First "academic" day in Panama

Trip Start Sep 02, 2007
Trip End Dec 25, 2007

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Flag of Panama  ,
Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Hola! Estoy en Panama! Escucha - éste es un muy bien tiempo.
Our first eventful experience of the morning had nothing to do with academics or arts or even culture. Simply getting off the ship and into the port was an adventure in itself. It took a long time for everyone to get assembled and still longer for them to get us organized to actually leave the ship. The tendering ship was rocking in the waves that crashed against the boat, and every so often banged into the gangway, making the whole thing shake as if it would come right off the ship and into the ocean. We had to walk one at a time down the gangway (which was beginning to feel more like a plank) and there were officers and crew members stationed all along the sides to help us down onto the platform. Then we had to jump, literally, from the platform onto the pitching boat. It sort of felt like being tossed. Nobody tosses a dwarf! I cannot jump the distance you'll have to toss me. But don't tell the elf? Not a word.

The little boat continued to rock and pitch all the way to the dock, and it was terribly hot and I was dripping with sweat before we even got to shore in Panama. When we finally did, we found we were tied right behind a boat called the WAHOO XX. Talk about irony. Wahoo is right. Geez. We got some pictures from the dock which was pretty cool because it was one of our first chances to take pictures of our boat from off of it and actually get the whole boat in the picture. Then just like that we were in a van and on our way to Guararé. Our guide for the week was there with us and introduced herself. Her name is Ivy and she's a resident of Guararé and knows all the people there and has helped plan our week. It already felt like she was more like someone to hang out with who knew her way around than a guide. Our driver, Eric, would also be with us throughout the week. It was a long drive but we made good use of it sleeping. Ivy took us to a couple of different places to buy snacks and use the restrooms and even buy souvenirs, although none of us were keen for that until after we'd had some experiences we would want to commemorate with particular purchases.

We had a mini Spanish lesson from Gabriel and Elizabeth, our professor leader, and it was stuff I already knew but good to put it to use with some people I knew before I'd have to use it for real. You know, how are you, what's your name, how old are you, stuff like that. I found it harder to use the words than to know them; I know a lot more words than I'm comfortable using and I'm not sure why. It's not as simple as just not wanting to be wrong, I don't think. Usually I'm pretty sure of what I need to say and just don't say it. I sort of feel like I'm stepping into someone else's world by speaking their language, a world that I can't be sure if I have any business being in at all. I feel even more like an imposter speaking bad Spanish than I do not speaking any at all. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if I knew more Spanish and could actually have a sustained conversation. At the same time, I don't know where these feelings come from, because every time I use Spanish in these places and with people speak less English than I speak Spanish people are appreciative and excited and will even offer some words I don't know. Perhaps it's simply a comfort level thing and it will go away as I get more comfortable with myself in these situations. I will, however, admit the relief it will be to get to New Zealand and into a country that speaks the same language that I do. I can't imagine being on this ship as a non-native English speaker, especially for some of these students whose English is not yet entirely fluent. Some of these articles we're reading are even over my head; I can't imagine not knowing the intricacies of the language they're written in.

Anyway when we got to Guararé there were more people waiting: Bonnie, the Peace Core coordinator who had also coordinated our trip, Kymber, a Peace Core volunteer who was going to be hanging out with us, some professors and some other international students, and even the Mayor. I don't know whether he was there specifically to meet us or not, but meet us he did, shaking each of our hands in his baseball cap and T-shirt. They served us lunch, which was wonderful and even better after a long morning in the car, and then David, one of the professors, and Rigo, a community member and artist, both gave welcome speeches and some introduction to the community we'd be living in for the next few days. Gabriel translated for them, and then for us as we each introduced ourselves. Although I knew the words to introduce myself in Spanish, I still couldn't quite bring myself to do it.

