Fit of Laughter
It’s been a while since I’ve laughed out loud…at least since I started this trip. Not because I’ve been in a foul mood or things have been unpleasant. Quite the opposite. Travels along the Pan-American Highway are always beautiful and inspiring in so many different ways. But, it’s been a while since I’ve laughed out loud because humor often slips by when speaking in a second language. Many times punchlines to jokes go over your head and your ability to provide witty remarks and funny comments are handcuffed by the language barrier. Humor is easily lost in translation. Leave it to small children, however, to transcend this barrier and draw laughter from a multi-lingual crowd.
Traveling from Metetí to Yaviza I find myself smashed into another small, white van. Throughout Central America, these common types of public transport are called colectivos. But in Panamá the small, white vans and repurposed school buses are referred to as “chivas” (goats). With room for only 12 people, the packed chiva tears down the Pan-American Highway; making its way towards Yaviza. The brutal tropical humidity is made visible through the glistening sweat collecting on the passengers’ chests and brows. Every time that I think the chiva is at capacity, the driver makes another stop to pile in more passengers that wait on the side of the highway. On one hand it’s a nice gesture—helping those that are walking in the afternoon heat—but on the other, every stop increases our misery inside the van. The drive from Metetí to Yaviza takes about 2 hours and we spend the bulk of that time shoulder to shoulder with our knees in our chests; exchanging grins of shared misery.
The contents of the overcapacity chiva consist of Enrique (the driver), 3 farmers carrying cardboard boxes filled with chickens, a stranded truck driver with an empty gas can, 10 Embera women coming from the local school, 5 children with their tiny backpacks, and one bald, bearded gringo. The highway at this point of Panamá is rather inconsistent. Smooth stretches run on for a few 100 meters being suddenly disrupted by large patches of destroyed concrete. Enrique maneuvers his vehicle around the craterous pot-holes that litter the road. He swerves hard left—running the vehicle into the weeds—accelerates and cuts back across oncoming traffic, slams on the breaks, cuts right, and accelerates again. This is the erratic pace that we keep for the next 2 hours.
With the heat building and the smell of the stranded trucker’s empty gas can strangling the last bits of fresh air, the children get restless. A few of them squirm free of their mothers’ clutches and begin crowd surfing over the shoulders of the packed passengers. One of the Embera women makes eye contact with me—the stern looking, unfamiliar barbo (bearded man). The look on her face elicits a mix of uncertainty and fear, as if she is unsure of how I am going to react to her daughter crawling over me. In quick response I shrug my shoulders and smile as a way to indicate “Oh, well.” The gesture breaks the brief moment of tension and causes her to erupt into a fit of laughter and I can’t help but to join her joviality. Laughing out loud together in the middle of that chiva…it’s a refreshing moment.
The crew takes turns trying to capture the little runners, but for the children our futile attempts are transformed into a hilarious game of “keep-away”. They manage to briefly avoid the adults’ wrangling by using our reduced range of motion against us. The commotion causes the chickens in the cardboard boxes to thrash their wings and cluck anxiously within their confined spaces; matching the chaos of the human spectacle. Finally, we get hold of the loose children and keep them on our laps and we try to entertain them by making stupid faces and cute noises. After a few calming minutes, the chickens quiet down and we pass the children to the front of the chiva to return to their mothers. The crew gives one last collective laugh and the stranded trucker matches the amusement by banging on his empty gas can. The chiva continued its erratic path down the pock marked Pan-American Highway loaded to the roof with farmers carrying cardboard boxes filled with chickens, a stranded truck driver with an empty gas can, Embara women coming from the local school, children with their tiny backpacks, and one bald, bearded gringo.