Day 617 - Volunteer Service - Article 22

This article was published in the Ames Tribune January 23, 2009.

Electricity as a scarcity

The other day, we were visiting Earth Train, and a group of two gringos and two Panamanians returned from a hike. One gringa was dripping with sweat and dirt. This is how most foreigners look after a hike in the rain forest. The Panamanians will look tired but not red-faced and not dirty.

Anyway, the gringa walks into the kitchen, opens the refrigerator, grabs her water bottle and then continues to stand in front of the refrigerator with the door open. Now there would have been a time, not that long ago, that I would have shared a “I know how you feel” look with this woman. However all I could think was, “Shut the door! You are wasting the electricity!”

I had to bite my tongue and leave the kitchen. I found her abuse of the refrigerator childish and irresponsible, angering even. I’m sure this gringa didn’t even consider what she was doing.

That fact that I considered what she was doing shows a change in me. I have developed a very different idea about what is valuable. Not because the culture in Panama has different priorities but because it has different scarcities. I now regard more things as valuable. The refrigerator is a luxury. It should be treated with great care so it lasts. Electricity is a limited resource.

I wonder how long it will take once we return to the states for me to open the refrigerator door and not worry about how much coldness is escaping. I hope I never revert. I think I will make a concerted effort to use less energy. Now I know how to make that change and have made that change. Why would I ever go back to being irresponsible?

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.


Sancocho - Panama's Chicken Soup

Sancocho is a traditional Panamanian chicken soup flavored with culantro, oregano, onions and garlic.

Rice and Sancocho cooking over fagóns in Panama. Photo from Cooking in Panama

The Panamanians say you should eat Sancocho for lunch on hot days because it will help cool you off. Also if men are drinking at a house, it is the responsibility of the housewife to make sancocho for them. It is supposed to prevent a hang over. I assume this is because the salty soup works like an electrolyte. Just call it Panamanian Gatorade.


4 chicken thighs and legs with bone
2 big potatoes, cut into large chunks
1 large carrot, cut into chunks
2 large onions, cut into chunks
Other Panamanian root crops if you can get them (yuca, ñame, otoe)
1 green plantain, cut into chunks
2 cobs of corn, cut into chunks
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon oregano
1 tablespoon cilantro
Salt and pepper to taste
2 liters water

  1. Start by killing the chicken - no I'm kidding, but that is the way the Panamanian women start. All you have to do is take your chicken out of the package and cut the thighs from the legs.
  2. In a big pot add water and chicken pieces bones and all. Bring to a boil. Then add all the veggies and spices and continue boiling.
  3. When the chicken is cooked through and the veggies are soft, it is edible. This is about one hour. However, if you can, let the soup simmer for a while and the flavor will improve. Keep adding water so the veggies stay about an inch under water.
  4. Serve the soup with a plate of white rice on the side.
I am working on writing up how to cook some of the classic Panamanian dishes. Food is very much a part of culture. If you want your own little slice of Panama try some of the recipes here Recipes from Panama.

Day 614 - Volunteer Service - Obama takes his oath of office.

I was chatting with my mom right after the inauguration and she sent my comments on to the DesMoines Register. Click here and scroll down. I'm the first comment.

Obama takes his oath of office.
11:11 a.m. I watched the oath and speech. All the office staff and volunteers got together. The Panamanians kept saying how beautiful Obama is. They also all want Michelle's hair. It was kind of fun because they clapped along with the audience. They don't understand Obama's English very well. His speech had a lot of big, unusual words. There were lots of teary eyes. Then they got distracted by one of the American office staff during the speech. She's pregnant and she was sitting with her knee up. They told her the baby would have a squished face if she sat like that.

-- Foy, Ames native who is now in Panama with the Peace Corps.


Day 610 - Volunteer Service - Brigade Photos

This last week we have been very busy with the Brigade of business students from University of Texas Austin. They are helping our Peace Corps community start an ornamental/art plant project. The plants will be produced by the women in El Valle and sold in Earth Train's gallery in Casco Viejo. The 20 or so students divided into two groups, City and Jungle.
The Brigade truck in use
The City group stayed in Panama City working on putting together the gallery where the art plants will be sold. They chose the paint and lighting for the gallery, hired a welder to make artistic metal plant stands and shelves. Found an artisan to make custom terracotta pots and also developed the flow chart for how to produce, transport and pay the women for their plants.
The welder making plant stands
The Jungle group met with the women in our community, explaining the process of selling the plants to them, as well as setting quality standards and answering their questions. The Jungle group also visited all the homes of the families, taking interest in their daily lives, collecting photos and stories for marketing and generally showing the village they care by talking with the families, buying from their stores, playing kickball and coloring with the kids.
Jungle Group

For more photos visit the January Brigades Gallery.



