Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Man in the Yellow Shirt (Part 1)

I sighed quietly.

Jen and I were in a collectivo van with five Nicaraguans. I couldn't see any houses or paved roads anywhere for kilometres, only the unmarked, barely visible dirt road we were on. There was not much traffic apart from a few 18-wheeler trucks that roared by from time to time. Occasionally some small children would skitter forward and throw buckets of water in front of trucks - it was a vain effort to control the dust that would inevitably be brewed up from the vehicles' tires. Sometimes our driver would slow down and give the children a few cordobas. More often he gave them nothing.


I wonder where those kids get their water, I wondered. And how far they have to walk to get here. I sympathized with them but also caught myself thinking that their efforts were in vain and therefore undeserving of any real reward. My own thoughts surprised and frightened me. My unlucky and unfortunate experiences in Central America was making me bitter.

You're not here as a politician or a sociologist, so stop judging shit and enjoy the scenery. Nicaragua's beauty was undeniable. I stared off at the great deserted plain that led to three volcanoes at the horizon. I snapped a few quick pictures of the volcanoes and quickly pocketed my camera. After absent-mindedly checking the time, I brought my attention back to the road again, where a truck driver ahead was throwing change out of his window at a small child.

The van bounced violently as it hit potholes in the dirt road. Our feet were on top of our bags - I had insisted on bringing them in with us instead of storing them in the back, as a security measure - which forced to sit slightly higher than everyone else in the van. Our heads struck the ceiling at every pothole. "This is first class stuff," I whispered to Jen. With her eyes half closed, she nodded.

Bored, I took out a 2 litre bottle of tap water and put two purification pills in it, watching it turn a muddy-orange colour. I made a mental note not to drink the water for a at least 15 minutes so that the pills could take effect. "I'm thirsty," Jen said. "How long is it going to be?"

"Fifteen minutes," I said.

"No," she said, shaking her head lazily, "I mean how long until we get there?"

"Oh, I have no idea," I said. I looked ahead and saw nothing but a few semi-trucks. "Probably a half hour or so."


I proved to be wrong. After about ten minutes, the dirt road ended and the collectivo van turned into what was quite obviously a city. The metamorphosis from desolate plain to urban city was immediate and astonishing. We drove through shantytowns and embassy districts until we finally arrived at our destination: the collectivo van and taxi depot. I paid the driver of the van 50 cordobas for the ride and shook my head vigorously at the man offering to take our bags out for us. I took our bags out myself. The taxi depot was not impressive - a flat piece of asphalt with about fifty cars and vans and just as many drivers yelling their destinations. We were immediately hounded by a swarm of taxi drivers asking us in accented english where we needed to go. "We're still figuring it out," I said. "Leave us alone." They reluctantly backed off and solicited other potential passengers.

"So this is Managua so far," I said. "I'm sure it will be better than Tegucigalpa, at least." I wasn't worried. I had high hopes for Nicaragua.

Jen and I took out our Lonely Planet map of Managua. Our hostel looked to be eight or nine kilometres away. "Want to just walk some of it?" I asked Jen. "I sort of want to stretch my legs and see what Managua has to offer before we put our bags away and relax."

"Sure," she said.

We were both sick of being stuck in so many chicken buses and vans, and walking for a little while would be a breath of fresh air. I only knew that the hostel was north, in the direction of the lake, but I didn't know how to say the word north in Spanish. I stopped people on the street and asked, "Donde esta el Lago de Managua?" I received several puzzled looks, and some people looked concerned and asked us why on earth we would want to go there. "La hostal," I would say, shrugging. We had a rough idea of how to get to our hostel, so we headed north.

After walking for about twenty minutes, I noticed that the neighbourhood seemed to be getting grittier. Razor wire covered school buildings, the side streets were really just glorified dirt roads and alleys, and many of the houses were made of cardboard and sheet metal. I was used to seeing this type of neighbourhood in Central America and I was fairly desensitized to it, so I was not particularly worried about anything.

I took a look at Jen. She looked tired. "Want me to hold your handbag?" I asked her. "Aww," she said, swooning. "What a gentleman!" I took her handbag and grinned from ear to ear. This is going to be a pretty good day, I thought.

There was some traffic on the street but barely anyone outside. We were practically the only people on the sidewalk. The only other people were ahead of us, two men walking in the same direction we were walking in. One of them was tall, a giant by Central American standards; the other man was short and squat. The tall man wore a white shirt with black shoes and the short man wore a black shirt with white shoes - I laughed out loud at how ridiculous they looked next to each other. The tall one looked at us and double-taked, but I thought nothing of it. They turned left at the next corner and disappeared.

"Want to take a taxi?" Jen asked. "No, it's okay," I replied. "Not right now. Maybe in five or ten minutes. I'm not in any hurry." I smiled, looking at the horizon towards the lake.

We walked in silence, with me holding Jen's handbag in one hand and holding her hand in my other hand. All of a sudden, two men appeared in front of me - they were the same men I spotted earlier, incidentally - and screamed at us in a slurry of Spanish. One of them held a long knife and held it in front of my face, still yelling at me. It was extremely dirty, but it glistened in the sun in the spots where the steel shined through. He pressed it against the right side of my stomach and began slowly driving it into the meat of my belly. I had no choice but to walk backwards with the knife or be stabbed. The other man put both his hands in my pockets and began stealing their contents; his hands were filthy and disgusted me, even in my moment of panic. I instinctively dug my hand into my right pocket and grabbed my switch-blade. The tall man noticed and raised his knife up to my chest, carving it in slightly below my right nipple. I let go of my switch-blade and took my hand out of my pocket, letting the short man steal my wallet with his dirty hands. He left the switch-blade.

Jen grabbed the tall man by the shoulder and pulled as hard as she could, yelling, "No!" He turned around and threatened her with the knife, and then went back to me. I continued backing up slowly as I had been before, moving in tandem with the knife. Suddenly, the short man yelled something to him and they both turned around and sprinted into an alley.

I stood there, still holding Jen's handbag, and listened to their footsteps dissipate. I looked down at my white shirt, checking for any red spots. There were none. Not even a tear in the shirt. I was in shock. I checked my pockets and was surprised each time that my hands came back empty, with the obvious exception of my switch-blade. They had stolen my digital camera, my passport, my wallet, all of my identification, and about 40 dollars' worth of Nicaraguan cordobas, Honduran lempira, and American dollars. I knelt down slowly and touched both my socks and felt a slight sense of relief. I still had my debit card and credit card, which I had hidden inside my socks. I then looked at my left hand and realized why I had been such a perfect target. I had been holding Jen's handbag the whole time.

I stood there in silence. An elderly couple sitting in rocking chairs had seen everything from their front porch, barely fifteen feet away from us. They did not offer any help or react in any way. It was as if nothing had happened. I stared blankly into the horizon at a volcano. "Fuck," I said, silently. I heard Jen yell, "Policia! Policia!" but it seemed so distant to me that I disregarded it. Then I felt her lifting my shirt up, touching my stomach and chest, turning me around several times in the process. I felt like I was moving through molasses; everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. "Are you okay?" she asked me. Her voice cracked when she spoke.

I snapped out of my trance. I looked at her. "I'm not hurt," I said.

Her face suddenly twisted in anger. "Those fucking gangbangers are going to pay," she said.

I did not believe her.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Backfire




I heard the first set of gunshots clearly.

They came from behind us, deep in the woods. Curious, I stood up suddenly. I walked a few metres out of the woods and into the baseball field. The baseball field was deserted. I looked to the right at the townhouse block where we all lived. There was no one loitering outside. I shrugged and walked back into the forest. No one noticed that I had been gone; my brother and my friends, Wolfe and Brian, barely noticed the noise. I squatted back down next to them and directed my attention to the log we were turning over. Wolfe and Brian pushed one end of the log, turning it over. Immediately, some earthworms rushed back into the soil and a few centipedes ran out in random directions. However, the species we were after, although relatively well camouflaged, was too slow to escape our eager hands.

I caught one first. I held it up by the tail for everyone to see, relishing the attention I received for catching the first one. It was a red back salamander. With their tiny legs, we often mistook them for garter snakes, which was half of their appeal. I lifted it over one of the open jars we brought with us, but it wiggled out of my fingers' grasp and fell to the forest floor again. It buried itself into the dirt. I tried to find it, but in vain. It escaped. I sulked and hung my head as I took on a barrage of insults from my peers.

My brother caught the next one, and the next several salamanders. I was desperate to make a come-back, and doubled my efforts. We moved from place to place in such a way that from a bird's eye view, we were traveling in a large circle through the woods. Moving in this way ensured that we would finish back where we started at the southern point of the circle, where our backyards met the forest. After about an hour or so of hunting for small wildlife, Wolfe and Brian each held a jar holding a modest amount of animals, mostly salamanders and some worms to feed them. Even I managed to find some novelty amphibians, like a bullfrog and a strange yellow newt. However, my brother had caught the most animals, carrying five jars full of diverse species. It seemed like enough animals to start a whole new eco-system. I took out a guidebook on North American reptile and amphibian species and tried to identify the animals in each of our jars, starting with my brother's.

My brother did not brag, but my friends congratulated him over and over again and showered him with compliments. I was intensely jealous. I wanted the same attention he was getting. I said nothing, because there was nothing I could say. My brother did, after all, catch more animals than me or anyone else.

That's when I heard the gunshots for the second time. This time everybody paid attention. My brother and Wolfe were instantly excited. Brian and I were visibly nervous. We decided to keep heading north, deeper into the woods and away from the safety of our neighbourhood. After about ten minutes of walking, the woods opened up to a large field quartered off by a barbed wire picket fence with a sign. The sign was wooden and obviously hand-made by the land-owner. The sign said, WARNING! ABSOLUTELY NO TRESPASSING! TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT!

"What does trespassing mean?" I asked.

"I don't know. But my dad says that there's a farmer that lives on the land there and he's really mean. He's a dumb butt," said Wolfe. We all laughed.

After less than a minute of discussion, the general consensus was that we should go over the fence and continue. I had absolutely no clue where we were going or what we were after, but I wanted another chance to impress my friends - most of all, I wanted to show my friends that I was better than my brother.

Walking on the farmer's land, we followed the fence north-east until we saw a donkey standing alone next to a creek. I walked up to the creek and threw some water at the donkey. It made no noise and didn't seem to mind the attention. Wolfe punched the donkey in the flank. The donkey kicked wildly into the air and then walked away silently. Wolfe almost fainted from the shock, but the rest of us laughed uncontrollably.

