Saturday, November 27, 2010

A Year in Site -- Vacation Time

I'm off tomorrow to Guadalajara, Mexico for a little vacation and a long awaited reunion with family, the main event being my son Kelly's med school graduation from UAG. More on that in a follow up post, but I wanted to get something up before leaving. I realize I´ve been a very poor correspondent lately, but it hasn't been for lack of things to tell about. The truth is I´ve been staying plenty busy out in my community, and it seems when I do get back to the city where I have computer access there is never enough time to get even the essential chores done before I´m hopping back on a boat for the ride back out to the peninsula and home. But the good news for me is that it does feel like going home, and I´m always happy to leave the relative bustle of the regional capital and get back to Bahia Azul.

So what have I been up to for the last four months?

Well, more than any other one thing I´ve been working on the somewhat dilapidated aqueduct that provides water to our community. We´re gradually correcting the problems that have plagued the system for years and left the community without a reliable supply of water. I love the work, as it involves tromping around through the upper reaches of the community and beyond, figuring out what's gone wrong and then figuring out how to fix it, and training my local counterparts in the process. Sometimes it means pushing off before down in my canoe and paddling down the shoreline of the bay and up a little quebrada that flows out through the mangroves. From there it's a short steep hike up the hill where our water tank sits. We measure the flow of water coming into the tank using just a watch and a five gallon bucket, ...and given the ample flow and the early hour, we should find the tank full of water stored up overnight when no one is using water. But, did I mention our system is somewhat dilapidated?
That's the outlet tube that the water is barely covering, which means that all of the water that flowed into the tank overnight flowed right back out through the lines and presumably out through undetected leaks in the mile or so of PVC pipe that runs down in to town.
And of course, the search for leaks is anything but straightforward. It will mean machete-hacking through some pretty gnarly terrain, including the "swampo" where the tube is submerged in water and muck protected by chest high expanses of razor sharp marsh grasses. But as I head back home I'm happy. I mean, my job description includes hacking through the monte with a machete and I paddled to work through the mangroves in a dugout canoe for crying out loud. Of course I'm happy. And as I mentioned, we've been making progress lately so we've had water flowing pretty consistently. That's left me with more time for other aspects of the environmental health project. We formed a water committee to manage the aqueduct after I arrived last year but they still have a long way to go. Basic things like collecting the monthly bills (50 cents per faucet), and keeping payment records and a basic set of books are new concepts and have been a challenge to get established. We've been having some meetings on my front porch, which has helped with attendance, especially if I promise popcorn for refreshments afterwards.

In September I worked with four other volunteers to put on a three day seminar for water committee members from a half dozen Ngabe communities out in this region. We covered a whole range of issues, from holding elections to thermoforming PVC to repair leaking tubes. It was ambitious but it went really well, and I'll probably be joining other volunteers around Panana putting on the seminar for their communities.
In October the U.S.S.. Iwo Jima, a hospital ship with an international crew of doctors and nurses pulled in to the port at Chiriqui Grande and set up a week long clinic in the local school, offering free exams and treatment to people from the surrounding villages. Unfortunately no one from Bahia Azul was able to come up with the sixteen dollars for the round trip boat ride. I went in for a few days and worked as a translator with an eye surgeon. A great experience really. The dedication and professionalism of the medical personnel as well as the soldiers and sailors of the crew really impressed me, and in a really corny way made be proud of my country.
There's more going on in site that I'll plan on posting more about when I get the chance. I'm working with the water committee on a series of charlas on potable water in the household that includes showing people a simple hand washing station they can put up at their house. Neat.
Other fun stuff, the big Independence festivities in November

...with bands marching and big community-wide feasts..
And women putting on their traditional naguas for a family portrait
and lots more, but I'll save that for later. Love to all from Panama.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Bro' Hike

When I was back home daydreaming about being a Peace Corps volunteer my thoughts tended toward exotic cultural experiences, a new world, new language, new people, new everything. And there has certainly been plenty of that. But what never occurred to me was the friendships I would develop with fellow volunteers from the good old U.S.A., and the tremendous importance these new frienships would have in keeping us all going.
With that in mind, this is just a short photo-post of a great little vacation I took with five of my best buddies in Peace Corps,Derek, Austin, Dan & Dan, Jon and yours truly.

