Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Two Wives of Don Justino

            The two wives of Don Justino are joined together by love of a good man and separated by a wide arc of the Pacific Ocean.
            One lives in Panama and one lives in Colombia and Don Justino whose work takes him between the two countries in a small open boat can enjoy the company of one woman and when the time comes for whatever reason go back to sea and return home—to his wife.
            Justino Ortiz Londono is 85 years old, a former schoolteacher from Nuqui who is the “best known” figure along the border between Choco Department in northwest Colombia and Darien Province, the farthest southernmost part of Panama where Central and South America meet. There's no road just Justino.
Locals on the Colombian side call him “El Profe,” a term of endearment since he taught so many of the people here although he’s long retired from the schoolhouse. About once a week now he operates a “shuttle”—a fiberglass launch with a 40-horsepower outboard engine—carrying a handful of passengers between Choco’s main port and the first Panamanian town, Jaque: the beginning and ending respectively depending on what direction you’re going of a stretch of the most wild real estate in the world, the Darien Gap. If you want to see the region in its famous commercial role which is unfair because there's much more here including awesome nature but is still kind of accurate—think cocaine going north and guns and cash coming south.
People here are amazed by Justino’s stamina both in the cama and at sea. A decade ago the locals were already saying that he was too old to continue his taxi service, six or eight hours on the open Pacific that can be a challenge even to a younger man. Times have changed in such a way however to make the importance of Profe’s work even more critical to the community than his teaching. You get what you pay for with Justino, safety. He travels with an assistant because it’s the prudent thing to do, on a recent voyage to Panama the mate stayed at the bow on the lookout for stray logs that seem to be found frequently on this stretch of coast, floating evidence of illegal timber activity that like illegal mining is stripping Choco of natural resources. Oh well. Our captain insists that the real physical danger is not the weather nor the sea itself, not drug traffickers or ocean-going guerillas. The real danger is seasonal and comes in April and ends in September: humpback season when whale moms and their calves are a frequent sight.
“They like to sun themselves just below the surface,” Justino says. He’s been “tapped” before by a whale mother who didn’t know he was passing but never turned over.
The human population of Bahia Solano is not seasonal: it’s growing continuously.
              A Choco-based immigration official recently estimated that there are now 10,000 people in town, a doubling in just a few years: a list of illegal foreigners arrested passing through the area was printed in the newspaper recently and included east Indians and Chinese. A fisherman who was born in Bahia Solano but has lived the last 20 years in Buenaventura just returned with his children saying the big southern port has become unlivable due to “delicuencia,” the polite term for that potent mix of guerrillas, traffickers and ordinary dockside thugs who plague down the coast.
Bahia's own growing pains are also clear. Two husbands were arrested for killing their wives earlier this year, women have to take to the streets to protest small-town machismo and violence, still it’s not like Buenaventura where bombs go off and the Marines have to patrol in speedboats along the docks. A laundry opened two years ago in Bahia Solano, that is how progress is measured here, there’s now a dive center/hotel operated by a Medellin expatriate and a network of small stores, a gentleman from Kentucky opened a backpacker hostel on the nearby beach El Valle near Utria, the national park. The local community is still mostly Afro-Colombian and indigenous and many here appear to believe the future is eco-tourism: the biggest growth in Don Justino’s trade may soon be backpackers, the gringos are not coming, they’re already here. A recent journey by this Pacific route leaving the dock behind the seafood market near the old town in Panama City on a Friday afternoon and arriving six days later at Hostel Trail in Popayan in the Andes cost less than $400 total via Don Justino and Bahia Solano: arriving in Buenaventura and being four hours by bus from Cali on a road you may share with the FARC. Don't take a bunk near the engine on the freighter leaving Bahia Solano, the noise is positively physical, this last sea leg of the journey cost $75 and takes at least a full day and night. The dock where you arrive is beside the road to Cali, you don't really have to spend any time in Buenaventura itself (highest murder rate in the world for a while, if you do go into the city remember in Colombia women are more dangerous than men) it's a tough town but there's a lot to see and do, especially if you have significant vices.
Don Justino charges $125 or $150 for his speedboat ride from Panama to Colombia or vice-versa, a hefty sum for a few hours trip at a price he describes as necessary for "fuel costs." On the Panamanian side there are also expectations of a further increase in demand for Justino's services. The government in Panama City appears to have ignored Darien with the exception of the National Police barracks, re-engineered recently from bunks for 40 officers to bunks for 140 in Jaque very near where Justino's speedboat arrives and leaves. 
The only constant in this changing world is Don Justino himself. He looks back on a teaching career that began when he was 19 and continued when he moved to Bahia Solano more than four decades ago. He retired a decade later—he believes, he can’t really remember—after teaching all the subjects in the local schools including English “even though,” he smiles, “I don’t speak the language.” A small trim man he has a quick smile riding his bicycle around town and a slightly more severe manner at sea, like a school teacher, yeah, when he's at the rudder. As with all small boat captains his constant fear on the water is the right balance of weight to avoid any risk of capsizing. And of course those whale moms.
Don Justino declines to discuss his personal life—although everyone else does—except to say that he finds big-city women like those from Medellin and Cali “no confiables,” undependable, while the local women especially the Afro-Colombianas know how to treat a man right. As for his second career he’s not retiring anytime soon:
            “The sea gives me life.” 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Women of the FARC