That's when the third set of gunshots rang out. It was deafening.

"Crap," said Brian. "That's way closer."

I dipped my hands in the creek and pretended to grab at the crawfish in the water. I was frightened.

"Let's go check it out," said Wolfe.

They started walking back into the woods again, towards the direction of the gunshots. I reluctantly kept pace with them.

After a few minutes we reached a large patch of open space in the forest. The ground was very sandy, almost orange. Someone had planted onions nearby, and the smell hung in the air. My brother and I thought it would be funny to transplant these onions from the fertile ground to the sandy section to see if they could survive. It took us the better part of fifteen minutes. Wolfe and Brian thought it was a stupid idea, and spent the time admiring the animals we caught and pacing back and forth. Wolfe was concerned about how we were going to split the animals up. We were sharing jars, and the ownership of certain animals was immediately contested.

After my brother and I finished transplanting the onions, we moved on deeper into the forest. The clanging of the jars against each other in our bags began to annoy us, and we all expressed our annoyance out loud.

I started complaining loudly about how annoying the jars were, until I heard Wolfe speak. I thought I heard Wolfe ask, "What?" I foolishly started to repeat myself. He spoke louder and it was clear that he was actually saying, "Shut up. Shut up." I did. We could hear the distant sound of people talking ahead of us.

The foliage was blocking our view, but it was obvious that there were people ahead of us. There were some pick-up trucks parked to our right. In the back of one I could clearly make out some open weapon cases and a stripped down 12-gauge shotgun.

Growing up, I often saw my father's weapons stripped down in the living room. The basement even had a rifle up on display for anyone to touch and hold. Its firing pin and chamber had been removed, but in my mind it had always been a real weapon. My brother and I would take turns holding the rifle and yelling, "Pow! Pow!" at each other. My father had taught us how to use a cheap, mostly nonlethal air rifle. I would shoot at paper targets hanging from tree branches. My brother would ruthlessly kill squirrels and robins. We were both familiar enough with weapons. However, neither of us had any idea how to act around people with weapons.

My brother smiled and motioned for us to move forward. Hunched down, we slowly made our way forward until we could make out a group of men holding weapons. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed what looked like an open carton of milk. My immediate instinct was to get up and kick it. This is going to be so funny, I thought in anticipation of what I was going to do. I spotted another few random open cartons of milk open on the dirt.

Real funny.


"Let's get out of here," Brian said. At that instant, we all spontaneously sprinted through the group of men, surprising them. Our sprint even surprised us, as we dropped some of our jars. It all seemed to be happening in slow motion. I kicked the first carton of milk and kept running. I heard a loud metallic noise but thought nothing of it and just kicked the other cartons. By the third or fourth carton, I realized that what was coming out of the cartons was not milk.

It was handgun and shotgun ammunition.

This realization struck me with guilt and fear. I immediately froze. Everyone else kept running until they were out of sight.

I looked towards the group of men. There were about a dozen of them, all of them Asian. Most of them seemed to be in their late 20s. Some of them wore head-bands and some of them wore jeans and some of them had no shirts on. All of them held guns. I might have imagined it, but I could have sworn I heard the sound of a gun being cocked. I didn't know whether it was the sound of a bullet entering the chamber of a rifle or the sound of a weapon being unloaded.

I dropped down to all fours and began picking up as many bullets and shells as I could. Every few seconds I looked up and saw the men staring at me. The expressions on their faces were identical and unreadable.

"I'm sorry," I kept saying. "I'm so sorry."

None of them said a word. One of them, suddenly bored, loaded a crossbow and shot it at a paper target.

I felt like I had been on the ground for hours, filling up cartons with grimy, dirty shells and bullets. After a while I couldn't take it anymore. I stopped and looked up. Most of the cartons were filled, but it was evident that a lot of ammunition was still strewn about. "I'm so sorry," I said one last time. "I'll never bother you again."

I ran away and never looked back. I didn't really expect anyone to shoot me, but I half-expected to hear warning shots. I was not mentally ready for that eventuality, and ran as fast as I could out of terror. I had no idea where I was running. Out of nowhere, I heard my brother yell out, "Stop!"

"On te regardait," my brother told me in French, relieving me. They had seen everything. Wolfe and Brian put their fingers to their mouths and shushed my brother. We walked silently and methodically through the forest again.

We didn't stop until we made it back to the creek. I looked down at my pants and noticed that I had urinated at some point. No one seemed to notice. I quickly dunked my hands into the water and splashed some onto my crotch; my attempt to mask the pee stain only brought further attention to it. However, no one seemed to care and no one teased me. Our experience with the armed Asian men was fresh in our minds.

"Ching chang chow chong!" yelled Wolfe. We all laughed. It felt good to break the silence.

"Holy crap, those guys were probably Japanese ninjas or something!" added Brian. "Imagine if they had ninja stars or nun-chuks. They're probably like the ninja turtles or something."

"Yeah, right," I said.

"Hey, where are our jars?" my brother asked. There were only two left; we had dropped the other ones in our hurry to leave the scene earlier. All of the jars were of shoddy quality and had weak trap-doors so we were confident that the animals would escape - this was exactly what worried us. My brother pledged to find the jars the next day. I begged him not to, but he was set on it.

We walked past the creek, the donkey, the barbed wire, the sign. We left the woods and crossed the baseball field to reach our townhouses. Brian asked us if we wanted to play Super Nintendo at his place. We all said yes. My brother and I entered our townhouse and washed our hands. I let him keep his jar of amphibians under my bed. My mother asked us where we were going. "Chez Brian," I said.

Brian lived next door to us, so we walked right in and went to his basement, where he was already playing a Super Nintendo game with Wolfe. The video game was called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles In Time. He offered a controller to both me and my brother at the same time, hovering it back and forth in front of our faces. My brother grabbed it and gave it to me. I smiled, and chose Donatello.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Banality of Travel

I was aware that the Ontario Provincial Police knew my name, what I looked like, and the city I was currently living in, so I took some precautions before going out. The previous night, Mary and Ashley had dyed my hair green and given me some raggedy old clothes for me to wear.

Presently, I stepped out of Mary's house slowly, careful not to let any of her dogs out.

The dominant feeling was one of overwhelming paranoia.

It was around 11 in the morning and I was the last one to leave Mary's house. I sat down on the curb, careful not to sit in any of the snow or mud on the lawn, and wondered why there was still snow in Sarnia in mid-April. It was a grey and cloudy day and I was not looking forward to my errands, especially with the newfound knowledge that many of my friends had been pulled out of their classrooms by the police and questioned on my whereabouts. Additionally, the Sureté du Québec police force had successfully hacked into my e-mail and read my online conversations with friends. I was not in a particularly good mood.

However, I was desperate for something to do.

I took the cell phone I had purchased a few days prior out of my backpack. I also pulled out a pay-as-you-go card and dialed the number listed on it. I scratched away at the secret code required to add more money to my account with a small pocket knife, but accidentally erased the last two digits in doing so. I foolishly tried entering numbers at random to fill in the last two digits, hoping I would get the one correct combination out of 100. This soon proved to be impossible.

Fuck.

I called the customer service line and asked them what I should do, and was told to go back to the convenience store and explain what had happened and that they would probably provide me with a new card. I thanked them and hung up. I was now determined to buy a new pay-as-you-go card, since I wanted to call my friends but didn't want to take the risk of using Mary's home phone.

I walked up to Confederation street and stopped myself from turning left when I noticed a police cruiser parked at the corner. I found myself gulping and snickered at myself. You're being an idiot, I thought. Just act natural and take a detour.

I crossed Confederation and followed Ontario street. Out of the corner of my eye I caught the policeman in the cruiser staring at me. It suddenly occurred to me that what I saw as a disguise actually demanded people's attention. I saw the convenience store ahead, just next to a Canadian Forces military base, and continued forward as I tried my hardest not to turn my head to look at the cop.

Not breaking my stride, I stepped onto the path leading up to the store's front door. I could hear my quickening breath over the sound of my shoes crunching onto the snow covered concrete squares. I was certain that a hand would reach for my shoulder before I made it to the door.

I closed my eyes and entered the store. I turned around. Nobody was outside. Nobody is following me, I thought, relieved.

I turned to the clerk, a short Asian woman with rugged features. I briefly looked around the store to see if anyone else was going to buy anything so that I would have ample time to discuss my situation; there was no one else there. I wasn't worried though. After all, I had bought my pay-as-you-go card here.

"Hi," I said, smiling.

"Hello," the woman responded in accented English. She did not return my smile and seemed uneasy.

"I have a situation that I have to explain to you regarding this pay-as-you-go card that I bought here a couple of days ago," I said.

"Okay," the clerk said, clearly uncomfortable.

"Well, I scratched out the last two digits by accident and called the customer service line, and they told me to take the card back and that you would be able to replace the card with a new one," I continued.

"No! I not do that. You no steal from me," the woman said, shaking her head furiously.

"Why?" I was not prepared for that answer. "I can show you the receipt, and I can call the number right now and show you that the card hasn't been used yet," I said worriedly.

"I said no! No! No! You no steal! No! Get out of here! You want me to call police? You want me to call police?" she screamed, suddenly grabbing a rotary phone from behind the counter.

Part of me wanted to laugh at the sight of her using a rotary phone to dial 911, but most of me felt terrified at the thought of wrongfully being charged for fraud. I was frozen in place and yelled, "No! Don't do that!" because I didn't know what else to say. I waved my hands in an attempt to calm her down - she had the phone up to her face and was waiting for the other line to pick up - but it only agitated her more, and she suddenly threw the telephone at me.

She missed. I heard the phone clang onto the linoleum floor behind me.

I grabbed my pay-as-you-go card and threw it at the clerk, yelling, "Fuck you!" It struck her on the cheek. She flinched and screamed and clawed at the air in front of her face. Full of adrenaline, I ran out of the store as fast as I could. A green-haired maniac running as fast as he can looks sort of suspicious! I heard a voice inside of me say. I ran to a side-street and started walking slowly and determinedly, as if I was walking to a bus stop.

I noticed a telephone booth at the next corner and decided to hide inside of it for a while. I picked up the phone and listened to the dial tone until a pre-recorded message started playing. After repeating this a few times, I looked down the street and noticed three police cars, sirens on and lights flashing, driving to the store I had just run out of.

