Nov 11, 1998

Howdi, from the U.S. Badlands, Panama!

I have been here in Panama for nearly two months, proceeded by a short language -oriented jaunt to Costa Rica. I am continuing to do my dissertation research here. This largely consists of talking to people at all levels, top to bottom, involved in conservation and community development projects in Panama. Meaning that I go from the offices in Washington, where people think up these crazy projects, all the way down to the villages in various parts of Panama where the projects are actually taking place. In the middle are the national and local governmental and non-governmental organization personnel. I split my time between visiting reforestation and agricultural projects in VERY rural parts of Panama and sitting in a million meetings with the people who are designing and executing the projects.

Let me say one thing up front. This sure is fun.


Last night I sat in the fully-windowed living room of the house in Panama City in which I am living. It had promised to be my first night alone in nearly two months in my abode, which I share with three young Panamanian men. However, in the end, I found myself with Juan Antonio, one of the

Missing Something

of its internal services, what really is Panama? It is a very important part of a group of people's ability to function as a group - having a vision of themselves as something. We Americans rally around our "American Dream" - if you work hard enough you can succeed and be happy. The French rally around their bad attitude about everyone else and a couple of bottles of good wine (all right, they also have croissants, I'll give them that). But, as one head of an NGO (non-governmental organization) recently commented to me, Panamanians really are now challenged with developing their own national identity, one which is not centered around the influence of the US, as it has been for nearly a century.

Officially, Panama has now what economist term a "service economy." This means that it is not a producer and exporter of goods or raw materials. Panama's primary national moneymakers are:

1. First, the Panama Canal. Canal Shot`

2. Next the "Zona Libre. This is the second largest trading post in the world, second to Hong Kong. This means that immense amounts of goods are shipped to Panama to be sold at a discounted bulk rate to major buyers in shipped to Panama to be sold at a discounted bulk rate to major buyers in a highly guarded walled off area of Colon. This area is called the Zona Libre, Free Zone. Colon, on the Atlantic (therefore northwest) end of the Canal, seems to have been a trading post for centuries. The French have had the most recent primary influence. It is a very poor, beautiful city populated by Blacks from the islands of the Caribbean. The secondary population appears to be Arab.

3. My favorite, offshore banking. Besides the 120 some odd international banks that are stationed in Panama City, there is a tremendous amount of money that Panama cleans. Lavanteria-R-Us. This is firmly connected to the drug money flowing from Colombia and wherever else which is connectedto the U.S. which is connected to the mega-conglomerate-hipbone connected to the global communications-legbone if you know what I mean.

Cool drawing of this

Jaun Antonio brought up Panama's history as a Central and South American trading center: its pre-Columbian history of being a crossroads for traders from central and South America, the Spanish use of Panama as a shipping point for silver and gold stolen from the Americas, the English

pirates occupation, the American influence in Panama's succession from Columbia, and the neo-colonial occupation of Panama by US military andeconomic forces in the context of the Panama Canal. What sorts of social, political and economic patterns then have emerged given the

constant crossover in Panama's history of both internally and externally generated interests?

Well, as you can imagine, the juxtapositions are striking. When I mentioned trying to access the internet to facilitate communication between Panamanian NGOs, Juan Antonio shook his head. His opinion was that with the current self-serving Panamanian political structure still firmly in place, evident in his opinion by the endlessly disappearing funds designated for public services, Panama is still at least 75 years behind the U.S. in its development on political and economic and techno-industrial level.

In response, I told Juan Antonio about my trip to the Darien region this past week. (La Palma, home of the battling "reinas," is located there.) Just the day before yesterday I had traveled the 4--6 hour trip to the Darien, mostly on a hardened wide dirt road. I was visiting Proninos del Darien, one of the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) with whom I am working. While staying at Proninos' argroecological demonstration farm, I visited a number of their ancillary farms being cultivated by individual "colonos" and indigenous families along the central road and the connecting river ways.

Map of Panama showing migration

The term "Colono" refers to the group of people who came originally from the western Panamanian provinces of Veragua and Azuero principally. They have been migrating east across the country. The primary reason for the "colonos" (meztizos of Indian and Spanish blood) migration is their slash and burn agricultural techniques. Forest actually grows in soil with very short-term productive capacity once the trees have been extracted. So these Colonos slash, meaning cut down the forest vegetation and then burn it. The burning adds nutrients to the soil. They use the land for somewhere between one to three years, and then must move on to a new area. They repeat this process of slash and burn over and over. This has resulted in massive deforestation of previously thick tropical forest. These colonos have continued to move east through Panama all the way into the Darien, (which borders Colombia).

