Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Soloy: Part 1

I beg you forgive me for the late deliveries of this blog. Although it would be ideal, and fairest to you readers, to update our experiences in a timelier manner; time is the most ephemeral of things, and it is extremely difficult to keep up with it. As time vanishes, thus escape my memories of events, from the most transcendental to the most banal. We promise to keep up with our stories, if you promise to transport yourself to the time at which they happened. The line at which our experiences develop is much faster than my pen.

In a young, yet promising 2013, we found ourselves motivated as ever, but gasping for a breath of fresh air in the form of tangible results to our work. Everything we had done so far had been well intentioned, but lacked the outcome we desired. However, we hoped to steer in the right direction despite waves and currents diverting us from our course. We try to remember that obstacles, like waves, always seem most intense, imposing, and unconquerable from the trough; before confronting them. But once you reach the crest, descrying from above, you can see the sea with clarity, and the wave soon becomes part of your wake. Sailing through calm waters is for those who lack wind to power their sails. Thus, we let the challenges that arise tempt our motivation and skill, ready to witness our path from atop the wave.

Returning o dry land; in February, we traveled to Soloy for our next project.  There, the summer threatens to dry up the mightiest river or the most resilient crop, and the wind never dwindles. The gusts of wild wind, or 'breeze', as the locals call it, steal anything that isn't tied down. Sadly, despite an abundance of real wind, many members of the community do lack the aforementioned metaphorical wind. Although to a lesser extent than in Palmera. There are a number of individuals in the community who are properly organized and informed, who work hard to achieve what they want. However, apathy and abandon reign as the leading philosophy for the majority of the population, who aspire to little more than brief moments of material satisfaction without regard for long term consequences. Ironically, it doesn't land too far from the description of more 'advanced' communities in 'developed' countries.

It is really sad to witness natural beauty being ruined by pollution, unity by violence and the future by greed, ignorance or addiction. But the thing that saddens us the most is witnessing a great potential walking head down, unarmed, hidden in the shadow of these problems.
As our voyage progresses, and thus our experience and education – unlimited and insufficient and unlimitedly insufficient – I realize that there are no insurmountable problems; only unwilling people. Having said that, the most positive aspect of our trip has been the people we have encountered. It's a pity, therefore, that the answer is the same to the opposite question.
So we found ourselves in Soloy, wedged between the two landmarks that intersect Panama. Symbols of the prowess of man and nature alike, the Interamerican Highway and the Continental Divide proudly form the spine of the country. In the Western section of the Divide, growing softly from the flat lands resting at its sides, the Serranía de Tabasará is dominantly poised; an acutely eroded arch in which peaks were formed by volcanic intrusions, of which, Volcan Barú, the nation's tallest summit, oversees the slow industry developing around its fertile soil. Its skirts, abounding with meandering creeks, commanding rivers, and a nuanced spectacle of shades of evergreen jungle full of intricate vines and exotic animals, have long shared their secrets and protective mantle with the Ngäbe Indians.

Today, like so many other indigenous populations throughout the world, the Ngäbes fight an everyday battle against the overflowing currents of modernity and the industrial exploitation of natural resources. As fortune has it, the Ngäbes are settled on the nation's richest soil, a magnet for foreign mining and energy companies as well as government leaders of questionable principles.
Soloy is one of the main towns in the Comarca; not much more than a strip of pavement with houses lined up at its edges, like buttons on a shirt. Located at the end of the main road plunging from the Interamerican Highway into the Comarca, Soloy provides a meeting point for merchants, artisans and farmers. The center of town, which has two multipurpose stores and a restaurant is also a transfer point for the transportation system, as the public bus stops there and taxis, cars and horses transit the area taking people – and food – to and from communities inaccessible by bus.

We lived in a particular section of Soloy called Boca Miel, about 2 km away from the center of town, where the pavement ends and dirt paths ramify in every direction. The Ngäbe Buglé Comarca is divided into seven districts. Soloy is one of eight corregimientos (a country subdivision for administrative purposes; in other, simpler words, a town) in the District of Besikö, located in the south-west of the Comarca. The Comarca is populated by the Guaymi Indians, and receives its name after its two linguistic subgroups, the Ngäbe, and the Buglé, whose languages are mutually unintelligible. Most of the adults speak their native language regularly, as well as Spanish, albeit rather limited in some cases. However, the youth pose a cause for concern, for many do not know more than a few basic Ngäbere words. Worryingly, their Spanish is often a carnage of the already mutilated Spanish spoken by their elders.

The comarca hosts approximately 160,000 people in an area of roughly 7,000 km2. Soloy is home to some 1,500 people, most of which live in terrains with a few structures ranging from huts to concrete houses and about half a hectare of arable land. The houses vary in form and material, with concrete, zinc, bamboo and other timber used interchangeably. Zinc roofs, often deemed in Western society as a sign of underdeveloped neighborhoods, were proliferated in the Comarca as a substitute for traditional palm roofs.