There was a giant, writhing ball of embarrassment and fear inside of me. The fear superseded the embarrassment. I was terribly afraid. I was afraid of being arrested, of having a criminal record, of having to return to my family in Québec, of having to go back to school, of living a life of shame for having run away from everything I had. However, deep inside I knew it was only a matter of time until I was caught by the police; if I was caught, Mary's mother could go to prison for harbouring me illegally. I was afraid.


Not sure what to do, I thought of calling the customer service line to complain about what had happened.

I searched for the number on my cell phone and started dialling it on the pay phone.

After a few seconds I hung up the phone and thought. I thought long and hard.

I pressed 0 and requested a collect call from the operator. The phone picked up on the first ring.

"Oui, allo?"

In that voice I felt countless fits of crying, sleepless nights spent sitting next to the telephone, indescribable depression, and the infinite pain of losing a child. I suddenly understood the gravity of what I had done. It wasn't just about me anymore. I had hurt people so deeply and had not even realized it. I did not know if I could ever be forgiven or if I even deserved it. I simultaneously embraced and rejected the thought of banishment.

Bathing in the alternating red and blue lights of the police cruisers down the street, I kneeled down in the telephone booth and sobbed. And my mother sobbed with me.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Kevin of the Yukon.


Kevin, a virtual stranger that I was hosting from a website called couchsurfing.com, was sitting on the couch across from me with his arms wrapped around his knees. He wore a black tuque and a red and white polka dot shirt with buttons but no sleeves. I thought it made him look incredibly effeminate for some reason. He was the first "couchsurfer" that I had decided to host. My girlfriend and I sat on another couch; I had my arm casually around her shoulder. The conversation with Kevin was not going well - I was not convinced that I would be using the website again.

“You can’t really think they were capable of doing that themselves," Kevin said with a dismissive hand gesture.

“Actually, I don’t only think they were capable of building the pyramids, but I know that the Egyptians built the pyramids. It’s an established fact,” I said, incredulous. "It's been proven."



“But the pyramids are too complicated for human design," Kevin continued. "Human architects can’t create something as complex as that, and imagine the tools the Egyptians had!”



I couldn't believe what I was hearing. “So you’re saying that aliens came to Earth 150 million years ago and built the pyramids themselves…as a gift to the Egyptians.”



“Yes. Exactly,” he said.



I looked over at Rachel. When we locked eyes, it struck me that we were thinking the same thing. This guy is bat-shit insane.

"Well, I'm sorry," I said, "But I'm never going to believe your argument and I'm not convinced. Also, I'm not calling you a racist or anything, but I don't really like it when people completely underestimate a sophisticated people like the Egyptians and their ability to build tall buildings."


"No! No! I'm not calling them stupid or anything," Kevin said, waving wildly with his hands.

"I hope not," I replied.

I felt Rachel's hand squeeze my side. I glanced at her and decided to drop the issue.

"It's just that it makes more sense that extra-terrestrials did it," he said, smiling hopefully.


Biting my lip and trying hard not to roll my eyes, I changed the subject. I asked Kevin to tell us his life story. He told us about how he was born and raised in the Yukon Territory. He experienced an epiphany of sorts as a teenager and subsequently decided to become a raw vegan. He traveled the continent in search of the meaning of life. He joined a survival cult in Phoenix, Arizona but was kicked out - he wouldn't elaborate on why. He then joined another survival cult in the mountains of British Columbia but was kicked out of that one too. He was 25 years old and his reason for needing a couch to crash on was that he had just moved and was looking for an apartment of his own.

The more he spoke about his background, the more tense I felt. At some point - I think it was right around when he was talking about having just moved to Montreal to make it big - Rachel got off the couch and left. I couldn't blame her. Kevin was a talking machine .

"Did you know that food has a soul? And that it has an aura that you can take pictures of? You know that, right?" he asked smugly.

"Well, I don't believe that vegetables have souls, if that's what you're saying," I said.

He smiled. "Yes, that is what I'm saying, and you'll see what I mean," he said.

He jumped up and got on my computer, browsing the internet until some high-contrast pictures of green bell peppers with auras popped up. "See?" he asked. I just stared at the screen and pondered his craziness.

"I don't understand. Where is the scientific basis for this? What kind of camera takes these pictures?" I asked. He smiled and started on a long monologue that I tuned out of after the third sentence. From what I caught of it, all foods have auras, and when you consume them they combine with your aura.
Rachel came back into the room, munching on a sesame seed cracker. "See, even that has a soul!" Kevin claimed, pointing at her snack.

The situation would have been funny to me if I was not stuck with the unfortunate obligation (which I would later realize was never an obligation at all) of hosting this odd man.

"Who's hungry?" I interrupted a little too loudly.

"Oh, I am, actually," said Kevin. "Do you have any fruit stores nearby?" he asked. I informed him that yes, there was one across the street. That's when I remembered that he was a raw vegan; although I was a vegan as well, he couldn't really eat anything I had to offer.

He insisted on going to the fruit store by himself. As he walked past me to put on his sandals, a pungent odour hit my nostrils. He smelled like earth. If one were to put a handful of worms in a bunch of soil and leave the whole thing in a closed container for about a week - that's what he smelled like.

While he was gone Rachel and I discussed whether Couchsurfing was still a good idea. It sounded like a decent concept, but this situation seemed like it could go awry at any moment. He was courteous but complacent, and I could not tolerate an overly smug guest in my home. After some deliberation we decided to host him for at least one night.

When Kevin came back, he was stressed out and jittery. "The people working in that store really didn't like me," he said. I asked him what happened. "I asked them if they knew when the fruits I bought died, so I could tell what kind of aura it has," he said. "They didn't like that for some reason and told me to get out."

Rachel and I told Kevin that we needed to go to sleep soon, since we both had school the next day. He agreed that it was time to go to bed, and I gave him a pile of blankets and pillows for him to sleep on the couch. The couch pulled out into a bed, but he insisted on sleeping on the couch.

I distinctly remember that he did not snore.



The next morning, Kevin left at the same time as me and Rachel; we did not give him a spare key. However, we told Kevin that he was welcome to stay at our apartment again that night.

That evening, Kevin and the stench of old compost that followed him everywhere showed up to my apartment. I was done with the majority of my homework, so I turned around in my computer chair and chatted a little bit with him. The subject began to veer towards what he felt like talking about.

"Today at some point I was lost and I was starving, and didn't know where there were any stores around, so I climbed inside of a dumpster and ate some bread," he said.

"Okay," I said.

"But it made me sick. I mean, I threw up everywhere. And I know why."

"Because you ate expired bread from a dumpster?" I asked.

"No, it's cause like I'm so pure, right? Cause I'm raw and everything."

"Oh," I said, disappointed and annoyed by his answer.


"Hey, I have a secret," he said.

"Oh yeah?" I said, feigning interest.

"Yes. It's the biggest secret in the human world. It's the secret to not eating."

I laughed. "The secret to not eating? Isn't that just not eating?"

Kevin smiled one of his little smug smiles. "Actually, it's something you do that makes you not have to eat for a really long time. Let me explain it to you."

I got comfortable in my chair and heard him out.

"First, you have to go to an elevated place. For example, Mount Royal here is perfect for that. You have to get there before sunset. As the sun sets, you have to stare directly at the sun in 15 second intervals. So 15 seconds staring, 15 seconds with your eyes closed, and so on. Oh, and also your bare feet have to be touching the earth."

"And if you do this you don't have to eat? For how long?" I asked.

"Yes, the raw energy you get from the sun sustains you for four hundred days," he said.

I initially heard him say four days, not four hundred days.

Four days. The human body can live without food for two weeks, I thought. So four days is definitely possible.

"Four days? That would come in handy," I said.

Kevin gave me a serious look. "No, four hundred days, I said."

"What?" I asked.

I couldn't take it. The thought of someone doing that and then living their life normally for four hundred days was absolutely absurd to me. I doubled over and laughed uncontrollably.

"Do you even go to the bathroom during these four hundred days?" I asked through my laughter.

"No," Kevin said, "they only pee. No poo comes out."

This was too much. I left the room, trying to stifle my laughter.

I came back a few minutes later, still snickering a little bit. Kevin had a grin on his face.

"I'm guessing you thought that was funny," he said.

"Yes," I said a little sheepishly.

"Sorry, but until I try that out myself or something, I'm never going to believe that it's possible to do that. And if it is, it's some crazy placebo thing or something," I said.

"That's okay. That doesn't make it any less true," he said stoically.

That sobered me. I didn't like his superiority complex and assumptions that his beliefs should be taken as truths by anybody.

"Wanna make some chocolate?" Kevin asked.

"Sure!" I was taken by surprise.

Kevin got the ingredients ready in our kitchen as Rachel and I watched. At the last possible moment, he inexplicably poured some jalapeno pepper flakes into the chocolate batter as he was cooking it. He poured the batter into our penis-shaped ice cube tray and let it sit in the refrigerator. A few hours later, we had penis-shaped chocolate treats. Unfortunately, due to his putting the jalapeno pepper flakes in, the chocolates were completely inedible. I was disappointed.

I tried really hard to get along with Kevin, despite our differences. I brought him to St-Joseph's oratory and taught him some Yukon history. We danced awkwardly to Burnt By the Sun. We hosted him several times; whenever he needed a place, our door was open. However, all of that changed one day.

Rachel was home alone and I was on my way home from school. The phone rang, and she picked it up: it was Kevin. He wanted to know if he could stop by to say hi. By then, he had been getting on our nerves a little bit and overstaying his welcome, so she told him she was on her way out so he could only stop by to say hi. He said this was fine and that he'd be there in a few minutes. He showed up a few minutes later.

After greeting each other, he got down to business. He opened the fridge door and picked up a jar. It was a particularly large jar. It was translucent, and inside of it were over 2 litres of mustard - my mother's home-made mustard, that she made especially for me. He held it up to Rachel. "Your boyfriend said that I could have this," he said.

She was skeptical. "Are you sure?" she asked.

He nodded.

She had no reason to think he was lying; after all, who would steal a jar of mustard? Still, she thought it was odd that I would have kept this from her.

Never to be seen again, Kevin left with my jar of mustard. I got home a few minutes later. Rachel told me everything that happened. I was furious. I kept opening the fridge door and peeking in, as if the jar of mustard would suddenly appear again. I couldn't believe that he stole from me - and mustard, of all things!

Mustard, an acrid condiment that I have never particularly liked, that I would have gladly given to him had he asked me politely, that I would have probably never eaten in the first place!

