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I was expecting a bus. There would be a bottom compartment for my bag, there would be air conditioning, there would be windows, and it would fit about forty volunteers.
“The ‘busito’ is here! If you’re in the first group, get your bags!”
It was a van; it fit six of us and it had no windows. I asked Maria Consuela if I could sit in the front. She was a big woman. She still hadn’t lost the weight from her pregnancy and I doubted she did much else besides drive her “busito” around. Her dark skin was blotchy and stained from the sun.
She nodded her head; “you must get carsick, right?” I’ve never been carsick but I nodded nonetheless. I wanted to uphold the idea that I somehow stood out from the crowd and shouldn’t have to squeeze between someone’s oversized backpack and a volunteer I had never met before.
It wasn’t too long a ride to Jagüito. I was the only person able to look out a window to see the Panamanian jungle. The towns were not at all how had I had imagined them during my months of training and fantasy-filled sleepless nights. I had envisioned a beautifully painted, yet humble, abode; an artisan hut that seemed to grow out of the beautiful jungle of Coclé.
Rather than overflowing with Latin American culture, the Pan-American Highway sliced through rural villages that reeked of left-over American marketing. The side of the road was stained with empty beer bottles, coke cans, and Oreo wrappers. Culture rotted away in the gutters and pigs squealed and fought over the debris.
The van pulled us right up to the front door of the house I would be staying in. It was one room built of grey cinder block. Hollow blocks of concrete were the windows and the roof was composed of rusty slates of blue zinc. A table was a tipped-over on its side to cover the entrance so that the goat would not enter.
Exhaust fumes and gasoline overwhelmed me as I stood in front of this "house" on the side of the Pan American highway. A man sitting on a tree stump poked at a pile of ashes and burning trash with a stick. He wore burnt dress pants and a white tank top marked with black smudges. The tank top revealed the physique of a man who had once been the star soccer player in town. Field labor and age had withered his strength, leaving him with nothing but discrete reminders of that past. A woman in a stained pink shirt stood at the doorway, her hands folded above her abdomen. She wore a pencil skirt that had clearly been passed down through generations. The sides had been slit and augmented with elastic in order to accommodate her belly. The woman had slender legs with defined muscles. Their faces, dark and stained, stared blankly.
Uncomfortable and unsure where I should look, I decided to start pulling my Big Bear 78 backpack out of the bus. The man ran to the tipped-over table, pushed it aside, and entered his house. He quickly ran out again as he buttoned up a collared dress shirt. Without a word, he helped me carry my backpack and nodded his head before turning to put my things inside. The woman stepped away from the doorway and slid her bare feet into rubber slip-ons. Her face remained expressionless as she walked towards the bus and shook my hand.
Two months later we found ourselves in the same position. Maria Consuela sat in her bus behind me as I stared into the face of Omaira Mendoza Gordón. Tears were sliding down her beautiful Panamanian features as she brought me in for a tight hug. As she did, my “tumba hombre” sombrero fell off my head. The black and white straw had been carefully woven and sewn together over the time period of two months. Omaira had sat in a swamp for hours in order to collect the straw. She had dried it out behind our house and she had dyed half the straw black. She normally sold the hats for twenty dollars to merchants as they passed by; the merchants then sold them in Panama City for over one hundred dollars. Demetrio Gordón caught the hat before it hit the floor.
Omaira was still holding me in tight; “Cuida de lo que tienes” she whispered in my ear. She kissed my cheek and passed me over to her husband. He grabbed my head in his hands and pulled me in as if I were his own daughter. “Gracias,” he said, although I should’ve been the one saying the thank-you’s. He put the hat back on my head.
I took one last look at our Panamanian home; our zinc roof that made an overwhelming sound when it rained, our table-like door, our goat that could pee for ten minutes straight, my baby brother Chichi still trying to start a fight with the chickens.
Behind the bus, all 300 Jagüito community members were blocking the highway.
Alejandro, the grandfather of the town. He had carried blocks of cinder back and forth between his “casa de cincha” and the location where we were building Jagüito’s first school. His wife had a sickness that had tainted her skin and she refused to leave the house because of it. He had a baby monkey in a cardboard box and his mango trees were well-renowned.
Danilo, my “maestro.” He who would sit with me for hours in the church as he taught me Panamanian songs and how to play them on his guitar.
Rubiel, the “borracho” of the town. He worked out with me in the mornings, went fishing with me after lunch, and told the best stories.
Alberto, the man who had planned my surprise farewell dance the night before. Alberto was the most talkative member of the town. He was always willing to work hard, tell a couple jokes, and get a little drunk. He had shown up to all the soccer games and cheered me on whenever I attempted to play.
Ovidio, the trouble maker. The 10-year-old kid who was too cool to participate in the classes I held in “el rancho.” He refused to participate in the activities I led but I often found him repeating the songs and playing the games privately and on his own.
Fernanda, the 8-year-old girl who slept next to me and kept me company at night. She had seen her father stabbed to death. She wrote me a letter and told me not to read it until I landed in California. The letter told me to take good care of my parents.
José, our enthusiastic youth counterpart. He had no toenails from playing soccer barefoot for 19 years. Every day at 4:00 pm he would wrap up his toes and continue to play.
Albin, the older brother I had always wished for. He brought me out to the rice and corn fields and taught me how to weed them using a machete. He also taught me how to use the machete to scare off unwelcome visitors.
I took one more look at the culture and beauty of Jagüito. I took one more look at each heroic and outstanding individual.
Together, Omaira, Demetrio, and I pushed my backpack into the back of the busito. I climbed into the back seat and was silent for the remainder of the bus ride to Penonome.