Author: aidansgaughran

Magical Thinking, Pt. 2: Pasmo

I am in my first month in site, visiting strangers-turned-friends, when I find myself in a cargaleña. A cargaleña is a “wood-carry,” an all-day affair hauling and stocking wood before the winter rains. In between the wood carries, we drink chicha (fermented corn) from a big bowl. They tell me that I have fuerza. People pepper me with questions about the States: does corn grow there? Are there farms and country folk? Is there poverty? At lunch time, covered in brush and dirt, I go to a basin to wash my hands and splash water on my face. Out of the corner of my ear, I hear, “look, he’s pouring water all over himself.” I look back at the group to see them looking back at me in awe. One of the kids says, “va coger un pasmo bruto”: he’s going to get pasmo real bad.

Pasmo is just about as infused into the (Panamanian) Spanish language as God is. My God, for the love of God, God did this, God did that. If you are invited to an event but are unsure if you can attend, say “Si Dios quiere” (if God wants), that way if you don’t go, it’s because God didn’t want you to. Or, say, “Dios primero” (God first), for any future event: because no one ever knows if, in the moment, he/she is able. But God does.

In a similar way, you will hear some version of “dar” (giving) or “coger” (getting) pasmo. In a group of people, it is more than likely that someone already has pasmo in some form, or knows somebody else who has it, or that something will happen to beget its onset.

Panama is at 7 degrees latitude and has little seasonal and temperature variation. The sun is hot. Humidity is constant. Sweat turns clothes into a burden. A friendly debate could be had over whether the lack of rural development is attributed to corruption, pereza (laziness), or rather the climate. My body has been around 40 degrees latitude for most of its life, graded to the scale of seasonal swings. Here, throughout the year, my body hovers around the “hot” side of the spectrum. I am always looking to get to the cold side. But most Panamanian bodies exist on a hot-cold spectrum that is at once narrow and broad, and any number of factors can cause them to travel from one side to the next in a matter of seconds. The consequences of travelling so fast between extremes, according to the rules of pasmo, are detrimental.


Humans get pasmo. We cannot give it. Sun, heat, water, rain, mist, earth, air – these elements and their interaction with humans “give” pasmo. The classic example is that of Pardo, the son of the abuelo who lives alone, about 100 feet from my house. Pardo liked to bathe right after getting home from long days of working in the hills. One day, after bathing, he suffered a stroke. He was 40. The locals blame the stroke on pasmo: the discord or mismanagement of body temperature with relation to the temperature external to the body. Pasmo refers to the impossibly wide range of symptoms – headache, achy joints, congestion, indigestion, pain all over, nausea, chills, fatigue, malaise, etc. – that arise from this mismanagement.

Then there is Joaquin. One day, heading back from bean-planting, I passed Joaquin standing on a riverbank. He was looking down at the water, pensive. I said what’s up? He told me “you’re going to have to take me enhamacado.” He was hesitant to cross the stream (no more than a foot deep and with stepping stones), because his black work boots were hot and the stream cold. “Enhamacado” harks back to the old days before there were paved roads or cars: if someone was bitten by a snake, or otherwise gravely ill or injured, people would lay the patient in a hammock, tie the hammock to a wooden pole, and carry the patient up and down hills to the nearest medical center, up to five hours away. I crossed the stream, with my warm body and without hesitation, shamelessly abandoning Joaquin and any notion of pasmo. I still do not know how Joaquin crossed the stream. But I have seen him since, and can attest that he is alive.


Pasmo begs a tension that is difficult to reconcile. On one side, pasmo pins illness on one’s subjective bodily experience in relation to the immediate surroundings. It implies an awareness of body-in-place. It is organic, grassroots, machine-free. Pasmo seems ridiculous from an American perspective because a) our hot-cold scale is more stretched and b) we have no word equivalent to it in the English language. And maybe we don’t have a word for pasmo because we are unaware of its subtlety, until the symptoms manifest into something bigger, like a “cold” or the “flu.” Or maybe we devalue subjective experience when validating illness.

