What a $100 a month means

He is somehow rather distinguished looking despite his weathered face, or maybe because of it, and certainly despite his clothing, clean but beat up. He comes around from time to time looking for something to eat. Our hostess always brings him something, or maybe gives him a cup of coffee. She has hired him to work on her small finca (farm). He finds work from other farmers too. Where he lives, I have no idea, nor how he gets food most days.

Until the government started monthly pensions just a few months ago, his income was unsteady at best and always low, earning at best the minimum wage of $9 a day. Now, at $100 per month, he will, as he puts it, never be poor again!

December 24, 2009

December 24, 2009

So – Christmas in Panama……

From what we hear, Christmas Eve here is bigger than Christmas Day. On Christmas Eve, beginning at about 8:00 pm, people “pasear”. Pasearing is something all Peace Corps volunteers should be good at – it can be defined as strolling through your community, creating opportunities to know the residents better and to increase their comfort levels with the Peace Corps volunteer. This is one of the major ways a volunteer creates “confianza” within his community. Creating a strong personal relationship among the people the volunteer works with is the major way the volunteer learns how to be most useful and successful in his work.

In our community, and probably in most communities volunteers work in, if you pasear near mealtime, you will always be offered something to eat. Unless you can come up with a good excuse, you should accept it, even if you know the people offering it don’t have enough food to feed their own family. Many PC volunteers, particularly young men, almost never prepare their own food, even in the poorest communities. Of course, they must be willing to live on whatever the locals eat – in this case, large servings of plain white rice. Many people we work with are less poor, so there is usually a pot of chicken soup on the stove as well. I usually get a small bowl of chicken soup and add some rice to it. Their chicken soup is delicious, and usually has carrots, yucca, potatoes or other tubers in it.

On Christmas Eve, people prepare lots of good food for passersby. I am offering Apple Brown Betty and really terrific cheese straws Neal and Susan taught me to make a few years ago. We will probably hang out and divide these goodies among two of the families whose homes we’ve been invited to, as they will receive more visitors than we would, as we are still new to the community. The hard part will be staying awake until midnight, the most festive part of the evening.

Christmas and New Year’s Eves are one of the few times people who are not considered drunkards can actually drink alcohol openly. Don’t know if that will help us to stay awake… No one has cars here, so the likelihood of being run over is pretty minimal.

I really want to tell you about three inspirational meetings we went to last week. The first was the annual party of the environmental organizations near our community. They decided to get together because they’ve not seen each other very much this year and felt they needed to catch up on what each group is doing. We met in the high mountains for a day of accordian music, rice and beans, and fried pork skins. A representative of each group said a few words, but mostly everybody just hung around, ate and chatted.

This group is very concerned about the recent concession granted to canalize and dam up a couple of the rivers in our province in order to generate electricity. If you saw these rivers, you’d laugh. We’d call them streams – I can’t imagine how their water will be sufficient to generate the electricity to power a light bulb. The folks here are very concerned because according to the concession, up to 90% of the water flow can be directed through pipes to the turbines. Environmental studies indicate that local impact will be minimal. However, all the studies are company-funded. And by the way, concessions to build the 14 dams have been given to 14 different companies..

The second meeting was an organizational meeting of environmental groups in our province, specifically called to initiate a program whereby they will all work together politically, with a common agenda, to combat the invasive anti-environmental activities being supported by the national government. The latest and most alarming to this area is a concession request by a gold mining company to put an open pit mine on 36000 acres in the middle of the International Amistad Park. This park is located on the continental divide and is part of the Biological Corridor linking North and South America. It is supported by European and US environmental organizations, and has tremendous environmental significance. The government has already granted a major concession to a copper mining company on the nearby Ngobe-Bugle reservation, a semi-autonomous province populated by a very poor tribe who earn their living by subsistence farming and depend on the local rivers for their water. How much sulfuric acid does it take to leech copper (or gold) from a pulverized mountain? And where do you put it afterwards?

What is inspirational about these groups is their level of environmental awareness and their work to combat environmentally destructive practices. Many sponsor organic farming practices, reforestation, environmental cleanup, bird sanctuaries, student environmental groups, community trash collection, recycling projects and other such activities. Many have been following closely the Copenhagen talks. The believe that the government grants concessions for land development, mining, public works and other projects on the basis of which international company offers the most money.

