the mornings why

26 February 2012 § Leave a comment

The river rolled over high round stones; murky brown water perfect for a solid class III run in a small raft. It was the first time rain had come in weeks; yesterday a local rafting guide had assured him that months would pass before a good flow came from the mountains again.

The water reached into the grassy eddy shores where boulders had not nestled. Perhaps they had been there once, and moved on some year when the rain rolled them farther down the river. Consistent, soaking rain came down in waves, succinct with the north wind, which pushed hard from the Panamanian hills much faster than the waterway below it.

It was the sort of rain that made an adventurer thank himself for bringing along the just-in-case jacket, for having the gift of experience to look up before heading out, stop on the suspension bridge and read the river to draw a line between the boulders that he would have floated down, had he not sold his raft to get here.

He took in the elements, one sense at a time. Words filled the holes where water dipped after gliding over rocks, mixing with oxygen to bubblywhite, and he read lines of poetry in the carbonated V’s that ushered down water that tried to linger a moment too long.

Now and again he looked up toward the misted valley; on every side of him, dense jungle with soil whose nutrients had been long consumed by lush plant life reached its delicate and parasitic fingers for the earth, and who knows what it would find when it got there – water, stone, another plant to wring life from, a machete.

The wind brought from the mountains scents of burning pine and coffee plants. Villages of the Ngobe Bugle, comprised mostly of cinderblocks and barbed wire, burned wood stoves near the coffee plantations. The scents wafted toward the town of Boquete, downstream. A few workers carried sacks of red and green coffee pods toward the processing buildings not far away – giant concrete structures painted one or two colors, decades ago. Others might have been cooking a rice breakfast in a cauldron, perhaps with meat on the side, or trying to stay warm on a wet and docile Sunday.

He recognized the faint smell of belladonna, a flower that must have hung in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, what with their elusive, sometimes deadly, euphoria, and it passed, as most things do in the less populated tropics, slowly and with grace. Other smells went with the moving air which he did not know, and had resigned to never knowing, at least in his own language, so they could remind him later only of this place, as it was now.

Birds, for the jungle was full of them, whistled and howled and screeched, some sweet sopranos; others, less elegant, scraped rough metal against itself in small reverberant cathedrals. He could single out the resplendent quetzal with its tenor song that attracted ears and eyes straight to the bold blues, reds, and green feathers the birds primed for potential mates.

Like a woman, he thought. Beauty for anyone who might take pleasure in looking.

That their feathers matched the prolific greens of the leaves around them hardly camouflaged their elegance; the sheer delight in glimpsing the namesake of  Mayan gods did not fade, even in those who would never know any place but this valley.

At the peak of the moment, he realized that the rain had soaked through his borrowed jacket and straight to his core, which pumped with adrenalin and blood to the thoughtrhythm that he was here. He had found, finally, the mystery of the travelers he’d admired, the ones who had spoken of far-off lands they’d explored and lived with glints in their eyes that said they might return one day. The return was never far from now, they thought, because all it would take to break from their monologue was a backpack (always packed, in the closet but ready to Go) and a ticket. Off they could be, like he was now, learning to use their senses again, as the rest of the world cooked rice and dressed up for their version of church.


summer camp blues.

23 February 2012 § Leave a comment

I showed up late to the last day of kids’ camp in Boquete. For six weeks (jesus, i’ve been here SIX weeks!) we’ve gone to help out the menopausal women handle the children of gringo expats and the local orphanage, all of whom peacefully play together in harmony and with respect for each other.


Halfway into a game of soccer with a 24-year-old retired motocross rider and a group of 7-year-olds who play better than I ever have, I found myself diverting one kid’s fists from swinging at another, who apparently had been making fun of him. He ran away from me, screamwhining that he hated everyone.

Soon enough, I had him sitting down and talking with his arch enemy, while I played mediator and tried to remember the things that adults are supposed to say when kids are fighting. I thought I failed miserably, but at least they were playing frisbee again. Or soccer. Whatever keeps them occupied.

