Vanessa's birthday!

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

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Flag of Panama  ,
Thursday, October 4, 2007

Morning came early (6:00, in fact) and I got up for the sunrise but it was too cloudy for any pictures. I walked around on the beach for a while and got a little writing done before I had to wake Gabriel and Josh up for breakfast. Breakfast was at the same little restaurant and then we were off to work. I guess you can call it work. It's hard when it's this much fun. Gabriel thought to ask Bonnie about where we might be able to buy a cake for Vanessa's birthday and she said don't worry about it she would ask around. Sounded like a pretty good plan to us. It wasn't long before she'd found someone to make us a cake and even bring it to us to have at dinner and surprise her.

Part of our program included service projects to help give back to the community in some way - we chose to put together brochures for the museum and the festival and Kymber had a trash can making project for us to help keep the beach clean. On this first day I went with Mariam, Briana, Sascha, and Josh to work on the trash cans while the others started on a brochure. Kymber had large barrels for us to clean and paint, and while she and Eric worked on getting them opened (with a machete), we scrubbed the labels off and got to work painting. Our design was simple, just painting the word BASURA on them in big letters with some grass and clouds that sort of looked like giant blue flowers when Briana was finished with them. Not much in the way of art but it would do the trick. The important thing was keeping the beach clean. I got a chance to get to know Kymber and Bonnie a little bit and we got a lot done in plenty of time.

Lunch was at a little outdoor restaurant across the street from Bonnie's house. They had fresca - in glass bottles! - and it was sooo good. I ordered chicken and of course everything comes with rice; it was such a simple meal and so amazing! And everything was so hot, I couldn't eat it for the longest time. It was so nice just to sit there and chat and be together. Bonnie brought over the materials she'd bought for cutaras for all of us - the next day some people were going to come over and make sandals for us - and she had to make sure everyone's feet would fit so she could make sure to buy the right amount of materials. Gabriel's feet didn't fit so she had to get specially cut pieces of leather for his cutaras. It was pretty funny.

Next Bonnie had arranged for some local artists to meet with us to show us their crafts and even have some for us to buy. There were several people there, with several different things to share with us: gourd cups and bowls, embroidery and clothing, curiosidades (knickknacks), wooded chairs, drums, the fancy beaded flower things you put in your hair, and lots of odds and ends related to folk art. I ended up buying one of the beaded hair combs, in white, because I figure white goes with everything and even if I only wear it once on my wedding it was worth the 8 bucks and the thing is beautiful. It might even motivate me to do fun things with my hair now and then. I really wanted to buy a chair; they were super comfortable and I was convinced I'd finally found Dad's perfect chair. And if I hadn't the worst-case scenario would land me with the chair. Oh, darn! Bonnie knew the man who was making them and we had his contact so we decided to stop by the post office and see if it would be reasonable to ship them and then decide if we wanted to buy them. Well, it wasn't reasonable. Way too much money. Sorry, Dad, no such luck this time. We'll just have to come back.

While we were in there shopping Josh had met a boy who I think was the son of one of the artists and had clearly made a new friend. They were teaching each other tricks and cool moves and just all around showing off and luckily for me Gabriel had run off with my camera again and had recorded it all in spectacular fashion while I'd been inside agonizing over the chairs.

The rest of the afternoon was reserved for polleras - and when I say an afternoon of polleras I mean the whole afternoon. I had no idea there would be so much to talk about or so many different kinds to see! The word "pollera" became synonymous with the word "tile" after our experience in Lisbon. First we went to what we all now know as "the pollera house" where "the pollera women" live. Somehow a butterfly had found his way into the bus and I spent the first five minutes of our visit trying to figure out how to get him out without hurting him. Finally I was able to catch him, as gently as possible, and climb out of the bus with both hands engaged trying not to crush the poor thing. Once outside I opened my hands and he crawled out onto the back of my hand, but didn't fly. I walked toward the house, about 30 feet away, and still he didn't fly. And me without camera (Gabriel had it again)! I was trying to get Gabriel's attention when the butterfly finally flew away. I watching him for a moment and then turned to pay attention to the artists we had come to visit. There were several women there, all working tirelessly on different parts and aspects of their beautiful dresses. There are so many parts and so much to be done, and it was clear that they had come to specialize and work together on building each dress, combining the best of their skills rather than having do make the entire costume and master each skill by themselves. Besides the embroidery and cross stitching, there is appliqué, two different kinds of lace making, and designing the patterns, not to mention sewing the dress itself. Each pollera is entirely unique unless the design is given away by the wearer - the design belongs to the woman who the pollera itself belongs to.

We watched as each of the women showed us their part in the pollera making process and listened as Gabriel pieced together what we were able to glean from their explanations with our own marginal Spanish. The cross stitching was the most interesting part for me, perhaps because it's the only thing close to anything I've done. They use counted cross stitch, with the grid fabric on top of the actual fabric of the dress, and once the design is complete they pull out the grid fabric string by string until only the dress is left with the incredibly complex patterns stitched right on. One of the women had a grandson there, Solomon, who was a graduate student doing his dissertation on the modernization of the pollera and the incorporation of the folkloric tradition and the pollera itself into modern cultural trends. He seemed to be practicing his dissertation on our unsuspecting group but it turned into a wonderful afternoon of just sitting out on the porch with a bunch of women and Solomon, explaining everything he could about this vital piece of their culture. He even brought out some of his books and showed us the jewelry and the significance of each charm and design. He spoke slowly and used a lot of gestures and I was able to pick up most of what he was telling us. If there was something really important or especially complex Gabriel or Eli would just jump in and translate bits of it for us.

