beach, and in the rain, that felt, as Forest would say, like “big fat rain,” relentless rain, I purged all the salt and grease and sugar, and garbagy water I had consumed since I got here. I would be lying if I said I did the right thing and went and helped the drunk man get out of that shit hole and into bed. I was too irked by the sight. But I did leave the door wide open so he could find his way back when he came to. And about an hour later, I did hear him shuffle out of there.

            But to get back on track- it was wonderful having someone with whom I could share all the kinds of sociological thoughts I write here, on this blog. One other very interesting thing we talked about that I want to mention here… I was telling him about how I learned that there is no word in the Embera language for “Thank You.” There is also no word for “goodbye” or “Sorry.” “There’s a word for that in psychology,” Raul said, and of course I forget the term now, especially because it was in Spanish, but it refers to the inability to express emotion because it does not exist in the verbal or body language of the subject. He told me about how indigenous people would come into the infirmary with a wound so bad they would need an amputation and there was virtually no expression on their faces. Whether or not they recognized the pain, they certainly didn’t acknowledge it. Or their kids would be in some crisis and the parent wouldn’t express concern. I see that here. I see it all the time. And I can’t imagine in your formative years where you erect a paradigm like a three-dimensional walls of a blueprint that rise from the two-dimensional plane of stimuli, a wall for each word, separating concepts like a wall would water into two compartments- and because words like sorry, or thank you don’t exist, not developing a consciousness for those concepts. The other day in class I found myself trying to explain the difference between the verbs “to make” and “to do” because in Spanish, there is only one term for these two concepts. I pictured the flood gate lifting and the waters of the two distinct concepts merging and mixing together and becoming one indistinguishable fluid mass. It was amazing how stark the distinction is between “to make” and “to do” in my own mind, yet how difficult it was for my students to conceptualize the difference. But going back to Embera, I noticed that they never say “gracias” and they never say “lo siento.” And there is a general lack of etiquite, what with my host brother of two years peeing off the kitchen porch into the yard (but usually missing about 30% and urinating all over the kitchen floor or on the steps up the kitchen), women belching like an over-stuffed king Arthur. It has me thinking about the geography of our brains and how drastically, yet invisibly different they must be. Raquel tries to teach me Embera (which is soooooo haaarddd) and the first and foremost phrases she teaches me are “I am hungry” and “Where have you been” and I think the Embera language is more about functionality in the immediate environment (while it lacks words for thank you and I’m sorry it has about six different words for the different types of plantains). Riquard hosts an interest in intellectual things more than most people here. He is a history buff which is really endearing… he has an encyclopedia that Wanda gave him with every major historical world event since the conception of the human race. And he will ask me question upon question about my country. Riquard is a self-made minister of the Evangelical faith and a few nights ago I went to one of his services and it went something like this…

            From outside the concrete block that stood, the only illuminant thing in the surrounding night, rang a voice I didn’t recognize. It was contorted and ringing, but intriguing and drawing me towards the threshold. When I crossed it, I was dumbfounded to find Riquard as the source of the sound. His voice was unlike I had ever heard it before- it sounded foreign, like an Arabic chanting of the Koran. And as I witnessed the members of the church file in alongside me, the women with white veils covering their heads, bring themselves kneeling and face-to-face with the walls, muttering indistinguishable words under their breath, I thought for a second I had walked into a mosque. Riquard was singing from the basin of his soul, and the sound was amplifying like vibrations from a phonograph. Resonating in that mesmerizing way that monks sing ohms, or that fire arrests your pupils. I couldn’t pull my ears away. It was one of the most beautiful sounds I had ever heard. And he didn’t even have a good voice! So what was it, that was so hypnotic about it? It was that it was saturated with belief. It was like he was channeling some holy energy. And in that moment I believed too, in the goodness of Riquard’s faith and its power. I thought more about the power of faith in something rather than that something’s intrinsic power. I knew that this particular portal of access to the divine resonated with Riquard. And although there are a lot of phonies in the church, I could see right away that Riquard was not one of them. Although Evangelical Christianity does not unveil the wonders of the universe for many people, it does for him. I had been turned off by the homophobic slander Pedro had backed-up siting his evangelical faith and membership in Riquard’s church. But now I was reminded of the complexity of everything- that everything and everyone has imperfections. But they can simultaneously be host to beauties in other facets.

Leave a Reply