In being the only male above the age of fifteen and under sixty consistently attending the camp, I’ve been roughhoused by twenty boys post-chocolate-pudding-relay, was thrown in the pool more than a few times, and even played translator for the short-haired white women who live in Panama permanaently and speak about as much Spanish as Speedy Gonzalez. I’ve spent lunchtimes skipping eating so I could sneak more food to the orphanage kids (which isn’t as heroic as it might sound, if you knew what was being served), and showing insecure six-year-old girls yoga moves and doing the Time of Your Life move from Dirty Dancing one too many times an afternoon, mostly because it’s the only way they stop complaining that they think the other girls will make fun of their shoes.

It’s been a trip, and nearly the most rewarding part of my volunteer experience, unless you include that afternoon in the kids’ cancer ward at the hospital in David. The things I learned about my mortality that day – what with watching a kid who probably had fewer breaths left than he did hairs on his head get excited over a story being read to him, asking questions not about how fucked up and unfair the world is for landing him in that sterile and soulless hallways of nurses’ desks and clipboards, artificial art and disgusting food, but about the story about the salamander in the frog suit, or the little boy on the moon, whatever the book was, and how those things are possible, and where can he go to see them? When’s the next flight to the moon? Soon, my friend. Soon.

We had cake and ice cream today, and I gave as many kids as I could a second plate of tres leches. I knew it might make them sick later, but at the time it just made them smile.


pros, cons, and a day in the life.

22 February 2012 § Leave a comment

Eventually, I’m going to have to buy a computer. I know this, and reject the idea out of hand. Here’s a small brick of my wall: I have never once purchased a computer, an mp3 player, or a discman. Which might show my age a bit, that last one, but certainly not on the first two. For years I was just waiting for processors to be faster, laptops to be more durable, hard drives to be bigger, I/Os to be more hardy and have better preamps (a far-off wish), and until then I was content with my gifted laptops I used for little more than editing photos and processing words, and of course, the internet.

Things like this are what cloud my mind of late. What to do with money, that concept I despise and abhor and all of those other Victorian words but use anyway, live on a minimal amount on and somehow get by very comfortably, usually with a healthy dose of people’s kindness, hospitality, and generosity. And in that, I’ve come to the conclusion that people are generally good, except when they’re given a chance to be evil, and that’s when god dances with the devil, does the tango, and gets dipped a little too far to the floor to come and seek redemption. But I digress. I’m in a conundrum, and the only thing that’s helping is writing, so here I am, writing. Typing. I can’t not anymore.

In light of all these new and novel decisions around my life, such as choosing to be in a relationship – choosing love, one might say – and sticking with the pact I made to my blind spider all those many months ago in Zadar – that my next trip will be about learning a culture, a language, a place, and not cityhopping as I’m prone to do – I’m wondering now that after six months of doing that, can I continue about my old ways, and blast my way north through Central America, hitchhike through Mexico, and make it to my friend’s wedding in Florida in April (which is a promise I made that has turned into a goal, the completion of which that may define me as a ‘man of his word’, which according to the movies is a good thing to be)? Six months is quite enough, isn’t it? Of staying in one place, or a few, and while maybe not keeping up with my Spanish practice but at least keeping up appearances of being a well-traveled soul… surely, that’s enough for me.

It’s time to Go, right? For fuck’s sake, I’m a traveler, and should be traveling! I’m going to have to make a border run soon to renew my visa. That makes me an almost-expat. Or something. I’m a little blurry on the facts on that one, but mostly because I haven’t had to worry about it before. I’ve been in Central America since September, and I’ve only been to three countries! My passport needs more attention, more love from sweaty people in glass boxes than this! It’s only got six years left, and I need to fill up the pages! Anything less would be a waste!