Peace Corps volunteers cannot participate in any political activism, so we will remain in the background. On the other hand, we are supposed to develop leadership, organizational, computing and presentation skills, business plans, etc. How groups choose to use this training is up to them.

The third meeting was actually a training program for coffee growers, sponsored by the local governmental agency that supports them. Among others, we listened to a session on the European Best Farming Practices Act, which the growers will eventually have to conform to if they wish to export their coffee; a session on how to combat the “broca”, an insect that drills into the coffee bean to lay its eggs, and a session on why and how to implement record-keeping systems (part of the Farming Best Practices requirements.) What was interesting about the day was the emphasis on organic farming practices.

Moving on, let me say that christmas decorations are much in evidence here – the same Currier and Ives ones we see in the States. The relevance of snow and reindeer in this climate escapes me! Commercialization of Christmas is rampant – many, many commercials on TV, lots of store floor space devoted to cheap decorations and even cheaper plastic toys. But the frantic rush to buy stuff is absent out here in the campo, where there are no stores.
I must go bake some apples. Cooking will be a pain, as the water is not running this morning!

Lastly, Gary and I wish you all a very happy holiday season and a very Happy New Year.

Cheers, Peg

November 23, 2009

Nov 23, 2009

So –

we’ve been in our community for a month now, and are beginning to get the hang of it. The Peace Corps prefers that one stay with a host family for the first three months the volunteer is in his community, but we did not expect to, as there are two of us, which is twice the burden on a host family. Also, we are older and more likely to be finicky guests. So, we began to look for a place of our own right away. Ironically, we will probably end up staying in the home we originally moved into with the intention of staying only one month. We plan to continue to live with “La Profe”, a woman of 50 whose youngest son is moving out of the house in January to go to university. She will be living alone in a four-bedroom, two-storey house. She is very involved in the community. Everybody knows her and thinks very highly of her – exactly the kind of friend every Peace Corps volunteer needs. For many reasons, this is politically a very good place for us to live. In addition, the house is super-comfortable, she can help me with my Spanish, she is super-energetic and she is quite happy for us to be here as she moves into this new, childless phase of her life. She is the only member of the community we know who has a car, and loves to tootle around showing us cool stuff. Also, we can go grocery shopping with her, which will avoid our schlepping food 45 minutes on a bus, followed by a 15-minute walk from the main road to the house.

She goes into David every weekend. David is our provincial capital. It takes 2 1/2 hours to get there on a bus, and it is only 30 miles away! She can do it in 1 1/2 hours. We’ve spent the last week buying stuff for our room. We’ve also had satellite internet installed at the house. Hurrah!

The house is so fancy that we are embarrassed to talk to our volunteer friends about it. Living in this house will certainly shield us from the “Peace Corps experience” of living in difficult circumstances. About 70% of PC Panama volunteers go into indigenous communities, many without electricity or water, where the folks live in huts with dirt floors. We do not mind missing this part! On the other hand, we hope not to be part of the other extreme, the “Peace Corps lifestyle”, where the volunteer doesn’t really become involved with his community because he spends too much time away from it, hanging out with expats or just reading and isolating himself.

The group that invited us to this beautiful part of Panama is called APASAAC. They are a group of coffee growers who have decided to make this tiny town a model ecological community. Many of them are converting their coffee fincas into organic. At the same time, they are reforesting their part of this province, training other farmers and coffee growers in the use of organic fertilizers and bug repellents, etc.

We are learning their operation in detail before trying to give them any advice. They would like to accomplish many projects and hope to use our help in prioritizing these. They are quite well informed about many aspects of environmental awareness and improvement, and we do not yet fully understand how we can help them. But they seem to think we can.

The mission of the Peace Corps has three parts: 1) to meet a country’s expressed needs for technical assistance, 2) to share the culture of the United States with the host country, and 3) to share the culture of the host country with the people of our own country. Within this culture, family and friends are everything. Right now, we’re trying to build trust within the community so that the people will speak to us frankly. Eventually, they will let us know what they need and ask for our help in achieving an objective. By understanding them, we hope that we will know how to do that successfully.

