Wednesday, January 16, 2013

"Ñu gide" - Rain is Coming

That phrase in Ngäbere is one of the first I learned to say when I arrived here, and one I´ve had plenty of practice saying ever since, especially every November. It's Thanksgiving day, the fourth Thanksgiving I´ve spent here in Panama, and it´s raining. It’s been raining everyday. So far this month I've collected 22 inches in my olive jar rain gauge. But at the moment I'm still thankful for the rain. It gives me permission to hole up inside this morning and savor another cup of coffee and to savor the whole comfort zone that my house has become -- sitting in the hammock listening to the steady purr of raindrops landing on the thatched roof overhead.  There's no hurry to get moving. 

  But then again it might not let up for a while. Sometimes lately it rains pretty much all day.  Before long I´ll hear neighbor kids sloshing past my porch, sent down to the tienda to buy sugar for the morning coffee, or on their way up the hill to get medicine from Mario, the curandero who is up there every morning brewing up the  infusions of forest plants that everyone here relies on to cure their ails.

 Eventually we'll all head out and get about our business in spite of the rain. Even though it´s November, the month they call “winter,”  the rain is almost always warm. So we'll go out.  Occasionally someone has an umbrella, but mostly, you just go out and let the rain soak you through. Then you can relax. You're not going to get any more wet.

  I’m back in site for Thanksgiving after the long trip over to Panama City. I had to go in to officially close out my Peace Corps Service. But then I came back to Bahia Azul. I was in no particular hurry to leave this place. I have some work to finish on the latrine project and I wanted  a little more time out here with mi gente, my people, to finish up on my own time. To bring things to closure.  To relax.

  But that may have been wishful thinking. The relax part at least. An extra month to tie up loose ends sounds like a long time, but I know better.  Rain or shine, things just don’t get done that fast out here. That’s been a theme of my whole third year and especially of our composting latrine project. Things just don’t get done that fast.

  We started work way back at the end of last year.  The latrine committee had decided that before we did anything else we would secure all the lumber everyone would need to build the privacy shelter, the casita for their latrine. That meant felling several trees out in the surrounding hills and handmilling all the boards with a chainsaw.

  But since the available trees are always a good distance away and invariably at the bottom of very steep hills, getting all the lumber back to town is always the hard part.

The still wet boards are incredibly heavy compared to the kiln dried lumber you’re used to, and loading them up on your shoulder and lugging them up and out over the steep and muddy trails is some of the hardest of the hard labor there is out here.

Each family was responsible for sending workers to carry their lumber home, often a few boards at a time and despite my nagging, the process dragged on for months.
 It probably would have been different if the project was paying people to haul the lumber. Workers can usually get ten cents a board foot for this backbreaking work, but hauling the lumber for their own latrine was part of the each household’s committment to the project, their mano de obra.  And everyone was enthusiastic about offering up their labor, at least at the meetings.

  When we were rebuilding the aqueduct on the other hand, a project paid for with U.N. funds, the project paid people to work. The work was no less backbreaking. These women were carrying rock to make concrete for the new dam, seventy-five pounds worth in each chakra load. They started going straight up this incline
... and then kept climbing and scrambling until they finally reached the headwaters of the quebrada that supplies our water. They were only paid a dollar a load but there were plenty of sturdy women who were happy to have the work. Really impressive.
For the latrine project we needed gravel and sand too, so we went to gather it on beaches just outside the bay.

We paid the landowners fifty cents a sackful, and paid a boat owner for his gas and time, and we provided the labor for the digging up and hauling the material.
  It was hard work, but I was always celebrating the fact that we were getting it done, and just enjoying being in such an amazing place doing this work with these great guys.

  Bringing cement block in by boat from the nearest port was so expensive that we decided we would make make blocks ourselves. I traveled back across Panama to find a manually operated block press.  Our plan was to organize a block making crew that would crank out all the block in short order, and use their labor to pay for the block press which would then be their's to keep at the end of the project. As usual, it sounded much easier in the meetings. It took a lot of gumption to survive the learning curve and overcome the challenges of setting up our little blockmaking operation, but we did it. Now the guys are just waiting for another break in the weather to finish up with the last of the blocks, thanks to the persistence of crew leader Adolfo and to my neighboring Peace Corps volunteer, Mike, who’ll be building the last latrine with a family in his nearby community. Mike makes a cameo appearance as the attentive apprentice in this video clip while Adolfo explains the basic process of making blocks:

  With most of the materials finally in place, the process of actually building the latrines has kept me going for the last few months. Each family is responsible for providing the workers for their latrine, and when we have three or four guys working, its great.  But it all depends. Sometimes it’s been just me and a muchacho from the family, and we have to work around his school schedule. Then things really don't get done that fast.
  The construction process is to pour a two-inch thick concrete base slab and then lay up block to form the two separate vaults where all the composting takes place. We leave trap door openings in the vaults so that every year you can remove the compost from one side for use as fertilizer.