A young woman carrying a designer bag steps out of a taxi on a provincial street in southern Colombia. She’s wearing a sheer blouse, slim-cut jeans, black stiletto heels. Her hair looks as if it was just styled but probably always looks that way. As she gathers her purchases and turns to walk away she takes a frightened look at a locksmith in greasy clothes across the street.

Suddenly he’s approaching her carrying a bucket of water. Words are exchanged. There appears to be some class tension in the conversation between the workman and the lady as well as a note of concrete disagreement, perhaps over past services, late payment or such. The woman steps away. Not fast enough, because of the heels. Water cascades over her head: blouse soaked, hair dripping—still struggling to move tactically in her talons she totters around a second taxi just stopped in the middle of the street. The taxista who was passing with a customer saw the attack and braked like any gentleman in this part of the world. 

His hand shoots out as the Colombiana passes his car window, he sprays her with shaving cream. What a mess. At least it wasn’t the same driver she just paid. Blanco y Negro—as the Popayan games are called—is better than running with bulls because no one gets hurt—better than the World Cup because everyone can play, ultimate street games, every year since the king of Spain ruled here there’s street fighting in Cauca. This unscripted action from which no one is immune begins January 5th sometime around noon and ends basically when the city goes to sleep on the night of the 6th. No one who steps outside during these 36 hours escapes—not cops, not soldiers nor public officials, women, children, the very old, even the infirm, no one is immune, everyone is a potential target for a healing splash. Like a paintball fight gone ballistic, full of passion but usually no pain: face paint—for example—applied to all parts of an opponent’s body except, usually, the face. There are no real teams, no real “sides,” whole families come out of the house in the afternoon of January 5th and by the time they return home that night they’ve attacked complete strangers as well as each other. If you’re outside—it doesn’t matter if you’re Mother Theresa’s holier sister or President of the Fucking Republicmany of them have played here too—secular or religious—terrorist or counter—you’re a fair target. The Popayan games say something basic about human desire, about why we like fighting and conflict especially when nobody gets hurt. This action also teaches tactics—which is why the gamers come. None of the lessons seem to have been put to use to end the country’s other intractable issues—those problems are strategic not tactical—but it’s fun and seems to reduce tensions in a society with deeply-etched class and ethnic fault lines. 

The best part—whether you’re gringo or guerrilla, Colombian armyAmerican adviser or paramilitaryNational Police or Departamento de Administracion de Seguridad—FARC or ELN, the so-called “other teams”—you can play too!

The pace of life in the Andes is different.

The “First World” ritual of trying to get an early start on a New Life on January 1 is not the custom in Popayan where you slide into the New Year pretty much the same way you slid out of the old: family, good food, considerable time off work and alcohol, maybe something stronger, to smooth the transition. In Popayan carnival is a last gasp of life before the business of another year begins. My intention was to give it a miss. Parties are not my thing, especially not big street parties which is how the action was described to me. Only bad planning found me still in town noon of the 5th.

Everyone was still trying to get home from school, from work, from church, foot traffic squeezing up against walls on the sidewalk below my hotel window, people hoping not to get wet before they had a chance to change into old clothes and fill a balloon or, alternatively, open a bottle of Chilean white and wait out the next two days. There was an English chick staying on another floor of Hostel Trail (my usual lodging in Cauca, there or the Caracol, both run by Tony and Kim) and suddenly this English ho from the other floor appeared on the street below my window and she was wearing only a raincoat and a pair of running shoes, looked like she was nude under the gear, which was, you know, all right with me. It wasn’t raining. So, for a moment she glanced up and the expression on her face was something primal like a huntress—a cavewoman looking for meat—Boutica vs. the Romans, whoever, no mercy, nothing less than a kill would do. She disappeared around a corner.