How do you say machete fight in Spanish?

Also, the name of one of the largest chain stores in Panama.

Mothers' Day is celebrated on the day of The Immaculate Conception here in Panama. This Mothers' Day, on December 8th, followed the normal mode of holidays in our town. The men were drinking heavily, and the women were making food.

A young man, Junior, came to blows with his Father. Cousin 1 came over to break it up. Cousin 1's father, Junior's uncle, came to help separate the two and while he was holding back Father, Junior went into the house and got a machete. Junior then stabbed/cut Uncle and Cousin 1, and ran off. Cousin 2 went to the public phone to call the authorities and encountered Father. They got into a fist fight, but Cousin 2 had a rock in his fist so Father went down quick.

We heard the yelling, but our neighbors are usually noisy on weekends and holidays so we didn't think much of it until Uncle's wife came to ask me to call the ambulances. It had to be two ambulances because if all the injured were put in the same vehicle they would probably finish each other off on the way down.

Foy took some medical supplies over to their house but the amount of blood on the ground made her uncomfortable so she left as soon as she could.

The ambulances a firetruck and some military type police showed up about two hours later after dark and left with roughly one fifth of our community. Only Uncle's injuries were bad enough to keep him in the hospital. He returned home in a week but his hand is still bandaged a month later. The irony is that he was the one trying to break up the fight.

All the violence was within a family so the police didn't do much. Cousin 2 spent one night in jail and payed a fine. The others involved should have received the same punishment but they left the hospital and came home skipping jail. The police came back up to collect them, but by the time their truck rolled noisily into town the three people they were looking for were all mysteriously gone. The police left with a big bag of oranges instead.

Machetazos are fairly common in Panama. Someone died in a nearby community from machete wounds when we first arrived. They frequently happen at bailes (dances), and almost always start as drunken disputes.

A machete costs less than two dollars and every house has at least half a dozen sitting around, poked point first into the ground, or stuck with a causal chop into a sideboard. Children use the old dull-ish ones as toys and camposinos (farmers) use them for everything. Rare is the camposino that doesn't have impressive machete scars, and not all of those scars were accidents.

Day 604 - Volunteer Service - The Brigade is almost here

The Brigade of Texas University Students flies in today for their one week whirl wind of business advising and constructing. Fifteen students from this group will come up to our valley and work on accounting, personal interviews, and plant product quality. The other half of the group will work on marketing and sales from Panama City.

I am excited this group is coming. Not only do they bring valuable business advice, they also bring a willingness to share the culture of America and learn about the culture of Panama.

Here are a couple of questions they had before coming and their answers:

Do you know of a special regime of care that the woman [of El Valle] have adopted [to take care of the plants]?
The great thing about Madroño, is that the climate is like living in a green house. The plants mostly live on the porches of the women growing them. This means they get indirect light (part shade to full shade), and water about every other day.

I have been working with these women to use organic compost as a potting mix (with more or less success). This means the plants are in a potting mix with a higher water retention than plain soil. Also the fertilizer is built in. The plants should not require fertilizer for more than year. All of the plants have been grown organically to date.

As far as locating the plants in the gallery goes, they will do best if they are actually outside. I originally thought the court yard would be ideal. Very close to a window or door with shaded natural light will also work. The plants will continue to grow once brought to Panama City, so it is important the have enough water so they don't crisp, and enough light so they don't get leggy.

Also do you know if the temperature in Centro Madro
ño consistent with the temperature in Panama city?
The temperature in El Valle de Madroño is about 10 degrees F cooler than Panama City. Madroño average about 70F while Panama city is closer to 80F. Also Madroño is more humid. This means in the city the plants will need to be watered more frequently and kept out of the direct sun.


Day 603 - Volunteer Service - Article 21

This article was published on January 9, 2009 in the Ames Tribune.