Two of the important members of APAASAC are brothers, members of an extended family of 13 kids. Their father came here in the early 1940s and bought many acres of land. The land was divided up among all the children, and all but two still live here and grow coffee and various foods. Each of these children have children, many of whom are grown and have children of their own. Many live on our road, and I am still figuring out the family tree! Everybody seems to be everybody else’s cousin. There are several such large families in the community.

Right now, I am picking coffee a couple of mornings a week, which I really like to do. You get points for being a good worker, and I’m known as a good coffee picker because I only pick the ripest beans. The professional pickers pick EVERYTHING – green, immature beans, twigs, bugs, whatever. That is because they get paid by the basket. I don’t get paid at all, so there is no advantage to me to fill my basket indiscriminately!

Also, I’ve begun working one afternoon a week at the school, with the students who want to practice English. It is important to remember that in this culture, you learn stuff accidentally – for example, Gary and I were thinking about organizing a Panama Verde group at the school. Panama Verde is a student organization that works on environmental awareness and improvement, so we thought it would be a good adjunct for our APAASAC group. However, in one of our chat sessions, one of the students just happened to mention that there is an environmental student organization already in existence, just waiting for a new coordinator. If we had just jumped in with our brilliant idea of organizing a Panama Verde group, because that is what we already knew about, it would have been the wrong thing to do.

We’ve already met several members of that group. Many of the same kids who want to practice English are members. They belong to the most progressive families in the community and participate in many student activities. These are the kids who will be the next generation’s leaders, and the ones we want to spend time with.

One of the big projects APAASAC wants to do is community-wide recycling. Panama has no garbage pickup to speak of, and garbage disposal here is a really serious issue. This is a huge, multi-faceted project that will take much organizing. Gary is working a lot on it. The directiva of APAASAC would like to present the project framework to the other members of the organization at their General Assembly in January. So they’d better get busy!

There’s also a group that wants to learn how to make pizza and sell it at community events. This is a great project – it brings income to the group and will be perfectly sustainable. However, they have to get organized pretty quickly, as their first big even occurs on December 20. We’ll see how it goes!

Cheers, Peg

October 10, 2009

October 10, 2009


Gary has written a bit about our culture week and tech week experiences, but here are a few more facts. Culture week is designed to give each volunteer a peek into the province he will serve in. Chiriqui is Panama’s richest and most proud province. It was the first province to have its own flag and is known as The Province of Workers. Indeed, this province seems to be more dynamic and innovative than the others. It is known as Panama’s breadbasket. The varied topography permits many different types of agricultural production, including a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, dairy and beef farming, and lots of coffee and plantains in the northern mountains, where we we will serve. In addition, there are beautiful beaches on the Pacific side.

Four new volunteers from our group are moving into this province, but our jobs and locations will be so different that we will have virtually no common experiences! Another telling fact that no EH volunteers serve in Chiriqui – the Environmental Health volunteers are the Marines of the Peace Corps. They are the first to go into villages, and their primary responsibilities are sanitation and health. They build latrines and aqueducts, which bring potable water into communities for the first time.

The volunteers that work in Chiriqui are members of the following Peace Corps sectors, whose names will tell you what they do: Community Environmental Conservation (including sea turtle projects, reforestation, environmental education), Sustainable Agriculture (good farming practices), Teaching English and Tourism (yep, you guessed it) and our group, Community Economic Development. The major goal of CED is to increase family income via teaching people how to plan for and manage projects and groups, how to evaluate ideas for new businesses, and finance management and accounting skills. We also assist communities to develop new activities such as recycling. We find local community leaders and teach them how to do what we do. Sometimes we work with governmental agencies to find funding for community projects. Finally, we create and maintain youth groups such as Junior Achievement, artisan groups, sports leagues and Panama Verde (a youth group concerned with environmental conservation.) We teach leadership skills to everyone we can, as another goal is sustainability – we want these activities to continue after we leave.

Anyhow, to get back to the new volunteers who will serve in Chiriqui: H., a 30-year old entrepreneur who has his own production company in Chicago, will live in a port town of 30,000 people where Chiquita Banana pulled out recently, leaving the town’s unemployment at about 55%. B., a 24-year old Afro-American who grew up in Dutch Curacao and urban New Jersey and who has Dutch citizenship (!), will be working in a ghetto in David (Panama’s second-largest city) with disadvantaged youth. Gary and I are going into a small town in the beautiful Chiriqui highlands where coffee production and organic farming are the employment mainstays and where the folks we will work with are energetic, motivated, and busily reforesting their land, doing their part to ameliorate the effects of climate change.

