A First Glance at Playa Muerto

In every jumbled-spanish phrase I utter, in every gesture I make, gaze I cast, I am ever-conscious that this is just the beginning. Making acquaintance, and in the context of a 200-person population, and the lifespan of three months, this is the very VERY beginning. Depth will be uncovered in pockets of conversation, will accumulate gradually, and perhaps at some moment there will be a breakthrough, a moment where my character proves itself. Seizes the stage of opportunity, and “brings it home.” I realized the other day that both Dances with Wolves and The Beach have this moment. When Kevin Costner saved the boy from the charging Tatanca and Leonardo Dicaprio went head to head with a Great White. In the meantime, I try to reassure myself of my self-worth and the light those who know me well see in me. It is interesting, having no one but myself to confide in or to seek support from. When I found myself in a complete dead end of a conversation- at a barrier of language I could not break through, I looked around to seek my companion, my friend who could translate, even to simpler Spanish, but he was nowhere to be found. “He” did not exist. Even the few people I had befriended in those brief hours I had mistook, by their familiarity, for English speakers. But in recalling them fully, I realized that they were actually purely Spanish speakers, and that the same barrier would carry over and superimpose itself upon the conversation pathway with them. I have no one to fall back on. I cannot circumnavigate such moments duros but must just wrestle through them. There is no way to get from one side of the river to the other without trudging through the water.

I am finding it impossible to invert my perspective and surmise what I must look like from the view of these people. Raquel and Riquard treat me like a guest. They cook my meals, serve them to me across a barrier between the kitchen and the dining room, and wait in the kitchen while I eat in solitude for me to finish so they can clear my plate. Time and again I insist upon doing the dishes but I can’t tell if I’m breaching some contract of cultural etiquette and offending them by doing so. And how do I look when I go into my cabina? Am I the teacher that retreats there to draw upcoming lesson plans? Or am I the cowardice little white-bread girl who is in way over her head and is panicked into a sort of paralysis where she goes into hiding? Even I am not entirely sure what I am doing when I do so. It is sometimes the latter. Sometimes I am just trying to reconcile what I conjecture to be their expectations of me with my own of my role here… While everyone else in the town is hard at work, nowhere to be found, playing, what am I to be doing? If I mingle with the children, am I the adult philanthropist that is giving up her “adult time” to engage the kids, and expertly at that? Or is she merely  one of the children herself? I have not yet had a really stimulating conversation with an adult, one from which I left feeling they had gained some respect for me. My age in numbers is confusing even to me. And when I see the eyebrows raise on the other as I tell him or her my age, I don’t know what to make of it. I think they are gawking at how young I am. All their girls my age are grown women with multiple children. I have such a different skill set from any of these people. It’s like comparing apples to oranges. A different unit of measurement.

The community is so small, and yet hardly anyone is not from here originally, no one new enters, and it seems as though the only population remolding comes from the young adults taking off for bigger, more developed towns or cities. But the gene pool doesn’t get much new blood. There is a distinct growing phenotypical separation between the older and younger generation. The gorge instigated by an earthquake… a bolt of lightning rupturing the surface of the earth and green warty claws straining up from the earth’s bowels to pull the planes apart. The older generation desperately clings onto its language, Embera. But when asked a question in Embera, the children respond in Spanish, Riquard tells me. All of the children’s classes are taught in Spanish. The community has resolved to accept tourists as a means of income. They want to be able to send their kids to university. They want to be able to build a hospital, to integrate technology into their school system, and to keep in toe to some degree with with the technologically complexifying and globalizing world. But the ambivalence regarding accepting tourists into their society hangs in the air like a solid object. I fear for these people. Right now they are in the middle of constructing 17 cabinas for tourists. I want to warn them about all the changes this will bring upon their village. Perhaps this resistance to tourism is the projection of my own feelings. Perhaps the Embera people genuinely do want to accept tourists and integrate themselves into the public realm. For me this move signifies the extinction of a race and of a certain empire of virtuous culture. I am probably idealizing and generalizing indigenous culture, and villanizing the opposite… Let me not undermine the positive contributions of technology, including the abolition of many suppressive traditions regarding gender role, sexuality, and so forth. But I fear the agenda of greed, individualism, and materialism that certain applications of technology threaten to impose upon this modest and ever-trusting society.

