Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Hey so a short post for you guys, but an important one. I've provided a link here for those who might want to donate to my latrine project. Currently the community have organized themselves into several work groups and are in the process of digging the 67 pits for the latrines. Work has been progressing quickly but the main challenge has proved to be the 'sandy-ness' of the soil. This means that some of the latrine pits cannot be dug any deeper than 6 feet without the pit collapsing on itself. The only realistic solution thus far has been to keep the pits not only shallower but smaller in area as well. This means the latrines will fill more quickly but there appears to by no alternative.

All of the pits should be finished in the next few weeks and then the community will really just be waiting to begin construction of the concrete slabs for the base of the latrines. To do that, though, we need this grant to be filled so this is where you all can lend a hand. 60 dollars buys enough materials for one latrine, just for reference. 

Also, volunteer Erica Jones will be constructing a metal press which we will use to shape chicken wire into a lightweight structure for a 'prototype' latrine design. The currently used design could be called 'over-engineered' and uses 1/2" rebar reinforcement and an entire sack of cement. The newly proposed design will use far less cement and chicken wire for reinforcement as opposed to rebar, making it lighter and more affordable (which means it might be possible to construct these latrines without outside funding at all). This press will be used to 'corrugate' the chicken wire which optimizes the strength of the latrine pad.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

I want to give everyone a little update on my projects. As I’ve already explained, I’m both a graduate student responsible for conducting research for my thesis and a Peace Corps volunteer responsible for development work in my community. My graduate work consists of seismology research on Panama’s highest point, Volcan Baru, while my Peace Corps project (at least for the moment) is a latrine construction project in my community. Both projects are progressing just fine, despite minor hiccups here and there so it’s time to let you all know how things are going (especially since some people have been asking when and where they might be able to donate to the latrine project).
So we’ll start with the latrine project. During the first few months of my time in Pena Blanca, I held some community meetings asking what strengths, weaknesses and needs the community felt they had. Obviously, the weaknesses were easy to compile. We're all human and if we've ever been accused of having a strength, its complaining. I got answers like, “the road is in bad shape,” “nobody wants to work together,” “there's no cell phone signal,” “we don't have latrines,” and “we don't have water”. Just a hint: “nobody wants to work together” is the real key to most of the weaknesses. The strengths of the community were a little tougher to get at. When I asked, the people at the meeting just sat with bowed heads, scared that if they made eye contact I'd ask them directly. But with a little bit of prompting we got to, “we have lots of water”, “we have a health post”, “we have a school”, “we have a road”, etc...(Just as an aside there is more water in Pena Blanca than in most every other Peace Corps site in the comarca, the water system just doesn't serve everyone). Lastly I asked, if they had the choice, what sort of project would they like to undertake. I got some requests for fixing the road or bringing in cell phone signal but the nearly unanimous priority was latrines.
This is from way back in August. Just so you get an idea of what my meetings usually look like.

So that's the background story. In preparing and planning I had to try to create some sort of organizational scheme. I had already visited all the houses in the community (something like 69 'households' but they all include multiple structures) so I just assigned each a number and made a list. I tried to cross-reference this list with my host mom and some neighbors to see if everyone in the community was included. They said 'yes' (I'm pretty sure some got left out, but those people let me know soon enough). In any case, next to each name was a row of boxes that each family needed to check to participate in the project.
The requirements are as follows:
  1. Attend each of the 2 mandatory talks I gave. The first was on general sanitation and dealt with how diseases are spread through daily activities as well as how to limit their spread by doing things as simple as hand washing (remember that basic, quality education is a right to which these people have never really had access). The second talk was more of a training on how to construct the pad for the latrine. For the most part, the men in the community have at least a basic knowledge of working with cement (although they seem to be of the opinion that more water and more cement always make a better mix...) so they were fairly attentive and seemed to grasp the ideas I was presenting. We also talked a little about maintenance which really just means making sure the hole is closed so nothing gets in and maybe tossing a little ash from the cook fire in to keep the smell down.
  2. Each family must make a 5 dollar deposit to be considered part of the project. The idea is that 5 dollars will provide some sort of incentive to finish the latrine at which point I will return the deposit. I'm not entirely sure if 5 dollars is enough of an incentive for some of the 'wealthier' families, but I think it works for the really very poor families who neither view it as too much money, nor see it as an insignificant sum.
  3. Each family is responsible for bringing all of the materials which are readily available to the work site. This includes wood, gravel and water.
  4. Each family must dig their own hole to the specifications outlined during the meetings (1x1x~3 meters and away from water sources and houses).
  5. If they so choose, they can pay 10 dollars towards the cost of corrugated metal roofing material. If they do, I will buy the rest.
  6. Each family must sign a contract stating the above rules and repercussions of not complying (they lose the deposit and they do not receive their latrine).
At the time of writing we've done the two meetings and collected all of the money (there still remain some individuals that owe me but I think they'll come through). The final tally comes out to just over 70 latrines with just over 50 of these families having bought their share of the metal roofing. I'm currently in the process of typing up the proposals and I should have them turned in by mid-May. The total cost of the project will come out between 4500 and 5000 dollars depending upon how I work out the transportation (it takes 2-3 hours to get from the hardware stores to my house in a pickup truck, on a good day, so transport is always tricky).
This is where you guys can help. Peace Corps has a 'grant' called the PCPP (Peace Corps Partnership Program) which is really just a page on a Peace Corps website which allows people to donate to any Peace Corps project on earth. Once I get my proposal in and approved, my project will have one of those pages and you all can feel free to donate. I'll post the link on this blog as well as facebook, probably, as soon as the site is up.
2 hours of these shenanigans to get materials in (or get Chet out)...

