Monday, October 28, 2013

Maximizing Hammock Time

Have you ever taken yourself far outside the digital world to listen and observe?  I know I wax poetic about the times I was living near the Caribbean and sitting by the ocean simply to listen.  Up here in the mountains, I can no longer hear the ocean in Boquete.  But I can hear the wind maneuvering through the tree branches winding around the trunks.  I can hear the cacophony of rushing water when I stand by the river's edge and watch liquid glide over rocks.  I can watch tropical colored birds gather in a tree, tweeting and chirping busybodies gathering whatever it is they are gathering in the branches and then a sudden dramatic exodus as the sky explodes with their delicate, iridescent bodies.

A lot of my time spent abroad I have dedicated to teaching myself how to slow down and notice the outdoor world at my fingertips.  To know that a day spent outside perhaps doing nothing but observing and listening is a day, in my opinion, very well spent indeed.  I remember when I lived in Alaska for a summer seven years ago and the majority of the time I lived out of a tent.  I still remember that as being one of the most amazing times in my life because nothing separated me from the outdoors but a sheet of nylon.  One of my friends from Argentina, Nico, said recently (translated from Spanish to English here), "It is difficult to find true silence, but I found it here in the mountains of Boquete."  I remembered Alaska and how that was the first time in my life that I experienced true silence.  Nothing man-made around to disturb the stillness and vastness of nature.  Something so uniquely incredible that it is a sound in and of itself.  I have been dancing with that silence again here in Panama.  I am house sitting way up in the hills outside of Boquete right now and the other day I decided to listen and observe instead of searching for freelance writing jobs, instead of constantly checking my email and facebook, instead of watching some inane yet funny video on youtube, instead of wasting time, I took advantage of my time by being quiet and listening and observing.  

It had started to rain, the thunder and lightning shows here are extravagant and incredible.  I sat outside in a hammock on the screened-in porch and listened to the rain.  I thought of when I was really young, maybe four or five, and when it rained my dad used to sit in a folding chair in the garage and smoke a pipe while watching the rain.  The sweet scent of tobacco undulating around the garage like the Northern Lights billowing across the Alaskan sky.  This was the mid 80's, before the onslaught of digital media.  When you could sit and relax, put your feet up and take a load off without constantly thinking about who may have emailed you, who may have "liked" your status on facebook, how you might frame a photo of the rain and then put it on instagram.

I allowed myself to sit in the hammock for several hours, sipping coffee and watching the torrents of
rain seemingly on par with the power of Niagara Falls.  The thunder was raucous enough to startle me every so often.  Everytime I thought to myself, "I should probably go back inside and do blah blah blah on the computer," I nudged the thought away.  I wanted to sit and be present in that moment, to de-compress, to remember that there is such abundant beauty in nature; the sounds and the sights, and life will never be long enough to fully enjoy it.   I tried to listen only to the rain, I tried to quiet all the thoughts in my head and concentrate on only the organic sounds surrounding me and the hammock.  It was difficult.  I try to do the same when I'm practicing yoga but I have difficulties turning the machine off in my head.  I'm sure you do too.  I have difficulties concentrating on one task at hand, especially if that task includes sitting still and simply quieting my mind.  Often close friends tell me, "stop thinking so much, stop analyzing so much."  It's advice I work on every day.

After the rain stopped, the sky actually cleared up a bit, which is rare in this rainy season in Boquete.  I walked around the perimeter of the yard and stood on a big rock at the edge of a hill.  Two tall, skinny trees rise up to a 'V' in the front of the rock.  Standing on it, you can see Alto Boquete and Volcan Barú.  It was the first time since I've been here (almost two months) that there was actually a bit of a sunset.  The west side of the sky was that type of bright orange light that occurs in the evening after a massive rainstorm; like the pulp of an overripe mango.  The northwest side of the sky was dappled with striations of long, narrow white clouds hanging so low in the sky there was surely fog in Alto Boquete.  I watched the sky gently change from orange to dark blue to black.  I watched the clouds continually disperse and then redistribute themselves over and over again moving at a steady pace like a sleeping child breathing.  I stood on the rock for an hour choosing to capture the images with my internal viewfinder rather than that of a camera.

