Day 498 - Volunteer Service - Article 13

This article appeared in the Ames Tribune Newspaper on September 26, 2008.

Guest Editorial: What's in yer pickup?

We are in route to Isla Grande for our one-year-in-Panama celebration. When we arrived in Washington, D.C., for staging in May 2007, the Peace Corps had a list of 34 names of volunteers for Panama. Two applicants didn't show up. Two volunteers left during training, two more left right after we went to our separate sites, and a married couple went home in April to have their first child. We're now at 28. Twenty of us made it to Isla Grande to celebrate.

The transportation from home to the real road can be dodgy. This time we came out in an extended cab pickup rather than the regular chiva. This is the first time I have seen people chose not to get on any vehicle because it was too full. We had:
20 people (5 children),
4 70-pound sacks of cilantro (each about the size of a large duffel
2 propane tanks,
1 5-gallon gas tank,
10 or more backpack type bags of varying sizes,
and1 puppy.

To make the trip interesting, there was a transportation strike in Colon (the city at the north end of The Canal). We were almost the last to get there. The first to arrive eventually were taken by the police to headquarters. The amazingly helpful officers then provided a private 30-passenger bus and driver gratis. Our Peace Corps security officer is more than effective, and I suspect the Colon police still are shaken up from the last interaction they had with her.

By the time we got to Colon, all this was done, and we got off our bus to try to flag down a taxi. Due to the strike, all the taxi drivers avoided us like brujas (witch or evil spirit). Foy caught the eye of an ambulance driver who took pity on the stranded gringos and gave us a lift to our friends. That's right, Foy hitched an ambulance. All that remained was an easy ride to port and a short bit by boat to Isla Grande.

We had a great time with our fellow volunteers. There is a nice resort on the other side of the island. Foy and I hiked over for a good but rather expensive dinner. On the way, Foy walked within six inches of a fur-de-lance (very poisonous and aggressive snake). I saw it sitting along the trail just as she was walking past. Luckily, it seemed sick or very sleepy and quite uninterested in Foy's ankle.

We are currently in Panama City for our one-year medical exams. While we were waiting in the office, Marcela, our embassy family hostess, called saying that her neighbor had met my godmother's sister. She gave me the number of an embassy nurse who was having lunch with said sister. I called, and Foy and I ended up having a pleasant dinner with Jim and Jan. That's networking! They have just moved to Panama, and we shared their first meal in their fine apartment.

Foy and Jeff's Peace Corps assignment is from May 2007 to Aug. 2009.



Before leaving for Panama we looked on the Peace Corps website which claims about half of the volunteer communities in Panama have electricity. Portable solar panels are somewhat costly, but we decided that being able to charge our computer would be worth it. Foy's father suggested that before I order something I check out PowerFilm Solar a company that makes unique flexible solar cells in a building on the edge of Ames, our hometown.

Unfortunately PowerFilm did not have a store at the Ames office, but after explaining that we were planing on using a solar panel during our Peace Corps service they offered to donate one to the cause.

Our solar panels gathering precious energy. The second panel was mailed to us by Foy's parents.
Foy's father built this light that runs off batteries charged by the panels. The batteries are smaller versions of car batteries. Car batteries can accept low levels of energy that picky laptop batteries will not use.

Our laptop was stolen and the XO turned out to be less than water proof so we don´t charge a computer with them. The panels provide us with light in the evenings na ma. (Country pronunciation of nada mas which means, "nothing more".)

The country director for Peace Corps Panama, Peter Redmond asked the newest group, "If you could have only one, would you prefer running water or electricity?" Several chose electricity and I thought, "You have chosen... poorly" (think Indiana Jones and The Holy Grail).

After a strong storm it is common for the aqueduct that provides water to our community to be out of commission for a few days. Usually a tree falls breaking tubes or the tubes becomes clogged with debris. Compared to a day without water, it surprises me how little I miss electricity.


Day 485 - Volunteer Service - Article 12

This article appeared in the Ames Tribune Newspaper on September 12, 2008.

Guest editorial: Sex education in rural panama

We're working with the Peace Corps Gender and Development group and volunteers from another organization to hold classes on sex education and birth control plus social and legal responsibilities. Panama is like the United States in that an adult who has sex with a minor (under the age of 18) can be prosocuted for statutory rape.

Drew, a Peace Corps worker, came up, and we went up to another village. With the help of CREA's two volunteers, we presented a sex education talk. There was a fairly decent turnout, mostly men. We had an anonymous question box. Many of the questions were about what age it is possible to get pregnant.

This is Jorelines' family (left to right) dad, Jorelines, mom, grandma, uncle. Her mother was just 17 and had to leave school when she found out she was pregnant. This was an unplanned pregnancy. Abortion is illegal in Panama.

Can a 12-year-old or 45-year-old have babies? And there were questions that made you wonder about sexually transmitted diseases. What does it mean if it hurts to urinate? Those type of questions.

