Saturday, June 21, 2008

A review of critters

Do you think it will work? - It'll take a miracle.

The real work has begun:

Now that the Latrine Committee has organized the families and how to divide up materials, we are constructing 4 composting latrines in my community.

The rock, sand, concrete, rebar, forms, etc has already arrived from the donor agency, ANAM: Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente

My counterpart and I have almost finished the first latrine - hooray!

The controversial idea of this latrine style does not worry me. Will this project prove sustainable? I think it will, we'll see of course, but the conditions/sentiment in this community seem right.

The 4 sites are all located on the lowlands of the Río Santa Lucia, an area that had seen heavy flooding several decades ago. The water table is at a permanent high and easily discovered after a few shovel-fuls of earth. Where the ground isn't boggy, it's rocky and difficult to dig. Pit latrines in this area are not successful - this fact compounded recently when the 4 latrines of the school overflowed during a heavy rainstorm.

The interest in free fertilizer is also strong. The majority of the people maintain small gardens (or clusters of banana) or larger crops higher in the campo on rented land.

It only remains for me to train a few more people how to block and work concrete and this project will carry itself to victory!

Exciting, eh?

"¿Saca mi foto?"

This phrase makes my skin crawl - practically every other child/teen stops me with this question. The news has finally spread: ¡Beli tiene una camera!

I had been extremely cautious with my camera. Based on my experience in the training community and advice from other Volunteers, I practically hid the device for the first 5 months of service. I even felt ambivalent when my professors visited me and carried their cameras in the open.

Why do I feel (still) self-conscious with the camera - conscious to a point of paranoia?

Isn't it cool that, perhaps for the first time in their lives, the people of my community can possess their own family portraits?

No, I don't feel cool about this. I feel a bit used, like a walking photo dispenser. I'm providing a thrill to my neighbors that won't even last. Several families already have photos of themselves due to OTHER volunteers/ extranjeros/ missionaries that have come through. It's almost like each visitor leaves a trail of photos in their wake. When the dueño of the house proudly shows me the photo from 1993, the edges appear tie-dyed. Each fingerprint and damp corner is eroding away; the humidity is destroying the photos and no efforts have been made to preserve the treasure.

The gift of a photograph is just another token that, in a couple of years will just be another piece of trash in the patio.

Families are inviting me to their houses left and right; I "saco" photos of grandfathers, babies, teens in their finest clothing, young men posing with radios, aunts twice removed, the immediate family of 8, ...

The thought that I might be providing a valuable service or a priceless experience is not a convincing argument. The good/fun that comes from this does not convince me that I'm doing the right thing:

* I'm fueling the belief that all gringos carry cameras

* I'm supporting the assumption that I can easily travel in and out of the community, to and from the city (David, in this case) anytime to satisfy the priority of developing people’s photos

* I'm fulfilling the tourist destiny of photographing spectacles
- this puts me in the position as spectator and my neighbors as the objects, whether they know it or not, I don't feel comfortable with this: Am I here visiting some kind of museum or zoo?

* I'm taking their 50¢ or their $3 - yes this is a fair price, but they can't buy enough rice to feed everyone in the family. Despite the fact that I shouldn't put myself in a position to decide how my neighbors work out their personal finances, I don't like the fact that I'm providing the frivolous temptation to them.

* Young children might have "pena" about answering: Hola, but will yell requests to me:
"¿Saca mi foto?"

* Families I've never met or visited in their homes are asking my to stop by with my camera.
"Buenos días. ¿Cómo está?"

"¿Yo? Estoy aquí gracias a Dios."

"Va pa la escuela?"

"Si. ¿Tiene una camera?"

"Aah, pues, sí. Pero estoy caminando también, la camera está allá, en mi casa."

"Aah, así es. ¿Saca mi foto?"

"No tengo la camera, estoy viajando ahorita."

Maybe the expectation isn't really to take the photo RIGHT NOW, but instead of passing a stranger on the road and exchanging greetings and learning who's neighbor of who's cousin I'm talking to, I'm being asked: "¿Saca mi foto?"

