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.
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