We started from Austin´s house, a two hour boat ride up the River Manante in the village Calante, and followed a rough cut track west towards the nearest paved road. Everyone was a little vague about how far it was and how long it might take, but we were in no hurry. This was the kind of thing we came here for.The road took us through beautiful backcountry of the Comarca Ngäbe-Bugle, the semi-autonomous region of western Panama. After a long first day of hiking we were lucky enough to stumble onto a half-finished house that provided shelter for a rainy night, and enough rest for us to hike on the next day to the first village where we could catch a chiva, a pickup truck rigged out for passengers, and ride the rest of the way out to the highway.I just have a few minutes to get this posted before catching the boat for home, so I´ll leave it at that. But if you´d like to read a little more, you can check out Austin´s blog,

for posts on the hike and Peace Corps life with the Ngäbes in general. His blog is full of spot-on insights and wry humor. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Water Works 2

I took this picture of these happy little kids who had been watching us repair the pipes in their baño, the little bathing area beside their house. Obviously, you won't be seeing this kind of style in those Modern Kitchen and Bath books at the home center, but they're basically functional, and about on par with the fit and finish of the rest of the house. People back home are always curious about what kind of work I´m doing, so I'm posting a few photos of one rather fun aspect of my work on the community´s aqueduct, thermoforming.
Our drinking water comes from this little dam on a stream up in the hills above town.
The water comes down to the houses strictly by gravity flow through a line of two inch PVC pipe. The tubes are old and a lot of them were never buried as they should have been to protect them, so on a regular basis everyone´s faucets go dry. That's usually because a cow has stepped on a pipe and broken it, or sometimes an old pipe joint has just come unglued or was never glued in the first place. Whatever it is, once we hike (or maybe paddle) up and find the problem, we have to cut out a damaged section of pipe and glue a new section in its place. You would think the only way to do that would be to buy two unions and glue the new pipe in between them, but that would require having a plumbing supply store accessible, and cash to buy parts, neither of which is the case here. The campo alternative is thermaforming. You can do a crude version of that by just holding the end of a piece of pipe over a fire until it gets soft enough to slip it over the end of another pipe to form a bell. These traditional fire-formed bells usually don´t fit very well, so they tend to leak or come completely apart eventually.
During training we learned an improved thermaforming method from a volunteer who had worked on water wells in Ghana. This guy is a magician with PVC, cutting and melting and reforming pipe to fabricate things like this check valve for a homemade water pump. I´ve been teaching aqueduct operators in my area some basic thermaforming to make pipe unions. We heat up a can of cooking oil to around 375 degrees on a stove or fire, and dunk the pipe in the oil to soften it up before using a special homemade mold to form the bells on the ends of the pipe. The resulting empate looks and works like something straight from the factory.
We´ve been using another technique to make flow reducers for the half-inch lines that go to individual homes. You start with a short section of pipe and make a cut lengthwise from top to bottom with a hacksaw. When you hold this split piece of pipe in a can of hot oil for a minute or so it gets soft enough for you to unroll it and press it flat between two boards. When it cools down and gets hard again you have a nice flat sheet of PVC plastic.
You can use a hole saw chucked into a hand drill to cut out holes... ...and end up with little discs that have a hole in the center.
If you've cut these little discs the right size, they'll fit snugly up against the shoulder of the fitting so that when you glue the next piece of pipe into it the disc is locked into place and serves to reduce the flow to a faucet. Reducing flow might sound counterproductive since the whole idea is to get water to people, but given the topography of our area we tend to wind up with homes in one part of the system that have high pressure and gush loads of water, while people on other sections of the pipeline (like my house) open their taps and just hear the sound of air sucking into the pipes. So we've been strategically installing these flow reducers on different branches of the aqueduct to assure that more people get a share of the water. And the result of water reaching more houses? Well, more happy kids obviously.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

My Own Place

It´s hard for me to believe, but I´ve been living in Bahia Azul for over seven months now. Since my arrival I had lived with Celia and Ricardo, as nice a host family as I could ever hope for. My room at their house was tiny, just seven feet square, but then again, it was my own room, with a plank bed and a door that shut, so it was a lot better situation than some volunteers had with host families where they slept on the floor in the middle of the house. Those guys have all long sinced moved out into their own houses, while I´ve been slowly getting around to rehabbing the old house that an earlier Peace Corps volunteer lived in here four years ago. It took a few months to get the old guy who was kind of squatting there part time to move his stuff out so I could start clearing out the termite nests and start in on the rehab work. The termites had destroyed some of the penca, the palm leaf used to thatch the roof, and I decided to build a front porch addition and also to add a little five by six foot baño addition off the back, so, what is usually a three month stay with a host family stretched to a full six months.Fixing the roof involved taking a boat up a nearby river through the mangroves to cut the huge penca leaves and haul them back to town, splitting each one into two halves, and then, with the help of some hardworking friends, tying it onto the new roof frame.
Working on the house has been fun for me. It is challenging trying to get things done without access to the tools and materials I´m used to working with. If you need some 2 x 4´s there´s no where to go and buy them. You have to contract with a woodcutter who goes out into the forest and cuts down a tree and saws it into boards. Then you have to haul that still-wet and thus incredibly heavy lumber back along steep and muddy trails to your house. Then you struggle to saw every piece to length with your ever-more-dull hand saw. You get the idea. But still fun. And I learned a lot about how the Ngäbe people work. I got a lot of help from friends and neighbors who joined in on a junta, working for hours together, tying penca for example, expecting nothing in return except for a nice meal, and the comraderie of the day´s work.

