Some mythical beliefs I have run across:

Latino beliefs

Last December at Christmas time, I was talking with a woman about the holiday.  Somehow the subject of Santa Claus came up.  She said she was sure that there was not one now but was not sure if there was one in the past.  She was talking about a Santa Claus that went to each home on Christmas eve delivering gifts, not about a historical St Nicholas, for example (see

Several times this year the subject of ‘La Bruja” has come up. La Bruja means the witch (feminine).  The version I heard says that the Bruja hides at night and jumps upon unwary passers-by in desolate areas.  She reserves special mistreatment for those who doubt her existence.

Also see;

Ngäbe beliefs I have collected. Ngäbes are an indigenous people who live in reserved areas called Comarcas, which are somewhat and only somewhat independent.

1) as related by a young Ngäbe woman in Santa Clara, Chiriqui in July, 2010

  • A woman liked to drink blood during the full moon. She would go to a funeral to mourn but it was just to get near the body and at night she would drink the blood. Her activity was eventually uncovered and she was killed. The diviner told them to bury her face down or she would comeback. They failed to do so and she came back at the full moon, upon which they saw the shape of a donkey. She took the donkey form and then ate some people. But the diviner took the form of a tiger and killed her, cutting her into pieces for the animals to eat so she could not return.
  • If someone dies under mysterious circumstances it can be blamed on people who badmouth others.
  • If a baby is ill they think a spirit is tormenting it. They come together and pray to get rid of the bad spirit.
  • A baby was ill. An uncle went for medicine and while he was walking he saw a naked person and a dog which began to run towards towards the naked person. He closed his eyes and when he opened them again the naked person had disappeared. Rocks began to fall on the uncle but he continued on. A voice said, “ Go no farther, the baby is already dead.” He went on anyway to buy the medicine but he had no money and could not make the purchase. He went back home and the baby had died when the voice spoke to him. 2) as related to me by a volunteer who has lived with the Gnäbes for two years.
  • Myth of the headlamp: When they were still nomadic, people with lights coming out of their heads came and ate some Gnäbes. The Gnäbes went to the forest to find a protective herb, put it in a bottle, and the next time the people with lights came the Gnäbes were protected.

  • If you keep candles lit the ‘maleantes’ (bad guys) can not bother you. If the candles go out, the maleantes will come.

  • If the theory of evolution were true, then monkeys would be becoming humans, said one in response to an explanation of evolution.

  • Evil eye stories (ojear is the verb for ‘to give the evil eye’)

    • B was supposedly the victim of an evil eye because some woman wanted him.

    • A previous volunteer in the community was also the victim, which caused her knee problems.

    • E related the story of a boy who was walking to his family’s secondary dwelling. He complained of being tired and returned home. That night his sister woke up to find her brother standing in his bed with his head on backwards. He was dead the next morning.

    • Twins have the power of the evil eye and they know it. One of them is always good and the other always bad. In T’s community one of them, was only fed chocolate beginning soon after birth. The parents had determined which of the twins would be evil and had deliberately caused his death.

    • In E’s community the village matriarch died suddenly. E returned from an outing and found the village deserted. He eventually found them living in the rough, fearing her spirit would harm them. They had gathered some belongings and a piece of metal roofing, using it or just trees for shelter from the rain.

The Hometown Fair

In March, while visiting one of the local’s coffee finca, Peg stumbled across some old hand tools. They were no longer a part of the routine of local farmers but very much a part of their history. The moisture that fills every breeze had deteriorated the wooden and iron rudimentary implements and not one local person was impressed by their existence.  Peg, however,  saw an opportunity to turn a piece of local history into an instrument for community building.

Five months later, for one very busy weekend, our sleepy little hamlet more than doubled in size as more than 750 people came to experience what began as an idea to  exhibit old farm tools that grew into two days of entertainment, sharing of traditional foods, handicrafts, music, in what everyone now says will be an annual event. Peg’s little idea, big vision, and even bigger commitment helped community members to learn valuable organizational, planning, marketing, and task management skills and to ultimately experience the joy of working together to accomplish a goal. And they did so with great success.

Both the mayor and the local representative made in-kind and cash contributions to the effort. Community members contributed their time and talent as they divvied up the responsibilities through numerous committees: publicity, stands, sports, entertainment, logistics and others.  They did a fabulous job!