This village has girls ages 13 to 15 who are with guys ages 20 to 35. The girls are getting pregnant. One of the families filed a lawsuit against one guy. He went to jail for three months. Now he's back, and the 14-year-old is pregnant, and he wants to marry her. The girl's parents are unwilling.

Drew gave the talk, and he was great. He speaks just like a Panamanian. He's got the words, the phrases, even how he laughs. I'm glad he came.

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 481 - Volunteer Service - Article 11

This article appeared in the Ames Tribune Newspaper on September 9, 2008.

Glimpses of life in rural Panama

Sample liquor
The last time we were in Panama City, we went to a big chain supermarket. Jeff was looking for the soy substitute for meat when he passed a woman giving out samples of tequila. About half a shot worth, and she even had lime and salt.

Curious George
The other day, after a medical visit to the school, all the moms and babies visited our house. There were at least six women and possibly twice that many babies and children. We brought out every chair we had and then all the books and coloring supplies to entertain our guests. It was interesting to watch one little old lady with a child about one year old on her lap. She had a picture book of Curious George in Spanish. She flipped through the pages showing the baby. The entire time, the book was upside down.

Jeff sat down next to a guy he didn't know. He asked him "Como se llama?" which is the formal, indirect way to ask how someone is called. The man replied, "Batman." Jeff looked confused "Como?" he asked again. "Batman." Jeff took this for a joke and replied, "Entonces, Soy Superman." (Well, I am Superman.) Now the man looked confused. Jeff gestured with his hands and said, "I'm Superman, and you are Batman." The man started laughing and pointed to the dog. The dog's name was Batman. The dog had walked by about the time Jeff asked his question. It's so much fun to have a language with formal tense.

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.


Cerro Punta, Los Nubes, and Parke National de Amistad

Foy and I have a standing invitation to friends and family plucky enough to visit us in Panama. Jamie, a friend of Foy's from her time working in Pennsylvania has taken us up on the offer.

I had mentally mapped out our route to meet Jamie at the airport and even figured in a bit of buffer time. Skipping the boring details of dysfunctional public transportation, we were about an hour late. No excuses, I should have known better and allowed more room for error.

We spent the night in Chepo, and caught the daily transport to our house the next morning. Over the course of several days at our house Jamie was introduced to all the families in our community and we walked to the nearby picturesque cascades/waterfall.

We always eat better when we have company and Foy produced several fine meals. One afternoon we made cariminlas a fried carnival food made of yuca (cassava) and collected nance (small sour fruit with a distinctive/unpleasant flavor) for chicha (sugary drink).

Foy and I sometimes talk about "couple culture". Over time couples develop a slightly skewed way of interacting and communicating. This includes, among other things, division of labor. We find that one of us has a skill for this, or prefers to do that, or just happened to do something first and so continues to do it. For example I build and make things, wash the dishes, navigate, and manage the cellphone. Foy has taken over the cooking, makes lists and calenders, and does the bulk of our networking. Somethings neither or both of us enjoy and so share, like hand washing cloths. I digress.

Foy mapped out several options and Jamie unimpressed by the sun+sand+water equation chose hiking in the temperate uplands around Volcan Baru.

We frittered away a day in Albrook Mall and took the midnight express to David. The overnight was not fun but it was effective. We avoided the expense of a hotel and shortened travel time in the bargain. Early then next morning we made our way to Cielito Sur (little southern heaven) a four room bed and breakfast north of the town Volcan. It was a little out our price range but worth it. A retired bilingual Panamanian couple run the B&B, and made us an excellent breakfast in the morning. Foy was enchanted with the bathroom, which had a tub and lots of hot water.

The next day we made our way to Cerro Punta and are staying at Los Quetzales. This is the same place we went for Thanksgiving last year, and we will be returning there for our second Peace Corps Thanksgiving this coming November. Yesterday we walked to Finca Dracula named for their Dracula Orchids. It costs two dollars to look around and ten dollars a piece for a guided tour. We were unaware of the unguided option but learned about it later to our chagrin. Despite playing the roll of foolish tourist gringos the orchid growing operation was interesting.

Today was for hiking. Foy and Jamie went out this morning while I loafed and made this post. We headed out this afternoon and hiked a short trail at Los Nubes (The Clouds) entrance to Parque Nacional de Amistad (National Park of Friendship). Tomorrow we head back to Panama City for Jamie to finish out her eleven day visit.

There are days when I feel productive and happy to be living and working in Panama. Other days are more towards the disheartening futile labor end of the spectrum. Peace Corps is definitely not a two year vacation. Other than occasionally tacking a day on to the end of required trips Foy and I have not taken vacations. Our bi-monthly trips to buy food keep us connected and sane. Over all we enjoy living in our community. Thus far we are relying solely on our Peace Corps stipends, which though sufficient for living at the level of our neighbors does not support frequent vacations. When we have a guest their vacation becomes our vacation. We are always grateful for the excuse to travel more of Panama.