So now I´m moved in, and can for the first time since coming to Panama I´m enjoying the simple pleasures of having my own space. I can get up in the morning and make a cup of REAL coffee (as opposed to the vaguely coffee flavored sugar water Ngäbes drink), and enjoy it while listening to a little news in English on the BBC. It's not a bad little place, only ten foot square plus the porch and baño, but that's plenty of room as long as I stay organized.

I rigged up a very functional kitchen "zinc"

and various little shelves and nooks to hold stash my supplies,

a nice open-air bathroom for all the necessities, although water only arrives sporadically,

and a nice comfy bed to crawl into at the end of the day. The mosquito net is key to a good night's sleep, keeping out the variety of bugs and bats that come out at night, as well as shielding me from the light sprinkling of debris that is always falling down out of the penca.

The front porch has become a popular gathering spot and people are constantly stopping by to pasear, which translates as dropping in uninvited. As the host, I'm expected to pretty much drop whatever I might have been doing and sit down and visit a while, and probably come up with something to eat and drink or risk looking like a clod. Having visitors is often the last thing I want, especially when I've just gotten in from working for hours on the aqueduct, or some other project, but I try to go with the flow. Ngabes don't really value "alone time." They live in family groups of upwards of ten people in houses only a little bigger than mine, so they never have any time by themselves, and they can't really imagine why I would want to be in my house all by myself, even for a little while.

So we visit. I pull out books or newspapers to share (National Geographic en Español is a favorite) and make some coffee koolaid, or bring out some bread or raisins, or for a special treat, I'll make popcorn, and share my porch and my life with them. And that is one of the goals of Peace Corps that I signed on for, so I'll stop complaining now.

Friday, April 2, 2010

A birthday present

Well, it wasn´t actually a present, and I got to start using it the week before my birthday, but I´m now the proud owner of my very own dugout canoe, and I´m as tickled as can be about that. You may have noticed that entries in this blog never include photos of cars, trucks, busses, etc. None of those things exist out on the peninsula. The only mode of transport other than hoofing it through the monte is to take a boat. And the boats come in all sizes, up to the occasional yacht that sails into the bay. But by far the most common is the hand hewn dugout.

Kids grow up in these things and it´s not unusual to see kids who back in the states wouldn´t be allowed to walk past the pool unsupervised to be out paddling their baby sister around the bay or up some little quebrada.

I knew from the day I arrived that I´d want to splurge and get my own ride, so when a friend told me a couple of months ago that he was going to cut down a tree in his finca, and that he could make a boat for me, I enthusiastically placed my order. Within a day, the tree was chain sawed down and a fourteen foot section of trunk was cut and rolled in to position and the rough shape started to emerge. The bulk of the work was done by our neighbor Deciderio, an absolute maestro with an axe. He used a flexible palm stalk to pencil the contours onto the log, and then he let loose with his axe--mighty overhead swings that fell exactly along the line like a sculptor´s chisel. Once the interior had been hollowed out, a razor sharp adze was used to shave it smooth. We flipped the log over and more chips flew as the hull took shape. After two long days the first stage work was done and the boat was ready to be hauled the half a mile out of the woods and down to the shore, where the final shaping would be done. We organized a junta for that formidable chore, which meant inviting about ten very stout men to come out, cut and nail some stout branches across the gunwales, and "jalar" that sucker up and out of the forest--a daunting task, since the boat still weighed a ton and was sitting at the bottom of a very steep ravine, but these guys really do excel at the seemingly impossible. So with all hands on board, and much chanting , cheering and goading in Ngäbere, we inched the hulk up the hill, along a ridge and then slid it down to the shore beside my house.
From there a couple of more days to refinar with axe and adze, and it was done. But not ready to sail away yet. Deciderio sank the boat in the waist deep water under the house for a few days--don´t ask me why--and then we dragged it up onto the shore for several weeks of drying before it was considered seaworthy.
So finally last week my bote was ready to go. I loaded up a bucket of tools and made the forty minute paddle across the bay to another little Ngäbe community for a couple of days work with a fellow volunteer building a spring box, a concrete enclosure to collect and protect the springwater source of the community´s small aquaduct. The construction went unusually well and when I was ready to head home the next day I didn´t have to hang around the dock waiting for someone I could beg a ride from to come along. The bay was calm and mirror smooth, reflecting the sunset for the leisurely paddle back across the bay--a good day to be a volunteer.
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