Our Chiriqui culture week was organized by a CEC volunteer who lives in a tiny beach community. H., B., Gary and I dug clams with machetes along the beach, rode horses, drank coconut milk from freshly harvested coconuts, trekked thru mangrove forests, participated in a baby turtle release, ate fried fish at a beach cantina, watched a culture presentation by the junior high school students, and attended talks on topics such as presenting yourself appropriately to agencies, the indirectness of Panamanians, body language and nonverbal communication. We also walked a lot. Our host family lived about 2 miles from the beach. Our sessions were either at the beach or in the tiny community’s outdoor restaurant between our house and the beach, so sometimes we walked back and forth twice a day. It was HOT.

The very next week, we reconvened with our entire CED group of 18 volunteers in the mountainous community of Hato Chami. This village is in the Comarga of the Ngobe Bugle – a semi-autonomous province where one of the three major tribes is concentrated. During tech week, we practiced various techniques we’ve been training on, most having to do with community organization, business planning, financial management and other activities that make up our bag of tricks. The community is at coffee-growing level, in the cloud forest. It is cool. We lived in Ngobe-Bugle homes, where whole families live in one room, albeit often a large room, and divide their sleeping areas by cardboard or hanging clothes. The rooms are usually of boards with corrugated metal roofs. They have no windows, only a space about 8 inches wide between the topmost board and the eaves. They have no doors, either. Sometimes a curtain serves as an exterior door. They cook on outdoor fires and eat lots of fried bananas and boiled rice or yucca. Most are subsistence farmers. Our family’s farm was about 2 hours from their home, so the husband and son often stayed in a hut on the farm for several days at a time, rather than hiking home. We were lucky, as our family grows vegetables as well as yucca and plantains. We ate onions, potatoes, chayote, carrots.

The Ngobe fry or boil everything over wood fires. They use LOTS of oil. One of the fun things I did was to show Melida how to cook pancakes in a large pot and biscuits in a Peace Corps oven. The PC oven is a large pot inside another large pot, separated by an empty tuna can and placed over a wood fire. It bakes pretty well! We used a deep-sided pot for the pancakes, as those are the only kinds she owns. We turned the pancakes with the handle of a ladle. The Ngobe are POOR!!! Melida was bowled over when she saw that you could make biscuits and pancakes with only a tiny bit of oil, and immediately declared that with the money she would save on three bottles of oil, she could buy a skillet! She did not know how to cook anything with wheat other than ojaldras, which are basically Indian fry bread. Ojaldras are really good, but super fattening. If you’ve never had Indian fry bread, it’s like beignets or donuts, only less fluffy and without confectioner’s sugar.

The Ngobe could be living in the 1700s, except that the dresses are different and some of the utensils are plastic. All the women wear naguas, beautiful floor-length dresses with appliqued fabric designs. You’ll see some on our website if I ever get the photos organized. The problem with living as they did 200 years ago is that their land is full of gold, copper, good water, teak and other valuable resources. Mining companies are coming in, and these people are not ready. This can put Peace Corps volunteers between a rock and a hard place. The rock is the PC policy of staying out of politics, the hard place is that we are supposed to provide these people the skills to improve their lives. Many of us feel that greed will prevail, especially when the locals have no idea how to read, let alone negotiate contracts. There is a strong instinct among the Ngobe that big industry will pollute their environment, however, and they have already completed one march to Panama City about this issue.

When it can cost a ship up to $360,000 to transit the Panama Canal, there is no excuse that entire village populations still walk over a mile to collect water. Without the sophistication of political pros and good lawyers to protect their interests, I would not be surprised to see the Ngobe land severely damaged or ruined.

Putting CED volunteers into the primitive conditions of the Comarga was an experiment. It was widely thought (particularly by the EH staff and EH volunteers) that we would freak out at the primitiveness of the situation and not be able to handle the latrines, cold water outdoor showers, board beds and primitive sanitation in this poor village. EH needs to stop believing the stereotypes! We all did well, nobody cried or wanted to go home. Among ourselves, however, many of us we whispered that we were happy to be there for only six nights. About half of the CED volunteers are indeed going into primitive sites, but they have requested this type of Peace Corps experience. Every year, a significant percentage of PC volunteers do not complete their two years of service, often because they just get tired of that lifestyle. So far, we have not lost anyone in our group of 36.

