Day 19

It rains all night. When I wake up at 6.30am, the storm is still raging. We haven’t had rain like this since we arrived. Other than the first few rainy days it’s been beautifully sunny weather. Laundry will be hell if the weather keeps this way!

There is an insatiable urge to just sit and look and observe, what Rebecca Solnit calls an “ecstasy of looking.” The curious child comes up to wonder what I am doing, comes up to shout “Foto! Foto!” Is bored and wanders away. Women walk past wearing their mola, their wraparound skirts and headscarves. This is everyday dress for most of them, not just for cultural occasions. They are usually carrying something; a basket of clothes, a bucket of fish, a child. On weekends a man might be seen carrying beer or a bottle of rum to his friend’s house. The men, though, work just as hard.

We watch the rain and listen to the drums going through the village. It’s Panama’s day of independence from Columbia today. When we first came, the beat was all over the place. They seem to have got it together despite walking through the town in the driving rain.

Luis looks at the water droplets from the roof making tiny ripples in a trough on the ground and remembers a battle scene from Macross. It’s a series I need to read again. He observes that water is indeed a difficult thing to draw. Caroline’s friend once asked a three year old how to draw water. He drew three overlapping circles. She thought it was such a good idea she made a tattoo on her wrist out of it.

Still talking about kids, Luis was really terrified of Donald Duck as a child. He didn’t like Dr. Seuss either. He reckons that it was also because they could not talk. And because they couldn’t talk they couldn’t explain themselves. And because nobody explained anything to him, he was really scared. And as kids, objects and unexplained phenomena, or even words grow to take on Goliath-like proportions in your head. And you’re no David. Kids have no stone and slingshot in their hand. And even if they did, would anyone even allow them to have a slingshot? Certainly not in Singapore. Kids are too inundated with straight-laced educational toys these days. A cup can only ever be a cup, not a world. Nachito is only three and can already blow through a conch shell, wrestle a lime from a tree and tie knots.

Why can’t we open adult beverages and instead of alcohol there’s war, sex, or glory inside? – thought from Caroline’s friend. 

I crossed 20,000 words last night in the journal. It is quite a shock to think that I’ve written so much in just under three weeks. Is it a badge of honour? Or maybe a sense of loss for all the years that I pushed a larger kind of writing aside for the concatenated punch that is a poem. But how much does a poem leave out? It is like a photograph, except that a photograph is made and then it is finished, the minor edit aside. Like a photograph, a poem is also a frame, excluding far more than it includes. There is no art form that can fully encapsulate experience. Everything is reflected, re-created in a likeness of reality. At best, this is a shadow of truth. Which is why good art doesn’t just aim at re-presentation but at transcendence. 

After breakfast, the sound of the flutes draws us to the basketball court. Panama Day celebrations are in full swing and the rain has abated. There’s a long chicha dance involving the flutes and the maracas and this time, I am able to get permission from the schoolteachers’ to film a bit of it. Children are arrayed around the basketball court in their classes, patiently watching. A bunch of kids over to one side are clearly the marching band, decked out in pretty uniforms, their drums lying on the grass before them, kitted in various permutations of the national flag.

At ten, we gather at the Turtle House for something very special. Manuel, one of the sahilas and the village botanist, is going to give each of us a piece of heartwood. We troop over to his house. Thankfully, the rain has abated. He gathers a few small pieces of wood, elongated and shaped. They look slightly different from each other. We sit in a rough circle and wait for his daughter, Julia, to come and translate. Birdsong flits through the roof. The sun is weak, but gives the entire space a soft, gentle glow. At Manuel’s feet is a small aluminum pot that contains cacao being heated up. Manuel blows on the embers every now and then and holds the wood over the fumes. He speaks in Guna and his daughter translates. Luis completes the translation to English.

Heartwood is actually the hardest part of the tree. Each piece we are receiving is from a different tree. Some are varieties of almond trees, but the rest have only Guna names. The wood is so hard that it can only be cut with an axe, not even a machete. Julia explains that this is a very spiritually significant object that is used for strength, protection and for motivation. It functions as object, or it can be shaved off with a stone and drunk cold, as a kind of tea. One can also put the wood into a bath. This is recommended to cleanse you of a negative experience. One drinks the tea, about a litre of it, for thirty days at a time, and it is forbidden to have sex during this period. Something about purity and cleansing.

After the wood has been heated up, Manuel sings over the wood. Julia explains that this is to call the spirits from the mountain to inhabit the wood, which has been unlocked through fire and song. Each spirit is from the particular wood we have. Each of us is given a different kind of wood.