Near the end of the visit some of the women brought out things they had made that were for sale, and Vanessa found an outfit she liked that had green and pink cross-stitching on its short sleeve shirt and capris. We finally convinced her to try it on; it was too big but the woman who had made it was quick to offer to alter it for her. When she decided she would buy it Heather and Gabriel started masterminding a plan, remembering that it was Vanessa's birthday and recognizing the opportunity for a surprise. Luckily for us Vanessa doesn't understand a word of Spanish. Soon Ivy was explaining that this outfit was already sold, and that they had forgotten in the excitement of sharing it with us, but that the women would make her another one if she still wanted one. They took her measurements and promised to try to have it completed by the time we left Guararé, and just like that we were on our way.

Before we left Eli thought to ask the women if there was a piece of lace or embroidery that they couldn't use that we could take back to the library on the ship to share our experience and our knowledge with the other students. She gave us six 5-8 inch pieces of lace in various colors and configurations, pieces that they could probably use in some capacity and that took weeks or sometimes even months to make. She asked that it be her donation to TSS. In return (if you can call it that, our gift truly paled in comparison) we gave her a little "squishy ship" - a souvenir we all got from TSS when we arrived, a vaguely boat-shaped piece of foam like the stuff you find in stress balls and other foam toys. We took pictures of her and Solomon and a group picture with all of us and all of the women so that we would have something to put in the frame with the donation of the lace. She even helped us note the names of each design and its significance. It was hard to leave after everything they had shared with us not to have given them something in return. Perhaps our genuine interest was enough.

Unfortunately the fish catch was not particularly good this day the restaurant we were supposed to have dinner at had to close because they had nothing to serve. Pretty good when your food is so fresh they can't serve you if they don't catch anything. So Bonnie took us to a pizza place in Chitré, the larger town nearby La Enea and El Puerto. We were all famished by this point and I was a little worried about the cake, and when we got to the place (after several stops for ATMs and bargain shopping) I made sure to check in with Bonnie about it. They wouldn't be able to bring it all the way out to Chitré, but they would have it for us later on that night. I decided just to trust her on it; she'd done a great job for us so far.

The pizza was fantastic and we ended up having to order more after the first round because we were all still hungry. We sat there for a long time and then gathered ourselves up to go back to La Enea and more polleras. Oh yeah, there were more to see. The first person we went to see was actually the first woman who had ever sewn a pollera in Guararé. Her name was Laura. She had some of her oldest polleras on display for us - some of which were over one hundred years old and still in beautiful shape considering that. She talked to us for a long time and showed us some of her work and the polleras she had worn. Bonnie had a story for us too - you won't believe this. Bonnie was in the Peace Core as well and that's how she found Guararé in the first place a long time ago. She was friends with Laura, who had taught her to embroider. After Bonnie had returned home, she lost touch with many of the people she had known in Guararé, including Laura. She was browsing through a Lonely Planet guide one day, looking to travel back to Guararé, and found Laura's name there. Laura was mentioned in the guide and hailed as something of a celebrity in the world of the pollera, and because of that Bonnie was able to contact Laura again and sent her a copy of the listing in Lonely Planet. While we were there Laura pulled it out to show us - the same copy Bonnie had sent her so many years before. It was pretty amazing to think of the history that was in that room and in this woman and the stories she would tell if only we had a significant amount of time to spend with her.

Partway through our visit to Laura's, it became my job to keep Vanessa occupied in the room while Gabriel and Heather helped get everything orchestrated next door. I had no idea what was going on until I got in there: the cake had come, as promised, and so had the embroidered outfit from the pollera house - altered just to her size. Along with the cake and the gift had some half the town and many curious children who had come in packs at the sight of the cake and a party. There were kids of all ages there and a lot of people our age. I met Ricky, a student from Guararé, and I felt so bad that I couldn't use more Spanish but it was so late and my brain was so overloaded that I had about the thinking capacity of Vanessa's cake by that point. Isabel and Mara were there too, girls we'd met the day before at the introductions. Mara also lives in Guararé and is going to study in the US next year and Isabel is an AFS student from Germany. Soon Vanessa was cutting the cake and someone had brought juice. I watched each and every child come forward to wish Vanessa happy birthday. She asked each one's name in Spanish and even gave them hugs and a kiss on the cheek. I am so proud of that girl, I can't even tell you. Then the gifts came out and she was so surprised when she opened the gift from the pollera women that we knew we'd done a good job of keeping the secret. Mara had bought her a change purse - which it turned out she'd been looking for all day and hadn't found - with the Panama canal embroidered on it. It was a really special evening and so exciting for everybody. The whole town had come out for her birthday, and we made very short work of the cake Mara and her mother had made. It was really good cake too, for the record.

When we finally wrapped up at the birthday party, we had one more home to visit, with some more polleras. We were all exhausted but these women had also brought out their things especially for us and were expecting us so we couldn't not go. This was also an important stop because these particular polleras were in modern styles. There were distinct differences, particularly in cut and the style of design. Some of these polleras were cut off the shoulder, and the skirts were much straighter and less flowy. They didn't require the huge amounts of petticoats the others did. They were very similar in some ways and still very much polleras, but it was interesting to see how the tradition had adapted to suit modern needs and even modern fashion.

We were all so exhausted after that that we had no more energy for the dance lessons we were supposed to have had, but luckily for us the dance instructors had never come, and we were off the hook. We went right to bed. Well, almost right to bed. Actually I made a couple of phone calls first. It wasn't actually that late. It had just been such a wonderfully full day that we were exhausted. I called Mom and Dad and talked for a long time on a really cheap phone card (5 cents a minute to the US) I'd bought the day before at a little tienda in Guararé. It's really too bad I didn't have more time to call others from Panama -it's probably the cheapest calls I'm likely to get, perhaps for the rest of the trip. Then Gabriel and Vanessa and I stayed up talking for a little while longer before we finally made it to bed.
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