Alright, so I'll transition to my volcano seismology project now. I've talked very little about it in this blog so I'll start from the beginning.
When I learned that I was coming to Panama, my adviser got a hold of a couple of contacts he had here who own a private geophysics firm called OSOP. OSOP is based in the town of Volcan on the flanks of Volcan Baru, Panamas highest point which is also a volcano, and work in the manufacture of seismic instrumentation, training in and installation of automatic analysis software and much more. Check them out at We didn't really know much about the area nor what I might be able to do for thesis research but my adviser's contacts paid off as the owners, Angel and Branden, were more than happy to give me a hand. Thus began a series of visits to Volcan to meet with the OSOP staff and brainstorm ideas for what we might be able to do to as research.
Ok so, Volcan Baru. It tops out at 3,474m (11,398 ft) sits at the far western end of the country. The surrounding areas are known as the 'tierras altas' (highlands) and are home to some of the more beautiful corners of Panama. The temperatures are usually cool and pleasant year round, thus some of the worlds best coffee is grown here. The scenery and temperatures also make this a haven for American and European expats looking for foreign living and lower prices. As a volcano, Baru isn't as active as many of it's Latin American cousins. However, and this is important to my study, although there are no explosions or lava flows, there are still frequent earthquakes at Baru. In May of 2006 the areas around the volcano were hit by what is often called a 'swarm', a concentration of earthquakes in a given location over the span of a couple of days or weeks. This swarm scared the local population and convinced the government (through the University of Panama and other organizations) into funding a full-time seismic monitoring network for the volcano. They essentially contracted OSOP to set up and maintain the network. Unfortunately, even though there are still frequent small earthquakes in the area, the funding dried up in a couple of years (quite typical in the developing world) and the network fell into disuse and disrepair. For the last 4-5 years, then, there has been little to no monitoring of the volcano at all, and that leaves some questions unanswered, specifically, is the volcano showing signs of activity and what is causing the earthquakes? So my project, at the moment, is to reestablish some sort of network on the volcano.
My adviser, Greg, and I. Doing seismology with some friends in Boquete.

Recently, just prior to my adviser Greg's visit, Angel and Branden decided that it would be in everyone's best interest for them to donate 8 newly completed sensors (designed and built in their building in Volcan) to my project. So over the last month my time spent in Volcan and Boquete has been spent developing locations for these sensors and installing them. Right now I've got 4 stations placed and collecting data and am working on developing locations for the other 4. The hope is that we can get some sort of idea as to what's causing the small to medium sized earthquakes which occur frequently around the volcano and maybe say something about the state of activity of the volcano. Stay tuned.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Ok guys, yes I'm aware that I've not posted a blog entry in approximately 17 years. At first I got a lot of flack for it, but now I think everyone's just forgotten...So here you all are: a brand spanking new blog post. Given my apparent apathy for photo taking, all photo credits go to Ms. Erica Jones.

So as you all may or may not know, depending on how much of this blog you once read, I live with indigenous Panamanians. And as I may once have clarified (but cannot now remember), there are many distinct groups of indigenous Panamanians. I happen to live with the Ngobe but there are also the Bugle, Embera, Wounaan, Naso and Kuna. I believe there are also others but these are the better known groups.

