Sunday, December 27, 2009

An Isthmus Christmas

Just a quick note to send out my Holiday greetings to all of you that I didn´t get to get in touch with. I hope you all are having great times with friends and family. I for one, can´t complain. I was up before dawn on Christmas Eve, waiting on my dock out on the Carribean for the boat back to the mainland, and then a couple of truck and bus rides up and over the mountains and down to a beach on the Pacific coast for a reunion with a group of volunteers from my training group. The surf was crashing, the weather was balmy, and we had the beach virtually to ourselves.

I felt slightly guilty about leaving for the holiday rather than staying in site, but the Ngäbes don't really have a long-running Christmas tradition--either secular or religious--and the impression I´d been getting was that it was going to be a day not that much different than any other in Bahía Azul. But reconnecting with the crew from training on the other hand turned out to be just perfect. We had lots of stories to share, moral support to offer, and laughter to make your face hurt. Christmas morning even included a white elephant gift exchange, from which I came away with a nice plastic tarp--an excellent campo gift.

It was a great get-away, and felt perfectly timed to keep at bay any possibility of the holiday blues. Now I'm feeling fully recharged and anxious to get back to site tomorrow and and get back to work. Happy New Year all.

Friday, December 4, 2009

One month down...

I´ve been living in Bahia Azul for five weeks now and all is well. This morning I took the three hour boat ride back to the mainland and then bussed across the continental divide to the provincial capital of David for a little R & R and to take advantage of availability of shopping, phone service, internet, etc. So, here´s a partial update on what I´ve been up to. My long term goals in the community are to help improve systems of potable water and sanitation. There´s a gravity flow aquaduct that brings water down from a stream up in the hills above town down to the community, but breakdowns in the system are a regular occurance, so I´ve had several chances to hike the waterlines, searching for problems and repairing pipe. I was really surpised the first time we hiked up to the source, climbing through the densely forested and gnarly stream bed to encounter a huge dugout canoe that is being hand hewn by a local boat builder.
They tell me that getting the boat down to the sea will require a ¨junta¨or communal work day that will involve twenty or thirty men. That´s something I want to see. A more tame and more common junta, and one I regularly join in on, involves mowing the grass panamanian style--which is to say, a row of men with machetes hacking away at the bush for several hours. As impossibly inefficient as it sounds, these guys are really good with their machetes and make surprisingly fast work of it. By comparison, my machete skills are pretty weak, but gradually getting better.

I spent several days last week working with a local wood cutter. We paddled his canoe down the bay to an opening in the mangroves and up a creek that flows down through the forest. Another hour of hiking and bushwhacking through swamp and jungle led us to the finca where an immense laurel tree had been felled. He cut a twelve foot section from the trunk and we muscled it into position and snapped lines on it with a roll of string blackened in a can of burnt motor oil and crushed charcoal. Then with a sharp eye and steady hand on the chain saw, he milled out the nicest 1 x 12 tablas, 4 x 4´ beams and 2 x 4 studs you´d ever want to see. Hauling these dense timbers back through the forest is another job in itself, and one for someone more sure on their feet in this setting than me.

Lunch on on these days in the woods was provided by the finca owner, who is having the wood cut to rebuild his house. His wife and daughter were along working on their plantings of yucca, Otoy, dacheen and nyame--the staple root crops, that along with boiled green bananas and planatains make up the bulk of the Ngäbe diet. They steamed up heaping banana leaves full of yucca for each of us. All of these starchy roots share a taste and texture similar to potatoes and the people here eat loads of it. Adding a little more interest to the menu were steaming cups of cacao, the sugary crude chocolate drink made from the fermented and ground seeds from the fruit of the cacao tree. Even better on a hot day in the forest is cracking open a ripe cacao and sucking the sweet gooey pulp that surrounds the seeds inside.

