LockupFrom the frying pan into the fire, so it seemed. The minibus moved far too fast for any butterflies and dragonflies and it was hardly part of an enjoyable jungle tour. In four hours, we were sitting in the rush hour traffic of the capital. The radio blared salsa music; the four immigration guards shouted their weekend plans to each other above the din. I craved for solitude and silence. My ears hurt from all the noise.
Processed into the 'Albergue Feminino', photographed and backpacked searched - 'Are you serious?' I asked, 'It's been searched four times while I've been held by the military. What do you expect to find?' --'Ok. Choose a place to sleep, only top bunks are available. Here, a tattered set of sheets, a filthy pillow and a pathetic threadbare towel, lights out at 10. Have some beans and rice, a juice box. Sign here, initial for a plastic fork' At least I had a chance to shower, but having only one tiny bathroom for the now twenty-two of us, the prospect looked slim for the smallest and eldest. Equipped with a washer/dryer, a constantly running toilet and a pipe sticking out of the far wall that served as both the shower and the sink, it was a small step above the muddy rivers of the military camps. The divas predictably pushed me out of the way. They immediately overloaded the washer with all of their clothes and burnt out the motor. Just as I got my turn, the lights went out. Making the most of my solitude, I washed myself and my clothes, for the first time in days, in the dark. I could endure the weekend, and then talk with an immigration agent on Monday, get my passport back and head on down the road, I told myself. Sleep well on a thin mattrass in a tiny windowless room filled with many women... something like a pilgrim's albergue on the Camino to Santiago, except far less comfortable and far less spacious, not even enough room for everyone to stand at once.
The weekend events as they transpired were unexpected even as I lead a pilgrim life free of expectation and open to everything. The divas were cast into their own briarpatch. By midmorning, after a tiny cup of coffee, a styrofoam cupfull of oversweet gruel, and fried corncakes were passed to each of us as we signed off, most of the other occupants - all recent veterans of the Darien - squealed with delight at the opportunity to try on the new clothes introduced by the divas. Equally were the divas happy to go through the troves of the other latinas. Chaos reigned. Loudly. Hairdryers, curling rods strightening irons, enormous foam curlers...dyes, perms, extensions, all sorts of other beauty parlor accessories poured out of the handbags that were lugged through the jungle. By noon when clamshells of beans and rice were duly signed off by each, the reality of the detention was clear. I was outnumbered. We'd never have a moment of silence in a room 40 feet by 24 feet (I measured by the ceiling tiles) without space to walk, there was no where to go for solitude. Not even the bathroom, the broken washer now being used as a hair washing station, the doorknob broken, relegated as public space.
Manicures given, pedicures, acryllic fingernails painted... facials, mud masques, plastic wraps, all sorts of activities beyond my scope and understanding - make up applied and removed, hairspray recycled through the tiny air conditioner. In addition to beautician activities, one diva expressed her dreams singing mournfully from the foot of her upper bunk after lights out every night in imitation of Ariel, Cinderella, Pocahontas, or some other Disney animated damsel. Drama, it was all about drama. Did the Albergue Masculino have such drama? I imagine there's more card playing and dominoes. The divas and the others collectively directed evil glances my way as they squeeze into each other's malfitting clothes, kidding themselves that they're all a size or two smaller than they are as I occupy some of my vast time taking in my pilgrim clothes, necessary from months of constant exercise. I'm happy enough to eat as many calories as I can get, so eagerly accept the food the others don't like and don't want but have to sign for to avoid the wrath of the guard. The beans and rice were bland enough, but no one seemed to enjoy the morning gruel at all, whether corn or wheat, too dry to drink and too wet to pick up on the plastic fork. I didn't think it was so bad. The matron chided everyone with disgust about the uneaten food. When finally compelled to taste the gruel, even she agreed it would be alright to throw it away 'unless the Gringa wants it.' They didn't like me much, but tolerated me enough to be their disposal of unwanted food.
