Day 68 - Service Training - Swear In

We Swear-In today. That's right we are going to be real Volunteers. We have a swimming test in ten minutes then an hour to shower and change and we are off to historical district of Panama where the ceremony will take place.

I guess the next time I update. I'll have to write "Day 70 - Volunteer Service".


Day 63 - Service Training - Site Visit

We visited our site. It is absolutely beautiful, also really wet. They weren´t lying about the beautiful flowers. I saw orchids and weird ferns and other things that I think of only being able to grow in an conservatory. I spent a lot of time asking, ¨What is this plant here called?¨

The first day we stayed overnight near Chepo and our two guides took us to meet some of the local officials; medics, agriculture extension, the public school organization and that type of thing. I didn´t know what was going on so I was dress in jeans and a t-shirt. Panamanians are a stickler for appearances, so I´m sure we made a great impression. Also one of our guides kept calling us Jovensitos which translates more or less as the little youths. Yeah, lots of respect being garnered already!

The next day we went up the mountain in a chiva. It is no coincidence that these four wheel trucks used to transport goods and people share the name of the Hindu god of creation and destruction. While chivas allow access to very remote sites they are by nature, dirty, slow and cover incredibly rough terrain. Our chiva goes up a mountain, a very steep, always muddy mountain. There were only 15 people in it for our first assent; four guys in the cab and 11 people on the two benches that line the sides of the bed of the pick up. And only once did people need to get out and push. Although, I did loose track of the times I felt the wheels spin or slide.

We got off at the very end of the line. Right in front of the house that belonged to Ramiro. Ramiro is wonderful and he´s actually going to be our host for our first three months in site as well. His house is really pretty and is right next to the edge of a river. It´s actually a small cliff, that´s why he can build so close to the river. The other bank is much lower, so if there´s too much water it floods the other side. He has a house of wood planks with a cement floor, a latrine and four bedrooms. With their kids all living down in Chepo, we had pick of bedrooms. There is no electricity, but Ramiro has a solar panel that runs two light bulbs at night.

After hanging out with Ramiro for a day, we went visiting the neighbors. They all live up the mountain aways. In fact, no one lives very close to each other. We saw the tiny one room school and its six kids. We also saw the two stores, which have the same six things: oil, rice, sugar, cookies, soda and fuel. The people seem nice, if a bit shy.

The following day we helped build a tank to hold water. Basically a water tower, but on the ground. There were several guys from the community there as well as EarthTrain. We wound up staying the night with EarthTrain. They have got five American high school students and six Embera youths living together in this beautiful campus type place. Campus is a lose term, bascially they have some really nice buildings with electricity, Internet and phone coverage. We stayed the night in one of their bungalows. It was quite interesting. I´ll have to write more about them later. But right now let´s suffice it to say, they are basically building a botanical garden to showcase the local flora. So what´s not to love?

After another day or two of meeting the community and going to the school´s party for the kids, we headed back for our final weeks in training. It´s all very exciting. There are lot´s of good stories from our visit that I don´t have time to share, but I hear once we get in site we´ll start having lots of time and maybe I´ll publish some of them.

The only other news is our laptop has a virus right now, and doesn´t want to run. We more than likely got the virus from down loading everyone´s pictures to make a slide show for the going away party for our training community. Hopefully, Jeff can get it all sorted out. I have faith.


Day 51 - Service Training - An Earthy Experience

Another asprirante pointed out to me how sterile it is going to feel going back to the United States. It is true. Here everything is much more earthy. The houses are open air, latrines are the norm and the sounds at night are animals not cars. The best example of the organic feeling here is the local transportation.

Cars are for the rich few. If you catch a bus you will find all of the working class and subsistance farming families in Panama represented. The old yellow school busses are painted at the whim of the owner and packed to the door with live chicks, sweaty people and over full bags of groceries. All buses are driven as fast as possible through curvy asphalt lanes and often on the wrong side of the road when there are pot holes, which is most of the time. Instead of politely pulling a cord to indicate you want off, one yells “parada” as they see where they want off approach.

I think back to the sterility of the Blue Route CyRide I took home from work at the flower shop during college. It had air-conditioning, a lit interior, predictable time tables and rules banning more than two shopping bags per persons. Unlike the mostly college age population on CyRide, on the busses here you will find mothers with their three young children, teenagers in school uniforms, adults in suits going into the city for work, young men in impeccably white sneakers and indigenous Nobe couples with their beaded ankles.

I think I´m going to keep working on this little entry and work it into an article for The Tribune. I think it needs a little more time to ripen though.


Day 50 - Service Training - Teak and Cattle

We’ve had a relatively normal week. Technical for half a day and Language for the other. My Technical class visited a ranch one day with chickens and cattle. The cows for dairy products here are ideally ¾ Holstein and ¼ Spaniard. They look really strange. They are taller and thinner than Holsteins with big horns and black and white spots. I didn’t bring my camera with me that day, but here’s a picture of the cattle they raise for beef from when we were in The Darien. Imagine this cow crossed with a Holstein.

*In the next part the name of the company has been changed to protect me because not everything I have to say is nice. I don´t want it to come back and haunt me.

