Monday, February 16, 2009

The Summer of '93

In the summer of 1993, I lived in a small, American, suburban town called Bridgeville. I had a much greater grasp of English than when my family and I had first moved there a year prior. But I still had no concept of government, of true love, of satellites, of the Pythagorean theorem. I had no idea to what extent the differences between Pennsylvania and Quebec amounted to, apart from the obvious fact that different languages were spoken in each. I was an innocent child, simple-minded like the rest of them.

One blazing hot summer day that year, the phone rang in the living room of our little tan townhouse. My mother gave me the phone and told me, “C’est pour toi.”

“Hello?” I asked after taking the phone from my mother.

It was my friend Michael. He was seven years old, like me (but I was a bit older). He had been in my first grade class.

Michael asked me if I could come over to his house to play. I told him I had to ask my mother first.

Maman? Est-ce que je peux aller chez Michael pour jouer?” I asked.

Oui, mais il faut que t’ecris son addresse,” she replied.

I did as I was told, and wrote down Michael’s address. I told him I would see him soon. Before I could hang up, he asked me to bring my Attack Pack toys, those cars, trucks and tanks that morphed into monsters. I agreed that it was a good idea for me to bring them, and then hung up.

I carefully put as many Attack Pack vehicles as I could inside of my backpack. Almost as an afterthought, I put in a small Super Soaker pistol, already filled to the brim with water. I couldn’t remember whether Michael had a Super Soaker or not, but I didn’t want to take the risk of not bringing mine.

My mother gave me fool-proof directions on how to get to Michael’s house. I had never walked there before, but had walked through that neighbourhood several times. I had nothing to worry about. I drank a glass of milk before leaving and kissed my mom goodbye for the afternoon.

Backpack in tow, I crossed Ridgepoint Circle and made my way to Hunting Ridge road. It was a magnificent day; the heat was intense but the scenery more than made up for it. Hunting Ridge road was surrounded by trees and flowers. Community-maintained flower patches surrounded the sidewalk. I purposely walked in front of automatic sprinklers to cool down.

I had walked for about twenty minutes – a very long time for a child, anyway – when I decided to take a shortcut off of Meeting House road through a playground. I followed the dirt path, surrounded by coarse bushes and tiny flowers, and absent-mindedly tried to avoid getting stung by the bees hovering around the blossoms. The playground was deserted save for two older looking boys. They must have been about 8 or 9 years old. They looked alike and dressed similarly, with one wearing a red plaid shirt and the other a blue plaid shirt; I instantly assumed they were brothers, if not twins. One of them sat on a swing, and the other sat on the bottom rung of the jungle gym. Both of them stopped talking and stared at me. I immediately slowed my pace, naively thinking that I would attract less attention by walking unhurriedly. I glanced at them and saw that they were smiling, laughing even. I knew that they were talking about me.

One of them jumped up and blocked my path. I stopped walking and stood there, watching him. The boy smiled. He dug his hand into his pocket and pulled out a jack knife.

“What’s in the bag, little boy?” he said.

I felt the tears running down my cheeks, down my chin, down my neck. The entire world froze. The sound of my tears hitting the sand was thunderous.

The second boy got up off of the swing and stood next to his presumed brother. He reached into his own pocket and took out a swiss army knife. He pulled the blade out and pointed it at me.

“What’s in the bag? Do you have toys in there?” he asked.

I knew I had to act.

I ran.

I heard the boys’ feet hitting the ground faster than mine were. I ran as fast as I could while I sobbed, distinctly aware that I was at a disadvantage because I had to carry a bag full of heavy toys. I thought I was going to die.

I turned back and looked at the boys as I ran away. They were grinning and still pointing their knives at me as they chased me.

What’s the matter, little boy?” asked one of them. “What’s the matter, little boy?

They repeated that question hundreds of times – or so it seemed to me – as I kept running. I knew they were able to catch up to me if they wanted to, but I forced myself to keep going as fast as I could despite the fact, and to not look back at them, not even for a moment. Every time I looked back meant a few more precious seconds that could potentially be used against me.

After what seemed an eternity, I exhausted all of the energy I had. I had no adrenaline left in my 7 year old body. In a fit of crying, I collapsed onto someone’s lawn. I felt my toys jab me in the back. The sound of my bawling mixed with the sounds of birds chirping, people mowing their lawns, and the sprinkler that was spraying warm water on me as if to add insult to injury.

I remembered the two boys and got up suddenly. They were nowhere to be seen. In fact, no one seemed to be outside. Dejected, I started the slow trek back home. Every time I counted to twenty in my head I looked back, to make sure they weren’t following me.

When I walked through the front door of my home, my mother asked me what happened. I mumbled something about how Michael couldn’t play anymore and had to go somewhere. I can only assume that my mother assumed that my tears were the result of my being upset over Michael not being able to play.

