Saturday, November 28, 2009

Panama - a Trip to Embera Puru -Part II

On our arrival in Embera Puru we were escorted by most of the village up from the river bank and into the meeting house, a large rectangular open sided building with palm thatching.
The chief and his wife greeted us in Embera, and the shaman translated into Spanish. Anne Gordon de Barrigon our tour guide is married to Otniel, a member of this tribe. She translated the Spanish into English for us as our hosts described life in the village.
This group had lived in the Choco region. About 35 years ago they fled the abuses and bad treatment they were enduring, and came north, through Darien, which includes the southernmost part of Panama and adjacent lands in Colombia, searching for a better place to live. They found it in the rainforest off a branch of the Chagres River, a spot with a high bank above flood level, relatively easy access to more populated areas down stream, plenty of fish, and good hunting in the forest. They were already living there when the government of Panama formed the 500 square mile Chagres National Park in 1985 to protect the watershed that is so essential to the continued operation of the Panama Canal. Water is vital to the function of the canal locks since each boat that crosses the locks needs around 52 million nonrecoverable gallons of fresh water. The Chagres River is dammed downstream from Embera Puru, creating a large reservoir lake that feeds water in Lake Gatun, which in turn functions as a big section of the canal, and provides water for the operation of the locks. The Embera were grandfathered in and allowed to stay on their land, living pretty much as they always have, hunting and fishing, growing a few rainforest crops and harvesting a wide variety of medicinal plants from the surrounding jungle for their own health needs.

Their homes are built up off the ground about ten feet to keep things dry in a very wet, rainy region and to reduce the risk of snakebite from fer-de-lance, coral snake, and the central american bushmaster, all of whom are very venomous. Access to each house is via a log with steps chopped into it, leaned up against the elevated floor. The springy, resilient floors of the houses are made from the thick flattened bark of a local tree. Under the house is reserved for storage and hanging things to dry.

The cooking is done above. Each house has a rectangle of small logs near one edge of the floor. Into this has been placed multiple layers of banana leaves, covered with six to eight inches of dirt, providing a place to build a cooking fire on a wooden floor. We were served a delicious lunch of patacones (twice fried green bananas smushed into delicious little crisp yellow patties, and fresh river bass caught that morning. We rinsed our greasy fingers in a bowl of water with crushed basil leaves in it. Refreshing! We finished off the meal with slices of fresh, sweet pineapple and papaya.
We had some time to wander the village wherever we wished. Some of us went back to the meeting house to look at beautiful carvings, lovely decorated baskets woven so tightly that they will hold water, and other handicrafts. I bought a wooden flute like the one I had heard played by the welcoming committee as we first were arriving.

Another option that Lynne and I both took advantage of was to be decorated with an Emerba-style tattoo. Every member of the village does this. A dye is made from the fruit of the jagua tree. Held in a small coconut shell cup, the purple-grey liquid is applied carefully to the skin with a small forked stick of bamboo, making a double line. The designs are first outlined, and then the tattoo artist uses fingers and hands to fill in solid the space between the designs by applying more of the juice. Lynne chose an open design that looked like a necklace of leaves around her neck, and I opted for the full design on chest, arms, and back down as far as my waist. Since I was wearing long pants instead of a loincloth, I decided to stop there. In addition to being dramatic in design decoration the tattoos also serve as an excellent insect repellent, even though the dye has no particular odor to humans. It is also used for its antiseptic, antibiotic, bactericidal and fungicidal properties, and provides an amazingly effective screen against sunburn. At first the tattoos were very light, but they continued to darken for a couple of days until they turned black. The designs last only about ten days or two weeks at the most before fading away, and as they disappear the Embera renew them with different designs. At least that's what we were TOLD; it remains to be seen how long they last on pale North American skin!

We took a half hour walk with the village shaman up hills and down hills on a forest trail, clay slick in places, stopping often as he pointed out various plants that are used for a wide variety of treatments that include, headache, indigestion, fever, snakebite, the improvement of birth contractions, erectile disfunction, and antibiotics.


On our return to the village a number of the men and women had assembled in the meeting house, and they invited us in to be entertained with some music and dancing. The men drummed and played flute as the women sang and danced. First was a bird song and second was a jaguar dance. All the women lined up, oldest in front, youngest in the back, and they moved in a line around the room, bent forward and slapping bare feet on the smooth clay dirt floor in a syncopated rhythm as they sang. These two performances were followed by some more music they called a rumba, and we all were invited to participate. Great fun!