Last September, I was in the pueblo of Las Minas selling produce with my environmental group when I came down with a mystery illness. I had a headache, a fever that wasn’t, aches all over and an extreme lethargy. It felt like a minor league flu. It hit me not long after I bathed in the river at noon, after a morning full of errands. People asked me whether I had waited for my body to cool down before jumping in. I said no. They said it was pasmo. Hot body, cold river.

But I don’t know if it was the river that gave me pasmo. On the night prior, I had played two hours of intense one-on-one basketball with a good amigo by the name of Jack. Basketballs and hoops and courts are hard to come by in Panama, and at that moment we had all of them. At the time, it was implicitly clear to the both of us that anything less than total basketball-induced exhaustion would be a travesty. We played until we couldn’t. After, drenched in sweat, we went to the stand, where the group was selling goods, for another few hours. We sat at the stand, drinking fluids and shooting the shit, all the while letting that sweat and the night air drape our poor hot bodies like a cold wet blanket.

Jack and I spent most of the next two days lying down, achy and weak. The episode passed after two days, but a fatigue lingered in our bodies for a week. It never felt serious enough to go to a doctor – just that something was off. We self-diagnosed it as pasmo. (Jack had a separate incident he attributes to pasmo while he was in his community. In short, he bathed in the river, went to visit neighbors, came back to his house and fell asleep before he could change out of his damp river clothes. When he got out of bed the next day, he took two steps, and fell to the ground, where he stayed for several hours, prostrate from an incredible weakness and weight hanging over him. Jack was otherwise healthy; he could not think of anything out of the ordinary that would have caused his fall.)


The other side of the coin is that the broad application of the word “pasmo” lets in rogue interpretations, superstition, and false certainty. Anyone is welcome to use it to attribute anything to anything.

A neighbor once told me about Joaquin’s pasmo prevention techniques. Before he gets under his sheets at night, he puts shorts on pants on shorts, and a t-shirt over a sweater over a t-shirt. He wraps his head with a towel, and puts his feet, already covered with thick socks, into a burlap bag. [Yes, Panama has a dry, tropical climate.] The next day he does not rise until mid-morning, presumably to let his body warm up and recalibrate itself with the calor de la tierra – the heat of the land. He makes coffee, but then waits 20 minutes for it to cool before drinking it. He has a morbid fear of any moisture in the air, which is always “cold.”

Pasmo can happen to things, too. Another neighbor told me that, when cooking beans or soup, she does not add water from the tap to an already-boiling pot of water, because it will “empasm” whatever food is being prepared. To avoid such disaster, she says, you have to heat the water on the stove before adding it to the pot.

My host mother once served me a steaming hot plate of beans, and told me that they were cold. While washing my hands after milking a cow, a neighbor scolded me and said I would wake up with twisted fingers. I was once told I would get pasmo, and then a urinary infection, from sitting on the ground. Another time, an acquaintance told me to pee on a cut to avoid pasmo. And these are just a fraction of the possible pasmo iterations in Panama.


At its best, pasmo is ultra-bodily awareness; at its worst, empty hypochondria. But beyond this dichotomy, and more interestingly, is what pasmo tells us about our relationship to the world via language. Different cultures create different narratives to describe illness. “Modern” medicine, Ayurvedic, Acupuncture, shamanism, Qi Gong, pasmo: each narrative has a function, explains what others cannot. Pasmo was born hundreds of years ago somewhere around here, perhaps as a stab in the dark, in an effort to put words to the world. And the narrative has grown from neighbor to neighbor, from family to family, ever since. It does not matter if it is scientifically unproven; more importantly, pasmo is a palliative for the unknown.

Naming things beyond our understanding allows us to fear them less, comprehend a little more. But in using words, we become attached to their definitions, and so run the risk of being used by them. We create a Tool (word), and then, in a way (like Joaquin), we become tools of the Tool. “God,” “democracy,” “community,” “love,” “freedom”: nouns encompass so much that it is hard to know what we are actually talking about when we use them. Yet we still use these vague mega-metaphors liberally and in everyday conversation, oftentimes reducing them to a finite meaning. And then we argue and fight wars over who has the right definition.

