pelegringos

November 1st, 2017 § 0 comments § permalink

Although I frequently describe myself as a pilgrim, I had never participated in an actual pilgrimage until earlier this month. I suppose now it’s official.

The festival of the Christo Negro (also called as El Santo, El Naza or a variety of other local names) is held annually on October 21st in the coastal town of Portobelo, Panama. The event is centered on a pilgrimage, which draws participants from throughout Central America, with many arriving on foot from Panama City or Colon, the country’s main hubs.

By walking these distances through the tropical heat, pilgrims seek atonement. Many crawl the final mile after entering town, with companions who brush the ground before them, pour candle wax onto their bare skin, and offer cries of “No dolor! No hay dolor!” as encouragement to cast off physical suffering for spiritual redemption. Also known as the “pickpockets pilgrimage”, it is rumored that career criminals will participate to wipe the slate clean each year.

Ultimately, pilgrims arrive at the parish of Iglesia de San Felipe, to seek blessings at the feet of the venerated statue of a cross-laden black Christ, carved life-sized from cocobolo, a dark, tropical hardwood.

The coastal town of Portobelo is a slim, humid crescent, braced at each end by Spanish forts built of coral blocks hewn from the reefs that border its well-protected bay. Historically, the town rose to global prominence in the late sixteenth century when it replaced the nearby town of Nombre de Dios as the Caribbean terminus of the Spanish Silver Train. It was here that mule trains would deliver the vast wealth extracted from South America, funneled overland across the Isthmus of Panama and onto colonial treasure fleets for the Spanish crown. The English pirate Francis Drake, having recently sacked and burned Nombre de Dios, succumbed to dysentery just outside of the bay. He was buried at sea within sight of Portobelo, in full armor.

In the modern era, the town is a cultural locus of Costa Arriba, the “upper coast” of Panama. This region is rooted in the Afro-Panamanian “Congo culture”, descended from the cimarrones, who were African slaves that rebelled during the Spanish colonial period and built a distinct culture here. Congo culture is on display throughout the town, in the forms of visual arts, dance, dress and food.

Descending into Portobelo on this day, having walked for hours with an ever-increasing cadre of villagers, it looks like a massive carnival – thundering music, dancing, street food and (lots of) drink. With tens of thousands of visitors overwhelming this normally sleepy town, visitors have camped on the roadside and pop-up kitchens are everywhere. The only hint of the piousness at the core of it all is the slowly moving line of purple snaking through the crowd. Those pilgrims that are here for the main event are clad in purple robes and cords, a reference to the story of Christ being mockingly draped in royal garb on the road to Calvary.

At the doorway of the church, the structure itself trimmed in bright purple, the pilgrims cast off their robes, along with it their spiritual burdens. As I stepped over the threshold, I too, turned my thoughts to the blessings to come.

 

walkabout

October 12th, 2017 § 0 comments § permalink

I miss dirt. On the boat, I tend to three small potted plants – aloe, basil and parsley. We have a composting toilet, and we separate our kitchen scraps for release to the wild. Its not that I have left the nutrient cycle, its that I miss dirt.

To remedy this, I subscribed to a website called Workaway.com, and began to search for opportunities to work on land. There are a lot of interesting projects out there, many DIYers in need of energetic hands.

My first pick was a APROVACA, a conservation project devoted to the protection and propagation of orchids in Panama. The facility is located in the Valle of Antón, in Cocle province. This valley is an ancient crater with rich soils, diverse agriculture, and fancy estates competing for land use.

They assigned me to the garden of medicinal plants, to clear it of weeds and start making some general order. In exchange, I was housed in their hostel on-site, treated to daily serenades by the frog chorus and fantastic downpours each afternoon onto the tin roofs of the orchid center, and invited to share lunch each day with the group of socios that work with the orchids.

The time was restorative, not just to work in the dirt, but to work with the rest of the group. Even though I wasn’t able to commit to a very long stay, the socios were nonetheless generous with their time, and I could not help but learn constantly. Just being in this space and exploring its nooks and crannies was like medicine. Pura vida.

don’t fence me in

January 29th, 2017 § 2 comments § permalink

You know that phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I?”

Its something one might say to invoke humility in the face of their own good fortune, or to express identification and unity with the struggle of another.

Yesterday the first headline I read began, ”Refugees, Visa and Green Card Holders Detained, Turned Away…”. I sat upright and my heart pounded in my chest. You see, my husband is a green card holder (he’s actually my Permanent Resident Alien Spouse, to be exact) and we are currently in what we hope will be the final stage of the process.

Until we reach that promised land of a 10-year green card, allowing supposed free movement in and out of my country, his residency and immigration status informs every aspect of our lives together. Where we go, how we work, when we visit family, and how we plan for our future. The thought that the rules we have been so diligently following would somehow and suddenly be thrown up in the air put my heart in my throat.

Then I read further, and saw the changes were affecting travelers only from Muslim countries. My heart promptly returned to my chest. My husband is from Italy.

That quick moment of relief affirms for me that what divides us is bigotry and racism, social constructs that have no tangible basis, yet have deep influence in our history, society and individual behavior. I can insist all day long that I am not biased against Muslims, but that moment of relief would be no less real. My privilege would allow me to leave it at that, accept our own good fortune and move along.

at_capt_stans

After the courthouse, with Alien Spouse.

When we got married in a small town courthouse in rural GA, the clerk doing our marriage license heard F’s accent, saw his foreign birth certificate and filled in his race as “Other”. F thought this was fantastic. I thought it was sort of an Alpha-Omega moment, where our national pastime of keeping everyone neatly sorted turned a white European male into The Other. We had become completely estranged from the source material of our racist thinking. The center could not hold.

So this morning I intentionally rewind to that heart sinking feeling that came before the momentary relief. Because there but for the grace of God go we.

Where Am I?

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