if you give a sean a cookie, should he take it?
9 April 2012 § 2 Comments
Yesterday I drove for the first time since last September. Susan bid me make a trip down the mountain for ground ginger, “genibre,” she told me for the fourth time into the phone.
It was, of course, late and perhaps ill-advised because there was an “Easter” party at the Bliss Plantation in a little over an hour, and who knows what can happen in the hills of Boquete. But I got to drive, and that alone was worth the day.
What thrill came to me, headed down the shitty dirt road (read: bouncy and fun, like insincere sex, both bearing smiles) in a Toyota Hilux, which is like a Tundra and a Ram smashed into a 4×4 even the traditional indigenous would sell precious land to buy.
I grew up in places where if you didn’t have a truck, you couldn’t drive on most of the roads in the area, and likely couldn’t reach at least half of your friends’ houses. I usually just went without a car at all.
My car is and always has been a Nissan Sentra, from around the time they went round and curvy in shape in place of square and bulky. It has a sad face, accordioned hood (icy roads + lack of money = permanent black eye), and an innocent rear end, with a spoiler glued atop the trunk to add some edge. Susan’s truck is a grey monster that could eat mine in thirteen motor revolutions.
The attachment I felt to the control over where I was going. How fast and what music I listened to (the Chili Peppers’ By the Way), were decisions of mine! I did not pay a bus driver or a train station ticket vendor for permission to go; I was not hitchhiking, subject to the direction and kindness of a stranger; it was not someone else’s job to get me where I was going safely. It was my responsibility to get me there.
In societies where vehicles are so common they are demoted to ‘modes of transportation’, which is in itself of course very important, it is difficult to recall the significance of my mother’s words all those years ago, when I was but eleven or twelve: I drove our truck up a similar dirt road, outside a dying desert town in New Mexico, where oak branches grew out of classroom windows in the abandoned school; my brother and our friend were in the back seat.
“You are responsible for all of our lives, Sean. If you can’t handle that, get out of the driver’s seat.”
I didn’t want to be told that at the time – even if I’d been fighting with my brother, or hated how Catherine always pointed out the seven months and ten days longer than me she’d been on earth, and even if I thought Mum was being rude by causing me anxiety, I didn’t want them dead. I could have either stopped the truck (after I’d been begging her to let me drive), or taken the responsibility, hopefully to not fumble it off the cliff, which was about two feet from the right fender.
I kept my foot on the pedal.
On the way back up the mountain yesterday, on the one-way dirt road, I fell behind a white Rav4, which when the road got steep spun its tires, spit up dirt and rocks and smoke, turned, reversed, and in a weak moment slid its right side into the ditch.
I drove ahead of the teetering little car, parked, and offered to help. The pleasant old gringo explained that he’d gone the wrong way, which I’d already gathered, and with breath after breath pouted his shame and embarrassment. Not a minute later, a local woman showed up, looked under the truck, and silently began piling stones in the trench.
We helped her. More locals showed up. Turned out they lived in the house across the street, about thirty feet away.“This will help you get out of here,” they told him in Spanish, but he didn’t understand a word if it. So they just piled stones.
The man asked me to drive his truck out. I thought of a conversation on liability I had recently with Ed, and about how idealistic and trusting I usually am.
I told the guy that I wasn’t going to be responsible for any damage his car sustained. He told me not to worry about it, and perhaps because I was in Panama, and thought that he couldn’t sue me here, or simply because I wanted to see if I could get his truck out of the ditch, I got in. With hand signals and slow Spanish, the Panamanians directed my failure.
Being that it was Easter Sunday, it was fitting, if not due, that a well-dressed family, in bright colors and worn shoes, would walk up the steep mountain road on their way home from church. The men who shared skin color traded some words, and it was, within ten paces, decided that the father of the small children would go home, change his clothes, and bring a chain so I could, with Susan’s truck (if perhaps without her blessing), pull the gringo out and send him on his way.
I translated this to the old man, who was decked out in typical ex-pat wear: khaki shorts and a light blue button-up shirt (another gringo walked up to us during the small debacle wearing the exact same color scheme, and stayed just long enough to gather directions and express sympathy) and had so much gratitude in his pockets that he asked me to give him change for a hundred-dollar bill.
While we waited for the chain to arrive, I told him that I was headed to South Florida soon (as in, next week). He said that he wanted to show his appreciation for my help in the form of a condo in Fort Lauderdale, in case I needed a place to stay (his first offer had been dinner at one of his wife’s restaurants in Panama City).
I told him it wasn’t necessary. “Just come back here and pay the locals for their help. I’m sure they’ll appreciate it.”
“Oh, I will,” he said, “God knows I’ll do that. Just let me do this for you, and I give it with an open heart. The condo’s empty most of the time anyway.”
The guy offered me the use of his car (in Florida, where you don’t need 4-wheel drive). He invited my friends to stay there. Whatever I wanted, I’d been such a help to him.
Where I come from (the places where everyone drives 4×4’s and talks engines more than women), if someone’s stuck in the ditch, you stop to help out. If they invite you over for coffee, it’s a huge gesture of appreciation. If they smoke you down, even better. Usually though, it’s just a handshake.
My dilemma is, of course, do I take him up on the offer? Can I learn to receive a gift as someone gives it? Would it be rude to turn it down?
I’ve been told to “give the giver the gift of giving,” to allow someone the pleasure of providing a gift, of showing his gratitude, regardless of what I think my actions were worth. Does that apply here? Or does the difference between our socio-economic backgrounds take precedent? (As in, if all I could offer him in return, if our roles were reversed, was an old couch in a studio apartment, would it be worth the same?)
I went out driving for a reason, and I hardly think it was for a jar of ginger.