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).


  1. This is fantastic, great pictures. Your house is so awesome. Great work! Cannot wait to enjoy it.
    Love ya
    Mom and Dad

  2. Hey Chet, I'm a big fan of your blog! Please keep posting, I love what you're doing there.
    Also, if you find yourself some free time and would like some reading material in English, my blog is Though I'm currently in michigan, I'll be back in china in january. :) take care!