Another day we visited a local business called Eco Trees*. Their name is kind of a misnomer. They rent land from the government and plant hectares and hectares of Teca (Teak). It sells for a lot as an export to the US and India. It was amazing to drive a curvy gravel path and both sides are just covered in Teak. Our guide insisted that everything was done in a very sustainable manner. They use an organic herbicide called Round-Up. I almost fell off my hard metal folding chair. Considering there are not many regulations on what pesticides you can use in Panama, it is surprising they don’t use something stronger. However, I would hesitate to call Round-Up organic. They also put 2 kilos of agriculture lime per tree because the pH of the soil is so low. I believe he said it is around a pH of 2. I should point out the teak grows in terrible soil and sucks any remaining nutrients out leaving the soil much worse than before.

When I walked into the teak plantation it was surprising how dark it was. Here´s a picture of a teak plantation that I stole from another website. See how the only weeds are near the base where they don´t spray herbicide? Imagine these trees taller with bigger canopies. The teak trees have huge lush green leaves. All the plants under the trees were dead or dying. It is a complete monoculture. Eco Trees* boasts that it is a corridor for wild animals to go between two preserved forest areas of land. We saw not a single animal during our hour hike and even the usual escort of mosquitoes was missing. It was strange and sterile feeling. One can’t even argue Eco Trees* creates lots of jobs helping the local economy. The land they are using used to be cattle land and sustenance farmers. No one lives on this land now and they hire very few to maintain their trees and often they bring the labor in from outside the community.
The really strange part is Eco Trees* is actually listed as a NGO (Non Governmental Organization) kind of like a Not For Profit in the US. They get special tax breaks and they are allowed to rent land from the government because they are “stewarding” it, under the argument that it is better to have teak than cattle and wild animals can live in the trees. What is the most disturbing is the people working for Eco Trees* seem to believe what they are doing is beneficial for the environment and the community.


Day 49 - Service Training - Going to our first site visit

We are approaching 50 days in the Peace Corps. Or rather 50 days in training. Time is starting to go quickly. On Monday we go on to our Community Conference where we will meet a person from our community. I’m nervous. It kind of feels like stage fright. We have a day of lectures and activities with our community guides and then we go with them to visit our community for the first time.

We have five days in our community. I’m not really sure what we are going to do there. The only thing I know we have to do is meet the families who have offered to host us and decided which family to live with and negotiate a price. I’m not really sure what a good price is. Plus talking about money is always awkward and not speaking the language well only intensifies that feeling. We’ve been told that in the more rural communities often the price is buying food for the family for the time you are there, or just paying for your own food. They say that it is about $30 per month per person. It will be interesting to see how that works out.

It will also be interesting to see how the trip into and out of the site goes. People tell us the location of our community is beautiful. A beautiful lush river valley with houses situated up and down the sides. I would like to get some pictures, but we are not supposed to flash around cameras, so we’ll see if we can get some pictures from a distance.


Day 44 - Service Training - Days Off

We are on our way back from Technical Week. I was with nine other SAS (Sustainable Agriculture Systems) Trainies and we learned about all sorts of things. How to plant rice in tanks, make water pumps, agro-reforestation, biodigestors, fish patties, mud stoves, and duck and chicken production. I am sure there are some good stories that come out of this experience, but I haven´t had time to compose them.

We had one free day between Cultural Week and Technical week. Jeff and I spent most of it traveling from way down in the Darian to Pananome. We got a hotel room for $25, a huge splurge since Peace Corps only gave us $25 per person for food and lodging. We figured it would be our anniversary gift to ourselves. We had hot water, which was a wonderful novelty. I took two showers one at night and one in the morning. I´m kind of wish I had taken more advantage of the hot water and taken a shower every two hours or just slept under the nice warm water.

After Technical Week, we had a day off again. Jeff and I met up in Pananome again and from there traveled on to Playa de Palmar, a little beach town recommended to us by a current volunteer. It lived up to the description of ´a really chill surf town.´ We wondered in around noon and after discovering the hotel recommended would be $50 a night, we walked on and found a hostel called El Refugio and for $17.50 per person per night stayed in a beautiful beach side house with some really interesting people. There were three kids in port from Semester at Sea (the program where for a semester college students travel the world in a cruise ship.). Also there was an Australian and several other Panamanians in for the good surfing. The place was run by a guy who grew up with duel American-Panamanian citizenship and his son, who is also bilingual. The beach was a beautiful. Neither of us tried our hand at surfing, but we spent some time in the ocean and in the hostel´s pool. Our night stay included a meal of steak, corn on the cob, green salad and mashed potatoes and gravy. It was delicious. For the most part we hung out on the porch in the hammocks talking or reading or just listing to music. It was so nice to have music other than Typico Panama music. For anyone looking for an inviting place to stay that welcomes you like Family I would suggest El Refugio. Call this number 6605-5399 and ask to make reservations with Jake. Although walk-ins are frequent, if you want one of the private roms you should make a reservation.

Right now we are headed back to our host community for a week or so. Soon here we´ll get to visit our actual site and see where we´ll be living for the next two years.