Wednesday, June 1, 2011

It is their customer, not my customer

When I have nothing to do or I'm avoiding something to do I like to crane my neck around like an owl, slide my shoulder forward and pull out my mutant hairs. I have mutant hairs. They may not be mutants. They might be super hairs, I don't know. Maybe they're regular hairs and all the rest of my hair is mutant. I know other men have them because I was standing in a 7-11 a block off Deerfield Beach, FL waiting in line to buy a Slurpee when I noticed the shirtless man in front of me also had mutant hairs. I considered asking "You pluck mine I'll pluck yours?" While imagining his potential response I let the opportunity slip away.

In fact I know very little about them. What I do know is that they are dark, they will not go blond in the sun as will the rest of my hair yet they prefer lots of sun as they'll only grown on my upper bank and shoulder area. Don't be confused these are not Siamese twin hairs where two hairs come out of one follicle. They're thicker than the rest of my hair and a bit more brittle. They're individualistic where as the rest of my hairs seem to work as a team.  They like to play hide and seek. Most amazing of all of their features is the aggressive speed at which they grow. They grow at one hundred times the speed of a normal hair. I can have zero within visible range today and tomorrow I could have a two inch mutant hair.

Okay, I admit it, I pluck them because I don't like the way they look. I hate them. I can't stand them. I'd rather smell or have bad breath than have these fucking hairs. The thing is I'll never win, they can relocate to parts of my body I can't even see. The problem is once I see them, I have to get rid of it immediately. Even if I'm in an elevator, at the doctor's office or eating sushi. Once one is identified it has to be eliminated. I know I should just accept them,  they're a part of me, I should just let them flourish. I should learn to love them but I just can't get to that level of enlightenment. Like this morning, I was making coffee and glanced to the side and saw one lurking around on my shoulder.  So I forget that I'm making coffee and run for the tweezers. While I'm sitting there for an hour trying to manipulate my arm in a way that will allow me to grab this mutant, I can't help but think of my friend David.

David is a Kuna guy, which means he's short, the Kuna's are the second shortest peoples after the pygmies. But if smiles were in proportion to our size David would be the tallest man in the world. He paddles up in his Ulu {a Kuna canoe} with his smile, his tan skin, indigenous face and before you realize it you're smiling back. David lives on an island called Isle Pinos. As I mentioned he's Kuna which means he is a member of the Kuna tribe, a tribe that has more autonomy than any other indigenous group in the world. Kuna's run their own show, though they're a part of Panama, they make their own laws, they have their own land, some of the most beautiful islands in the world as well as a good chunk of mainland on the east coast of Panama all the way down to the Colombian border. And since they make their own laws they've done a lot to preserve their culture. There isn't much electricity in Kuna Yala {also known as San Blas} which has done a lot to help. David's island has a couple of huts that have a solar panels but mostly they live as they have for hundreds of years. They survive off of a little fish that they get from the ocean around them, rice, plantains and a pineapple here and there.

David's island, Isle Pinos, is significant to Anna and I because it was the first island we came to in Kuna Yala. David and his family were also the first Kunas we met. Since we've been making trips with backpackers between Panama and Columbia we've made David's island one of our regular stops. Isle Pinos has about two hundred Kunas living in the village. In a region that gets little tourism David's village is probably one of the least visited of all. It isn't postcard beautiful like the others and it happens to be a bit out of the way.  It's muddy without the white sand beaches of the other islands. The water is murky as a result of the nearby rivers unlike the islands to the north. What makes it worth visiting is the people. Since it receives little tourism the Kunas here are very traditional. As you walk through the village they don't try to sell you anything, they just go about their living. And when you're there you're as much of a spectacle to them as they are to you. Then of course there is David whose personality is so wonderful, you can't help but love him, there is something special about David.