When true night hunkered down from horizon to horizon I hopped off the rock and walked around to the front gate at the edge of the driveway.  I had noticed several nights earlier spiderwebs between each bar of the gate.  The moon was shining just so that the spiderwebs were all lit up from behind.  This night, it was even better as individual rain drops had caught on each spiderweb thus looking like perfect, mini, opalescent pearl necklaces weaved into webs.  In the middle of many of the webs sat tiny spiders, smaller than a thumb tack.  I stared in awe, the perfection of the outdoor world something we can never ever match in our own lives.  I was reminded of a verse from one of my favorite Pablo Neruda poems, Through A Closed Mouth A Fly Enters:

What we know is so little/Es tan poco lo que sabemos
and what we presume is so much/y tanto lo que presumimos
and we learn so slowly/y tan lentamente aprendemos
that we ask and then we die./que preguntamos y morimos.
Better to keep our pride/Mejor guardemos orgullo
for the city of the dead/para la cuidad de los muertos
on the day of the departed/en el día de los difuntos
and there when the wind goes through/y allí cuando el viento recorra
the hollows of your skull/los huecos de tu calavera
it will decipher these enigmas for you,/tu revelará tanto enigma,
whispering the truth in the space/susurrándote la verdad
where your ears used to be./donde estuvieron tus orejas.


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chocolate Induces an "Orgasm of Your Face"

Everyone has little nuances that make them individualistic, different from the masses.  We all have funny little habits  we cannot help doing that set us apart from every one else.  I have learned from living in dorm rooms in hostels for the better part of ten months that I don't like it if I know people can see me sleeping.  I will go to great lengths to ensure I have a bottom bunk bed where I can tuck a sarong under the mattress of the top bunk so that I sleep like a undisturbed and hidden bear in her den.  If I can't sleep within my little cubbyhole, I sleep facing the wall with a shirt over my face.  When I stand up after sitting for a long periods of time I do this weird hip swivel move to crack my lower back.  It must be done.  I cannot walk like a normal person if I don't crack my back.  And if the hip swivel move doesn't work I walk lifting my knees high up into the air moving them towards my epicenter until my back cracks.  However, probably the strangest little nuance that I have no choice but to participate in is that I sneeze every time I eat chocolate.  As soon as I bite into an authentic, delicious, dark chocolate piece of godliness, I can feel the inside of my nose starting to tingle.  All my little nose hairs start quivering in anticipation of the storm about to blow through their canal.  This is followed by one or several sneezes.  This started happening to me maybe about fifteen years ago.  It's the strangest phenomenon.  People would always tell me, "Oh, well you're probably allergic."  But the thing is, wouldn't I get sick in some way if I was allergic?  Because I've never gotten sick from eating chocolate (another fact: the only food I've ever gotten sick from eating is tofu.  Twice.  And for this I will never eat that flavorless white cube of vomit inducing soy ever again).

I thought I was weird...or special.  But I also thought I was special when Costa Ricans refer to me as, "mi amor," or Chileans and Argentinians refer to me as, "corazón."  I thought, "Wow!  These people really like me!"  Until I had the realization that these are names that all their fellow countrymen use and mean nothing as far as a term of endearment.  Or, as my Argentinian friend, Rulo, told me, in between a fit of contagious giggles, "We call women corazón because we can't remember what their names are."  Even the border patrol agent, on the Panama-Costa Rica border called me "mi amor" once.  Can you imagine crossing from Canada back into the states and the border patrol person calling you "my love?"  Are you imagining it?  Impossible, right?

Chocolate sampling

But you know what?  I'm not here to talk to you about palabras en español (words in Spanish).  No, my love, I am here to talk to you about chocolate and why I sneeze every time I eat it.  I took a tour of a cacao farm when I was still living in Puerto Viejo and Paul, the owner and tour guide, mentioned that there is a percentage of people in the world where chocolate induces sneezing and it's not an allergy.  I was astounded!  There are other people in the world just like me who experience this strange phenomenon?  I immediately conjured up a Chocolate Sneezing Convention in my mind.  Oh my gosh, I could organize an entire weekend event with people who have just as strange a reaction as I do.  We could sit around in a banquet hall in a hotel and eat chocolate and sneeze together.

A cacao bean is purple on the inside, chock full of anti-oxidants.
After that cacao tour, I went online to do a little research in the chocolate sneezing realm.  I found this really interesting article from The Atlantic called,"For Some Chocoholics, an "Orgasm of the Face.  Apparently, chocolate is a stimulant that produces an orgasm of your face or a "photic sneeze reflex."  This happens to some people when they see bright lights but when you eat chocolate (and I'm talking real chocolate, not that Hershey's crap) your photic, which I have now learned means "visual," senses mingle, much like you do at a cocktail party, with the nerve sensations in your face thus producing a sneeze.

Normally, this is all well and good, however, sometimes when one sneezes it can be so forceful that it causes you to pass gas as well.  Unfortunately, this happened to me when I went on a date many months ago when I was living in Tulum.  We had split a brownie for dessert and of course, I sneezed and simultaneously, very unexpectedly, farted.  Thankfully he laughed, almost for too long, but I sat in an embarrassed stupor for the rest of dessert simply because he was a suave Italian and Italians are so refined with their stain-free white linen pants, perfectly coiffed hair, secure in the knowledge that they know what real gelato is.  They are the only brand of men that can wear a man-purse, or as I like to refer to it as a "murse," and look genuinely manly while doing so.