There was a bucket in the hostel hallway that la muchacha used to water plants and you know, like, my feet—without me wanting them to—without any free will on my part whatsoever—not wanting to participate in this silliness in any way—my feet carried me to the other side of the hall just in time to catch a mom and her seven- or eight-year-old daughter as they tried to sneak up on somebody farther up the street. My aim was perfect. Not to brag or anything. Basically the same principle as a B-52, you have to bomb what’s ahead not what’s below—well, like, not to brag but the water caught the little girl on her shoulder and with the splatter she was, like, completely soaked. Made me fell pretty good, actually, a hit like that on a complete stranger on my first serious shot, the mom looking up and smiling as if to say, “Well-played,” at that moment it became clear to me how wars begin and conflict escalates. It’s fun. Not because mom smiled but because the hit itself felt really pretty good, even on a third-grader—especially on a elementary school kid. With escalation it all seems so natural, you feel me? Ten minutes later a fire hose wouldn’t have been enough.

Carnival in Popayan is officially called Blanco y Negro: it’s supposed to be white one day and black the next, it didn’t start with water balloons either, goes back to when the Spanish were here and it was decided by someone wise, perhaps the king, that one day every year black people should know what it feels like to be white and whites should experience the blackness of slavery. That’s how it was explained to me.

That’s where the face painting came in. So, the tradition took shape and January 5th whites put on black face, and the next day blacks put on white face and put on the slaveowner’s airs. Something like that. For that day only they were not property, these pre-revolutionary niggers learned what it was like to be free, to be white in the white man’s world—role-playing—the unofficial beginning of the current-day games, the big difference with the rules here vs. anywhere else: in Popayan everyone has to participate. If you’re outside—you’re fair game. There are no exempt categories (supposedly there's been debate about pregnant moms, like, should they get a pass, but no consensus, so at the time of this writing the consensus is they’re fair targets too). Your only choice is stay home, that was what the king decided, back in the day. It’s just, like—to explain the timeline—the balloons came later. So you can’t stay inside and just drop bombs on people although as an American you’re familiar with the concept. You’re familiar with the idea of taking out an enemy without endangering yourself—it’s just no fun. The joy of carnival is like Christmas, getting as well as giving. A couple of blocks short of the town square a balloon hit me in the back, never saw who threw it, it bounced off without exploding, didn’t hurt, didn’t explode because it wasn’t thrown hard enough, you’re not trying to hurt people, you just want to get them wet.

A couple of players took advantage of an intersection of two streets that passed either side of the supermarket, like, a target-rich environment, the similarities with real war were striking, you tried to open fire at as great a distance as possible to take out the enemy and avoid getting hit yourself, but the farther away the poorer your aim and more likely you would take out someone innocent, it’s called “collateral damage,” again as an American you’re probably already pretty familiar with the concept. But in Popayan during Blanco y Negro no one is an unintended target! How cool is that? Everyone is a player. Whether they want to be or not. Sweet. Like, Colombian rules, in other words total fucking chaos.

My escape route back to the hostel carried me back safely and this time after being schooled in tactics it was easy from two floors up to take out a couple of couples entering the chicken restaurant on the bottom floor of the building. So, there was this group of chicks, which is where we’re going here, some hot Colombian females wearing very little, actually. And they appeared in the view from Hostel Trail's window. They were wet, these chicks—well, first a little background. The mountains around Popayan are full of guerrillas. . . . 

So, the insurgents are so much an established presence here that some people in Popayan can tell you what unit of the FARC operates in what part of the surrounding countryside, in the cordillera, in the mountains, in these Andes. A couple of years ago when special forces tracked down and killed the FARC commander, nom de guerre Cano, the firefight happened in the hills north of Popayan, northern Cauca, kind of near the road to Cali and the Cauca River where the guerrilla culture is present along with so much good herb. 