This is how we get used: we build up religions and ideologies, and then forget that it was us, with our words, that created them. We prefer to give these things their own realities, independent of our words, rather than think of them as spoken figments of our (ancestors’) imagination. For Joaquin and other country folk, pasmo leapt from the imagination into the ‘real world’ a long time ago. Whether pasmo is valid as a medical phenomenon is, I think, a bit like asking ‘is God real.’ Both things have no reality beyond the language we use to adorn them. ‘God,’ ‘democracy,’ ‘community,’ ‘love,’ ‘freedom’ and ‘pasmo’ do not live without an observer.


We were in the last day of a weeklong backpacking trip in Cerro Hoya, a largely untouched forest and birthplace of several rivers that feed the Los Santos and Veraguas provinces. We meandered along the Río Cobachón. Together, we would spill out onto a small beach by the same name. I was walking with Alquiviades, one of our eco-guides. He had changed out of his black rubber boots into his Crocs, and was taking every precaution not to wet his feet during the stream crossings. I walked straight through the streams with hiking boots, thick socks, and half a mind on the beach. Alquiviades said if he did the same, he would get pasmo. As always, I asked what would happen next? He said that he would get a subtle pain in his joints – not immediately, but sometime in the near future. I said that I don’t seem to suffer from it. He then turned to me and said, “it’s different for everyone. It’s all about custom. If someone is used to bathing in cold water with a hot body, perhaps it won’t affect them. But my parents told me about the dangers when I was growing up. So I made a habit of not bathing with a hot body. And when I break the habit, I find it does me damage.”

Pasmo exists through custom and experience, upheld orally by Joaquin, Alquiviadies and other narrators in Panama. The narrative is all but unrecorded; when they don’t speak, an entire library disappears.

It is important for me to be reminded that no narrative explaining illness (or the ‘world,’ for that matter) is complete, and that there is value wavering in the multitude. Rather than deem pasmo as right or wrong, we can focus on how it enriches our narratives and promotes different ways of knowing and experiencing. I am skeptical of its liberal use, but recognize that it’s useful.

In illness or discomfort, people will reach for whatever explanation is most plausible with what words they have. If one narrative doesn’t work, we try another. Maribel tried her own treatments, those of friends, went to doctors and hospitals before healing herself through God. As for my mystery case, based on my experience of living in this place for two years and listening to others, pasmo sounds much more plausible to me than just some random virus. I will continue to believe so until it ceases to be functional.

Magical Thinking, Pt. 1

In Panama, in both urban and especially rural areas, people inhabit a landscape of unknown and deviant forces. These forces arise out of an act of magical thinking, they are sustained by magical thinking, and they are put to rest by magical thinking. I have already written about the turivieja, in Fifi. This piece, on God and witchcraft, is the first of a mini series in which I will explore how the extraordinary peppers the seemingly ordinary lives of working, getting and spending, and human relationships.

Maribel had been sick for nearly a year. Before her sickness, I had come to see Maribel as possessing of a deep compassion, lively eyes, a nose that scrunched when she laughed, and a joie de vivre that was infectious and seemingly unbroken. But the illness was breaking her. Time after time she would approach my house, eyes and whole body sagging, collapsing into my hammock to rest. If she exerted herself, her extremities would become numb strangers to her. She would have splitting headaches. The “badness,” in her words, would “grab” her at one side of the abdomen and rip and “burn” its way to the other, leaving her “pregnant.” Her body accepted little more than plantains for nourishment, and her clothes hung over her, big and loose. Several months back, I arrived at her house to find her pallid head bobbing back and forth, her pulse slipping away from her, she slipping in and out of consciousness. Her mother and sister held her body upright, fanned her, pleading with her to come back. In the background, her five kids buried their faces in their hands, horrified and hysterical. It is difficult to describe the emotion of a moment like this, when you feel you may in the presence of death or something close to it: the helplessness before something so big. Unsure of what to do, I held her hand in mine and kept calling her: Mari, Mari, Mari. When she came to, her eyes glazed over me, so red it looked like blood would burst out of them. A few minutes later, I would help her into a car, bound for the hospital. As we watched it speed off, we told each other she would be OK, though we had no reason to believe so.

