subir

March 25th, 2018 § 5 comments § permalink

When we first arrived in the Robeson group of islands, we soon were visited by curious kids out on their canoes, messing around on the final days of their summer. Kids as young as 5 or 6, out in a tippy dugout with an even younger sibling operating the bailer, would cruise by, hollering a few words of Spanish and laughing at everything weird about us and our boat. My call out ,“Chao, bacalao!” still gets a big laugh, and I am suspecting that some day I will learn its some naughty phrase in the Guna language.

Ultimately, the bravest of the girls asked/declared, “SUBIR.” And after a smile from me, subir she did, clamoring up from her ulu and pulling up kid after kid after her, finishing with young Mirian, a toddler no more than 2. After those first pioneers, we had Guna kids tumbling around our boat every afternoon, like clockwork.

Fabio ran a fishing clinic, where we provided hand lines and a bucket and just watched the older boys jig fish after fish after fish. Down below, I deployed a bag of colored pencils and markers, and subdivided notebook paper into mini canvases. As the sun set, we would hang up the drawings on the lifelines, divvy up the fish, and enjoy our magic hour speaking gobbledygook with other people’s babies.

At first, we were wondering, is this ok? Gringo-Guna relations have a long and checkered past, resulting in the conservative approach practiced today by all. Yet here we were running an unlicensed summer camp for half the island. We knew that the whole operation was being lightly monitored via tiny whoops and whistles sent back and forth with home. So we rowed close to shore and waved and greeted and smiled. We figured out who went with who, and met the parents. And so for about a month, that was our job.

But our daycare was not built to last. One evening at the congreso, the topic of “Should the Kids Subir” came up. Guna government is a constant, iterative conversation. In the evening, the community meets in the special hall built for that purpose, the leaders sing and discuss the news of the day, and here decisions are made. It was decided that kids on boats could end badly – an injured kid or an injured boat. They sent word via our go-to-guy Justino, who intimated they do not want debts with sailboat people. Hecho.

It was sort of a relief that the rules were crafted to meet the situation, and that Guna government is instantaneous in its implementation. We were becoming a popular destination and were getting worried about carrying capacity. Now, with our pals forbidden to subir, we wave at each other from a polite distance, shout “Chao bacalao!” and are still consumed in peals of laughter.

Now school is back in session, and we have visited the pals in the classroom. We got dressed up school colors and helped them with their English vocabulary list. When we left that day, the girls who run the tienda by the dock asked to take selfies with us in our finery.

This is getting long, and I am nowhere nearer the point. The deeper thought I have about our life here, is that we in a massive retraining on just how to be on someone else’s turf, where the boundaries are and how permeable human relations can be even in the most structured setting.

We were not privy to the larger discussion about kids on the boat. That conversation most likely tied back to previous experiences with extranjeros that left damage. It is also likely that we, just by being who we are, have the potential to cause damage as well. I catch in myself a colonist mentality – what would I do with this piece of land, the port could work like this, the airstrip like that… As a not just a gringa but also a planner, I am double danger. My mental map is always switched on, and it can get in the way of kindness if I am mentally planting flags all the time.

I have become very inhibited about photographing, or holding a camera at all. I don’t photograph crowds or people I don’t know well. Looking back, how many photos have I taken of strangers in NYC or some plaza in Italy? Now, here, it feels like cultural theft.

What I have to remind myself, and what has finally become a source of relief is that “this is not FOR you.” I just happen to be here. The boat makes it more possible to be here with minimal economic disturbance, because we can live quite independently. We barter for most things, and contribute to the town coffers by using the public lancha every so often. Although gender is fluid here, work is super gendered, so Fabio goes off to fix solar panels while I coo over embroidered molas and occasionally add one to my stash. We try our best to add some value.

Which leads me to a simple idea that was actually Fabio’s. He asked the director of the school what she needed, then stopped talking and listened. We were standing at her house on one end of the island and it was a chicha party starting that day. Chicha Fuerte is a  moonshine  that gets made in a special hut for that purpose, and once its ready, everyone gets super lit. Its a special occasion! Big dishes of candy, big dishes of suelto cigarettes, women dressed to the nines, the men bleary eyed and askew.

He said, hey we can do English class but what else do you or the school need? In response, she immediately beelined it through the early stage chicha party to the schoolhouse to show us the flooding they experience any time it rains, and where it comes in the classroom, and described how much worse it gets in the wet season, which is just about to begin.

