A history most perceptible when it’s intangible, fire ants, and a country with reason to be proud
Expectations are the fastest way to screw up an experience. – Me
With that personal aphorism in mind, I flew down to an infamous foreign land with as blank a slate as I could manage. When asked what single thing I most wanted to see or learn about, I could only answer lamely “Um…I’d like to take some pictures.” I didn’t know what I wanted to see in particular; I wanted all of it.
Minimal specific expectations notwithstanding, I definitely didn’t expect to be watching a group of men in 16th century military uniforms strutting around by torchlight, then firing a cannon at precisely 9:00 PM to the accompaniment of a thousand flashing DSLRs on auto. The most “authentic” part of the experience was when the fire ants on my calves made their presence felt, the way only fire ants do, burning pincers stabbing multiple places simultaneously in a coordinated act of hormiguine vindictiveness.
But history in that place was not always so distant.
“Spanish ships started taking the gold and wealth of the New World back to Spain, but many of them were being attacked by pirates.” Pirates are always relatable. “So they started gathering together all the ships to cross in one big armada for protection, and they would gather here, in the bay.” A hand darkened by years in the tropical sun indicated the slow sweep of water to our right.
“Imagine, the population of the city was about five hundred, but you would have five thousand sailors waiting here. Imagine the noise, the chaos…” That wasn’t hard at all. It seemed like the city had never forgotten this childhood, had somehow retained the kinetic vibrancy of a mass of lusty sailors, basically pirates themselves.
In a good way.
Because, say what you will about this much-slandered place of loud voices and lusty living, I list it as among the safest places I’ve been in the dozen Latin American countries I’ve visited. The capital cities of this region are notoriously awful, where one should only get off the bus long enough to buy a tamale, but here I felt safe hefting my phatty new camera at all hours of the day, and the supposed tensions between our nations were fuel for conversation and communication, but never enmity or dislike.
People were on the street at all hours of the day, talking shouting laughing, and you could hear music in the hot air more often than not. Dancing was liable to break out at a moment’s notice. Rum and beer held their own against water and cola, but drunkenness was rare, nearly to the point of nonexistence. The streets were grimy in the way of places so consummately lived on, but garbage was startlingly rare, given the presence of so many humans.
The impressive character and accomplishments of this place extend to more than cosmetic and artistic factors. They were the only country certified as “sustainable” by the World Wildlife Fund in 2006 (or maybe 2010, surprisingly hard to track down clarification) based on ecological footprint and social development.
And how about racism, sexism, and homophobia? Experts and my observations agree on all of these:
-There is basically no ethnic or racial tension in this country;
-Women and men receive equal pay for equal work;
-Homophobia has been in sharp decline for the past six years since the new president took over, and sex reassignment procedures are covered by the nation’s universal healthcare.
Already impressive, these facts are even more astonishing in the context of a historically machista and racially divided culture. This place has come a long way.
I had tried to come without expectations, with moderate success, but the country was quick to supply me, assault and delight me, with enough observations and experiences to wash away any quantity of poorly conceived preconceptions. Even before the gods got involved…
(I couldn’t resist the urge to leave it a bit vague for one more blog, but the location is in the tags below; don’t look if you’d rather guess.)