More durable, stable and expensive, zinc became a luxury item when it was first introduced a couple of decades ago. An irrevocable trait of human nature, envy, soon converted this developing world architectural icon into a must-have throughout Soloy and other neighboring towns.

Although most households have stable concrete structures where the family sleeps and stores their valuables, many still have traditional "ranchos" in their properties, under which they have hammocks and usually sleep there on warm summer nights. Since there are only two seasons in Soloy - dry and rainy – the hammocks out in the open air are still the preferential sleeping arrangement for the majority, especially nostalgic adults who see their childhood lifestyle quickly fading away.
There are two sections of the town which are distinct from all the others. The center of town, and Barriada 2000. The latter is an infamous aglomeration of huts, people and trash which constantly emanates a profane smell of burnt plastic. An accelerated image of the development of the area, the Barriada was created in response to the establishment of the new school in Soloy at the turn of the century. As the news of the educational center reached the more remote, isolated villages of the Comarca, an influx of families arrived in Soloy.

Ready to sacrifice whatever commodities they had at their permanent residences, they built temporary huts in a space provided by the municipality so they could live during the school year. However, temporary plans gave way to permanent relocation, and soon, an entire hillside, once washed by a crystaline creek, fertile and brimful with handsomely robust mango and orange trees, became a ghetto where somber shacks are separated by still streams of black, garbage infested mud, and dirt paths occupied by curious, energetic children weary of an insipid, mundane life confined to poverty.

Mocked and degraded by their neighbors and forgotten by local politicians, the Barriada 2000 is obviously a source of shame, and to some extent, disgust to the rest of the community. Unresourceful and abandoned, the people who dwell there have little to do in the face of the structural disaster in which they live. Initiatives have been proposed and outside organizations have declared their intention to improve their conditions, – beginning with latrines – but sadly, the rythm of affairs, already slow in this section of the world, is nearly stagnant.
In many aspects, Soloy is very different from other Indigenous Communities we have visited. The road and the proximity of the houses attract businesses and tourism, opening a large gate to the outside world. This has a noticeable effect on the people, who are distinctly less timid than in more secluded places. The first contact we made with the Ngäbes was in the bus station in David, minutes before departing to Soloy on a yellow school bus, one of many specimens sent to Panama after their retirement in the US.
There, I found a scene worthy of a commercial. Three middle-aged Ngäbe women sitting on a bench, jauntily drinking soft drinks while waiting for the bus. They were naturally dark, with long, radiant black hair flowing casually in the wind and dipping behind their shoulders, playfully appearing over the colorful tones of their traditional dresses, which covered their bodies down to their ankles. 
I couldn't resist the urge to take a photo, thinking what a glorious photograph this would have been a few decades ago, yet ready to hear a nearly inaudible "no" for an answer, or a shy affirmation which would result in them turning their faces the moment I snapped the photo, as it so often happened elsewhere. My bold request caused them to giggle like young teenagers, which prompted me to respectfully back away. However, as I turned my back, they all said "sí, por favor!" At that moment, once again deceived by the wrong idea of what we would encounter in the mountains, - this time caused by the official website of a local NGO which hadn't been altered in more than ten years - I believed I had captured a photographic jewel.

After spending one day in Soloy, I came to realize just how mundane that image was...

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

10 Simple Hitchhiking Tips

To go along with our last post, we have decided to write down a few tips for hitchhikers, which for us have become rules.

We hope this can be useful to those of you who decide to hit the road.

1. Be informed.

    What is your final destination?
    How long does it take to get there?
    Know the roads.

2. Plan your journey.

    If you don't reach your destination in one day, have a backup plan to sleep in a safe place.

3. Safety backups.

    Make sure someone knows where you are.

4. Quantity matters.

    Two is the perfect number for hitchhiking. Being alone can be a little risky, and not every car will have space for three people plus luggage.

5. Don't hitchhike at night.

6. Placement matters.

    Some believe that hitchhiking is best done in well populated areas, because more cars go by, and the amount of bystanders will somehow fend off any evil doers.
    We believe the opposite. Hitchhiking is most effective in less traveled roads. We suspect people are more willing to pick up someone if they believe that person will have a tough time finding a ride. However, if a lot of cars drive by, most will discard the thought of picking a hitchhiker up by thinking "someone else will do it."

7. Don't get in cars with tinted windows.

8. Check the car for signs.

    As soon as you get in, check for things like religious symbols, the driver's clothing, baby seats or anything that might let you know what kind of person has picked you up. Also, the initial conversation is rather revealing.

9. Keep your belongings close and accounted for.

10. Look friendly, be friendly.

   Be kind, thankful and well mannered, the people who pick you up will be more willing to pick up the next hitchhiker they see if their experience with you is enjoyable.

 Drivers are also scared of picking up strangers, so look polished and SMILE A LOT!