The badness defied diagnosis and knew no cure. As it continued, my concern turned to frustration; I thought she was just standing by, letting herself be slowly eroded away. When she told me that she vomited a worm-like creature, I told her to go the doctor. She was reluctant. Doctor visits are another reason to spend money, and she was convinced that what she had was beyond what medical technology or city doctors could detect. She was right: various lab tests and ultrasounds later, nothing was out of the ordinary. The doctor told her to modify her diet and keep resting. When her family urged her to see a curandero (a shaman, herb-doctor), she was also hesitant. Her recent past led her to believe that there was more than one person that wanted to “do damage” to her. In rural Panama, when one wants to make another person suffer over a period of time, the perpetrator enlists a curandero to do the job. Maribel’s theory was why go to a curandero when it could be that very guy, or one of his associates, that inflicted the suffering on her in the first place. She didn’t believe in doctors or curanderos. So when she told me that Neil Velez (a preacher known for reversing AIDS and cancer diagnoses) was coming to town, and that she was convinced he would heal her, and would I please come, I did not hesitate to say yes.

On October 15, already running late, eight of us crammed into a pickup, bound for the mass. When we arrived, it had already begun. We crammed in on the outskirts, craning our necks to see. Up front was an impressive altar and a wide stage where important-looking people took turns speaking. From front to back, half of a football field long, pews were filled with faces that would not be distracted. Aside from uneasy toddlers, there did not seem a person there that did not want to be. Like Maribel, like me, everyone had their reasons. At the rear, up on high, there was a live band that played, sang and danced in a rapturous joy that seemed too good to be true (but it was). Hearing the sermons, the applause, the psalms and the music, the collective energy pulsating off the walls, I did not feel God. But I did feel my smallness, that I was a part of something bigger than me.

The first mass ended, and a few people filed out to look for snacks, but the majority stayed. A line started to form for confessions, and Maribel joined it. Mind drifting, distracted, I picked up a Bible to peruse, and did not much delay in putting it down. I played peekaboo with a baby until she got bored with me. I stepped out to get some fresh air. By the time I got back, Velez, the man everyone had been waiting for, finally stood before us.

Velez told us his story: he was born sick and deformed, with a heart that did not work properly. Fresh out of the womb, he was hooked up to a machine for a year, away from his mother. He eventually recovered, and from a very young age, threw himself into the service of God. Then, in his teenage years, mysteriously and suddenly, he contracted meningitis. Tumors sprouted all over his body and the badness blinded him; the doctors gave him three months to live. As he lay dying in a hospital, Velez was confused about the cruelty of it all. He thought he had known God, and God knew him. Why had he been made to suffer so? He had been pious. He had been good.

He recalled a passage in the Bible (Isaiah 53, 5): “por sus llagas fuimos curado” (by your sores we were healed). The past tense of the verb preoccupied him. Velez answered his previous suffering with piety, yet he continued to suffer. He began to question the passage, to question the Christian notion that true healing can only be realized through faith. It was during these “dark” thoughts that God appeared before him, at his bedside, and said, in a “very clear voice:” My son, you don’t know Me.

Velez lay with this inconvenient truth, and came to the realization that while he had been to every mass and Eucharist, confessed and prayed, crossed all his Catholic t’s and i’s, he had never had a real experience with God. So Velez answered God in prayer, telling him: You are right, I do not know You. But today, I am ready. Almost immediately he was hit with fits and a splitting headache: thus began Velez’ salvation. Nurses marveled that the tumors on his body disappeared, and that whatever badness that was afflicting him seemed to be healing itself. Velez finished his story: “Because of Him,” he told us, “I am standing before you. These things seems crazy, but the Spirit understands.”

At the culmination of his story, the crowd said Amen, and erupted in applause for Velez, for the work of God. The live band was not far behind. The drums kicked in, and the singers looked down at us, singing and smiling and swaying side to side. Some in the crowd threw their hands up in the air, some joyous, others in tears. Maribel sang along, gaze affixed towards the altar, her face undistracted.

