Visiting our host family

During our 10 week Peace Corps training we stayed with Junior and Margareta in the small town of Santa Clara in the township of Arriajan (there are several towns named Santa Clara in the country).    We finally made it back here to see the lovely people we got to know in 2009.

Junior, as everyone calls him, is around 60 and worked for the Panama Canal for decades handling the lines used to secure the ships traversing the canal.  He retired two years ago.  They have since visited Bocas Del Toro for the first time, and in addition went to Nicaragua.  They also bought a small pickup truck.  He is farming a small plot and sells some of his excess produce.  He has had conflicts with some of the other local producers who complain that he is selling at a low price.  He says that people here are of limited means and should not have to pay such high prices.

Margareta hosts a teacher as Peace Corps has not used this community for the past two years, although they are returning next year.  She continues to sew and showed us some of her creative work.  There was a workshop for the locals, and they were graduating the day we were there.  They’d been making small shopping bags with straps decorated.

The internet has arrived in Santa Clara using 3g dongle (usb port connection) technology.  A grandson now has hundreds of Facebook friends.  We’ll be able to stay in touch.

They took us to lunch.  The local representative now has a small restaurant in front of his house.  We sat in the shade of the 90 degree (31C) heat with 90% humidity and enjoyed a very good fish plate with rice.  The fish was deep fried, of course.  Panamanians deep fry almost everything, eat tons of white rice and have a both a very high sugar diet and lots of diabetes and obesity.  Small wonder.  Lunch for 6 cost $14.

Margareta and Junior have worked with Peace Corps for more than 10 years.  They have hosted mostly couples and a few single.  We are the first ones ever to return.  We were very grateful for the way they treated us when we were there.  Margareta is a very good cook, and knew we would not want to eat so much deep fried food, so we got a lighter diet.

We stayed a few hours then mounted the ancient school bus for the hot trip back to the capital, where we hopped on one of the new buses heading to Via España.  It was nice to be in the air conditioning.

Museums in Panama- and in one, a story of prostate exams for 45,000 men


There are not a great many museums in Panama.  We went to the Contemporary Art Museum, from which most of these photos come.   I have labeled the photos so you know where they were taken.

The art museum is in a small building not far from Panama Viejo.  It is pretty small with just three galleries.  I liked a lot of the paintings and some of the photos too.  One of the guys there went around with us- as did the woman at the Afro-Antilles museum.  We got to see some paintings from the previous exhibition.  He also walked with us halfway to the Afro-Antilles museum.  I am not sure we would have found it otherwise.  As he left he said we are now friends forever.  It is just $3.00 to get in.  They are moving to a new building on the causeway, I think it is.  Looks like a lovely building in a lovely spot.

At the  Afro-Antilles museum the woman and only other person there beside us offered to take us through the exhibit.  It is a short walk to the building from the Museum in a rather chaotic and crowded area which is not for the faint of heart.  The metro will have an exit just outside the entrance, which at the moment is inaccessible.

A woman offered to take us around.  She recounted some of the facts of the Afro-Antilleans in the construction of the canal.  As I recall they were the most numerous group  at 18,000 while Panamanians among the least at a mere 500!   She interviewed some of those who lived through that period, including her grandmother.   They told her that Panamanians heard that you had to submit to a rectal exam before you were hired and they did not understand that it had anything to do with the prostate!  I can not imagine that the US government would have required a rectal exam on 45,000 mostly young workers.







Visiting our host family in Panama

September 5, 2013

During the Peace Corps training period, volunteers in Panama stay with a host family.  We returned to Santa Clara in the area known as Ariajan, just outside the capitol.

This small community has seen many groups of volunteers over the past 10 years.  There have not been any the past two years but the community will again host volunteers later this year or early next.

You get there on Diablos Rojos, Red Devils, used (often very used) schools buses purchased from the US.   In the capital the government purchased a fleet of modern buses to replace he Diablos Rojos, but the suburbs still employ these old buses.   There is very little leg room, they are noisy, they spew mountains of diesel smoke into the air, and are not air conditioned.

The family lives near the Catholic Church, which has been greatly enlarged despite the shortage of priests;  the one who serves here can not come on Sunday so comes on Saturday instead.   Their house has 2 bedrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen, and a covered parking area for the newly acquired car.  The floor of the room we occupied now has tiles and the door has been cut to length.   The bathroom still has only cold (or should I say cool) water.

Our hosts seem quite healthy and more prosperous.  Since Juniors retirement as a cable handler on the canal two years ago they have traveled to Bocas del Toro and Nicaragua.  They bought some land, or have begun to farm some they already had.  They harvest bananas, plantains, and various tubers you’ve probably never heard of.  Otoi, nami, and some other one neither of us can spell, perhaps gnampi.  All starchy.  Panamanians eat very starchy diets, supplemented by gobs of sugar and deep fried everything.