What would a good Peace Corps Volunteer do in this situation? Well, I should use these conditions to my advantage:
*This provides many opportunities to visit/pasear with new people.

But it's hard to see the bright side of this. I am the first PC Volunteer to work in my community and one of my legacies will automatically be: Ella tuvo una camera.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

When no one is looking...

A series of local photos.... One morning, walking down to the highway on the footpath, encountered a few familiar sights:

1. Someone has already checked this "membrillo" - nope, not enough meat for a soup. This is the height of the membrillo season (I had been calling these fruits quince, but that's wrong; this membrillo is completely unique to Panama) and these heavy fruits are falling from the sky. When they hit the zinc roofs the jarring: WHAM! is just as alarming as the effect of falling grapefruit (that season has already passed).

How to eat these? Well, the interior is really kind of rubbery and tough, so I suggest allowing a bit of time and cooking diced pieces in a soup or stew. I have to experiment some more (maybe I should try adding oil and frying it?) and there is an ample quantity, so stay tuned!

2. The cacao is constantly growing with no apparent season. This familiar view could be from any day of the year. These are the seeds of the cacao fruit (yummy to eat the soft coating, but then you're left with the large toxic seed).

After you eat the sugary layer inside the cask, let the seed dry in the sun (watch out for the afternoon rain!) then roast/char the seed, grind it up, mix in water, and then you have a fresh glass of chocolate. If possible, add sugar and milk.

My neighbors drink this whenever they are "thirsty" but it is also a symbolic beverage. During vigils and wakes, this is prepared for the visitors and family members. If a person is ill, the family will make a point of preparing cacao.

While it is not at all like Nestle's, this is very tastey and often a welcome change from the ever- popular cup of coffee.

3. I passed Megi's house and she offered me sopa and ponche. She was preparing a meal for her daughter, so was busy cleaning the rice. Melitza had run to change her clothes so she could get her photo taken but Megi remained and quietly worked, grain by grain, to finish her tasks.

4. Employees in the campo: Ranchland borders my community and has crept in where crops have failed one too many times. My brothers Chavez rent their land to host a 30-head herd and the secretary of the water committee (Quebrada Mina) is aspiring to keep 5 terneros, but for the most part, my village survives on agriculture, machete work, and government support.

The bright green fields we walk through to go to and from Escodu represent the "pasta" for the cows and bulls. This is actually a particular kind of grass, a feed for the animals, but it's causing problems for the non-ranchers. The grass is highly invasive and has added its bulk to the campo's aggressive plant life. Now, when a farmer needs to "limpiar el montain," he must cut and burn this sharp, tough grass as well.

5. Like a delicate cocktail umbrella behind an enchanting ear... Why yes, that's a cowpie :

6. Once on the "busita" I joined the other travellers on their way to town - to San Felix. It's still early in the morning, but commuter traffic has already died down and students are in their classes. In town there are shops to browse, church to admire, post office to hassle, hospital to visit, maybe someone hoping for a bouquet of flowers...

7. I've bought granola, powdered milk, instant noodles, peanut butter (they didn't have the good kind this time, too bad), guava jelly, salty crackers, tomato sauce, and oil. Then there was time to review the books saved at the Regional Leader's house. Now I can go back home.

Since it's only 5:00pm, I decide to walk back. The construction on the road has made the trip so much easier. The surface is paved now (tar and chip) and in roughly 45 minutes I'll be at my entrada. Isn't there a chiva? Well..., yes, but the chiva only shows up when it fancies a crowd, so I often prefer to caminar por pie.

For the vistas alone, the trip was also well worth it. A new discovery today: I hadn't noticed that of all of the various epiphytes in the trees, a gnarly cactus was also growing high up above the road. Not only was the cactus happily dangling from the tree branches, it was also in flower. Cactus flowers fascinate me. Maybe that's where that perfumey smell is coming from...