Amid it all, a mouse was spotted, sparking a wave of shrieks and leaps to the beds pleading with the matron 'kill it!' 'kill it!'. Though when it had later gotten itself stuck on the sticky mat set out as the humane trap, the girls cried in unisoned sobbing to the matron that it was just an innocent little mouse 'help it get unstuck and free it.' As I watched the whole episode from my upper bunk, I empathized with that poor stuck mouse. They had compassionately left some beans and rice out on the floor for it with the hope of adopting it as a pet. Could somebody compassionately leave me a cup of coffee?
On Sunday evening, I noticed movement in a lower bunk across from the broken bathroom door. The tall woman there passed most of her days and nights wrapped in her white sheet - even covering her head to escape the chaotic beauty salon din giving the eerie impression of being a living corpse with her enshrouded feet extending beyond the foot of the bed. For the first time, I noticed the elegant ebony woman gracefully emerge to collect her renewed portion of beans and rice before the matron barked at the role call of those who hadn't signed. 'A sala'am alayuh kum,' I offered politely with my hand on my heart as she squeezed by the chair I was trapped in, unable to stand. 'Wah alayuh kum a sala'am,' she smiled a huge white grin and bowed her head, visably releasing tension, making her appear even taller and more elegant. An Ethiopian in transit to Seattle, she speaks no Spanish. I'm ashamed at how much Arabic I've forgotten so quicklly from last winter's pilgrimage through Africa - and while recollecting the past, how much easier it was to be detained in war-torn Libya, well, processed much faster anyway. I couldn't even muster a single sentence, beyond 'Hi, I'm a pilgrim.' Her English isn't much better than my Arabic, but little by little our vocabularies had increased and her idiomatic isolation eased.
Sweet Smell of FreedomI generally accept that when I fall into any situation based on a decision being needed in the absence of sufficient information, my guardian angels step in and nudge me toward something with benefit. Do I travel by boat to Panama like tourists or do I ask persistently for footpaths? Angels, guide me. Since Bijou, I've been holding my angels a bit accountable for my ordeal: what possible good has come from this whack-ismo life drama!? Maybe this was it - to speak a few reassuring words in Arabic to a refugee looking for a better life in my own country but, like me and the mouse, stuck to a mat in a Panamanian detention facility unable ot get unstuck without help. A small sisterhood among the bedlem where neither of us fit in. Have some beans and rice, sign here, initial for the fork. I've passed my time parked at the lone little table writing in tiny block printing filling as much paper as could be sweet talked out of the guards as each one says to me - why are you here? there must be some mistake. You're American, they'll just stamp your passport and you should be able to go. Maybe it's the wisdom of the angels again - making sure I finally take time to get started writing down the tale of my pilgrim life as everyone has been nagging me to do though I always have maintained that I'm too busy being a pilgrim to write about it. Do I hear angels laughing?
After repeated hits of the snooze button that prolonged my little nightmare, I was fined (heavily) for failure to enter Panama through an official entry point and fined (heavily) again for being in the country without a stamp in my passport. I was in no position to argue. As soon as my case file came to the top of some directors desk, I was released with a 'visto bueno' and given 10 days to leave the country. Whacky. Failing to get an entry stamp in my passport, no one ever even said 'Welcome to Panama. Enjoy your stay.'
I awoke early on the eleventh morning of my stay in Panama City. The metal door of my detention was unlocked at sunrise from the city-center albergue and I went straight to a church to find a priest and get advice on my route northward. A parish secretary listened to my standard pilgrim story. 'How did you cross from Colombia? The Darien! You brave woman! It's full of guerillas.' Not really, it's full of wannabe beauticians, but that's a long story. I could use a cup of coffee. 'We've got none here, but take this $5 US and get yourself a decent breakfast.' Bless her. With the weight of my recent past getting lighter with each step forward, I happily walked the few blocks toward the seafront. My head turned at Le Petit Paris Patisserie - ah, life's getting better... well-appointed tranquility... croissant, pain au chocolat, café au lait, beautiful, elegance, I was in a bubble of my own element... how calming it was. French street music drifted solftly in the background. Sipping my jus l'orange, I laughed out loud as Edith Piaf croned 'Je ne regrette rien.' Those angels do so love irony.
It's not that I regret nothing, but I'm firmly embedded with those who'd rather regret what they've done then what they didn't do. I crossed the Darien on foot.
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