Cynthia Curry was sitting in the front seat of the chauffeur-driven car. When her curly-haired Panamanian driver, Rigoberto, first picked her up from the airport, she was guided to the back seat of the limousine. But whether it was her Midwest upbringing or just her down-to-earth personality, she insisted she sit up front in the passenger seat with the driver. Limousines had always kinda given her the creeps. It’s not that she didn’t feel she was as worthy as anyone else, it’s just that limousines always seemed to make such a shout out to privilege, which made her uncomfortable. Nobody, she thought, should be so special they had to be driven around in a big, luxurious room on wheels by somebody else.
When she was a young student at Amherst College, she had gone to an after-school lecture given by a Buddhist nun. She felt herself drawn to the gentle philosophy. Though she was fascinated, there was so much to take in and she found she had forgotten a good deal of it, except for one quote by the aging priest that she always remembered: “Our Buddhist practice is compassion; our training is to be nobody special.” It stuck.
Besides, she could see the birds better up here.
“Rigoberto, have you ever seen a harpy eagle?”
“What, Senora,” he laughed, “a happy eagle?”
“No, a harpy eagle, your national bird. It’s on Panama’s coat of arms.”
“Oh, si, the arpia. I see one in Brazil one time when I was little.”
“You’ve never seen one here?”
“No. Too many men take too many trees. But they are still here. The people in my village say to see an arpia is good luck, especially for a young woman.”
“Why a young woman?”
“It means a man will come to her life soon.”
Yeah, fat chance, she thought. For a while she even fantasized Zain Toma might be that man–like every schoolgirl on campus–but that went out the window soon enough.
“Well, that would definitely be a rare bird for me,” she said. “How much longer to the lodge?”
“Oh, about 25 kilometers, but you will like the lodge when you get there, very nice place.”
Zain Toma, the handsome, dark-haired, sharp dresser with the clear brown eyes set into a Latin lover’s face (or was it eastern European? Russian? Iraqi?) had been quite the sensation on campus. His sensual looks and deep voice sent many a young girl’s heart a flutter and managed to have hers skip a beat or two, also. Then he disappeared.
Apparently her old friend Ron Forbank had intelligence that put Toma at the ecolodge where she was heading. The lodge had the grand-sounding name of the Rainforest Riviera. It was also the site of some questionable, international financial dealings that the Panama Papers brought to light. The lodge was run by a corporation owned by two men, Guzman Taliaferro and Suarez y Munoz, but how Toma fit into all this was still uncertain. He had been “installed” in her school at the behest of her old friend Ron Forbank at the State Department with salary and lodging paid for a year by our gracious government. To what end exactly she wasn’t told, nor, she gathered, should she ask, but the prospect of a provost position at a school in the nation’s capitol, hanging like the proverbial carrot on a stick, made her a bit more amenable.
Toma was at Pine Rock College for a few weeks, doing a fine job teaching and turning female heads–and then he was gone, escorted out of a coffee shop by a roly-poly guy in a jogging suit and a blonde chauffeur. You know–the same ole, same ole. Now she was here in Panama to try to find him, or find out what happened to him.
She must be crazy to have listened to Ron again. It was one thing to take Toma on when she thought he was a professor; now she’s in a foreign country looking for Toma the spy? He’ll probably be just as hard to find as the harpy eagle!
The road to the lodge had been recently paved, and it was a soft and quiet ride. And despite the potential for seeing the exotic birds she found so fascinating, she felt herself starting to fade. Oh, I can’t keep my eyes open–too many miles, too many thoughts.
It was the sound of goats bleating that drew her back to consciousness. She slowly raised herself from the plush leather seat and looked out the dusty limousine windshield. There she saw a herd of goats and children blocking the road. They seemed to be in the outskirts of someplace–houses here and there, but still lots of jungle. She saw power lines in the sky covered with birds, a fence here and there, and a man standing with the children and dressed all in feathers.
“Rigoberto, where are we? What’s going on?” she asked.
“Ms. Curry, we are real close to the lodge and there seems to be a traffic jam,” he smiled broadly.
She eyed the situation and recognized it from countless movies and travelogues–except for the guy in the feathers.
“Who’s the man in the feathers?”
“He’s a curandero, a medicine man.”
She sat upright and looked hard out the window. “Do you know him?”
“Oh, yes, Ms. Curry, he heals many people in the villages. Even at the lodge, some people come here just to see him. He’s young, not so famous, but a good and honest man.”