Along with the intriguing displays of farm equipment from days gone by, there was ongoing entertainment. University students impressively performed some complex Panamanian folkloric dances while donning exquisitely designed dresses and a couple danced the Congo.   The school organized an elegant competition for Queen, in which the most talented teenagers danced across the stage to live music.  On Sunday, Peg and I demonstrated some international folk dances, including one from the United States called 12th Street Rag, which was created by black Americans in New Orleans as a take-off on a staid Scottish dance.  A group of local teens demonstrated their martial arts prowess through combat demonstrations and by breaking some pieces of lumber with their well practiced kicks.  There were soccer and volleyball competitions and a marathon, the winners of which walked away proudly with handsome trophies. There was even an exhibition of some very striking quarter horses.

Local agriculture and environmental groups had booths, as did some national government agencies.  MIDA (a government agency that supports farmers), after I gave them some technical assistance, was able to share their slide show.  The local town councilmen showed a video of the village displaying its attractive scenery and agricultural products, some of which are distributed across the country.  APRE, a producers association with nearly 100 members, shared some of the products of the region. ADATA (whom I helped with their website, see,), Fundiccep and Giropila, local environmental groups, also attended, selling promotional items and providing education materials.

So what exactly do Peace Corps volunteers do? We support the local people as they discover that they are capable of doing great things. Peg injected them with some organizing tools and task management skills and was a continuous source of motivation and encouragement with just a slight assist from me with technical support, booth wiring, and trash management. I obtained a donation of trash barrels, arranged for their transport, sawed them in half since they were way too big, bought plastic bags for them and for vendors.  In an amazing display of energy the locals made sure everything was cleaned up.  As a result the fairground was a appropriate backdrop for the clever booths and huts the locals constructed for the occasion.

This fair brought enthusiasm and a sense of community to our village, some earnings for worthwhile local charities, and the community learned many valuable lessons. They learned that they are capable of working together to create something that benefits them all. They learned that trash is something that must be planned for and managed if they want to protect their quality of life. And they learned some very practical and replicable organizational skills that will last them for a lifetime.

They are already using their new skills to evaluate the event and begin planning for next year.  While I was recuperating from minor surgery Peg took the 10 hour bus ride back home to attend the first post-event meeting.

This group is going to hold the fair next year.  Peg had them write their suggestions and concerns on sticky notes, and she organized the notes into a SWOT  (Strength, Weakness, Opportunities, Threats) analysis.   This is one of the PC’s methods for strengthening organizational skills.  As a result they have the sound beginnings of an organizational plan as they start to build upon their threats, look for new opportunities, deal with their weaknesses and form strategies to deal with threats.

Thanks to Anita for her contribution to this story.

Training in ag business

In July I brought two people to a seminar that Peace Corps has been offering for the past several years in Agricultural Business.  This program deals with basic business aspects of farming:   SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities, and Threats), general planning (vision and missions statements, goals, objectives) which is one of the parts I did, Setting up a corporation, personal finance, marketing, farm layout, loans (I did this part), insurance (I helped with this part),  and more.  This seminar took place near Penonome, the small regional capital of Cocle.  Fortunately we were outside of this hot town, a bit cooler albiet rainy.    There were 16 participants and about 10 volunteers, all of whom had one role or another.

I learned quite a bit from this seminar, especially how complex the farming process is.  Aside from know what to plant, how much, when to plant, how to fertilize, how to control pests and weeds, and much more, you have to have a good way to sell your products.  This complexity is illustrated by means of a chain wherein participants hold a card reading one of these activities (and there are more than I wrote), and then arranging themselves in order.  It took all 16 people or nearly!  I also learned how bright many of these people are, and how articulate and hard working.

These are farmers who sell their products so they are a bit above subsistence.  Most use chemicals but there are organic farmers among them, including one who is the coop president in his small town producing high altitude coffee.  I learned from him that a Canadian company has moved into his area.  They are looking for organic coffee.  Our home town group has that very product so I hope to help make some connections.

This seminar seems too long to me.  Beside that and some problems with the food, which was typical Panamanian meaning it lacked anything green and fresh and besides they served a dessert on top of a pile of yellow rice, and besides the volunteers who did not do much meal planning so we ended up with a dinner of sausage and ice cream, the week long event went well.

