Day 376 - Volunteer Service - Article 5

Students, faculty visit Panama

Jeff writes: March 8 two students from McGill University in Montreal came to stay in our house for several days. They are working with Conservation through Research Education and Action, an environmental nonprofit organization working to save tropical ecosystems.

The students will be in Panama five months and are first gathering information to write papers about the spice, culantro, (similar in flavor to cilantro, not a misspelling). Since every man over the age of 12 in our little community raises at least a bit of culantro, this is a good place to be asking such questions.

Our community is small, up to 60 people if you count the suburbs, but only about 26 people within the city limits. We introduced the students to our neighbors and stayed with them the first night, then had to leave to meet 32 University of Texas, Austin students. They were from Global Business Brigades, an international program whose mission is to empower students and professionals to develop micro-enterprise solutions that strengthen communities in developing nations.

We left the McGill students in our house and spent the next two nights with the Texas students at Earth Train's headquarters. We helped give a presentation to the community. We had a good turnout. One of the little girls who came asked Foy if the students were movie stars. She was sure that one was an actress in Zorro, a popular Latin soap opera, because the student from Texas had red hair. Here's the group of Texans getting a quicky Spanish lesson.

The Texas students were working on an ornamental plants project. Foy has been providing suggestions because her degree is in horticulture, and she's worked at several major public gardens in the United States. The students completed seven double-dig beds for families and one for the school (picture left) to grow ornamental plants. We had to leave the Texas group to attend the Peace Corps All Volunteer Conference, but when we met them in Panama City, they were in high spirits and had enjoyed their time. After dinner with them, we went to a live performance of what the club hosting it described as symphony reggae.

Foy writes: My part in the ornamental plants project is to find local women who will participate. They will raise plants to use in micro-gardens. These mini-jungles will be sold in natural pots promoting and educating about the Rio MadroƱo Valley. The natural pots could be the fruit from the totuma or calabash tree. Natives use these to make bowls and spoons and some paint birds and flowers on them to be used as wall hangings. We've cut some totumas in half and drilled three holes to thread string to hang them. We need to let them dry before putting plants in but they look good so far. The Brigades group needs to help the women determine where to sell them and the price.

The culantro growers project is much more up in the air. When I asked a couple of guys if they would take some gringos (the McGill students) out to their fincas (farms) and tell them about culantro, their first question was, 'Solteras?" (Single women?) Sigh.

On March 17, I met with Iowa State University professors Russ Mullen and Dawn Bratsch-Prince at the City of Knowledge, an international complex for education, research and innovation located on the former Fort Clayton military base. A group of Iowa State students will come to Panama this summer on an agronomy and photography travel study course. I gave the two suggestions for places to visit and contact names. Here's the ISU group visiting mangroves.

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.

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