Oh please, Sean. Shut up. You’ve got limited funds, and should probably think about paying back your ex-ex-girlfriend’s dad for helping you out with tuition for that school you graduated six years ago (without whose assistance you wouldn’t have been able to finish) before you go hopping up through Central America, especially when you’re kind of hesitant to do that anyway. Boquete is nice. It’s beautiful, even. And although your feeble fundraising attempt for the volunteer effort exacted pretty much what you expected (your favorite people, however few, donating (thanks, girls and guy!), but overall leaving you to covering the costs yourself), it’s cheap living here, and you can write more (short of the stories you’d gain on such an adventure), maybe even edit that ugly mug of a novel you wrote in November, perhaps even work!

What’s the use of this?

The use of this is yesterday, Carnaval in Dolega. I’m tired of thinking, so this is from the book, dated this morning, at the café with the small tables, up the hill.

I’ve been sweetening all my drinks lately. Taking an extra bite of desserts, knowing I’ll feel a tinge of self-hatred for it the next morning. All because I think that soon I’ll be without this feeling of indulgence for quite some time, that every food and contented state must be followed by one of abstinence and sacrifice. What will the story be this time? That I moved to Panama for a couple of months because a break from university called, and I answered before the end of the first ring? That in my squalor of learning, I committed to a relationship with Heather because I wanted to know if I could stand it?

Is life spent outside my culture only practice for when I return? Or is it just a vacation? Yesterday, I found a reason to travel again, at Carnaval.

Ed, H. and I walked away from the small festivities, toward the rodeo, away from the extravagant car audio systems in Nissans and Hondas, from the kids who jumped into the irrigation canal and were swept downstream by a small desert feat of civil engineering, from the firefighting hoses teenagers pointed at crowds dancing in the streets. We went against the flow of people headed toward them, who were excited to be skipping work for sao, beers, and a soaking.

We stopped at a house for duros, frozen drinks made from fruit or chocolate, or pretty much anything else, to find more things made from nance, a new favorite fruit I’ve yet to find in the jungle. Immediately after sitting down, the woman told us that we speak English, which I thought the case also and was glad that she agreed, and that her sister’s gringo husband not only lived in the house behind hers, but spoke English tambien.

As if a shared language were reason enough to behind a friendship, the woman insisted that we meet him – after all, there was food, and it was a party there all day (which I questioned with some doubt).Thirty seconds after she’d sent the older woman to fetch a chair for me, I was ushered with my friends through a yard where kids screamed with delight and someone revved the engine of a fourwheeler like an inexperienced rider with too much ego. There were Dodge trucks from the 90’s and pretty, pretty motorcycles parked without caution around the yard. I thought it typical of Latin culture, but brushed off the thought when I remembered Don Cheadle’s joke from Crash.

We arrived at a patio where women cooked huge amounts of pork and rice and hojaldres, like the ones I remembered from my childhood in Albuquerque. ‘This,’ I told Heather, holding up the greasy flatbread, ‘is how I fell in love with Latin culture.’ She smiled her grand smile, the one that makes her emerald eyes glow and adds one or two shades of red to her Irish mane. I imagined most people replying to my comment with a crooked face and a chuckle, implying that I’d made some sort of joke.

Not that I hadn’t, mind you. Surely the hojaldres, which I knew as sopapillas but flatter, wasn’t the only thing I loved about the predominant culture of here and my kidhood, for there was something wonderful to be said about the hospitality which even the most formal Southerners couldn’t match, the pushiness of Latin mothers to get their guests and loved ones to eat just one plate more, especially if they bore even a remotely trim body. I tried to imagine a Mexican teenaged girl with an eating disorder, and decided that it must be impossible or rare, which was likely one of the other reasons I thought Latin women were the most beautiful in the world.

It’s amazing the ideas from our childhoods that shape us.