They brought Cano’s body to Popayan and the President of the Republic who used to be Defense Minister flew in and there were photographs in the paper the next day not just of the site of the firefight but of the FARC commander laid out like Che, they say they tracked him with candy, he had a sweet tooth and they knew where his people bought the chocolate and the Army put a tracker in a box—that’s what “they” said, that's what "they" told me. Whether it’s true or not it’s the kind of detail people in Popayan appreciate, tradecraft, how you capped a motherfucker, yeah. So, that afternoon, in Popayan, during Blanco y Negro, there was this group of hot Colombian chicks you could see from my window. It was late on the 5th and there were people wearing ragged clothes carrying water balloons on the street below—at that point still mostly the hardcore players, the dangerous ones who are just as likely to get you before you get them. The mass of slower-moving targets wasn’t yet on the streets, the generalized mayhem was still an hour, maybe two hours away, a lot of people would have dinner first or a glass of wine, a few beers to lubricate the soul then go out. That was my plan too. To go hunting. So, what caught my eye, these girls, in shorts and running shoes, bikini tops or torn T-shirts, sexy, yes, but something more

They were jogging single file up a hill you could see from the hostel window, they had water balloons in hand and there was just something about them, they moved like a team, young women with confidence, maybe athletes from the university or med students or police cadets, there’s a lot of heat in Popayan actually, not that there's anything wrong with that, army, special forces, they say that if the guerrillas ever hit the town, which is unlikely, “Cali tiene batalon,” soldiers can come from Cali locked and loaded they can be in Popayan in 45 minutes by chopper depending on how fast they mount up. Anyway, my guess about these chicks was that they were actually the other side, the girls’ team from the FARC. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, everyone is welcome at Blanco y Negro.

So, the young women’s backs were muscular like they were not just used to working out but actual physical labor and each one kept a good distance from her sister ahead and behind, as if they were afraid of being caught in a group. Their hair was not a giveaway because they were already wet, it's said that's how you spot a guerrilla girl in town, by her hair, not long and lustrous like so many Colombianas, they can't care for their appearance in the jungle or in the mountains, whoever these chicks were they’d already seen action, wherever they were coming from, the parque central maybe, the supermarket, wherever, what would have been their ponytails or shags or whatever were already plastered by water to shoulders and necks. Maybe they weren’t FARC or ELN. Maybe they were cadets or young officers, it’s hard to tell ideology at a distance, you couldn’t discount either possibility though, forces of order or forces of disorder, both sides like to play. It’s kind of like training, you learn about quick formation and dissolution of alliances and how temporary the decisions you make in life can really be. Popayan is only the 20th biggest city in Colombia but a single stat tells all: more Presidents of the Republic have come from here than any other city, seventeen—someone told me, something like that, two digits, for sure—more than Bogota and Cali combined.

The boat up the coast was scheduled to leave the next afternoon and a taxi would pick me up at four in the morning to begin the trip to the dock at Buenaventura. So my last water fight never took place.

Hard to imagine what Day Two would have been like. Would the fighting start before noon or would the drinking and fornicating the night before require a delay? 

Would the streets lock down with the splashes so tight that no one could get to the store? Would the supermarket even open? Would the chicks be wearing less? That was the important question. My last trip from the hotel before catching my taxi was mundane: There was a betting shop on a corner a block or so from the hotel and the shop remained open like a few other critical businesses, but it was a no-water zone, you were not supposed to throw balloons or spray into businesses or homes and, surprise, the rule was obeyed. Not much business was getting done.

As we waited together, under cover of commerce, a young mom kept looking my way as if she were afraid of being splashed or painted when she pushed the carriage out of the shop. This was just after my second aborted attempt to reach the central park. My game was over but she didn't know that. So, we're standing there, me and the young mother, and she had that particular look of fear on her face that mothers of young children show in any kind of dodgy situation, fear not just for themselves but for the defenseless child. Her apprehension was justified. She wasn’t pregnant after all, not about to deliver—and don’t feel sorry for old ladies either, that’s my advice, it may seem harsh but during Blanco y Negro you have to get Granny before she gets you. That's the way it is in this town during carnival: 

If Abuelita can lift a glass of water she’s technically in play, no matter how old. 

If you catch her on the street don’t believe when she says she’s going to Mass, if that’s what she tells you, okay, but she better run because they’re pretty good, those old ladies, they’ve been playing for a while. You see them up on their balconies with a water can and she acts like it’s for the geraniums but that’s not what’s really on her mind. So, like,anyway, about that baby in the betting shop?

Laying there in the stroller looking up, bright eyes, peachy skin, so innocent: As it turned out, they were both lucky, the mom and this kid. There was no ammunition in the shop—no flour or face paint—a bucket of water would have been perfect for the mother, that was my thought at the time:

But what to get baby?