Thursday, May 29, 2008

Salma May 2008

Some recent photos of Salma at the local park in Palo Alto, and at the Children's Science Museum in San Jose (I think).

Friday, May 23, 2008

Taking the Harder Path

The other day I went over to the mercado and talked to my friend Cleo for a few minutes. Cleo sells crafts at the market, especially the painted feathers that he makes himself. A teenage fellow there told me that he wants to learn Hapkido. I told him, "Es dificil. Es mucho trabajo." (It's hard, a lot of work). I was trying to discourage him, I guess, but he said, "No importa" (It doesn't matter). I'm not sure I want to take a student at this point. I'll probably be gone in three months. I told him I'd consider it, but in reality I need to spend this time preparing for my move. I´m not looking forward to returning to California but my daughter is there, so my destiny must be there.

Then I went to the Minisuper Yin, one of the five Chinese-owned mini markets here in town, and bought a Hershey bar and a $10 phone card as it was a cuadruplica day (the value of the card is quadrupled), then came home, did my afternoon prayer, and then served myself some of Rosa's food from yesterday. It's quite good: corvina with vegetables, rice and lentils, and some sliced mango for dessert.

I got my food and sat down to watch a movie called, "Himalaya." It's about a village in the highlands of Nepal. Every year they take their yaks on a long, dangerous mountain journey to trade salt for grain. The chief is killed in an accident and they don't know who will lead them. The chief's father Tinle, who was chief himself long ago, insists that he will do it, even though he is old and has not led a caravan in a long time. Before they have to leave he goes to find his second son Norbu, who was sent to the monastery at the age of eight to be a monk. Tinle asks Norbu to come with the caravan. Norbu objects and says, "You sent me here to be a monk. I know nothing of mountains and yaks."

So Tinle decides to lead the caravan himself, even though the villagers have grave doubts. Just before he is to leave Norbu shows up. Norbu comes along and proves to be a big help, once he learns to tie a salt sack properly and to manage the yaks. At one point Tinle asks him, "Why did you decide to come?"

Norbu says, "My master told me, when two paths open before you, choose the harder one."

That's not common sense, but I believe there is a profound truth there. The harder path, the path of challenge, struggle and fear, is the one that allows you to grow as a human being.

Leaving my life in California and coming to Panama sight unseen was in many ways the harder path, but it has proved to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Leaving my job back in 2002 to work on my own business was hard, but now I have a steady income while many people have been laid off or seen their jobs outsourced. Leaving Panama again will also be difficult, but that is where the path leads.

Taking up Hapkido and almost never missing a class, and driving all the way to San Francisco on Saturdays for Master Jung's brutal classes (or Master Forrest's less brutal but still excellent sessions), was definitely the harder path. I was often bruised, and sometimes wanted so much just to skip class and rest... but I went.

Paul Graham wrote in "How to Make Wealth",
If you have two choices, choose the harder. If you’re trying to decide whether to go out running or sit home and watch TV, go running. Probably the reason this trick works so well is that when you have two choices and one is harder, the only reason you’re even considering the other is laziness. You know in the back of your mind what’s the right thing to do, and this trick merely forces you to acknowledge it.

Paul calls it a trick, but it's more than that. It's a discipline, a way of living a progressive life. I am also reminded of something from the Quran, in Surat Al-Balad (Chapter 90). Quoting from verse 8 on:
Did (God) not give him two eyes,
One tongue, and two lips,
And showed him two roads?
But he could not scale the steep ascent.
How will you comprehend
what the steep ascent is?
To free a neck
(from the burden of debt or servitude),
Or to feed in times of famine
the orphan near in relationship,
or the poor in distress;
And to be of those who believe,
and urge one another to persevere,
and urge upon each other to be kind.

So the path to Paradise (or heaven on earth) is the steep road, the one that many people refuse to climb. The hard path.

I suspect this is an essential principle of life. The easy way leads to comfortable mediocrity. To grow spiritually, or in strength, or even materially, or to build something meaningful that will outlast you, you have to take the harder path.

Consider some of the most famous figures in history: Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Socrates, Alexander the Great, Sheikh ibn Taymiyyah, Galileo Galilei, Joan of Arc, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Marie Curie, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Mother Theresa, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr... all men and women who took extraordinarily difficult paths in life.

