Thursday, December 31, 2015

Come with me to Panama

Panama City from Ancon Hill

With our driver-guide, Francisco, at the Miraflores Locks

Shopping for essentials in Boqete

Where your cup of coffee began . . . possibly

Learning Spanish: I can now say: La Quenta, por favor and whether or not I have it down perfectly, the waiter returns in a few minutes with the bill. I can also say with confidence, Mi gato bebes leche, but since I don’t have a cat, telling someone that it drinks milk is not likely to come up in a conversation. Yo escribe un carta might be useful sometime but who writes letters anymore? Un cafe nigra or Un cafe, non leche, is useful; the coffee here is fabuloso and I’ve never drunk it with milk. The stop signs read Alto but that can also mean “upper” as in Alto Boqete, which is where my daughter lives. In Germany we regularly visited Oberbieber (Upper Beaver) and Niederbieber which is . . . well you guessed it. I find myself answering in German if I’m surprised by a question; the other day I said Aufwiedersehen to a puzzled store clerk. I’m still not sure about greetings, but I think Buenos Dias suits morning greetings, Buenos Tardes (?) the afternoon and “good-night” is Buenas Noches. Around here it doesn’t  matter since everyone seems just to say Buena, an all-purpose form of saying “How’re y’all doin’” which is what you’re likely to get from the Texans in church.

Laws and Limits: I was told there are laws for everything and, I’ve observed, there are police everywhere you look. However, most everyone apparently ignores the laws and the police seldom enforce them. The Pan American highway between David and Santiago is under construction and absolutely horrible for long distances, but even on the finished, paved four-lane portions, signs that help are hard to find and I wondered if one big sign at either end saying “FIGURE IT OUT, GRINGO” wouldn’t be more helpful as it would prepare you for what you’re about to experience. In construction areas, the word disculpe appears often, a word related to the English “culpable,” or guilty, and similar to the German “entschuldigen sie mir, bitte.” In other words, “We’re sorry, please forgive us.” You’d think Canadians had written their signs.

Panama City: Panama City is impressive with it’s stainless steel and glass skyscrapers . . . but situated alongside vast slums. it’s obvious that the Panama Canal has pumped a steady flow of cash into the capital. What’s also obvious is that the wealth it’s brought has never been equitably distributed. In the suburbs, acres and acres of modest, small, identical homes march up and down hillsides, a possible attempt at moving the poor out of the city proper and into better housing. Our driver-guide said that the tenements downtown “look like Cuba” and that the city was attempting to buy them but their owners weren’t willing to sell. Apparently slum landlords exist everywhere.

Driving: My son-in-law is a skilled and aggressive driver, and his style fits the going conventions well. A minimum of signs and traffic lights means that drivers have to be assertive and opportunistic in order to get from point A to B. If there’s an opening—no matter how small—take it . . . or you could be trying to get onto Balboa Calle for hours. Our driver-guide was a recent immigrant from Venezuela (he said there are 300,000 of his countrymen in Panama) and he commented that Panamanians are good drivers; I’d have to agree if in-and-out-weaving-with-horn-honking-and-jack rabbit-acceleration-and-brake-slamming is considered the measure of good driving. I can’t drive that way and, fortunately, I won’t have to. I’d rather eat bark.

English in Panama: The second language here is English; in fact it’s the only foreign language group that’s given an obvious nod by the signs and directions and by personnel in hotels and restaurants. The involvement of the USA in the progress of the Panamanian economy is obvious and Panama’s desirability as an alternative retirement haven for Americans, particularly, greases the wheels of commerce and has perpetuated a class system that remains the plague of many colonial countries. If you speak English or if you’re a Panamanian who got in on the ground floor of the Panama Canal’s largess, you’re not likely to pick fruit, cut sugar cane or rake coffee beans on the drying floor. The Hombres mixing concrete along the highway, erecting signposts, had their heads wrapped against the burning sun; their day’s pay probably amounts to less than 10% of what a Canadian would earn doing similar work. (Minimum wage levels range from $1.60 per hour for unskilled labout to 3.60 for stewards and other in-flight crew. Domestics make $200 - $250 per month) I’ve been surprised not to have seen many multinational factories here as one does in Juarez or Nogales, Mexico; what with the proximity to the canal and the low wage rates, I’d have thought the location ideal for the blood-sucking, faceless nature of multinationals. It’s possible I just missed that aspect.

But if my impressions count, I’d say that the Panama we’ve seen is a safe and friendly place. It’s people are beautiful and generous and if half the country’s citizens are super-privileged and the other half subsisting, the disparity seems not to have disturbed the general peace.

At least not yet.

I could live here.