I hate mustard.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Farnham

I stared at the map I held in front of me in disbelief. I couldn't even begin to understand it. It might as well have been a blank piece of paper. I had no sense of direction - no idea where we were. Behind me were 15 of my fellow soldiers, impatiently waiting for me to make my decision. To my left was Sergeant Gadoua. I concentrated on the map, thinking that I might suddenly understand it better. I could hear the Sergeant yelling at me, but I wasn't paying attention. It was my turn to lead my section towards an area marked on the map, using nothing but a compass and the math in my head. I was terrible at math, let alone orienteering. I had to accomplish this task as quickly as possible, at 1 am, in the middle of an enormous forest. I just stared at the map, dumbfounded.

Sergeant Gadoua continued to yell at me. I still wasn't listening. At a certain point in the army, you become numb to the yelling and the push-ups. They stop meaning anything. They roll off your back, and this was no exception. The soldiers in my section all glared at me, impatient for me to come to a decision. One of them suggested I at least take my compass out.

I checked my pockets.

"I can't find it," I said.

"Fucking amazing. Where was the last place you took it out, Phaneuf?" the Sergeant asked.

"At our original starting point, close to the bivouac," I answered.

"Well, then, Phaneuf, I guess you're going to have to march all of your buddies back there to fucking get it, won't you?"

"Yes, Sergeant," I said, confused and exhausted.

Everyone groaned. "Way to go, Phaneuf," said Private Mansour.

"Fucking idiot," someone else said.

We walked the three kilometres back to the starting point - the last thing anyone wanted to do after hours of marching. We got on our hands and knees and looked for the compass. After a few minutes of searching in the muddy grass, Private O'Toole found it and pressed it into my hand. "Try not to fucking lose it this time," he said.

This is just what I need, I thought, embarrassed. I already had a reputation for losing things in the army. Usually, I only lost my own personal items. It was a much bigger deal if it was military property.

I put the compass over the map and pretended that I knew what I was doing. I chose a spot in the horizon at random and decided to lead the section there, wherever it was. At least I look like I know what I'm doing, I thought.

We marched through swamps for about an hour. Everyone had mud up to their knees and water in their boots - everyone was miserable. I was terrified that someone knew that I had no idea what I was doing. I knew my section would kill me if they knew. Eventually, Sergeant Gadoua ordered me to order a halt to the section. I ordered the halt, and we all stopped in our tracks.

Sergeant Gadoua said, "Congratulations, Private Phaneuf, you have successfully completed the task asked of you."

He paused to roll his eyes and clasp his hands behind his back.

"You have successfully found the checkpoint marked on your map."

I looked around, dazed. I had slept a maximum of five hours a day for the past four days and it was now 3 am - the beginning of my last day of basic training - and I just wanted it all to end. I didn't see any marker for the checkpoint, but decided to act natural if it meant ending this hell called sleep deprivation any sooner. I kept silent.

Private Kryviak took his turn leading us towards a checkpoint on a map. He was the last person left in the section to do this; he finished his task in about ten minutes versus my two hours.

We got back to our bivouac at 3:30 am. It stopped raining. I was just happy that everything was over with and crawled into my sleeping bag with my rifle. I didn't bother undressing; I knew that I would encounter a rude awakening in about an hour, since 4:30 was my scheduled time for fire picket duty.

At 4:15 am, I woke up to Draganic violently shoving me and screaming in my face. "Wake the fuck up, Phaneuf! You're up for fire!" I fell back asleep instantly. He shoved me again and grabbed me by the collar, shaking me. He let go and I hit the ground with a wet smack. I looked around me and groaned.

I apparently hadn't set up my tent up on good terrain. The front half of my body was completely immersed in water, and half of my face was lying in a pile of mud. I could barely move. Confused, I peered out of my tent and realized that we were in the middle of a thunder storm. It took every ounce of strength that I had to raise my miserable self out of the muck for fire picket duty. Too tired to bother looking for my rain gear, I grabbed my rifle (which had been lying in a puddle next to me) and started walking towards the fire picket tent.

"Get a fucking move on, you're late man!" Draganic yelled after me. He kept yelling, but the booming thunder gradually replaced the sound of his voice as I walked away. Draganic, what a stupid name, I thought absent-mindedly as I awkwardly stepped over soldiers' tents. I can't believe his grandfather would change his last name to that, just because he thought it sounded bad-ass, I thought. Draganic, Draganic, Draganic. Like a dragon. So stupid.

Through the darkness I made out the vague shape of Lieutenant Hahnel's tent. I made my way to it and sat down on a chair - too tired to even think of patrolling the area. I struggled to stay awake as I made a vain attempt to scout the surroundings for any signs of danger. No fucking way will there ever be a fire in all this rain.

I was shivering. After a few minutes, Lieutenant Hahnel crawled out of his sleeping bag, looking well-rested and content. He was wearing nothing but green boxer briefs and military issue socks, but looked undaunted by the weather. He walked over to a counter and prepared himself some coffee with an instant fire kit. It suddenly struck me that his tent was the military equivalent of a five star hotel in this bivouac.

"You look like shit, Phaneuf," he said, slowly sipping his coffee.

"Thank you, sir."

"Are you shivering? Don't tell me you're fucking shivering. Why don't you have your rain gear on, Phaneuf?" he asked angrily.

"Aww, damn it. I left it in my ruck sack, sir."

"You're a fucking idiot, Phaneuf. A fucking idiot. You know that?"

"Yes, sir," I said, knowing there was no other answer.


And I was.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Roseanne.


"I'm telling you, Phaneuf, you have to name it after a fat bitch! Preferably one that you hate."

I didn't look up from what I was doing. I was sitting, legs crossed, with my C-7 rifle in front of me. I was busy field-stripping it. Next to me were fifteen other soldiers busy trying to field-strip their weapons as quickly and efficiently as possible.

"What are you talking about? That makes no sense," I said, keeping my eyes on my pistol grip as I removed it from the rest of my weapon.

"No, really. Think about it. This thing is made to put the fear of God in our future enemies, right?" Private Baffour asked.

I nodded without looking up from my work. I was almost finished; I glanced eagerly at Lieutenant Hahnel. Tall, thin, and wearing his beret slightly further to the left than was considered standard military protocol, he was a confident and imposing figure - I had a hard time looking him straight in the eyes. He paced back and forth across the room and monitored our progress. Please look at me, please look at me, please look at me! I screamed inside of my head.

Lieutenant Hahnel passed by me without looking once at my field stripped rifle. "I completed the field strip, sir!" I yelled out instinctively. The officer pivoted in place and kneeled down to ensure that all my pieces were laid out correctly. "Very good, Phaneuf. Now do it again, but faster."

"Yes, sir," I replied, stoical about my obligation to do it all again.

Private Baffour finished stripping his weapon as I was putting mine back together. "Okay, so I was saying. Fat bitch," he said. "It has to be a fat bitch."

"I don't know any fat bitches," I said.

"Come on. There has to be one fat bitch that has bugged you in your lifetime."

I stopped putting my rifle together for a moment and bit my lip as I thought about all of the fat bitches that had affected me in any way in my life. As I sifted through all of my life's memories, only one stood out.

"Roseanne," I said.

Private Baffour laughed quietly, so as not to alert Lieutenant Hahnel of the fact that we were having a conversation that didn't pertain to field stripping of any sort. "See? That's the spirit. When you put your rifle back together again, 'cause you're all Catholic, I'll baptize it and it'll officially be named Roseanne." He stared at me, knowing that he hit a nerve by bringing up religion.

"Yeah, we'll see," I said, giving him a side-long glance.

"Attention!" yelled Lieutenant Hahnel. Along with everyone else, I raced to my feet and stood at attention. "Alright. You guys are due for SHARP training in 10 minutes. Everybody stop what they're doing and put your weapons back together. If it's not done in less than 5 minutes, the whole section is doing one hundred pushups during the SHARP training. Go." He calmly walked out of the room.

The room was immediately filled with the sound of steel clanking against steel, of pins being driven into springs, of combat boots nervously shuffling on ceramic tiles. I rushed to finish putting my weapon back together and then assisted Private Baffour with his. The squad leader for the day, Private Montesanno, noticed me doing this and asked everyone in the room that wasn't doing anything to please help someone else assemble their rifle. I glimpsed at my watch and noted that four minutes had elapsed since the officer's departure. I looked nervously outside the door and saw Lieutenant Hahnel casually leaning on a pillar, drinking coffee.

I looked around the room and saw that all of the section's weapons were assembled. "Okay, everyone stand where you are at attention with rifles in hand!" Private Montesanno said. I grabbed my rifle and stood at attention at the same time as everyone else in the room. The room boomed with the sound of sixteen boots simultaneously striking the ground.

I stole another look at my watch. The five minutes were up.

Lieutenent Hahnel and Sergeant Gadoua walked into the room. They both walked up and down the row of soldiers, randomly and silently grabbing onto a soldier's rifle to inspect it, and then moving down the row to another random soldier. Lieutenant Hahnel stood in front of me and snatched my rifle from me. "Did you perform a function test, Phaneuf," he said. It sounded nothing like a question.

"Yes, sir," I said.

"So I can trust you to kill someone with it if I give you ammo to put in it."

"Yes, sir," I said.

He looked down the barrel and frowned. "There's some rust here at the end, Phaneuf. What the fuck is this? Are you an idiot, Phaneuf? You can be charged for this, you know. I want some fucking CLP on this before the end of SHARP training. You're a fucking idiot, you know that?"

"Yes, sir," I said, completely desensitized to his criticism.

"Apart from that one thing, good job," he said as he shoved my rifle into my chest.

I mentally breathed a sigh of relief. I had heard worse and for lesser things. I had screwed up, and I knew that the tiny bit of rust at the end of my weapon was actually a bigger deal than he let on.

Lieutenant Hahnel stood in front of the section. "At ease." The room cracked once more with the sound of sixteen boots hitting the floor.

"Montessano, your section can do a lot better. Don't forget about CLP," he said, sighing. Sergeant Gadoua was staring right at me. I pretended not to notice and stared at the wall. This is taking too long, I thought.

"Go to room E301 for SHARP training. Dismissed," the officer finally said.

"Yes, sir!" yelled Private Montessano.

He saluted the officer, who saluted him back, and then led our section out of the room and up the stairs to room E301.


A man in civilian clothing greeted each of us as we entered the room. He wore a brown polo shirt with a small Scooby Doo patch on it. He wore glasses that were too big for him and never stopped smiling.

