Friday, December 26, 2008

Happy Holidays!

As it turns out... Christmas in the Comarca is not so bad.

I admit that it's hard to send "best wishes" to everyone, especially to those I miss the most, but to all the friends, family, jefes, mentors, and yes "Group 60" -

Merry Christmas and Happy 2009.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Project: Volcan Baru

This is just a quick update - quicker than normal.

The research I plan on doing based on Volcan Baru is progressing, just as it has been since I arrived, but NOW it's time to actually blog about it.

After a year spent in-country and focusing on Peace Corps activities, the hardcore geology work is now ready to take center stage. That is to say, when I'm not juggling aqueduct and latrine construction, I am hiking (or bicycling as it may be) out to my field area to map a volcanic deposit.

The fieldwork has already begun and I'm not joking about taking a bike, my research area is huge and there is a lot of ground to cover. Where am I working? Here:

(The USGS map shows 3 shaded areas: blue is Volcan Baru's edifice, brown is the lahar flow field, and in green is where I am working: the debris avalanche deposit, DAD. The original paper where you can see this map and the full explanation is here:

How do you map a VDAD? The primary features I'm focusing on are the hummocks, already deeply buried by thousands of years of lahar flows, but with a little help of aerial photos and lots of time spent "hoofing it" - I'll be able to map out the extent of the region and hopefully gather enough information to explain how such a large-scale event occurred and when.

More fieldwork should have happened in November, but renewed construction in-site and VERY bad weather changed my plans. During the week of the 16th a major storm system approached Panama's northern coast. A huge cell of rain (is that correct to say? maybe it's better to say "cells") moved in from the Caribbean and sat over the shoreline dumping rain and rising winds. Rivers were flooding, small streams graduated to rushing highways of mud, landslides covered major roads, bridges were damaged, houses were washed away, fincas were drowned, and unfortunately, some rescue efforts failed.
(Photo by Angel Rodriguez; road to Cerro Punta; Rio Chiriqui Viejo)

(Photo by SINAPROC staff; aerial view of flooding in Bocas del Toro, Nov. 16-30, 2008;

Formal report here: United Nations report

PC Volunteers were evacuated where possible, in some cases it was better to ride out the storm than cross the bay of Bocas del Toro, but it's going to be difficult for many of them to return to their sites.

Good luck you guys!

Project: Aqueduct Design

We're ready to go! The Water Committee of Quebrada Mina has finished the final phase of planning and surveying, so we're ready to write proposals and look for some funds.

Over the last 13 months, the committee has been meeting with me and poco-a-poco gearing up to construct a water system that will provide for 23 families. Qda. Mina isn't far from my Calabazalian's, so it has been easy to visit them and plan out how we can bring water to this little Ngabe village.

The final surveying of the area has just taken place: several days were needed to measure everything. For instance, a full day was needed to measure the path of the water lines from the springs to the potential tank area; another day was needed for the primary main line while another was needed for the second main line branch; even more time was needed to figure out how we can get PVC tubes to run up and down and around a sizeable hill... hmmm, by now it's already December... I'm glad the survey is finally done!
(Here's the view after crossing over the hill, the "Problem Hill" that is causing us to talk about shared "plumas" for three of the nearby families. In this view, you can see a clearing in the middle ground, that's where the final house lies: down, around, and up the rise.)

There were several volunteers that stopped by to help the surveying go smoothly. Jess Mehl COS 2008 and Steve Russo G60 helped out early on and got things going (and debated with me the merits of an Abney level vs. Water level - no winner yet!). Later, Kaitlin Green joined me for a day walking with Miguel Mora and a small team, yes, still using the Water level.

Eventually I did use the Abney level to re-measure the primary main line. This was important to get an idea of how much error we are really dealing with in elevation. The large hill toward the end of one of the lines is just too high for comfort, so I was careful about the numbers.

Ultimately, I decided not to cross directly over the summit. We can reroute around the lower flank and reach the final cluster of houses but this means 3 families will need to walk 2 minutes down to a shared pluma. It will be interesting to see how they work this into their lifestyles - currently they hike 5 minutes to a "pozo" that dribbles water below a sharp, slippery drop below the homes. I hope they will see the new design as an improvement!

Thanks for providing the photographic evidence KK! These photos were taken in September '08 while the "aspirante" visited for a week. For sure, I wasn't the only one thrilled to have some one new to talk to :)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Project: Composting Latrine

This is it!