Can’t say I belong here, though. At least not until I can say “What’s the best way to get from here to Bocas del Toro without flying to Panama City first and without driving the treacherous road over the mountains,” in fluent Spanish. That would take a while.

Or “Where can I get a shovelful of snow? I want to stick my face in it.”

Friday, December 25, 2015

The Ubiquitous THEY

At Finca Lerida
The Ubiquitous They

I just listened to a few interviews with a certain Lord Monckton, a citizen of Great Britain who claims to be “not a proponent of conspiracy theories,” and then embarks on a litany of conspiracy theories including:
  1. The climate change hoax is part of a power grab and an end-around play by the EU, the Democrats in the USA and the UN to deprive people of their democratic rights and gain for themselves the power over people that they crave.
  2. In the ruling by the US Supreme Court that legally legitimates same-sex marriage, they have taken the power unto themselves to dictate to the people, thereby depriving them of their democratic right to govern themselves.

I didn’t count how many times Lord Monckton used they to describe the “enemy” that’s bent on destroying democratic rights, but it was the most frequent pronoun referring to his opponents. He also used leftists and marxists a few times.

They is a universal signal telling us that we’re listening to propaganda. Not once did Monckton name a person of the purported group he was railing against. Is Ban Ki Moon, the secretary-general of the UN, a power hungry member of they? Is my local member of parliament a member of they? Is Naheed Nenshi, mayor of Calgary, a member of they? And where and when do they all get together to plot the overthrow of democracies? And why do you never hear a disaffected member of the evil they blowing the whistle on the they gang they’ve gotten themselves embroiled in?

The most obvious explanation is that they doesn’t exist. Certainly there are power-hungry people in this world who would like to subjugate all of us and make us do their will. You need only look at Saudi Arabia, President Assad of Syria, the leadership of ISIL to see that that’s true. But to extrapolate from that the assertion that our government, our United Nations, our European Union are together plotting a dictatorship is hard to believe. If we have people in governments now with those aspirations, the chance that they would get ALL their governing colleagues to agree to a plan to disenfranchise its people defies credibility.

Remember that we ousted the Harper government for displaying even innocuous hints that they were hoping to establish themselves as Canada’s party, Canada’s ideology. If that wasn’t democracy in action, I don’t know what is. The people decided. And consider who the Albertans are who are making virulent noises about overthrowing their democratically-elected government, some even suggesting assassination.

In our local institutions as in the broader world, the tendency to resort to they when group choices have to be made is a plague that does us as much harm as assumed dictatorship ever could. They is a plural pronoun. Theys are made up of individuals and unless these individuals cannot make up their own minds, cannot disagree about anything among themselves, a they, as Monckton so often uses it, never exists except in motorcycle gangs, criminal organizations, theocracies and communist/fascist/hereditary dictatorships.

Let’s either name those with whom we disagree and confront/'carefront' them or keep silence. And let’s challenge people like Monckton who keep using they as the name of everything that frightens us.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

A place of fish and flowers

At Finca Lerida
      I read in Wikipedia that it may mean a place of good fishing or a place of beautiful flowers, but that the accepted meaning is “a place of beautiful flowers and fishes.” To us, of course, it has always meant that narrow isthmus connecting Central America to South America. Oh, and with a canal running through its middle allowing ships to pass through from the Atlantic to the Pacific, or the other way ‘round.
      The language we hear most here is Spanish, of course, an echo of the conquest of this and neighboring lands by Spain when it was still a nation of strength and influence. They left behind their language and their genes before fading from significance and both are evident in the people on the streets and in the shops of Boquete and David, the only parts of the country we’ve seen so far. Dark-haired and handsome, the mixing of European and aboriginal stock over centuries has produced a people not quite like either strain, and yet not unlike them either.
      The only comparison that comes to my mind would be the Metis of Canada.
      The dwellings suggest a wide spread in the fortunes of Panama’s citizens. Our temporary home is solid, modern, set in acres of tended greenery. In Boquete, the climate is a non-issue; furnaces and air conditioners would be totally superfluous. I’m told there are really only two seasons: the wet extending from May through November and the dry from December through April. Throughout, the temperature hovers around the mid-twenties mark. The 1000-metre descent from Boquete to the Pacific coast is a one-hour car trip, but with a temperature rise of 10 degrees Celsius and a sharp rise in relative humidity.
      Ascending up the mountain from Boquete takes you through another reality. Among the coffee plantations and vegetable farms the very poor cling to life sheltered in patched together dwellings of dirt and tin and whatever can be found to keep out the rain. Our Western, Christian impulse is to give them stuff—clothes, food, soaps and pencils—a reflex of guilt for having been dealt an undeserved, large share of the earth’s bounty. The children we see along the roadsides laughing and playing, balancing with arms outstretched on the sewage pipe that runs down the mountain probably don’t know they’re poor--except when they take the bus down into town.
      I remember that as a child, we were too poor to have bicycles. It was only the fact that our neighbours had them that grew the need in us to own one. I need to think some more about the definition of wealth as the ownership of stuff, and the definition of poverty that relates to material goods and not to spirit. Hmmm.
      Boquete lies near the highest mountain in Panama, the Volcan Baru which, we’ve been promised, erupts only in intervals of hundreds of years. A few hours drive across the Cordillera that forms the backbone of Panama, and we’ll be on the Caribbean side, the coastal archipelago they call Bocas del Toro where we’ll renew a friendship rooted, almost unbelievably, in La Ronge, Saskatchewan.
      Facebook is marvelous. Through it’s “gossip column” we know that Rosthern is blanketed in snow and that last night’s temperature dipped to -25 C. No doubt, we would come to miss the snow and the crisp cold of the Canadian winter eventually.
      Today, that’s hard to imagine.

