Saturday, June 22, 2013

Soloy: Part 2. Fire and Cocoa

When we got off the bus, well into the night, without a flashlight or cell phone coverage, we expected a long walk through the forest until we reached the home of our host family. We were supposed to meet Juan Carlos, our local contact, at the entrance of the town hall, and from there, he would take us to our new home. Having read the prospect on the website of one of the local NGOs, we expected an extremely inaccessible rural and impoverished town, where water had to be carried from the river and traditional values limited many aspects of life, from the dress-code to social interaction.
Much to our bedazzlement, when the bus dropped us off, we walked a mere 200 meters down the paved road and arrived at the house we would live in for the next few weeks. It was easy to find the house, for they were burning leaves right at the entrance, creating a massive wall of fire and smoke, through which one could spot a small entrance between the bushes aligned along the road, delimiting the property.
We walked through the smoky curtain and saw a concrete structure with light green walls, a large, single window on the facade and a slightly sloped tin roof which ended in a small overhanging "roof" made of dried banana leafs above a concrete floor. The porch was completed by a measly hammock, swinging on the two thick branches which supported the structure a few meters directly in front of a wooden door. A few trees and bushes surrounded the house, but it was hard to tell whether they had been planted there on purpose.
Timidly, allowing Juan Carlos to make the first steps, we walked through the yard towards the front door. As he shouted a greeting to "declare" our presence, I inadvertently got my neck caught on a metal wire inconveniently hanging across the yard. Its purpose was clearly to hang clothes, but during the month we spent in Soloy, my head was the only thing that came close to hanging from it. Of course, I was the only one ever bothered by it, as everyone else could carelessly walk underneath without needing to crouch.
Ignoring everything happening around me, I massaged my neck with one hand and felt the air in front of me with the other, in case of any other elevated traps. When I reached the concrete floor, a few women dressed in long, colorful traditional dresses emerged from the door followed tightly by a parade of children. Unsure as to the proper etiquette of salutation, we tamely extended our hands with broad smiles spread across our faces. With the unequivocal courtesy we had come to expect, their tame and subdued voices welcomed us to their home. It was hard to distinguish how many children there were, or the names of the five women we had just met. We were shown into our room; a humble but ample room with no furniture other than two large mattresses resting on home-made wooden structures. We sat our backpacks down and accommodated our eyes to the dark as they put two small chairs out in the porch. We sat down on the chairs as they did the same on the floor, conversing mildly as the dancing flames dimly illuminated their faces. We could sense the astonishment of the children, who would murmur and giggle amongst themselves, and the intrigued amusement of the women as we rampantly summarized who we were and what we were doing there, yet we also got the feeling that although they understood the words we were saying, they somehow didn't fully comprehend the message we sought to communicate. It was not the first time this had happened to us, and it definitely wouldn't be the last. In fact, minutes later, it happened again.
After the conversation died off, they led us through the main room of the house - one of three, counting ours - and out the back door. A large, dirt yard spread in front of us with formidable mango trees emerging from the ground and growing upwards and away to drape the sky with their leaves. Such was their immensity that the full moon, bashful in the presence of the seething fluorescence of cities, but ardent and intense in remoteness, couldn't breach the arboreal overcast.
Immersed in the darkness, against the black backdrop of the mountain, a faint fire nervously illuminated figures of all sizes and motions in its near surroundings. Some of the women, as well as a large man, laid on the hammocks and the children used logs and stumps as benches and seats. The scene, complete with a feeble fire under a large metal pot, seemed like the closest I would ever come to see one of those provisional cowboy campsites from spaghetti westerns that I have always felt drawn towards. The sight of a few people sitting around the comfort of a fire, waiting for a long overdue meal, surrounded by the fantastic darkness of nature, always seemed to me like one of the most righteous definitions of freedom.
When we stepped into the circle illuminated by the fire and were introduced to the rest of the family, the giggles, the amazement, the awkward courtesy of two vastly distant worlds coming into contact, all repeated themselves. We ate a large bowl of rice as we became acquainted with our new family and surroundings, amazed at the voracious velocity with which the children and babies devoured their plates, which were by no means smaller than ours. After washing our dishes in a gush of water emanating from a tube - part of the aqueduct system which supplies nearly every house in the area - we retired to our room to digest and reflect.

The next morning we awoke at dawn with the unmistakable pandemonium of children on vacation. As we came out of the house, the children didn't attempt to hide their skepticism, as the youngest ones hid under and behind their mothers' skirts. The older ones managed to muster timid grins, which would grow into full fledged smiles in barely a couple of days. Before we realized, the children would be agog every time they saw us, running excitedly towards us.

