Monday, July 23, 2012

No Land's Man

This article about Sudanese runner Guor Marial has been a small seed of thought planted in my mind for several days. It feels like it's germinating now, so I'm going to try to unearth it roots-n-all to get a look at just what I think it means. This most philosophical swing of the bat hinges on a small part in a book I recently picked up by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek entitled Living in the End Times, in which Žižek postulates that capitalism and the global order it maintains are nearing an endgame. From there he draws on the five stages of grief as a framework to analyze our world systems, social realities, and ideologies. It's been an engrossing read so far despite the excessive verbiage, but it is philosophy after all, I suppose.

The headline of the article above contains the story: "IOC allows runner without country to compete in London under Olympic flag". Well, the whole story is that this runner belongs to the infant nation of South Sudan, whose recent secession from Sudan is much too new to have established the proper Olympic body from which to authorize and send athletes. So, the IOC has determined that Guor Marial may participate in the Olympics without representing a country; he will instead run under the Olympic flag.

Because the IOC could have created South Sudan as a country recognized by the organization if it had wanted to, we can ask what reasons they may have for not doing so. I see a couple possible ways of reading this elision of South Sudan in favor of their own flag:

1.) Since Marial refused to where the flag of a Sudan that has seen dozens of his family members killed under its colors, the IOC could have denied his right to participate. They found a solution that maintained their established order (a country must have an Olympic body in order to participate) while allowing Marial to participate. This is one you might read in the news.

2.) "We at the IOC have resolved that the Olympics shall be your country, and the Olympic Village, your hometown. Your food, McDonald's and your flag, ours. You are the embodiment of a bodiless, faceless organization that has waited decades for such an opportunity to both humanize and commercialize the WeAreTheWorld-ness of the Olympic Games."

3.) It offers a sentimental story for the IOC to tout in the wake of their strange reticence regarding the 40 year anniversary of the 1972 Münich Games and its accompanying tragedy. The IOC has refused to acknowledge the tragedy in the opening ceremonies because they  fear backlash from extremists feel the need to "maintain political neutrality." Marial's story gift-wraps a sympathetic angle that will likely be covered in excess--certainly much more than the Münich massacre. Do you smell roses? That's the IOC.

As I see it Marial embodies a non-entity at the Games. Bearing the Olympic flag contains the statement that he is at once from everywhere and nowhere. He runs representing sport for all men and women, but he is also a neutral, neutered participant in the world's games--shackled and destined to represent only a void. Here, Žižek might cite the Lacanian moment when the "signifier falls into the signified," or, when the word becomes indistinguishable from the thing it names or even gains supremacy over the object. If these circumstances have never happened before, is it possible that Marial is the first person in history of whom the words "Olympic athlete" are true in their fullest sense?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Warning: Slow Everything

This is TicaBus. TicaBus is not a company I have ever used, but TicaBus would like you to think that they go super fast. Look at that deer leaping up mountains and into valleys. This is all an illusion, you see, because in Central America nothing is done quickly, and more often than not things are done with almost deliberate slowness.

Monday I began my journey home. I travelled from Bocas del Toro, Panamá to San José, Costa Rica in boat, taxi, and bus. I travelled from Bocas del Toro to Almirante by water taxi. Once there, I travelled a total of 296km  in 11.5 hours. That rounds out to an average speed of 26kph (16mph). For comparison, I just returned to Nebraska by plane over some thousands of kilometers in 9 hours.

Let's recap: eleven and a half hours at sixteen miles per hour.

I'd like this post to have a Adventure Excitement Against Time! tone as opposed to a #FWP Gringo Angst! tone, but the truth is I was one angsty gringo on Monday having rousted myself at 7:30am to finally arrive at the airport at 7pm. In those 11.5 hours of my life I changed in profound ways, by which I mean I devolved into a bitchy, angry, panicky American Tourist.

Interesting things were going on in Almirante, the gateway to Bocas del Toro. As soon as we docked, the tourist taxis began to usher us around saying they couldn't take us to Changuinola (the departure city to San José) because of a strike. All I remember hearing was the word huelga (strike) over and over and something about the streets being blockaded. We arrived at the blockade to Changuinola at about 8:30am to find dozens of school children standing in the street among fallen trees they had dragged across the road. It was a downpour. They were chanting, singing, and dancing in the streets.
Students chant as others watch from under the bus shelter

Our taxi driver took the time to explain the situation: the local school didn't have running water or electricity that day, and being this not an isolated occurrence, the children (ages 14-18, I would guess) decided to make their dire conditions everyone's problem by blockading the only major road through Almirante and practically bringing the tourist mecca of Bocas del Toro to a standstill for the morning. Busses were backed up behind the intersection for blocks in either direction. Our taxi driver got us through the blockade by his deft having of two taxis--one he drove up to the one side and the other he had driven to the water taxi dock. We sprinted through the blockade and downpour in order to arrive on time for our bus to San José.

