Saturday, January 19, 2008

Christmas '07

Trip to Volcan Baru (a very cold and very wet trip). I´ll share the drier photos here, but 90% of our trip was spent soaked through and colder than I´d like to remember.

We began on Dec. 24th, getting a taxi ride up from Boquete to the entrance of the National Park. The day was misty and cool, but the three of us thought we had a good chance of a clear day: just give it time, right?
By lunchtime, we had a fairly hazy view of the valley below us. Clouds were still moving above and appearing to come down from the north, we continued on. The hike is roughly a 6 hour trip up a 13km path climbing to 11,397 ft (3474 km). It´s a fairly direct route, and in good time, we reached the summit just before sunset.

Unfortunately, by sunset the mist had already become a hard rain: a horizontally blowing rain that stung like hail. It was going to be a very cold night... We had been hoping to share cabin space with the ANAM people who maintained the posts at the summit, but apparently the Christmas holiday was well-respected, even at the volcano summit. We were knocking on all of the doors of those little white buildings you can see in the picture below (after the rainy trail view).

On Christmas morning we woke up and unrolled ourselves from the picnic table, the tarps, each other, and the sleeping bags - I was suddenly happy to be alive: my companions didn´t decide to mutiny and kill me for my sleeping bag! Sincere thanks to Rebecca and Richard.

When we walked with squelching strides back down the volcano, we had a good turn of luck and caught a minibus to take us back to Boquete. I admit that the return trip was a bit miserable, but I think the most miserable of us all was little Dante, Rebecca´s dog. He was barely a year old and he was already suffering the extremes that life in Panama could offer him!

The next day, when we woke up in the warm confines of our hostel, we were greeted by a glorious view of the volcano. Hardly a cloud in the sky, we could see the treeline we had crossed, the domes we had slid down in the dark, and the white ANAM stations that denied us entry. The view reinforced my desire to return, I´ll get back up there and be able to point to the two oceans... one day.

So, when can we go again?

Suggestions for the next trip? Yes, wait until the dry season has actually started. If we had planned to hike just a week or two later, our odds would have been better for a dry time. The trouble is, though, that we ¨should have¨ just waited to hike on the 26th instead of the 24th and then, also, our rain problem would not have existed. So let that be a lesson! It´s still near-impossible to plan around the weather.

First 3 Months

Stay in site! Trying very hard to do so...
Nov. 2007 - Jan. 2008

A time marked by paseando, house construction, adjusting to "stardom," learning the Spangäbe, appreciating yucca with rice and Ramen Noodle, cleaning mildew off leather, loving texting other volunteers, listening to Día de Bandera drum practice, visits to San Felix to check email and charge the cell phone, perfecting bucket baths, buscar leña, write letters home, organize water committee meetings, create community maps.
Also had a chance to work with PCMI Jessica and Adam uphill from me. Their composting latrine project is a large-scale event! So 2 days were spent mixing, blocking, and constructing the bases of latrines. Several of my community members wanted to join me and help out with the work (a great chance to share the ideas about this project, too!). So Miguel, Moises, Milton, and Roman have just gained some construction experience. Hope we can help again Jess! 3 more latrines to go, right?

At this point, it´s hard for me to say if my community will want their own compost latrine project. Many people are telling me they need/want latrines since few exist but this particular style of servicio might not be the most comfortable idea for the people. It would be a big change for someone to accept a fancy-looking latrine into their lifestyle after a lifetime of doing without even a pit latrine. My plan is to approach this matter slowly and get a better idea of what kind of sanitation solution is more sustainable. Stay tuned!

November Festivities:
My small town had been practicing for weeks and weeks; every day around noon we could all hear the drums start up. The school had been preparing to debut their drum corps and flag bearers and was ready to present their dedicated crew to the town during El Día de Indepedencia de Colombia, el 3 de noviembre. This was an important day! Not only did I wear my nagua dress, but the director of the school and every teacher was at the celebration.

