Paso Canoas (Panama/Costa Rica Border)
May 11, 2016
The rain explodes out of the black, lingering clouds that hover overhead; pounding like thousands of small hammers on the tin roof that protects our house. The sound blasts out a natural orchestra that drowns out all other background noise. Here on the Panama/Costa Rica border, houses are built with a truly “open” floor plan. All of the social areas—the living room, kitchen, dining room, and reading room are only covered by a roof. The private quarters—the bedrooms and bathrooms—are tucked away within a separate section of the floorplan. Hell, even the shower only has 3.5 walls so that you can stare out into the arbor or chat with the neighbor while you wash your body. This layout, however, has a critical function in the sweltering Central American heat. It allows for a refreshing, cool breeze to flow through the house throughout the day while the roof provides necessary shade from the overhead sun. After a few weeks, you forget that you are basically outside the entire day. The sounds of the trucks moving down the Pan-American Highway and the various birds living in our trees makes for peaceful white noise as we chat over morning espresso, read the newspapers, or take an afternoon nap. But, when those afternoon rains hammer out their tune, they drown out all other sounds. I often find myself watching the pools of rainwater expand in the low areas of the arbor or use the forced down time to catch up on some non-work related reading.
Today is one of those days. Allow me to restate that. This week has been one of those weeks. The rain has been relentless as the downpour has been only briefly interrupted by the sun’s feeble attempts to shine through the dense clouds. In times like these, there isn’t really much that one can do, but sit and wait…especially when so much of everyday life takes place outdoors. The boredom sets in quickly. The rain has that kind of power. The power to stop movement in its tracks and push people into small corners of their worlds where they can find refuge from the downpour. This is especially true in Paso Canoas, where most people move through their days on foot or on bicycles. The structure of the Pan-American Highway within the central plaza of the border community is flawed when it comes to managing heavy rains. The immense rushes of water quickly flood the streets and overpower gutters and storms drains. Piles of garbage that live on the street corners become dams that prevent proper drainage. Within minutes, a community of solid concrete is transformed into an ocean with disparate islands of refuge and refuse. The community has an observable routine for handling the frequent rainstorms. When the rain hits, the reaction is like a scene from the bible. All foot traffic parts from the center of the soon to be flooded streets and rushes under the awnings of the chinámos and tiendas that line each of the four major side roads. The Panamanian customs office—which is a large, covered circular structure that rests in the center of the official boundary—becomes the primary “safe-space” for rain soaked refugees who huddle under the shelter; waiting for the storms to pass.
This is the reality of field research—and to a larger degree everyday life. I often feel like each day of work should provide some grand adventure. That I should be experiencing new things and pushing myself to new levels of fear and excitement during all waking hours. This, however, is far from true. There are some great days of exploration and thrills crammed in between serious bouts of boredom. This is what defines the everyday life of field research. I live in the jungles of Central America. It’s going to rain…a lot. And, there is nothing that I can do about it. But, this speaks to something larger that I believe we all encounter in the age of social media. With all of our status updates, check-ins, and photo posts, we usually view each other’s lives as a highlight reel—as one comedian (whose name currently slips my mind) eloquently explained. We only ever see a glimpse of the biggest moments in people’s lives. Lost is all of the filler that consumes the majority of our time. The everyday boredom as we wait for our next big thing. This is it. This is the essence of “everyday life”. However, there is something important to be said about the methods that we use to overcome the times when we are unable to move as desired. If periods of boredom define everyday life, then the encounters that we have during these times reveal much about we handle immobility. How do different cultures move through bouts of boredom and what do their techniques to “pass time” tell us about everyday mobility? I’m left to contemplate the power of boredom and its underappreciated role in the everyday—both on the Pan-American Highway and life in general as I wait out the most recent rainstorm under the safety of my tin roof or chat with the truck drivers who lay in the hammocks that they have slung up under their trailers.
Boredom is, perhaps, the most profound mobility barrier of all. Not only do you have nowhere meaningful to go nor anything that you can do, but you often find yourself unable to occupy your mind to pass the time. Many of the truck drivers that hang out under their vehicles express the same sentiment…the people waiting under the island of the aduana’s office too. There is often just nothing to do when they are left to wait. I catch snippets of these conversations as I walk through town on a rainy day. The chatter often turns to the status of the road or the state of the rain that places their day on hold. The physical structure of the highway becomes the focus of the ephemeral relationships that one encounters while waiting…primarily because it allows one to quickly form a connection with a stranger. “A lot of rain today, no?” “The road is flooded, again. Looks like we’re stuck here for a while.” Or, often it is just an expression of mutual understanding that is communicated through eye contact and a slight shoulder shrug—the typical “oh well” expression. The context of these exchanges may be practically meaningless, but their effect certainly is not. They break the tension and allow people to strike up further conversation with one another…like a “hello” or a “what’s up”.
But, the mobility barrier of boredom also brings forth specific opportunities for the crafty hustlers that understand how to overcome the painful process that accompanies immobility. Much like the foot traffic that responds to the changing environment of the concrete, local vendors read the rainclouds and they know when the rain is about to paralyze the community. They are familiar with the contours of the Pan-American Highway and they can predict where people will go once the storms washout the highway. They are quick to put their knowledge to work. A stream of metal carts covered by multi-colored umbrellas squeal towards the covered island of the aduana’s office. Runners—vendors that sell small snacks, drinks, and newspapers out of wheeled, plastic coolers—make their way to the stretches of tiendas that offer comfortable shelter with their overhangs. The rain creates spaces wear transactions that allow people to “pass the time” take place.
A similar trend follows the constant queues of truck drivers that wait days for the customs agencies to process their travel paperwork. It’s not a rainstorm that leaves them stranded, but a bureaucratic washout where their documents drown amongst the unbearable stream of papers. Bars, such as the extremely popular La Frontera, cater to the needs of the traileros (truck drivers) who pass the time drinking/eating, singing karaoke, and dancing. People within Paso Canoas label many of the bars along the Pan-American Highway “Barros de los Traileros (Trucker Bars)”. They are known as places where you can fade into the background at any time of day without judgement. It’s just a crowd of people passing time until they can move on with their daily routines. The vendors that crowd around the dry zones and the bar owners that rely on the business of the traileros play an important role within the community when it comes to dealing with boredom. Not only do they provide services that unchain your mind, they create zones where community members, travelers, police officers, government workers, all come into contact with one another in an informal manner…where they get to chat with one another. These are the spaces where they divulge secrets and circulate gossip. These are the spaces where everyday mobility is acted out. It is in the under the awnings and in the bars that one develops techniques to cope with the inefficiencies of the Pan-American Highway.