I sat down at the nearest seat to the door. I felt a little nervous; this man in civilian clothing scared me a little bit, despite how friendly he looked.

He waited until everyone sat down and then began his lecture. "You may have noticed that I'm not in uniform. Just to warn you right now, I'm an officer."

He paused for dramatic effect.

"A Captain, to be more precise. Captain Duval."

The tension in the room increased ten-fold.

"But you'll quickly notice that I'm a nice guy. Obviously you're not going to perform any of your formal obligatory duties towards me. I'm wearing Scooby Doo on my shirt for pete's sake."

Everyone chuckled, and I relaxed a little bit.

"But this training - SHARP training - that you're about to receive, is very important. I consider it paramount in the Canadian Forces. If this shit doesn't get drilled into your head, you will be a terrible soldier, and in my personal opinion, a terrible Canadian. SHARP, as you all know, is an acronym for Sexual Harassment and Racism Prevention. But that goes for prevention of any sort of discrimination. While I'm sure most of you are already knowledgeable in how to..." he struggled for the right words. "How to not be a shitty human being," he said, smiling, "I'm still required to persuade you that it is a very, very bad idea to ignore this training at any point in your military careers. Got it?"

I nodded along with everyone else.

I looked around the room, at my section. Two women, both openly gay. Two Italians. Two Lebanese. One Pole. One Chinese. One Japanese. One Irish-American. One Persian. One Pakistani. A bunch of mutts.

I looked at my hands. And one minor, I thought.

Sixteen soldiers. With me being the sole French-Canadian in the sole Anglophone section of the Laval Basic Military Qualifications Base. Does this section really need SHARP training? I thought. We're about as diverse as the Canadian Forces can get.

"I'm going to show you a video. Pay attention. I know you're all tired from sleep deprivation but this shit absolutely has to stay with you for life."

He rolled a moveable platform housing a television into the front of the room, and popped a VHS tape into the VCR. He toyed with the dials and the screen lit up with electronic snow. After a minute or so of fumbling, he managed to get the VCR input to work and the video started.

Three soldiers appeared on the screen. They were sitting down and cleaning parts of a tank.

"So I heard a rumour about there being a fag on this base," one of them said.

"I bet it's you, Robbins," said a tank mechanic.

"Nuh uh! Shut the fuck up, I bet you're the homo," said Robbins.

I furrowed my eyebrows, in astounded at what I was seeing. I was simultaneously puzzled and incredibly amused. I looked over at Baffour, and saw a small smile creeping on his lips.

A large, imposing First Nations man, presumably the tank mechanics' Sergeant, appeared. "Hey! Knock it off! Stop talking about that, you guys know it's not okay. Shut up or you'll be charged," the Sergeant warned. He walked away.

The three tank mechanics ignored his advice.
"Do you think it's Seaver?" one of them asked.

"No way. Seriousy, I think it's Robbins," said the other.

"Guys, shut up. If anyone's a faggot, it's Seaver. He's in the Black Watch," said Robbins.

The First Nations man appeared again. "You guys are soldiers. I said to knock it off! Be professional. I'm warning you! Stop gossipping and get back to work. And stop saying that word!" he said, walking away from them.

Again, the three soldiers disregarded their Sergeant.

"You think Lieutenant Marshall could be the gay?" asked one of them.

All of a sudden, the Sergeant came pounding back. "I told you guys to mind your own business! Now I'm going to have to settle this once and for all. You know who's the fag? You guys want to know? I'm the fag! I'M THE FAG!" he roared.

I cupped my hand over my mouth and tried to hold back the laughter that was slowly bubbling within me. I looked around - everyone in the room was on the verge of cracking up. The Captain, who presumably had seen the video a thousand and one times, was the only person in the room who kept perfect composure. With his legs crossed and eyes locked right onto the screen, I envied his maturity.

I looked back towards the screen. The three mechanics looked puzzled. One of them put his hand on his hips and said, "Well, he can't be gay. He's an Indian!"

The scene faded to black.

There was a brief pause, and then the entire room exploded into manic laughter. The Captain's face remained deadpan.

He sighed and took his glasses off. "Everybody always laughs at that part," he said, smiling and shaking his head.

"Alright," he said. "Let's get serious again."

He waited until he had our complete attention.

"Did you know that 1 in every 7 Canadians is a homosexual?" he asked us. Can that really be right? I wondered stupidly.

"I can see that you all look pretty confused. That's a normal reaction to hearing something like that, I guess. Statistically speaking, several of you in this room might be gay. I strongly suggest that if any of you happen to be homophobic, to get rid of that thought process as quickly as possible. It is not compatible with the Canadian Forces. In any case, you have all spoken to homosexuals in your life whether you were aware of it or not. Probably many. Probably today."


For the next couple of hours, Captain Duval showed us a series of videos (that were notably less humorous to us, I might add), gave us pamphlets and lectures, and made sure that we weren't going to molest, offend, or touch anyone as long as we were in the Canadian Forces.

SHARP training was the last military instruction that we had for the day. After we finished, Captain Duval shook all of our hands as each of us in turn looked confused as to why an officer would bother being so courteous to a lowly recruit. Private Montesanno led us out of the classroom and into our section's tent.

I put my rifle on my cot and sat down. "Today wasn't half-bad. Not anywhere as bad as HAZMAT training," I commented as I scratched my head.

"Well, all he really taught us was to not hate faggots and queers," said Draganic. A few recruits laughed, and the rest of us looked uncomfortable or pretended not to listen.

"Actually," said Private Kryviak, "he did say something about 1 in 7 Canadians being gay, and we're 14 in this tent right now."

I noticed that Kryviak purposely excluded the two women in our section who were in the tent with us - and who also happened to be gay. I looked over at Privates Wu and Biancardi. Biancardi, looking mad as hell, stood up and stalked out of the tent. Wu shifted uncomfortably on Private Dennis's cot, and after a moment, followed Biancardi to the women's tent. She left her C-7 rifle behind.

Draganic said, "So come on. Out with it, fuck. Who's the fag? We won't care. Just fucking say who you are."

Private Cho had his arms on his hips and stared at the ground, biting his lip. Kryviak smiled. Baffour looked concerned. I sat on my cot with my hands on my knees. Apart from the creaking of soldiers leaning on cots, silence.

The dead air was suddenly cut by Private Mansour, who loudly exclaimed, "This is not important. If anyone in here is gay, who cares? Just leave it alone, Draganic."

"Aww, but come on," said Kryviak. "I want to know now."

"Me too," Private Juzda uttered quietly.

Mansour shook his head and sat on the chest in front of his cot.

Goddamn it this is stupid, I thought. Fucking Draganic can't keep his fucking mouth shut. The tension in the room was killing me.

Out of nowhere, I felt an intense anxiety bubbling up within my guts. I knew it would only go away once the situation was done with.

Without really thinking it over, I stood up on top of my supply chest and declared, "I'm the fag!"

Draganic laughed. "I can't believe my buddy is gay. Are you serious?"

"Dead serious," I said, lying.

No one laughed. Private Mansour stood on top of his cot and raised his rifle in the air with one hand. "Guys. He's lying. I'm the fag."

I smiled and said, "Man, I wasn't lying." The atmosphere suddenly felt warmer, more accepting.

Private Cho put his rifle on his cot and said, "Guys. I want to tell you. I am also the fag." Baffour put his hand up and said, "Me too!"

Kryviak said, "I guess I'm gay too, then!" and laughed.

Everyone started giggling and said things like, "I was just kidding man, I don't care if anyone's gay," and "I'm not really gay, I was just joking." But the tension was gone, and that's all I cared about.

Draganic walked up to me and slapped me on the back. "Phaneuf, I don't give a shit if you're gay. I was just curious. It's good to know whether you're buddy is gay."

"Well, I'm not actually gay," I said.

"I knew it. You're too Catholic to be gay. Everyone knows Catholics hate gays," he said. "Except you, though."


I noticed that Wu and Dennis were in the tent. I wonder how much of this they heard, I thought. "Here's your rifle. It's the right number on it, right? You're positive it's yours?" Dennis asked Wu. She nodded and took it from him. Dennis grabbed a small cloth off of his cot and left the tent with Wu.

After a few more minutes of pointless chatter, we all brought our rifles outside. Biancardi, Wu and Dennis were sitting on some crates, field stripping their rifles and polishing them. We joined them; I sat down on a skid across from Private Dennis. The sun was setting, the sky painted a pink and orange hue. The Hilton hotel on the other side of the barbed wire fence was a familiar sight to me by then. Even the roar of airplanes flying in their pre-planned trajectories overhead was comforting. And that day's sequence of events had turned out not so bad. I smiled and sighed as I started taking my weapon apart.

"Tired, Phaneuf?", Dennis muttered without looking up.

"Nah, I'm good," I said, still smiling.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see Private Wu staring at me. I looked at her. She mouthed two words to me. I could have sworn she said, "Thank you." I'll never know for sure.

Before I could ask her to repeat herself, Private Baffour sat on the ground next to me and poured some CLP over my stripped rifle. "I now pronounce you man and Roseanne!" he yelled. This exclamation cracked everyone up, including me. "Told you I'd baptize your C-7, man. Anyone else want to name theirs?"

"Mine is called Mrs. Mansour!" Private Mansour shouted.

"Well, there you go, let me give her some," said Baffour as he shuffled over and dripped some lubricant onto Mansour's rifle. "I now pronounce you man and Mrs. Mansour," he said.

Everyone cracked up even more at this last remark.


After we had our gear ready for the next morning's inspection, we crawled into our sleeping bags. I set the alarm on my watch for 5 am the next morning. The lights shut off soon after. I read my Bible inside of my sleeping bag with the aid of a pocket light. For a few minutes there was dead silence, until Draganic started snoring loudly. "Goddamn it, Draganic, shut the fuck up!" someone yelled. Someone else threw a magazine loader at him and everyone laughed.

"Hey," Kryviak whispered. "What do you call a guy in a wheelchair who has AIDS?"

A pause.

"ROLAIDS."

Again, laughter. Everyone exchanged dirty jokes as I tried in vain to read my Bible.

Out of the darkness, a voice: "Vos yeules, tabarnak! On essaie de dormir, icitte!"

"Okay, sorry! We'll shut up," said Kryviak.

I put my Bible underneath my pillow and rolled over onto my back. I clutched my rifle and tried to fall asleep.