We are setting a deadline. I told my community members (those active in the current project) that the latrines must be finished by December.

The composting latrine project has been limping along for 7 months and before we lose all of our sand again or before I lose my mind, we will now focus on "goal-setting."

How close are we? Very close, so close that it is painful to see so much construction and yet no grand finale.

Here's a view of Latrine #1 - the first of the four:
It's true that Latrine #2 is waiting for penca for the walls (the family doesn't want to cut wood or the material before the right season), so in reality, both Latrine #1 and 2 have come a long way. But #3 and #4 need a lot of work. There is still mixing to do and pvc to connect for #3, but at least the stairs are already finished. I should include a photo of just how lovely they came together, an artistic mix of block and river rocks.

Latrine #4 has been a tragic epic poem. The original family was in and out of the community and rarely available to communicate. Eventually, the decision was made to seek out a new family with which to work. Denying a family a project is a delicate matter and after 2 more months, we smoothed out who will get the latrine. Currently we have moved all of the materials to the new site, now we are prepared to start construction and we still need to level out the ground where we will begin throwing the slab and blocking. We've got a lot to do!

To illustrate better, here's a view from Jess Mehl's project in the community north of me. Jess is in turquoise and I'm in kahki, we're working with 2 of my guys from Quebrada Mina.
This "pilot program" began with great enthusiasm and I think it can end that way. I'm still optimistic that things will go well once people see the construction-phase finished, only then we can begin the "interesting" part of this project: maintaining a composting latrine and seeing the product from "the box."

Former Peace Corps Volunteer Jessica Mehl completed an in-depth study of the compost resulting from this style of latrine. Go here for the full report: Pathogen Destruction and Aerobic Decomposition in Composting Latrines: A Study from Rural Panama

Cultural Differences

Throughout Central America, it is a familiar sound. “Sssssst” When I hear this, I imagine an angry pet owner about to yell. “Sssssst” will make the dog or cat flinch or take its paws off the table. Where I grew up, people say: “Sssssst” when an animal is misbehaving.

Why do I hear this while walking in the city? This noise doesn’t come from pet owners, it comes from random guys in the streets – often construction workers. What does this sound mean? For anyone who hasn’t been to this part of the world, or to Panama at least, it is well-understood that men and boys say: “Sssssst” when they want your attention – a girl’s attention.

I can’t remember the last time I heard a girl “Sssssst” someone, I think it was in a grocery store and a lady wanted to talk to the cashier…

What are the responses to: “Sssssst”? Well, there are very few options as far as I’m concerned. On bad days, you might yell: “Callete!” on a good day you might not respond at all, on a mediocre day you might grimace without turning around, on a very bad day you might walk faster and throw your finger in the air without looking to see who’s been ssssssing.

There really is no good response if being “whistled” at like this bothers you. For me, depending on the day, the spectrum of response is between: angry or “ho-hum” regarding this Latino phenomenon. So after practicing for a year, trying to adjust and accept this behavior, my rule is “no response, ever.”

On November 5th I was walking to the laundry mat in Davíd city – I was getting ready to pack up and take a bus back to site. I passed the construction area that had now thankfully been cleaned up and finished, this part of town has seen some new buildings sprout up. I was almost to the laundry place and had just passed an auto shop when I suddenly heard: “Sssssst.” It had been a good day so far, so ignoring this was no trouble at all; I kept walking without breaking stride. Then I heard: “Sssssst, Obama campeón.” This stopped me; I stopped and turned and saw 3 guys smiling from the depths of the garage. Suddenly realizing that I had broken my “no response, ever” rule, I smiled back.

Friday, October 3, 2008

September Success

Rice harvest in Quebrada Mina:
When I think of Miguel Mora, I think "aqueduct," but when his wife invited me to help with the rice harvest, I got a new view of the committee member.

The grandmother stayed behind, she was already busy "toasting" yesterday's rice and the younger children kept her company - I think the worker crews are also determined by how many tools there are. Harvesting rice is one of the few jobs that doesn't rely on a machete - we needed special "cutters." These are really just wooden dowels with a rubber band and a box-cutter blade, and they're perfectly designed for the work.

We hiked up into the campo to get to the field - halfway along the trail to get to the promising water tank area, ah-ha!

The rice was planted along the steep hillside that faced south, toward the Pacific coast, offering a lovely view as we began to work. Every few paces, I bumped into a stalk of corn, just about ready to be harvested as well. Higher upslope the corn crop was more densely planted, hmm... I think Miguel has been working with planting strategies.

