Central America | Panama – Comarca Pride
After I recovered and checked out of the clinic, I spent a nice week in Chami, teaching English, working on my new house, and even got a chance to visit a bee project near Chami.
Selling honey is becoming a popular development activity, to get people less dependent on coffee work. Bees flourish in the same environment as coffee. There is a bee project, or apiculture project in Algorobbo, about a 45 minute hike downhill and west of Chami. All the equipment was donated by the government, and is now located a little ways behind the house of Melanio and Agrepina Montezuma, the sweetest young Ngabe couple. There was a North American group in Panama, giving free trainings on bee project maintenence, and the group in Algorobbo was interested so I invited them up to Chami.
They appeared in Chami in a big white SUV the afternoon they were supposed to, a little late, and looking shook up. I hopped in and it was a short drive to Algorobbo, the whole way them telling me that this was the worst road they had ever seen. Oh, I know, nobody knows better than me.
Once there, they donned big white suits to protect them from the bees, with round screens around the heads, so that they looked like astronauts. Then they handed me one, to my surprise. I hadnt been expecting that, but pulled it on, it was huge! I would trip over the leg bottoms, and the gloves attached to the sleeves were so big and stiff I couldnt move my hands. Then they told me what to do if bees got in my suit. Bees are going to get in my suit?! I thought. This wasnt part of the deal. They explained how not to panic, look at the sky, so the bee flys up, then squash it. Lovely. Then I’ll have a suit full of dead bees. The suit was really hot too. And it was hard not to panic at the thought of angry bees IN my suit. I’ve always been kind of claustraphobic. We walked to the hives, and sure enough, when they were opened, the bees swarmed angrily at us. They had a device that made smoke, to keep the bees back. It worked a little, but bees still tried to attack. They showed me and Melanio different parts of the hives and honeycomb, queen bees, etc. It was pretty interesting, but when we left, I was not sorry to get the suit off. (No bees ever got in)
The next day I actually had to leave Chami, and with two kids. We were going to a Youth Camp, or Conferencia de Jovenes, that had been planned longer than I had been in Panama. Volunteers in Chiriqui and the part of the Comarca that was formally Chiriqui (Nedrini, where Chami is located) were each to send 2 kids between the ages of 10 and 14. I was not only sending kids, I was a conselor as well. From Chami, Claudina and Isidoro were coming, children of Balbina and Neopoldo, and Albercio and Elena respectively. The camp would be a mix of Comarca kids, city kids, and campo kids. (Campo here usually refers to countryside, with no electricity or runing water, probably an indigenous heritage, but call themselves Latino and follow no indigenous traditions) Most of the indigenous kids going had rarely or ever been out of their villages. In fact, Scott, a volunteer who lives in Cerro Otoe, an isolated village like mine, said a grandfather of one of the kids he was sending came by his house the night before, and warned him the child had never seen a ‘bathroom machine’, and would have to learn how to use it.
All the volunteers in the Comarca brought their kids to the Cruce of San Felix, where Esther (another conselor) and I rounded them up and brought them to David. It was a little stressful getting our 15 kids from the bus terminal to Hotel Toledo, where we were meeting the rest of the group. The kids seemed so little and in awe of the city, and I kept counting them, paranoid we would lose one. We made it there, and Luisiano, from Lajero, promptly locked himself in the bathroom and started yelling, because he was unfamiliar with door knobs and locks. The division was so clear there. The Latino city kids were loud and confident and stuck together, some even talking and sending text messages on cell phones. The Comarca kids sat together quietly. When all the kids were there, we got all 33 of them on a bus we chartered and drove to the Centro Fransiscano, less than an hour away, outside of Boquete. Once there, the kids got dorm rooms, and the ones who needed it, instructions on how to use toilets, showers, and, of course, doors with locks. (It turned out they wouldnt have to know how to use the showers, more on that soon) We went to dinner, and after, divided into random groups. Us six conselors got 5 or 6 kids to our group. Each group had a color and name of an animal. My group was the Green Iguanas! We got nice green Tshirts to wear, designed by a volunteer, that said Chiriqui Comarca Ngabe Bugle Conferencia de Jovenes 2005. In my group was Yasiel, Luis, Ameth, Dionicia, Edwin, and Rebecca. Dionicia and Rebecca were Comarca girls, both from Cerro Puerco. Yasiel, Luis and Ameth were city kids and Edwin from a little campo town.
For the next two days, we would eat breakfast, go to a charla, have break and snack, go to a second charla, have lunch, go to a third charla, then have time to reflect on the day and play time, followed by dinner and bedtime. The charlas were on Environmental Conservation, Leadership, Drug and Alcohol Prevention, Cultural Diversity, Self Esteem, and Life Planning Skills. Everything seemed to go smoothly. A couple speakers were late, causing the conselors to have to improv while we waited. But the biggest problem was the lack of water. There was no water in the pipes the first night. So we arranged for a fire truck to bring a load of water and fill up the water tank. Which they did, however on the way out, they ran over a water pipe and broke it. All the water leaked into the ground, and we still had no water. So we had to buy bottled water from Boquete, and haul buckets of water from the swimming pool for the kids to bath in. The city kids were a little irritated, but the others knew no different than a bucket bath! (Including myself, who am so used to one, I dont even think about it anymore).