Now in the United States if I were to ask you to think up some stereotypes of what a tropical indigenous person would be like, you might be inclined to say they had rings in their noses, ran around partially nude, lived in the jungle, made pretty handcrafted widgets and traveled in dugout canoes. We will call this the 'sexy' tropical indigenous person because that's what a traveler (or ecotourist, or backpacker or whatever) might expect to see on a trip to Panama or any other jungly part of the world. The Embera, Wounaan and Kuna could probably be classified as 'sexy' indigenous people. The Ngobe are not.

To be perfectly clear, this in no way reflects upon my attachment to my 'family', friends and the Ngobe people as a whole. I wouldn't want to serve anywhere else. It is simply to say that the Ngobe as a community are not National Geographic material. They are poorly organized, live in mountains where, due to poor agricultural practice, the soil produces less every year and, thanks in part to a terrible educational system, are losing their language. They do make handmade bags called chakras, but these are a far cry from the fare offered by the groups in the jungles of eastern Panama. So the Ngobe aren't sexy. To illustrate my point in a more entertaining way, though, lets take two case studies: one of an annual Ngobe festival, the other of an annual Kuna festival.

First, the ballseria. The story goes that every year, at least in years past, a Ngobe community which had been blessed with a good harvest would invite another community over for a good 'ol party so that all the excess food wouldn't go to waste. The host community would provide the food of course, but perhaps just as importantly, they would provide the 'chicha' (generally meaning a type of fresh juice). In this case it would be 'chicha de maiz' (corn drink) and would be enhanced by adding sugar daily for almost a week, thereby allowing fermentation to occur so that everyone can get good and drunk. The Ngobe were a war making people so sitting around and shooting the shit with the neighbors wasn't enough fun. These parties had to include games. The two games of choice (at least nowadays) are plain old fist fighting and the ballseria. Generally there is a day assigned to each. One day is the day for fist fighting, the other is the day for ballseria and then everyone just kinda stumbles home at their own pace. Obviously a weekend of games must include some sort of prizes, so the rule was that the two participating men were automatically betting their wives. The winner took both women home with him (unless of course he lost one at some point later in the weekend). I have heard that this was a way of diversifying the gene pool so that the same families were not always inbreeding (to be clear, this wife swapping is far less common nowadays, but not unheard of).

Not a lot of explanation needed

Hipster Ngob...and Kingsley.

This man has the biggest dead animal on his back. He is therefore the manliest man at ballseria.

In any case, lets get to the games. The fist fighting is pretty self explanatory. You fight until someone falls and then the fight is stopped. Ngobes aren't versed in throwing textbook punches so you see a lot of overhand hitting to the top of the head. The ballseria is more interesting and quite a bit more confusing. This is what I understood (even after participating it's a little murky as to what was happening): two men face off in some sort of open space. One of them starts with a large balsa wood log about 4 inches in diameter and 5 feet long. The object is to hit the opponent below the knees with said log. Hits above the knees do not count (although they still hurt a lot) so if the opponent dodges the log or is hit illegally, he gets a chance to toss the log himself. And that's pretty much it. I could see no way for actually determining a winner, you generally just kept track of how many logs you dodged or how many were thrown at you and then bragged about it later.

Throwing logs at gringos.

Gringos throw back.

The ballseria, to review, consists of drinking heavily, passing out from drinking heavily, getting up to fight someone (it should be noted that fighting is also a sport for women, although female fights are far less regulated and far more ferocious), throwing balsa, drinking, passing out, eating some soup, drinking, passing out, etc...

Also of note is the attire. Women generally wear their traditional 'nagua', but on this day some drunk men also wear the 'nagua' (it's just a big dress). It is also traditional and encouraged to wear a big hat with feathers in it, carry a large bull horn or conch shell to blow as often as you can, and wear stuffed animals (usually types of wild cats but baby dolls and teddy bears are also present) or animal pelts on your back.

Gringo blows a big horn.

So the moral of the story, and getting back to my point, is that when the Ngobe (who live in extreme poverty) get time off they all get together for an enormous brawl. This is not a sexy behavior.

So now for the Kuna and beginning with some backstory. Back in February a group of 20-some-odd volunteers gathered in Panama Este (one of the provinces here) at the site of an old volunteer who still lives and works in the area. We were going to hike from his old Peace Corps town to the island of Ustupu in the Comarca Kuna Yala (the indigenous reservation of the Kuna) to partake in their independence day celebration. This would be the 4th or 5th annual hike.

