Friday, March 4, 2016

Tanks and Phrases

 The phrase “Thank you” can't be translated into Ngäbere. The words simply don't exist in the language. It's a cultural-linguistic quirk that  volunteers in the indigenous Comarca often ponder as we go about our Peace Corps service. The Ngäbe people certainly understand, and are often heard to use the Spanish gracias, even if it can sometimes seem a little forced. But in the end, it really doesn't matter much. In those moments when Peace Corps service is really going right, you're just grateful for all of it—the good, the bad, and even the impolite.  
  I've had plenty of those moments during this past year back in Panama. I'm feeling it right now, flush with the successful completion of a water project over in the coastal village of Cayo Paloma. I've been traveling over to that side of the peninsula all year to work with the local water committee on improvements to their aqueduct. Just the trip over there makes for the kind of day when I find myself uttering out loud my thanks to John F. Kennedy for ever coming up with the idea of a Peace Corps.
  The commute never gets old. It's a forty minute paddle from my home in Bahia Azul down to the far end of the bay, and from there it's another hour and a half hiking, first along the swampy forest trail that connects people to the fincas where they grow their food...
... and then out on to the spectacular beach that they share only with a few seemingly indifferent cows.
  The people in Cayo Paloma always seem glad to see me. They have an aging, gravity-flow aqueduct that pipes water down from a spring in the hills above their town, but they've been suffering water shortages for a couple of years now, ever since their leaky water tank deteriorated beyond repair and had to be abandoned.
  So when the community came together around the idea of building a new tank I was excited, though not without misgivings when I thought about the myriad challenges of launching a big project in the waning months of my Peace Corps stint, especially so far from my home base. But something told me we ought to go for it, and I'm so glad we did. I couldn't be happier with how things turned out.

  We secured funding thanks to Waterlines, an NGO that has generously sponsored many potable water projects here in Panama and around the world. A big dugout cayuco was arranged to make the thirty mile trip in to the port town of Chiriqui Grande to buy cement and other materials.

   The community organized work days to demolish the old cement block tank and to start gathering and hauling the hundred sacks of sand we would use to make the mortar for the new ferrocement tank.
  Peligro, the local water committee president, proved a good organizer of his work force and I was fortunate enough to team up again with my fellow volunteer and good friend Eta, who brought not only his know-how and masonry skills to the project, but just as importantly, his never-failing ebullience and gift for keeping the the work crew animated.
Peligro and Eta
  New nick names were assigned all around, teasing jokes were told and retold and the sounds of bawdy improvised songs and laughter filled the air all through the two weeks it took to get the tank built.
  Every morning ladies served up fry bread and sweet coffee at the casa comunal  as the work crew of anywhere from eight to eighteen men and youths would turn up, brimming with smiles and ready to work.
  I'm planning to post more of the construction details for volunteers who are planning similar tanks, but for now I'll just share a few pictures that give an overview of this 3,500 gallon ferrocement tank. We started with a steel armature made by standing up a cylinder of weld mesh about six and half feet tall and nine feet across, right on the foundation of the old tank.
 We wrapped the weld mesh cylinder with two layers of chicken wire and then wrapped it all with a tight spiral of 16 gauge wire.
  With this armature ready, plastic tarps were draped around the outside and wrapped on tightly with a spiral of twine.
  The tarp made a firm backing for us to go inside and apply two coats of a rich (2:1) sand-cement mortar.
  The tarps were then removed and two more coats of mortar were plastered on from the outside, bringing the wall to its full thickness of about two inches.
  With the walls finished, we poured the floor and then created the domed roof framework using quarter inch rebar in a spider web pattern of spokes and hoops.
  Layers of chicken wire were stretched over the top
...and triangular panels of quarter inch hardware cloth  tied on to the bottom of the roof frame.
That made it possible to plaster the roof without needing to build any sort of decking underneath.
  We added a telescoped access hatch and built a permanent ladder inside the tank to make future maintenance siimple.
  With the plastering finished, we left the tank to cure under plastic for a few weeks, with Peligro going up to check on things and splash water on it every day or so.
We returned to connect the plumbing to the pipeline, make a few refining plaster touches and a final cleaning before filling the tank and sending the first tankful of water down through the pipeline to the community. The pressure was tremendous—enough to reveal some weak links in the pipes down in town, but all that didn't dampen anyone's enthusiasm. The leaking pipes were patched and a gathering was convened for the official inauguración of the new tank.
Coconut was grated for preparing the delicious stewed fish rondón, along with a big pot of a favorite tuber, tödogwö.
  Eta and I each gave a little speech, congratulating everyone on their efforts and encouraging them to carry on in the same spirit to keep the system working. Then the floor was opened and one by one people stood up to express their pride and satisfaction with the project, and their gratitude. The warm offerings of “gracias” were amplified and multiplied to “mil gracias,” -- a thousand thank yous -- and for me at least, there there was no doubt at all that the words were heartfelt.
  The walk toward home that day was definitely another one of those moments.

Thanks again JFK.



  1. Congratulations, Lou! Another success story to inspire others and, we hope, a deep sense of satisfaction for you. We are proud of you, bro! Love, A&H

  2. Lou, I absolutely love reading your blog updates & learning about your creativity in the design & construction phases of your projects. Despite all of the effort you've gone through to get to & from your work site and overcoming the limited availability of tools & supplies, I can understand why you are thankful to JFK for coming up with the the Peace Corps concept. What a great sense of accomplishment you must have. You've made a significant and important difference to the communities you've helped. Congrats! I'm hoping we have an opportunity to get together later this year.

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  4. Tolichi, what a beautifully crafted blog post. The enthusiasm and hard work of Cayo Paloma was certainly complemented by your ingenuity and skills as a leader. The communities throughout the peninsula and the pcvs across Panama have benefited tremendously from your presence over the last 7 years. I attribute much of the success of the water project in Playa Balsa to having you there throughout the planning and construction phase. I'm so excited to see the large ferrocement tank become a reality and can't wait to see it in person next week. Thank you for all the ideas and kindness you brought to the peninsula and peace corps throughout the years.


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