Day 295 - Volunteer Service - Red Passion Flower

On the front cover of my Costa Rica Plants Guide there is a photo of the most beautiful red passion flower. The other day while riding out in the chiva, I saw one blooming on the side of the road. If I thought I could have been heard over the engine, I might have tried to get the chiva to stop. So I resigned myself to never actually seeing one, but then Jeff brought one home for me! He found it when he was out harvesting corn with some of the guys. Although he then told me he saw one in the road, not a kilometer from our house right after he picked the one in the woods.

This type of passion flower is pretty neat. The vine grows up into the canopy of the rain forest, but it flowers down near the ground. Right where we can enjoy it. I don´t have the book with me so I don´t know the scientific name.

There are many different types of passion flowers in Panama. Two of other passion flowers are cultivated for their edible fruit. Both the maracuya (passion fruit) and the grenadina (grenadine) are used to make chichas - the typical juice type drink here in Panama. We really like the maracuya and we have seven little plantlings started in two different locations. We´re hoping to get some fruit on them before our time is up.


Water is important

We are in Chepo again after only ten days. Tomorrow a Spanish teacher provided by PC will meet us here and accompany us back home to be our first guest. She will stay for four days to work on improving our language. Which makes it sound like we have a swearing problem, but no. The actual teaching is a great help, but not being able to speak to each other in English for the duration of her visit to avoid being rude helps almost as much. It would be excellent if we could bring ourselves to converse in Spanish in our home, without being forced to by company, but I doubt it will happen. Foy and I are constantly aware that being here as a couple lessens the the feeling of cultural isolation. In Spanish, I can say whatever I need to, but I lack depth and preciseness. Being able to fully articulate my thoughts in English and bounce them off Foy makes living in Panama easier.

It rained heavily for four hours this morning. This is what the river looked like on the way to town. Later I will post a picture of the river when not cresting for comparison. On the other side of the valley wall everything was dry and dusty all the wayto Chepo. One volunteer told us her community had not received rain since December. In less saturated parts of Panama availability of water and aqueducts are a problem.

We arrived in Chepo covered with dust and checked into our favorite local hotel. Twenty dollars a night for AC, but only twelve for a room with a fan. After Foy had washed up, I decided rinse off with a quick shower. Hot water is not common, so I have become accustom to quickly splashing myself with the cold water then turning it off to soap up. This time however, when I turned the water back on, the shower head made an ominous gurgling noise. I tipped my forlorn face to the floor and put the top of my head to the wall letting the last three drip, drip, drips hit my neck. The water was out. I considered my limited options. Only one option really. I opened the shower curtain, lifted the lid off the back of the toilet, and cupping my hands, scooped. I quickly rinsed my body and short cropped hair, the road's dust washed to the drain in rivulets of muddy soapy water. Scooping water in combination with using the ¨L¨ of my index finger and thumb as a squeegee required remarkably little water for me to feel tolerably clean. Looking on the bright side, I am lucky the bathroom is small enough to put the toilet in arms reach of the shower.

The Brigades group that visited in January left drawing and coloring supplies for the children in our area.

This is my favorite piece produced thus far. Just take a moment to absorb the diversity of symbols and characters. This was made by a visitor to the community during carnival. I don't know him but I think he was about ten.

Some people appreciate puns more than others. If you do not, then enjoy this cute picture of our cat and read no further.

The Romans conquered the Greeks, but were so enamored with their culture that they emulated many aspects of it. Zeus is the Greek name for the king and father of their pantheon of gods. It is thought that the Romans, in attempting to adopt this god as their own misunderstood the Greeks saying "Zeus pater" and named the all father Jupiter.

This picture represents the work of a "Zeus potter".
Sorry to those of you who read that, I was feeling "clever".



We should be in our site right now. This morning we waited for our ride for about two hours, then started asking around. Turns out the transport driver did not feel like driving today. It is Sunday and I guess he can take a day off if he wants, but it is pretty inconvenient for us. This extra time in Chepo does give me a chance to make an unprecedented two posts in two days.Here is Foy with the XO. She looks unhappy because we meant to be home yesterday.