We began the work fairly late, it was 10:00am when we took positions in the field. Even after helping Joselina and Ovidia, I still can't determine the work pattern. I've asked everybody, "should I work to the left, to the right, or straight uphill?" and the answer is always the same: "Wherever! Just collect what you see!" And then I try to respond with: "But aren't you continuing to the right, so I should continue up that way, you have a row and I have a row?"

These conversations always end with armwaving - waving "qualquier dirección." Okay, I'll just work where there's work to be done.

I decided to take what photos I could immediately, Miguel had already asked if I would "document" our work and I joked back that yes, I would collect evidence that the rice was harvested on this day.

So I've posted our cameos - the timing was well-chosen, just 2 hours after we began the work, the graying skies brought us a wall of rain.

I think at least a solid day (a dry day) would have been necessary to finish the work. But next to the budding corn at the top of the hill, blue-tinted rice was also in view and continuing over the shoulder of the "lomas" - Miguel's family has been busy this season!

Rice is hand-cut from the fields, grained, poured into a large cauldron "pila" and toasted, cooled, pounded in a large mortar with an oak (guacha pali) pestle, then sifted on a platter. Only after all of those steps do you get to boil water and cook up the "arroz nuevo" and I agree with my neighbors, it is so much tastier than the stuff sold in stores.

Is the concrete slab safe?
This was a question sticking in my mind after we poured the concrete. Now, after the seat was pulled from the mold and sealed to the floor, I feel better: I think we did a fine job.

This was also great timing. The church is planning a huge, fiesta-like event and will christen (so to speak) the new structure in a matter of weeks. The time is going fast and I expect the directive of the Adventist Church of Calabazal will attach planks and "penca" to finish the outhouse within the week.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


Here are the weaverbirds that have been squawking away in the trees. Finally I had my camera ready when they were around.Yup, he's up there...Also, not sure if I've shared with you all the rambutans (here they're called mamo chino, but I learned the other word in Hawai`i). Have you tried these before?They taste like sweet-tarts, like a semi-sour lychee fruit - the season is already over, but you could see these muppet fruits weighing down trees in San Felix.

This is just a quick update, sorry it's not well-developed. I'm in Panama City for a medical checkup and realized I had some free time to share photos and news.

The composting latrine saga continues but extra materials just arrived to finish the last 2 structures. At this time, the 3rd latrine has been completed (well, the blocking and plancha-throwing) and we have started the carpentry-work for the wooden house that will enclose the sitting area of the latrine (suddenly my description sounds very odd... well obviously, this is official latrine jargon). Why did it take so long for the sand to arrive in town? Because of this:

Some great data came in from the National Aqueduct and Sewer Institute (IDAAN). They handed over the water analysis of my Quebrada Mina springs, so I have some detailed info to share with the water committee.

The critters are still scampering around my penca hut. This recent visitor got a dose of insecticide and immortality on this blog as I share with you the last moment of its life:

A Peace Corps Trainee visited me for a few days and we got to chat about good old Michigan Tech days and how the PCMI program is working out - for us both. The visit allowed us to pasear, survey the last branch of the aqueduct, and jump into the river.

The REALLY rainy season is about to hit and I'm now wondering if my geology fieldwork is going to flounder with the aguaceros. This is a bit of a worry since I'm aiming for some intensive hoofing around the DAD of Volcan Baru in October. I'll stay optimistic, but wary.

Of course the "Saca mi foto" insanity is continuing. I'm gritting my teeth and concentrating on maintaining a sense of humor. Check out the Res. Dogs charisma of my latest solicitors:
At the house of the Comite de Agua meetings, this family also requested portraits. As I waited for the kids to clean up and assemble, these 3 were unsure about stage left or right. The girl on the left ultimately decided our positions and cleared up the confusion of who was in charge - she's in-the-know and will always take the lead when even the PCV is confounded with who's relative is who's. This sharp kid is my other community guide.Also in the late-breaking news, all of the chicks from my hen have passed away. A mysterious tragedy that has left all of us saddened. (I can't hellp thinking that maybe I really should have cooked that hen for my birthday feast...).

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Construction & Juntas

Construction is rampant!

1. Composting Latrine project is continuing (2 more to build)
2. A pit latrine suddenly appears
3. My house gets a make-over.

1. Last April my community received materials to begin construction of composting latrines at 4 different sites in town. The work has been continuing slowly ¨poco a poco,¨ so slowly that the weather has mocked our progress and decided to take away 2 meters of sand. So many rainstorms have been in and out of the community that a significant amount of sand has been reunited with the river.