This migration occurred, in part, due to Panamanian president Omar Torrejos' social and economic plan in the 1960's and '70s. This planwas meant to build infrastructure in the country. Basically he offered many social incentives to the Colonos who had already deforested nearly the entire Western section of Panama to continue moving eastward, cutting, burning the forest as they went. Therefore the Panama Canal watershed and large parts of the Darien have been deforested by these slash and burn agriculturists, replacing forest with cows.

Oddly enough, there was a somewhat socialist side to it, as Torrijos was trying to bring the poorer, rural populations up to speed with the building of schools and health centers in eastern Panama. He built a dam to the east of Panama City in an area called Bayano. [Nancy Postero has done a really cool radio program on this Bayano Dam project for National Public Radio ({NPR}.] Another element of this new infrastructure also was Torrijos's decision to extend the Pan-American Highway.

(Torrijos replaced the previous president Arnulfo Arias who was a firmly entrenched socialist. Torrijos, with the backing of the US, held a political coup and toppled the democratically elected president. But then that bad bad boy Torrijos held hands with both the US and Cuba at the same time. Ruht-roh. Again with U.S. backing, Torrijos was laterblown to bits in the sky over Panama by the infamous Noriega, the right-hand man to Torrijos. Some say.)

This Pan-American Highway reaches all the way from Alaska to the tip of Venezuela. In all of these many miles of highway, there is only one real break (at least before the recent devastations in Hondurus and Nicaragua). At the time of Torrijos, this break stretched from just before Bayano east to the border of Columbia and then another 30 miles into Columbia. Although pavement ends at one side of the bridge crossing the Bayano Lake, Torrijos was responsible for extending the all the way down to Yaviza, in the Darien. Torrijos believed that for economic and social development it was important to populate all parts of the country. So, although there were already Kuna, Embera and Wounan populations living more or less hunter -gatherer lifestyles all throughout this region, he cut a swath down the center of the heavily forested Darien region. This road and corresponding governmental assurances of various public services if towns were made along the road led to an influx of Colono agriculturists and cattle ranchers as well as a continually increasing deforestation along the road. This also brought a major change for the Embera themselves.

Up to this point, the Embera lived in this area of Panama having come up from the Chocoe region of Columbia. They were not very village prone, preferring to live in very scattered individual households. Often your distant neighbors were also your family. However, with this social reformation Torrijos was promising to build schools and provide with local access to healthcare to those Embera that moved into groups along the road and major rivers. So, 35 years later even though now many Embera do live in towns of some size, older social habits of household autonomy are still the practical norm.


It is the Embera with whom I am primarily working on a community project level. This is not because they were indigenous. Rather, it is because when I first visited various projects here, the Colonos all live in areas already deforested. This is in stark comparison with the Embera who nearly always live in or very close to forested areas. I much preferred to have my trips out of Panama City into the campo be to areas where I could be in the forest. It just seemed less disturbing to me, and that counts for something at this point in my life.

So, as I was saying before I interrupted myself several times, I was telling Juan Antonio about my trip to the Darien, all in context of technology (internet) in Panama. After driving for nearly two hours along muddy dirt roads lined by largely broken forest and teak farms, we parked my big ‘ole Landcruiser at the home of an Embera family living by the river. We then headed several more hours up river in a cayuco, (similar to a piragua, but bigger I think).

The Embera (the same indigenous group as those living in Playa Muerto in my past story of the eclipse) live all along the villages here, having their own designated geographical and political area, called a Comarca. Inside this Comarca, they are the rulers of the Universe.

Immediately as I climbed the hill from the river to the beginning of this Embera village of Tortuega, I noticed a group of men with large guns dressed in military camaflouge.

You may remember from the last letter from Panama that there are on-going conflicts in this region with both the Colombian guerrillas from the left-wing FARC, as well as their national counterpart, the government-supported paramilitaries. Panamanian police force in this area has grown from a lightly armed six-man team to over 3,000 well-armed policeman. I have heard that theonly way to tell the difference between the Panamanian police and the Colombians of either political bent is by the particular characteristics of their guns. U.S. M-16s lay distinction to the Panamanians while Russian AK-47s discern the Colombians. Whether this dicho (saying) is true or not is inconsequential given that when faced this group of young men in Tortuega, believe me, I couldn't remember for which gun the curved gun handle was representative and to which side that gun belonged.