First the drummers lead the circuit around the ball field, then the parade worked its way into the commons of the schoolyard. The Panamanian flag was then presented and raised as the entire community held their hands over their hearts (strangely, some hands were positioned over the heart, yes, but as if ready to throw a karate-chop). The formalities were very reminiscent of a Veteran’s Day Parade, but what followed was intriguing. Once the flag was high above us, the teachers invoked a series of presentations. One by one (I believe it was class by class), children stepped out of their tightly formed lines and recited speeches – with gusto! Children exclaimed: I am Panamanian! and reached out their hands to encompass the sky, the campo, the village, the families, the ducking child standing by that just missed the swinging arm... Not only were there well-memorized speeches, 2 students also sang original canciones. Our town has some very talented musicians!

November is a very busy time for honoring la vida de Panama. The Independence Day (from Colombia) is really just the start of festivities. Two more official holidays draw la gente together: El Día de Bandera and later in the month, Independence from Spain. Our students had been practicing for a series of marches, in fact, the following day the whole crew was going to a neighboring town to march down the main street of Quebrada Guabo. Roughly 17 different schools would gather there, march, and face judges to determine which school displayed the best organization, musical skill, choreography, costumes, etc.

Did my community win? No, not this time: but last year they had secured a runner’s up status and took home a prize. Well, there’s always next year and based on how much the community at large loved the drumming (little kids still sing: boom-boom-boombity-boo), I think they can produce a sharp performance.

Do I live in a rainforest? No, you’ll have to go to the Bocas side (Caribbean coast) of the Comarca to encounter rainforest, but in general it is an endangered environment in Panama. My community is tucked into the rugged foothills on the southern slope of the western highlands and very few hints remain of the oldgrowth: there has been so much farming in this region that it’s difficult to imagine the days when the dark interior loomed too dangerously for even the bravest hunters. How long ago did the mountains evolve into the tamed farmlands of corn and fincas of coffee? I haven’t been able to learn that from my neighbor yet, but he can explain how giants from the high mountains used to challenge the people to duels and swiftly disappear to high aeries.

My neighbor Roman is a wonderful story-teller. I’ve learned about the drunken frog that became lost in the stars, the witch of the cocoa tree, and a giant that loved stealing people lunches. Could I retell these stories for you? I wish I could, but these particular favorites were shared with me during my earliest days in site, my limited Spanish filtered only the most general ideas of these stories. But one day (maybe in a few months…) I’ll ask Roman: Hey, I’d like to hear that story again about giant and the heroes. Once I get a better handle on the details, I’ll be ready to share more. Stay tuned!

Swear In

The day arrives:
October 28th 2007

Here´s our group: well first, here are the ladies. The next photo is of the gentlemen. Thanks goes to Ashley, Emily, and Rebecca for sharing photos, it's hard to photograph and BE photographed without becoming a nuisance.

Here we are in the principle park of Casco Viejo, facing the Canal Museum with our backs to a renovated church and square. The photos came first, then the formalities. Once inside the museum we listened to our group representatives, for both of Group 60's two sectors: Environmental Health and Economic Development. There were also speeches from the US Ambassador to Panama, H.E. William Eaton and
Country Director, Peter Redmond which included a recognition and farewell for Meegan March, one of our trainers.

After the ceremony there was time to explore the museum but then we quickly regrouped and prepared to celebrate our successful 3 months of training.

Step 1 of celebration: go eat! We found a wonderful Italian restaurant in Panama City (just one block south of Via Espana): try the gnocchi!

Step 2 of the celebration: go to the beach. Before leaving the city and getting into our new sites, we made plans to celebrate our PC training survival with a trip to the beach: the highly recommended ¨Las Veraneras¨ - I hope to go back there someday! They have very tasty batidos (milkshakes) and offer 2-story cabanas with serious penca roofs (that is to say, rain can't fall through the leaves!).

You can see all of us crowded on the steps of the old church of Casco Viejo - on the same plaza as the Canal Museum. Here we number 36 - a huge group! I plan on returning here someday, this is an interesting part of Panama City that still preserves some of the old architecture and offers nice boulevard -strolling. Later I learned that there is an emerald museum kitty-corner to this church... hmmm.Also, I had mentioned a really great Italian restaurant: That was where we had a final despedida with Meegan and our trainers.