After the intros we all piled back into the van and headed out to the museum in La Enea. We had a tour of the place of course, and that was also our introduction to the polleras (traditional women's costume) and the máscadas diablícos that we would be seeing so much more of over the next few days. I remember a distinct feeling of desire to help, and the need to give something back to this museum. It was beautiful in a kind of simple and plain way and held so much history of what at the time we could only guess how much significance. We also met with the President of El Festival de la Mejorana, Tuca, who, through Gabriel and Elizabeth, gave us the run-down on the festival: what it's about, what it involves, how they pull it off. She showed us lots of pictures and even showed us the mejorana she kept in her office - a very old instrument a little like a guitar. The festival has competitions in playing the mejorana as well as the accordion, singing, reciting poetry, and dancing. I'm definitely planning on coming back for it in the future. An awesome little town with an awesome folkloric festival... where have I heard of something like that before?

Next we drove to El Puerto, where the houses were that we were going to stay in. Turns out we weren't staying in home stays at all, but in beach houses, essentially the second homes of these families. They were clean and beautiful, and nice houses altogether. We had to be careful about the toilets because the plumbing wasn't very good, and taking a shower was every bit like taking a shower in a hose - cold water and no showerhead - but they had clean beds and clean sheets and four walls and a roof which was more than enough for me. I would have been happy with hammocks!

Vanessa and Gabriel and I had one house, our photographer stayed alone in another, simply because we felt we needed to use the houses that had been provided for us when they thought there would be twice the numbers, and the other girls all stayed with Bonnie. I sort of feel like they should have stayed in the other houses, too, since Bonnie barely had enough beds and there were spares everywhere in the other two houses. My excuse was that Bonnie has a dog, and I didn't want to risk that with my allergies, even though it would have been spectacular to wake up right on the Pacific Ocean. Our houses were a block away from the beach and Bonnie's was right on the beach, so we spent a lot of time over there. I think that was the temptation for everybody else too.

We had some time before dinner and went down to the beach to hang out for a while. I took pictures of a spectacular sunset and the pelicans and boats and also of the messages everyone else was writing in the sand while I was taking pictures. I took pictures for Vanessa and Gabriel to send to their families and never managed to write a message to mine (sorry guys!) and we wrote our names and TSS and drew pictures and took goofy shots of ourselves with them. Then we started just taking random pictures of each other and of ourselves and discovered the shutter delay function on my camera and got me in the pictures as well. It wasn't long before we were shooting Spice Girls covers (with Gabriel there I'm surprised we didn't get to it sooner) and taking silly pictures of things like the boyband walk and the Beatles walk and poses the Spice Girls used in their pictures and dances. I took way too many pictures. Way.

We went to dinner at a restaurant down the road and the food was fantastic. And I ate mussels! The restaurant is called Sirena del Mar. I was really excited to learn that we'd be eating there a lot. The view was spectacular as well, and we took a lot of pictures just in the courtyard and near the fountains that they had there overlooking the beach. I bet that was a pretty darn good place to watch the sunrise from too. I took pictures of my dinner (that would become a habit) just because it was so simply pretty. No five-star restaurant, for all their study in aesthetic presentation, can make a plate of food look so pretty as something simple and real like this was. During dinner the dancers who would perform later were coming in and out and I was starting to get really excited. At one point one of the people in charge came over to talk to Bonnie about the program and guess what they were doing? You won't guess. Dancing, and singing, and showing us their costumes, and a mimic comedy skit. Yep no joke. And you thought I was excited before. Ha!

We all introduced ourselves, this time in Spanish and without an interpreter, and I said I was into theatre and music and dancing and mime and saw a couple of people's faces change a little with the recognition. We learned all of their names - 'learned' could be too firm a word since I didn't manage to remember any - as well and then they got right down to the dancing.First they showed us the traditional Devil Mask Dance. Two young boys were dressed in costumes and wearing the special masks of devils and dragons and danced in circles around each other and separately, using the sounds of their cutaras (sandals) and castanets to accent the music that was playing on the boombox. I got a video of them, too, hopefully I'll be able to get it to load if I can find a faster connection somewhere in the city.