The Kuna live here. Not a bad place to be.

A word on the Kuna (who I grouped into the 'sexy' indigenous category). They are nearly the shortest people on earth ranking 2nd behind some other indigenous group (according to somebody who probably read it on wikipedia). They are also fiercely independent. They were the first indigenous group in the Americas to retake any amount of land from their national government in 1925 and did so through bloodshed. They also happen to inhabit one of the most strikingly beautiful parts of Panama (a huge length of coastline and islands in the Carribean Sea). The women mostly wear rings in their noses, and wrap their forearms and shins in decorative beads. They wear colorful scarves on their heads and colorful skirts around their wastes (essentially bath towels). They also make world renowned handcrafts. It should be said that the Kuna are also a slightly better-off group of people when compared with the Ngobes. This may be a function of a couple of things. First, the Kuna are incredibly well organized and hold daily community meetings (this will not happen with Ngobes anytime soon). Second, the Kuna have been independent since 1925, the Ngobes only since 1997. Lastly, and probably not least, a large portion of Columbian cocaine is transported through this part of Panama. This, I feel, can be considered a 'sexy' indigenous culture. I suspect Nat Geo have already done many a piece on the Kuna.

In any case, back to our story. Our group hiked for two days (30 miles) across the continental divide, camping by a river at night and arriving in Ustupu by boat the night of the second day. We were housed in the spare two-story house of our guide, Gaspar, and spent the next day walking around the island, eating at their two surprisingly good restaurants, buying souvenirs and generally recovering from our hike. The island sits on one of the more popular cruising routes for sailors in the area so there are generally a couple of boats anchored offshore but we were mostly the only foreigners on the island (the Kuna keep to themselves but did appreciate that we had hiked so far to share their party with them).

Party day was the second day on the island. The preceding days had been filled with reenactments of the Kuna fight for independence including very large explosive special effects and lots of throwing of bodies. It was quite exciting. The reenactment of the final 'battle' for independence was saved for independence day itself and once again included explosions and throwing of bodies but the climax included a staged beach assault by the 'government troops' which was obviously thwarted by the Kuna, the dead bodies thrown on a pile and then the Kuna flag was raised over said pile. By the way, the Kuna flag is horizontally red and yellow striped with a swastika in the center but please note that Kuna independence occurred in 1925 which predates Nazism.

Iwo Jima-style flag raising over a pile of dead 'latinos'.

After the end of the reenactment, the whole town went into an enormous thatch-roofed hut for the celebration. Like any good party in Panama, including the ballseria, there was an enormous amount of chicha. Except this time it was a combination of coffee and cacao used to make the alcoholic juice and not corn. It was kinda like a chocolate wine...quite strange. At any rate, the idea of the celebration was just to drink all the chicha as fast as possible (this started around 9:30 or 10 AM). The group divided so that men were on one side of the huge hut and women the other. The women drank their chicha socially handing bowls to one another, smoking cigarettes, playing harmonicas, telling stories, etc...The men had a more organized method which required that men make lines of 6 standing shoulder to shoulder facing the giant drums full of chicha. At the indicated time, all 6 men would begin to advance towards the men distributing the alcohol but had to do so in a way that the distributors approved of. This meant, singing, chanting, screaming and dancing until you had satisfied the man with the chicha at which point he would hand over a bowlful and you would have to drink it as quickly as possible. You then got back in line and did it again. This insanity continued until the chicha was gone (somewhere around 11:30) which was well after everyone in town was too drunk to stand at which point everyone waddled, crawled or was carried back home to sleep (Peace Corps Volunteers included). The town was virtually dead until later that evening.



Even grandmas.

12:00 noon. The end.

We all got up the next morning at 4:00AM and took a 5 hour speedboat ride under a full moon. Arriving in Panama City was almost like the whole thing had never happened.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

So I’ve gone over a month since my last post. Sorry about that. So the plan today is to do a couple of things:
1.       Post a whole bunch of photos of the Ngobe people, who I’ve failed to include in this blog and who obviously make up a huge part of my life and work here.
2.       Offer a recap in words and photos of my house, which is now officially completed.
3.       Tell a funny story (which, of course, was funnier in real life).
4.       Talk a little bit about my other life here in Panama.

A happy Ngobe family and their cow.

Ready? Ok good.