As the song faded, Velez asked everyone to sit down and close their eyes. At this point, Maribel had found a pew. She kneeled, clasped her hands together, shut her eyes and withdrew into her own space. Velez then invoked the spirit, holding this space in which people individually praised and thanked God, out loud yet under their breaths, filling the church with an indistinguishable, collective murmur. The praise continued for several minutes until Bailey said, slightly louder than the murmur: “God can heal.” And then: “Yes He can.” He repeated it, again and again, each time with increasing intensity, each time his voice defying my expectations of its limits. The baritone appeared to originate in the navel, but the depth of it seemed bottomless. He sounded like he was trying to simulate the echo of his own voice, but in reality it was one, long, undulating bellow. It was at this point, Maribel would later tell me, that she felt a cold air hover around her face, and enter through her feet and rush up her legs and her spine.

The mass started at 4 p.m., and by the time it finished, it was 11. Maribel hugged and thanked me profusely, and gushed that, with faith in God, anything is possible. I said something cautious, like I hope so, we’ll have to wait and see. But she insisted, “ya” I’m better. I asked how can you be so sure? And she said, “Because I’m hungry. I haven’t felt hunger in a year. I could eat a cow.” I ran into the only store that was open, and bought the only calories that were available: bread and soda. It was hardly the celebratory meal, but as we say in Panamanian, algo es algo. Something is something.

The other day, I accompanied Maribel on a jaunt to the family pasture sloping off the side of “la montaña,” the highest point in the community. We were gathering laurel, a straight-growing tree that will serve as beams in the house she is building. She was clad in work pants, a long sleeve shirt to protect her from the sun, and rubber boots that were too big for her. She has put on several pounds since that day in Ocu. She no longer faints, and rarely has headaches; the pain that used to rip across her insides no longer exists. It seems that she suffers only from hunger.

We stripped the bark off of the beams in silence, speaking occasionally to chide the strength of the sun or to praise a shade-giving cloud. The November sky, stuck between winter and summer, is unsure of itself, constantly changing from sun, clouds, downpour, mist. Every five minutes my hands would cramp, which I took as a valid excuse to survey the landscape peeling off to the west: three lengthy mellow ridges that hide behind them the Veraguas coast and the Pacific Ocean. Heat, coming off the sea as clouds, draped the ridges and pushed a breeze and a drizzle towards us. Taking in the scene, I laughed to myself, turned to Maribel, and said, “The old you wouldn’t be here, right now.” She laughed back and let out a soft “he he he, I know. I wish whoever did the badness to me could see me right now.” She then pointed to the sky with her machete, and muttered, He loves me.



Before doing Peace Corps, through my studies and travels abroad, I had been taught to see “poverty” and “development” on a macro scale, as a thing of governments, a concentration of external forces felt locally. I put myself in the shoes of the “other”: innocent, isolated populations who, by virtue of their innocence and isolation, were deserving of the attention and help from outside of their communities. Now I have seen another side. I see poverty and (lack of) development as a local product: something made and remade, locally. Family feuds, teenage pregnancies, lack of self-confidence and self-worth and emotional honesty, alcoholism, failure to organize, distrust in authority, distrust in thy neighbor, the flight of the youth, the plight of the old, the way life in the campo beats the body, failed projects, the mapping/demarcation of counties and communities, the way the road is cut, the topography of the land, the sun is hot and the rain is a nuisance, laziness and boredom: these are a small number of many possible explanations as to why communities do not organize. These are all impediments to what we abstractly think of as sustainable, healthy communities. These are all challenges I have seen and felt in my work as a volunteer, and I suspect these are and always will be the challenges that volunteers feel, in all areas where Peace Corps works.

One thing that bothers me is the amount of time people devote to talking to other people. Communities are small, the abuelos that are here live at most a few miles from where they were born; everyone here is related in one way or another – how are they not going to talk? It is good to care, be aware about others, but I don’t think it healthy to seek or echo that knowledge. But what is this statement but a function of how much I have moved around, how little I have depended on an immediate community to navigate my individual life. In a place with no cell signal, the mouth and the hands still do the bulk of the communicating. Talking equals currency in the local economy.