Not that I'm looking to go that extreme. I'll pass on the martyrdom route for now. I'd be satisfied with a happy medium, somewhere in between laying around on the sofa and giving up my life for civil rights. More towards the sofa end of the spectrum.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Frogs; First Rain; Weighted Walks; Rosa

We had a few light rains last week and the toads and frogs have come out in force. Some are quite large and must have been hibernating all summer long. They are everywhere in the road. Yesterday evening driving home from dinner with Cleo and his son Caliler, I stopped the car four times to shoo the frogs out of the road, so as not to run over them.

We had our first long, heavy rain this afternoon. Looks like we're easing into the rainy season, or perhaps we are already there. I checked the entire house for leaks and so far just the same minor leaks in the foyer area and the center of the living room that we had last year. We meant to have those patched but never got around to it. Now it'll have to wait until next summer.

I did another of my 30 minute "weighted walks" this evening, wearing a pack holding two 30 lb dumbbells. I would have liked to go longer but the strap was really cutting into my chest. I need to figure out some way to carry the weight more comfortably, maybe by padding the straps with something. I enjoy walking at night, and with the weight it's the equivalent of a one hour fast march.

I managed to get Rosa all booked up six days a week, out of which I will employ her two days. I needed to cut her hours back to save money, but I wanted to find other work for her first, and I'm happy that I was able to do that.

Laura tells me that Salma has learned the word "heavy" - more or less - and now everything she carries is "heawy, heawy!" She's been having some long crying fits and nothing comforts her. I know she is missing everything and everyone she has grown up with (except her Mama, of course). I may return to California to be near her later this year, in which case I will most likely rent out this house in El Valle. I will not sell it. This is one of the beautiful, peaceful places of the world and I hope this house will one day be passed on to Salma, who is a Panamanian citizen as well as an American, Egyptian, German, Muslim.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Night Walks in El Valle de Antón

I have a daily phone call with Laura and Salma. I use Skype and call computer-to-computer to it costs nothing. This morning I sang the ABC's to Salma and Laura told me that she bobbed and danced to my voice. Linda has some potted ficus trees in the house and apparently Salma is getting great enjoyment out of scooping out the soil and dumping it on the floor. Laura took her to Target and chased her through the clothing aisles and Salma loved that.

I have to cut Rosa's hours back to two days a week but I can't bring myself to do it, so I've tried to find someone to hire her on the other three days. I posted a message on the Valleros website. Corrin, who says she desperately needs someone to do housework, has agreed to employ Rosa one day a week. So I still have two days to fill.

I went for a night walk with Rudy. At about 8:30 pm we set out to visit his property. He is in the middle of building a home. The property is in an isolated location. Rudy warned me that the gate might be locked, but that we could squeeze through a gap. It turned out that his workers had strung barbed wire across the gap, but there was a small opening at the bottom so I got on my stomach and shimmied through the dirt. "Go on," I said to Rudy. "It'll be just like boot camp forty years ago." So Rudy did it too, and we proceeded to his property with dirt all down our fronts. The trail crosses a small stream (you hop on three stones), and up through a wooded area to the site of the construction.

There was no moon, only bright stars, though of course we had our wind-up flashlights. We toured the property and Rudy explained the layout to me. The wind has grown quite strong at night lately and it kept picking up fine sand from the construction and flinging it into my eyes. A frog had gotten into the house and was trying to climb the wall. Huge clouds of mist obscured Cerro Gaital in the distance.

I love walking around El Valle at night. It's all wind in the trees, mountains, clouds and stars. Wandering dogs, frogs, sometimes ñeques or opossums, and the occasional silhouette of a sloth if you're lucky. Sometimes youths making out in the shadows.

We walked out the long way, along the Casa de Lourdes road, and parted ways on the Los Capitanes road. Returning home I detoured through the far end of my yard and stopped at Zippy's grave to say hello. I found Li'l Fishy outside and meowing at me her unhappiness at being left alone. Now I'm back in the office and she's in her box next to me, happy and purring.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Lightning Bug, Ani, Voicebox, Heavy Pack, Stars

Last night there was a bug thrashing on the bedroom floor, apparently dying. I didn't know what kind of insect it was but I stepped on it with my sandal. Suddenly it began shining light and I realized it was a lightning bug, and then I felt bad about stepping on it, as if it were somehow a beacon or a lamp and I were a dark giant.

Ani came by today to get her pay for last week. We won't be needing her services for now, so I gave her a month's severance pay. I could see she'd been crying, whether because she is out of a job or because she misses Salma, I don't know. Perhaps both. She has been Salma's part-time parent since Salma was six months old. I told her that Salma loves her, and that she (Ani) will always be a member of the family, and that when Salma returns I will call her to come back to work.