So a word on the Ngobes. I’m not quite sure how much I’ve explained already, but they are one of 4 or 5 major indigenous tribes in Panama (including the Embera-Wounaan, Naso, and Kuna) and are the most populous with a population of many tens of thousands (don’t quote me on that).  They live in their own semi-autonomous region of the country which amounts to a small province of sorts. All-in-all they are a very shy people and are hard to interact with, especially at first, and especially with the women (for white males, at least).  They have lived as subsistence farmers for a very long time and originally occupied from coast to coast across the central mountains. Due to the conquest of the country by various imperialist powers, namely Spain, and the subsequent colonization of all the good land, the Ngobes were driven from the lowlands near the coast and into the mountains where they now reside. They find themselves in a nearly constant battle with the government of Panama for the right to use their land for themselves, and made international news earlier this year when they staged massive protests objecting to two mega-projects (a hydroelectric dam and one of the worlds largest copper mines) which were being undertaken on, and affecting, their lands without the consent of the native population. These protests unfortunately culminated in the death of 2-3 Ngobes and saw the Interamerican highway closed off for a matter of many days, bringing the country to a standstill. But the construction of the copper mine was halted and the dam project delayed….so it was a partial success.  Aside from the battle with the government over the use of their land (which, as of 1997, is legally granted to the express ownership of the Ngobe people; a fact which the two mega projects ignored), relations between Ngobes and the rest of the Latino population are highly strained with, I would say, equal degrees of racism existing on both sides of the divide.

Ngobes men dress fairly ‘normally’, as we might say. Pants and short sleeved shirts are the norm. Women, however, wear a dress which is called a Nagua and is decorated with very bright and various colors and patterns. But before we get misty eyed about traditional dresses, it is probably important to note that women have only worn these dresses for maybe the last 60-70 years after the arrival of Christian missionaries who encouraged the covering of the female body as opposed to the previous nudity. But still, the Ngobe women have made the Nagua a part of their identity.

Some Ngobe women draw a map of Pena Blanca (on the gringo's orders). My host mom is in yellow with my 2 year old host sister standing behind.

Ok so my house is finally done! It’s been a humbling, frustrating and lengthy process (it lasted for nearly 2.5 months) but I finally have a place of my own to live.  It’s doubly satisfying that I built it with my own two hands (with help from friends) from materials locally available and of my own design. I won’t say too much more about it, but here are some pictures of various stages of the project.
Breaking ground

Finished! 12'x13' room with a 5'x12' porch. The ladder leads to a loft for visitors' sleeping arrangements.

Story time. This story has gone over pretty well during the last couple of tellings so I figure I’ll share it with you all. Last Saturday I held my second community meeting to discuss possible plans for projects in Pena Blanca. The meeting went fairly well, I think, and afterwards I was invited to a big party in town, where I was told there would be chicken soup for sale. Not one to pass up food here in the Comarca, where it is often fairly scarce, I walked down to the center of ‘town’ to find my soup. Of course it wasn’t ready but the local men were heavily drinking some chicha fuerte which essentially fermented corn juice which they make by adding sugar to corn mush every day for a week. So I stood around by myself, being stared at by somewhere near 100 Ngobe’s, in my shorts and flip-flops waiting for food. A younger guy, who I know, approached me and asked me some questions that I didn’t really understand, so I did what I do so well and nodded and said yes. But it turns out I had been asked, and agreed, to be a judge for the local annual beauty pageant.

Unable to back out, and having been assured that my participation would ensure free lunch and melon juice (non-alcoholic), it was explained to me that I would be judging four categories: two dances (Panamanian tipico and meringue, which I obviously know nothing about), the crowd support for each of the three candidates and the speed and quality of their answer to a question (think the miss America contest). The whole ordeal was equal parts hilarious and tragic (two ideas which were very intertwined). I spent most of the 3 hours biting back a laugh at the ridiculousness of my position sitting in the middle of a crowd of indigenous Panamanians attempting to judge something I (or they, for that matter) knew nothing about. The most tragic part, I guess, was that the candidates were petrified to be in front of any number of people and it was quite painful to watch their agony.  Apart from that, as an American who is used to seeing highly prepped and beautified women take part in this kind of pageant, it was a shock to see that two of the three contestants had extremely crooked eyes (quite possibly the result of inbreeding, which is quite prevalent in Ngobe culture where there are very few, but very large, families). The whole situation was, again, tragic but for that very reason, I had no option but to laugh uncontrollably in my head, especially when the other three judges, all of whom have completed high school, were unable to add up their scores, and passed their sheets down to the gringo for tallying….an unfortunate product of the terrible educational system in Panama, which is even worse again in the Comarca where the kids are lucky if the teachers show up to school at all.