Peace Corps Training

August - October 2007

Training, ah yes, what did Brian always tell me: Just get through training!
My introduction to the Peace Corps began on campus at Michigan Tech, but the real-life experience of it began with several days of staging in Washington, DC. After introductions and many reviews of the Peace Corps goals, challenges, and nuts-n-bolts, our group of 42 aspirantes flew to Panama. I suspect that, country to country the 3 months of training are similar in design but likely wildly different in the ways that the aspiring volunteers are challenged. My days were filled with language classes, tech training (big focus on aqueducts, latrines, and health education), official "Chorrera Meetings," and lots of host family interaction. Toward the end of the 3 months there were several visits to Volunteer sites (definitely high points of the experience). As for adjusting to culture shock and self-assessment/self-doubt, I wasn´t surprised by these challenges but my, they are sneaky mindgames!

The following are some images from the Tech and Cultural Weeks. Both were a good mix of hands-on work and cultural challenges. The EH group visited two different volunteer sites in the Comarca Ngäbe-Bugle and stayed with host families. For some of us, it was a tough challenge to reencounter host family introductions and adjustment issues. Having already lived with a family in our Training Community, it wasn´t so easy to go through the social awkwardness of: hi, my name is... and reexperience the newness of idioms, personal habits, and idiosyncrasies of a new household.

The Tech-Week experience was also great bonding time for us in Group 60. After a long day´s work, we could rely on a gathering at the Co-op. Cookies and sodas and then the pivotal discovery that we could order hojaldres... these were the golden hours.

I´ll be honest here and say that these last 2 photos are not from anywhere near the Comarca. They were taken from an area close to Volcan Baru - from the lower, forested flanks of the volcano. Why was I there during training? Well, there just happened to be a little extra time after Culture Week ended and enough time for a quick run (literally a run) up to Boquete for an afternoon; this proved to be a wondrous vacation for me. The cool climate, the high altitude fresh air, the somehow denser forests, the rugged terrain, the fresh coffee, and the moments of contemplative solitude were very satisfying. Some would complain that Boquete is not what it once was, that it is now a place quite overrun by external influence - this may be true, but up until that visit, I had not known any other place that would serve me a bowl-like mug of cafe con leche. Without shame, I will admit that a you can "supersize" me a latte any day (but I don´t want fries with that, please).

Also, a quick addition. Rebecca was savvy with her camera and documented one of the crazier ¨dynamicas¨ we encountered in Training. Here´s all of us Environmental Health aspirantes doing acrobatics.

Colima, Mexico '07

May - August 2007

Just after the spring semester ended at MTU (May 2007), I took up an internship at the University of Colima, Mexico. Reminiscent of the good old days at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, I met a great group of people researching various aspects of an active volcano. Volcan de Colima is one of the most active volcanoes in Mexico but is poorly understood. The current foci of study are: infrasound, thermal, gas, and ash. A full-fledged observatory doesn't exist to track changes at Colima, but various groups are working to collect data to monitor the hazards. With time, it should be possible to develop a cohesive program of complimentary research and monitoring that will communicate effectively with Proteccion Civil and decision-makers.

Over the course of the summer, many interns came and went and, in Andrew's words shared: "scars and stories."

Incoming students brought various backgrounds
while semi-permanent interns generously became mentors to lead fieldwork. Regular trips to the temporary radar site at Monte Grande (on the lower flank of Colima) and to the summit of Nevado (the immediate neighbor of Colima, a high peak almost level with the volcano) allowed us to do hands-on fieldwork and monitoring. The station located near the summit of Nevado was a perfect observation site; the Proteccion Civil staff was very welcoming and generous with their support. Not only did they facilitate our trips up the long, often gouged-out road through the park, they lent out space to stay overnight and fill up the common spaces with bulky gear. Muchas gracias a Rojo y los otros Superheroes!

Hoping to build on my experiences of geological mapping, instrument installation, and general volcanic monitoring, I joined as many field trips as possible. This was an important opportunity to compare an andesitic volcano with what I have already learned about Hawaiian volcanoes and Mount St. Helens. One of the
primary differences on my mind was the frequency and impact of lahars at Colima. Having just arrived in Mexico at the end of their dry season, odds were good that I'd be able to investigate fresh deposits. Not a fan of gambling and slowly learning that monitoring efforts were planned a bit differently than expected, my hopes to study active lahars fell through, but late in the summer I witnessed my first lahar while in the field with 5 other students.