Even though the steel pressed against my bare chest was cold, and most of the recruits in my section were essentially a bunch of immature children, I was still sort of having a good time. It was a good day in the military. I could stay in the service forever, I thought as I slowly lost consciousness.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Boquete Incident (Part 3)


I took out my digital compass key-chain and read the time on it. It was 10:02 AM. I was already exhausted, and we had only been hiking for about half an hour. I put my key-chain back in my pocket and grabbed the straps of my back-pack as I continued walking. Jen and I were sweating bullets from the heat, and the acrid odour of onions was omni-present. "At least," I said, panting, "the higher we climb, the colder it will get." Jen was silent; her mouth hung open and she stared at the rolling hills to our right as she trudged forward.

We made a point of stopping once every hour in order to take a breather and get some food in our bodies. We occasionally passed a remote farm or a compound holding sheep; we spotted a tent that I could only presume held some other turistas like us. At around 1:00 pm we witnessed the inexplicable sight of a jeep climbing up the extremely rocky terrain with great difficulty. We encountered a few people going down and greeted them. One man, a Swede, stopped us and told us that the view from the summit was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.


By 2:30 PM we were completely shrouded in fog and could not see more than five metres in front of us. It was getting chilly and the thermometer on my key-chain read that it was about 15 degrees out - a stark contrast to the 30 degrees at the base of the volcano. Jen and I rarely talked. I whistled Dethklok songs occasionally but the majority of the noises heard were of birds flying overhead and our feet stamping themselves into the rough, dry ground. As I whistled a song and continued my steady pace, I suddenly felt something soft hit me on the head. I stopped and patted my head with my hand. My hand came away with a coarse, gooey substance that I immediately recognized as bird dung.

Still in shock over what happened, I rammed my hand into my hair and grabbed more of the stuff and held it in front of my face in disbelief. My jaw dropped. "A fucking bird just fucking shit on my head!" I screamed. Jen looked at me and laughed. A bird cried out to my left and I immediately turned towards it and met its gaze. It was a quetzal, and I was absolutely positive that it was the one that defecated on me. "You fucking piece of shit!" I yelled at the bird. It stared at me and I imagined it to be mocking me. "What the fuck? I'm going to meet these rangers at the station with fucking bird shit in my head? Thanks a lot you fucking piece of shit quetzal!" I continued yelling. "I can't even wash my hair until tomorrow! Thanks for making my day, bitch! Seriously, thanks so fucking much!"

Jen was doubled over herself, laughing uncontrollably. I grabbed a bunch of leaves off of the ground and threw them at her. "Okay, okay, I get it, it's funny," I said, discouraged.

"They must have a sink at the ranger station," Jen said. "Don't worry, it will wash out."

"Yeah, maybe," I muttered as I kicked a rock off the side of a cliff.

At approximately 3:30, I noticed a sign about a hundred metres ahead of us. Excited at the prospect of almost being at our destination, I sprinted up to it, only to see that we still had a few more kilometres to go. I sat on a boulder next to the sign with my head resting in my hands, and waited for Jen to catch up. "We still have at least an hour to go," I said. "I feel like I'm going to pass out before then. That ranger station better actually be up there."

We walked slowly but steadily with our heads hanging, both of us beat and weary from hours of hiking. At about 3:45, I noticed a break in the fog. We walked through the break, and suddenly a steep embankment revealed itself to us. I looked up and saw what looked like flat land up ahead. I was sure the flat land held the ranger station. "Oh my god. I am running up this thing right now," I told Jen. I was too fatigued to force myself to run the entire way up, but I did my best. I used all the remaining energy I had left and managed to make it to the top in fifteen minutes.

I put my hands on my knees and smiled. I finally made it to the ranger station, a stone's throw to the summit. I looked around as Jen caught up with me. I could not see off of the edge of the cliff; fog surrounded us everywhere. I could see about five buildings to the left of us and five to the right of us. I had no idea where the rangers were supposed to be. An extremely loud, electric hum filled the air. A few fork-shaped towers ringed some of the buildings. I assumed that the humming came from the towers. I turned around and saw Jen behind me. "I really hope they know we're coming. This is creepy as hell," I said. The humming was incredibly discomforting; even the sound of our footsteps seemed eerie as we walked on the milky white gravel. We stepped cautiously as we explored the compound. I felt nervous and started to suspect that maybe the rangers weren't aware of our arrival or presence.

I looked at Jen and pointed at a door on one of the buildings at random. We were closer to the source of the humming and I had to speak louder for her to hear me. "Let's try this one!" I said.

I gave the steel door three hard knocks. There was a tense moment where nothing happened.

We waited.

I heard some noise coming from inside. "Did you hear that?" I asked Jen. I took my backpack off and started kneading my fingers awkwardly.

We waited.

I swallowed and walked up to the door again and gave it another three knocks.

Again, I heard a commotion coming from the inside. I absent-mindedly scratched my head and covered my hand in bird dung.

The door opened slowly with an audible metal screech. A thin but muscular Panamanian man wearing a black military uniform appeared. He held an M-16 rifle up and pointed it at my chest. I suddenly felt an intense desire to urinate. He looked back, still holding the weapon at me, and yelled something in Spanish to another man who was sitting on a bunk bed behind him and putting on socks. The first man looked at me in the eyes, then at Jen, and then at me again.

He uttered one word. "Que?"

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Boquete Incident (Part 2)


I reluctantly woke up to the ring-tune alarm on my cell phone. She wants it, so I gotta give it to her, sang Justin Timberlake. I felt incredibly sore and the last thing I wanted to do was climb a volcano. I forced myself up, making sure not to crush Jen on my way out of bed. Jen groaned and I imitated her with a genuine groan of my own.


"I don't want to climb a fucking volcano," I said as I stretched. "Can we just forget about it?" I asked, knowing there was no way we weren't climbing that volcano.

"No, no. We're gonna do it," said Jen groggily, as she slowly emerged from the bed.

We got our backpacks ready and locked our rooms. Pancho waved at us from the kitchen. He sauntered over to us with another one of his huge grins.
"So you are ready to climb the volcano. Good luck. Your bags and room will be safe here!" he reassured us. I smiled as I left the hostel, but I still couldn't shake the weird vibe that I got from Pancho. He was almost too nice; nobody is that nice. And if I owned a hostel I would go crazy from all the horrible guests, I thought.

We turned left onto the main road and walked to Boquete's bakery, which was obviously built to satisfy the needs of all of the American ex-pats living there. I bought two pieces of cake and 24 bread rolls. Next we walked to the grocery store where I bought 18 big granola bars, 9 bananas and 2 apples. We were counting on this to provide enough fuel for us to climb the volcano as well as come down from the summit.

We walked to the intersection we thought the bus heading towards the volcano's hiking trail would stop at. We waited for about an hour, and at 9 am I finally decided to ask a local if the bus was coming at all. I stopped a man crossing the street and asked him, and he told me that the bus stop had moved to a few kilometres away. After a few minutes of brain storming, Jen and I decided that taking a taxi would be the best course of action.

After a short walk, we reached the taxi depot in the village square, where the taxi drivers - contrary to the majority of cabbies in Central America - ignored us and did not solicit us whatsoever. I picked a cabbie and asked him how much it would cost to get to the base of the volcano. He shrugged and said, "Uno. Quizá." I said, "Bueno," and opened the back door for Jen to get in before me. I followed her inside as the cabbie said goodbye to the other drivers. He drove slowly and methodically out of the square.

Soon after the taxi left the town limits, I noticed it slowing down, until it stopped completely. A short man wearing a grimy grey shirt got into the car and sat next to me. The driver and him conversed; I had no idea what they were saying.

The taxi climbed up a steep incline and the air became noticeably foggier. An old man wearing a simple white t-shirt and shorts waved from the side of the road a dozen metres ahead and the taxi ground to a swift halt next to him. He got in and said nothing. Puzzled, I just figured everyone was going to the same place. I turned to my right and saw a group of workers in a field, picking onions. My eyes began tingling and the scent of onions was overwhelming. The car suddenly stopped and everyone except for me and Jen got out. The cabbie put his arm on the passenger seat and looked back at us. "Volcan Baru!" he said matter-of-factly. I smiled and gave him two Balboa coins - the exact equivalent of two American dollars - hoping he wouldn't throw a fit and make us pay more. He grabbed the money and said, "Buenos dias."

As soon as I my feet hit the dry, rocky ground, I stumbled and almost fell flat on my face. The incline was so incredibly steep that it was exceedingly difficult for me to keep my balance. The onion pickers in the field stared at me; some laughed. As Jen was getting out of her side of the cab, I could hear the taxi driver chuckling to himself. Jen helped me up as the cabbie drove away. On impulse, I grabbed an onion off of the dirty road and bit into it, feeling my eyes tearing up as I did so. A few onion pickers saw and yelled at the others to look at me. I waved at them and started walking up the road.

"You're crazy," Jen said. She paused. "And disgusting," she added.

"I know," I replied, not quite sure if she was genuinely disgusted or not.

We walked uphill with our packs for about a kilometre, hoping we were going in the right direction. I was already tired. We passed a shack where a bunch of little Panamanian children - they could not have been older than six or seven years old - poured out and greeted us, laughing. They were adorable, scruffy little children, and obviously lived in a state of poverty. The shack they lived in was no bigger than the average living room. They were dirty and clearly had not bathed in a while. I suspected their parents were out working in the onion field. They were curious and all-smiles the whole time we talked to them. I fell in love with all of them, and especially with one precious little girl who wanted to shake my hand.

As we said goodbye and started up the trail again, we heard a tiny, shrill chorus of "Buenos dias!" I looked back and saw all of the children jumping up and down and waving frantically. It was too much for me. I quickly turned forward and started walking faster. I did not want to talk to Jen and I did not want her seeing my face. For a few minutes, I cried silently as I walked. I faced the sun as I walked, and with my eyes closed, hoped that my tears would dry quickly to avoid any potential embarrassment.

I knew that if I kept it up for too long I would just make Jen suspicious or angry. I forced myself to concentrate on something else. I slowed my pace and walked alongside Jen. She simply stated, "I'm tired." I agreed. I didn't know how I could possibly make it up to the summit at this pace.