After a filling but forgettable breakfast consisting of an insipid boiled corn paste and over sweetened coffee, Juan Carlos appeared from behind the small bean field adjacent to the house, and took us on a walk through the town. As we meandered towards the center of town, Juancho enlightened us about the history of Soloy, the advancements of their modern history and ultimately, the challenges they face as a community. As if to highlight their challenges, when we stopped by the Mayor's office to request an appointment and present ourselves as volunteers, ready to help the town in any way we could, the secretary told us he wasn't there, and that if we wanted an appointment, we would have to come back another day. Although we persevered with our intent to meet him for the next few days, the Mayor was never present.
Nonetheless, our walk was far from futile. We visited a hostel, a Bahá'i center with facilities to house more than fifty guests, meeting rooms and a radio broadcasting station. We didn't see many signs of fervent Bahá'i - or Christian - believers, especially in church service attendance, but the town highly valued the Bahá'i center because of the radio station, which served as the news outlet for the whole area until it was struck by lightning in late November. Since then, it had become a nuisance to communicate important matters to the whole town. Luckily, word of mouth wasn't far removed from their mass communication methods, and lacking the aid of 'modern' technology wasn't a catastrophe.
Our last two stops were by far the most stirring. We visited the largest locally owned enterprise and the home of an indigenous activist  for women's rights and a leader in the community. The business was owned by Arsenio, a quiet and humble man among many, but one who had the distinct gift of carefully choosing his words and the timing of his delivery. Despite being the most successful business owner amongst the locals - who were at a competitive disadvantage against foreign entrepreneurs who arrived with resources and capabilities that one could simply not acquire in the Comarca - his tailor shop consisted of four employees equipped with classic Singer sewing machines working tirelessly from dawn to dusk under a tin roof.
Arsenio was clearly proud and aware of his accomplishment, but there was no sign of complacency in his lexicon or in the attitude of his employees. He clearly had more ambitious visions for his business.
Relativity plays an ironic role in the comparison of societies. More often than not, in the eyes of those who truly seek an equal society, a business owner who desires more success, more money or more growth, is seen as an icon of greed. Nonetheless, in a humble, if not poor, community, a person who makes a name for himself and his business is seen as an example, a role model for the rest. Of course, one could say that the big fish in the small pond is still smaller than the big fish in the large ocean, and that a man like Arsenio still lacks many of the comforts that many people would consider basic, and is therefore not greedy for aspiring for more. However, isn't greed measured by what one has and wants compared to his fellow man? Is it really fair to judge Arsenio compared to people and luxuries that he may not even know exist? Shouldn't his level of greediness, if you will, be measured in comparison to the 74 year old senile woman who walks past his shop everyday with a heavy bag hanging from her head as she tries to make a living selling oranges? Or the families who buy state-enforced school uniforms from him so their children can go to school and receive five free meals a day, offering them a nutritious alternative to bland rice and the occasional bean?

By no means is this an attempt to paint over the image I may have depicted in your mind with the first phrase I wrote about Arsenio, for that is the man I remember, and the rest are cumbersome cul-de-sac reflections. In fact, in a simple, yet characteristic demonstration of thoughtfulness and hospitality, Arsenio invited us to enjoy a traditional cocoa drinking experience that same evening. For centuries, the Ngäbes, like so many other native americans, have had a special place for cocoa in their culture. In days past it was used primarily as a nearly sacred ingredient in ceremonies, and considered the most valued resource available. Consuming it provided strength and courage for their warriors, and lucidity  for the shamans, which allowed them to connect with the forces of nature. During funerals and rites of passage, everyone present would drink cocoa for four nights, dancing and talking until the sun rose.  
Although these rituals are barely - if ever - carried out, many people still follow the rules of old when drinking cocoa. Traditionally, cocoa is never mixed with sugar, it is mashed during the day, boiled in water, and served hot in totumas (organic vessels made from an inedible fruit, used as cups or plates). Peculiarly, it is customary in Ngäbe ceremonies to drink a multiple of four full totumas before leaving the ceremony.
Drinking Ngäbe cocoa on a full moon night was one of the most unique and fascinating moments on this trip. The smell emanating from the cocoa was mellow but dense and delectable. It seemed as if in the next few seconds, a luscious, intense, liquid form of the best Swiss chocolate would flow silkily through our mouths. However, the taste was bitter, thin and watered down. Although it was by no means undrinkable, I much prefered the captivating smell, which now I could only compare to the disappointing flavor. Fortunately for us, we had to follow the custom and continue drinking three more cups. Amazingly, the more we drank, the more savory became the beverage. Our lips moistened and our minds cleared, as our senses merged and assimilated the experience together.
Before returning home for dinner, we had time to visit one of the houses at the end of the road. There lived Emerita and her family, in a spruce property with a gorgeous traditional rancho, a large house, a separate building for the kitchen and pantry and probably the only front yard with trimmed grass in a twenty mile radius. The backyard was a more ordinary sight, with log benches, a poultry pen, a few random banana trees and a bunch of extraordinarily plentiful orange trees.

As Juancho introduced us to Emerita and her family, we were immediately captured by her commanding poise. Emerita is a sturdy, vigorous, middle aged lady, and it was evident by the behavior of the teenagers in the house, and the heed given to her by those present that she was a woman of strong character.
Through our multiple conversations with her we came to find out that aside from a certain degree of preeminence, she drew her strength from undeniable competence, dynamism and con
viction. Before us stood a woman who had suffered as much as she'd lived, but whose will to live, and help others live - adequately - was more tenacious than whatever fortune had ever stood in her way.
By means of our initial conversations with Juan Carlos, Arsenio and Emerita, we discovered what was needed from us in Soloy, but it was the incredibly stimulating properties of the cocoa that got the ideas flowing through our heads on how to adapt a seemingly simple solution to an intricate problem.

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