Hugs to all, Peg

September 22, 2009

September 22, 2009


it’s so hot and humid here that:

1) the tops of your hands sweat;
2) if you are writing, when you lift your arms, the papers come up with them;
3) the women have stopped using moisturizers and hair conditioner – they are totally unnecessary.
4) Floridians will appreciate this one: there is more water on the table around your glass than water in your glass
5) NOBODY bitches about taking cold showers.

Us trainees spent five days last weekend at the site of another volunteer. Gary and I stayed with Laura, a 27-year old woman completing her third year with the Peace Corps. She has been working with a youth coop at the high school, as well as teaching several computing classes each week. She is now working with a committee whose long-term project is completing a park in her community.

Laura built her own house for about $600. Or rather, she supervised its building, which was done by her community members. It has a bedroom, an office, and a combination living room/dining room/kitchen. The roof and two walls are corrugated aluminum sheets. The other two walls, on the sides where the rain doesn’t blow, are made of pinca, dried palm leaves. She says there are toads living under her bed, but she doesn’t mind, as they eat cockroaches and scorpions. She gave up her bed to Gary and I and slept on a cot in her office. I didn’t see the toads, but didn’t look for them, either.

Her house is quite comfortable, despite the fact that she has no running water. She built the house about 50 feet from that of her host family, and chose to continue using their kitchen to wash dishes. She also shares their latrine and their shower, both constructed of sheet metal and about 60 feet from the houses. OK when it is not raining. When it rains, the ground between these four structures gets really muddy. The soil is red clay, so it sticks to everyone’s shoes. Staying clean is a real problem. She has a long-haired dog and two cats, so before you know it, your clothes are full of red paw prints!

Laura’s house does have electricity – that is, there is an exterior extension cord coming from her host family’s house. When it gets to Laura’s house, it plugs into a surge protector, from which several other cords extend to the three rooms. Unfortunately, the day we got there, there was a terrible thunderstorm and the electricity went out until the next day. As Laura said, if she was living somewhere where there was no electricity, she would be prepared, with kerosene lamps, candles, headlamps, etc. But as it was, she had a couple of candles and a couple of flashlights. As usual, everyone made do – people here go to bed by 9 pm every night anyway.

Bumping up against Laura’s house is her rancho – a traditional pinca-topped hut. Some poor people, especially indigenous, still live in these, as they have for hundreds of years. Some people live in tiny concrete block house with an attached rancho serving as their kitchen. The rancho often has a dirt floor. There may be a gas stove with a propane tank, there may be a sink, there may be a refrigerator or stove. Many of the poor still cook in fogons, huge pots over open fires, in the rancho or outdoors.

Wealthier people have concrete floors in their rancho, although Laura doesn’t. Most people hang out there in the heat of the day, dozing in hammocks. Others use them as a garage, to store their grills or cachevaches (the stuff you never use but can’t bear to throw away). Ranchos owned by the wealthiest people have vinyl roofs, metal beams, painted concrete block posts and a concrete floor. They maintain the traditional square or rectangular shape and roof line. To us, they look like square gazebos.

While at Laura’s, we visited an old man who makes very cool utensils out of gourds, watched a soccer game at the community playing field, and talked a lot about the Peace Corps. Our trip was only about 4 1/2 hours to her site. Some of the volunteers had a 16-hour ride, some including rides to indigenous communities in dugout canoes. Everybody enjoyed their weekend, although some changed their opinions about where they would like to be placed. That was the purpose of the visit, of course–to see how far into the boonies the trainees really want to be. Our visit didn’t really change our minds about anything – we’d already told our program director that we need a cooler climate, electricity and running water. He has interviewed each trainee twice now, and has pretty much matched each trainee to a site. We find out Wednesday where we will be for the next two years.

Training continues to go well – four hours a day of Spanish and four hours of various things like Community Analysis, leading groups, developing leaders and project design. Sprinkled in are days when we get medical information and shots – so far, I think we’ve had 3, with one or two more to go. I have completely gotten over my anxiety about shots. The nurse who gives them is amazing! Friday, the doctor spoke about very exciting topics like diarrhea and intestinal parasites. She actually brought some worms in formaldehyde that she said came from a volunteer. Also had some photos of really nasty sores on ankles, etc. Yuck!! But she is a hoot, and makes those icky topics very funny.

