Sunday, May 9, 2010

My Own Place

It´s hard for me to believe, but I´ve been living in Bahia Azul for over seven months now. Since my arrival I had lived with Celia and Ricardo, as nice a host family as I could ever hope for. My room at their house was tiny, just seven feet square, but then again, it was my own room, with a plank bed and a door that shut, so it was a lot better situation than some volunteers had with host families where they slept on the floor in the middle of the house. Those guys have all long sinced moved out into their own houses, while I´ve been slowly getting around to rehabbing the old house that an earlier Peace Corps volunteer lived in here four years ago. It took a few months to get the old guy who was kind of squatting there part time to move his stuff out so I could start clearing out the termite nests and start in on the rehab work. The termites had destroyed some of the penca, the palm leaf used to thatch the roof, and I decided to build a front porch addition and also to add a little five by six foot baño addition off the back, so, what is usually a three month stay with a host family stretched to a full six months.Fixing the roof involved taking a boat up a nearby river through the mangroves to cut the huge penca leaves and haul them back to town, splitting each one into two halves, and then, with the help of some hardworking friends, tying it onto the new roof frame.
Working on the house has been fun for me. It is challenging trying to get things done without access to the tools and materials I´m used to working with. If you need some 2 x 4´s there´s no where to go and buy them. You have to contract with a woodcutter who goes out into the forest and cuts down a tree and saws it into boards. Then you have to haul that still-wet and thus incredibly heavy lumber back along steep and muddy trails to your house. Then you struggle to saw every piece to length with your ever-more-dull hand saw. You get the idea. But still fun. And I learned a lot about how the Ngäbe people work. I got a lot of help from friends and neighbors who joined in on a junta, working for hours together, tying penca for example, expecting nothing in return except for a nice meal, and the comraderie of the day´s work.

So now I´m moved in, and can for the first time since coming to Panama I´m enjoying the simple pleasures of having my own space. I can get up in the morning and make a cup of REAL coffee (as opposed to the vaguely coffee flavored sugar water Ngäbes drink), and enjoy it while listening to a little news in English on the BBC. It's not a bad little place, only ten foot square plus the porch and baño, but that's plenty of room as long as I stay organized.

I rigged up a very functional kitchen "zinc"

and various little shelves and nooks to hold stash my supplies,

a nice open-air bathroom for all the necessities, although water only arrives sporadically,

and a nice comfy bed to crawl into at the end of the day. The mosquito net is key to a good night's sleep, keeping out the variety of bugs and bats that come out at night, as well as shielding me from the light sprinkling of debris that is always falling down out of the penca.

The front porch has become a popular gathering spot and people are constantly stopping by to pasear, which translates as dropping in uninvited. As the host, I'm expected to pretty much drop whatever I might have been doing and sit down and visit a while, and probably come up with something to eat and drink or risk looking like a clod. Having visitors is often the last thing I want, especially when I've just gotten in from working for hours on the aqueduct, or some other project, but I try to go with the flow. Ngabes don't really value "alone time." They live in family groups of upwards of ten people in houses only a little bigger than mine, so they never have any time by themselves, and they can't really imagine why I would want to be in my house all by myself, even for a little while.

So we visit. I pull out books or newspapers to share (National Geographic en Español is a favorite) and make some coffee koolaid, or bring out some bread or raisins, or for a special treat, I'll make popcorn, and share my porch and my life with them. And that is one of the goals of Peace Corps that I signed on for, so I'll stop complaining now.
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