Once aboard the bus, the next big hurdle was customs at the border. Going through the border upon entering Panamá was not unlike the early computer game Myst. The world is unknown to you, and you must rely on your insight along with tiny clues to find your way through a dream-labyrinth. No exaggeration. Panamá customs had four doors, two windows, and three buildings. You needed to go to one building, one window, and then one other door. You would think signage (or simply 1, 2, 3 ordering of buildings/doors/windows) would aid this process, but you would be lost, wrong, and probably crying. The only help we received was from our future taxi driver, who'd seen enough troubled gringos flounder up and down, flailing their passports at every open window and door. Somewhere, I thought, there must be a table with a bottle marked "DRINK ME" so that I would be able to shrink down small enough to fit through the real customs door at the foot of one of these windows. Then, the cake afterwards, saying "EAT ME". Normal size, giddyup!

I have digressed. We were returning through the same three-door circus we met on our way in, only this time with 30 needing to pass before we were allowed to move on. At the passport checking line things were moving extraordinary slowly. When I finally approached the window, I could see that the passport checker was being handed bundles of passports to stamp from drivers of private transportation. They pay a little money, they get ahead of the line. Ours were only checked once there was a break in the flow of these private drivers. This came after waiting in the line for 15 minutes only to find out we were in the line for the wrong window of the wrong buliding and we actually needed to be going in the door in the last building first. Imagine my joy when the men in this third building began to laugh at us for not knowing where to begin our process.

Back to window number one we went with the pay-as-you-go passport stamper. After getting stamped, one must walk across a bridge between Panamá and Costa Rica. This is that bridge:

It was a slippery 1/2km walk over the river. Finally, at the Costa Rican customs window (which seems to have about 33% more understanding of how to accommodate unfamiliar sheeple) we waited for the final stamp that would release us from the white rat race. There I found a defining moment of Central American life speed: with more than 30 people waiting in line behind me, the agent took my passport and declaration, scanned the passport, looked over the declaration, checked the boxes, stamped and signed my passport. He then handed me my pa--he then realized he was getting a text message on his iPhone, so of course he held my documents in one hand while typing with his thumb a two-paragraph reply. Misspellings? Just backspace and try again. Autocorrect error? Shuffle through the possibilities til you find it. After 30 seconds I offered, "Con las dos manos más rápido, no?" ("It'd be faster with both hands, right?"). He smiled and kept going. I was finally reunited with my documents a short time later.

The horn, the horn, the horn is so forlorn.

The trip moved swiftly through Caribbean towns Sixaola, Puerto Viejo, Limón, and then inland through Siquirres and Guápiles before our next major obstacle. A trucker pulled off to the side of the road yelled ¡Ehtá cerrao! ("It's closed!") as we approached the ascent of one of the most notoriously dangerous sections of Costa Rican highway that passes through the mountains of Braulio Carrillo National Park north of San José. Due to heavy rains and low visibility on tight corners, this heavily trafficked pass is often a pileup waiting to happen. So it was this afternoon, yet we ventured forth anyway rising about half way up before we joined the creep-n-stop rhythm of the rest of the semis, cars, and buses. Over the course of the next two hours some dozen ambulances went up and down the mountain. We had heard there was an overturned semi but never found evidence of this if there was one. My panic reached an all time high when I realized that without cellphone reception in the mountains I was handcuffed regarding the plans I had made to reunite with my luggage at the airport. The initial plan made early in the morning was that my generous maleta hosts would would meet me at 7:30pm at the airport for the handoff. I was two hours deep into a traffic jam that could potentially delay my arrival for much, much later. My travelling company, Sofi, made it easier to not fly into cursing rants about the former passengers of cars that began to populate the highway while they waited. She did well to stonewall my outrage at the growing claustrophobia of time.

All told, I arrived at the airport at 7:15pm. The descent to San José went much more quickly than I expected, and life returned to a manageable level of anxiety when my maleta bearers also brought gallo pinto and a thermos of coffee to send me off with one final, full Costa Rican meal. There were more hurdles on the way, like a 60 minute window in Denver to get to my next flight while also rechecking my bag and passing through customs and security again (they took my peanut butter! not a liquid!), but I now find myself among the comforts of home and no worse for the wear. Slowness has its advantages, but experiencing such a heavy dose of that reality in the 24 hours before I had to fly home made me miss the pace of life here (or at least the multiple lanes on highways).

I had a wonderful evening last night with my favorite friends in Omaha, Kim and Jeremy. I rode my bike to lunch with others today. High summer in Lincoln is upon me.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

La Colonia de Sarapiquí (La vuelta)

"How dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world"
- Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (current read)

Johancer (left) and family (not pictured: Macho)

Two years ago I was introduced via written word to a rural adolescent. He won the penpal lottery and got paired with the professor of a class he knew nothing about except that we were from the USA. To the son of a banana farm foreman this must have been quite a departure from normal activities in BananaLand, which included soccer on the floor with two distant countries' flags pushing a marble back and forth, playing bola in the plaza, and helping mom with the chickens.