All too soon it was time to leave, and those of us not staying in the village overnight made our way back down to the edge of the river to get back in the big dugout for the long trip back downriver and across the lake to the waiting van. The men of the village gathered again on the high riverbank, playing the flute and drums to say goodbye, and the music faded as we headed downstream.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Panama - a Trip to Embera Puru -Part I

My daughter Lynne and I traveled in a small van this morning for 40 minutes in the traffic and dirt and noise of this city of about 800,000.
As we left Panama City behind, the roads became less congested but in worse condition, with lots of potholes capable of swallowing half a tire at a single gulp. The high-rise buildings disappeared, replaced by cinder-block one-room tin-roofed houses with trash in the yards to decorate the rusting old cars. If it hadn't been for the bananas and mango trees, I might have thought I was in West Virginia!
The farther we got from the city, the narrower the road became, now muddy and rutted, spanning small streams in deep worn creek beds with crumbling cement bridges that any cautious person would hesitate to walk across. The paving was far behind us as we lurched up clay-slick hills, back tires spinning just a bit faster than we were moving forward. The jungle crowded down to the edge of the road.

Eventually the van stopped when it couldn't go any farther without going into Lake Alajuela. There was a huge wooden dugout canoe waiting for us, captained by an Embera man wearing a bright blue loincloth and nothing else except his tattoos from neck to knees.

Ten of us climbed in the boat to sit two abreast, and the canoe backed out onto Lake Alajuela. Swinging around we headed down the miles-long lake at full throttle, the bow throwing up a standing wave higher than the gunwhales. The water was kept out of the canoe (mostly) only by a narrow splash rail. A steady flow of water dribbled over the edges and squirted under pressure from the small cracks near the bow, running down the 35 foot length of the canoe between our feet. It's the rainy season in Panama, and we skimmed along the coffee-with-cream colored muddy water, skirting around floating plants, sticks, and logs. In the dry season the water level is 30 feet lower, and the trip would involve navigating a small stream instead of a lake.
About 40 minutes into the ride the canoe tilted toward the right as we made a sharp turn and slowed to enter a narrow side channel. Negotiating twists and turns past low hanging branches, and ducking under those we couldn't avoid, a few minutes at idle speed brought us to a lovely waterfall that tumbled down over a ragged basalt scarp. We clambered over the sides into shin deep water and waded the remaining hundred feet or so to the pool at the base of the falls.

It took no additional encouragement for me to plunge into the cool water and swim over for an impromptu shower under the cascade. Refreshed and soggy, we clambered back into the canoe and it backed out the way we had come. A man standing in the bow used a pole to wedge the long canoe first to the left and then the right as a means of steering.
A short run later we left the lake itself and entered the Chagres River. Another fifteen minutes of a tributary brought us to Em-bear-AH PUru, the Embera Village home of about 150 people who continue to live off the land as they always have. They welcome the occasional small group visits arranged by the American wife of one of the Embera men.

The throaty roar of the outboard motor alerted the people of the village to our arrival long before we actually got there, and there was a group of eight men on the river bank above the landing, drumming and playing a bamboo flute to welcome us. It appeared that the entire population of the village had come down to the water's edge to meet us, the men wearing loincloths that hung to knees in front and covered much less behind. The women wore brightly colored pieces of cloth that reached from waist to just above the knees, and nothing else.

Men, women, and children all wore purply-black elaborate tattoos with intricate geometrical designs on shoulders, backs, breasts, stomachs, buttocks, and thighs. We soon found out that the tattoos are not permanent, lasting only a week to ten days before they wear away or wash off. They are renewed frequently, both because the designs are pleasing, and because the chemicals in the plants used to draw the designs serve as a very effective bug repellent.
Click here for Part II

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Panama City - First Impressions

We're here!
I went to bed on Tuesday at about 8:30 p.m. and actually got almost, solid four hours of sleep. I had the alarm set for 12:30, but woke a few minutes early. We were already packed. I had everything stowed in a backpack, since we were headed for the tropics, and it was only for a week. We pulled out of the driveway right on time at 1:00 a.m.