Michigan Tech '06

The Year On Campus 06-07

The PCMI program (Peace Corps Master's International) on campus is actually fairly old. I learned that the Forestry Department and the Engineers (both Civil and Environmental) have been collaborating with the PC for more than 10 years. Currently, the university is developing a Science Education program that will also partner with Peace Corps, but for the moment, the Geology Department is the youngest MI program on campus. We're the pioneers: Woohoo!

The autumn weather in this part of the world is beautiful. Upper Peninsula weather is "special" and most would agree it's a bit infamous, but before the layers of snow close in, the warm September days are powerfully distracting as the semester begins. Like a classic New England autumn, the maples create a spectacle and follow up with a heaping mess of fallen leaves - the transition is gorgeous.

While worrying about course-load, Peace Corps paperwork, and how to prepare for a 2-year experience in a developing country, I met a lot of great people juggling the same stresses. The geo MIs made up a tight but small group, so I enjoyed sneaking into the events/gatherings of the engineers and foresters. This was especially easy since my housemates were a wonderfully mixed lot: returned volunteers, aspiring volunteers, and adopted PCMI (yes, that's you Dhita). We weren't the only house near campus that focused so much PC power, the 900 House was another magnet for us. Theme parties (the '80s will never die), socials (Jack's movie selection was topnotch!), study sessions (oh GIS), a Thanksgiving extravaganza (special thanks to Matt's Mom&Dad!), Christmas tree management (Panchita and Dhita had a vision), and overflowing washermachine events remain fixed in my memory of domestic life.

How new is my program? New enough that the first wave of students hadn't yet returned from Peace Corps service to defend their thesis. It was possible to email the far-field students, but it was a tough way to get an introduction; this meant that very bit of advice and quickly-typed explanation helped immensely. It's not possible to feel completely prepared for the upcoming experience, but certainly over the course of 2 semesters it's possible to adjust to what is "knowable" and "unknowable." For example...

1. When the PC invitation letter arrives, you will celebrate.
2. When the final exams are over, you will celebrate.
3. When the Spanish skit with ghosts and jungles ends, you will celebrate.
4. When your advisor says: we'll support you, you will celebrate.

1. What country you will serve in.
2. What language you should practice.
3. What thesis topic you will develop.
4. When the PC assignment will arrive.

Important Lesson:
Know when to celebrate.


Winter Carnival on Campus:
Too famous to brush over, too important to forget photos! I could fill up a webpage full of all of the photos I took - but I won't, the university is maintaining a perfectly good site here:
I didn't try broomball, but the MTU winter was great fun. Hockey games, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing (thanks for the invitation Jim!), ice skating (you got better Matt), shoveling, hot chocolate, snow sculpture-touring ... I feel pretty good about the winter semester. I could have done without the Calculus class, but I think we all knew that from the get-go._________________________________________________________________

During both semesters, it wasn't possible to stop mulling over what the next year abroad would be like. Above all possible questions the bothered me the most, I desperately wanted to know if my country of service would offer me volcanoes. I wasn't particularly bothered by the prospect of learning an obscure new language or if I would have to cross piranha-filled rivers someday in order to reach potable water; no, I had more serious concerns. Will I have a volcano to study? This was an "unknowable," a terrible, terrible "unknowable."

Since my geology program focuses on Central American geologic hazards, I felt very comfortable with the prospect of narrowing my mulling activities to 14 countries due south of the United States. Early in the Fall Semester, I took on a project that would appear to have no definite end: a webpage.

As an attempt to both brainstorm what my future work/world would be like, I began a site that could provide information about what volcanic conditions exist in both South and Central American countries. The scope was a bit ridiculous, but I adopted a plan to post what material could possibly help me while I volunteer in the "unknowable" country. We shall see just how helpful this proves to be! _________________________________________________________________

Peace Corps Details:
The application process is long and often painful for aspirants, but I believe that I was spared quite a bit of heartache. Not many complications existed with my forms: I applied to Michigan Tech in Dec. 2005 and didn't click "Send" to complete the Peace Corps online application until August 28th, 2006 before moving to campus. My official interview was held on campus sometime in November (then stretched to a telephone conversation) and the medical checkups happened fairly easily across the Portage. The acceptance letter showed up in December, the assignment details appeared in mid-March.

Mid-March, yes! This was fairly early but certainly felt far too drawn out at the time. Was the post a surprise? Yes to that as well.

Life before the PCMI Program

After moving around a bit, it's hard to remember all of the dates.