After that incident, I was always leery of other children in Bridgeville. My friends were skeptical as to the authenticity of my story, especially Michael, who I later had to call and explain why I never showed up at his house as previously planned. This only made me more cautious in my social interactions.

I was a shy boy.

I never saw those two boys again.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Boquete Incident (not even close to finished)

It would be an understatement to say that Pancho was an energetic man. As soon as we walked into his hostel, he burst into the room and spread out his arms. It was like a sitcom; I almost expected to hear electronic whooping.

“Are you amigos looking for a room?” he asked with a grin on his face. His English was accented but very good.

“Yes. Is there one available?” I replied. I had to look up to answer him. He was much taller than me and Jen, let alone compared to the average Panamanian.

“Yes! Come with me!” He pivoted in place and walked down a dark hallway. The hallway led to an open space outside, but still within the compound of the building. He swung his arms back and forth and whistled a song while we followed him to a door. He unlocked the door and excitedly gave us a short tour of the room. There was a window that could open and close (a novelty and luxury after nearly three months in Central America), a small bed, a mirror and a bathroom with hot running water. The price for the room was 8 dollars a night. I was sold.

I looked at Jen’s face for a sign. She gave me a non-committal look.

I turned back to Pancho. “We really like it,” I said.

Pancho’s smile broadened even more. He stretched out his arm and kept his fist clenched. I hesitated – still mesmerized by his constant eye contact and his eerie grin – and placed my open palm underneath his fist. He dropped the key into my hand and yelled, “Bingo!”

“Put your bags in your room! I want to talk to you!” he exclaimed as he jogged back to the living room. We did as we were told and I carefully locked the door behind us with the padlock. I put the key in my left sock.

We walked into the living room as Pancho was setting down a large square sheet of paper on the coffee table. “Where are you from?” he asked us, still smiling. “Estados Unidos,” said Jen.

“Canada,” I added.

“Canada!” Pancho yelled. He jumped out of his seat and ran up to a wall. He pointed at a postcard with a picture of Niagara Falls on it. “Canada, si? It is great!” he said.

Si,” I said, perplexed.

He sat down again and giggled like a child.

“So what is your main reason for coming to Boquete? Do you have interest in going to the top of the Volcan Baru?” he asked us, his grin slowly dissipating.

We nodded our heads emphatically.

“Okay, let me draw you a map.” He spent the next fifteen minutes drawing unintelligible directions to the volcano. Jen and I routinely looked at each other and laughed when we both realized we were equally confused. Pancho tried to explain his directions but it only confused us more. Eventually he got us a photocopy of a real map, which was of infinitely superior quality.

“Do we have time to go up and go down in the same day?” I asked.

“Yes, you do, but I do not recommend. No sir, I do not. You will be tired. It can take up to 8 hours to climb the volcano. If you climb it you must sleep there,” Pancho said. “But do not worry! There are police rangers that live at the summit. I know them, they are amigos. It will cost you about 8 dollars each to stay with them. They have beds and warm blankets; do not worry, do not worry.”

I was slightly skeptical but ultimately relieved. This is great, I thought. But this is just too good to be true. There has to be a catch to all of this.

Pancho said, “If you want you can rent a sleeping bag from the hiking store on the street here. It is about ten dollars for 24 hours and it is very warm. I have used it myself. It is very cold at the summit. But it is up to you.”

“We’ll think about it,” said Jen. I already knew that we weren’t going to rent it. We were willing to simply wear more clothes if the situation demanded it. Besides, this is Panama, and I’m from Canada. It can’t be that cold at the summit, I thought.

“Okay, so everything is good then for your departure to the Volcan Baru tomorrow!” said Pancho. He stood up abruptly.

“We do have one problem though,” Jen said.

Pancho put his hands on his hips and beamed. “What is your problemo?” he asked.

”We can’t bring all of our bags with us, and we don’t know where to put them,” Jen said. “Is there a place, like a locker or something, where we could put our stuff for 24 hours around here?” I added.

“Ah, that is no problem,” Pancho said. “Come here and follow me.”

We followed him to the kitchen, where he pointed at a table. “You will put your bags underneath this table?” he suggested.

I was skeptical. “Will our bags be safe there?” I asked. “No one will steal them? No robar?”

“Of course!” Pancho exclaimed, still smiling. “It is very safe. No one will touch your bags. I will make sure of it!”

“Okay then, I guess we’ll put them there tomorrow morning before we leave then,” I said, still skeptical. I remembered that I had a lock on my bag and that the only way to rob the contents would be to slash the bag open. This gave me a false sense of security, and I recognized it as such. It still made me feel better.

“Oh, and I will keep your room free for you for when you come back, do not worry. Your bags will be okay and your room will be okay,” Pancho said.

“How much do we owe you for that?” I asked him. Jen shot me an angry look for even daring to ask such a question.

Nada! Do not worry. It is all okay,” he said, laughing.

He stuck out his hand and I shook it, as if to seal the deal. It was eerie and unnatural to me. I was never a fan of verbal contracts.