Day 470 - Volunteer Service - Article 10

This article was published August 29, 2008 in the Ames Tribune Newspaper.

Slash and Burn to Grow More Rice

I am sitting on the porch watching a big swath of hillside go up in smoke. It reminds me of one of Jeff’s stories. Last month Jeff went with Junior, two other relatives and Junior’s dad to ‘tumbar monte’. Tumbar monte is the slash part of slash and burn. They went out with hatchets and started cutting anything tree-like in an area next to a creek on about a 60 percent incline.

Jeff was invited the day before so that morning he set out with his axe to find out just what goes on and to see if there are possible alternatives. While cutting down trees grown men couldn’t circle in half a hug, he asked the farmers what they were going to plant. “We can’t afford rice. The price is going up. This field is going to be rice.”

First, let me explain the average Panamanian eats one and a half pounds of cooked rice a day. About 160 pound of dry rice per person per year. So when rice prices started going up partially due to a law which forbids processed rice from entering the country and partially due to increased transportation costs, the poor were the first to feel it. If they want to keep eating large quantities of rice (which they do), they need to grow it or find more income. The easier route is to grow more. They farm by slash and burn.

Back to Jeff. He is putting blisters on his hands chopping down trees. “Isn’t this a lot of work?” Jeff asks.

“Yes, yes it is,” comes the reply.

“Have you heard of growing rice in shallow earthen tanks? It has higher yields and you can grow three to four times as much rice in the area you would have grown dry rice.”

They have heard about rice tanks. They are adamant they don’t work. They bring Alvero, the father, over to the discussion. Alvero says it’s not their custom. They don’t grow rice that way here.

Jeff, having learned about rice tanks through Peace Corps, says you can grow three crops a year with rice tanks compared to two with dry farming. You can use the tanks year after year so you don’t waste time and energy cutting down trees.

Alvero counters there is no water available. Jeff offers to seek permission to do a demonstration tank using the community aqueduct. Alvero says that rice doesn’t grow in water. Jeff explains certain types of rice grow better in water. All it takes is the right seed which we can help them get.

Eventually Jeff is forced to give up the discussion as Alvero is actually getting angry and they have finished clearing that patch of land. The next day Jeff visits Alvero’s house with a booklet in Spanish with lots of color photos showing a rice tank and how it works. Since then we have asked if they have read it. They say the pictures are pretty. Again we wonder how literate our community is.

We need to find another approach. Possibly inviting some of the young men to visit a community with working rice tanks. Or maybe look for another way to bring in money. With the price of rice and corn rising, it is clear change is coming. Will our community be forced to dismantle and leave the valley to become day laborers? Or will they rise to the challenge and find new ways to produce crops? We hope it is the latter. We also hope they understand we are on their side and want to help them.

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 467 - Volunteer Service - Photos

Below is a link to some photos from the last couple of months. You can find out what we saw at the Indigenous Art Fair and other sites from our life in Panama.


Day 463 - Volunteer Service - Article 9

This article appeared in the Ames Tribune Newspaper on August 22, 2008.

Guest editorial: Growing and selling ornamental plants

We met with Brigades leaders and Earth Train staff at Casa Arias in Panama City. Casa Arias is a huge residence, probably built in the late 1800s. It's all stone with a mahogany and marble staircase. Of course, all of this is in terrible disrepair.

The plan is to restore it. The bottom floor is being reconstructed into two galleries, store spaces and offices. The second floor has a conference room and living space. The third floor has a penthouse rented by a real estate developer, a large roof balcony complete with a huge stone gazebo. There is even a partial fourth floor; it's a widow's walk that gives the most beautiful view of Panama Bay and the Bridge of the Americas. The house is in Casco Viejo, the colonial part of Panama City.

The gallery space will show art made in our valley. Our ornamental plants group will grow plants to sell out of the court yard that adjoins the gallery. It becomes apparent during our meeting that there is still a lot to be done. Our project work with college students in Business Brigades has been handed off to Erica who has been in Panama four days. Erica is the typical business student concerned mostly with efficiency and bare facts. This is the type of person Panama can destroy.

Prices, words and roads are all ephemeral. This is a country where you take the opportunities when available and roll with the punches. During the meeting we discuss logistics, food, transport, hiring extra drivers and house keepers. Eventually a schedule gets worked out.

Fortunately, Erica does adapt with grace and manages to run the Brigade [of 30 some Univerisity of Texas Auston business students] with more efficiency than Panama generally allows. Seven garden beds were dug for six different people and one school [by the Texas students].Jeff and I have had our first work day in the school. We planted flowers and some seeds. The students brought flowers from their own houses to share. No one has names for any of their flowers. It made it very hard to label them. "mystery purple flower No. 1."We have handed out plants and encouraged the women to plant their beds.

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 459 - Volunteer Service - Article 8

This article appeared in the Ames Tribune Newspaper on August 18, 2008.

Guest editorial: Living in Panama is like camping ... for two years

Jeff and I live in a small, rural agricultural community. Population: 42. There is an aqueduct, but no electricity or cell phone signal. When I say aqueduct, I mean PVC pipes that bring fresh water to the houses. Each house has one concrete basin with a faucet. This sink is used to wash laundry, babies and the dishes.

Each family has an outdoor shower, which is nothing more than a zinc-sided booth with a spigot. The water runs onto the ground and is directed away from the house and walkways by open trenches. There are no flush toilets. Everyone has pit latrines.

I miss hot showers. All our water is cool, coming directly off the highest hill. Sometimes I boil the water on the stove and mix it with a bucket of cold water. Then I ladle it over myself. That's as close as I'm going to get to a hot shower.

