Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Green Parenting in Panama – The Navas Family

MaGreen and I married last February. One of the gifts was a set of frequent-flyer tickets for our honeymoon, enough to get us out of the country. We booked tickets for Panama because we heard it had rainforests but was not yet overrun with tourists. After spending a day in the city, we took a cab to the bus station and asked for a ticket to a national park in the next province. The conductors talked among themselves and then walked us to the bus.

It was a rustic vehicle, as in no air-conditioning and a passenger holding a crowing rooster in his lap. We rattled out of the city, over the Panama Canal, and into the Coclé Province. We made a turn at the town of Penonomé and started climbing into the mountains. The conductor had us switch into a van, which strained its way up steeper roads. Horses started to outnumber cars and motorbikes. It was getting dark and there were no hotels. The conductor had us transfer again and we found ourselves alone in another van that truly suffered its way up an unpaved, boulder-strewn road into the Parque Nacional Omar Torrijos. The lodging in the park, however, was occupied. Our guidebook said there was one other place to stay – the home of the Navas family.

The Navas took us in and fed us plantains, rice, and chicken. They had a nice, polished concrete porch where we sat and talked with the family. They were a grandmother, grandfather, grown daughters and son-in-laws, and grandchildren. About ten in all. The youngest was a three-year-old boy.

The grandfather, Santo, said to us, “You know, we had some Germans visit, but they called first.”

Then his daughter, Nuris, said, “Yes and there were the Irish ones and they called first too.”

We got the idea. We should call ahead. Still, the Navas did everything to make us feel welcome and want to stay. Our room was off to the side of their family room. It was made of cinder blocks and a metal roof. We had our own toilet and little single bed. I’d like to say that MaGreen conceived there on a mountain where two continents meet, where two oceans nearly meet, but part of the wall with the adjoining bedroom was made from a piece of cardboard and the bed creaked with every move. I could hear the children murmuring in their sleep.

In the morning, a son (or son-in-law?) named Santiago took us into the rain forest to give us a guided tour. He carried a machete with him. “What kinds of things do you want to see?” he asked.

“What kinds of things can you show us?” we asked.

“I’ve taken snake scientists on snake hunts, but that must be done at night with lanterns. Some want to see this bird or that bird on their list.”

“What do you like to look for?” we asked.

“I love the frogs,” he said, “but the red ones, which used to be so common that it would be difficult not to step on them, they have all died.”

MaGreen mourned with Santiago as he told us how thousands of these frogs had died only a few months before and that they were nowhere to be found. We kept asking him about his life and he started to warm up to us. As he took us deeper into the jungle where it was nice and cool, he told us how he grew up tromping around the wilds. He had been a hunter and his family had been loggers until twenty-five years before when the government declared the area a no-cut zone.

“Were you a good hunter?” I tried to ask, but my Spanish came out garbled.

“Look,” he said, “I don’t hunt any more.”

His skills as a guide were extraordinary. He showed us at least five varieties of toucans, countless varieties of hummingbirds, an orange bellied tragon which is a cousin of the quetzal, a white ruffed manakin, a bay headed tanager, a bright blue frog with black spots, a bright green frog with black stripes, a salamander, a huge chameleon that changed colors before our eyes, parasitic trees that eventually swallow up and kill the host tree, ants that carry leaves on their backs, central american squirrel monkeys, and a sloth hanging from a tree with a baby on its belly. While we trudged along, he would suddenly thrust his hand under a plant and grab a frog.

Santiago also took us up to a peak where we could see the Atlantic on one side and the Pacific on the other. On the path, he pointed out abandoned logging equipment. On the way back to the Navas home, we picked fruit off the trees. We even got to pick a cacao fruit. Chocolate is made from the seeds. But we ate the sweet fruit part around the seeds.

When we got back, the grandfather suggested that we go out with the kids to bathe in the Barrigon river. What can I say? We swam with the kids in a pool at the base of a little waterfall. They showed us how to slip behind the falls and then dive under the pounding water.

We kept shouting to the kids over the sound of the water, “You are so lucky to grow up in paradise!”

When we returned for dinner, we talked with Nuris, a very intelligent woman who has two young daughters. When the Peace Corps held a training program at the Navas home, the program director asked her to move to Panama City and work for his family as their nanny.

“I get one weekend off per month to visit my family here,” she said. Her kids were growing up in the care of their father and grandparents as she took care of American kids.

“I’m paid two hundred dollars per month.”

“That’s exploitation,” I said, “you need a union.”

“No, no,” she said, “that’s good pay and this is a good opportunity for me.”

Nuris kept talking to us about her life, about how dear the Peace Corp coordinator’s children were and that they might take her abroad with them. The others were preparing dinner. All their ingredients were fresh and locally grown. They ground and roasted local coffee beans. The chicken was raised locally. We took a break from our vegetarianism to share in their regular meals. One of the men in the family worked yucca farms.

When we actually ate, Nuris joined the rest of the family and the grandfather, Santo, came in her place to talk to us. I asked him how they started their business.

“When the government made the forest a no-cut zone, they told us there would be tourists,” he said, “so that is when we had the idea of hosting visitors.”

I detected some bitterness in the way he talked about the policy. They forged new lives as hosts to eco-tourists because their former way of life was outlawed. Their current work, you could say, is green-collar, but is it as dignified as before? I think it’s wonderful there is income generated by preserving or reclaiming wilderness, but would inhabited wilderness have been a better model than a strict no-cut law?

“Next time,” Santo said, “you must stay longer so that we can take you to La Rica. You can only get there by hiking for a day into the park.” La Rica, La Rica, La Rica. He talked about it whenever his mind drifted. That was where the old way continued. No electricity. Living in the middle of the forest in homes made from wood not concrete. There are even more rivers and more waterfalls. The water tumbles down the mountains into Caribbean.

Before bedtime, the children put on a little play for us. I picked at their guitar and sang a few songs. MaGreen sat with one of Nuris’s daughters and flipped through our Lonely Planet guidebook with her. The girl was especially drawn to the section on Panama City. She pointed to a picture of some shiny skyscrapers and said, “That’s where my mom works.” MaGreen tore the picture out for her to keep. Nuris was leaving the next morning to go back to the American children she cared for in the city. She had already taken an extra day off and had to return.

We left after another day. Santo came with us down the mountain to Penonomé so that we could draw money from the ATM machine and pay him. I think he asked for $160 for two nights, three days of meals, and the tours of the park. We gave him $200. After we said our farewells, he walked straight to a bank and deposited the cash. Earlier he had said that several of the grandchildren wanted to attend universities – one wants to be a biologist – and they were saving money for their schooling. We hope to see them again and bring our baby with us.

If you would like to stay with the Navas family, call ahead. Here's their number: 507 983 9130.

No comments: