Christmas 2008

We are lucky enough to have been connected with an embassy family who lives in Panama City. Every month or two we spend a few days with them. We are spoiled by their hot water shower, their washer and dryer, and their guest bed might be the nicest we sleep on during our 27 months here.

Last year was the least festive Christmas ever. This year JJ and Marcela invited us to join them over the holiday, and though we still missed our families, this year we had a real Christmas.

Their children are unstoppably cute.

In July I made some sketches, took reference photos, and made these portraits to give as presents. I am proud of how they turned out. It helps that I had months to work on them. Unlike working under tight deadlines, I only painted when I wanted to. I think the results show how much I enjoyed the subject and the process. As always the originals are better than the scans, que va. (the Spanish phrase that means roughly "that's how it is and there is nothing to be done about it" usually accompanied with a head tilt and shoulder shrug.)

Baby Daniel



Day 582 - Volunteer Service - Article 19

This article was published in the Ames Tribune December 19, 2008.

Choosing between water and electricity

Before leaving for Panama, Foy and I looked on the Peace Corps Web site 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, a company that makes unique flexible solar cells in a building on the edge of Ames.

Unfortunately, PowerFilm does not sell out of the Ames facility, but after explaining that we were planning to use a solar panel during our Peace Corps service, they offered to donate one to us. Foy's parents mailed us a second panel.

Foy's father built a light for us 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 first laptop was stolen and the XO laptop we got next turned out to be less than waterproof so sometimes we have a computer to charge.

But the solar panels power the light in the evenings. We are at about 10° north latitude so we get between 11 1/2 and 12 1/2 hours of daylight year round.

Using the solar light to make dinner.

The country director for Peace Corps Panama 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. You can live without electricity in your daily life. Living without water isn't possible.

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 August 2009.


Day 575 - Volunteer Service - Article 18

This article was published in the Ames Tribune December 12, 2008.

Growing vegetables in tropical soil

At the end of last month, the guy who owns the house we rent arrived with a bottle of seco (a bad version of rum) and his weed whacker. By the end of the day, our yard looked like we were baling hay. The grass hadn't been cut in more than a year. We only keep the walk ways clean.

My neighbor, Leonarda, suggested we plant corn in the newly cleaned area next to the house. Sure, why not? It might be a good way to show how to use green manures and homemade compost fertilizer. I bought corn seed and headed out with a long pointy stick called a coa. I jabbed holes and threw in three kernels of corn and stubbed the holes closed with the heel of my boot, just like our Panamanian neighbors and much to their amusement.

This is the yard after the weed wacker went through and where I planted the corn.

About a week later, I seeded a bean called canivalia, a green manure, between the corn rows. I also started making compost tea. This compost tea takes about a month to decompose. I filled a five gallon bucket with one quarter balo leaves (a leguminous tree) and one quarter horse manure and finished with water and a lid on tight.

The balo and manure break down by anaerobic respiration making a nitrogen rich liquid that can be diluted and applied to the corn. Between the corn and the robust squash and tomatoes growing out of the resting side of the compost bin, I hope my neighbors will take notice.

It has taken me a year to realize the soil here is so poor it takes almost four times as much compost and fertilizer to coax anything to grow. I knew tropical soils were poor, but I didn't understand just how different that makes things. Hopefully, I can pass on what I am learning by trial and error and some previous knowledge. Ultimately, maybe they will adapt these practices themselves. And that's what it is all about!

It's a slow, repetitive, difficult process, this changing of practices engrained in culture. Luckily, Peace Corps gives each volunteer two years. Peace Corps also on recommendation of the previous volunteer will put up to four consecutive volunteers in the community. So this community could have seven more years of support to get these techniques established.

The learning goes both ways. I have learned a lot. How to speak Spanish being the most obvious. But also how to live in this culture. I really thought I would have a hard time living in an impoverished setting with oppressed people. I didn't realize they consider themselves neither of these things. They live happy, healthy lives.

I enjoy the laid-back lifestyle. Get up early, work until it gets hot. Then shower and relax the rest of the day. There is no pressure to have the best or biggest or be the prettiest. Our neighbors wouldn't mind owning a fancy truck or television, but they don't consider them worth the effort to attain. It is a refreshingly unconsumeristic approach to life.

This would be a great place to raise a family if only the education system was better.

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 1999 graduates of Ames High School and 2003 graduates of Iowa State University. Their Peace Corps assignment is from May 2007 to August 2009.


Day 566 - Volunteer Service - Cookbook

I volunteered to put together and edit the Volunteer Cookbook. It was a big job, but with a lot of help from Jeff and Kevin we did get it done by our goal date of November 20th. I have never worked on publishing and printing something on this scale and it was definitely a learning experience.

New to the fourth edition is the beautiful watercolor cover by Jeff, 114 new recipes (including Panamanian specialties), a glossary of English to Spanish food words and conversion charts for volume and temperature. Plus lots of images of Panamanians eating and cooking.

There was only money to print 50 for starters. All but 15 sold by the end of the Thanksgiving get together. They are $10 each. All proceeds go to the Gender and Development Peace Corps program. Let me know if you want a copy!

Thanksgiving 2008

We have had been busy traveling this past week. For two days we assisted with In Service Training (IST, Peace Corps loves the acronyms) for group #61. Foy and I with Tom and Meghan, a couple that came to Panama the same time we did, gave a talk about Seeders, a seed sharing program that we co-lead. We also had a hour set aside to talk with the five couples of Group #61 about our experiences thus far. When our group did IST a year ago, I recall getting a lot out of chatting with the more experienced volunteers. I enjoyed continuing the cycle with this group as they begin in earnest.

It has been raining for 8 - 16 hours a day in our site and we were glad to make it out. The day we came out November 24th an earthquake registering 6.2 rumbled near the the Costa Rica border and flash floods began. The volunteer Thanksgiving celebration was moved to El Valle de Anton due to washed out roads leading to the planed location in Cerro Punta. The media says this was the worst flooding in Panama in 40 years, and our country directer said it is the largest threat that he has dealt with in his tenure as director.

Despite the trials Thanksgiving went well. The volunteer organizers did an amazing job holding it all together. Four turkeys, three hams, and 45 pounds of mashed potatoes along with several large side dishes were vanquished by more them 7o happy Thanksgivingers. Foy and I did our part in the kitchen.

Foy working on the potatoes. (Our camera is having difficulties.)

April doing a quality check.

Meal in progress.

Turkey leg devouring in progress.