I have fiddled with it for several hours now. I can play one song at a time, view pictures, and move files. That along with typing is pretty much all we need. I hope it has some kind of spell check. The Linux OS is pretty buggy and as Foy read through the FAQs sheet Steven included with the XO, she saw nearly all the bugs I was complaining about listed as "known bug to be fixed in an upcoming version".

When we open the XO up I showed it off to the PC office tech guy. He brought the Country Directer out for a look.

I happened to find the camera function.


Not Too Far For a Visit

At times it seems we are in a completely different world, but Panama is not that far away. Hop on a quick two and a half hour flight from Miami to Panama city and you are most of the way here.

Note the insignificant distance between the two red dots.

We now have a guest bedroom set up. If you have the inclination and the resources we would love have friends and family come and visit. Just email us ahead of time and we can work out the details. I recommend not coming during the wet season Oct- mid Jan.This is a front view of our house. We will be here until Aug. 2009 waiting for you.

On a side note the crew working on our road has made great progress. A trip into or out of our site is now much easier, quicker, and dustier. The work appears to be done in a manner so that when the constant heavy rains return the road will quickly revert to the muddy quagmire it so recently was. Sigh.

We went to The City yesterday to get general work done and pick up some very important packages in the PC office. There were six things waiting for us. One had a letter inside that started with Happy Halloween and three others were Christmas gifts.

The most anticipated item was our XO (I will get some pictures of it later). The XO is the product of the "One Laptop Per Child" project. Brought to us by the heroic deeds of my younger brother, and despite the best efforts of FedEx to sabotage the delivery, we now have an indestructible marvel of child-sized, waterproof, computing technology. Now I need to figure out how to use it.

Unfortunately it did not come with the crank charger that children in developing countries get, so I will have to work out how to charge it with our solar panel.

Normally, we catch a busito (small public transport with AC) back to Chepo, but we were too late in the day, and so had the pleasure of riding this full sized bus.

The photo does not do its gold paint and seven hood ornaments justice. If possible we will try to catch busitos in the future.

Some days we get more done than others. One morning last week I decided it was time we plant the avocados that Foy started in plastic bags at Ramiro´s house. In the process of planting them on the back hill, Foy said "We should really limpiar this area". This is not the first time she has mentioned it and since we were already out there I got started."Limpiar" means to clean. In Panama it also means to cut down anything that the jungle has managed regrow in your field, along the road, or around your house. I like to think of it as mowing the lawn with a sword. I am nearly done limpiaring the area behind our house, when it occurs to me that being out here, in my swim trunks and sandals, swinging my machete is about as close as this tall white guy gets to being Panamanian.

At the PML conference mentioned in earlier posts, I did a few pen sketches. This one of an other PC Volunteer is my favorite.Combination Jonny Depp / trucker.



Would you like to look at more photos like this one, of our life in Panama? Just click here: http://picasaweb.google.co.uk/FoySpicer/PeaceCorpsPhotos

Day 178 - Volunteer Service - Articles 2 and 3

My lovely mother has been typing up excerpts from the long hand written letters I send home. Two of them were recently published in the Ames Tribune.

This article appeared in the Ames Tribune Newspaper on February 8th, 2008.

Guest column: The 8-year-old child of Panama
Foy and Jeff are Peace Corps volunteers in central Panama, some 40 miles northeast of Panama City. They live in El Valle in the Province of Panama. The town of about 50 people has no electricity. Foy and Jeff are 1999 graduates of Ames High School and 2003 graduates of Iowa State University. Their Peace Corps assignment is from May 2007 to Aug. 2009.
Periodically, when they can send them, Foy and Jeff will report of their experiences in The Tribune. The newspaper is glad to bring Ames readers a glimpse of life in another corner of the world. This message comes from late December.

Dec. 20
Jesús is always here. He's 8 years old and the most interesting part of his day is visiting our house. He's already been here twice today and it is just after lunch. School has let out for the summer. Summer is December through March. Here's Jesus with his dad.