To be continued…

A Visit With Fundiceep (the most important environmental organizations in the Highlands)

September 3 2013

Cerro Punta lies at an altitude of about 2000 meters (6500 feet) very close to the Biological Corridor.,_Chiriqu%C3%AD

Fundiccep ( is an environmental organization whose headquarters has been in this town for 20 years.   We wanted to see them again and their new headquarters.   Damaris was in Brazil at a conference but David and Luis were there.   They filled me on a few developments.

The strike closing down the PanAmerican highway by the Gnabes was effective in shutting down the mining permits the government had granted in the Comarca Gnabe-Bugle.  Fundiceep was active in the education efforts.  There are a number of problems with mining operations in these areas. 1) The government is ineffective at enforcing most laws, let alone environmental safeguards.  2)   Copper and gold mining yield toxic wastes that are hard to deal with even by conscientious mining companies. 3) Releases of these wastes would contaminate the water supply of these indigenous  peoples.  Benefits to the locals would be minor.

On the matter of the hydro-electic projects, there are 6 or 7 under construction and another 19 already approved, but there is time to stop them.  The main problem with these projects is the lack of water necessary to produce good supplies of power even if, as the law allows, the projects can take 90% of the water out of the streams.  I find the who idea to be absurd given the size of the steams-  not rivers, streams- in the area.

The new facility is complete on the lower level, which contains two dormitory rooms and a kitchen, as well as a meeting area.  The upper floor is for training and community use but is not yet complete.

I got to know this organization well during our time in the Peace Corps.   I developed a website for them, not in use unfortunately.


Our Peace Corps projects in Santa Clara continue

September 3, 2013

During our visit to our Peace Corps community Santa Clara, in the highlands of Panama between Volcan and Rio Sereno, we learned the status of the projects we helped start.

1) The annual fair, first in 2010 while we were there, continued in 2011, but there was none in 2012.  There were alcohol sales in 2011 and many members objected and did not support the event in 2012 so there was not enough help to make things happen.  In 2013 they did a one day event on a Thursday, which was reportedly successful.  A three day fair is planned for this Deember.

2) Trash removal continues however there is still no recycling.

3) Community clean ups continued as before our arrival but the trash cans we helped get are still in place and are being used, so the community seems quite a bit cleaner.

4) We helped the Lezcanos and the other organic farmers get a better price for their coffee.  They are selling to two Peace Corps volunteers who live in Vermont, and also are selling direct to customers in Panama City.  From $.50 a pound they are now getting $4.00 – $10 a pound.  They are planting more coffee and hope to improve production to 5000 pounds a year, which is still a relatively small quantity.  They will have a niche market because of the superb flavor and aroma and the organic methods and should get good prices.

The Lezcanos provide training to many groups from Panama and many American students visit, sometimes for months at a time.  To assist them in this activity  we just offered to donate money to improve the area where visitors listen to the presentations.  We hope this will be helpful.


Threats to the coffee crop and possible solutions

Coffee grown in the highlands and perhaps elsewhere are subject to attacks by insects as well as molds and fungus.  The current threat is a fungus, I believe.  Since the 1980’s the ‘cafeteros’ (coffee farmers) here have mostly used harsh and costly chemicals to combat the threats, including Round Up.  During our Peace Corps period we worked with the organic farmers who had once used these chemicals but found them to be too harsh and not always effective.

Coffee grown in the sun needs heavy chemical fertilization as coffee naturally prefers the shade.  So the organic farmers first had to provide shade for their plants.  Plantanos (plantains) grow quickly and in addition provide additional income, so provided one route to a shaded plantation.  They planted other trees as well, many of which provide nitrogen and other nutrients.  As the leaves and trunks of the platanos fell they decomposed quickly in the moist soil, providing nutrition for the coffee plants and reducing the need for weeding.

Nonetheless these plants are vulnerable so some of the farmers developed organic solutions.  We worked with Lito and Julio Lezcano who have developed solutions which are sprayed on the plants.  The fungus which came last year was quite devastating and everyone lost many plants, but they came up with a solution that seems to be working.  They have a bed of compost materials which have been seeded with small worms.  The compost is used to start coffee plants.  It produces a liquid run off when combined with molasses seems to control the fungus.

By comparison, another friend of ours has sun grown coffee.  The chemical sprays have proven to be too expensive and not very effective and he is very discouraged.

This is by no means scientific proof of course, but suggests that an organic approach can prove to be more effective in the long run.   It is also more friendly to the birds and other creatures and plants that populate this area, famous for its birding and the Biological Corridor, by means of which many birds and other animals migrate from South to North America.

From Boca Brava


Boca Brava-  there be whales nearby in quantity!   We are here for the second time.  About 3 and a bit years ago  the Peace Corps regional leader, a wonderful young woman named Abby (now a PC volunteer in Ecuador), organized a regional meeting here.  It is just as lovely now as then.  The hotel sits on the corner of a small island a short boat ride from the mainland.  It’s a bit of a drive from the highway but the boat ride is less than 10 minutes.

Our trip yesterday went smoothly.  There’s a guy at the hotel who’s given us lifts before in his rattletrap.  He got us to the main bus station.  The bus took us to Santiago in Veraguas and we hopped in a Thrifty rental car from there.

