Thursday, April 26, 2007

Culture Club

Photo: Marcelo cutting open a coconut with a machete

Photo: Elsa and Ana cracking open freshly roasted cashew nuts

Photo: Brady in front of the house we stayed in

We've returned from our trip to Panama! It was an intensely rich experience - full of excitement and new exploration, and fraught with its share of challenges, none of the expected kind!

We left on a Sunday from Chicago O'Hare, where nerves were a'jumble. Rob had injured his back while training for a marathon and lifting heavy boxes in a move, and Jonathan was suddenly nervous and decided to clamp his jaws shut and stop eating for the remainder of the trip. Overall, a less than desirable beginning to our adventure. Brady, however, was the surprise of the day. He-who-had-asked-several-times, "WHY do I have to go to Panama?" was browsing for Spanish dictionaries in the Houston airport during our layover; He-who-had-balked-at-learning-Spanish was asking how many things he could learn to say in the remaining 3 hour flight time, and whether he should just focus on soccer playing-related vocabulary. I was buoyed by his new enthusiasm, as it was Brady and his - shall we say - 'sensitivity' that had us worried about the trip.

My sister Jackie - who had been in Panama during her Peace Corp days - and her husband Marcelo - a Panamanian native (they call themselves PanameƱos) - met us at the airport and off we went to Marcelo's finca (farm). This being my fourth visit to Panama, I wished we weren't arriving at night. I found it unnerving on my first visit to bed down in an unfamiliar place without getting a good look at it first. But my children didn't seem fazed. We were greeted by Jackie's children and Marcel's mother and some of his family members when we arrived, and after a snack, shown to our house where we'd sleep. That's "our house" in the photo above. I couldn't get a good picture of the inside because the houses are fairly dark, being made of cinder blocks and cement and with little natural lighting. Our house had been Roberto's house (Marcelo's brother), but now stood empty and was used for storage. It had electricity and a fan - a treat for us wimpy northerners - and a spicket for water out back. It was nice to have our own sleeping quarters away from the main house.

The first two days were spent at the farm, which was perfect. The kids got to know their newly adopted primos (cousins), we got to visit with Marcelo's mother Elsa and get reacquainted with his family, and Rob and I - mostly Rob - got to dust off our Spanish and try to communicate. The kids played for hours in a large dirt pile near the house while we adults toured the homestead and ate large plates of food. The Panamanians are very gracious in their hospitality. Visitors are always served food and drinks straight off. On the last night we cooked and served an American meal, and as we plated food to serve the family and the guests who came to say goodbye, Jackie would watch and say, "More... more... that's for an adult, right? More....." until our serving portions were respectfully acceptable. We didn't go hungry for a moment during the entire trip!

Jonathan was still on a hunger strike, but Brady gobbled up seconds at most meals and asked if we were going to finish our leftovers. This is quite unlike him as he doesn't eat a lot at home, and he inherited my weak stomach and often complains of upset, but the only time that happened in Panama was when he ate Americanized food... Hmmm....! Elsa was pleased that he liked their food so much. The food wasn't anything too intimidating for us. Rice at every meal, fried platanos (plantains), pollo (chicken), and bollos (ground corn boiled like tamales) are the norm, along with lentils, eggs, and homemade corn tortillas (which we sadly didn't get a chance to eat). There are cashew, coconut, mango, orange, and grapefruit trees on Elsa's finca, as well as a few other fruit trees for which I can't recall the names. My kids thought it was great to have fresh fruit at the ready, and it was fun to watch Marcelo hack open a coconut with a machete, watch Darinel scale a tree to throw down fruits, and Elsa roast cashew nuts over a fire and crack them open with rocks. (Jonathan, never before a big citrus eater, has suddenly been eating oranges by the dozen, and always cuts and eats them "Panamanian-style" now. Who knew it wasn't the orange itself, but the serving style that makes the difference!)

While at the farm, we went to a nearby river for a swim, played soccer in the yard, played billar (pool) and drank sodas in glass bottles at the tienda (store) owned by Marcel's mother, sat in hammocks and chatted with relatives, and watched the children run and play. The language barrier didn't inhibit the boys. With Ana and Madelina as translators, they managed well enough to spend days laughing together. Brady and the rest of us got a good laugh when he said he thought Joseph could understand him because when he'd ask Joseph, "Do you understand what I'm saying?" Joseph would shake his head 'no' - and Brady laughed and said, "Then how did you know the right answer to my question!?!" It became one of several running jokes that we enjoyed throughout the week.

Day three had us piling into rental cars and heading for Boquete, a lovely small touristy town near the rainforest. It was a long drive, so we broke it up with an overnight at a motel in Santiago, but it was exciting to be on the historic Pan-American Highway, 29,800 miles of road linking the Americas - the world's "longest motorable road", stretching from Fairbanks, Alaska to the far reaches of South America.

The B&B at Boquete was called Boquete Garden Inn and was just lovely. Behind our apartments - which were like permanent yurts in shape - was a river brimming with rocks, perfect for jumping. The kids spent most of the first afternoon there while we adults got settled, rested in the sun, and joined in with the younger ones. A drive through town showed Boquete to have an international population, with Peruvian, Mexican, and Italian restaurants in addition to the Panamanian fare. That first night we made a bad restaurant choice and waited over sixty minutes for our food, only to be told that two of our entrees were not available. We were in good spirits anyhow, and retired to our comfortable rooms.

The next day we were reminded of our proximity to the rainforest, for it rained in sheets for the main part of the day. So much for a hike through the rainforest. After a trip to town, we settled in with games and food and watched the rain come down. That night we ate at a pizzeria and got a little loopy - and a lot loud. We have silly pictures to show for it. We apologized to the waitstaff for our silliness - luckily we were the only ones dining at the time.