The living can be easy in Panama

Panama has been difficult in many ways, such as adjusting to the culture, language and being more than a simple phone call away from family and friends.

Panama also has been easy. It surprises me how quickly we established habits and routine in our house in the valley.

It is hard to take a photo of our house because we have a big cashew tree in the front yard. Imagine a house a kid would draw. One door, two windows, sloping roof. Now imagine the house Crayola green and draw a bright crayon blue fence all the way around. Now put a big tree in the front yard to the left. That's our house.

(Cashews have two shells. Between them is caustic oil that blisters human skin and has potent allergens. When the nuts are roasted to inactivate the allergens, dangerous fumes are given off. Processing cashews safely is a complicated business.)

We are established. We get up without an alarm clock. After a trip to the outhouse, I put the water on to heat for coffee. Jeff and I sit and read as we drink our coffee. Then I make breakfast around 8 a.m. Something involving our allotment of three eggs per day.

Before it gets hot, we work in the garden, hand wash laundry or work in the school. Actually, now we think more about how we have to get outdoor things done early before the rains come as it seems the wet season is here. No more sprinkles. We watch big grey-blue blankets of clouds come over the edges of the valley. The rain sounds like a river heading our way. We probably could measure the rain in feet and dispense with thinking in inches. The road is still better than last year, but it will get worse rapidly at this rate.

We eat two meals a day. The second is an early dinner around 4 p.m. The sun goes down quickly behind the hills around 6:30 p.m. Out come the head lamps and candles. We close the house up and bring in anything that can be damaged by dew, fog or blowing rain. We get ready for bed and read under mosquito netting until 9 p.m. or so. Then it's sleep time. We must get our 10 hours of sleep every night.

Our days are relaxed. I never feel the pressure that "this must be done right now!" Deadlines exist more as seasonal dictates. Planting and cutting are determined by the moon. Our calendar with the moon phases is consulted often.

Jeff and I both do things for the administration of Peace Corps. We do the seed exchange program, edit the cookbook for a fundraiser and work on new volunteer training material. All that is done on deadlines, generously set to give us lots of time. And in the end, we are volunteers. We chose our projects and commitments. What a nice life!

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 596 - Volunteer Service - Article 20

This article was published in the Ames Tribune January, 2 2009.

Living in nature in Panama

Being an Iowan and not too far removed from farmers, I am used to talking about the weather. "Looks like rain. We sure could use it." But never before Panama have I been so attuned to it. I guess that's no surprise considering we spend most of our day outside or on our porch. Our porch on the hill often lets us hear rain coming. It gives us enough time to bring in the wash, shutter the windows on the north and bring in the solar panels.

View from our porch.

Our tin roof makes sure we don't sleep through a storm. The weather can't surprise us.

Because our solar panels are put out every day, I am acutely aware of the changing position of the sun. I know exactly what place in the yard gets the longest sunlight. Not having electricity, I know exactly when the sun goes behind the other wall of the valley. That's when we get out the candles, head lamps, or if it was a sunny day, the solar lamp.

I am even aware of the moon. In the United States, I was aware of the moon, but I couldn't have told you if it was waxing or waning. Now I know a waning moon appears in the west in early evening. As the moon approaches full and then waxes, it rises in the east and later into the night.

One of the first sentences I learned in Spanish was "La lluvia viene." The rain comes. In fact, I know more words to describe weather than people in Spanish.There is something refreshing and elemental living in a simple house in an area of the country labeled "rain forest." Instead of nature being something to visit or take note of from a car window, we live in it.

Civilization is marked by man's ability to rise above and ignore the climate. The United States has fancy regulated houses, concrete roads and big tanks with lots of tubes to control everything from temperature to water. There are definite advantages to living that way. But I much prefer my lifestyle on the edge of the continental divide of Panama. Peace Corps has given me my own Walden Pond. It will be a big change to go back to traffic, computers and warehouse size supermarkets.

Can I have this way of living when we get back to the U.S.? I don't think many spots in the United States have perfect temperatures and the year-round climate of Panama. But I think if I can, I will hang my wash out to dry, keep the windows open and have a really big porch. Oh yes, and a garden. Nothing is quite as connected to my environment as a plot of vegetables.

(I definitely will not regret going back to indoor plumbing.)

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.