There’s a story about Igua and Nispero, two of the trees that are used for the heartwood. Both got into an argument about who was stronger. Igua said that I’m the best because I’m the strongest but Nispero said that I get used more for tools such as ax handles and so on so when I die, I’ll be surrounded by my friends and those who love me while you will live on in the forest, alone.

Manuel then hands a piece of wood to each one of us. The name of mine is ersu. I cannot get a translation for it, though. My heartwood is pointed at both ends. It has a heft in my palm. The grain is dark, striped, and almost animal-like. It feels alive. And I guess it is in some way.

Over lunch we talk about dyslexia and driving. Some people mix up left and right. Or yesterday and tomorrow. Is it a kind of dyslexia, perhaps spatial or even temporal dyslexia? And is dyslexia some kind of encrypted word that masks other things? Could people with ‘dyslexia’ be less able at one thing and better at another? Is there a kind of dyslexic equation?

The ground beneath us grows soggy with the rain. My chair soon becomes an island, maybe I will float away into the jungle. Before the rainy season, the mouth of the Armila river where it feeds into the ocean is narrow and boats can only pass by being pushed along by sticks. A heavy rain will change all that, raising the level of the river even as the ocean recedes. And on land, everything starts to grow. The dry season is really a season of lack.

Water is life. We are made and unmade from rain.

Stuck at Nacho’s house, Maria tells us about her various odd jobs, one of which was a summer job working as a garbage disposal operator, something that would be unheard of for the affluent, spoiled youth of Singapore. Caroline recalls how in Haiti there is no plumbing and so men have to shovel out latrines with their bare hands and buckets. It’s a hateful, but necessary job and it’s done at night so that the men are not recognized. Which makes me think of the Singapore nightsoil man in the 1960s and his truck full of drawers of shit that he would empty and replace underneath the outdoor latrines.

We trade our favourite rainy day movies. Forrest Gump comes up. Toy Story and The Breakfast Club too.

I start reading ‘The Book of Trouble and Spaciousness’ by Rebecca Solnit, a motley crew of essay on topics as diverse as an Arctic artist residency, the Arab spring and the birth of punk rock in America. Her writing here doesn’t feel as dense as some of her other books, maybe because of the condensed space of the essay. What I am taking away is how authoritative her voice is, whether or not her self is embedded within the narrative. When she is observing events such as the uprising in Egypt, she builds a particular subjectivity, taking an angle to prove a larger point through dogged opinion that is more about concept than experience. I do enjoy this point of view, because it allows one to comment or speculate on things that aren’t immediately experienced.

After the rain, I wring out my wet clothes that have just been washed for a second time. I do hope they dry before we leave. 

I carry on working on my songs with Luis. We manage to translate two of them into Spanish, because the translation app I used was way too literal and had no poetry in its head. Such is the poverty of machine translation. Luis does have a way with words, and a couple of times, a synonym he suggests that works better in Spanish has me changing my English lyrics to match his.

Rain stops and we watch the evening unfolds slowly in front of the house. A man takes an hour and a half to chop up an old canoe. He stops regularly to chat with people and to help his buddies draw up another large canoe onto the bank. People here really do live from farm to table to fire. Soldiers make regular rounds around the community. It feels like military presence has been stepped up since the robbery.

Somehow, when there is heavy rain there is no running water. And there’s barely enough power to turn the light on. No one is charging anything tonight.

We are trying to get jagua to draw something on all of us before we leave. It would be a good memento if done right. The pigment is colourless and comes from the fruit of the tree, which is only found deep in the jungle. Apparently a couple of people in the community have it, although most of it was expended during the chicha. People often mix it with some charcoal so they can see what they are drawing on themselves. I offer my arm as canvas. Hopefully no dick pics will emerge!

We will visit the beautiful mouse on Wednesday. It’s some kind of large rodent that someone is keeping as a pet. I think beautiful mouse is some kind of unfaithful translation that ended up as a joke. Also because we can’t figure out what kind of rodent it is. 

Maria mentions that she found mouse poop on her mosquito net. Luz thinks it is oshin, some kind of ash or residue. Luis laughs at her pronunciation. He says that it’s oyin and mentions that Oshin was the name of a Japanese soap opera. And I do a double take, because I watched that as a teenager on bored afternoons after coming home from school. How things travel!

Part of our dinner tonight is chicken, which is no big deal, except that it came from a rooster that was found dead. We speculate if it was killed by the chupacabra, a half-mythical creature that sucks the blood out of young men, some kind of less lovely pontianak. But Nacho thinks the most likely explanation is that a falling coconut killed it. This is extremely funny and sad at the same time.

Author: Marc

Creative educator. Sometime photographer. Fiddler of words.