I spent the week before Thanksgiving working with another volunteer over on the Carribean side of the Peninsula build a composting latrine on the gorgeous beach that´s pictured at the top of this post. The project was a good learning experience in many ways, full of challenges with the rainy November days, the need for improvising to overcome shortages of tools and materials, and just the unique task of mobilizing the local work force. Nonetheless, the latrine base is finished and ready for the privy or casita to be added above. I plan to do a lot of work with latrines, as there are almost none in my community, but I´ll save all that for another day.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Site visit

I´m just back in the capital after a week visiting Bahia Azul, the community that I´ll be calling home for the next two years and it was just great. All of the Environmental Health trainees from our group went to a town a few hours west of here to meet with our ¨counterparts,¨ or sponsors from our communities. After an evening and morning of sessions to get them aquainted with us and the ways Peace Corps a group of us headed out together across the country to the Bocas Del Toro region. The bus ride across the Cordillera Central always provides magnificent views which the guys from the communities seemed to enjoy as much as we did. At Chiriqui Grande my counterpart and I split from the rest of the group and caught a boat for the two hour ride out to Bahia Azul. As required by tradition I´d been given a Ngäbe nickname, so as we approaced and the men gathered at the dock hollered out to me, "Mä ka ño?" (What´s your name?), my response "Tolichi" brought huge smiles and echos of "Tolichi ! Tolichi !" Variations on this were repeated throughout the week as I went about the town meeting people and visiting their homes. Everyone in the community is Ngäbe, and they speak Ngäbere almost all the time among themselves, but nearly everyone seemed to easily switch to Spanish to talk to me or to include me in a conversation. Their was a meeting Sunday where I was formally presented to the community and so I gave the short speech in Ngäbere that I´d been practicing, and then talked for a while in Spanish about Peace Corps, my idea of my role in the community and some general ideas about water and sanitation projects. Everyone was very receptive and they have already have some ideas for what they want to accomplish, some that are definitely more realistic than others, but I´ll share more about all of that in a later post as I settle in and start the work of community analysis and "Proyecto Amistad."

Overall it was just a great week. The setting is really remarkably beautiful. Bahía Azul is a deep and narrow bay at the end of a long peninsula that juts out into the Carribean Sea. The steep hills rising from the crysalline waters of the bay are covered in dense and lush tropical forest. The community of sixty or so houses is built around a central community area that includes the school and ball field, a health center and the town´s one tiny store. The small wooden house I´ll be living in for the next few months is built on a dock extending out from the shore and is the home of a delightful couple who made me feel immediately at home. I shot a few photos from the kitchen windows one morning, including the one that shows the clever reuse of a section of an old canoe for the kitchen sink. Aside from visiting around the community I got involved in some group work days, and learned to tie penca, the palm leaf that is used to thatch roofs here. There is no electric power in town so when the sun goes down everything gets very tranquilo, lit only by kerosene lantern, and it was easy for me to turn in early and fall asleep to the sound of the waves lapping up on the shore literally under my room. I definitely felt like I could get use to living there.

Two weeks back in the training site to finish things up and then Swear-in, and the final move to site. More details to come.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Culture Week

I´ve been out in Bocas Del Toro for the past week with the ten other "aspirantes" who will be moving out to that area of Panama for their service. Team Bocas!

We stayed with local families in a little Ngäbe village on Isla San Cristobal for a week of language and cultural training. Really a very beautiful place and beautiful people. I loved it and found it to be very much the kind of place where a Peace Corps volunteer could feel welcomed and needed. Especially environmental health volunteers like my group specializing in potable water and sanitation. In the community of several hundred people there is one composting latrine. Aside from that there are some "servicios" perched over the bay or little creeks running through the community. There is a gravity fed aquaduct that brings water from the hills above, but many of the homes aren´t connected, so we bathed and got water from a pair of community "quebradas" where a pipe from a stream above the village emptied out into a little creek (see picture above). We treated the water with chlorine or iodine before drinking it in case you were concerned.

Also in pic´s above are a shot of a woman crushing some seeds to make a dye for the fiber they use to make woven bags, a small money-making artisanry endeavor. Another shot of local kids and a couple of my PC colleagues out on a hike.
We´re all heading on to another Ngäbe town up in the hills of central Panama this week for "Tech Week" to work on latrine and aquaduct projects. I think that the rest of training is going to fly by. ´We´re back in our home base at the end of next week, but then out to our own sites for a five day visit before swear-in on October 22. I´ll hope to be able to post another update sometime soon.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A man, a plan, a canal...Panama

I have to admit off the top that the title of this post is not original, or especially meaningful, but look at it for a bit and see if you can discover something neat about it. I´ll tell you at the end of the post.