Last year we met for the first time chest to chest. All in all, the six days I spent in La Colonia de Sarapiquí during a short service project have come to furnish a more complete world outlook. It moved me from B/W to Technicolor--still far from HD awareness. I still must suppress the powerful inclination to romanticize life in La Colonia (Chris and Tarah can rein me in here), but these are a couple things that stand out to me:

(1) Nebraska:USA::La Colonia:Costa Rica? In several ways I found myself comparing Nebraska's place in the USA to La Colonia's in Costa Rica. For one, the agrarian layout of most of the land is a constant reminder of what keeps food on the table. Take also the family-oriented HQ life and low cost of living. These people feel a connection to the land and to each other. Especially when I think about the question that I was asked by anyone who heard I was going to La Colonia (why?), I recall the great why-ness of Nebraska to most costal people in the USA.

(2) How many advertisements do you think we see in one day? I have no idea, but I do know that for one week of my life I saw exactly zero advertisements. No billboards, no popups, no TV--no one telling me what I needed in order to make my life better. Turns out if you aren't constantly being told how to upgrade your life, maybe you don't have those impulses. Maybe all the aural and visual violence of advertising I filter everyday conforms my life to a standard I am unfit to pursue.  I say the maybes because who knows, but I feel the maybes lean more toward yesbes. In La Colonia this pursuit appears to occupy very few.

(3) Success. This one hit our group the hardest last year. When a 10 year-old cannot pick their country out on a world map is this a failure of their education system? In a community where most are going to school because it keeps them busy before they are old enough to join the ranks of the banana farmers, how do you measure achievement or success? I come from a culture that values good, hard work but also disdains brute laborers as unsuccessful at best (undetermined at worst). The question is whether or not success exists on a sliding scale, whether education's quality also does, and how to EQ success with the various dials on the Soundboard of Life (family, education, community, work, etc.). Which is more indicative of success: a bank account or a happy family? Neither and both. Dials are tweaked very differently in La Colonia.

Johancer has a quick mind and a tender heart. He said, when responding to his mother's inquiries about why he is always telling girls how pretty they are but never dating any of them, "I just like to help their self-esteem." His heart is more than tender, though. It is weak. He has an as yet undiagnosed condition that leads to fainting spells and chest pains after the slightest physical exertion. Last year after throwing the frisbee for about 10 minutes he stumbled to me hand on heart. Chris guided us to the local clinic where we waited a short time to be seen by the physician. As he sat on the table in the room getting blood drawn, he looked up and asked nakedly ¿Viviré? (Will I live?). Words failed miserably to clothe such a question. The report this year is that he has not had any such spells for quite some time and will undergo tests this September to determine what can be done.

Johancer will leave La Colonia in a couple of years after school. He is one of the few who will overcome (read: "overcome") his educational environment; he says he wants to study science at the nearest university. This worries his parents, who are hoping to build a slightly bigger house next to their current, incredibly small house. "He's going to have to get some good scholarships," says dad ("Macho"). He will, I believe. There he will use the Internet for the first time--an incredible thing to say about a 16 year-old--and make use of the email addresses he has accumulated from the likes of Chris, Tarah, and myself. The Internet is our world now, though some still live in blissful ignorance.

I visited Johancer and his family last week for a day; I still carry three moments with me:

(1) There is a padded chair with armrests in the household. It is worn and in the corner of the 8x8 living room (which, by the way, is separated by a curtain from the 8x8 kitchen--no running water). The other seating is facilitated by a bench and two wooden stumps. As dinner was being served, I was made to sit in the large chair. Then, as my dinner was given to me (pork-skin and bean soup), the bench was set in front of me with a tablecloth (towel) laid across it. Two of four family members sat on the floor deaf to my protests. Their soup also contained no pork skins. All for me! he said, and chewed slimily.

From the kids' room (bunk bed behind me), you see the living room with said chair. Behind it, the blue curtain separates the kitchen. The house is four equal spaces (all roughly 8x8): living, kids' room, parents' room, kitchen.

(2) I bought Johancer a chess board. It was time, I thought, and it was also right in front of my head at the store. He seemed ready for chess and the stimulus it entails. The two brothers (Brainer is 9, I think) played and learned quickly following dinner. Later, with their enthusiasm still very much rising we were forced to play by candlelight since Macho gets up at 4am to go to the banana fields. Always catching me in the "one more" trap, we melted candles for several more hours. As I was leaving the next morning, Brainer was teaching the youngest, [name], what the diference between an alfil (bishop) and torre (rook) is. And on, surely on.

Playing chess on a team of two is near-impossible, we found

(3) Bedtime brought with it a surprise: bug nets. Houses are not sealed from the elements in this area (except from rain, duh). I remembered fondly last year's severe lack of bug nets as well as the raccoon we would hear rummaging in the kitchen at night (there was nothing to find but smells). Johancer carefully shrouded me in mine (before doubling up on the top bunk with Brainer), and then with the gentleness of the Virgin Mary proceeded to tuck a blanket around my body. He mummified me with maternal care--the bedding equivalent to the chair-and-table treatment I was given at dinner. The moment felt to be approaching holiness.

Duhv-course, there was also bike riding and coconut water drinking.

Brainer on the top tube
Guzzling agua de pipa

I returned to La Colonia a year later and left in 24 hours. It remains the most striking area of Costa Rica ahead of volcanoes, beaches, and cloud forests.