Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Mystery of the Coconut

They lie on the ground unspoken for like so many acorns.  As I ride in the back seat of the family rental car I long to stop and gather them up.  It’s not that I couldn’t have insisted we stop; it’s just they were a mystery.  How do you open them, eat them, drink from them.  At a local farm stand we stop to ecstatically purchase our half dozen, half dollar pineapples.  The native farmer picks up his heavy machete and the large, smooth skinned, golden nut, whacks off an angular slice, puts a straw in its pure white center, and offers it to me.  Not being able to meet his eyes I shyly lower my head and shake “no”, too timid to receive the gift being offered to me.  Now the coconut haunts me.

I am on vacation in Panama for two weeks immersing myself in its unspoiled grandeur.  The peaceful cohesiveness of the people and their country fascinates me with its absolute simple beauty.   The people are poor, but I can’t feel sorry for them. They have no cars, gadgets, or modern electricity and plumbing, although, oddly enough, cell phones are amazingly common.  Their small villages invariably include a church, small general store, an open air Atlas beer garden, and a bus stop on both sides of the road.  Larger villages had more than one of each of these necessities. In these larger villages the stores, churches, and beer gardens did not seem to compete with each other as their even dispersement allowed for an easy walking distance for the villagers nearest to them.  Yes, the cuevas jardine was a necessity for the men to gather in and socialize on Saturday and Sunday nights.  In our frequent passes through the villages it was common to see all the villagers gathering together.   We would try to guess if the event were a funeral, celebration, or religious holiday.
Neither obesity nor malnutrition seems to plague these hard working people. The lack of noisy machines such as lawn mowers, combines, tractors, and bull dozers is very noticeable.  The machete should be declared the national tool.  The men use it to harvest, landscape, do general house hold tasks, and of course, open the coconuts.  Occasionally you would see an older boy proudly carrying around his own hand me down, all-purpose blade.  The shovel follows the machete in popularity.  Road work is done by many men actively digging and repairing.  No one stands around watching as one person works an expensive piece of machinery.  The workers wear long sleeves and pants, gloves, and an open bandana tied on their heads to protect them from the constant sun.  They take their breaks together under a large, shady tree.  They smile and talk to one another jovially as they drink water from a giant thermal cooler.  Because of its resistance to heat and rain, cement is the glue that ties the country together, but the actual cement mixer is rarely spotted.  The cement is mixed by hand with a shovel by individuals for building structures, roads, and homes.
In the areas we travelled we saw where the country raised its own food.  On many occasions you had long looks at the crops as you patiently, or not, drove behind the ancient dump truck piled high with the workers sitting on top being dropped off at their homes as the truck drove slowly to market at the end of the day.  Sugar cane, beans, corn, carrots, onions, beef, dairy, chickens, eggs, wheat, pigs, pineapples, bananas, citrus, plantains, potatoes, coffee, watermelon, cantaloupe, and, of course, coconuts are some of the easily recognizable, abundant nourishment. 
The people were surprisingly clean cut.  The men and boys all had dark, short hair and shaven faces.  Although it certainly wouldn’t be called a beard climate.  In the rural areas men wore long work pants and long sleeve work shirts and hats. The women and small girls in the rural areas wore matching brightly colored dresses trimmed with contrasting ric rac trim.  Some women, especially women employed in the city, carry umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun. The teenagers dress in jeans and t-shirts, and “summer” clothes like shorts and tank tops are surprisingly lacking.  Their only vice is VERY tight jeans worn by teens in the larger towns and VERY tight dresses worn by some women in the larger towns and cities.
Transportation is varied but the same throughout the country – bus, taxi, bike, horse, and car with the bus being the predominant mode.  Every 15 minutes in the largest city on the west coast, David, double decker buses completely fill with passengers to travel to destinations on the Pan-American Highway all the way to the east coast in Panama City.   Colorful, cement bus stops can be found in every corner of Panama.  There is no place too isolated or the road too bad where you cannot catch a bus.  There are always people at the bus stops.  Families, workers, teen agers, everyone gathers and takes the bus.  It is truly a mass transit country, which really makes you wish our country had much fewer cars and universal access to mass transit.    The “buses” in Panama City are owned by individuals, and I cannot stress how individual these buses are.  They are old school buses painted by the owner, some beautifully, some not, and with a variety of additions like gaudy exhaust chrome.  Clown buses would also describe the buses accurately; as it seems there is a Guinness world record competition going on to see who can get the most people on their bus.  One bus I saw had a man in the bus only by a foot and a hand hanging on to the stair rail.  Most other areas of Panama the buses look like small, elongated passenger vans.  It is fun to watch the caballeros on horses at the many cattle ranches decorating the hills and valleys.  The funniest site we witnessed were the men on bikes with bald tires with 10 gallon plastic containers strapped on their backs going to and from the crop fields.  I’m not sure what they are spraying on the plants – pesticide, chemicals, nitrates or just water? – But it seemed so benign compared to our massive chemical trucks or planes when they cover a field with its contents.
Apparently there is not a strict DMV in the country as the people and taxi drivers that did have cars had very expired inspection and registration stickers.  The police have daily, regular check points where they stop individuals to check to see if they have a driver license, which many don't. There is a heavy guard like police presence everywhere in Panama.  I’m not sure how many are on the payroll, but we saw them in most every kind of store, on most street corners, and many in the parks and public areas.  In the run down area of Panama City the police are two to a corner and wearing vests in the evening. In the rural areas they are seen much less, but there are still regular check points in these areas.  It seems that the country strongly wishes to deter ANY crime.
We drank mostly bottled water, but I’m pretty sure we could have just boiled the water and then drank it.  In the grocery stores it is possible to get almost all of your needs made or grown in Panama.  The exceptions being some fruits and vegetables are imported from other Central or South American countries and California.  They do offer American brand names, but you can almost always find the Panamanian version.
Overall, the country had a very sustainable, ecology friendly, uncomplex nature to it.  This appeared to be because of the lack of modernization and regulations.  The country had a 1960s feel to it. The people were much less isolated than all of our individual cars, houses, big screen TVs and online shopping have made us.   It made me feel regretful of our country’s incredible progress since the 1960s.  I know I also greatly enjoy the convenience of these advancements, but their country really inspired me to think whether in making things easier for ourselves, we didn’t do ourselves any favors.  Not an original thought, but one I feel heart fully right now.
Which brings me back to the mystery of the coconut?   All I know about the coconut I got from the plastic wrapped, shredded, dehydrated, sweetened version.
contributed by Colleen Schriefer

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