I’ve just returned from a 2 week trip to Panama. Jim’s brother, Michael, is interested in doing a photo documentary about ancient cultures in the shadow of Vulcan Baru’, and asked me over Thanksgiving if I wanted to join him for his first country visit with this in mind. I thought about all the reasons I shouldn’t: the expense, the time away from work, the heat and humidity, the anxiety (mine and my loved ones) of foreign travel. It all came down to why not. Within 24 hours of his asking, I booked a ticket, he booked his, and then he started having photography equipment delivered to ID so I could transport it safely to central America. The holidays hit, the kids were both home for separate visits, and I really did not have much time to think about this trip. A few questions about what to pack. Decisions regarding how much cash to carry. Last minute purchases of a backpack cover and a money belt, and I was on my way. Not knowing if I would be a help or a hinderance, I committed myself to “be of use.” I figured the least I could do was to schlep a tripod or something.
As we settled into the long bus ride from the western most province of Panama back to the capitol city to catch return flights, Michael asked me what I was going to write about. I told him I did not know. I’m still not sure, but I also know that this trip will be percolating in my mind and my heart for longer than the chigger bites continue to itch. I could write about the absolute corporeal shock of going from temps in the single digits to 90’s and humid in less than 24 hours. From the stark emptiness of Idaho to the last bus of the day heading up to the highlands, packed to standing room only and then stopped for a 20 minute driver break where no one could move. From snuggling under a down comforter and quilt to sweaty sleeping with a sheet, and a fan. From coyote tracks in snow to 80 shades of green, fireflies, and the crescendo of howler monkeys. From clean sidewalks and lanes of traffic, to taxis driving over the garbage piled on the roads and up onto the sidewalks. From spending so much time alone, to eating every meal with a loved one and being asked every morning how I slept. The contrasts were vast, and I am still getting my head around them.
More than the differences, I noted the commonalities. The passion for land, what it holds, what it grows, and the nest it creates for a family. The pride of a culture, its past, and the desire to have something there for the generations to come. The joy in preparing good food, and sharing it with others. Cultural similarities. But, even more so, the common ground we share as humans. The teenaged boy sitting over the wheel well on a cramped bus, complaining that the dancing he did last night trashed his knees. The divorced mother of two, worrying about her father, aged 92, and getting his story down before he dies. She is thankful that the father of her kids is finally in her country, and being a dad, at least on weekends. The taxi cab driver, who says he thinks that the hydro-electric project, stated as good for his country, maybe isn’t so, because now the fish are now gone. 12-year-old girls roll their eyes when mom talks everywhere in the world, and 9-year-old boys are bored at the end of summer vacation. The mother of the 6 month old boy, so quiet on the bus, full of pride for her 5 yr old daughter at home, who has survived. Her mother had 21 children, of which only 5 lived to adulthood. She, is the only one in 2 weeks, that I share my story with. I tell her that Michael, though he shares my name, is not my spouse, but the brother of my dead spouse. She smiles, and says “el hermano de su esposo, es tu hermano, no?” And, I agree. “El es muy comodo, es la verdad.”
I am comfortable, traveling with a man who shares my last name, in a Latin American country. He offers me protection I will not find elsewhere. He listens while I sleep, and talk in that sleep. He walks behind me down a road, sheltering me from my imagined assaults from young boys out on a weekend perambulation. He converses with the locals regarding accommodations, and I listen for the details. He hears directions, I hear life stories. We are a good pair. I tell him to walk ahead, and I catch my breath. It is Jim’s legs and Jasper’s hair, Emerald’s goofiness, and I am in the midst. I am back from Panama. I have chigger bites that will take 3 months to clear. I love Idaho. I love my family, and it is spread from Bonaire to Calgary to Georgia to Oregon. I love my kids, and so do mamas worldwide. I have friends, like sisters, that hold me at night when I worry about my papa. And, comodo is comodo. Michael never let me schlep his tripod. But, perhaps I was of use.