The children lined up to abuse and destroy the horse-shaped piñata, which turned out to be made of something much more durable than paper maché. I remembered doing that as a kid also: when the popular kid at the party, probably the one whose birthday it was, finally decapitated the horse, I had just sat down on the grass and cried while all the other kids mad-rushed the candy, which had exploded from the horse’s neck and all over the grass. This time, I sat with the old people and looked on and didn’t cry. When the father of one of them grew impatient with the piñata’s durability – two broomsticks had been broken already in trying to break the swinging beast – and ripped the thing apart with his hands, the kids, most of whom had grown tired of batting it, rushed with pieces of sugar and decorated plaster with the same energy I saw in my peers twenty years earlier.

Over birthday cake and beer, Ronald Roberts the gringo told us about his thirty years, off and on, in Panama, about his pets, and of his Panamanian family (half of whose names he couldn’t remember, such as his wife’s), and of his military service, and all the things you tell strangers who show up at your house and speak your language. He introduced me to Thor, a rottweiler/black lab mix who was chained up behind his house, and his folded U.S. flag you get when you’ve served your twenty. It listed all the ships he’d served on, whose missions, he said, replying to Ed’s inquiry about how long he would be at sea at one time, he couldn’t talk about.

His wife – whose name was Rosa – spoke to us in clear and slow Spanish, of which I was happily able to understand all but a few words. My conversation practice might have showed me off as somewhat fluent to our hosts, even if in my classes I hadn’t learned the cultural value of talking excessively. Heather tried to understand, and listened as intently as I had to every conversation some months ago, repeating words she didn’t know, but rarely knew how to reply. (Oh, stages of language-learning, how universal you are!) Ed sat back, probably knowing a few words being said, but mostly relishing in the moments as they passed.

Rosa’s mother, a year younger than Ed at 82, had walked him to the patio when we’d first arrived thinking we were being kindly brought into a family restaurant rather than a seven-year-old girl’s birthday party, and sometimes touched his elbow to keep him from running into a banana tree, which was something like holding hands. There are few things as novel and adorable as old people being affectionate with one another, like brittle and saggy skeletons remembering intimacy as the most important feeling of their long lives.

By the time we left, I’d eaten three pieces of cake and a couple of strips of pork besides the nostalgic hojaldres, and was flirted with by someone’s great aunt, all of which I considered to be cultural obligations, rather than experiences I got out of bed for. But we had become family when all we wanted were duros, and also had skipped Carnaval entirely.

hey, i’m in a relationship. what now?

20 February 2012 § 3 Comments

Question for women: how important is it for you to be known to a new significant other’s world – that is, to his family and friends, regardless of what they mean to him, or how often he is in contact with them?

Now, context: I’m a relatively private person, and don’t care much for what people in my world – in my life – think of what I’m doing, where I am, who I’m with, etc. I don’t see it as much of their business, mostly because of how disconnected I am from them. (Though I will grant them this: I have created this disconnect myself, at no fault of theirs but being subject to an era where information is everything and everywhere, i.e. facebook).

I would much rather tell someone over a phone call or, at the very least, an email about what’s going on, and what’s going on with me. Perhaps because I’ve given much to my connections over the years and never received much back, and now I’m exacting a miniature revenge on my loved ones. Status updates and profile changes, for some reason just don’t cut it for me. How evil and inconsiderate is that?

What I understand from Heather – My New Girlfriend – and other women, nevertheless, is that in order to feel special, to feel through action instead of merely words that they mean, that an active acknowledgement, in some form, would be appropriate, if indeed I want to pursue a relationship? And what would that action mean? Mentioning it to the people I am in contact with most often makes the most sense to me, but is this enough? Is the relationship status on facebook really that important?

The next logical argument might be, Sean, what’s your problem, man – if you like her and want to be with her, why not just tell people, or short of that, why make a big deal out of her request for acknowledgement? If it’s not that important to you, then why not just do it?