In the end I had a good time. The party was fun, I got free food and there was plenty of drunken heckling from the back of the crowd. A genuine good time.

So today’s last subject is an explanation of my other responsibility here in Panama, and that is to be a graduate student. Right now I am typing this from the town of Volcan (Spanish for volcano) which fittingly sits on the side of Panama’s highest peak, the Volcano Baru. I am here this week trying to put together a proposal for a project that will include the study of the seismicity (earthquake events) of the volcano, which compared to most others is quite inactive. This is a responsibility which will take up another significant chunk of my time here in Panama, but I’m working with a great private geophysics consulting firm here in Volcan to help me with the project and I’m quite excited about how it will all play out.

View from the top of Volcan Baru (not my picture, I haven't visited yet). But a common  trip for Peace Corps volunteers is to hike it to watch the sunrise...with a view of the Pacific and Caribbean.

Thanks for reading, and I’ll be sure to post again soon (I’m going to an international soccer game in Panama City next week, so I’ll have to let you know how that goes).

Monday, August 27, 2012

I've decided that this post will be called: Occupational hazards of the Comarca Peace Corps Volunteer.

Just another morning in the Beach Corps
Animals: Although other areas of Panama have a larger variety of dangerous animals, we do have our share here in the Comarca. Really, these are limited to scorpions, snakes, spiders and possibly large felines. Scorpions are apparently more common for volunteers at lower elevations, but I have seen a few up in Pena Blanca (although apparently not life threatening). The spiders here may or may not be dangerous (I don't remember what we were told in training). I've seen some large types, but have yet to be bitten, so we'll see. The biggest real danger is the snakes. We have anything ranging from 10 foot constrictors to smaller varieties but these do include coral snakes (one of which we killed outside my house a few weeks ago) and some other highly poisonous varieties. Perhaps the most amusing story I've yet heard involves tigers (the orange and black striped variety). The story goes that a horse was killed in the town of Tugri (45 minutes walking from Pena Blanca). The owner, suspecting a large predator, apparently placed poison on the partially eaten carcass and waited. The next day there was a dead tiger lying beside the dead horse. This being the Comarca, where food, and especially meat, is quite scarce, the locals ate the tiger and mounted the fur on the wall.....Now I would give this story maybe a 30% chance of being true, but I do have an offer from friends to take me to the house to see the actual pelt....maybe it really does exist.

This is a big tree. Am I a bad person for cutting it down?

Don Francisco exhibits the correct form.
Transport: I've described the chivas which I take up into the mountains (the trucks with tarps covering the benches in back). If it weren't for these, I would have to do much more walking than I do currently (which is already a significant amount). But they do come with their risks. About half way up to my site, the road changes from bad gravel and some paved road, to legitimate 4x4 terrain. Most of it is still quite passable when it is dry but because the soil is really just clay, when it rains it is nearly unmanageable. Case in point, my last ride up to site last Wednesday started at 6:30 at night (it gets dark at 7) in a heavy rainstorm. There were only 4 people riding in the chiva that night (they can legally carry 15 and I've seen as many as 22) but at two separate locations we were forced to get out so that the driver could navigate up the more dangerous hills. With passengers riding inside, the driver was still too scared to slow down for fear of getting hopelessly stuck, so I was thrown on more than one occasion into the lap of the man sitting across from me. We did finally arrive in Pena Blanca at sometime around 9:30, an hour after we should have arrived, slightly shaken and glad to be safely home.

This hurts more than the smile suggests.
Building a house: So as you know I've been wading through the process of building my own house. Given the slow pace of life (and, frankly, the laziness of some of the people involved) the process is long and frustrating, but also kinda dangerous. The first step is cutting down a tree to begin to make your own lumber. In my case we cut down maybe the biggest tree anybody could find (and it has provided nearly ALL of the wood for my house), but this presented the problem of being very difficult to fell. We spent a half an hour, most of the trunk having been notched, trying to figure out which way it would fall and the chainsaw man not wanting to cut any more for fear of killing himself. Once it was felled, though, the challenge (which we are still grappling with 2 weeks later) is getting all of this wood down from the mountains (a 2 hour hike). This is maybe the single hardest thing I've done here, and also the most humbling. Most Ngobe men will carry at least two 10 foot lengths of floorboard, which must weigh more than 300 lbs having just been cut and still very wet, down very slippery and very steep mountainsides. I can't do that. First, I'm not nearly as strong as these men. But aside from that, I have no idea what I'm doing. I was wearing my nice hiking boots that I brought from the united states....which are completely useless in the clay....and the result was both Chet and the wood he was carrying tumbling down the mountain no less than 3 times. Once I figured out that the 7 dollar rubber boots that everyone wears are much better in the clay than my USA boots, I still couldn't figure out the correct way to carry the wood (having brought a t shirt for cushioning which resulted in two completely numb arms and the inability to lift anything for a few days). The correct solution is to bring a large blanket or a pillow. Luckily I've figured it out by the 3rd go-round, but it still hurts carrying this stuff.

