Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Up and Down Mazlow's Hierarchy


We were off schedule. Eight hours ago we left Panama City with the plan to arrive here at the bridge over the San Felix River before sunset. The sun had set an hour before, and I was just now getting my pack off the roof rack of the little bus at the end of the line.

No more motors. We would walk from here up to Sean's site, Cerro Pita, in the dark. There was no moon, just stars and our headlamps to light the way. Sean, of course, just set off across the bridge with no light. Dayna, my niece, a climbing guide, had a lamp that was dying. She didn't mind. I had my freshly charged monster of a light and felt a bit goofy for being so gear-obsessed. Megan had lost her light, so I gave her my back-up light.

We set off across the suspension bridge into the next chapter of our Panama trip. Within minutes, sweat saturated my shirt and pants. I may as well have jumped into the river for how soaked I would be for the rest of the hike.


I have my doubts and fears. Ten months ago I ruptured my Achilles tendon. It still hurts. It has not been tested. I am aware of the rocks, the slippery dust on the inclines, the unfamiliar surface of the road. It is dark. I don't know whether or not I have what I will need to be here. I don't want to get sick. The heat takes my energy. I feel old. Sounds, smells, strangeness assault my calm. I am a bit on edge, but take steps, breathe, let go. Life is right here, immediate, no intermediaries or provisional comforts that let the mind wander. 

We pass houses of canaza (bamboo) and thatch. Wood cooking fires lit the interiors. Emaciated dogs barked, but only as announcement. I felt no threat like I had from the guard dogs of the city. The dogs here are always hungry. An atmosphere of hunger hangs over the area. People subsist on rice and beans and fruit, but there are always hungry times. It is summer here, the dry season. Food is running low. It's time to clear "monte," wait for it to dry, burn it, and then sow seeds for the coming rainy season. The crops will come up fast in this rich, life-crazy climate.

Cicadas buzz in the trees along the trail. Click, click, click, ZZZZZZeeeee. The noise drills into my skull. I remember it from last year. It rises and falls as we make our way to the road that will climb up to Cerro Pita.

We pass others on the trail. Women wear naguas, a kind of tent dress, hand-made, with bright trim around the collar and across the waist. They are made with hand-cranked sewing machines. Most of the children are in shorts, shirtless. The men wear hand-made trousers, beat-up T-shirts, baseball caps, and rubber boots. Young guys dress with brand-name style and wear sun glasses.

In the dust I see prints of horses, dogs, bare-footed adults and children. A big scorpion scurries in and out of the circle of light cast by my lamp. We join the road and begin the steep climb. A fine dust fills the beam of my light, as fine as flour. I settle into the rhythm I used for high mountain ascent. The pack is full of groceries and the usual stuff of first-world travel.

We crest the first of several long climbs and then drop down into a narrow defile, cut by floods in the rainy season. Sean says that the "gente," the Ngbere, don't like dropping into the thick forest lining the stream. They say the place is haunted by demons. As we enter and the stars disappear beneath the cover of trees I get a creepy tingle. A big toad hops in front of me; another scorpion cuts across my path. A bat dips into my light before darting off in another direction. No more wood smoke, but the air is thick with flowering and rot. The woods are crawling with life.

My tendon throbs with the strain of the incline. I have to be careful not to push it too hard. I stop every couple of minutes to recover, to let the sweat run down and off my fingers and toes. I am utterly saturated in a film of sweat.

The cicadas sing. Exotic scents waft from the forest. We split a chocolate bar at one of the saddles. Sean is excited about seeing his cat, Wilson, and his dog, Chaco. He wants to get back to his "tabla" house. No flush toilets. No electricity. We would have to get water from the spring down the hill and carry it up if we wanted coffee in the morning. Well... Yeah!

The climb evens out after an hour and a half of slogging up and down the steep terrain. The Ngbere were pushed off the flat and fertile lands to the south by the big banana companies many years ago and have been relegated living off the less productive slopes of the cordillera. History has not been kind indigenous people here or elsewhere. Money is scarce. Some of the old men have never been more than thirty miles from the place they were born.

Life travels in tight circles here in the comarca.

I see Sean up ahead, and he turns off the road toward a compound of low thatch houses. His host family is still awake, the abuela cleaning up from dinner, the abuelo hanging out in a hammock. No TV, no radio, no music, just cicadas and other night sounds.

I too climb the bank off the road to the houses. Wilson, the cat appears from around the corner. He is tiny, skinny, an afterthought of a fat first-world cat. Sean lifts him and sets him on top of his pack. Wilson settles there, like a sphinx, and purrs.



Sean will sleep on the bare boards of the floor. Dayna on some clothes put together into crude pallet. Megan and I on Sean's foam mattress. He will light a mosquito coil. The smell of palo santo will fill his house. Wilson will hunt bugs. Chaco will guard the house.

I read quotes written in chalk on the walls of the little house. Paulo Friere, Whitman, and good old Ed Abbey are all represented. Abbey's words, "You can't know the darkness by flooding it with light" ring particularly true.



After we haul water, we will make some tea. Tomorrow Sean will make coffee grown a few feet from his front door. We'll have rice, boiled green bananas, chicha.

There will be time for stories.

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