This week we were lucky to have a few days of semi-sunshine and the road into town dried enough to allow a truck to drive in. Now we have our sand back and are ready to get going, again, with construction. This week is also important since an aspiring PCV will visit me and, guess what, that means said PCVT gets to learn some construction skills - haha!

2. This is a very good time for me to boast about my Community Counterpart. Román Chávez is a very active community member and has been watching step-by-step how Peace Corps Volunteer Beli Cudobu has been instigating projects. Well, maybe I can´t take so much credit, but he suddenly decided that the church had gone long enough without latrine services that, de repente, a pit appeared plus materials to cover it as a bone fide servicio.

He planned the ¨juntas,¨ got the donations, helped dig the pit, and said to me: hey volunteer, want to help build a latrine?

So I joined in, gave a little advice about rebar (hopefully not misplaced) and cement mixing, and helped build the slab for the church´s pit latrine. There was quite a bit of stress when we realized there suddenly wasn´t enough sand or rock to continue - who´s counting shovel-fuls of material?! and almost had to leave the slab like this until more material arrived:
What an engineering snafu:
Would there have been any hope of using this slab if this had sat for a week, waiting for more mix for the gaps?

I don´t know the answer, but I guess I made enough crinkled-nose expressions at the junta because suddenly sand appeared over the hillside and we were in business again. Okay, maybe I shouldn´t take much credit here either: there was a guy helping us that knew the school had excess materials and ample to share with the church, so...
so I should plan my retirement, these people don´t need a PCV to get them to act!

As for the plan for the plancha, the slab was also a bit kapakahi. For anyone interested, this is how the sketch-plan looks:
We had a significant donation of rebar for the project but unfortunately, the pit was dug so wide that most of the bars couldn´t cross the gap, for this reason, we decided to criss- cross and use a ton of wire to connect this web together.

So there it is! The slab was poured and we all celebrated with a mass of photo-ops:

3. My house has been drying up and getting bug-eaten ever since it was built (last December), so my neighbor, the super-human Román, organized a junta for bringing in new penca and bijau (sp?) leaves. Reconstruction began with the shower stall.

Apparently it was clear that the PCV is quite taller than anyone else in the area, so the shower should be adjusted to size - almost out of reach of the neighbors.
After this work, more reinforcements arrived plus materials. Roughly 8 women appeared dragging fresh penca. Each person found a space in the patio and began working on a stack of these palm fronds.

The fronds need to be separated into left and right-hand sides, this allows the builders to alternate the layers in a way that forms overlapping drapes. This kind of work is old hat for these ladies and they were zooming along so fast that I had a hard time focusing the camera. The penca they use comes from palms that grow all over the countryside. The majority of Ngäbe people in the Comarca live in houses of this material and so it is unsurprising that every year the competition for penca grows more fierce. These women had to walk roughly a mile away on muddy foot trails to find these fronds. Suddenly I was glad that I donated such a large quantity of red beans to the junta meal, they needed the energy!
Once the penca was ready, we were just about listo to start on my roof when, de repente hay lluvia: rain began to fall. It only lasted a few minutes but it was enough to cause Román some worry, so we adjusted the work plan. Today we will only fix the roof´s peak, the other gaps in the roof will need more time and more bijau (sp?) leaves.

Then suddenly Francisco was climbing up the pole ladder to begin mending the roof. The rain had stopped and Sixto had just arrived with a new bunch of leaves, so ya, the work restarted.

We decided to be a bit more modern with my roof and placed black trash bags down beneath the bijau (sp?) leaves. After a line of leaves was in place, Román began to hand up the split penca so it could anchor the round leaves while they dry in place. I later learned that the palms didn´t necessarily need to be split to work well but ya sirve.

What work remains? Tons! I´ll report on the status of my roof within the next 3 weeks; there should be great improvements (meaning less water falling on me) by then and also I should have news about the renewed construction of the compost latrines - news and photos.

Stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Planting Rice

It began last May:
When rain began to threaten and winter seemed close, many of the people began to cut and clear their land ¨limpiarla.¨ When the brush and shrubs were cleared away, they waited for the fallen plants and the bare soil to dry. This year, they had to wait much longer than normal - many of my neighbors complained that this was a very wet summer in southern Comarca Ngäbe-Bugle. By late may/early June, plumes of gray could be seen from the hillsides, little by little, the people were able to burn the fields - a final step to prepare the soil.