It rained the whole 120 miles from Richmond to the Dulles Airport west of Washington, D.C. The Copa Airlines ticket counter was open when we entered the terminal, but we had to wait until 4:00 a.m. for the security inspection, so we got bagels at the only food concession open.
The sky was still pitch dark as we cleared the runway at 5:38, and the city lights disappeared immediately in the low, wet overcast. With the cabin lights out it was easy to drift off into the uneasy dozing that masquerades as sleep on an airplane. Somewhere, sometime later, breakfast was announced in Spanish, and we practiced the preying-mantis contortions necessary to cut pieces of food on a miniscule tray without knocking the bite of egg omlette off the fork of the person beside you. High rise buildings admired their own reflections in the waters of Miami Beach as we flew by.
More dozing.....half-watching the featured movie Julia and Julie, and playing with the channels to see how well the audio wizards were able to synchronize English lip movements with Spanish dubbing. Down through the hidden bumps and dips of low-hanging clouds, and onto the runway in Panama City 45 minutes early.

The cab Lynne arranged was waiting for us, and it was about a 20 minute drive into the city. What a big city it is! There are literally hundreds of very tall, very narrow high rise buildings, with construction cranes all over the place putting up more. We are on the 33rd floor of a high-rise condo with spectacular vistas sloping up gently to the hills behind the city a few kilometers away, and the shoreline of Bahia de Panama. The bay is really nothing more than a slight curved indentation on the Pacific shoreline, and the mud-flat bottom slopes out at such a shallow angle that at low tide the water recedes a quarter to a half mile!
After getting settled we walked about three quarters of a mile to a shopping mall that makes any large mall that I've seen previously look puny by comparison! This mall was easily twice the surface area of any I've seen before, and three stories high. We found the food court and had lunch, then wandered several levels before we found the supermercado (Super Market), where we picked up bread, milk, bananas, and a half papaya. Half a papaya may seem silly until I mention that half of this fruit was a good five inches from center-slice to rind, and about 20 inches long, by far the largest I have ever seen. It will let us eat papaya with lime juice every morning for several days!

The contrasts here are interesting. It is as if some mischief-maker took a giant stick and stirred and swirled opulent high rise buildings, abandoned factories, modest homes, small old apartment buildings, empty blocks where buildings have been or are being demolished, and tiny one-room tin-roofed houses until they were thoroughly mixed, then sprinkled all with various open-windowed schools throughout for a garnish, the drone of student recitation competing with the constant roar of traffic, horns blaring long blasts to express driver frustration at the congestion.
I need a nap! More later!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Richmond Marathon 26.2 miles - I DID it!

The week before the Richmond Marathon, Joe Sullivan, Sports News Reporter for the NBC-TV Channel 12 in Richmond, called me to say that he had heard that I was the oldest person on the Marathon Training Team, and that he'd like to do an interview.
I met him down on Riverside Drive near my house, and he recorded lots of video footage of me running on the road beside the James River before doing the interview.
The piece aired on the evening news the Tuesday before the race.

An article appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch the same day, titled "At 71, Set For Debut"
Better late than never, indeed. George Hastings, a California native who moved to Richmond in 1984, says he has been "in and out of running most of my life He will make his marathon debut on Saturday. At age 71.
Hastings said he has been toying with the idea of running a marathon since he was a teenager. As a 16 year old, he said, he would run from his home to Oakland Technical High School, a distance of about two miles. His goal each day: to try to beat the school bus.
Years passed, and Hastings did much running but never entered a marathon. As his 71st birthday approached, he said, "I thought to myself, 'Good grief! I'm actually getting old. I've been talking about running a marathon for most of my life. It's time to either put up or shut up.'"
He has prepared for Saturday's race as a member of the Marathon Training Team.

The morning arrived. It was time. I had run a short three miles on Thursday the previous week after the TV interview, and had finished with a very sore right knee. A quick visit a few days later to the doctor revealed through an MRI that I had a torn meniscus in my right knee. The doctor, a specialist in sports medicine, said that as long as I took it VERY easy, especially going up or down hills, and wore a neoprene compression sleeve on my knee, that I could attempt the 26.2 miles, with the understanding that my knee kight just lock up, or become so painful that I would have to drop out. After five and a half months of training, I accepted those terms.
I met other runners gathering a few blocks from the starting line on Richmond's Broad Street, and as we walked the short remaining distance there was excitement and tension. The over 5,000 marathon runners were grouped according to pace per mile, with the fastest of course being in front. The winner was Jynocel Basweti, a man from Kenya, who finished the entire run in 2 hours, 18 minutes, 22 seconds!
I started out deliberately slowly, being extra cautious of my unreliable right knee. Out Broad Street a few miles, jogging a few blocks over to a few miles on Monument Avenue, a few more blocks over for another long stretch on Grove Street, and finally along Cary Street and down a steep hill to the James River. From there, across the Huguenot Bridge and along Riverside Drive. I had a big cheering section of friends and neighbors as I passed the intersection a block from my house, and Jane handed me a most welcome banana to refuel as I left the ten mile mark behind.
From there up a long climb to Forest Hill Drive, and a very long run all the way downtown to the Lee Bridge. Crossing the James River, my running muscles began to tell me, "That's it! We're finished! We're not going to do this any more!", but my brain kept pushing the unwilling mutineers for a few more miles before the muscles won the argument. There were many times I thought that I had reached the point where I would have to stop, but discovered that walking muscles are really quite different than running muscles. I found that I could keep up a brisk pace walking.