Jeff is really good with him. He sits and reads with him. We have a couple of Spanish kids books, and he can't get enough of them. He'll even sit and read aloud to himself. He loves to ask questions and repeat our answers and quiz us about English words. The fact someone is paying attention to him is novel.
Here, parenting is done with loving neglect. Kids are pretty much ignored by their parents. When we meet new people, they never introduce their children unless we ask. Kids have no responsibilities except to go to school, and if they don't feel like it, they often don't go. It is amazing they grow up into good adults. I guess they just learn lessons the hard way. They learn the cat will scratch when picked up by his tail, the stove is hot and dropped glasses break into pointy shards when knocked onto concrete. It is just one of the many cultural differences.
Dec. 25
Earlier I had talked to Jesús about Christmas traditions and how in the United States we hang a stocking by the chimney, and Santa Claus will visit during the night and leave candy if you are good and coal if you are bad. There are no chimneys here so we put one of his socks on the clothes line. I conspired with his mother and during the night she put the candy that I gave her in his stocking. I am pretty sure that 8-year-old Jesús believes Santa visited him.
Dec. 27
Jesús lost a tooth this week. I asked him what he did with his tooth. He threw it on the roof. Apparently, the tooth fairy equivalent here is Ratoncito. After asking around, I discovered every house has a Ratoncito. He's basically a little mouse with great big ears that he uses to fly, Dumbo style. They say he's kind of a burnt-orange
color and only comes out at night.
When you lose a tooth you sing this song and throw the tooth on the roof. "Ratoncito, Ratoncito take my little tooth and leave me a new big tooth." This rhymes in Spanish. After their explanation, I told them that in the United States, the tooth fairy takes your tooth from under your pillow and leaves a gift. The locals thought this was hilarious and stupid. Like flying mice make perfect sense.
This article appeared in the Ames Tribune Newspaper on February 1, 2008.
Some nine miles in three hours
Foy and Jeff are Peace Corps volunteers in central Panama, 40 miles northeast of Panama City. They live in El Valle in the Province of Panama. The town of about 50 people has no electricity. Foy and Jeff are 1999 graduates of Ames High School and 2003 graduates of Iowa State University. Their Peace Corps assignment is from May 2007 to August 2009.

Periodically, when they can send them, Foy and jeff will report of their experiences in The Tribune. The newspaper is glad to bring Ames readers a glimpse of life in another corner of the world. This message comes from mid-December.
Anywhere in the United States, and we would have been arrested by now. Or at least asked to move on; no loitering allowed. But this is Panama, and the businesses profit from the people esperar (waiting/expecting, they are the same word in Spanish) for some sort of transportation to arrive.
We just found out Javier's chiva is broken and we hope that the 15 to 20 people waiting here will be able to convince someone to take a group of us up towards El Valle. Most of us have been loitering here since 8 a.m. It is now 10 a.m.
We are entering the dry season, the time of planting. At times between Thanksgiving and Christmas, no transportation reached El Valle. When a transport gets stuck in mud, everyone gets out. The women walk up the hill with the children, and the men push the truck out. Sometimes, pushing isn't enough. Sometimes, the truck has sunk deep into the mud and made ruts. Then the men pile stones or logs or whatever is handy under the wheels and push.
(A day later) Jeff and I are now safely back in El Valle. We mooched a ride
with some people who hired a private car. It really wasn't mooching as we paid
$5 each, and the others paid $2 to $4, as they could afford, per person. Without
us, I doubt they could have gotten together the $40 needed to convince the
driver to go up. (There were 12 adults and two babies.) The car did go all the
way up to El Valle; we were the only passengers left.
On the way up, we passed at least eight guys with sackos of cilantro (a sacko is a 100-pound rice bag which is quite big and heavy filled with cilantro). All were waiting for rides down into Chepo. If you consider gas costs about $15 to run the car up and back and the driver made $40 each way, he nets about $65, about $12 per hour. The average laborer makes $6 per day. It is profitable to be a chiva driver in our valley.
I would like to write a brief description of the vehicle that brought us up. The overall appearance is a really old, beat-up '70s style SUV. The driver and front passenger sit in torn fake leather bucket seats repaired with black electrical tape. Behind these seats is a bench of equally poor repair and then a large cargo area in back. This vehicle can hold three up front, four adults and a baby on the bench seat and five grown men in the back perched on top of all the groceries, gas tanks and sacks of rice.
The dashboard is a series of empty sockets where things like a radio and gas
gauge used to be. To cover up or maybe just distract from the gaping holes, gold
outlined stickers of Winnie the Pooh and Jesus on the cross have been applied to
the sun visors and steering wheel.
The gas gauge is irrelevant anyway because the gas tank rusted out years ago and has been replaced by a closed plastic tub that sits on the floor on the front passenger side. A tube runs through the floor to supply gas to the engine. To fill the tank, the hose at the gas station is passed through the window, the lid is taken off the tub and the gas sloshes in at the feet of the mother with her 4-month old baby. Obviously, there are no enforced vehicle road worthiness rules in these parts.
As long as I am not seated next to the gas tub or clinging to the tailgate, I consider myself in a decent vehicle and am only too happy to spend $5 to get myself and my groceries into El Valle.