She found herself fascinated. “Would he mind if I talked with him?”
”No, no, not at all Ms. Curry. He is a very nice man, and he heals so many in so many ways.”
“Many ways? What do you mean?”
“You go talk to him now, I wait.”
She stepped out into hot air. Most of the traffic jam was thinning out and the medicine man was in the back guiding everybody across the street. He was indeed a young man, almost boyish-looking with close-cut black hair. He was dressed in simple, white cotton clothing–a thin shirt and loose pants–and wore a leather belt with a pouch and another leather band around his head. It was here that the feathers splayed out at different angles, some hanging, some in tall rows out the top. Very beautiful, she thought.
“Excuse me, may I talk to you for a moment?” hoping he understood English.
“Oh, hello–certainly,” he said in perfect American.
“Oh,” she said, taken aback a little.
“Yeah, I get that a lot; I actually spent many years in the States.”
“Oh, wow, you did? Where did you live?”
“I went to school in Massachusetts and North Carolina. I lived in Brooklyn for a while, then traveled out to the Southwest and then I came home. I’ve been back for three years now. And where are you from?”
“I live in Massachusetts! Where did you go to school?”
“Boarding school at Deerfield Academy.”
“Great–wonderful school.” Expensive, too, she thought. “I’m the provost of a small college in the Berkshires called Pine Rock.”
“I know Pine Rock! I spent a long, enjoyable weekend there in–” he gazed into space, “Great Barrington, right? A few of us went out after we got out of boarding school. Nice place.”
Cynthia found herself very drawn to this young man, though, in truth, he wasn’t that much younger than she was, and felt compelled to find out more about him.
“I hope I’m not being rude, but is there any way we can talk more, maybe later some place? I’m very interested in, well, what you do. I’ve always been drawn to spiritual things. How I got a job running a college and paying attention to numbers is almost beyond me.”
“I’m not so fond of numbers either. We can rest here for a little while. I could offer you some fruit and we can sit over there on that picnic table.”
”She glanced over at her driver. “I don’t really have to be anywhere right away, but let me talk to my driver.”
“Believe me, Rigoberto won’t mind.”
“And all these children and goats, don’t they have to get home?”
“They are home. And so am I; I live over there behind those trees.”
The two of them walked around a small fence near the road and sat down on the picnic table. She could see more houses than she had noticed before and a car or two here and there. He pulled a couple of papayas out of his pouch and a small bag of chopped up guanabana, a tart and pulpy fruit, and sat them on the table.
“I’m Cynthia, by the way.”
“Well, hello, Cynthia. My name is Mateo.”
They spent almost an hour at the picnic table eating and sharing stories. She told him about living with cows in the Midwest, going off to college in the East, trying some hallucinogens, getting into Hinduism for a while and then getting a degree at the Yale School of Management. It just seemed more practical at the time. For his part, his story was somewhat similar, except without the cows.
He told her he was the son of a well-to-do Panamanian family who sent their son off to expensive schools in the States and financed a couple of years of getting to know the country. The plan, of course, was for Mateo to get into the family business, which was basically real estate. But very early, even in boarding school, it seemed to be a problematic fit. He was not interested in numbers or profit and loss; he would rather be out in the woods or the jungle looking for herbs and mushrooms (or hanging around a good barista in the local coffee shop). Not knowing what he wanted to do with his life, he considered the Catholic Church, dabbled in Buddhism and Shinto, took peyote and ayahuasca, but ultimately combined them all and became a curandero–a healer. In the communities he served, he was not only the doctor, but also the psychiatrist and the priest. He said his relationship with his parents was ok, but there’s a little friction over his choice of service and his personal choice of relative poverty. He lived in the small house nearby, not interested in his family’s wealth or privilege, and hadn’t seen them in a few months.
He stood up and took his cell phone out of his pouch and looked at the time. “Well, Cynthia, I’m sorry, but I really must be going now. There is a family a few miles away that I need to attend to.”
Cynthia also stood and climbed out of the picnic table. “I see you’re not completely resigned to the simple life,” she said, glancing at his smartphone.
He laughed. “I may live simply, but I can’t quite say goodbye to my phone.”
Now she laughed.
“Where are you going, by the way?” he said, “Do you have someplace to stay?”
“I’m staying at the Rainforest Riviera.”
He paused, a small smile spread across his face, “I thought maybe that would be the case. If you meet the owner, a Senor Suarez y Munoz, say hi to my father for me, will you?