Dear reader, do you know about me and stormwater? In short, I am a fan! If there was one thing I was expecting to hear, it was not stormwater. Yet there it was, clear as the erosion patterns under the eaves of the building and the high water sediment marks on all the walls.

So I went back today, just me this time, to survey the site with a camera and tape measure. An older lady in traditional dress dodged out of the frame when I warned her a photo was coming. As I studied the ground, a man still in chicha mode asked me carefully in Spanish, “So what are you thinking?” as if I were a doctor making a diagnosis.

“I’m thinking we need to keep the classroom from flooding!” I said. He enthusiastically agreed.

Back by the dock I stopped in the tienda to buy loose eggs at room temperature. You can just say how many you want! The shop attendant showed me the selfies she took with us when we were dressed up and we swapped numbers to share the photos. I carefully put the open package of eggs in the dinghy and rowed back along the shore, waving to pals and pals’ moms, boys jigging on docks, and other folks in tiny boats.

last day alone

March 7th, 2018 § 1 comment § permalink

For my birthday this year, I spent two weeks traveling with my parents on their first trip to Central America, went on a site visit to repair a septic system for a US-built former radio tower in the jungle, tagged along with a visiting friend to a phenomenal tropical-design home in the mountains, got repeatedly lost in the confounding elevators of the building formerly known as Trump Ocean Club, checked in with the Panama chapter of the #PrattMafia, did a self-directed windshield tour of the Areas Revertidas, bumped into a friend I had not seen in six years while hiking up a trail alone, touched up the paint on the boat, received (affordable) medical care for a parasite that had taken up residence in my foot, sent out my first Spanish-language CV, spent a day on Barro Colorado Island, jammed to Panamanian band playing Nirvana covers, went on a dinghy ride with the cat and heard kids calling out his name from the pueblo, got Rolfed, hung around the Smithsonian cafeteria eating soup like a spy scientist (a spyientist), dropped and did pushups any time I felt insecure, and had a deep conversation about the biblical precedent for ecological conservation at a private home in the neighborhood of Diablo. My husband went and did his own damn thing during this time (one month) which was the best birthday gift of all – the time and space I needed to do all this, which I did not know how badly I needed to do, but man did I ever.

I have never been married before, and I am fully grown. Sometimes I think I am already too set in my ways to successfully integrate my life with this whole entire other person’s life. But then our friends and family (in my opinion the whole point of a wedding at all is to send out the call to everyone that you need their help with this thing going forward, in perpetuity) are generous enough to remind us that what we are doing (self-exile in a plastic bottle) is extreme. So relax already.

It’s wonderful to feel the wheel turn one more click. A happy birthday!

on expedition

December 19th, 2017 § 2 comments § permalink

Jack, my 7 year-old nephew, recently asked us to help him clarify a challenging concept: “What is is like where you are?” His teacher had asked each student to inquire with a family member or friend who lives in a distant place about what winter is like where they are. Jack had to report back to his class with the data.

We received the question as we were suffering from cabin fever waiting out the very last rains of the monsoon, and so we sprang into action:

I recently wrote here that one of my hopes is to crew a research or expedition vessel. F asked me, “You have a boat. Why not make IT into a research or expedition vessel?” The science challenge from Jack solidified it. Word came back from the schoolyard that our reportage was well received. We nailed it.

We have (some) gear, we have adventure, and we have the means to document it. Suddenly every device has a potential magnification or recording capability. Does this fit with that? Can I waterproof it for submersion?

As I write, F is enjoying a solo meal of octopus. I can’t eat them, because even dead, they look like this:

If I had better bandwidth right now, I would post the video of how, even in death, the creature still has rippling colors running up and down its skin. For now, just look at that picture and shake your head around.

For a few days we had a tiny grasshopper on board, who was hanging around one spot by the window. Out came the microscope to inspect its mouthparts. In spanish, “mouthparts” are armadura bucal, lit. mouth armor.

I have some new devices! #photomicroscopy

A post shared by kate zidar (@plankton_every_day) on

I see it!

Even the documentation we already have is full of citizen science blurbs, and although he is an octopus eater, F has also become an ardent observer of “around the boat”, a place full of birds, fish, and sounds.

This reminds me that to wait any more or procrastinate is to just delay feeling great. Cheesy, I know, but I am saying it anyway. Now just isn’t the time to wait. Its time to hit the “extrude” button on that Ron Popeil Pasta Maker.