Friday, December 04, 2015

It may be too late.

It may be too late.

We've been living in the USA for the past seven weeks and have enjoyed being here. But the other day, we wondered if we shouldn't be headed home . . . for the sake of our safety. I don't have the exact statistics, but a news report here said that in the past year, America has experienced mass killings (4 or more people murdered in one event) on an almost daily basis. The big ones we hear about, the minor ones where gang shoot-outs or escalated domestic feuds are involved aren't even reported anymore.

The latest shooting in San Bernardino has been declared a terrorist-motivated attack and for some reason, attaching that word seems to clarify motives for the media and, I suppose, for most of the general public. The discouraging thing—to me, a doubly motivated peacenik, being Canadian AND Mennonite—is that each of these highly-publicized killings has resulted in spikes in gun sales. There's a mentality abroad that sees arming yourself as a way to keep you and your family safe. The logic is missing: if someone breaks into your house to rob you, precipitating a shoot-out has to be the most illogical course of action to take. And if a killer comes into a school with an assault rifle, the hope that the principal could prevent deaths with a handgun is a scenario for a video game, not for real life.

The President of the National Rifle Association made a speech on Fox news today in which he tried to make the point that the arming of citizens is the best way to safety for everyone. There are enough right-wingers in this country to make sure that nothing is done about gun control; even proposed legislation to do background checks on people shopping for assault weapons can't make it past the senate.

There's an old shibboleth that gets dragged out regularly: guns don't kill people . . . people kill people. It's true that if there were no guns, people would still be in danger of knives and baseball bats but the curse of the age is the projectile weapon, the kind that makes it possible to kill from hiding, to spray groups of people with deadly fire. You can't do that with a knife or a baseball bat; automatic weapons are what make mass murders possible.

The trend here in the USA is toward more arms, more mass killings and more determination by the gun lobby to prevent change. In fact, the trajectory of mayhem is accelerating upward at a steady, unbroken pace. The rate of killing with guns in the USA is at least 5 times what it is in Canada, per capita. It's 40 times what it is in Great Britain. There are Latin American countries, some war-torn countries in Africa that have higher gun-death rates than the USA, but the USA is not at war and has a functional government, trained enforcement and a regulated judiciary. European and Commonwealth countries typically have gun-death rates of less than 10% of what is experienced in the US.

If a snowball begins to roll down a mountainside, it gathers more and more snow to the point where it can trigger an avalanche. The place to prevent that happening is at the top where the snowball is small. When it becomes too great to be stopped, there is no other course but to hope for a miracle.

The USA is threatened by a snowball that may not be stoppable anymore. The escalating death rate from gunfire shows no sign of abating and if the trend, the trajectory, is predictive of a future, killing and shoot-outs will become even more commonplace, and that not in the too-distant future.

But I would grant the NRA one thing; the problem in America is bigger than the lack of gun control. People decide to point their weapons at other people and pull the triggers. This doesn't happen without motivation, and in a society where the rich have become obscenely wealthy while the poor are increasingly frustrated, rage is bound to germinate, grow and escalate into violence. 

And the gospel of peace at the core of Jesus' message has been so perverted by people who claim to be his followers that the witness for the Christian message is too quiet to be heard over the gunfire. For the Quakers, the Anabaptists and the secular humanists to gather a counterweight sufficient to swing the tide toward some sanity is probably a futile dream.

For America, the signs point to the possibility of its being too late. There is only one end-point to the situation that we see growing here unless congress can be persuaded to defy the gun lobby. 

It's not pretty. 

Is the snowball too big? Has the avalanche begun?