Foy and Jeff are Peace Corps volunteers in central Panama, some 40 miles northeast of Panama City. They live in a town of about 50 people that has no electricity. Their Peace Corps assignment is from May 2007 to Aug. 2009.


Day 271 - Volunteer Service - Carnival

Carnival is the Central and South American answer to Mardi-Gras. While ostensibly a celebration for Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday which signals the beginning of Lent. This all pertains to the Catholic Church. However, whether you are Catholic or not, you celebrate Carnival. In fact they have gone so far as to make it a verb. You can go ¨carnivaling¨ or ¨be all carnivaled out¨. In the Azuero (the peninsula of Panama) carnivaling is taken very seriously. The big thing is Culecos (water parties) during the day and Bailes (night clubs) all night. They also have a Regina (Queen) competition.  The picture at right is a culeco at Pananome.

We decided to opt out. Our January was just jam packed with stuff, so by the time Carnival rolled around we thought we would just chill out in our tiny community of 26 people. We couldn´t have been more wrong. There are five families in El Valle. Every single one invited all their friends and relatives to come to El Valle to party in a more family friendly environment. How does one party in the Campo? By having a Matanza - killing party. In this case one family killed a cow and another a pig. So Jeff and I helped with the butchering.
Being a women, I went down to the river with the women and washed and prepared the mondungo. We washed out all four cow stomachs and then let them stew in their own juices in a bucket, while we washed out the intestines - both inside and out. 
Then we scraped the inside layer off the stomachs. It looks a lot like fur. There were many jokes about making a fur coat. It was actually a fairly fascinating process. Jeff helped cut the meat into long strips to slow cook over a big fire. There was no distinction between the meat. No roasts, steaks, rib eye, rump it was all just rez (cow meat).
Jeff and I and the ladies of the family also made bollos (pronounced Boy-ohs). Bollos are a plain corn tamale. We ground corn into a paste then mixed it with salt. There were several different types made, coconut and corn,molasses and corn, and butter and corn. All were very tasty. After making the corn mixture, the dough is rolled into fat hot dog shapes. 
The fat hot dogs are wrapped in sugar cane leaves and then boiled in a huge pot over a fire. Once cooled they are ready to eat. We must have made at least a hundred bollos and they were gone by the next day´s dinner.
Besides being stuffed silly, I also brought out all the markers, crayons and pencils that were gifted by Business Brigades and we had a big coloring table for the kids. There was also a Catholic mass at the school for Carnival to remember how it all got started. And to scold people for drinking. This didn´t stop the men from drinking large quantities of saco (sugar cane alcohol, like bad rum) every night.

I was actually, really happy when it all came to an end. We were due for some rest.