These are probably the greatest dangers to my well-being currently. If I encounter more, you guys will be the first to know.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

I think today I'll give everyone a rundown of what my day-to-day life is like here in the mountains of Panama:

I get up usually around 6:30 or so, more or less with the sun which rises everyday around 6 (but doesn't hit my house for a while given the surrounding mountains) and sets at nearly 7 (there isn't very much seasonal variation). After using the nearly full latrine (I'm fortunate enough to have one), which I do quite regularly...I sit down in the 'kitchen' area next to the open fire which is used as a stove and wait for breakfast (when I get any).  If there happens to be breakfast this particular day, it can one of a small variety of things: boiled green bananas (which are kinda just like potatoes...they're rarely allowed to age enough to have any sugar in them), yucca, otoe (like a big purple potatoe), or rice and beans (by far the most common). None of these options have any sort of taste, especially by our American standards, so it has been quite a challenge getting used to not looking forward to meal times. But as time has gone on, I have become accustomed to eating these things and have learned to appreciate very subtle differences in taste which can make a HUGE difference. Just a little bit of salt, or a couple of pieces of onion in a bowl of rice can go a very long way to making a slightly depressing meal into something capable of brightening my day (really...I'm not kidding haha).  If there's not breakfast however, I'll invariably get a cup of coffee.  But I should explain that coffee here, even if it is locally grown (often from "just over there") isn't like coffee in the States. Here the coffee is completely drowned in sugar, which, though disappointing so some in the States isn't so bad once you get used to just have to think of it as juice, I guess. And since it's consumed in VAST quantities (maybe a gallon a day) it's probably better that they don't drink espresso.
Still alive. Still with mustache. Although I did pay a guy 1 dollar to cut most of my hair off since this picture was taken.

Once breakfast is done, I have some options as to what to do with my day.  Once or twice a week I wash my clothes, which of course is by hand here. And I try to do it as often as possible to prevent mold from growing on sweaty (or even slightly moist) clothing, although some mold is completely unavoidable in this country. If there is no laundry to be done, I might read (which I do a LOT), or go visit some of the people in the community to try to learn names, problems, let them ask me questions, etc...Sometimes I'll go to help in the fields.  Last week I helped my counterpart (the guy who is informally designated as my main partner in town) dig out and fumigate a colony of nasty big red ants in his field.  It turned out to be about 6 feet deep and extend out about 20 feet in all directions....pretty big.  Other times, I'll go to my 'cell phone hill', which is the nearest point at which I can receive service (about a 45 minute walk) to check messages and such.

Family compound. Kitchen/grandparents house on left. Mom's house on right.
If I'm home for lunch, I eat more or less the same thing as I did for breakfast, although on select days it might include a small piece of chicken on top of the bowl of rice (and the same thing for dinner), of course accompanied by 'coffee'.  

Trusty buddy Peluchi. Pretty much impossible to stop him from following me everywhere....mostly because I don't hit him with sticks like the rest of my family...
My favorite days, lately, have been helping cut wood for use in building houses.  This is done purely using a chainsaw.  The tree is cut down, a clean surface is cut and then the lines for the board (they cut either 2x4 or essentially floorboard (called tabla) which measures whatever they can cut, usually 1"x10-12") are painted using a string. How straight and square the lumber is is directly proportional to the skill of the individual chainsaw man and is quite a funny process to observe. I have a picture that I promise to post in the next entry (I've forgotten the correct cable to do so today). I can assure you, though, that OSHA would very much approve of the whole process...

Community meetings are also a great way to spend my time (if I'm informed that they are happening). I've been making the rounds to various health committee meetings, women's groups and actually went to a meeting for the organization of the entire transport system of the Comarca which was exciting since the reservation here is quite young and the government is still trying to take shape.

