Appreciating the Small Things

The cat has settled in and seems to enjoy the stacks of furniture.

So far I have ignored the elephant in the room in my blog posts. I’ve focused on the little joys—canning vegetable soup, baking cakes, making pasta. It has been a struggle to do so, some weeks, and today, hours from New Zealand’s total lockdown, it is impossible.

Today our house sale was finalised. Today we officially moved to our new home. Except our new home sits unfinished in the midst of a muddy, rubbish-strewn construction site. It will likely remain so for some time. We have crammed ourselves and all our possessions into the shed we built on the property last winter (when we foolishly believed we might have a new house by February). 

As you can imagine, it is cramped, a bit smelly, and very cold (last night was down to 4ºC). We had hoped to alleviate our stay in the shed by going out for dinner a lot, traveling a lot, spending time visiting fun places. That won’t be happening now. I had planned on doing my laundry once a week at the laundromat not far from work. That won’t be happening either. Today I hauled the washing machine to the back yard and hooked it up to the garden hose and an extension cord in order to wash a load. Every meal will be cooked on a camp stove outside.

We will spend the entirety of our lockdown essentially camping as we edge towards winter.

Much of the time it will not be fun.

And yet …

Nearly thirty years ago, my husband and I lived in rural Panama with no running water, no electricity. To get to the nearest phone took a half hour of walking and an hour’s bus ride. Our roof leaked, and and the cockroaches and rats living with us in our one-room mud house were legendary in size and number. I washed clothes in a 20-litre bucket, and used the same vessel to carry water to a small palm-leaf-and-stick stall for bathing. We cooked our meals in one pot over a three-rock fire. We dug our own latrine. The weekly shopping run took an entire day. By the end of each week, we were down to eating nothing but rice and whatever vegetables were coming out of the garden. In the evenings, I would write letters to family back home. Sometimes the letters didn’t make it to their destination, sometimes they were delayed by weeks. If I was lucky, the letters took a week to arrive, once I’d managed to post them. A full conversation could take months, and was usually irrelevant by the time the first letter arrived.

All of which makes months living in an unheated shed during a global pandemic seem like glamping, rather than a real hardship. Rather than thinking about what I don’t have, I’m enjoying what I do have—a vermin-free home with a concrete floor and sound roof, electricity (even if it is limited by what we can do with an extension cord), instant communication with loved ones far away, nearby grocery stores for when the rice and vegetables run out, and a mobile bathroom with a real shower and flush toilet.

And that is how I intend to pass every day as I navigate through the chaos of the next 12 months or so—thinking of what I have, counting my blessings, being thankful for those little things.

Random acts of poetry

Random Acts of Poetry Day was apparently the 3rd of October. I didn’t know about it until the following day, but it seems to me that it’s even more fitting to celebrate Random Acts of Poetry Day on some other, random, day. And since I’m feeling random today, here is a poem for you all. 

Chaos Theory:
Sammy Sandoval meets Sargent Shriver and Edward Lorenz in a young brain on a narrow footpath after dark.

The base beat
of Sammy’s accordion
faded into the night
like a heartbeat
after a long run.

save for the tap of rubber sole on packed earth,
the trill of the tropical screech owl,
the whisper of moth wings.

Those tiny wingbeats,
creating a tornado,
not on the other side of the world,
But here.
Peeling back the roof to expose the beams,
rearranging the furniture,
toppling trees across the path,
hurling the neighbour’s car into my kitchen,
shattering mirrors,
slamming the door to the past.

And the folded bellows
of the future
breathed in and out,
humming in my ears,
masking the click
of the lock behind.

Still Life with Insects

I’ve written and discarded half a dozen blog posts over the past week. Nothing seems to be quite right. Out of ideas, I resorted to the book of 500 writing prompts I created for my daughter. A random stab at the non-fiction section of the book brought me to the question: What objects tell the story of your life?

