Day 121 - Volunteer Service - Culantro Visit

Last Thursday Jeff and I were visiting our neighbors and some how we got to talking about culantro, the local cash crop. It tastes a lot like cilantro, but looks very different. Jose offered to take us up to see his parcel of land where he farms culantro with his two sons.

So we set off at eight the next morning. We start by walking down to the creek near our house. Then we walking up, pretty soon we are really walking/climbing up a really big hill. Having grown up in the plain states I would call it a mountain, a really lush green mountain. We pass through a hillside of cattle before making a final ascension. I am much relieved to realize we are almost at the top, I‘m still not sure where the farm is, but it can‘t be much higher. Then we cut over across a field of corn, and suddenly I realize I am standing in a slash and burn field of culantro.

The soil is black in a way that the soil in town and near our house is not. I can see why slash and burn is so beneficial, all that ash and organic matter gets worked into the soil and it is black. Of course I realize slash and burn is only a temporary augmentation to the soil, but never the less it makes an impression on me.

The hill side is at an angle between 40 and 60 degrees depending on where you are standing. There are stumps and huge fallen tree trunks everywhere and in between are bright green low growing plants of culantro. We walk along the edge and cross a steep culvert caused by erosion. I can hear the soil I am knocking loose bounce its way down the culvert. At this point Jose tells me to stay where I am and he cuts a sapling down with his machette to make me a walking stick for me. I am grateful. Jeff is left to fend for himself.

We pick our way down the side of the hill to where his two sons are cleaning the culantro. They use an insecticide and herbicide to keep out the grass type weeds and grillos (their name for any grasshopper or katydid type bug). However, they clean out the broad leaf weeds, cut off the flowers and remove the older leaves to control fungus all by hand. The only benefit I can see for working on the side of the mountain, is that you can more or less stand up when you clean the culantro.

We asked a lot of questions and learned they began farming culantro only three years ago. The first person to start farming culantro was someone in the neighboring community about five years ago. Right now they take about 120 lbs of culantro into Panama City every week to sell. They earn about $160. For a family of six that is about $18 per person per week. Jeff and I receive about $70 a piece per week from Peace Corps. Granted we have to pay rent and buy all our food, where as our neighbors own their wood plank house, do not pay taxes, and grow all lot of their own food. In addition to culantro they also grow corn, ñame, yuka and tomatoes. Also, they pay no electricity, water or gas bills. All the cooking is done over a fagón (raised cook fire), and at night a single kerosene lamp provides light.

It’s definitely a different way of life. On our way back down the mountain, I was holding a bunch of culantro, and my new walking stick, looking out over a beautiful vista of cattle with the valley spreading out below me like a map. It was one of those “Wow, I am here, in Panama. How did I wind up here?” Then I snapped out of it and continued my muddy decent along a cow trail and headed home to put the culantro in water before it started to wilt.


Day 94 - Volunteer Service - Our Host Family and Starting a Garden

Today I am in luxury. There is an incandescent light bulb overhead and a fan, the kind that requires electricity. Also, my computer is not running off its batteries. Jeff and I came into town to visit with the local extension agencies. We talked with several, one that deals with aqueducts, one with domestic education like family abuse and adult literacy, and one that deals with agriculture. I don’t know what to quite think of it all. I am sure later on they will be useful contacts, but right now they just seem like a side note. We also got a fair amount of time at the internet café. I still am not all the way through the emails that had built up. We plan to go back tomorrow so I can publish this and finish up some other things.

Here´s a picture of our host family´s house:
Here´s is our host father making something with his machette.
This is our host mother, her name is Amelia. Things have been going well in our valley. We have had three weeks in site. The locals can’t quite figure out what to make of our names. More often than not they say Jack for Jeff. And more often than not I am The-Wife-of-Jack than Foy. Everyday we talk to people and that helps with the language. I also try to learn how to conjugate two new verbs a day. Little by little we are improving our language. I even had a conversation with a women who had lost more teeth than were still in her mouth. I think I understood most of what she said. I still have to actively make myself listen. Some days it is easier than others.

We have also taken one day to travel to each of the communities that are about two hours away on foot. They both require a major river crossing and several stream crossings. We haven’t figured out just what we are going to do with ourselves. Although, Jeff seems to have found enough guys to play Ultimate Frisbee with him on a regular basis. In fact just about every day some guy comes by and asks Jeff if he is going to play this afternoon. They refer to the Frisbee as a Platillo or "little plate".

I have started my own little set of flower seedlings that I have been collecting from our neighbors´ gardens. I have found zinnias, cosmos, cleome, firecracker vines and several flowers that no one seems to know the name of. There is actually one really pretty light purple vine flower that I really want, but it doesn’t seem to have seeds. There are also some really beautiful heliconia and ginger (right) I would like to get a plant start from, as I don’t think they will be easy to start from seed. I kept some seeds for tomatoes a neighbor lady brought us, we’ll see if they germinate. I’d like to get some seeds for peppers as well.

The thing I miss most if having fresh herbs. If anyone comes across some good deals on cheap herb seeds you should send them our way. It should be the end of the growing season in Iowa and places should have them discounted. However, don’t mark the mail as containing seeds, as they could be confiscated as illegal contraband.. However, what they don’t know won’t hurt them.