Fortunately this group turned out to be Panamanian police sent to live here over the last three months to protect the village from whatever evils lurk in the heart of Colombian men. These young policemen (not soldiers, because Panama is not allowed a military force, under U.S. stipulation) collected information from each of us. From me, they took my name and California driver's license, which I couldn't imagine would get them too far in any later attempt to track me down given they couldn't identify the document.

Just past their temporary police post milled a large group for Embera children and adults, mixed with several black Darienese. And in the midst of everyone, on top of this elevated square slab of concrete, stooda brand new, very shiny blue and white Cable and Wireless phone booth. There were wall-less houses on stilts in the background; chicken scattered everywhere below on the ground. I admit to being stunned.

Apparently all the black men represented the Cable and Wireless team (English company recently gaining the contract to provatize the phone system) sent to finish the installation of the phone. They were fumbling with the actual phone, something apparently amiss. Just around the corner stood a table of at least 14 solar panels. Next to it stood a very tall radio tower. The sign read, in English, "Extremely dangerous. Can cause death by electrocution."


I played a short round of deflated basketball with children from 4 to 10, then meandered up to their school with the two men from Proninos del Darien and Edgardo, the University of Panama biology student who worked as my assistant on this trip.

(Proninos originally began out of a concern that the Catholic archbishop of Panama had about the poor nutrition level rural kids. So he started an NGO (non-governmental organization) in the Darien to develop school kitchens. This led to educational programs for the mothers in nutrition. Then the people at Proninos realized that they had to help people with the food production itself. The poor nutrition of the kids was directly connected to the local agricultural practices. Colonos used chemicals to extend the life of the poor soil. The Embera had only been doing sedentary farming for 35 years or so. Whatever little agriculture they practiced, it had negligible impact on the forest. But they really did not know very much about deliberate vegetable, fruit and hardwood cultivation. So, Proninos started very practical organic farm to demonstrate how to work previously tropically forested land with out the use of chemicals.


They work with the colonos and Embera using a credit system. The farm lends people seeds and animals to start new crops and the raising of animals. The people set up a payback schedule to the farm in which the people either replace the seed or animals to the farm or pay cash for the value of what was leant to them. )




We made a visit to the school to talk to the principle of the school. We sat one of their three classrooms used by all the children 5-17. The "kinders" (preschool) used this particular room. The cement floor had never been finished so it remained unleveled, the lower part still dirt. The wall was crumbling. The wild animals depicted in one of their two hand drawn posters were elephants and giraffes, which, one might note, live on an entirely different continents. All local mammal representatives were absent. Oddly enough, the sign placed by Toro (current Panamanian President Balladares) standing just outside the school told me that the school had been built only one and a half years ago and they had spent $27,000 for this small building of cement blocks and partial floors.


After taking photographs of the Embera farm with plants seeded with seeds borrowed from Proninos and animals also borrowed to begin a self-sufficient farm system, Jaime and I walked past two pairs of policemen towards the cayuco. Jaime is the quiet and extremely perceptive local director of Proninos. I asked him about the water filtering system for the town. "They might have a small filter in their water tank as water enters. Mostly, they use 'cloro' (clorox)," he answered me. I remembered when we first arrived seeing a small girl drinking water from the river while her mother was washing clothes with soap and Clorox next to her. "How is it," I asked, " that a town that does not yet haveaccess to a decent school, and doesn't have clean water to drink, consequently having immense problems with parasites and worms, has a $75,000 radio tower, solar panel and a phone booth? Who will they call? A doctor?"

I have to think that this doesn't say much for the way in which Panama is madly selling away its many industrial and technological opportunities in efforts to privatize. The English-based Cable and Wireless is willing to invest an immense amount of money into a functioning communication system that reaches to every inhabited corner of Panama while the national government sidetracks the bulk of money designated for social services to finance their own personal ventures? And what are these companies really thinking since they are not accompanying this technological advancement that promises to gain them $millions$ (or is it billions nowadays?) with other services so apparently needed in these areas? Again I am reminded that capitalism takes such particular forms in each nation given its very own particular history.

Juan Antonio, the young man visiting me last night, kept asking me, "Why doesn't anyone outside of Panama hear about what is going on in this country?" As is the case with most of the young Panamanian elite, JuanAntonio went to an American college, in his case to study Latin American history. (Why someone from Panama would go to the U.S. to study his own Latin American country history is a little confusing.) "When I was in the U.S., the paper was full of news about Nicaragua, about El Salvador, Mexico. But no one was reading about was going on here."