The progress that some of the trainees are making in Spanish is also amazing. They are determined and work very hard.

All for now – we find out our sites this Wednesday. Keep your fingers crossed that we will be somewhere you might come to visit!

Cheers, peg

August 18, 2009

August 18, 2009

So —–

we’ve been officially in the Peace Corps a little over a week now, and I am very impressed. Our three-day orientation was held in El Ciudad del Saber, a “retreat” facility about 15 minutes from downtown Panama City, adjacent to the Miraflores locks on the Panama Canal. It is part of the old Canal Zone, and includes about 75 three-bedroom homes that used to be the property of the US. Also included are administration centers, conference buildings, a gym, pool, etc. The main Peace Corps office is here, as well as various other administrative offices. It is very pretty and quite comfortable. We were esconsed in several of the three-bedroom homes. Nice landscaping, catered meals of pretty good local foods, not fancy but more than acceptable.

On Sunday we moved to a small town of about 1000 people, 1½ hours from Panama City. We are living with various families. Some volunteers are in pretty difficult conditions – one girl shares a room with two daughters of the family. She is sleeping in the bed of one of the girls, who now shares a twin bed with her sister. There is no room to put her suitcase, let alone room to unpack it. All three have to walk around it, as it is in the middle of the room. Many of the homes do not have indoor plumbing, so the volunteers use outhouses. Some have showers indoors, some outdoors. Some are eating rice, yucca, beans and hotdogs every day, which are the staples of the poor. Some eat better.

Gary and I are in one of the nicest houses in town. We have a nice bedroom, indoor plumbing with a completely tiled bathroom and a huge walk-in shower. Our host mama is a good cook who gives us a nice variety of foods, including salads and vegetables, apparently rare on some of the tables here. We do not talk about our situation to the other volunteers, as some would probably slit our throats–as soon as they complete machete training, which will be held this Saturday! The only modcon we lack is hot water, but the weather is so sticky, hot and humid that cold showers are ok. The water is not icy – not tepid, but not icy. It feels good after a few minutes. Also, the only internet access is 1½ hours away in La Chorrera, which we have very litle time to visit, so you won’t be hearing from us very often!

The volunteers in this group will work in two sectors: Environmental Health and Community Economic Development. You can think of the EH group as the Marines, who go into the really primitive villages, bring in potable water by building aqueduct systems, build latrines (sanitary outhouses), etc. They are tough (or will be soon) and the girls are buffed. Most of them will learn an indigenous language–Wounan, Embara or Ngobere. They accuse us of being yay-yay – wussy, soft and in need of costly creature comforts. We say that they do the easy stuff and that our sector is a much greater challenge. Most of us will go into slightly more advanced communities, where we will try to teach much more difficult concepts, like accounting, business management, teamwork, planning, etc. In the Panama Peace Corps, there are three other groups: Sustainable Agriculture, Community Environmental Conservation, and English Teaching and Tourism.

There are 36 of us – Gary and I, a married couple in their early thirties, two other women between 50 and 60, and the rest between 22 and 35. All are well-educated, well-spoken, enthusiastic, extremely supportive of the group, and ready to work. Gary and I spend 4 hours a day with the 16 members of the CED group – four hours a day of “technical training”, where we are in one large class learning facilitation skills, group dynamics, etc. We have the large class in a “rancho” – a large thatched-roof hut . We spend 4 more hours each day in Spanish class. We were evaluated for the appropriate level. I was put into an Intermediate Low class, and Gary into Advanced Low. There are only three of us in my class. Gary is also in a three-member class. One of the other two guys in Gary’s class is from the Dominican Republic and actually has a Spanish accent. The other guy is black and was born in Dutch Curacao. Really interesting guy – grew up in Netherlands, Curacao and New Jersey! He spoke Spanglish growing up and also took university courses in Spanish. They only have one week of actual class and next week begin making presentations in the elementary schools.

My class is composed of a gringo and two gringas. The other gringa has had 7 years of Spanish, the gringo only had high-school Spanish but spent several weeks in Nicaragua. There are about 12 Spanish teachers for 35 people, as language is a necessity and major investment of PC resources. Language classes are held on the porches of various homes. It is a privilege to have this opportunity to learn a language with so much individual attention and assistance.