I’d love:
Basil (Genevieve - is my personal favorite)
Lemon verbena
Flat leaf parsley
I’d actually even go for mint, because it would go great with some of the chocolate drinks here. And you know any type of squash, zucchini, pepper or tomato seeds you’ve found wouldn’t be turned down. I’m excited this is the first time I get to really try growing a garden all my own with out anyone else’s inputs, plus I get to grow in a tropical year round local!


First 3 Weeks

We have been in site for about 3 weeks now. Here is a panoramic taken on the return end of the a recent hike we made to the closest community.
In total we hiked 4 hour and crossed 4 river/creeks each way. The whole area is steep hills and invariable my shirt is half soaked with sweat but the top of the first hill. Frequently I wonder why my body is so much more inclined to sweat than any one else here including Foy. I have witnessed one of the young men chase a horse down the road and when he returned with the caught horse he was breathing hard but still baby powder dry. More importantly I wonder if there is some way to change my bodies sweat settings.

We caught a ride to visit one of the local NGOs and in the car was an injured falcon.

The Laughing Falcon was wrapped and tied in fabric, but on a rough down hill section of the muddy path it escaped. In the process of catching and holding this creature it got hold of my middle finger with its rather powerful beak and bit through my finger nail. I bleed some but it turned out not to be too bad. One of the Embera boys at the NGO told me the bird thought my finger was a worm and it was hungry. The head of the NGO, Nathan said it was just afraid. Nathan is likely right, but at the time it was biting me it looked more angry than afraid. Probably just a matter of perspective.
The service guys fixed the public phone in our community it runs off solar panels that charge batteries and connects via satellite not a hardline. When the skies get cloudy the signal is patchy or nonexistent. Considering the weather here involves rain nearly everyday this can be an inconvenience but its better than not having a phone. Foy will send out the number via the massive email list and you can all run out and buy international phone cards and try to call us. If its not cloudy be ready with “¿Foy o Jeff estan cercita? ¿Los gringos de cuerpo de paz?” because some random person at the nearby tienda will answer the phone. This is not really a good idea until we live closer to the phone. We should be moving in 3 months. I will remind you to call us then. Right now we live 10-15 min trek from the phone. Now that I think about it I am not sure people in can call a public phone from the US even with a phone card. Some will just have to try it I guess. I try to walk in and talk with people once a day if we are not doing some other all day activity. My Spanish is improving but talking with Foy in English as much as I do really breaks up the whole immersion process.

Other than chatting to improve my Spanish I play ultimate Frisbee with people when enough people are willing. I sat through one day of school, and taught an English lesson. Walked the aqueduct and made several repairs. More on all these things later Lappy is running out of juice. No more typing till we can recharge.


Day 76 - Volunteer Service - First Week In Site

So we are official, really and truly Peace Corps Volunteers. The Swear-in was surprisingly both short and fun. We were at the Canal Museum in Panama City there were about five - two minute speaches. Then we took an oath promising to help those we could and faciliate the exchange of culture between the United States of America and Panama. Then afterwards we got a private tour of the museum. It was quite nice. Everyone went out to dinner afterwards to an Italian restaurant. I had a salad that was almost half feta cheese.

Side note: My salad of feta cheese was delicious. One thing Panama is ripe for is good world cuisine. Cheese in Typico food is usually oily individually wrapped American style cheese, simply referred to as "the yellow cheese". The white cheese, know as queso blanco, is crumbly and tasteless. Ususually a chunk of it is served with breakfast. I guess one of the benefits of being in a site with out electricity is we won't be subjected to the terrible cheese. Although the downside of that is we won't have access to cheese at all, and you all know how much Jeff likes his cheese.

So back to the night of Swearing In, after the lovely dinner we went on to a wine bar. It was a nice evening, however, I tripped over a piece of pipe sticking about two inches or so out of the sidewalk and ripped a big chunk of skin off my pinky toe so I didn't feel like dancing. After tripping over the piece of pipe I started to notice that it is really common for bits of pipe or rebar to be sticking up out of the sidewalk. How the women here walk around in super high heals with out serious injury is a skill I need to learn.

We had the Friday and Saturday off after our Swear-In and Jeff and I and about 14 others from our group headed down to Santa Clara for a weekend at the beach. We rented two cabanas, one with a complete kitchen, for $15 a person and had a lovely time on the white sand beach, sipping drinks on the deck.

Sunday we arrived in our site after about six hours of traveling from Panama City. It is nice to finally unpack for a while. We have settled in with our host family easily. I have learned how to make Pataconies, the Panamanian version of French fries made from fried plantains. Basically you heat a pot with a half inch of oil then cut the plantains into one inch sections. Fry the plantains in the oil and then take them out of the oil, squish the plantains into flat disks then refry them. Put some salt on top and serve them for any meal you wish.

Right now we are actually back in Panama City because Jeff has a doctor's appointment. He did something to his back and if he bends back too far it hurts. They've done X-rays and stuff and they don't seem to think it is serious. He's going to a follow up appointment right now, and they are going to give him some exercises to strengthen his core muscles. Since Jeff is in for the appointments I get some free time at the computer lab.

By the way, Jeff did get the virus eliminated. Our lap top is great, although we currently have no way to charge it in site.