Well I´m here. After a couple of days of sightseeing in Washington D.C., I met with the other 35 new trainees of Group 64 Panama, and we flew down here August 12th. We`re actually two sub groups, Community Economic Development and my group, Environmental Health. We had a few days of initial orientation, innoculation and adaptation in the capital, staying at a former U.S. military compound right beside the Miraflores locks at the Pacific entrance of the canal. I was awakened that first humid morning in Panama to the most outrageous squawking from the birds roosting in a palm tree outside our window, and was delighted when I got a good look at them flying off in the dawn´s early light and discovered they were a flock of brilliant green parrots. A great welcome to Panama.

We were all soon moved out to the small town of Santa Clara, an hour and a half west of the capital to our homes for the first few months during our training. A fairly stark contrast to the gleaming skyline of Panama City. I´ve been living with a nice local family and thoroughly enjoying the training regimen--basically four hours of language classes every day, followed by four hours of techical training. The latter has been largely in so-called "soft skills," learning the Peace Corps approach to development, which has everything to do with building capacity in a local community to conceive, plan, fund and follow through with projects with a volunteer acting more in the role of facilitator. It sounds pretty dull on paper, but has actually been excellent so far. We´ve also gotten to do some hands-on work with campo concrete projects and whacking away at the monte with our new machetes. As for the language training, I was placed in the advanced group after initial interviews, so we had Spanish classes for a couple of weeks and then started receiving instruction in the language of the Ngabe, the largest indigenous tribe in the country. This has proved to be a huge and humbling challenge. I´m coming to believe there´s something to that age/brain plasticity theory because I am definitely not able to catch on to this entirely new language with anywhere near the facility of my young classmates. Ngabere is a pre-columbian language that bears no relation to English or Spanish in terms of word roots, phonetics, syntax or anything at all that I can recognize. It is kind of cool though, and I think with patience and persistence, I´ll eventually get it. I´m pretty inspired to learn it too, as I just found out this week that I´m being sent to a Ngabe village for the next two years. Most of the people in the area do speak Spanish as a second language though, so I´m not sweating that aspect.
So my assignment is to a village of around 800 called Bahia Azul on the Kusapin peninsula. It´s a site accessible only by sea from the town of Chiriqui Grande, which you might find on a map of Panama. It´s in the Bocas del Toro area of northwest Panama. I was out there a couple of weeks ago visiting a volunteer who lives an hour´s boat ride up the Chaminola river, and it is indeed a beautiful area and a facinating culture from what I´ve seen. I hear nothing but rave reviews of the peninsula itself, so I´m just completely stoked. There are two other volunteers elsewhere on the peninsula, maybe one to two hours away by canoe. I´ve heard you can get a nice locally made dugout model for around $40. And, by the way, I hear there´s good surfing potential on the Carribean side of the Peninsula.

I´m off tomorrow for the Bocas area for a week of more specialized cultural training, followed by another week in western Panama for tech week training, building composting latrines and the like. Should be great.

The pictures above are the Panama City skyline and the mouth of the Chaminola river--definitely a tale of two countries. Also a shot of a Ngobe friend out west, and yours truly at the site announcement event from the other day pointing to my picture pasted onto the map at the site of my future home. Can you tell I´m feeling good?

And by the way, since you´ve read to the end, the title of this post is a palindrome.

Monday, July 13, 2009

"Life is Calling...

Apologies for being probably the umpteenth person to use that line as the title of their first blog post, but I've just always liked that Peace Corps ad campaign. In those lines, someone captured well the sense of yearning that we probably all feel, at least from time to time, for a really big and challenging adventure. More often than not though someone else rings in, so we put that call on hold until Life gets tired of holding and hangs up. But here's a hopeful note, even if you're a procrastinator like me and you keep putting off getting back to that call, Life may still be holding. Who'd have thought?
Starting in the 1970's I watched with considerable envy as my best high school pal, then my brother, then my sister, and then even my son accepted the Peace Corps invitation to serve, packed their bags and flew off to wonderful far away lands. I didn't have that much trouble convincing myself that I was having my own brand of adventures and making my own unique contribution to this or to that, or maybe even that my own time was still coming. I'm not sure how much I really believed it, but you know, it really does look like it's going to happen. In a few short weeks my turn will be here--flying off to Panama to begin a two year stint as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
My plan is to use this blog to tell you all about it, and I promise not to use corny metaphors like this every time. But I needed to post something so I could experiment with the formatting and stuff, so it was between this and a reproduction of my complete packing list.
Wish me luck!
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