The life we will lead for the next ten weeks is unusual for most adults – we have absolutely nothing to do but learn stuff. Our meals are prepared by our host families, our laundry is done for us, we are given a little spending money and one afternoon a week to spend it. Our days are unbelievably tightly scheduled. We have an immense amount of material to learn. In addition to the four hours a day of Spanish class, we try to utilize our host families to practice Spanish, as well as anyone else we come in contact with, thereby not only learning conversational Spanish, but also info. about the life style, value systems, habits, etc. of Panama. Much of the technical training is presented in facilitated group sessions, rather than in lecture form. We have homework with other class members to create these presentation materials ourselves. Of course, we have Spanish homework too. Everyone is so tired at the end of the day that most of us are asleep by 9 pm. Part of that is heat exhaustion, part of it is brain fatigue.

I am having a great time. Gary is having a slightly less great time. We both feel the training is excellent, well-organized, etc. Gary says the hours are too long. He wants some downtime. We have been told there will be none of that for the next nine weeks!!! However, I believe the only planned activity for this Saturday is machete class, which is optional for the CED group. Gary has decided not to go, but I will go, if only to support our group, which will be outshone by the EH group, who have been talking about these machetes since we got off the plane in Panama City. Sunday we get the grand tour of Panama City by bus. Should be fun!

As expected, the weather here sucks!!!!! It rains every day and the humidity is unbelievable. Most of the time it is JUST manageable, but just before it rains, it is pretty much unbearable. We may or may not get used to it. The training director has obliquely spoken to Gary and I about some of the choices we may have to make with regard to our eventual site: do we want to go somewhere more primitive but more interesting, or less primitive but less interesting. For example, there are some indigenous communities with great potential, but they are in the real “campo”, with no electricity, possibly no running water, etc. Don’t even think about paved roads. Not to mention we would have to learn one of the indigenous languages as well as be conversant in Spanish! In addition to the weather!!!

I think we will opt for the more comfortable living conditions if given the choice. Fortunately, I think many of the younger people are chomping at the bit to get the difficult locations, in search of the “Peace Corps Experience”. Gary and I are very willing to give ours to them! We will not be given our options until after week 7. The people going to indigenous communities will need to know earlier so they can start learning an indian language in time to become somewhat conversant. Stay tuned!

That’s all I have time for this time. Hasta luego!


A site development visit to Caizan

Peace Corps Panama sends volunteers to potential new sites for future volunteers. They talk to locals to gauge interest and then send sector leaders (who are PC employees) to meet with the locals so they can explain the PC program and evaluate the community. If the community is appropriate and a future volunteer seems like a good match, the community gets a volunteer. March 20 was the second visit to xxxxx (location deleted) for this purpose.

About 15 people from the community came to the meeting in the hopes of getting a PCV. They have several projects and problems they would like help with. A group received a grant from the PAMBC, commonly called the Biological Corridor, an organization which helps protect this environmentally important zone. It does so in part by helping establish environmentally friendly businesses. This group has such a grant, The problem is they do not have a market for the trees they grew with the grant money. ANAM, the government’s environmental agency, suggested they might be able to sell the trees to the hydroelectric project which is right in town, and which is required to plant 10 trees for each one they remove. The group’s trees are ready to plant and there is no offer in sight to purchase the trees.

I would guess that the group started the nursery without ever talking to project management and if they did without getting a commitment. Volunteers almost always find that planning is given short shrift if it is given any at all.

Those present eagerly shared their complaints when asked, except for the 30 minutes when it was raining. Most roofs here are metal and when it rains hard no one can hear. I was wondering if there would be a meeting at all but finally the rain abated.

Towards the end there was some interesting discussion about how the community and volunteer would adapt to one another especially in the first three months when the volunteer is expected to live with host families. Food is a big issue and I explained that Americans do not have a rice based diet and many find the quantity and frequency of rice consumption to be overwhelming. Some might be vegetarian. To help avoid problems they were told not just to serve food but to ask the volunteer what he wants so the volunteer does not feel obliged to eat something they do not want. There was discussion about language, too and cultural differences. Panamanians are very indirect in their communications. We told them to be more direct with the volunteer if they can, since given the language barrier especially at first, it is very hard to decode subtleties.

