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.