It is hard to know whether friendships form out of mutual affinities or a shared set of circumstances, such as age, proximity, or lack of mobility. Maybe “being friends” means being a good neighbor, or holding a certain space in good faith for a period of time, however long or short is necessary. A conversation on transport between two people is a conversation amongst everyone; all are implicitly invited to listen and to participate, regardless of how “well” a given person perceives to know the other. I think of this in contrast to a culture where kids are discouraged to talk to strangers, where people don’t know each other, where passengers on transport stare quietly through their phones or at an indefinite, blank space before their eyes. Here it is possible that people do not “know” each other, but this does not impede them from interacting. There are little requirements to start a conversation in public. When one gets on the bus, she usually says “good morning” or “afternoon”, and most those that are already on the bus reply back. And when one gets off the bus, it is not uncommon to wish the others well on their journeys. In public settings, I am decidedly American: I am not chatty, I prefer to keep to myself. Here, I have been nudged, ever so slightly, to not be invisible.

Panamanians are (in general) so sensitive and attuned to their surroundings. In Rosario, they can hear a car coming from a mile away, and before they can see it they can tell which car it is, and who is driving it, by the sound of the engine. People will stop conversation or rush out of the house to see cars pass, to confirm the car’s identity, and say it out loud. At first, this bothered me. Why do you need to look at every car that passes by? But there are valid reasons. The number of cars (and people) that pass by is limited. And so each car passing by is a chance to send or receive a message from the outside world; each passing car is news, information, something to know and talk about. (Also, the inhabitants have not become numb to an indistinguishable stream of vehicles and noise, and this is a good thing, right?) After a year and a half, I too have become attuned to the cars. If I am in my house I open the door to see who goes there. I can usually tell from a half mile away which car is transport, which is the Ministry of Environment car, which is the neighbor up the road.

But sometimes this curiosity borders on the sensational, which has its origins in the media they consume. Open any newspaper sold outside of Panama City and you will find a world of gangs, car crashes, celebrity gossip, murders and deaths, full page images of attractive women. This counts as news and reading material here. Nightly cable news is not much different. Oftentimes the stories are so rapid-fire that the viewers (in the community) are left with a barrage of images. The context or the content is lost on them. As an example, there was a recent report entitled “Indigenous attack President Varela during visit to the Reserve,” coupled with images of Ngabe Bugles shouting at the President, who was standing at a podium with a stern, concerned face. The Ngabe Bugles in protest claim that they have not been properly consulted on Barro Blanco, a controversial hydroelectric project in the indigenous reserve. As TVN was giving the report, my neighbors said something to the effect of “Dios mio, look at the Indians attacking the President.” There is no detail or discussion of the project or the whys of the Indians’ protest. All my neighbors see is angry Indians, and then it’s on to the next story.

And then there’s “Jurado del Pueblo” (The People’s Jury), a popular radio show amongst (older) folks out here in the boonies. On Jurado del Pueblo they announce so and so died and the funeral services are on this date; they announce when a medical tour or a food truck will be coming to a place near you. Useful information for isolated peoples. But it is also a venue for any Joe Shmo to voice any given concern, in hopes to create a discussion or find a resolution: “I lost my wallet on a bus;” “electricity/cell tower is out in x community;” “the cows got out.” Earlier this year a community group cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner for a month for a crew working on bridges in the area. I heard that an anonymous someone called in to report a rumor that one day the crew had to eat rice reheated from a few hours previous. This show is broadcast on a provincial level. 99% of the population does not give a fuck about your cows or your reheated rice. (But it’s still newsworthy.) Needless noise and gossip are byproducts of a democratic communications system, which, in the end, I suppose is also a good thing.

If I am hanging out with a family conversing and watching TV and a telenovela comes on, it is a sign for me to leave. A) because I can’t stand soap operas and B) all the family’s attention shifts completely to the TV. I don’t watch telenovelas on principle: the acting is so bad, the heavy breathing and fake crying of the dubbing makes me queasy, and have there been more than five plotlines in the history of soap operas? Panamanians and I have different criteria for entertainment, I know: when a fight breaks out on TV or a character falls gravely ill, they react as if it is happening before their eyes.