A form is built and we pour a suspended slab on top of the block walls to make the floor of the latrine and finally the wooden casita is built on top of it all.

  Of course there are a ton of important details, and it seems like each one has taken a lot of problem solving and improvising. Like the drainage for the urinal and bidet. All the liquids have to be piped away from the compost vaults and out into the ground. In drier areas you can just run the drain into a soakpit, a hole filled with rocks, and the liquids will soak away. But out here if you dig into the sticky clay soil you’ll hit water within eighteen inches. Regular soak pits quickly clog up. At this family's latrine we tried a shallower gravel filled trench with a perforated drain made from old aqueduct pipe and we covered it with our version of geotextile, salvaged rice bags.

  I've been making latrine seats and bidets up here in my front porch workshop all year, tinkering with designs and ferrocement techniques. It has been no end of fun for me. I've started a detailed “How to” post, but here are a few shots to give  you the idea.

We wanted to provide the water for the bidet and for washing up in the latrines, so we’ve been installing little twenty gallon ferrocement tanks to collect rainwater from the roof. I trained my good friend Wachi to build the tanks, which has given him a chance to earn a little cash and learn a skill that maybe he can put to use after I’m gone.

  And it's knowing just how soon I will be gone that brings the volunteer’s mantra of “sustainability” into very sharp focus -- Are these ideas I’m promoting and this stuff we’re building really going to last after I leave? When something stops working, will people know how to fix it? With that in mind we've used locally salvaged and homemade parts whenever we can.  It would be easy enough for me to pick up store-bought hardware while I’m in town, but later, when someone needs to replace something it will cost them eighteen dollars just for the boat ride in to town and back. And aside from the practicality, I just value the simplicity and ecology of working that way. So you need to somehow fabricate something to address a basic need?  Well, it shouldn't be too difficult. You've got a sharp machete, a limitless supply of natural raw material plus plenty of man-made junk to work with. That and the time and ingenuity to dream up stuff. It’s an approach Ngäbes can relate to. It's how they make it out here. 

They patch their boats, the boats they rely on for their livelihood, with plastic bags, and when the holes get bigger they use patches cut from plastic buckets.

They make sails from old rice bags
  And when a boat is finally declared non seaworthy, it can always be dragged up to the house and re-purposed as a kitchen sink.
And I'm not exaggerating about the sharp machete. People here are masters of the machete. Like this guy making a cross cut right along the pencil mark on this board. Watch at the end when he goes back and shaves off the quarter inch or so where he had started the cut. Swinging a machete with that kind of accuracy, again, impressive.

  Well, I didn't start out writing this as my final blog entry but with time flying it looks like it’s turning out to be just that. I've already handed in my Description of Service, the official Peace Corps document that lists everything I've done during my three years as a volunteer here in Panama.  As for deeper reflections and thoughtful summation of what it’s all meant,  I guess that will have to wait. Maybe if I'd spent more time pondering it as I was going along but I haven't.  I've been busy. Didn't you read all that stuff about how tough it is getting stuff done?  One thing I do know is that three years ago I got the chance of a lifetime, the chance to invent an entirely new chapter of my life from start to finish, to wake up every morning in a world that I really couldn't have imagined before coming here. I moved in to a thatched roof hut. The people gave me fish and boiled bananas to eat. They gave me a new name. I became Tolichi. And it was all legit. I was on a mission, doing important and challenging work with the full faith and backing of the U.S. government. I grabbed at the chance. I went through training feeling like I’d won the lottery.  When it was time for our swear-in ceremony at the U.S. Ambassador’s house, and we raised our right hands to take that same pledge our congressmen take, to defend the constitution and so forth, and to do it, “....without any mental reservation,” well, I was all in. I didn't want to squander even a minute looking back, or forward either.  Total immersion. I've joked with other volunteers that when I finally go home and stop taking the anti-malaria meds, that maybe I'll wake up and realize it was all a phantasmagorical dream state induced by the chloroquine. Be that as it may, and no matter what other conclusions I might eventually come to about myself, these people, and my time here, I know I wouldn't trade a minute of it for anything. I'm glad you could follow along.
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