But I digress.  I don't mind the orgasms of my face so long as they don't continue to produce other bodily effects that make me look that much less feminine in front of handsome foreign men.      

The innards of cacao

Cacao tree

If you are in the Puerto Viejo area and have an interest in going on this cacao tour I'd highly recommend it!  Educational (I'm a nerd for learning new things), insightful, entertaining and delicious!  They are called Caribeans Coffee and Chocolate and it's a little family-owned and operated cacao farm and chocolate making business.  The best chocolate I've ever had...

Monday, October 7, 2013

Worshipping Pines and Eucalyptus

I'm not going to be able to move tomorrow.  Not because I did some strenuous hike up Volcan Baru, but because I rented a bike today and took a long ride meandering through the mountains of Boquete.  It might sound like an idyllic, relaxing Sunday afternoon activity, however, Boquete is full of hills; hamlets built into mountains.  There's some work involved, some sweat and sore legs will surely follow.  Where ever you bike down, you must bike back up or vice versa.  I have to tell you, I really, really miss going on bike rides.  There was basically one road in Puerto Viejo so my bike rides were slightly limited.  Had I wanted to go up into the jungle on a dirt road I probably could have but I lacked the correct bike for such an excursion.  I biked in Tulum all the time with my little bike side kick that I lovingly named Chonchito (Spanish for piglet).  That was also mainly on flat surfaces as well.  There was one incline on the road to the beach.  Puerto Viejo and Tulum were both places where I learned how to take my time biking, to slow down, to not try to get to my destination as quick as possible which is what I was wont to do back home.

Today the sun was finally peeking out from the theatrical curtain of clouds that is habitual in this season in Panama.  There aren't too many days here without rain so I thought to rent a bike and get up in the mountains.  I had hopes of maybe biking to a trailhead, going hiking and then returning to Boquete all within the four hour allotted rental time I was supposed to have the bike for.  Twenty minutes into my ride uphill I realized I was perhaps a bit overzealous with wanting to bike into the mountains, go hiking and then bike back down all within four hours.  It was only $12 for four hours and after that the price went up to $20.  I was trying to keep costs down.

I slowly made my way up outside of town.  The gears were on the lowest setting and my legs rotated furiously while I moved at a snail's pace forward, sweat on my palms making it a bit difficult to grip the handlebars tightly.  The thing I love about biking is it enables you to take in your surroundings so much better than if you are in a car.  There are a lot of stunning views from up in the hills of Boquete and biking enables you soak it up.  Gasping for air with each inhale I decided to stop for a little water break and snap a few photos, I dismounted my bike and immediately my knees started to feel sore.  Man, I thought, not even thirty minutes of riding and I'm already feeling this.

I was laughing with a friend the other day about growing up.  We joked about how when you turn 30 suddenly all these things that used to be physically easy now seem a bit daunting.  For example, if I sit cross legged for awhile and then go to stand up, I have to ease up slowly being careful not to strain my legs in the process.  My face winces as a struggling of ahh, ohh, eee's expels from my mouth as I rise to standing.  The same goes for biking.  I can't just hop on and off a bike anymore.  I have to take my time dismounting and mounting, much like an artist takes his time with his piece of art.  Except, I'm only taking my time so I don't dislodge my knee cap.

Easing back onto the bike, I started farther uphill, my knees feeling the effects of resting for a spell.
 There's an old abandoned house up in the mountains that looks like a mini castle.  I had seen it from a car a few times prior and wanted to bike up there for closer viewing.  I'm not sure why, but I feel very drawn to this particular area of Boquete.  The land is replete with coffee plants and massive trees and the road is parallel to a low-level, rocky river.  There are sheer cliffs on your left as you ascend reminding me of roads I've driven on in the Adirondacks in upstate New York.  Maybe it's the magnificent trees lining the river next to this house but it's just so quiet up there, the only roar the water, the occasional car passing over the bridge.  Other than that, it's just a slice of quiet, peaceful bliss.