To tie all of this sensational sensitivity back to the lives that real people lead here: any social gathering – dance, birthday party, cultural activity – upwards of 20 people becomes a spectacle, in which there are few performers and an uncomfortable amount of spectators. Or better: it is as if an audience of acquaintances gather and wait for a show to happen, that never actually materializes. People stick in pockets, hang with those they know or are most comfortable with, and what ensues is a subdued (yet aggressive) people watching contest among these isolated pockets – eyes seeking to identify who will be the performers of the evening. I can´t tell you how many times I have arrived to a party and the first thing I see is at least one band of (young) men on the outskirts of the gathering, usually peering the action from behind a bush. Their social anxiety is palpable, and it in turn makes me self-conscious in an angry sort of way. As soon as I enter the gathering, by virtue of my stature and my white skin, I become a performer. I know that as a foreigner, this is to be expected of me. But being so persistently looked at is something I have not gotten used to. In these instances I pine for the plurality of the U.S.; to be a normal dude, no one.

The other day I saw a quotation that goes, “Nothing and nobody exists in this world whose very being does not presuppose a spectator.” What is the part of “me” left over after the part I broadcast to the outside world, after broadcasting to an “other” the image of myself as I would like to be seen? What is a selfie without someone to like it? What is a rose or a lover or a sunset or the color blue without a perceiver to lend them meanings and associations? These are questions I have thought about philosophically for a long time, that my mind can´t help but wrestle with. That “I” or the “world,” any noun or object, is nothing in and of itself – but rather a loose network of contingencies and relationships, constantly morphing and remorphing. When I interact with Panamanians I turn into an outgoing jokester (there are times when I say things that have implied meanings beyond my comprehension, but I run with it anyway), because that is the image I oftentimes think Panamanians want to see of me. Point: that I am always performing; even when alone, I have an invisible spectator in mind. I still crave solitude, the illusion that I am free, unperforming, not being judged.


When I was younger everyone told me I would be snatched up by a witch. The abduction would happen at night time, or at the precise moment I strayed off alone, away from human eyes. “Te va a llevar la turivieja.” The witch is going to take you. My mother, my brothers, my abuelos, cousins, aunts and uncles, children younger than me, and, yes, even complete strangers have all told me this on multiple, separate occasions. The words slide off the tongue in the same way “that’s an orange” or “today it will rain” slide. With great clarity and ease. After the words come wide eyes and a taut face, and then a tense silence, as if the witch is so bad that she needs no further explanation. (more…)

Agua es Vida

Today I watched someone almost die. Orlando, Cesar’s brother. We were in the midst of a long day of rewiring the water system – digging, cutting, reassembling PVC pipes – because we’ve been without running water for about a month. The section of PVC we are working on at the moment in question is deep, and five of us are spread out 10-15 feet, digging with pick ax and shovel. I am the furthest down the line, the farthest from Orlando, and when he says “That tree looks really dark” I don’t think to look up, and I keep on digging. About 30 seconds later Juan shouts to him “What, you fell asleep?” Salva laughs, and I keep on digging. Juan repeats “He fell asleep” and then says “he doesn’t look good.” I stop digging and, with the others, go over to Orlando, who is leaning on the ravine.


One night

after the rain died down
the spider went to work
spinning her frenzied orb
round and round
from out to in

as the circuits got shorter
she felt a small tug,
an already-trapped visitor
on the outskirts –
and this distracted her.

after the tug, a pause
before rising from her desk
and skating
           across fresh symmetry
on sticky stilts
to answer the door

this happened three times,
and probably more.

in the morning nothing remained
no flesh, no filament,
no matter

A brief introduction

I am in a small community of about 50 households in the province of Herrera. My site is six hours from Panama City, and two from the provincial capital, Chitré. The hour-long pickup ride I take out of and into my site is comically illegal, defies personal space and will beat the claustrophobia out of any good human. How many people can fit in the back of a pickup? How many positions can one contort his or her body? These are the perennial questions crossing my mind as I hop aboard, whose answers seem to increase in number with every ride. The road to my site is dirt and winds up, down and around through hilly panoramas and thirsty streams. En route, it is not uncommon to pass mango trees and men on horseback. During the rainy season (Jun-Dec), people here say the streams swell and parts of the road get washy to the point of being impassible. The unfinished road is one of the biggest complaints from locals; every year “they” (the authorities) say “this is the one,” and so far, 10 years have passed, and nada.