Fortunately, the entrance to the volcano's official hiking trail fell into sight. A small cabin was next to the entrance; a rooster and some hens eyed us cautiously as we approached it. We could see a man looking at us through the window of the cabin. We entered the door of the cabin and the man greeted us, sipping his coffee. Jen and I had a very difficult time deciphering his fast, accented Spanish. "Mas despacio, por favor!" I repeated emphatically. The man told us that the toll fee was three dollars per person. I held a crumpled 20 dollar bill in my hand and asked, "Tienes cambio?" He shook his head. "What kind of idiot doesn't keep change at a toll station?" Jen asked. I knew that we were actually the idiots; no one is stupid enough to try paying with a bill that's considered much too large to use pretty much anywhere in Panama.

Through charades and school-yard Spanish, we managed to come to an agreement: that the rangers at the top of the volcano would give us the change we needed, and that we would pay the amount due when we came back down. The whole thing seemed ridiculous to me but I was done with arguing. We signed his guest book - I noticed that there were no Quebecers but many, many Swedes - and left his cabin.

I looked to my right at a portion of the summit. The summit itself was shrouded in fog. Fourteen kilometres through dense jungles separated us from the top. I sighed and took out a banana.

"Anyway. Here we go again, I guess," I said in between bites of my 5-cent banana.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Pointless.


In full military attire, I sat down on my cot and picked up my Bible. I had read this specific Holy Bible - the New Testament if one wants to get into specifics - three times already since I had embraced Catholicism. It was a King James Bible - and therefore belonging to the Protestant denomination of Christianity - but I was a callow youth and thought nothing of it. I believed that the very least I could do to show God my devotion for Him was to read at least two pages of the Bible every day, regardless of how tired I was from Basic Military Qualifications training. Despite my best efforts to stick to my commitment - for example, reading the Bible even in the wake of a brutally long and hot day of orienteering lessons - I periodically forgot to give God my two pages of reading. To make it up to Him, I would read triple the amount of pages due to Him on each subsequent day.

I assumed that God was pleased. I was 16 years old and felt that God had high hopes for me in the Canadian Armed Forces. Although I didn't flaunt my age, the men in my section knew me for what I was.

Before reaching the end of my page, a voice killed my concentration. I looked up, annoyed. "What?" I asked.

"I said, Arsenault. Why do you read that stuff? Is it for a girl or something? You're just doing it for pussy, right?" Private Kryviak asked.

"No," I said, sticking my thumb into the book so that I would not lose my place.

I looked into Kryviak's eyes from across the tent. Three other recruits were paying attention.

"I'm doing this because God wants me to," I said in a soft, sinister voice. There was an awkward moment as two of the recruits awkwardly shuffled out of the tent. Kryviak looked exceedingly uncomfortable.

"Oh, cool," he said. I knew he didn't think so but appreciated his politeness. "Is it any good?" he asked, feigning interest.

"It's the best book ever written," I replied. I meant it.

Kryviak said, "I should read it sometime."

I didn't want to push the issue. "It's okay if you don't," I said. I put my Bible with pages open on my cot, face down so that I wouldn't lose my place.

I picked up my C-7 Service Rifle and strapped it to my back. "Nobody touch my book, please," I said as I slowly marched out of the tent.

The world outside of the tent was one of fences, grass, drill, concrete bunkers and about 75 soldiers - most of them French-Canadians like me. And directly to my left upon leaving the tent was Private Draganic, scratching his head. The person who was, according to Canadian Armed Forces terminology, my buddy. My buddy was Draganic. And I was his buddy. We were the only two recruits who, after our training, were going to work in a service battallion. He was a mechanic and I was a trucker. Or, according to Canadian Armed Forces terminology, a mobile support equipment operator. And my buddy, my future personal military mechanic, was cursing under his breath and pacing back in forth, while staring at the barbed wire fence behind our section's tent.

"What's up, Draganic?" I asked.

Draganic took off his military-issue vest and held it in his hands. "I'll tell you what's up," he said. "I'm going to break out of this place."

"Why?" I asked calmly. I knew that if he was caught doing what he planned on doing, he would be severely reprimanded, and maybe even kicked out of the Army Reserve. "Why don't you just change into civvies and leave the compound like everyone else?" I asked. I knew that in order to eat real food - the delicious poutine at the P'tit Quebec restaurant across the street was to die for - all soldiers had to do was change into civilian clothing, sign their name on a form in front of a Corporal working as a supply technician, and then leave. The only requirement was to come back before lights-out and to not consume drugs or alcohol in the two hours or less per night one might have of free time.

Draganic obviously did not want to deal with the supply technician.

"I already left earlier and I just changed into my military shit and I don't want to fucking change again, it takes too fucking long and I want to sleep in my clothes. So fuck that shit. I'm just going to do this the easy way." Draganic threw his military-issue vest onto the barbed wire fence. In the dim light it looked like it was suspended in mid-air.

I laughed uncontrollably at the absurdity of the situation. He's going to kill himself, I thought.

"I can't believe you're doing this," I said in between bouts of laughter. "You're going to get in such deep shit if you get caught. Sergeant Gadoua's gonna be pissed. And all for what? Do you want to buy a poutine or something? Can't you just wait till the buffet breakfast tomorrow?" I asked.

"No," Draganic insisted. By this point Private O'Toole had joined us and wanted to know what was going on. Before I could answer, Draganic explained why he felt it was logical for him to break out of the military base. O'Toole took a sip of water from his canteen and smiled. "Do it!" he said.

"I am, too. Give me my coat there, Arsenault," Draganic said. I walked five paces towards the tent and ducked my head in to grab his coat. Kryviak and the others stared at me, and I made a point to maintain eye contact with them for a few seconds. I walked back to Draganic and gave him his coat. He promptly threw it over his vest on top of the barbed wire. He looked at me and said, "Watch this." I looked at O'Toole and shook my head.

Private Draganic jumped up to the fence and started climbing. He was too heavy and had a lot of trouble climbing. "Help push me up you assholes!" he yelled. O'Toole and I rushed up to his feet. O'Toole used his hands to push up at his left foot, whereas I deemed it smarter to align my shoulder with Draganic's right combat boot. When Draganic used my shoulder as a stepping stone I realized two things: that all of the other recruits in the base could see us, and that I would have to wear a different uniform for tomorrow's inspection thanks to the stain Draganic's boot left on the shoulder of my uniform.

Draganic rolled over his vest and coat and tumbled into the grass on the other side. "I made it!" he yelled triumphantly, while doing a Rocky-style victory dance.

"Man, shut up, you're going to get caught," I said, suddenly feeling like an accomplice to something illegal. Draganic smiled and ran off into the darkness, in full military attire except for his vest and rifle. O'Toole and I looked at each other. I told O'Toole that I thought Draganic was a complete idiot for this and that he was going to get caught. O'Toole agreed. We both walked into the tent marked "Section 4" and sat on our respective cots. I grabbed my book and tried to read again but couldn't get into it. I grabbed my C-7 and aimed it at the Hilton Hotel a few blocks down. I looked through the sight and saw a man looking over the balcony, and imagined what he would think if he could see me aiming this deadly semi-automatic weapon that I had never even shot yet right at his head. Of course I was weeks away from actually having any ammunition coming into contact with my weapon, but in my imagination I saw my rifle as being an extension of my patriotism. The man leaning over the railing of his Hilton Hotel room's balcony could have been a Bosnian terrorist.

I put my rifle down and frowned. What Draganic had done wasn't very patriotic. I debated in my head whether or not Draganic would make a good buddy outside of our basic training. If I served in Bosnia, would Draganic be a loyal partner? After all, he regularly violated military protocol to serve his own needs. He thought for himself, and it seemed pointless because it didn't help Canada at all. If anything, it wasted Canadian tax dollars.

I grabbed a piece of paper and a pen and wrote,

Draganic, what would you do if there was a war and they called you up to go there and kill people?

- Arsenault


His cot was across from mine, and while no one was looking, I reached over and stuck the note in his sleeping bag. As soon as I did so, all of the compound's lights went out. I looked at my watch and pressed the indi-glow button. It was 11 pm. Lights-out. I took off all of my clothes save for my boxers and socks. I crawled into my sleeping bag, but had a hard time falling asleep. I kept thinking about Draganic and whether he would make it back okay. I eventually dozed off amid the guys' dirty jokes, the terrible sounds of airplane engines overhead and the wind rifling through the tall grass around our tent.

My watch's alarm set off at 5 am. I woke up with a start. I was the first one up. I was still clutching my C-7 Service Rifle when I noticed a note wedged into the ejection port window. I grabbed it and read it.

Hey Arsenault. I would snort as much fucking cocaine and drugs as possible so that I could get out of going to war.

-Draganic


I looked across the tent, at the soldier snoring and spread-eagled on his cot in full military uniform, minus a vest and a rifle.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Worlds Apart (but not really)


From Almirante, we had to take a boat to Bocas del Toro. On the cab ride to the port, I witnessed children playing with garbage and vultures walking around babies. There were several large mounds of human waste and garbage next to the dock. Some of them were on fire; all of them were surrounded by vultures. Almirante was hell on earth, and I was anxious to get to the supposed Arcadia that our Lonely Planet guide promised.

The boat ride was choppy but essentially uneventful. Bocas del Toro struck me as a poor attempt at a man-made paradise, akin to a cheaper man's Cancun. Our Lonely Planet guide claimed that it was the place to be in Panama. What it failed to mention was that it was the place to be for rich white people; I was shocked at how hostels, food, and basic goods that I had taken for granted in the rest of Panama had shot up to an astronomical price range - one that I could scarcely afford on my budget. The atmosphere was different as well. Hostel owners were now consisted of bubbly 20 year old American girls who insisted that guests stay indoors and drink at the bar as opposed to adventurous middle-aged Panamanians who told wild stories and urged us to explore as much of Panama as possible.

I immediately began referring to the city as Bocas del Bullshit.

The south-eastern tip of Isla Colon - or Bocas del Toro province - was reserved for the city of Bocas del Toro. After a few short minutes of debate on what we should do, Jen and I decided to explore the unknown and to stay in the north-western tip of the island, which was a lot more isolated.

We waited in a coffee shop, where the staff got my order for a vegetarian empanada wrong an astounding four times. Most of the customers were well-off Americans. Most could not speak Spanish and made little or no effort to speak it to the staff. I heard one ignorant man ask a girl at the counter, "What's cheese in Spanish again? Anyway, just put a lot of cheese on it." She had no idea what he had just said.

I was disgusted by the apathy and tactlessness of these tourists. I had not been around this many white people - let alone Americans - in two months. It made me embarrassed to have any affiliation to these people; even being in the same room as them made me uncomfortable. They embarrassed me and they embarrassed themselves.