Roughly two hours later I made it to my destination.  I walked down to the river's edge, removed my shoes and hobbled on the uneven, rock-laden riverbed.  The water was frigid but felt exhilarating after losing five pounds in sweat on the way up.  I climbed onto a boulder and lay on my back to gaze at the canopy of trees overhead.  One side of the river was lined with pine trees and the other eucalyptus trees.  Looking up, the sky was the passage way between the two.  I stared at the branches of pine and thought how each individual display of pine boughs resembled little mini displays of fireworks.  A silent, still and natural display of something so powerfully loud.  How complicated we make life, how simple we can reduce everything when we are in the outdoor world tree gazing.  How boring to spend time watching TV when we can watch the wind tussle tree branches and hear the river rushing by.  How lovely to be alone with your thoughts uninterrupted by people, a phone call, a text message.  Despite the fact that I know I will be in a bit of pain tomorrow after working out muscles that I haven't worked out in quite some time, the bike ride up hill was utterly, totally and completely worth it.  My advice to you, even though you haven't asked, is to find your little slice of outdoor heaven and cling to it much like you do to your cell phone.  However, leave the cell phone behind and instead listen to the wind and the trees.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Unearthing Gratitude

My fruit man in Boquete
Often in conversation, people will ask me what it is about traveling that I like.  I rattle off the desire to learn better Spanish, to experience other cultures, to give myself an education that no college degree could ever compare to and to meet people from all over the world.  Even if you only spend one day with another traveler, there are some that have the ability to completely change the way you think or to bring out the complete best in you.  Since I have been in Boquete, I have met some truly amazing people, especially the local folks who work at the hostel I'm living at.  Two employees are mother and daughter, Melanie and Gina.  They might be the two sweetest Panamanian women I have met so far; I adore them and they are ever so patient in helping me with my Spanish.

It's the rainy season here, the days are all the same.  In the morning there is often sunshine but dark storm clouds lurk around the mountains and slowly enter into the little bowl that Boquete sits in by afternoon.  Massive thunderstorms crack and boom overhead, brilliant rays of lightning zigzag through the monochrome grey sky.  Some days the storms are torrential and detrimental.  Today it is coming in sheets.  The river next to the hostel is zooming at top speed.  I am supposed to teach Melanie and Gina some English in the afternoon but ten minutes into practicing with Melanie, Gina comes over and says they have to go.  I can tell something is wrong but don't want to press the issue so I just say I will see them tomorrow.

I wake up early the next morning and am sipping coffee at the kitchen sink, staring out the window and eating papaya slices.  Luchini, the owner of the hostel, comes in to tell me there was a mud slide that went through Melanie and Gina's house last night.  Their house flanks a mountainside and some damage has been done.  Five of us pile into a truck to go help, assuming we'll be assisting in removing some mud from the house and we'll be done by lunch time.  We arrive to sullen faces, Gina slumps on the couch with one of her dogs in her arms, perhaps the only comfort she is feeling in this moment.

The damage is so much more than what the five of us could possibly do to alleviate it.  They lost three bedrooms, one of their dogs and the concrete that their house is built with has caved in to the rooms that still exist.  You can see the huge hill behind their house stripped bare of nature.  I stare at the damage and feel awful.  I immediately feel guilty for what I can't change, for how helpless I feel.  I begin to wish I had oodles of money to give to them to build a new house.

There is perhaps no worse emotion than feeling helpless.  I think of survivors of Hurricane Katrina waiting on their roofs for help.  I think of people in NYC waiting for electricity and heat after Hurricane Sandy.  I think of my own grandma in a nursing home crying, telling me how lonely she was.  I remember no worse feeling than watching the tears roll down her cheeks knowing that after I left the nursing home, she would be alone again.  That moment slayed me and continues to when I think about it now, three years later.  My heart still breaks.  The look in her eyes, the sound of her broken voice.  I think how I've never experienced a natural disaster on this scale where irreversible damage is done to your life.  I stare at the broken walls and huge pieces of cement taking over what was once their living room.

It's not enough to just keep them in my thoughts.  I want to become Wonder Woman and fix everything for them.  I want to push the mountain back into place and haul the cement out for them.  Give them back their electricity and their happiness.  But I can't do anything.  And the overwhelming feeling of helplessness stays with me for days and days.

What do we do when faced with something we are helpless to change?  All I can offer Gina and Melanie are more lessons in English.  All I can offer is to tell them I have been thinking about them a lot.  Is that enough?   How much can we offer someone when we feel as though we have nothing to offer?  When is the line drawn in the sand between helpful and helpless and is that line often drawn on a windy day where it will be marred by a constant blowing breeze?  To travel is not to simply see.  To travel is to feel and understand, to travel is to sometimes bear witness to those things we cannot change, understand situations that we are helpless to fix.  Maybe that's where gratitude begins.  Despite the fact that I can't change anything for Gina and Melanie, while I stare at the hill behind their house I realize how grateful I am to know them.  And if you are humbled by that gratitude, perhaps that's enough.  To have gratitude for what you do have, for me to have gratitude to at least know Gina and Melanie.  Perhaps, maybe, that is enough.