Ovidia and her family have plans to plant both rice and corn this winter. What kind? I was told there is a ¨fast rice¨ that will only need 3-4 months of growth before it´s harvested.

I arrived in the morning after being invited to photograph their family. It was a bright hot day, but the sky was already filling with clouds.

¨Where will we work?¨

¨This hillside, this is where we will plant rice. On the other side, the children are already planting corn. Put 6-8 grains in each hole and cover well with soil. My brother is already placing the holes (roughly 1 foot apart).¨

So we worked for hours this way, that is, until I decided to photograph my neighboring planters...

Olvidia´s sister, Guillermina worked the right-hand side and asked several questions about what is grown in The States. I tried to explain how family-owned farms still exist but the largescale planting is done by companies. That was when I suddenly remembered that I hadn´t mentioned the Thanksgiving tale to them yet! So, with very rough story-telling skills, I tried to explain how badly the Pilgrims failed when trying to establish crops in New England´s rocky soil:

¨Y el suelo tiene bastante rocas y piedras, no fue posible sembrar muchas cosas. Fue un tiempo malo, un tiempo de hambre. Pero habian grupos de indígenas también ...¨

¨¿Indígenas... como nosotros? ¿Cómo le parece? ¿Cómo está su lenguage?¨

¨Pues, se llama Wampanoag y ellos fueron muy similar a ustedes.¨

¨¿Y su lenguage? ¿Cómo habla en su lenguage?¨

¨Bueno, no estoy muy familiar con el lenguage, pero algunas palabras son como: Annisquam, Wawinet, Quidnet, Nantucket, ... estas son palabras del otro lenguage.¨

¨¿Y que significa tienen las palabras?¨

¨Pues, en realidad, no sé. Algunos discriben lugares.¨

¨Ah, sí.¨

¨Sí, eso es.¨

Her interest in ¨otras indígenas¨ isn´t the first time I´ve encountered questions about different cultures within The States. My other neighbors also ask: do they speak English, do they have land, do they have our skin color (one guy asks if they are ¨red like us¨), do they have hair like us?

And so I continue the story and finish with a punchline:

¨Y la idea nueva fue una estrategía. Pusieron una sardina conjuntos las semillas de maiz.¨
(And the new idea was a strategy. They put sardines in the ground with every corn seed.¨)

I love Thanksgiving and it was wonderful to explain the roots of such a large celebration, of why we celebrate and how: platefuls of food!

I know that the ¨indigenous¨ words I used were just town names in my home state. I know that they likely have a lost meaning, maybe a discription of the region, maybe the name of the particular people that used to live there. But just to sound out the different words, just to give an example of what the language might have been like... I thought that was useful for my Ngäbe friends. The complicated and not-so-idyllic relationship between my ancestors ¨antepasados¨and the original people of New England would be hard to explain. I went as far as saying that we have made ¨convenios¨ with the indigenous people and at least today, there is peace between us.

At just about noon, rain began to fall and suddenly the view to Cerro Iglesias was just a blank sheet, an aguacero was on its way - time for lunch!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A review of spiders

I've accepted that my palm hut is an extension of the Panamanian campo, but I haven't accepted all of the insects and spiders that want to share it with me.

It must be a sign of changing seasons, the rainy winter is now in full swing and terribly huge (5-inch diameter-sized) spiders have suddenly appeared. I've discovered several varieties in my penca ceiling. I've tried to kill most of them, but sometimes I've run out of insecticide and sometimes they simply get away. I'll admit that I still harbor a terrible fear of them, but I'm becoming more fascinated with them as time goes on - I hope that means that I'm getting over my phobia little by little, but in the meantime, I've been in search-and-destroy mode for since June.
This one isn't pure black, so maybe isn't as poisonous as the black tarantulas I was warned about in Training. No need to take chances!

What is that up there? Snow white from insecticide, I was too chicken to kill it with a machete - it's a very large, long-legged spider. Seems to me it was a granddaddy of spiders, it had lost 2 of its rear legs already (maybe already encountered a PCV? maybe already encountered my cat?). Sorry spider, I just can't share my space with you, I don't want to know what would happen to me if you decide to bite.The original color was tan with slightly darker brown joints. A PCV once said that these remind him of spider crabs - I agree; it's not bulky like a classic tarantula from the movies but it's big with articulate limbs... dangerous? Not sure, but later that same week I found 4 more. Do these live in pairs?