After what seemed an eternity to me, a van pulled up to the side of the street. I asked the driver in Spanish if he was going to the north-western tip of the island. He did not answer, but a young teenager who I could only assume was his son answered for him that they were indeed going there.

"Cuanto cuesta?" I asked.

"Uno," the boy answered while holding one finger up for additional emphasis.

"Sweet!" I said, turning to Jen. "The first time on this island that someone doesn't try to rip us off!"

Jen and I got into the van and waited with our bags, sweating bullets. There was no air conditioning in the van and it was extremely warm and humid outside. A few more people got in the van, and after waiting a few minutes, it took off.

With still no real idea where we were going, I smiled as all of the pasty white faces were replaced with dense jungle and small wooden shacks. The van dropped off and picked up people as it made headway. Soon, we were the only ones in the van save for the man and the boy. I noticed that it was getting dark outside. After about 30 minutes of driving, we finally reached a dead-end. The dead-end was a piece of rope tied around two trees cordoning off part of the beach, and on the other side of the cordoned-off area were middle-aged white men eating supper outside. I groaned inside of my head. The man driving the van parked next to a small shack. I took the cue and paid him two American dollars. After we left the van, the boy stuck his head out and explained that a van would be coming by every half hour every day from 6:30 am to 6 pm, and that their van would be there every hour or every hour and a half. We thanked him and watched as the van took off into the dimness of the jungle.

We had taken the last van to this part of the island, and were stranded in every sense of the word. I took note of my environment to see what we were dealing with. There was a large, beautiful beach, a large building on stilts that must have been a hostel, an outdoor restaurant where the middle-aged white men were eating, and a large sign with writing in English, Spanish and another language that I didn't immediately recognize. The sign pointed to a building and read, "MARINE SPECIES RESEARCH CENTRE". There weren't many people around. The population of what was our immediate vicinity couldn't have been more than fifty or so.

We decided to get a bite to eat before checking into the hostel, and were surprised and disappointed to find that every meal at the restaurant cost about five dollars. I approached this potential budget crisis with a stoic attitude, and reminded myself that most people back in Canada would pay much more than twenty dollars a day for three meals and a place to sleep, not to mention a vacation on a tropical island.

While eating our relatively expensive suppers, I overheard some of the men speaking in a language I recognized as Afrikaans. It soon became evident that this beach had no tourists apart from us. The middle-aged men that were on the beach were South African biologists who were working everyday. They casually switched back and forth from Afrikaans to English. While I pointed this out to Jen, a dog strolled up to us and begged for attention. I rubbed it behind the ears and laughed at the way it kicked its leg in ecstasy. After finishing our meal, the dog followed us to the hostel.

There was no office to the hostel, just a small patio with a refrigerator and some chairs. A Kuna man about my age looked at me and smiled cautiously. I smiled back, consciously trying to reassure him that I wasn't crazy. I asked him if there were any rooms available. Some of them were occupied by researchers, he explained in accented Spanish, but we could choose from one of three rooms. He gave us the keys to all three and insisted that we look at all of them and pick the best one. All of them had small holes in the walls and screen doors and windows, but in typical Jen (and in my eye's mind, American) fashion, she calmly asserted her desire for the biggest room, which had an unnecessary amount of furniture: two large bunk beds, one queen-sized bed, and a dresser.

We walked back down and paid the man and gave him back the other two keys. I pointed at the fridge behind him and asked him how much a coke cost. I was exhausted and didn't pay attention to his answer, and just gave him a dollar. He gave me 60 cents back in change. I grabbed the glass bottle from him and downed the whole delicious thing. I had become addicted to Coca-Cola during my trip through Central America, and I was fully aware of it. Almost as an afterthought, I told him, "Gracias!" He laughed and walked away, shaking his head.

A stunning Kuna woman came out from the building and the man, who seemed to be her son, pointed at me and began talking to her in another language, which I later learned was Dulegaya. Before I could react to this, the dog that had begged for my attention earlier was at my feet and exhibiting very odd behaviour. It began violently rubbing its face into my ankles and jumping up at me. It then ran up to Jen and bit her in the arm as she tried to calm it down. She yelled and I put my hands out and tried to hold down the dog, which only made it more aggressive. It bit my hand and my thigh in the process. The Kuna man ran up to us as quick as lightning and began hitting the dog with a stick and yelling at it. The dog immediately stopped attacking us and stalked away with its tail between its legs. The Kuna man laughed and apologized for the dog's behaviour. We weren't hurt very badly, just a bit frightened, so we laughed along with the Kuna man.

He sat back in his chair on the patio and listened to the Kuna woman speak to him, but his eyes were set attentively on the dog.

Jen and I went back to our room and changed into our swimming attire. I was nervous as to what reaction, if any, the Kuna people would have to my tattoos, but they barely paid any attention to us. Ever since going swimming in El Salvador - where it was illegal to show tattoos in public - I was leery of exposing my tattoos, but I had forgotten that Kuna women had visible body modifications and were unlikely to hold any judgement towards me for my own.

We swam for about fifteen minutes when we noticed the dog staring at us again. There was another dog next to it. It was obviously pregnant. We got out of the water and bolted towards the stairs leading up to our room. One of the dogs, the one that had attacked us, ran after us excitedly, but we easily out-ran it when we reached the stairs. We got to our room and slammed the door shut. I looked out of our window and saw the dog sitting outside of our room's door. It whinnied and occasionally turned in circles, clearly distressed that we were not playing with it.

Jen, sympathetic to the dog's feelings, opened the door and let it into our room. I was surprised at her behaviour and asked her if she was crazy. "Don't you remember that this dog viciously attacked us not half an hour ago?" I asked.

She was unphased as she played with the dog.
"It's okay now, it's not doing anything anymore," she said assertively.

Before I could throw in a comment edge-wise about how unpredictable the dog was, the pregnant dog we had seen earlier entered the room. A small white puppy of a different breed then followed suit. Then a housecat came in, and then another. The puppy yapped and the cats meowed. The dog that attacked us panted and wagged its tail. The pregnant dog made no noise and showed no emotion. Feeling completely weirded out, I left the room, and a convoy of domesticated animals followed me outside. Anywhere I went, they followed me. The Kuna woman saw me from her perch on the patio and laughed hysterically. I looked at her as I descended the stairs and smiled.

I walked up to her with the animals trailing behind me and with my mediocre Spanish tried to ask her if all of the animals were hers. She laughed so hard that I couldn't understand her answer. Her laughter was contagious and I laughed along with her. Two Kuna men came out from the building behind her and started laughing as well when they saw the spectacle of the animals following me. It was simultaneously the cutest, funniest and most disturbing thing I had seen any animal or animals do in my lifetime.

The Kuna man grabbed the puppy from the bunch and the convoy immediately broke off, with each animal going in a different direction. I was weirded out beyond belief. "Buenos noches!" I spontaneously yelled as I ran back to my room.

Jen slept soundly. I could hear the Kuna family laughing long into the night about what had happened. It took me a long time to go under. I fell asleep with a half-embarrassed, half-amused smile on my face.

The next morning, I saw the beautiful Kuna woman on the patio by herself, her bright leg bands flashing beautifully in the sunlight. Jen was reading a book on the bed. I mustered up the courage to talk to the woman. Maybe it was just the novelty factor, but I knew I would regret it if I left Panama without talking at least a little bit with people from the Kuna tribe. It didn't matter to me what the subject was about; I knew I would feel accomplished if there was any dialogue at all.

I walked up to the woman and asked her for a coke. She smiled, and her gold septum piercing glistened in the sun as she reached forward to hand me my coke. Her piercing inspired me to talk to her about body modification. Why didn't I think of that before? I wondered stupidly. As I handed her the forty cents for the coke, I tried, in extremely broken Spanish, to tell her about my own stretched septum piercing. I didn't know how to explain how 00 gauge is a unique size for a septum piercing for the average Canadian, but as I stuttered with, "Mas grande por Canadiense," it struck me that she was flabbergasted that a white man would ever get a septum piercing at all.

She grabbed my wrist with both hands and I was suddenly mesmerized by the colourful bands covering her arms. I was caught off guard and spaced out for a few seconds. We looked each other in the eyes and something clicked. It was nothing romantic, but it felt almost supernatural. She spoke rapidly and I only caught bits and pieces of her excited exclamations. She wanted to know why I would get a septum piercing and how it was done on me. I tried my best to explain the dynamics of a dermal punch using a BIC pen and my fingers, but it wasn't a very good means of communicating how I got it done. I showed her the jewelry, which she picked up and admired, looking through the hole. I became self-conscious and hoped that there weren't any boogers inside of the jewelry. Either there weren't any or she didn't notice or care.

She told me in Spanish that she had to tell her sons about this. I was equally amused and excited by this point. I waited outside as she grabbed her sons and told them about me, this white man from Canada who has stretched earlobe piercings and a stretched septum piercing. They immediately thought it was hysterical. Since only Kuna women get their septums pierced, the idea of me having one seemed laughable to them. They thought I was girly. Their mother playfully shoved them and told them something to the effect of, "Grow up!"

She put her hands on her hips and looked at me with a smile on her face and sighed. "You are the first white man to come here in my lifetime who has not demanded a picture of me, and who has large holes," she told me in Spanish. "Really?" I asked, as I felt my ego increase in size. I was secretly almost relieved that my digital camera had been robbed from me in Nicaragua, as I would otherwise almost certainly have asked for her picture.

As I pondered this, she said something that I did not understand at all. I asked her to talk slower, but my Spanish was simply not good enough to understand. She made the universal "forget about it" hand motion and walked back inside the building, still smiling.

I went back to our room and told Jen about what had just happened. "That's great," she said, not looking up from her book.

During the few days that I spent on that island, I went snorkelling, reached the mainland of Panama by kayak, brought the convoy of animals swimming with me, and witnessed Jen defecating on a beach. I would trade all of those memories, all of those unique experiences, for those precious minutes I spoke to the Kuna woman. I would give up the entire trip to Isla Colon just to find out what it was she last said to me.

I never thought I would connect so fully to another human being regarding my body modifications. Despite our different cultures, we both lived through the same experiences vis-a-vis body modification, and knew what it was like to be stigmatized for having the piercings we did.

I'm not sure why I still place so much value and sentiment in this experience. Maybe it was the novelty of meeting someone from a radically different culture than mine. Or maybe it was because I was surprised that I could see myself so clearly in someone else, regardless of their background.