We head for the highlands today, so there is no time for whale watching.  Too bad.  In Boston about 15 years ago I went out and saw some of these wonderful creatures but Peg has never had the pleasure.

Panama City- A day in the vapor

Here are the photos that go with this story.  It will open in a new tab.

After our late night I got up at an unglodly early hour, since my clock was an hour off, and waited for everyone else to get up.  It was hours later before we met up with Marivel.  I think I already mentioned that she loves across the street, which simplifies matters as long as you can figure out how to cross the street even at 8 am.  There are no cross walks.  This is a skill we learned living here, and not one we have lost.

It is already warm and it is always humid here.  We’re on the coast in a tropical country, after all.  Off we went to some Chinese place for a Chinese breakfast.  It was really good- and no it wasn’t a pretty place.  We ate several dumpling sorts of things stuffed with rice and what not, and a kind of Chinese tortilla, which was rice and whatnot battered with an eggy thing and pan fried.

Marivel lent us a SIM card for the phone, which saved us the trouble of buying one, and off we went to the Peace Corps office.    We got a warm welcome from the training director Raul, Lourdes and Emmy in medical, Maria Elena the security chief who makes sure they know where the volunteers really are, Brandon (not sure what he is doing) and a few others.  It was nice to see these people.  The new office is quite spacious and attractive.  We tried to make arrangements to see our host family for the training period without success.   Panamanians are very friendly people, and I like them as a rule even though I do not care for many aspects of the culture.

Marivel took us to a dumpy place at the fish market for lunch.  The food was top notch. The shrimp al ajillo (shrimp in garlic sauce) and the tiny clams in the same sauce were the best I’ve had and the price matches the surroundings more than the quality of the food by a long shot, and Panamanian beer, which is decent, is still only $1.25.  for a mere $25 for two there is quite the lobster meal.  In the market fish is abundant and prices are low, if you can handle the strong odors and lack of ice.

After  lunch we drove through nearby Panama Viejo, the oldest part of the city.  It is a mess.  Full of 19th century buildings, perhaps older, many of which are in bad repair.  There are quite a few being renovated, and a lot of road work going on.  The Presidential palace is here.  I can not imagine it would be easy to get him out of there in a hurry.

By now the sun had scorched the humid air.  You needed heavy sunglasses to handle the glare.  Her tiny car fortunately is air conditioned but the heat kept us in.  Some touristas wandered about.  This area has great potential but fulfilling it is quite the project.  Then again so is most of the rest of the city, where you find some of the ugliest, scariest looking slums you can imagine.  Decades of neglect and poverty don’t do wonders for a city landscape.

The new Biodiversity Museum by Frank Gheary is a ways away given the route you have to take to be greatly shortened once the coast road opens.  But for now you have to wind your way through a maze of local streets–  Panama City navigation is not easy even with the poor maps you can get so this is for locals to do.   This country has a dearth of museums, sadly, but this should be a much appreciated addition to the flimsy cultural life.   I think there is one other museum only, an art museum.  I’ve been in.  The art is not bad, there is just not much of it.  There is an anthropological museum (I think it was), but the contents were robbed and it never opened, last I heard.

There are some very good restaurants here.  We had dinner in one.  Pomodoro it is called.  Good selection of fairly traditional Italian cuisine, including hand made ravioli.  They have a salad topped with gorgonzola that I really like.

Tomorrow we head for the western part of the country.

From Panama

We flew last night to Panama.  We served in the Peace Corps here 2009-2010  and wrote about it here (there are links to the right).   In the community where we lived on the Costa Rican border they produce some mighty fine coffee and some mighty lovely people, some of the most kind and intelligent people you could imagine.  Under better circumstances they could go very far.

We did a few things while we were there that were helpful.  We helped some of the locals find a better market for their coffee.  We helped set up a local fair, which included booths and entertainment, including the two of us dancing to some international folk music, some traditional Panamanian dance, and a Thai woman performing traditional dance from that country.  We produced a newspaper, helped get trash cans into the community, and set up a website for a local environmental group.  Peg took some children to a development camp and taught budgeting at a local church.

So here we are again for a visit.  Marivel met us at the airport. I did not think she would stop hugging us. It was really sweet.  Her family lives in Santa Clara Chiriqui, in the highlands.  We met her here last time and in fact she lives across the street from Hotel California, where we are staying again.

I think the international section of the airport is new, at least I do not remember it. You are fingerprinted at immigration. We saw some of the new city buses on the way into town.  For decades and decades the people here have been stuffed into old school buses whose ancient diesel engines cloud the air with soot.  I hope these work out better for them.

The highway into town requires a prepaid card, no cash. City streets are dug up making way for the metro. We ate a bit of dinner past midnight local time, 1 am our time and we caught up on the news of her family and made some plans for the next day. She’s staying with us for the day.

Today we plan to visit the Peace Corps office and perhaps our host family for our training period here.