The houses are either concrete block or wooden boards. Our house is made of wood, has a corrugated metal roof and concrete floors. It has two rooms. We have one of the nicest houses.

Families don't really live in houses. They sleep in them and use them for storage. They live on their porches. We pass time with our neighbors, write, nap and work on the porch. Our dinner table is on the porch. When the climate is 65 degrees to 75 degrees year round, all you really need is a roof.

Every two weeks or so, we go to town (3,000 people) to buy groceries, use the Internet and call home. We buy all our food in the largest mom and pop store. Then we pack it up to ride in the pick-up truck which serves as transportation to and from our valley once each day.

We eat a lot of rice and beans. Without a refrigerator, we are limited to dry goods and fresh produce. I miss cheese, milk and ice cream. I miss ice.

We have a gas stove and oven. The gas is brought up on the same transport for $5 per tank. Most families have a gas stove and a fagon which is a raised cook fire where they smoke meat and cook large quantities of rice.

Living in Panama is like permanently camping for two years. We sleep in a tent of mosquito netting, on a four inch thick cushion of foam. Sometimes I wonder if I miss hot water or a queen size bed more.I know when it comes time to leave Panama in about a year, I will miss our big porch. I will miss the ideal temperatures, passion fruit and this pristine environment where there is no noise and distraction from cars, cell phones, televisions and lights. Then I will take a very long, hot shower.

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 449 - Volunteer Service - Article 7

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

Learning to prepare Panamanian food the long way

A vine, ñame has a big yam looking tuber that will cause a rash if touched before it is cooked.

I've wanted to learn to make typical Panamanian food. Vicky, a Peace Corps Spanish teacher, stayed with us a week helping us improve our Spanish. She decided our final lesson should be how to make carimañola (ñame dough wrapped around grilled meat, then fried) and sancocho (chicken soup). This involved a scavenger hunt to find a live chicken, culantro, ñame, peppers and a grinder.

Carimañola is a carnival (days prior to Ash Wednesday) food. It looks like a twinkie but it is savory and delicious. We cooked the ñame until soft then let it cool before grinding it. Here everyone has the old-fashioned grinder you clamp on a table and use a big crank to run. We ground the ñame and it turned into this gluey-elastic dough. The only thing we added was salt. We wrapped pancake-shaped ñame dough around the shredded chicken breast that had been sautéed with tomatoes, onions, garlic and hot peppers. The ñame ball was then powdered with flour and fried. Oh so good!

I have to back track to killing the chicken. This is something Jeff and I had never done or even witnessed. But Vicky came back with a live pollo de patio (yard chicken). Jeff took it into the back yard and cut off its head. Then it was hung upside down to bleed out. Next it was dipped in scalding water and all the feathers came off easily.

We gutted the chicken. The viscera of chicken is amazingly bright and colorful. The fat is bright yellow, the gall bladder green and the liver brown. We got an anatomy lesson.

We had an eight 1/2-pound bird. Everyone agrees pollo de patio is better than grocery store chicken. I have to agree the meat was firmer and somehow sweeter. I thought I might have qualms about eating an animal I saw killed, but I guess there is more Iowa farm girl in me than I thought. It was more interesting than revolting.

While we were waiting for the boiling ñame, we made the sancocho. This is a soup commonly eaten boiling hot during the hottest part of the day because it will help cool your body. I question this logic, but all Panamanians seem to agree about the cooling properties of the soup.

There are many variations of sancocho. Our soup had chicken, ñame, culantro, onions, garlic, oregano, sweet and hot peppers, carrots and potatoes. The chicken was butchered into big parts with the bones and skin. The liver, egg laying tube, heart, gizzard and feet were also included. The neck would have been included but it disappeared.

I later found the cat, with a very worried-guilty look, gnawing on the neck. We let him keep it. Vicky was disappointed. The neck is one of her favorite parts. We later gave the cat one of the chicken feet. He didn't want to hold still for a picture. It took us all afternoon to collect and cook our food. We ate around 8 p.m. The feast lasted until 9:30. Then we all took cold dark showers, but it was better than going to bed smelling of dead chicken. Then, Vicky made us chamomile tea to aid digestion.

Vicky's gone home. She left on the 11 a.m. chiva, the only chiva. She was our first true overnight guest. I am ready for a break from speaking Spanish 24/7.

Food terms in this article: Sancocho is a popular national soup of Panama. It has become the most common dish to serve to foreigners as part of the country's traditional culture. Carimañola is a roll, typically stuffed.

An opinion on helping Panamanians
Today we spent almost five hours at an Internet café. I spent the time sending e-mails to various contacts and organizations we've worked with or met in Panama. This is by far the most networking I've done in my life. It's really time intensive.

It is odd how every gringo in Panama is part of some small aid organization and wants to be connected to other small aid groups. Not connected to communities or people who need help, but organizations. Peace Corps gives its volunteers the freedom to act as a small group or individual, to decide which project and in which form, how to format and whether or not to work with other groups.

All very nice, but sometimes I feel like there are too many groups, too many outsiders, too many handouts and too many groups who want photos of themselves 'helping' dark-skinned, traditionally-dressed Panamanians. Too much of the attention is given to flashy quick hand-out type aid or to preserving uncut rain forests, completely ignoring the people all together.

Sometimes I feel like a facilitator tying other gringo groups together instead of tying my community together. The people are right here, they are the ones who need my time, not the gringos. I guess I will just have to do both at once, and hopefully not one at the expense of the other.

Foy Spicer and Jeff Diesburg 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.

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.