I wonder this same thing myself. Why is it that in the U.S. no one knows anything about the constant political struggles of Panama? Perhaps the fault comes from the fact that these events just aren't happening inside the one-time "Zone" (of the Panama Canal). A recent article in an U.S. magazine on the future of the Panama Canal was entitled, "The Twilight Zone:" Now that it is not our (U.S.) zone, for North Americans it has reverted to something alien once again.

In any case, with the speed at which communication technology is rooting throughout even remote areas of the world, Panama is certainly not trailing the U.S. by 75 years. Juan Antonio left after being called away by his girlfriend on his "chololar" (slang for cellular phone, one of which every good ye-ye is in possession). I immediately ran for my room. I had just spent the afternoon walking the infamous Avenida Central looking for yet more beautiful material and Christmas lights. On a Saturday afternoon, this huge road closed to traffic is lined with huge stores full of plastics, clothes, and all sorts of germane items as well as chock full of multiple Latin American loud and pushy counterparts to the K-Mart shopper. I wanted to buy the lights to drape inside the broken glass bottle embedded in the top of the wall that makes the enclosure from the street for the area outside my room.

In this house, I think of myself as the gringa living in the little room downstairs. Or, as they like to say, the gringa living under the stairs (hail to Wes Craven). This room, with a nearly outdoor laundry area outside the door, was certainly meant for tools, or a maid, at best. The night I arrived here, most everyone (meaning that although I live with three guys officially, I believe that there are hordes of primarily young men that consider this their true location of rest) was surfing. Inaki, one of the official residents here, came out to my car to greet me. Angie, George's (my primary contact here,) girlfriend helped me unpack my car and carry everything to my room. I opened the door to my new bedroom to find many of the possessions of the last resident were still there. The bed half-made. The white walls heavily-marked. The blue pile carpet (pile carpet in the tropics?) was obviously a favorite relieving area for the three dogs. Home sweet home. Meanwhile upstairs, Inaki and Angie had the "rummies" (rum and coke) flowing. (Recently when Inaki saw a poetry book by Rumi, he was serious when he gleefully exclaimed, "Finally a whole book on Rummie!")


With the t.v. on, Inaki and Angie were telling story after story about no se que, but certainly as loudly as any two humans should need to speak to one another at close range. Finally the throngs returned home from surfing and the entire upstairs was brimming with carnivorous acts and

liquid-induced descriptions of waves. And thus I had my first introduction to a typical night in my house in Panama.

Actually, the room and outside area gave me just the right excuse to do what I seem to do best upon encountering a whole new situation. Decorate. Removing the evil UNBELIEVABLY SMELLY carpet was the first act. This served to free a cool (temp) mustard-colored tile floor below. I then painted the walls crazy colors I have never dared at home, bright yellows and dark blue trim. Curtains of elegant orange, red, yellow, blue Mexican designs. Christmas lights and a straw rug. When this area began to be a secondary hangout to the upstairs furor, I found a spool across the street and rolled it up the tiled stairs into my outside corner, accompanied by plastic chairs found in the varying heaps of hopeless "vinas" (stuff) found here and there around our house. (In this way we greatly assist the resident rat population with their housing needs.). With plants stolen from hikes over the last few weekends in various terrain around Panama, and others found in one of the million cottage industry plant stands found lining every street outside of Panama City, I now have a nice candle-lit, plant-filled area to hang out in. I sit here in the morning, reading reports of whatever organization I am visiting on any given day, watching the sunlight cross over every plant, leaf by leaf.

My other glorious discovery is the speed at which plants grow. These plants are the first living things I see each day. Learning how to tend to plants in this climate has been like Alice in Wonderland. For instance just two days ago, I planted some (potentially) "cosmos" seeds. They were seeds that I picked up on our tour of the Proninos Farm the morning we returned to Panama City: various kinds of beans, the pseudo cosmos bush and some mystery seeds. Already this morning there is one seedling that is nearly two inches out of the ground. Here, things are just begging to grow and can survive in brutal conditions of extreme heat and overwhelming downpours. (The rats' appetites, however, are having a deleterious effect.) We have just eaten our first basil that I planted the first week here. Now bordering both wall and railing sides of the porch which nearly circles the upstairs of our house (which is the main living space) are 2' tomatoes, melons, zucchinis, basil, peppers, beans, marigolds, cilantro, bleeding heart vines, hibiscus, aloe, bougainvillea, and other unidentifiable vegetable matter. If you can believe it, I even have a rose. One of the dogs chewed it off nearly at the base and within a week there were three vigorous new shoots.