As I came up Main Street I was joined by my friend Marilyn Elder, who ran and walked with me, holding a sign that said, "Go, George, GO!", and exhorting spectators on the sides of the street to join in the chant. It kept me laughing, and my mind off the fatigue and pain I was feeling in my hips by now. It seemed as though there had been no start and would be no end to the run by now. It was just one foot in front of the other, over and over and over. I wasn't out of breath, but the tiredness was building. I crossed Broad Street, and headed into the north side of Richmond in the last six miles, now covering distance I had never done before. My faithful self-appointed coach and publicist Marilyn joined me again as I shuffled my way toward the finish in downtown, dropping out only about a half mile from the finish line.

A block later I was joined by Chelle Quinn, the head coach of the Orange Team, and she covered the last few blocks with me. As she peeled off about two blocks from the end, I could look down the hill the remaining distance and see the huge crowd watching the stragglers coming in. I was by now the almost the only person on the street, and as I approached the finish line I was propelled onward by a wave of cheering.

Joe Sullivan from Channel 12 was there, pointing a camera, congratulating me and asking how I felt. Of course I felt wonderful, exhausted, and in pain all at the same time, but mainly elated that I had finished!

You can see the post-marathon show that aired the next day here My post-marathon interview appears at about 13 minutes, 35 seconds into this 28 minute program

Training for the Richmond Marathon - 2009

It has been fun, at 71, being the oldest member out of more than 1,200 people on the Marathon Training Team! We first met at the SportsBackers Stadium in Richmond the first week in June, and the first group run seemed intimidating. It was a total of 4 miles, and by the time I had completed it near the back of the group of about 50 I was running with, I was huffing and puffing.
The following week we were to run on our own 3 miles on Tuesday, 3 miles on Wednesday, and 3 miles on Thursday, getting together with my small training group, the Orange Team, on Saturday to run 5 miles together. Although there were more advanced intermediate groups and I was with the novice group, I discovered on each run that some would take off from the beginning at a brisk pace that they maintained throughout the run. Others like me would start out more slowly, and the Orange Team would rapidly be spread out over great distances, finishing with widely variant times.
Early in the training I attempted to keep up with the fast runners. I discovered quickly that I wasn't able to do that, so I would start out with the fast runners, and cut back to a slower pace partway into the run. I really was paying attention to the time it took me to run a mile, and trying each week to improve the time. For me, that was the wrong approach.
Each week the total mileage increased, and the Saturday group runs became longer too. Each time a longer distance was scheduled, I saw it looming as a goal that I might now be able to achieve.As I look back at the log I kept, I see that the Saturday long runs increased up to 10 miles, then back a bit to 7 the following week, jumping to 12 miles the week after that. Back to 10 miles the next week, and then in mid-July the first half-marathon distance of 13.1 miles. Each time I finished a longer distance I felt elated that I had been able to complete it, but dreaded the next mileage increase.
I was very nervous as I started the official Patrick Henry Half Marathon in Ashland, Virginia in July. I pushed hard for that, and finished the race second in my age group of 70-74 in 2 hours, 38 minutes, and 5 seconds, only about a half hour behind another man in his 70's!
As August, September, and October slid past the running progressed to longer and longer distances, both on the weekday runs and the group runs on Saturdays, building up to a 20 mile run three weeks before the date of the Richmond Marathon.
I finally realized that the average time I took to run a mile was not particularly significant, being that my goal was only to finish the marathon, not to beat anybody. I began to do a better job of setting a deliberately slow pace of not any faster than 13 minutes per mile. I was better able to sustain that pace without "bonking", completely running out of energy near the end of a long run.
The last two weeks before the November 14th Richmond Marathon were planned to taper off on the running intensity to allow muscles and body to recuperate a bit before the big event.