Cities are sucio (dirty). “El oceano la trae” The children say of the trash that litters the beach in Playa Muerto (“The sea brings it”). It is a testament to the pollution and corruption that awaits these people if they blindly confide in the “more advanced” conductors of human civilization. This litter is a symbol, an omen of the current state of illness of urban society. (I definitely generalize and over-simplify the binary of clean & natural versus dirty & unnatural. But technology does not always mean unnatural. And technology can, if used correctly, detoxify our cities… it can be used to conserve energy and induce the regeneration of endangered resources. But our current abuse of it, the vampiric, unsustainable kind, always leaves an abscess. And this excess waste is the soot that grays our sidewalks… This beach garbage is also abusive in that it infiltrates their primitive domain and, in that the tide goes one-direction, offers no opportunity to retaliate. This is the nature of imperialism… and modern-day imperialism is the indirect kind where the victim is deceived into thinking that they are still holding the reigns to their fate, that they are bringing these changes on themselves, and that it is in their best interest to do so. In reality, the thing itself is parasitic… and eats away at the flesh from the inside. I may also not be giving the indigenous enough credit… who am I to assume that they do not know what they are getting into?

But for now, while its quaint and technologically uncontaminated nature remains intact, I’d like to address one particular element of it that I find dauntingly beautiful and enticing. They hold what are called “reuniones” with the entire pueblo whenever necessary. In other words, they hold town meetings whenever there is an issue to discuss. They literally just blew a huge conk shell whose sound reverberated throughout the entire town, to bring a meeting to session. The politics are so small-scale that even I can understand them, and here so many degrees of separation are removed from the relationship we hold with our our politicians in the states. Tonight, the town is gathering to pretty much write a petition to keep me here as a teacher and overrule some law that requires me to obtain permission from the ministerio de educación in Panama City in order to teach here. It doesn’t make much sense for me to have to get permission for this type of voluntary work which is completely independent, in which there is no exchange of money or school credit, and which is pretty much an agreement between consenting parties: You are welcome to stay here if you teach us english… I would love to, so long as I can live amongst you in harmony. Anyway, “compartir” is a word I hear a lot. It means to share… They are a society based so much on maintaining the well-being of the overall village. Their individual pursuits do not take precedent over the needs of the group as a whole. When I first got here, Riquard the director of tourist affairs sat me down and explained that everyone has their designated role in this community. Their contribution has to have a net benefit for the entire group. And my contribution likewise, must elevate the quality of life for everybody. They are very direct, these people. To a refreshing extent. To the extent that communication actually takes effect. There is no gray, passive, indirect space. Communication between the governing officials and the people is a value that has eluded us Americans. But it is so essential. For the sake of keeping citizens at peace, and reassuring them that their livelihood is still in their own hands. Human beings were not designed to be organized in groups as big as they are in the United States. I’m trying to think of an analogy, and the one that comes to mind doesn’t quite work… but suspend your imagination temporarily and pretend physics works inversely: it is like a star that has gained so much mass that the particles on its outermost surface are no longer supported by the gravitational pull of the object, and they are therefore forsaken to float out into outer space. We have exceeded our body mass index, our max productivity given our x, y, z dimensionality. We are like the pharmacologically mutated chickens that collapse because their body mass is growing at a rate faster than its legs can support. (Note: after writing this, I attended the aforementioned meeting and was impressed even further: the current director of the tribe, Jumbo, presented the attendants with a list of issues he wanted to discuss. After addressing each one individually he offered time for anyone who wished to voice their opinion the opportunity to do so. Never have I seen social issues discussed so thoroughly . The meeting lasted well over two hours. They discussed, along with my case, the cleanliness of the pueblo (specifically, the basura/ garbage that washes up on the beach from all the litter such travelers as my fishing-boat companions cast out to sea), whether or not to submit to the demand for beer for tourists (alcohol has never been, and as decided in this meeting, never will be allowed in Playa Muerto), and the recent unwillingness of the younger generation, to participate in meetings such as this one.)