The chiva (or carro): Comarca transport solution. In this case it is transporting  the corrugated 'zinc' for my roof although we also carried some people up with us as well.

A couple of evenings a week I do a language interchange with maybe my closest 'friend' here in town. His name is Chirachi (pronounced Chee-raw-chee) and he speaks enough english that we can have a conversation.  So I help him with his english and he helps me with the local language (called Ngabere). My community has also given me a Ngobe name (which is the name I go by): Tochi Kin Ngimo (pronounced: Toh-jee Keen Gee-mo) which means Tochi from Pena Blanca. I like it, although many of the kids still just call me 'gringo' which more or less means 'white man', although they're learning.

More to follow soon,


Thursday, July 19, 2012

Hey all. Apologies as always for the length of time since I last posted. Im going to have access to the internet every other week at the most frequent from here on out. These post may also become slightly shorter since I'm sitting in a crowded internet cafe full of kids who just got out of school...

Anyways, since I last left off we've officially become Peace Corps volunteers (PCV's) which took place on the 5th of July at a ceremony at the Panama Canal Museum in Casco Viejo (Old Town) in Panama City. It does honestly feel like much more than two weeks ago. That night we had a sushi dinner in the city and ran around to some bars (including the first microbrewery we'd seen since the US). The following day we headed to the beach to celebrate for two nights and rest before finally heading off to our sites for the next 2 years. Training had officially ended and it has been a whirlwind of a ride for the last two weeks.

For a start, my site is called Peña Blanca, and is in the indigenous reservation Ngobe-Bugle (reservations are known as Comarcas) on the West side of Panama. The journey from the city consists of a ~5 hour bus ride, and a 2.5-3 hour ride in the back of a pickup truck up a 4x4 road, which is by no means the least accessible site in the country. These trucks (called carros or chivas) are just old Japanese pickups with a cage constructed over the bed and two benches along either side.  For rain, they're covered with a big tarp. I'll try and grab a picture of one for later posts. In any case, they're not comfortable but they are far better solutions than simply walking (which is what happens when the chivas are broken, like today).

For the first three months here I'll be living with a host family. My host mom is a single mother and lives with her parents and two young daughters. Shes an incredibly nice lady named Ofelina who speaks good spanish (which is nice here in the comarca since, at least in my town, everyone speaks Ngobere, the indigenous language, if they have the option). Ofelina's parents, Marcelino and Porfiria are also fantastic hosts and are very understanding of my American-ness, that is to say my terrible attempts at the local language and general misunderstanding of nearly everything thats going on. I live in a small stick 'hut' next to the houses of the other family members just above the center of town (town is about 100 houses and 500 people, for those who are interested).
Welcome to Peña Blanca. The town itself sits at the foot of that mountain in the background which  bears the same name.

My house for the first three months.

The location of my house in the future (for now).

My task here as a volunteer is not clear as of yet. The general idea is that I have some sort of positive impact on the sanitation practices and health of the community in general but exactly what that might mean requires a process of community analysis and much pasearing (walking around talking with people) in which I try to sift out exactly what the needs of the community are. That being said, some communities are more aware of their needs than others and, at least at first glance, I seem to have arrived at a community that can identify at least one very pressing concern: latrines.  In a town of 500 people, there are no more than 10 latrines that I can see so far.  In the various community meetings and personal talks I've had with people these past two weeks, this subject has been the overwhelming priority. So, for now at least, my large goal will probably be to provide sanitation education and eventually latrines to Peña Blanca. This will be a process of many months and years, so I'll be sure to keep you all up to date on how it progresses.

Another, hopefully shorter, process I'll be undertaking is the building of a house for myself once my first few months with a host family are up. The plan right now is for me to build it behind the house I'm currently living in, and it would pass on to the ownership of my host mom once I leave (maybe for another volunteer to rent in the future). The question right now is what to make it out of, how much it will cost, who will help me make it and how soon can it be done. If I make the house out of tabla (rough floor boards, used as siding for some 'nicer' houses) I'll have to buy it locally and pay the guys to make is using chainsaws (I think). The plan right now is for a one room house with a little porch for a hammock. We'll see what it actually becomes.

I'm going to have to cut this post kinda short, I have to get lunch and get some other errands done before hopefully catching the chiva back home. I hope everything is well for all of you back home in the US! I am surviving fine down here, although living in such an isolated place (emotionally, physically, etc...) is quite exhausting. I miss you all and I'll hopefully make it home to the states to see you sometime in the next two years.