The last night we had a Talent Show. Some Latino girls displayed their talent of a dance that bordered on inappropriate. Some volunteers juggled which the kids really liked, then the Comarca kids did a dance called the Hegui, or Mato Sapo. Everyone moves like in a Congo line, stomping. The Comarca kids did it for a little bit, then something beautiful happened. The other kids joined in, and loved it! We did the Hegui for quite some time, and I think the Comarca children were really proud.
The next day, as we waited for the bus to take us back to David, the kids all sang and played games in a big group, there were no longer any divisions. It had been so amazing to watch them grow from such divided groups to one big group of friends!
All 15 Comarca kids sang songs they learned all the way from David to San Felix. They got back to the Cruce and their Peace Corps volunteers picked them up around 1 pm. Then Isidoro, Claudina and I went to the piquera to wait for our chiva. Pobrecito ninos! The chiva didnt leave until after 6pm, and we didnt arrive in Chami until after 8. They were tired and content with the conference, but also glad to be back.
(It was some time at the conference, that I heard thru bochinche that Jessica, the volunteer I had visited during Carnaval, had been sent back to the United States. Apparently her boyfriend Hugo had grabbed her arm roughly, then later broke down her door. So the story goes, when Peace Corps asked her about it, she defended him. So they thought if they moved her to another part of the country, she would continue the relationship, and for her safety, sent her home).
I only spent a couple days in Chami before bajaring again. AVC was coming up, but before that was a Balseria! I was so excited to be attending the Balseria. They are an old Ngabe tradition, but not common anymore. Some volunteers have been here for over two years and had not had a chance to go to one.
So- how to describe the Balseria. I’ll describe first how it used to be. One town would invite another, usually if the first had a huge harvest that they could not eat before it went bad. The hometown would give the visiting one the food and drinks for free. Then they would fight, with balsa wood. That is where it gets its name. Men throw balsa logs at another’s legs, trying to hit their opponent, but only from the knees down. The opponent tries to dodge. They play on the two teams, until one team says no more. The winning team wins all the women.
Now, the balseria I attended was a little different. Anyone is invited now, and food and drinks are only for sale, not given. And do they ever drink! They drink chicha fuerte, and when I arrived to the scorching hot, dusty field it was in, there were hundreds of people there, all falling down drunk. And fighting. There were several fights going on at once, some with balsa wood, others just with fists. Many drunk Ngabe men walked around with swollen and bloody faces. Rumor had it women were fighting, but I never saw any. It was a little startling at first, but soon it was obvious bystanders were in no danger. I then felt safe, and even snapped pictures.
Another interesting aspect was everyone was wearing nagwas. Women always wear the dresses around here, but at the balseria, men were wearing them too! I heard a couple of explanations for this. The first is that if a man is wearing a dress, he may be mistaken for a women, and less likely to get in a fight. This doesnt make sense to me, because I didnt think they looked like women at all. Just like men wearing dresses. The second explanation, which seems more believable, is that when fighting with balsa logs, the cloth over their ankles made it harder for their opponent to see and hit the ankles. Men also wore hats covered with feathers. Furthermore, men were not only wearing the nagwas and feathered hats, but also dead animals on their backs. Animals I didnt know existed in the Comarca! Jungle cats, and otters, etc. And men who apparently had no real dead animals to wear, had stuffed animals on their backs, stuffed animals, as in toys! I never found an explanation for this.
When I arrived with Mike, a volunteer from Cerro Inglesia, we found Katie and Laura, friends who work in Salto Dupi and Cerro Puerco. It turned out they had been drinking chicha fuerte all day, and were drunk too! I thought I would try some, I never have, but I had arrived late enough it was gone. Also there was Scott and Ryan (who dates Katie), and my boss, Greg! Other than that, the several hundred other people there were all Ngabe and Bugle. And the guy volunteers were fighting with the balsa logs! I couldnt believe it! Scott was obviously hating it, and had been talked into it, but was doing the best. He always hit the opponents ankles, and dogded when the opponent threw the pole at his ankles, probably because he was the only sober person there. Ryan was drinking too, and having a great time, and doing okay with the fight. He later told Katie she should be happy he did okay, or she would have been won by a Ngabe guy. After each fight, the men would all laugh and shake hands, and compare bruised legs.
Someone had told me the Balserias were ugly and depressing, because it all revolves around drinking and fighting. And families go, with children. I can see that aspect of it. But I can also see a very unique tradition, one of the few left that brings so many together, and does give them a sense of culture and pride, and for that reason, I support it, and felt priveledged to be there.