I decided this evening to go for a walk. I enjoy listening to my iPod as I walk. When I picked up the iPod from the kitchen counter the cord was tangled up with some small plastic box, and the little box suddenly began emitting a loud crying sound. I stared at it in alarm and confusion before I realized that it was the "voicebox" for Salma's doll. She has a doll that used to "cry" when you squeeze it, but for some reason we had removed the voicebox and here it was. The noise was startlingly loud in the large, silent kitchen.

That got me thinking about Salma and how much I miss her. It's very hard, but I know that my bond with her is strong enough to weather this absence.

Just for fun, I decided to put a couple of dumbbells in a backpack and wear that on my walk, to make it tougher. I wrapped two 30 lb dumbbells in a towel and stuffed them in the backpack, then set off on my walk, listening to a novel called "The Traveler" on the iPod. The pain in my shoulders and the hammering of my heart quickly reduced the length of my planned walk from a long circuit around town to a few blocks, and then just around the one block.

A few local dogs befriended me and walked with me, every now and then nuzzling my hands to be petted. One was a large black puppy, and the other was a fat old dog with a limp. They followed me all the way home. By the time I returned home the weight of the shoulder straps had cut off the circulation to my arms and my hands were tingling. Elapsed time: 20 minutes. I don't know how they do it in the army. Don't they have to run 10 miles wearing 100 lb packs, or some crazy thing?

There's no moon tonight and the stars are incredibly bright. The sky is packed with them, stacked on top of each other like apples at the market. SubhanAllah. This is a beautiful place, beautiful people, in the crater of a volcano nestled beneath the stars.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Ants and Pasta, Welcome Home

Laura and Salma flew to California this morning. Or their plane did, and they just rode.

After seeing them off at the airport I stopped by my friend Tracy's house in La Chorrera. There was a salamander on his kitchen floor and I helped it out into the yard. Two cats lounging about the house on the cool tile floors, and the smell of burning leaves in the air. No sign today of the parrot that calls, "Mama, mama." Tracy is having a running dispute with his Panamanian neighbors. He recently discovered that his property is larger than was previously believed, so he moved the fence accordingly. A large chunk of what was believed to be his neighbor's property is now his. They have responded by loosening the fence posts, breaking into his backyard casita, tossing dogs and chickens over the fence, and on one occasion striking him with a board. The case has gone to the local magistrate and one of the neighbors may face jail time.

I got home just in time to see Henry and Nora Smith pulling up to my gate. They were in town to scope some properties, so I quickly fed the cat and went with them. They brought their granddaughter Ana Sofia with them to meet Salma. Ana Sofia is a happy, friendly little girl, charming in the way that Panamanian children can be.

I guided them to the new place that Silen is building and selling. Silen, who sold me this house, asked me about all my fruit trees. "How's the papaya tree? How's the mango? How's the guanabana?" Etcetera. I told him the bananas, papaya and mangoes are great, but I didn't even know that I had guanabana.

I took Henry and Nora to see the two-story house past Dan & Cherry's that a developer built on spec and is trying to sell. Nora took lots of photos.

Returning home I found Listo watering the yard on his day off. I asked him about the guanabana and he showed me, and he also pointed out a chirimoya tree (another one I didn't know I had).

I opened some windows and the kitchen door and stepped out into the side yard, only to step into a new anthill next to the sidewalk. I didn't even notice it until I got the first bite, and by the time I got my slippers off I had a half dozen bites on my foot. Welcome back to El Valle. In fact the insect population seems to have burgeoned lately, perhaps because of the light rainfall we've had. Termites, spiders, and a mouse-sized cockroach are running rampant in the house. I took off my slipper and aimed it at the cockroach but he escaped beneath the bathroom sink. Such sensitive little monsters.

The sugar-ant super highway has disappeared from the kitchen counter but a few scouts remain.

On the other hand it was nice to look in the fridge and find the delicious macaroni and mushroom dish that Rosa left, along with an olive and feta salad, and the remains of the chocolate cake that Laura made before she left.

The house is large, empty and silent, with a cool night breeze blowing through now that I've opened the windows. Salma's room is dark. There's a scent of jasmine in the air. Li'l Fishy is very glad to have me home and follows me from room to room. I have turned my phone off because I'm not in a talking mood, so if you've tried to call I'm afraid I have not received your messages. I still read my email.