This community has a housing shortage, as is common in the area. Their last application for a volunteer was not filled because there was not a dwelling the volunteer could rent. One of the locals is fixing something up for the new volunteer. This will be inspected before the volunteer arrives, as will the host families, probably by the regional leader, who is a PCV usually in their third year (you can choose to extend to a third year).

I came in part because I want to organize some training for the groups like this in the area, that number upwards of 15. All of either have projects they are running or would like to have one and they get no training in manangement skills, so their projects often do not perform as well as they could. In this case, no one has been paid for labor on the hope that the payment for their efforts would come when they sold the trees. Without a Plan B those trees are likely to die in the nursery, and you do not have a Plan B if you have never had a Plan A.

Climbing Volcan Baru

Atop Volcan Baru

March 20, 2010 — garypeg

My wet jeans were about as damp as the iffy mattress I slept on and only slightly more so than the sleeping bag, so I did not freeze when I slipped them on. I suppose that having put the jeans underneath a blanket and my sleeping bag into which I added my body heat helped reduce the moisture a bit.

Outside it was bright and cool, perhaps around 60F, the sun warming us up as we walked from one side of the cell phone tower compound to the other looking at nearby Volcan and Cerro Punta, with Costa Rica and the Panamanian province of Bocas del Toro in the distance. There was still cloud over both the Pacific and the Caribbean, which changed a bit later just enough to allow me to see Puerto Armuelles on the Pacific side and a patch of emerald blue to the east.

Short video from from atop baru. At the time we could not see either ocean.

After an unusually oil-soaked breakfast – I think they even fried the plastic plates – we took began walking down the moutain on the east side, which will take us to Boquete. On this side the walking is easier, although in parts you are in walking amongst the stones and boulders of what looks like a dry stream bed, so you have to be very careful not to slip. The path is wide and there is no getting lost, unlike the Cerro Punta side, where a Peace Corps volunteer was lost for three days last summer before a small army of searchers finally found her.

The forest is thick on either side but like on the Cerro Punta side there are more birds in Santa Clara or there seem to be and you can easily see them there whereas here the ones you can hear you rarely see.

The trip down took over 5 hours and my thighs began to ache, and I began to slide inside my left boot, banging my large toenail against the front of the boot. The last two hours were difficult. When we reached bottom my toenail was blue. One of the former PCV’s is a nurse and she said I would probably lose the nail. But I had made it and fortunately Lourdes had arranged for someone to pick us up. Even after two ibuprofens I could not have gone much farther.

Video: on our way down the volcan

Climbing Volcan Baru

March 14, 2010 — garypeg

Volcan Baru is a national park and protected area not far from where we live, as the Tucan flies. On March 9th I received an invitation from Lourdes, the leader of one of the local agro-environmental groups. Gorace sells organic produce purchased in the Chiriqui Highlands, to join her and 5 others on a hike to the top, at an altitude of about 11,000? or 3400 meters. From here Balboa, I think it was, who was the first European who saw both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans at the same time, the only place on earth where you can do so except at Cape Horn but that’s at sea level.

We left the next morning at 8:15, although I expected an earlier departure but then again I always expect things to start on time at least when it is important to do so. So I got there at 6 as instructed.

It is a beautiful hike from the Cerro Punto side of the volcano. But is is not easy walking as you pass through three vegetation zones at least, and in places you are on cliffs looking at 30-70? drops on one side. My heavy breathing must have shook the heavens as once we got near the top, 10 hours and who knows how many miles later (at least 8 I think), the lighting and thunder that had been worrying me for an hour now turned into a mostly light rain and hail storm. But we were within an hour of the top, the steepest part of the climb that had me taking one step at a time and then six deep breaths. The younger ones- that would be everyone else- flew by me on the way to secret cabaña Lourdes had secured and which had led me to accept the invitation despite the short notice.

I had delightful company. There were two former Peace Corps volunteers including one who worked with Gorace and another who served in Africa. The former still works for the Peace Corps and the other was a recruiter as well after her two year stint in Africa where she climbed Mt. Kilimangaro! Both were a lot of fun and I learned a lot from them about their time in Peace Corps.
Short video of the climb:

Next entry: At the Top