â€œNo necesita botas, jefe.â€ You donâ€™t need boots, boss. I lingered over these words of advice that Abel had given to me earlier in the day, as I yanked my leg out of the sucking muck of the swamp. Abel prodded along ahead of me with ease, in his rubber Wellington boots, showing me the path to his house, where I was going to spend the night.
I am fascinated with the indigenous culture of Bocas del Toro and Isla Popa. About half of our employees are Ngobe, the pre-Colombian culture that dominates the outer island of Bocas del Toro. In the past couple of years, Katie and I have learned so much from this local, unique culture. Iâ€™ve spent many conversations learning different Ngobe words and phrases. Starting with racy terms, to the amusement of our staff, then moving on to common greetings and comments on the weather and then to more useful phrases heard commonly now throughout the resort. Nan tore deka (Good Morning), as I pass Alfredo in the morning, Jekwa (careful), Chef Ben will call out to me as I walk into the kitchen on the slippery floor, Ti gwe! (Mine!), I yell during afternoon volleyball.
Katie and I have tried to respectfully exhibit the culture of the Ngobe around the resort, with artwork decorating the Clubhouse, local jewelry for sale, and having our waiters wear Ngobe shirts at night. The trail walk that Abel leads gives him a chance to espouse on his culture as much as his surroundings. We sell cacao that local Ngobe farmers raise, the kitchen uses coconut oil processed by Ngobe families, and some evenings a Ngobe villager plays guitar and sings folk songs. Our resort is intrinsically linked with the Ngobe culture and our Ngobe villagers.
It was this curiosity that led to my current muddy predicament, on my way to spend a night in Isla Tigre, a Ngobe village on the southeast corner of our island. Abel, our landscaper and Alfredo, our night watchman (brothers by marriage), invited me for dinner and the night in their village.
We made our way through a muddy band of thick grass clumps. Abel had paid some villagers to dig out two trenches to somewhat drain the land and provide a drier patch for his kids to walk back and forth to school on, but in the fading light, I had trouble seeing where to step and I kept sinking into the black muck. At the top of a small, thankfully drier rise, sat Abelâ€™s house.
Abel is one of the few villagers who has a paying job. Many of them are either day laborers, clearing land of weeds and grass for real estate agents, cutting down wood in the forest when it is needed, or subsistence-based farmers and fishermen. He has used his savings to start building a sizable house for his large family. Abel and his wife have five children between the ages of eleven and three, and also takes care of his wifeâ€™s three children from a previous marriage, the youngest whom still lives with Abel and his wife. The house will be enormous when finished, about sixty feet by forty feet, with separate rooms, a rare privilege in the common-dwelling homes in the village. In the meantime, all eight of them sleep in the kitchen and living area of the old house.
We climbed a six foot notched log into the raised wood platform of his house and I said hello to all of the children, who I have met on a few occasions. They were sad that Katie couldnâ€™t come and I explained that someone had to stay back at the resort. The girls were even wearing gifts that Katie had given them.
I took a seat on a wood bench and took in my surroundings, before the darkness robbed me of my sight. The whole lodge was only about 16â€™x25â€™ and space was occupied by a gas-powered stove, and a large cooking fire. Abel had engineered a sling for his old cayuco (wooden dugout canoe) that he had retired, and this ingeniously was used as a food prep area and dishwashing station. It hung over one of the outside walls, the holes that had relegated it to retirement, now useful as drainage. The roof was made of thatched palm, the walls were just large enough to keep children from accidentally falling out. Chakras, bags made of dried bark hung from the rafters, stuffed with clean clothes, accompanied by bed sheets and a spare mattress.
Abelâ€™s wife and his older daughters took the chickens and rice that I had brought as gifts and started prepping the food over the stove and fire, while I was introduced to other visitors who came in and took seats on the floor. We all chatted away for the next couple of hours in the dark, while the women prepared food by flashlight. The village has a generator for electricity but Abel told me it was not very reliable, though they dutifully pay their $2.50 weekly electric bill. In the meantime, we sat in the dark, though I could tell this put me at a much larger disadvantage then it did those who were used to it. The only thing I could see clearly was the glow of the cooking fire which filled the room with smoke, yet at one point when I was smiling to myself, someone asked me why what I was laughing at. They could see me clearly across the room in the dark.
I spent the time conversing with each one of Abelâ€™s five children, Daniel, Ydania, Melania, Kimberli, and Elvin. I asked Daniel about school, had him demonstrate his English counting skills and then asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up. I could barely hear his response, so I asked him to speak up.
