Sunday, April 29, 2012

Cigarettes and Fruit

Panama City at some point in the past, received a bunch of American school buses. The standard, vinyl seated, Kraft cheese-yellow school bus. They used them as the city buses, making great alterations to the outside but none to the inside.The buses have pastel murals on their sides and filigree, like ribbons wrapped all around them. Some have tinted window, some have chrome rims and sound systems, but on the inside, they are all still American school buses, some that still have the original rules of student conduct pasted on the front panel. As you can imagine this is very disorientating. These buses that look like something produced for an MTV special, Pimp my Bus, or something like that, pulling up with a roar, the guy who stands at the door to take your money waving you in and once inside your transported back to 6th grade, and it's really tempting to start kicking the bottom of the seat in front of you. I'd like to make that a clearer analogy for what Panama City is, how it is an upside-down America, exaggerated but also understated, but I'm too tired from walking around all day. I started my morning at the bus station. I backed out of going on a trip somewhere else and decided to stay in Panama City since I had gotten in the night before and still hadn't seen any of it. I wandered around the bus station for a few minutes, disorientated and unsure where I should be going, until finally just getting on the closest pimp bus. After I got on I asked the driver ´´¿usted va al centro?´´ which is horrible Spanish for ´´are you going downtown?´´. He seemed to understand however and nodded. I didn't know if I was expected to pay first, as in most other places, or later. I quickly decided I'd rather make an idiot out of myself walking off without paying rather than trying to force the driver to take my money early, especially when I didn't even know how much to give him. I went toward the back, following my old jr. high instinct, just in case I wanted to make those fart sounds that one makes by holding your palms over the mouth and blowing. I sat behind an obviously upset German couple with huge backpacks. They were sitting in different seats, probably because of the bags, but they also looked like they wanted to be sitting in different seats. They were whispering to each other in strained German. I invite you to imagine how that sounds on a bus that blasting Cumbia at 6 in the morning. It was certainly odd, but since I hadn't yet had any coffee nothing was making much since to me anyway. It was actually the coffee deprivation that caused me to get off the bus where I did. At some point I decided that it looked like we were close enough to downtown and, upon seeing a coffee stand I jumped off in a neighborhood that could only be described as a slum. Since the coffee works on my bravado as well as my wakefulness I wasn't too worried even though I was very obviously a tourist with my bag on and my dopey way of looking at birds that I've never seen before and making impressed noises under my breath like 'whooow!'. Everyone must have just thought that there was something wrong with me because I was left to coo over birds in peace, walking down the littered and broken streets with a styrofoam cup of coffee in my hand. At the edge of the downtown area I stopped into a grocery store that just happened to be opening as I passed. I stepped through those doors and I stepped into America. Either you have once been away from the states long enough to be amazed by the presence of some products or you haven't. It is not something I have the wherewithal to describe to you. It's a good thing I had had my coffee or else I very well could've ended up wandering around that place in a daze all day trying to decide what I was going to buy. When I stepped back outside, I left American soil, made sovereign by Stovetop mixes and Mrs. Butterworth's syrups. As far as I'm concerned where ever those two things are seen together is America, if only a small part of it. Back outside there was a soccer game going on in a park about two blocks away. Walking by, I felt a tinge of sloth watching the young kids run around like crazy, chasing the ball no matter where it went,one kid not even wearing shoes on the gravel portion of the field, but still running at such a clip to be literally slapping his feet on the ground. You could hear the gravel being packed down. Just on the other side of a main road from the park there was a massive, waterfront hotel. At my request, I was given a map, which I would go on to consult and shove back in my pocket so many times throughout the day that it would loose all form and eventually come to look like a colorful wad of toilet paper hanging out of my back pocket. Consulting the map, I found my way to the fabled Parque Nacional. The only rain forest preserve to be found within city limits. As excited as I was to get to the rain forest, passing an elaborate church I decided to stop in and admire whatever frescoes they may have had painted. A habit I have developed in my travels as churches are often cool and relaxing when the city is cacophonous and pushy. I had forgotten that it was Sunday and soon found myself standing at the back of a service, head bowed, trying to mouth the words to the Lord's Prayer in Spanish to not lose face. I found it interesting that going to church as a kid I still remembered almost everything that a service is comprised of and therefore I was able to pick a little of religious terminology in Spanish,knowing that so much of a service is a sort of call and response...´´Lord, hear our prayer.´´ Just before communion began, I ducked out. Though the church had been cool it also had that particular odor that only churches have: cheap coffee, some kind of semi-plush carpet (or marble) wood finish, dust and polyester. By comparison, the world outside, the city with rainforest crowding all around it smelled magnolia, clove, mango and tree sap. The alternating currents of these harmonious smells drug me bodily through the city. They would rise and swell, like notes in a symphony. As I would near a coconut palm the humidity would take on a milky quality. When I would near a mango tree it would grow Kool-Aid sweet. A mango tree. Ripe mangos scattered around it, rotting and rolling around on the sidewalk. Throughout the day I was picking them up, brushing them off and feeling like I had broken in to Eden while eating them. I couldn't initially find my way to the Parque Nacional despite it being obviously before me on the map. I continually found myself running across eight-lane highways, and stopping to ask tollbooth operators where the hell the footpath was for the park, if it even had one. After walking up an exit ramp I talked to yet another tollbooth operator who told me that, if I did somehow find my way into the jungle on foot (he had never heard of there being any kind of trail) that I'd have to be damn careful to not be bitten by a poisonous snake, since, he said, the jungle was practically teeming with them. When I found my way into the park about 20 minutes later I still had this warning in mind, and since I had never been to a jungle before I made my way along the path with a stick out in front of me, held out like some kin of primitive mine detector. When 5 minutes of walking had passed, and I hadn't scared up any snakes, I dropped the whole business and plodded along clumsily enough to seduce any snake within ten miles into biting me. I had this intention of taking a nap in the rain forest, but when the somnolence of the light rain and the resulting humidity began to sway me, the ferocious ants and the clouds of possibly malarial mosquitoes made it almost impossible to lay down, let alone sleep. As I was leaving the forest, I walked by a culvert that I hadn't noticed on the way in, beside it were 100s of those lizards that stand up and run on their hind legs. It was like some kind of absurd salute, as I walked by, every few feet, another one of them would jump up and splash across the water in that absurd, exaggerated way. I tried to take a video but I was far too enamored with the lizards to train a camera on them and every time I tried I ended up with a video of the tops of the trees with the voice over of me saying 'waooow' quietly to myself. I decided to go eat after the jungle and I made it my mission to find one of the Taco Bells in the city, since it's been days now since I've had any hot food. It wasn't a far walk from the jungle to the shopping district, which is basically a hive of Death Star-sized shopping malls, situated along a grey piece of Pacific coast, polluted, probably, by their construction. These shopping malls are called: Multicentro, Multiplaza and Metromall. As you can imagine they are virtually indistinguishable from each other. For this reason, I wandered around under their pall for hours, frequently bushwhacking my way through landscaped medians other ornamental areas to get from one place to the other in an area where everyone drives and sidewalks would be pointless. I had to eat my Taco Bell outside because there were no open tables at the food court. There was also some kind of children's theater adjacent to the seating area that was continually beeping and crashing, that would have made eating in there much like eating in a pinball machine. So, I ate in the parking lot, consoling myself by thinking of all the mango trees that surely could not be too far away. I tried to walk to Panama´ viejo, but when I found myself walking down another highway, I decided to take a bus, an all-black tinted school bus, reggaeton rattling the windows and the seats in much better condition than I remember them ever being on our school buses although they were upholstered in the same molten-looking forest green vinyl that never really loses it's smell. Panama´ viejo is a place that you'd be better off going to with someone else. Some places just require you to share the experience of them. I don't know, like there's a feeling of vacancy in the air otherwise. Somehow, Panama´Viejo and it's ruined towers and ramparts made me feel like that and although it's a UNESCO World Heritage site, I found the bus rides there and back much more interesting than the place itself. If you think about a school bus, I mean the way the seats are positioned and the aisles, you can see how it would be a really bad method of mass transit once the seats were all taken. When I got on the bus outside of Panama´ Viejo I found such a crowded bus waiting for me. The meager aisle that those things have was roiling with undulating people trying to get on, off or into a seat that was opening. Imagine, someone getting up and moving into the aisle from a seat, while the person standing next to him in the aisle moves aside while those in the back push to get through to be let off while and old lady pushes back to get to the seat that's just opened. Remember: the aisles of school buses are not much wider the 16 inches or so. At some point I took a seat when I began to feel like myself and all the other passengers were just teeth in someone crack head's mouth, continually grinding and gnashing away. I immediately regretted sitting down, however, when I realized that my face was now a crotch level from all the guys that were chomping and grating as I had previously been. But, so long as no one was intentionally forcing his crotch into my face I really didn't have cause to complain. And for a quarter to get across town I guess it's just that I should have to deal with some kind of, uh, inconvenience. I got off by mall land and just kept walking, it was getting dark and I really didn't have any idea where I was going, but I just kept walking, like I was on auto pilot after an entire day of walking all over the city. I was walking down Via Argentina when a black SUV pulls out in front of me. The guys rolls down his window saying 'una pregunta.' I shake my head emphatically and keep walking since I'm sure he wants directions somewhere, and though I'd try to help him once he heard my accent and saw my toilet paper map he'd already have his foot off the break. But he waves me over anyway. ´Hey! I've seen you three different times today,' he says, sounding almost annoyed, like he was getting tired of looking at me, like I was some kind of annoying new billboard that kept assaulting his field of vision. I don't really know how to respond to this so I just say something like 'yeah?´. 'Yeah,' he says, damn all over the place, this morning walking by the grocery store, this afternoon over by the malls and nowyou're over here.' While he saying all this it's impossible to gauge how he feels about this, let alone why he's bothered to tell me. He keeps shaking his head in a manner that looks more than nonplussed. When he's done telling me about how many times he's seen me, he pauses as if waiting for a response, like I'm to explain my behavior to him. 'Well, I like to walk,' I try. 'Hmmm,'he replies. Not knowing what else to say I joke, 'well, I guess I'll probably see you tomorrow,' and I smile. There's no response from him. I say good bye and then he drives away. I still don't know if he was somehow upbraiding me for walking too much, or making myself obvious enough to me noticed, but whatever he meant, it seemed like a satisfactory end to a Sunday of walking alone all day. At least someone noticed. Although, just why or how he noticed, I'll never know.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Sound Becomes the Setting

The sound of the alarm startles me out of something. It could’ve been something other than a dream, because when I woke up I was completely unable to recall any of it, and I suppose it’s possible that we are capable of doing other things in our deep sleep other than dreaming. I couldn’t find the phone that the alarm was coming from. I dug in my pants’ pockets coming only across other items that in my state registered only as complete abstractions, Keys: hard and somewhat sharp; Wallet: misshapen leather brick; papers and money: whispery intangibles blurred around the edges like the state I had just awoken from. By the time I finally found the phone, improbably in a pant leg, I was awake enough to get up and start the coffee.
At the early hour, in recognition of the holiday weekend, the streets were nearly empty. The sun had already been up for at least an hour or so, but it had yet to completely clear the tallest buildings downtown so the resulting light was largely mottled in appearance, bright and dim at once and not yet complete; it still looked very much like early morning despite the fact that it was nearly eight o’clock. On the sidewalks there were newspaper vendors still readying their wares for sale; tying and untying the great bulwarks of paper that had been left for them on the sidewalk. There were teenagers still out from the night before, having a last coffee at the McDonalds before going home to sleep the day away and to dream about the advances they had made in their status as teenagers. At an intersection, I stopped at a red light, a little past the crosswalk and a cab driver on the perpendicular path yelled and made an unintelligible gesture as he drove slowly through the intersection. A few blocks later the skyscrapers of microcentro rose up around us and the cooler wind, longer steeped in the dark interstices between the buildings brought up the hackles around our necks and down our backs. It was a light, autumnal cold that otherwise just touched our knuckles and ears.