I tried to encapsulate everything in four objects:

The fiddle: made by a neighbour in Panama, given to me for my birthday by my husband. The fiddle not only tells the story of our years living and working among the incredible, resourceful people of Panama, but also tells the story of my lifelong interest in learning to play the violin…an interest which always ended up being pushed aside for other interests. Because I’m interested in learning so many things, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day.

The beetle puppet represents my insatiable curiosity about arthropods, and how that curiosity has bled into my other interests. Peanut butter jars full of bugs on my dresser when I was a kid led to the entomology degree, which led to teaching about insects at Penn State University, and then starting the Bugmobile. And the puppet is only one of many insect-themed and inspired artistic projects I’ve done over the years, as art and science mingle in my brain.

The gardening gloves speak of my weeding addiction and my love of growing food. The gloves are never more than a month or two old, because I wear through them in that time. I think that says it all about gardening for me.

The rock represents adventure, the natural world, and the wild places I have visited and lived in. Like me, the rock has traveled far and has been changed by the stresses it has experienced along the way.

Throwback Thursday: A Journey with Sammy Sandoval

Home sweet home

I started writing a post about the winter weather we’re experiencing this week, but it was as grey and dull as the sky.

Then my husband played a song by Sammy and Sandra Sandoval, and I was transported back 25 years and 11,000 kilometres to the tropical heat and sun of Panama in 1993, where we served in the Peace Corps.

Like all our neighbours in the province of Coclé, my husband and I loved Sammy and Sandra Sandoval. They would play in the little villages sometimes, and we’d go see them whenever we could. Their music was loud and joyful, and we’d walk hours to pack into a crowded room and dance to it.

But what I remember most is the silent walk home from the first of those dances. Leaving the noise and sweat of the dance hall, we stepped into the dark night of the campo. No lights, no roads, just a packed clay footpath and the sound of music receding behind us.

That walk was magical. I don’t know if the buzz was from the music, the beer (Cold beer! What a luxury!), or the faint glint of moonlight off the palm trees. Most likely, it was from the blessed silence and the recognition that, in walking an hour and a half to dance Panamanian tipico, we’d stepped irrevocably out of our previous lives.

Navigating our way home on a familiar path lit only by moonlight, we traveled much further than the few kilometres of hilly mountain terrain between the dance hall and our house. In that short space, we traversed a one-way path that left our past lives behind. Yes, we’d already made many steps along that path before, but that night was the moment I knew we could never go back. The magic of that moment is that I never heard the door click shut behind us; I only saw the landscape open out in front.

The Square Trees and other natural wonders…sort of

The rock at Hanging Rock Bridge.

Years ago, when my husband and I were Peace Corps volunteers in the Republic of Panama, we visited the famous Arboles Quadratos (the Square Trees) in El Valle de Anton. The Arboles Quadratos were, according to the guidebooks, amazing freaks of nature—trees with perfectly square trunks. These remarkable plants grew in a special grove in the rainforest behind the hotel in El Valle, and were one of the town’s main tourist attractions.

So we went to see them.

They were buttressed trees, like many rainforest trees are. And the buttresses made them…sort of squarish, if you had a little imagination. I think there were, maybe, four of them in a cluster along the trail. Their beauty was completely overshadowed in my mind by the rest of the forest around them.

My daughter and I recently had a similar experience. On a road trip, we kept passing signs for Hanging Rock Bridge. It seemed all roads led to Hanging Rock Bridge. We figured it must be something pretty spectacular, if so many signs pointed the way to it.

So we went to see it.

And, yeah, there was an overhanging rock near the bridge. It was kind of cool. But the landscape around the bridge, with stunning limestone outcrops in every paddock, was far more spectacular than the bridge’s rock. If you’d gone out of your way to see the rock at Hanging Rock Bridge, you’d be disappointed.

Plenty of other ‘natural wonders’ fall short of the hype surrounding them. Others, unknown by anyone but locals, are truly stunning.