â€œChopear,â€ literally to chop, a word they use for clearing fields with a machete, he responded. His sole ambition in life was to do manual labor, and this was after he impressed me with his knowledge of a third language, at the age of eleven years old! Suddenly I realized the source of his ambition: he wanted to be like his father. Although I use the word â€œlandscaperâ€ to describe Abelâ€™s job a the resort, he would describe it as â€œchopeador.â€ In other words, he spends all day, everyday around the hotel with a weed-whacker. It is a very necessary job, as the jungle, left untouched would reclaim the lands around our hotel in mere weeks, was it not for Abel and his diligent weed-whacking. I couldnâ€™t decide whether this was incredibly endearing or sad, to hear such limited ambition yet with such noble reasoning.
The rest of the children had similar answers. Ydania told me she wanted to clean clothes. Melania said she wanted to be a dishwasher. Only William, Abelâ€™s stepson wanted to be something that didnâ€™t exist in the family: he wanted to be a sargento, to work in the police. Listening to their ambition, I wondered how to expand their horizons, to push their ambition. At the same time I couldnâ€™t help but feel like my thoughts were patronizing to them at the same time. There is dignity in what Abel does at Popa, and he earns a great living and sustains and supports his family. Still, it was hard not to introduce the idea of maybe becoming a teacher or even a doctor.
Later on, I asked Abel how he wakes himself up in the morning without a watch or alarm clock. He paddles two hours to the hotel every morning, six days a week and is rarely ever more than fifteen minutes late. He explained that there is a rooster that crows at four in the morning five and again at six. I could not get my head around it and I kept arguing against it being so accurate. I looked forward to testing his alarm clock in the morning.
A few minutes later, Abel padded off with his wife into the darkness. Someone remarked that he was going to bathe. About twenty minutes later, I was startled by a gunshot. It wasnâ€™t too frightening as it seemed to be the sound of small rifle, but we were sitting in darkness. I asked what the sound was and before anyone had a chance to answer, Abel was climbing back into the room. He explained he was trying to kill a bird that woke him up every night in the middle of the night! I joked that he was going to kill his alarm clock, yet he laughed that off as a foolish gringo assumption.
At about 10:30pm, dinner was passed out in assorted bowls. The chicken and rice, seasoned with powdered chicken stock powder was satisfying, and I ate it up to a chorus of burps and loud sounds of enjoyment.
When dinner was finished, the children who had to be wakened up to enjoy dinner, quickly fell back to sleep scattered around the floor and crowded in to the hammock with Abel. Digesting my meal in the dark, I listened to the fading conversation taking place in the Ngobe dialect. Then quietly, Abelâ€™s older step-daughters left, Alfredo and his family left and that left Abelâ€™s family, Eberto, another staff member who came with me and me alone in the dark house.
Taking my cue, I lay down on the bare floor and put my head back on my backpack, which I was using as a pillow. About five minutes later, Abel asked, â€œVa a dormir?â€ You going to sleep? â€œConversamos.â€ Letâ€™s chat.
So we did. And long after William walked around tenderly picking up his step-siblings and laying them down on a mattress he put out on the floor, covering them with blankets, and hopping into the hammock himself, Eberto, Abel and I talked. We talked about superstition, curses (apparently twins can cure you of one) and the resident bruja or witch that lives at Popa (they werenâ€™t talking about Katie) and they both had stories of seeing her. We talked about Abelâ€™s house, past experiences at Popa, our initial reactions to meeting one another. We talked endlessly into the wee hours of the dark morning, when without a word, during a pause, Abel moved silently to a spot on the floor next to his wife and said, â€œNan tore dede,â€ Good night.
Sharing a small cushion with Eberto, I tried without success to find a comfortable position on the floor. Without being able to sleep I was happy to just listen to the quiet noises of the family sleeping around me. In the distance a massive thunderstorm was brewing, and through the open walls I could see stars and big bolts of lightening over the water, illuminating the house like daylight. Later on when the storm did hit, not one raindrop came in, yet the breeze kept us cool throughout the night and I suffered not one bug bite.
A little while later, I was startled from a dreamless, restless sleep by a rooster, who was perched feet away from me, directly under the floorboard I was sleeping on. No one else stirred, while I nearly levitated. Thinking back to our earlier conversation, I checked the time, and nearly burst out laughing when I read the hour: 4:03am. For about fifteen minutes the rooster crowed with such intensity, I pictured the veins popping out of its little chicken forehead. Then as soon as it started, it stopped. Until five, when it started all over again, and once more at six, just as Abel had told me.
At the six oâ€™clock rooster crow, we got up quietly, whispered thanks to Abelâ€™s wife and walked off down to the water. Pulling off in the boat back to Popa, with the sun rising over the water on our right, I felt happy to be returning to my modern comforts, yet also sad to leave a family who had â€œadoptedâ€ me for a night.