There are the opposing forces, however. I bought a gardenia bush for a pittance and brought it home. When I went to sleep, it was just putting out it's first white, intoxicating bud. By the next morning, there was not one leaf left on the entire plant, even though stationed just outside my bedroom door. Leaf-cutter ants had just had a hankering for this blushing bush and carried it away piece by piece to feed some crazy mold that they farm down below the earth.

I have the fortunate luck that the men with whom I live as well as their myriad friends have been kind enough to act as if I have always been hanging around here. Panamanians have the overall quality of being some of the warmest people I have yet met, and this group is the highbred version of this ingratiating temperament. Within 24 hours of my arrival in Panama (before the painting frenzy began), I was out in the ocean getting my buns burned with two of my housemates, trying with all my knee-recovering gimpiness to get up on a surfboard over the crest of a wave.

Just before I went to the Darien in eastern Panama, five of us went backpacking into the Guaymi indigenous Comarca to camp by the largest waterfall in Panama. This Comarca is located in Chiriqui, one of the most western provinces of Panama. It is a very mountainous area and

driving into the area is definitely a trip to be taken. In tradition with the customs of the surfing and rabble-rousing sorts, we left for Chiriqui (easily a four - six hour drive from Panama City across the Pan-American Highway) at 7:30 on Friday night.

Our plans for an earlier departure were foiled by the sudden addition of a last minute camper. It is part of the process that every weekend jaunt starts with a discussion among many about the plans for the following weekend. Always there is much thrashing about, changes in destinations, in who is going and who not, cars, equipment. Bringing other women on any physically oriented endeavor is never considered. More civilized trips to El Valle for a weekend of surfing and hiking is accomplished by leaving all the chicks at the house and heading off all day to climb hills over the valley or drive up and down the Pan-American trying to find the waves.

By the time of any actual weekend departure, the trip is nearly always an extreme variation on the original scheme. Cars of those who have suddenly decided to go always sit abandoned on the street in front of the house during the weekend. These vehicles serve as a roll call for those who actually made it into a car as the rest tear off in 4 wheel drive vehicles topped with surfboards, full of multiple coolers of beer and top-ramen noodles, coordinating every stopping point along the way from car to car on their chololars. Those who cannot go stay behind moaning and groaning Friday and Saturday nights when they stop by the house to "choup" (drink and yell stories at one another).

Last weekend, it was Daniel who joined us as we packed the landcruiser. Finally, listening to our plans, he couldn't stand it and jumped out of one of the big teak arm chairs in the living room surrounding a huge cross section of a 4' round tree. "That's it, I'm going." He called his wife and worked it out (he is one of two or three of this group who are actually married) and ran off to collect his own share of top ramen and spam from his house. By 8pm we were on our way to travel the Pan-American Highway, the one large road that could take us a great distance across the country of Panama.

At 1:30 or 2 in the morning we found the end of the roadway which had led us up into the heart of the Guaymi Comarca. ("Guyami" is a general name for another indigenous group here, the Nogle-Bugle.) In front of us lay a huge, wide river. Over it hung a long and thin metal footbridge withhigh wire sides crossing over to the other side. Our two dogs ran wild, finally freed from the car into this beautiful slice of the wide wide world. Two of the four guys I was adventuring with hung hammocks and I opened up my tent (happily after seeing a typically ugly tarantula on the ground nearby). The other two lay out on the seats of one of the vehicles and thus we all fell asleep.

In the morning we found that we were actually in the front yard of a Guaymi household. They said nothing at all to us. I tried to talk to the kids, waved hello to the mother sitting and staring at every move we made, packing back into the 2 massive vehicles. We began our hike into these deforested but beautiful hills. As we hiked from there up the various footpaths with a guide we found along the way, we met many Guaymi. After a few initial pleasantries each and every one asked us the same question. "What is you mission here." They always assumed that the four Panamanians I hiked with were Americans. Because they were with a gringa. American as the default nationality. "What is your mission?" Apparently they have their fair share of bad experiences with mining companies taking down whole mountains inside their Comarca. Although I am fuzzy on the facts, what was clearly evident was their extreme concern about strangers coming into their backyards. Fear of being robed.

On we went, finally arriving into the area and being instructed, as is customary, to first go to visit the man in charge.

But, we still had to find the actual waterfalls that we had come to visit. One of these fellows had read in a magazine that close-by to where we stood fell the largest waterfall in Panama. This is the whole reason we had arrived here in the Western Chiriqui Province of Panama.