The polleras were beautiful, and the women had these amazing beaded flowers in their hair that I still cannot remember the name of. Everything was perfectly matching and correlated with everything else, everything from the beaded flowers to the embroidery to the shoes to the gold necklaces. This was evidently very important because as they introduced each woman they made sure to point all this out on each costume. It was a very thorough introduction to what would prove a very very VERY thorough lesson on traditional women's dress. Their dances were simple, lots of back-and-forth and stepping in circles as a group. It was quite a bit like other folk dances I've experienced and in its own right was quite beautiful. The singing went right along with the dancing and consisted of fairly simple phrases ("Se vide Panama", for example) repeated over and over just enough times for us to figure them out and sing along. It didn't take long for some of us to get up there and dance with them, and one particularly good looking fellow asked me to dance. After the dance I asked him for a photo (in Spanish, aren't you proud?) and it's one of the only pictures I have that actually has me and another person not from TSS in it! I need to give my camera to other people more often. Gabriel kept taking off with it and taking lots and lots of pictures, but it wasn't long before I really appreciated that; this way I get pictures with me in them. He takes great pictures, and he's willing to take pictures I usually don't take, of people and activities and stuff like that, while I'm busy taking landscapes and close-ups. So it works out well that we're basically sharing my camera. :D

We danced for quite a while and then they showed us some more of their folkloric culture, like methods of agriculture and sewing the lace for the polleras. It was interesting to watch them "perform" their culture for us as part of the entertainment, and it was mostly done nonverbally with just the music of the accordion player and a kid or two with drums to accompany the mimed actions of threshing and picking and husking. Then they performed their comedy skit for us. I videoed it - I wish you could see it but it's several minutes long and it would never load - and it was hilarious! Ivy kept narrating which I thought made it even more entertaining and I have her voice on the video telling us all who is who and what's going on. She laughed really loud too. I'm glad I have that recorded; she's the best guide we've had yet.

After their skit they danced some more, and then the night seemed to be wrapping up. Gabriel was giving a bit of a thank you speech for us, as would become our habit with all of the groups, but I was starting to pick up a few words in there that I didn't think were related to thank you. I could catch just enough to know something else was going to happen and next thing I know Vanessa is gathering us all up and we're going to sing. Apparently as a sign of our thanks we were going to sing our song for them (Part of Your World, of course), but I didn't know how good a gift our singing would be. Our rendition of the song had evolved some more and now included everyone, Vanessa adding in the little instrumental effects in places, Gabriel singing in Spanish, and Heather, Sascha, and I singing in English. Heather always did the little spoken introduction at the beginning of the song - "Maybe he's right; maybe there is something the matter with me. But I just don't see how a world that makes such wonderful things could be bad." - and we roped Mariam into it for the chorus because that's the only part she knew. We sang and they cheered. I mean really cheered. And kept cheering. Soon I could tell they were calling for us to sing something else. Somehow I got nominated; I don't know how that keeps happening. It took me ten minutes to figure out a song I was comfortable singing in front of people (I sing lots of songs in the car but I don't actually know all the words and just hum over them and I didn't want to do that in public) and I ended up with Colors of the Wind. We certainly were on a Disney kick.

Of course I put the song in a key that turned out to be almost impossibly high - I hope they didn't notice when I transposed in the middle of the chorus - but I somehow made it through with notes and vocal chords intact. I think that was the biggest applause I've ever had for a solo performance, and certainly the most genuine. It didn't matter that they couldn't understand a word I was saying and it felt so good to be able to share with them in the same way they so generously shared with us. Our audience wanted us to sing even more after that, and true to form Gabriel and Heather chose a Spice Girls song. Unfortunately they didn't know it as well as they thought, and pop songs like that are hard for a group to sing because everyone handles the nuances and everything differently. The song didn't really go all that well and they eventually stopped somewhere in the middle after a somewhat clumsy chorus. Of course they still got a cheer, but after that we were done and the audience didn't cheer too loud for more music. Everybody shook hands and Gabriel gave his thank you speech and just like that we were on our way home. We couldn't stop talking about what an amazing night it had been. The stark contrast to the disaster in Portugal made the whole thing even more special; having real human interactions and making these connections to real people - isn't that what we're here to do?

I was planning to write and then go to bed; we ended up talking until 11:30 and then we had to stay up until midnight because the next day was Vanessa's birthday. Gabriel jumped on the bed with her and buried her in birthday hugs - they're an interesting pair considering Vanessa doesn't like to be touched and Gabriel is more "touchy" than I am. I gave her a hug too and then it took both of us to kick Gabriel out so we could go to bed. Personally I was falling asleep on the spot, halfway through sentences I would have to shake myself back awake.
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