Since we've been returning to Pinos I pay him to make a traditional Kuna dinner for the backpackers It's prepared by his wife and mother and served in his hut. They don't have electricity and everything is cooked over a wood fire. We've had fish and a cold plantain soup, another time we bought octopus for $1.15 a pound which he said was very expensive. They cooked the octopus with coconut rice. Another time was a variety of salt pork, land crabs, lobster, rice, cold plantain soup, lentils, and a tomato and avocado salad. Isle Pinos is so remote, you never know what's going to be available. The first time we ate dinner in his hut I asked him about the wooden spirit dolls his wife was cleaning in preparation for a ceremony. David waved his hand and said, "It is customer, it is their customer, not my customer." {custom} "Yeah but what are they for?" I pressed. "They are for customer, but not my customer."

Whenever we've stop in Isle Pinos with our backpackers I've hired David to take everyone on a hike around the island. Unlike the other Kuna islands, Isle Pinos is mountainous. The tour guiding hasn't been perfect. Once because it was rainy and the trail was too muddy he took them to the garbage burn pit and then held them hostage for the three hours when they wanted to come back to the boat. Whenever I've tried to speak to David about what I'd like him to do it's a bit difficult. He speaks some English, language isn't the problem. The problem is he doesn't listen. He wants me to be happy so he says, "No problem, I take for hike, people for now. I know people. I know things for people like to see." But what he thinks they like to see is the cell phone tower at the top of the mountain. He likes to show them his cell phone and talk about all the people he knows from different countries. He tells them he wants his kids to speak English, French, Spanish and not Kuna. But what he doesn't like to talk about is anything that they're wondering about like, "Why are the women dressed like that?" and "Why do only women wear nose rings?, "What is the purpose of the make up that men and women wear?, "How do you make your Ulus?" and "How the hell do you live here?" The reason we go there is to share the Kuna culture with the travelers and yet our tour guide doesn't really like the Kuna culture himself.

On our second to last trip the island was closed for a religious ceremony David wasn't taking part in. When I asked David about the ceremony he said, "It is their customer, not my customer." They were mourning a chief that had died by closing off the islands and smoking and building fires around the island. When I asked him more about it he wasn't interested in explaining. Later on I tried again, all he said was "It is their customer, not my customer."

On this same trip David also asked if I'd invest in his restaurant. To understand the feasibility of his idea of a restaurant you need to understand this is a place with only two hundred people half of which are children, a place that may see thirty tourists a year aside from me and my backpackers. David felt like an influx of tourism was about to take place and the first thing that these people were going to need was a restaurant. Not one to kill a dream...

"Well David I don't think it's such a bad idea but it would need to be traditional or at least seem traditional Kuna, that is why people come here, that is why I come here."

"Yes we have traditional, we are traditional in our customers {he meant customs}. My wife and me we have can cook, you no worry. We make Italian we make Chinese cooking.

"David, no, it needs to be traditional Kuna food prepared in a style that is traditional. No one who comes here wants to eat Chinese or Italian."  

"Yes we have traditional food and we have Chinese and Italian. You no worry we cook all for restaurant. Maybe some Chinese. Maybe some Italian. If people want Kuna we make Kuna but for me Italian and Chinese.  Maybe you have money for me for restaurant. I can pay you each time come, each time pay you, each time.

"How much do you need?"

"I need maybe I don't know $5OO for building hut and roof and having people help for building roof."

"Okay let me ask Anna."
was where I left it which was a good place since in Kuna-land the women control the finances so I think he understood that and told him we would talk about it later.

This afternoon walking around Portobelo it all made sense as I was trying to buy gasoline as a large tour bus stopped in town. As they do once a month, the door folded open and fifty American tourists disembarked. They looked hot and uncomfortable the sweat building on their neck and on their lower back where their t-shirts tucked into their khakis, their white tube socks approaching their knees accompanied by white tennis shoes. They walked around looking confused as to why any tour company would bring them here to this destination, confusion that slowly turned to disgust when they saw the trash and the dogs. Eventually one stepped in dog shit and lifted his leg to examine it. He wore a camera and a shirt that said, "PANAMA!"  A group of local kids walked by laughing at the tourists and me, as I was surrounded by them. All I could do was nothing so I screamed, "It's their customer not my customer! Then I ran straight back to the boat and started plucking.

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