Missing something here.

With our guide, we descended an extremely steep forested incline. (Our guide, hear to visit his family, carried a live chicken which we had just purchased as an act of good faith from the owner of the land on which we now treaded.) As we slipped and stumbled downward, we could hear the force of rushing water more and more strongly. All the men in sliding in front of me suddenly stopped. In front of us tumbled over a huge cliff a tremendous show of rushing water. We estimated that it was thirty stories high and at least several hundred folktales wide. The spray itself stopped us in our tracks. We each sat down and watched the space in front of us full of the force of this tremendous falls.

Finding nothing close to level ground on which to make our camp, we bush-wacked back up the hill and down into another area of forest further down river. Here, with a machete we cut down an area of brush and set up camp. By that time it was late afternoon and we had packed four or five hours up a mountain into the center of the whole mountainous geographicalarea. Already it was four o'clock and, as the sun sets here at 6:15 pm more or less year round, we were anxious to get down to the river below the falls while there was light remained. Already it was late on Saturday and tomorrow we would hike back out again so as to be home in Panama by Sunday night.

The river was very cold and taking pictures of everyone swimming in this glorious pool surrounded by forest-covered cliffs, the dogs bobbing up and down in the river in front of us, was painful. We decided to climb up the huge rocks along side the river to see how close we could get to the crashing falls. For each set of rocks that we climbed, sliding and swimming across, there was an equally stunning pool of water. Finally Fernando (another housemate) and his dog Freaky could not cross a section where the river split into two slopes of water which then crashed through a cascading maze of enormous rocks. Fernando and Freaky went back as Inaki and Daniel went forward. Somehow, while everyone was moving in their own direction, I was lost between the two, caught in a current in the middle of the river crossing. I was unable either to go forward to the next climb of rocks or to cross back to where I had just come from. The problem was that if I got caught in the current attempting to go either forward or back, I would wash into a cascading set of rocks. Hmmm. Finally, really scared of what might happen, I pushed forward off the tiny rock on which I was balanced in the middle of a pushy river, and gripped and scraped my fingers on the moss-ridden rocks of the other side.

Once actually standing on the rock, my legs shaking, I thought, "Chulo."

There was a very tiny area of trees and moss wedged between the river boulders and the face of the hill by the side of the falls. Here I stumbled to the next level up the river where Inaki and Daniel had disappeared. Suddenly a brown snake appeared before me on the ground. I paused and looked and there was just nothing there. I stopped and took a breath. Special Elizabeth Dougherty snake warning. Just as I was coming to the next line of boulders, I saw a fracture of light along the water drenched rock slope at my right. Down in front of me dropped, in coiled position, its mouth opened to strike, a truly stunning snake, brown with bright yellow x's across its back. Oh me. A fer-de-lance, here called an Xes (for its patterns). Unfortunately, an effectively deadly snake. As if watching some one else's feet move further than 8" away from this decorated serpent, I traveled through time away from this concrete repetition of a vision of venom. There it stayed, brilliantly coiled while I crossed back behind me to the whirlpool of death I had just barely forced my way across.

Count your blessings, count them one by one.

So, I am not bored. I remember praying to God when I was 18 saying that I would devote years to him if he would just relieve me of boredom. We both did our part of the deal and I think I may have gotten the better end of the stick.


January 31, 1999

Now that it is actually two months after I actually wrote this letter I'd like to tell you about the Christmas and New Year's trip I took to Cuba with Jeffrey, but God knows you've already read plenty. I have photo albums full of pictures which prove that I have had my body painted with beautiful designs by an enduring nut dye, have danced half naked with woman adorned with Colombian coins and red hibiscus, have slept on the ground amongst the chickens and watched a 60 year old woman talk on the phone for the first time in her life. Overall, one of the finest experiences of my life. The pictures that I fault are those showing my fall into an Embera family’s "servicio" (pit of urine and excrement) or a picture of the moment that I realized that a Embera woman staying at my house in Panama City had served me watermellon in the dog’s bowl, having no idea that such a thing as a dog bowl existed and thinking this, in comparison to her cookery, a mighty fine dish.

I am heading home on March 1, 1999 to begin the "writing of the dissertation" phase of my life. And to get back to the handsome italian-french fellow at home, the apparently better-than-ever dogs, dinner parties in front of the fireplace, fresh bread and local phone calls to those I love.

Here, I still have one more carnival to get through. Wonder which Reina will win this year?


Thinking of you,