By first impression it appears that there is a distinct separation in gender role in this community. Women tend to household tasks and men to construction and fishing. The boys and girls play in groups of their own sex, and have their own games. I couldn’t help but recall the tens of rants I had heard from my elders, the david mccullough types, about the demise of imagination in contemporary urban society: “When I was young we didn’t have any toys… we made toys out of dirt and sticks and erected fantasyland from our minds!” The children here survived such extinction of imaginatory ability. They explore the “bosque” (forest), know all its nooks and crannies of it! Three year old’s jump off cliffs and go swimming bare-bottomed in the under-toe ridden white caps. The parents don’t even do a double-take. They are not the sanitized, bubble-wrapped, cough syrup spoon-fed youth of contemporary America. They have callouses and dirty toe nails, sun burns and bug bites, and they are doin juuuusstt fine… a child’s paradise: they scurry up trees to pluck coconuts and mango’s, only to sit cross-legged at the bottom sucking its meat out from a hole they pierced with their teeth.

The thing about my effort to resume an indigenous lifestyle… is to optimize the proficiency of my human form. And with that intention, technology can be an enemy. Because it displaces human capacity (Although human capacity certainly exceeds mechanical function… But mechanical function is something that the Indigenous have mastered. And that sort of physical and mental exertion of effort opens an arena for the spiritual element to manifest itself. In other words, their hands-on work with nature, in its warrior-like precision, is the medium through which they derive a sense of holy energy.) Technology is therefore terminal to that particular mode of accessing the divine. There was once a golden age of the human form, and perhaps it was the ancient Egyptians, but at least in this wave of our species, I believe the indigenous ranked pretty high on the stats. And look what technology and globalization have done to them… they have debilitated them. Technology itself is not the villain, but the way we implement it. It is a powerful resource. And I think right now, we are using it to facilitate selfish, money-driven ends . It would not disintegrate the integrity of a particular population if technology was provided as a mechanism of benevolent function, of conservation, and with the intention of promoting the artistic and moral evolution of the human species; for the deliberate self-improvement of character. But as long as those with their hands on the trigger of technology continue to abuse it; continue to use it to enable the industrial complex, it will ravish those innocent and uninformed investors. So what of the Embera people of Playa Muerto? I fear that if they accept this particular avenue of technology and globalization that is being offered to them … that it is the self-deprecating kind, The kind that indentures them to a career of self-exploitation… exploitation that robs their culture of its sanctity and objectifies it- reduces it to the tourist attraction that is advertised online, that can be captured in a digital photograph, in an ink tattoo they sport when they return to the Americas (There is Jimmy Hendrix the oracle, and there is Jimmy Hendrix the tie-dye t-shirt at the mall…) The tourist attraction is the symbol devoid of everything that gives the symbol its reverence. Let us not convert this sacred culture to a profitable symbol thereby bypassing everything which makes it worthy of worship and awe in its genesis, and estranging its members from their identity and dignity. Technology, as it will be applied, will render obsolete the skills that comprise the foundation of their spirituality. Their sense of meaning arises out of their direct interaction with nature. But technology will estrange them from that. So, if technology is integrated rapidly it threatens to hijack them from the source of their livelihood. It is necessary therefore, to introduce technology gradually, giving them the opportunity to adjust their paradigm as these changes occur, so they can configure new ways of deriving meaning as the old ways become extinct. I really don’t know the answer…  I think it is a very delicate situation. It is also likely that I am clinging on to an image of these indigenous people that isn’t necessarily true, for the sake of holding them as an emblem of moral north on my compass. In this way perhaps I objectify and exoticize them. I need to release any preconceptions in order to see their true nature.

But to get back to my experience thus far… I have to meditate every now and then, every couple of hours it seems and reassemble my perspective. “Hawk” perspective over “mouse” perspective as Clara would say. And when I find myself tunnel-visioned into mouse perspective I have to actually lift my eyes from the ground and cast them out onto the expansive ocean. You are safe, these are good, beautiful, kind-hearted people. You are a beautiful, kind-hearted person with so much to give. You have nothing to fear. You are competent, my friends would reassure me. The language barrier is like peleando, batiendo (fighting/ struggling) against a wall of rubber cement. But this is what I asked for, this is what I wanted. To be cast abruptly to the 6 o’clock position on the ferris wheel of ups and down’s in life. I must make my ascent step by step. But my feet will not protrude in front of me unless I exert myself, unless I try, unless I leave my cabin. If I do, life will answer the call. Then also, can I meet my companion in the middle to harvest this seed of potential into a beautiful flower. A cross-cultural encounter.


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