Rob's back was really acting up at this point so we found a chiropractor at a country club. When that didn't help we found a doctor who would come in to see him (it was Good Friday). The doc gave him a cortisone shot and 3 medications for pain and muscle relaxation. I had to take a picture of that, too! The entire bill was $65.

We did take a short hike into the rainforest and left Rob behind to wait. We didn't hike long and it rained on us on our way out. We kept looking for sloths - we didn't see any, but we did have some little Indian kids who live in the rainforest come and ask if we wanted their photo and then ask us for money. Jackie had come prepared with pockets of quarters.

We then took off for our next stop, Chitre - to be near the ocean. Another three hour drive with Rob's back in spasms, and we made it to our next hotel. That hotel had an entirely different flavor, what I'd call almost "Disney-esque" in a Panamanian sort of way. We spent an entire day at the ocean where the kids fell in love with the coast. During our third hour of wave-jumping, Jonathan said, "The ocean is WAY cooler than a lake!" That it is. Unfortunately, we all got burned to a crisp despite sunscreen, and Jonathan got it the worst, poor guy. He spent the next two days in a bit of a funk.

Tuckered out, with Rob in increasing discomfort, we headed back for our 3-hour drive back to the farm. Jackie and I took Rob straight into the town of Chorrera to find another doc and more pain meds, and we all felt a bit relieved to be back at the farm again. More visitors, more food, more hordes of kids in play, more attempted Spanish, and a visit from a Panamanian witch doctor to do "the secret" - chanting and tapping in a particular pattern - to fix Rob's back took up the remaining time, and other than a growing worry for Rob's condition, we were all becoming a little sad about leaving. My mom had the amazing idea to bring egg-coloring kits and the kids spent a long time doing that. They loved it, and when we made them leave so we could hide the eggs for a hunt, I am certain the adults had more fun than the kids! We paired the kids off and sent them on the prowl, and the adults laughed and laughed at their enthusiasm. I put my eggs in somewhat obvious places thinking the kids would get too frustrated if they couldn't find them. Not the others - they hid them 8 feet up in notches in trees, deep in plants, and other obscure places. The kids were diligent and they found them all!

On the last day, Brady saw a scorpion climbing the wall of 'our' house, so some adults went on the prowl to try to find it (no luck - eek). But that spurred the kids into an eager curiousity about the tarantulas and scorpions and other scary critters that lurk nearby, and next thing we know, Brady has his video camera and Joseph is pouring water down tarantula holes to try to flush one out. It didn't work (and I was wishing I didn't suddenly know just how many holes there were in a ten-square-foot area near my house!!!), so Marcelo and his brother Bebo got in on the action and succeeded in rousting one from her hole! As we all screamed (the video is hilarious) and Jackie's two girls climbed me like a tree as I lumbered off, a kid to each hip, Marcelo said, "Oh, she's just a young one." Breathe... breathe... she was big enough for me, thank you very much, no need to meet her mama. She scurried to a nearby tree and Brady caught it all on tape. Unfortunately, they had to kill her, and we felt badly about that. But when something is a danger, they don't take any chances.

Emboldened, on to the scorpion hunt again. This time, Marcelo and Bebo again helped and they found one hiding under a rock. (Again, twenty feet from 'our' house - 'out of sight, out of mind' was quickly fading as my defensive philosophy.) Marcelo even showed his party trick of removing a central nerve from the scorpion's stomach - they held it down with sticks - which disabled its defenses so it wouldn't sting. Jonathan, ever the brave soul, immediately said, "My turn to hold it!" Um, no, child. And he said, "YES, Mom, I'm going to!" Thankfully, Marcelo explained to the kids that it wasn't entirely safe, it could still sting, and since he knows how badly it hurts he wouldn't let them take any chances. (phew!) The scorpion, too, was sacrificed for our curiosity and it became chicken food.

I was happy to learn that Marcelo hates snakes and so we would not continue our "flirting with disaster" journey to include them. There are several poisonous snakes there and everyone knows someone who was bitten and died. Snakes, they do not mess around with.

That last night we served pasta and meatballs, fruit salad, steamed mixed vegetables, and rolls for dinner. (With rice, in case someone didn't like the food.) The kids got really wound up and silly and spent the evening running and playing. We got packed up and made our travel plans for home.

Jackie's family left very early as they had a different flight, and we were a bit worried about finding the airport ourselves. So several of Marcel's family members escorted us to the airport, and we were very grateful. They were a huge help as we stopped yet again for a doc visit and another injection for Rob, and when we visited a pharmacy to get something for Jonathan's oozy sunburn. They took the kids for sodas and a walk while we returned the rental car, and we had a sweet goodbye at the airport. It's such an odd thing to have an emotionally intense experience with someone and then know you may never see them again - it's a difficult thing to navigate. But the kids fell in love with the country and the people and the kids and Jonathan is already asking when he can go back. So perhaps we will all meet again.

We are super grateful to Marcelo and Jackie for inviting us to join them in Panama. If not for them, we wouldn't have these experiences - we are so happy they've included us. They were gracious travel hosts, translators, and interpretors of cultural social graces. So, THANK YOU to them.

We are super grateful to my mom, our travel companion from start to finish. She's a great travel buddy, so much help with the kids, and helped us make decisions regarding Rob's care. So, THANK YOU to mom.

And we are super grateful to Marcelo's family for taking us in and sharing their home with us!

It was a lovely experience and tempered my wistful wanderlust, at least for a while. Pictures can be viewed at - six albums worth!


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