The Microcentro area terminates on a slope that jettisons bicycles and cars and anything else that carries enough momentum across a wide avenue before Buenos Aires’ river port with the somewhat ironic name of Puerto Madero. We ferried ourselves safely across one of the many bridges that span it and stopped at the edge of the nature reserve, where despite tidy landscaping and frequent trash cleanup, the place has an almost third-world kind of appearance owing to the presence of scores of sloppy parilla shacks painted in pastels that have been coated with a patina of wood smoke, meat fat and dribblings of all the mayonnaise-like sauces of Argentina. One such parilla shack with a coarse painting of the Falkland islands on it was already laying out its plastic tables, cooking its onioned meat and piping its tinny pop music out as if it could somehow conjure up a Saturday evening on a Friday morning by just creating the ambiance.
We were told that the park was closed, but rather than risk it we decided to wait around near the gate with the coffee we had brought. A large and dirty black cat sidled out of the park and over to us with the mien of still having a thrashing bird in his mouth. He sought our sympathies in vain as he was too bold for me and too dirty for Gina and took his leave when he saw a park worker arrive that he had no doubt earlier seduced into his aloof affections. When we heard a similar rustling from the other side of where we were having our coffee we were both surprised to find a kind of amalgamate bird standing there, a species that I had been telling Gina about since before she had arrived. About the size of a small pheasant, this bird has a russet-colored breast, dark wings (that it doesn’t seem to use) a bright green beak and bright tea-colored eyes. I would guess it to be some kind of waterfowl since the reserve is mostly marshland on the Rio de la Plata.
Twenty minutes after we had been told that the park was closed the gates were opened and we, along with everyone else who had had the tenacity to wait, entered. In the morning when the park is still it feels more wild that in the afternoon when it is full of joggers who seem to take some kind of perverse pleasure in running around the last vestige of un-urbanized Buenos Aires with headphones, dark glasses and spandex, ignoring all the details of the park or perhaps just preferring the encounter them quickly and move on. We rode slowly though the park, one moment finding ourselves washed in sunlight and the next plunged back under a cold umbra of leaves. The rocks of the trail crinkled under our tires and the birds called out to each other above our heads, our worlds so close as to be overlapping but entirely unknown to each other. As usual, I tried to greet the joggers and other bikers in the park as one does in the United States, even in large cities, in the morning, both parties acknowledging the similarities in their characters that have taken them out of bed so early in the morning. I received no reply. The people here don’t seem over eager to conspire about the merits on getting up early with strangers.
On the way out we stopped at a building site to watch a group of puppies finish their breakfast of garbage and to duck back under the fence where their mother has safely herded them. We watched until the last one frolicked out of sight, reminded of the large numbers of animals that we had once enjoyed watching back in Arcata, California in much more suitable surroundings.
With the last couple swallows of coffee in the thermos we sat down in another park to linger for a few more minutes. A man with three greyhounds approached us and pointed to a bird mira al pajarito alla…. He went on to explain with no further introduction how the bird we were now all looking at together mimicked the sounds of all other birds and as soon as he had finished speaking the bird, seeming to sense its introduction had drawn to a close piped out a perfect medley of about 13 different bird calls, one after another. We watched and listened entranced, so much more so because it seemed as if the bird had down so on command after the man’s description. When the arrhythmic, but strangely beautiful song had ended the man repeated his claim again and walked away. We he had gotten about thirty feet away he stopped and asked ustedes son extanjeros, no? I replied that we were from the states and he paused a moment before adding tenemos muchos pajeros en Argentina and walking away.