Like the Iglesia de Piedra, the Rock Church, near our village in Panama. This narrow chasm was carved by a small stream, and it’s one of the most incredible places I’ve ever been—maybe 30 metres deep, and so narrow you can touch both walls. Vegetation covers the opening high above, and makes everything look green below. The stream is shallow, and frogs hop away from every step. At the back of the chasm is a waterfall plunging all the way from the surface.

No tourists make pilgrimages to the Iglesia de Piedra. Few outside the surrounding area have ever heard of it. But it knocks the socks off many a popular tourist destination.

The world is full of these hidden gems, and one of the most wonderful things about living in different places is finding the local wonders. The beautiful places tourists never hear about.

I’ll still go to see the Square Trees and the Hanging Rock Bridges of the world, but much of the wonder of the world is reserved for those who live with it every day.

Summer Rock Concert

It’s a cicada; it must be summer.

The main cicada season doesn’t really start until the chorus cicadas (Amphisalta zealandica) come out after Christmas, but two weeks ago, we found a few chirping cicadas (Amphisalta strepitans) on the rocks around Okains Bay.

Cicadas are largish, as insects go, but they’re well camouflaged. Usually, you find them by sound. As with most insects, it’s the males that do the singing. The main part of a cicada’s song is made by flexing plates (tymbals) on top of the body. Built-in amplifiers (opercula) pump up the volume to an astonishing level. Cicadas are noisy. I don’t know if any of the New Zealand species have been tested, but the calls of some North American cicadas are over 105 decibels at a distance of 50 cm. That’s nearly as loud as a rock concert (115 decibels). When the chorus cicadas here in New Zealand come out in large numbers, they can be so loud in some places that it’s impossible to carry on a conversation.

Some New Zealand cicadas add an extra feature to their song—a bit of drumming called clapping. The cicada snaps the leading edge of its wings against a branch to make a sharp click. Females also clap, and I’ve read (though I’ve never tried it) that you can call the males to you by snapping your fingers.

There are about 2500 species of cicada worldwide. Because of their size and volume, they seem to be culturally important wherever they live. They are eaten as food in many areas, and sometimes used as fish bait. Growing up, my siblings and I used to collect the shed exoskeletons of cicadas and attach them to our clothing like jewellery. When I lived in Panama, the children would catch cicadas and tie strings to their feet, then carry them like helium balloons, flying on the end of the string.

Wherever they live, they mark the seasons. Here in New Zealand, and in America where I grew up, summer hasn’t really started until the cicadas sing.

Loud singing? Drumming? Must be a summer rock concert!

Enrique’s Violin

Wrung from a life of want.

Wrought of
Cedro amargo,
But not bitter.

Wrought of
And Imagination,
Of sheer desire for beauty.

Your maker a poet,
A dreamer,

You made the people dance
And forget
The crops washed away,
The sick child,
The dead baby.
If only for an hour.

Sing and dance
With the discarded
Rubbish of life.

Sing and dance
With me.

Mango Memories

I have bought mangoes here in New Zealand only a few times in the twelve-plus years we’ve lived here. As you’d expect, they’re incredibly expensive and usually disappointing. Add to that the fact they couldn’t have more food miles on them unless you grew them on the moon, and it’s hard to justify buying them. There’s so much lovely fruit grown here, it seems silly to buy imported fruit that is little more than a shadow of what it should be.

But once in a while I can’t help myself. Last week, when I saw them for sale at four for $5, I simply had to buy some.

And for once, I wasn’t disappointed. It took a week and a half before they were ripe, and by then one of them was beginning to rot. But from the first cut of the knife, I knew they were going to be good.

From the first whiff of that pine-sap-and-peaches aroma, I was transported. Transported to Panama: to the tree-stump that served as a chair on our porch; to the bustling, smoky comfort of our friend Francisca’s kitchen; to a hot hillside knee-high in corn or beans; to the crowded dance hall wherever Sammy and Sandra Sandoval were playing, to evenings spent laughing with unexpected visitors who always showed up at dinnertime and stayed the night.