I’d hate to break out the “because I want to know WHY it’s so important” reply, not because it either 1) works, 2) makes me seem deep, or 3) drives people up the wall, but rather because it’s something that I don’t understand, and would like to. I don’t have a pressing need to be known to her world, and have no problem if she doesn’t say anything about me to anyone: our connection is between us, and the only time it includes others is in the immediate present (and we’re traveling, or rather at the moment, living in a small town, with an even smaller community of ex-pats and good friends, so that’s quite understandable). Therefore, outside of that immediate present, what do I need from the rest of her world? Nothing, really.

Maybe because she’s way out of my league and I still don’t quite get why she’s sticking around for me. Of all the non-committal, whimsical, aloof and indecisive people she could choose from, she picked the best one from all of the above.

So here I am, relishing in her presence and the selfish thought of what kind of person I can improve into by being around her and her hard questions, by having a person to bounce my ideas off without the ten pages of scrawling it might take otherwise (and likely not even then) to clarify. I write less around her, of my own unfortunate accord, and she limits nothing in me that I do not limit myself to. But I do not slip into my oldself as often, and I’m thankful for that. A year ago, I was coming to terms with surviving, feeding off the energy of THC and revolution, and now I’m doing everything I’ve set in motion, going to places, once again, that I never thought I’d go, speaking other languages, and even feeling productive and *gasp* happy sometimes.

Once again, an adventure I’m not sure I’m ready for. Here we go.

(As a sidenote, I introduced my good friend Ed Gish, an 83-year-old, oldschool Hollywood writer, to Buddy Wakefield’s performance poetry today, and he cried. I’m proud of myself for that.)

a river, a beer, and a plan.

15 February 2012 § 2 Comments

In an inflatable ducky – essentially a two-person, sit-in kayak – I just ran the Chiriqui River for the second time in two days. In front was another Sean, though I didn’t ask him how he spelled it – he was a Vancouver Islandian who, judging by his swagger and comments about his family and habits back home, came up with money and a good support system for his football-playing, car mechanic tendencies. We worked well together, eventually, the two Seans in the orange raft, with the beat up Werner paddles I could never afford back when I had a packraft. It was a good day. Jim, a friend and owner of Boquete Outdoor Adventures, had enough confidence in me and my experience to ask me to help out with the clients, as opposed to trying to sell me a spot on the tour. I was honored, and of course, gladly accepted.

All of this makes me miss my packraft even more. I put off getting on a river in Turrialba, Costa Rica, possibly for sentimental purposes, and missed the entire rainy season and good flow for months. I’d like to think I’m making up for it, but it doesn’t change the ironic fact that in order to get to Central America, I had to sell my beloved Denali Llama and the rest of my water gear, though rivers were one major reason I came here. Good job, right?

Not knowing if this was a one-time gig, or if it could be a consistent opportunity to get serious guiding experience (in the States, I’d have to give up fishing in te summers to do this), it could very well keep me here, right when I’m in the midst of figuring out what I want to do with my life for the next couple of years. Now, I’m all about living in the present, and not committing to anything or anyone more than I can commit to myself, but when I travel long enough and far enough, certain ideas come along, and sometimes they sound like good ones, regardless of whether or not they actually happen. I don’t need them to happen, but I want to keep this list somewhere other than my head, just to see how it evolves:

what’s next for sean the ancient:

1. Leave Boquete. As much as I love it and do not want to travel through the blaring heat of Central America in February, I made a promise to be at a wedding in Miami, that of an old and dear friend, one of the only of that sort I have left, and I will be there. But I’m getting the itch to move, entonces…

2. Go North. I have a plane ticket out of San Jose, Costa Rica for middle of April. However, I don’t want to boomerang Central America, so if I go north, I’m going to keep going. Hitch through Mexico? Fly from Mexico City, or continue on and when I get to the States, ramshackle my way through the deep and humid South to a deeper and humider South Florida.

3. Get back to Alaska for commercial fishing. Of course. I need to pay for my travels somehow, and what better way than by doing what I love?.

4. Continue university. I found Evergreen College in Olympia, WA, which I wish I found many years ago, incredibly interesting – they provide to opportunity to create your own degree, your own education, the works. And their catalog is second to none that I’ve ever seen. So, with a saltshaker in one hand, I’m applying with the other for this coming autumn.