Oh, I forgot to mention, a local host served me liver and onions, for breakfast!  Panamanians do not often serve a breakfast menu as we know it, for them it is just another meal.

On the following Monday I helped A, another volunteer, do a half day seminar for a non profit organization.  I talked about keeping yourself organized, and about how to organize your computer.  They are using Windows XP.  I have switched from Windows to Linux, the Ubuntu version, but along the way I have learned how to run Windows from inside Ubuntu (you can also do it the other way around).  I can just switch back and forth, with no worries about Ubuntu getting infected with viruses and other malware from the internet or from flash drives.  These problems are rampant here in Windows products.

I enjoy spending time with A.  She is very bright and well educated so we find enough to talk about, and we seldom squabble.  But if you learn how to squabble with someone., that means you have made the effort to get to know how to do it well.

Dodging bullets, sleeping in caves

Somehow our staying in Volcan during the emergency period earlier this week became Peggy’s departure for the United States and my fleeing into Costa Rica.   This came about apparently while one of our neighbors was listening in on my phone conversation with our landlord Lily.

I had called her to explain what was happening, although we had explained it to our counter part, who in fact was there when our sector leader came to our Business Planning Seminar to tell us that we had to close the seminar a day early.  Nonetheless we felt we should let her know directly.

So the neighbor who had been listening in somehow came to the conclusion not that we were comfortably waiting in nearby Volcan, a mere 45 minute, 200 curve bus ride away. We stayed there because it is closer to our collection point where we all had to go if we were being evacuated, and to food, medical care and our transport options were better.  In addition, we stayed with two other volunteers, one of whom is a nurse.  If anyone needed extra help, being unable to walk or whatever, there being four of us together gave us more options.

By the time we returned, our neighbors thought we were possibly not returning.  So for fun I began embellishing the story, complaining about having to sleep on the stone floor of a cave in the Costa Rican mountains while police passed within inches and tigers roamed in the darkness.  They are used to my joking by now and know more or less when I am being serious.  More or less.

Yesterday’s strikes peaceful

Demonstrations in Panama City yesterday came off peacefully.  Martinelli, the President, announced the government would suspend implementation of the so called 9 in 1  law, also called the ‘chorizo’ (sausage) law.  The government presumably will hold dialogues, and would not prosecute strike leaders.

Peace Corp volunteers are still restricted to their present locations.  Further demonstrations are scheduled this week.

Wide spread protests July 12 starting midnight

Wide spread protests are anticipated starting after midnight tonight, July 13, 2010.  La Prensa reports a settlement of the strike in Bocas but with only a temporary suspension of implementation of changes to the labor law inhibiting union dues collection.   Other elements are unappeased and plan protests and marches.

All this commotion seems to have sprung up over night although the strikes in Bocas del Toro have been going on for 9 days.

President Martinelli owns a large grocery chain and has no previous government experience.  His pro-business and anti-environmental policies  have angered many segments of the labor unions and almost all the environmentalists.

He issued a statement this evening stating that his doors are open for dialogue- now that he has opened Pandora’s box.

Strikes over 9 in 1 law spread across country, volunteers on alert

Monday July 12, 2010

Attached to a bill dealing with aviation issues recently passed was a so-called 9 in 1 law whose inclusion has angered wide swaths of the Panamanian public leading to strikes and violence.

The law allowed workers in union shops to decide not to pay their dues.  It allowed exceptions to the requirement that projects perform environmental impact studies.

“The Bill presented, ostensibly to aid the aeronautical industry in Panama, includes drastic changes to the labor law regarding strikes; in the penal code, making DNA testing obligatory for any suspect, and also instituting an automatic sentence of 2 to 5 years for the failure to properly declare funds or goods over ten thousand, and releasing the police officers of the automatic suspension when involved or accused of abuse of authority. The final change involves the elimination of the Environmental Impact Study (EIA in Spanish) for any government project that is deemed to be “in the public benefit…In Panama  on Saturday, armed riot police ringed a hotel where union and civil activists leaders were meeting to discuss the law (Bill 30) and a general strike, an official reaction  that has been compared to the Noriega years.  Over 50 activists were arrested according to news reports. Source

Protests by union workers in the province of Bocas del Toro have led to several deaths, including reports of two children who died from exposure to tear gas.   The United States Embassy expects continued clashes this week with demonstrations and other events scheduled.