I cut up three mangoes and put them out with dinner. Each bite was a memory. A memory of warmth and light, of ant bites and muddy shoes, of hummingbirds and viudas, laughter and tears. I wanted to gobble it all down in an instant, and savour it for forever.

They were not the best mangoes I’ve ever eaten. Not by a long shot. But the memories were delicious.

Throwback Thursday: Carnival

carnivalatjulianshouseCarnival starts in just a few days in Panama. It’s true, the actual date of Carnival isn’t until Saturday the 25th but, at least in our village in the mid-1990s, Carnival lasted the better part of a week. We learned to never plan to get anything done in the days before or after Carnival. After all, people had to spend the days before Carnival practicing getting drunk. The day of Carnival was spent being drunk, and the days after were spent recovering from having been drunk.

In the lead-up to Carnival, the women would make vast quantities of tamales (polenta-like corn mash filled with meat and vegetables, wrapped in leaves and boiled) to sell to all the young people who would come home from their jobs in the city for the celebration. The making of tamales was a group activity done only by the women, and the rules of behaviour were…relaxed. It was Carnival, after all! I seldom saw the women of our village drink, but the lemonade we drank while making tamales was spiked with seco.

But Carnival was about more than drinking. It also included dancing, and getting wet. In Penonome, the Carnival parade was made of elaborate rafts that floated down the river. The local fire tanker crawled through the crowded streets, turning the fire hose on the crowd as it chanted “Water! Water!”. The unspoken rule was that men could splash water on women, and vice versa–you’d walk down the street and have cups of water thrown at your face by laughing men.

In our village, there was always a parade. Not on water, but up to the community building–a large open-air pavilion–where a band would play until late into the night. Our neighbours also usually had a dance, just for a few local families. No one in our village had money for a proper traditional pollera, but a long full skirt and a t-shirt was good enough for the local party. Kids and adult alike danced through the night, and the next morning was very quiet…


dsc_0064-2-smTwenty-four years ago, I was in the Republic of Panama working as a Peace Corps Volunteer–an official representative of the United States of America.

Panama had recently been invaded by the United States in a clumsy attempt to remove Manuel Noriega from power. The operation left an estimated 3,500 Panamanian civilians dead and 20,000 homeless. Noriega was ultimately captured, but at great cost.

It wasn’t the first U.S. atrocity in Panama. In 1964 U.S. forces killed 21 Panamanians in response to protests over the flying of the Panamanian flag in the Canal Zone.

One day during our service, my husband and I were in a bar in Panama City. We met a young serviceman and, when we explained we were Peace Corps Volunteers, he said, “Oh! So, we shoot ’em, and you apologise.”

Yep. That’s about right.

I feel like I’ve been apologising for my country my whole adult life. As a people, Americans can be great. They can be generous, kind, openhearted, and open-minded. I like Americans–some of my best friends are Americans.

But America as a nation is often a bully, stuck in out-of-date ideas, selfish, arrogant, close-minded, racist, sexist, and uncaring. It was founded by people seeking religious freedom, yet is stubbornly intolerant of religious diversity. It was founded on the premise that ‘all men are created equal’, and yet has never treated all men equally (and don’t even ask how the nation has treated women…).

As a child, I was taught that America provided equal opportunity to all, and benevolently gave aid to those in need. I recited the Pledge of Allegiance every day at school, and believed in the words ‘with liberty and justice for all’.

But so much of what I saw, even as a child, revealed the lie in what I was taught. I have now spent half my adult life living outside the United States, seeing America from many different perspectives. None of them are flattering.

I don’t say this to bash America. I say it from a deep belief that America has the potential to live up to its ideals. I say it from a fundamental need to see my country do right by its people and the world. I say it in the hope that maybe someday I won’t have to be ashamed to admit I’m an American.

Until then, to the rest of the world, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.