5. This one’s big, and more will come about it, and soon: Circumnavigate North America by motorcycle. Once upon a time (in the grand obituary of summer 2001), four friends made a plan to get motorcycles and ride them around the States, right after graduating high school. I was one of them. Ten years after it was supposed to happen, it finally will, in summer 2014, as long as the world hasn’t ended yet. I just have to learn how to ride first!

There it is, in all of my uncertainty, written out, or at least typed, for your entertainment. And mine. Lest we become roasted potatoes who watch Fox News and the Travel Channel, make more promises than we can keep, and proceed to say we Live Happily.

women, and the things they do.

8 February 2012 § Leave a comment

I’m kind of self-conscious (minus the kind of. Always subtract the ‘kind of,’ especially when you’re talking to a woman). Like when I go back and read something I wrote when I was drunk, and think that someone might take it personally. Please don’t; my cheekiness and cynicism are my ways of being affectionate and friendly, because I never learned how to interact very well. That’s why most of the time, I just watch others.

But I’m making progress. Being in an apartment full of women – other volunteers, friends of the owner, my in-quote “girlfriend” (for lack of a better, shorter explanation) helps tremendously. It’s enjoyable in all the ways being a straight guy should be. The things one can learn when sharing one bathroom and half a kitchen with five females – it’s amazing.

My once-best-friend (who is dead now, which is better than us having had a falling out and just being stubborn about talking anymore – but it also means I can talk about his quirks with less consideration for his feelings) used to have this thing about refusing to accept that women shit. It’s not that he completely denied that it happened,  I mean, he made it to high school health class, at least, and we learned something of basic physiology in that time – mostly with the tastefully-chosen porn magazines we had somewhat-tragic access to – so it couldn’t have been the reality he was adverse to. Perhaps in his mind women’s bathrooms also had urinals, like the portal-looking drains hanging from the walls in the mens’, and that females used restrooms mostly to socialize, and do their makeup. And of course, to talk about us.

The last one is an interesting thought, because it’s not like the guys used the mens’ to talk about them. In fact, men’s restrooms are 99% silent but for the occasional cough or fart, and you’re always to look directly forward at the wall when standing at a urinal, lest you attract any unwanted attention from the person shaking off the excess next to you. (Perhaps we should have been talking about women, because then we wouldn’t be so embarrassingly inept when talking to them.)

ending the night with…

5 February 2012 § Leave a comment

Social interaction – a definition of hanging out with people who you don’t necessarily resonate with – is a sometimes necessary thing from which we benefit from immensely. Contradictions abound. Abandoned castles in the most beautiful valley in the world – those are the places I love and drive. those are the place where I see the kin of the indigenous who are blocking off the roads in every other part of the country, and all they’re doing is saying yellow and tolerating our trespassing on their property, and our rock hopping and our walking along their daily commute only intensifies their day. Kids, who speak their language but not any that I speak, answer yes to every question I have but do not react, throw rocks into the river which feeds the villages I pass unknowing of their will to live sustainably, like we want to live, but really, really. Like in the brochures about the Central America which rich people buy into way too easily. this is the place to go. This is the place to come. Boquete, Panama. For once, a magazine had it right. But American ex-pats are abundant here, so if you’re from the states, don’t come here. Same from Canada.

Diversity, like in the music industry and the movie industry, are wonderful and marketable things where universality is beautiful, and conversation is lovely like the storied recording sessions in small towns on the mountainous east coast, is the spice of driving and of beauty, and I’m going to keep writing for the next thirty seconds because this is a macbook pro and we’re here until just past midnight, and I have to work at seven thirty in the morning, so I might as well go, to this indie hiphop soundtrack, which with Band of Horses and The Fugees, with this dominogoodbye. spinning love. good night, and good week. good luck, protestors, and keep up the road blocks.

Where Am I?

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