Other protesting groups included construction workers in the Canal zone working on the new canal and medical workers, on unrelated issues.  Some teachers were striking too.

Peace Corps volunteers have been ordered to prepare for evacuation in the event matters deteriorate to the point where safety can not be guaranteed.  Bocas volunteers not in site are not allowed to return.

Peace Corps and US Embassy officials are closely monitoring the situation, sending updates by email, text and Fm radio for those volunteers without telephone or Internet service.

The business seminar weekend one

Several years ago Peace Corps volunteers in Panama developed a business planning seminar.  Participants come to the seminar all expenses paid over a period of two weekends a month or so apart.  Peg and I attended this years version with two people from our community.

The seminar talks about all the basic aspects of planning a business.  This first weekend dealt primarily with the quantitative aspects, such as what your vision and mission are and goals and objectives.  The next weekend will cover qualitative analysis, for which there is a fabulous spread sheet that projects all the costs and incomes.

The teaching approach in most PC programs is oriented to the adult learner, so there is a lot of facilitation as distinguished from lecturing.  There were lots of dramatizations and a few group activities (dinámicas in Spanish), which were entertaining if nothing else, although the former always had a point connected to the upcoming activities.

We invited Julio and Daniel.  Julio wants to develop the family agricultural business by selling organic fertilizers, fumigants and insect repellents they make for their own use.  Daniel bought the corner gas station that was abandoned 10 years ago when the coop failed, which he said was due to mismanagement.  He converted part of the property into apartments, which teachers are renting and wants to add a fueling station, tire repair facility and perhaps a coffee shop and small grocery store.

Julio has attended a lot of seminars and is currently studying agricultural marketing at the University of Panama extension in Rio Sereno.  He does not seem to need much help to have good basic computer skills and writing skills, although like most of the Spanish speakers I have known he tends to write run-on sentences.  Daniel has lots of good ideas and seems to be well organized.  He made things happen quickly and efficiently at the old gas station right after the purchase.  However, because he did not do a business plan, it was not until after he bought the property did he discover he had not borrowed enough money to pay for installing the fuel tanks.   We call this ‘ready, fire, aim.”

On Sunday, one of the volunteers had to leave so I was assigned his client, who already had a business plan for her coop.  She needed to make some changes, some of which Tom had already done.  It was not until the end did I learn that they are planning to transition to organic agriculture and needed a plan for that.

daniel and peg seminarsmall

Most of these seminars take place at a government facility run by ANAM, the environmental agency.  It is called CEDESAM and is very near a luxury resort called Decameron.  At night we often walk the mile or so to the casino which is across the street from Decameron.  You can play the games or have a light meal and a beverage at the bar.  There are few people playing the games, at least the times we have been there.

CEDESAM is near Decameron but it is quite far from it in terms of luxury and in the level of maintenance.  While there is  indoor plumbing, the toilets run constantly so you often find the one you are about to use has not been flushed.  I spend what seems like hours removing the tank covers to push the flap down so the tank can fill.  The toilets have been this way at least since last October.  There are missing panes in the jalousie windows so the a.c. has to work harder to keep the one dorm room with a.c. cool, so if you are near it you are extra cold but farther away you are a warm.  As you can see maintenance is not a Panamanian talent.

Dorm living is one of my least favorite things to do.  This time there was an overweight Panamanian who snored all night.  Daniel loves to wake up at 530 am and turn on the radio using his cell phone so you can imagine the sound quality does not make being awoken early any more pleasant.  It being Panamanian music does not help me one bit. By breakfast time I was in no mood for scrambled eggs, which I do not like.  But at least this time other PC volunteers returning at 3 am speaking in loud voices was not a problem for me, although it was for Peg both nights. We have another weekend of this coming up, and I have a week long seminar where I will be sharing a house with maybe 10 other volunteers.  Hmmm, I wonder why Peggy does not want to go.

All this distracted from what was a well thought out and delivered seminar from some of the neatest people I will ever meet, but they are so creative and dedicated the distraction is comparatively minor.