Sunday, October 29, 2006

One step away from nailing pancakes to the wall.....

Well, that title is not accurate. It refers to a Peace Corps legend about a volunteer going crazy and being found nailing hundreds of pancakes to the walls of her house. I just thought it made sense with this picture. Why, yes, that is indeed a sawfish bill (snout, nose, what?), it came with the house.

We went to Panama City for the first real time this past week, and it was fine. Not as big as I´d have thought, but still plenty loud, dirty, and odd. Everytime we leave our site I´m shocked at the disparity between the rich and the poor of this country. The poor don´t have shoes, while the rich buy $400 Gucci loafers. We have the weird experience of having a foot in both worlds, since we live poor in the campo and yet can still afford (rarely) going out and splurging on a meal that costs $20 a person.

The road to Chitra is truly sporty these days. When we headed out last week, we had to stop and flip the beer truck back over, since it had lost its four wheel drive and tipped over trying to make it up a moderate hill. It took about an hour and a half, but would´ve taken longer had the chiva driver not gotten frustrated, and simply took off with his truck. It was still attached by a chain to the stuck truck, and yanked it rapidly over some boulders and almost over a local guy who wasn´t ready for the speed of it. The guy in the beer truck was livid, I haven´t heard such bad language in front of women yet in this country.

Other than that, time is just flying by. I can´t believe we´ve been here over five months. Sometimes it feels like it has been so busy, but other times I wonder how its gone by so fast without accomplishing much. That being said, we are accomplishing stuff, like building a demonstration coffee solar dryer, harvesting coffee, and so on. We are living in our own house, and fixing it up not only takes a lot of time, but so does simple things like cooking beans. Good news includes the fact that our big bed finally made it to Chitra, almost a month after we bought it. We also will soon maybe have a sink, and not have to do our dishes in the shower. Oh, such luxury!
So, to summarize, things are settling down into the kind of routine that brings unexpected things every day but somehow makes every day go by very fast, if that makes any sense at all. I´m tired, so we are going to go shopping, see a movie, go to bed early, and be ready for the adventurous 4AM chiva ride up the hill.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

On the left, the lovely storage area of our new house. On the right, the lovely storage area of our current house. This is also our bedroom, and does for sure resemble a prison cell with dirt floors. Actually, it serves as our gringo refuge, where we retreat when we need privacy, etc.

Home Sweet Home
Let me begin with a warning. The following stuff was written over the last two and a half weeks, which have been somewhat crazy. Since I wrote this stuff, we saw another puppy likely die, I got my first case of combined vomiting and diarrhea, and we made major home purchases, namely a mattress and a stove. We also had the most mellow chiva ride yet, no getting stuck, no break-downs, just a hungover driver. Most of the pics in this one aren´t very pretty, they are of our new house, which is getting so close to fruition.

¨More thoughts on work¨
We have been back up in Chitra for a week, which fortunately isn't enough time for me to be utterly fixated on the food we aren't getting up here, so readers, you are lucky for now. I spent about 5 hours today clearing a field that has been overgrown by brush so that it can be planted with corn and beans. It is hard, dirty, scratchy work, and I'm tired. During that time I was working pretty much alone, which is a good/bad time for thinking. Good since it is plenty of time, and thinking things over is always worthwhile, but bad since maybe tired, bleeding, sweaty, and hungry doesn't define the best time for honest reflection. I was getting kind of down on being here, going through the usual frustrations of any PC volunteer; feeling like your efforts are wasted, that the culture gap may be too large for effective teaching and working relationships, and generally missing the way we do things in the States. And also generally wondering just how much rice I've eaten during our four months here. I estimate that it is easily more than we'd eaten in the year before arriving here. So many of the things I like are not possible or available here; hell, even just going out with friends for a beer isn't an option. In fact, yesterday I had my first beer in a week, it was a warm Guinness snuck in our room after dinner, and it was heavenly.
Uh oh, getting sidetracked, damn appetite-driven fantasies.

"Home Improvements: minor details, like a roof"
Well, moving into our own house is getting closer to fruition. The owner's brother said he's got about a third of the stuff needed for a new roof, and as soon as he gets the rest, we can put it on in a day. He suggested leaving it roofless for at least one good rainstorm, to let the rain wash away some of the guano that has accumulated, and that sounds good to us. Then, after the roof, we'll need to work on the plumbing and electrical systems, but fortunately both are very rudimentary and should be straightforward. Ha! Oh, and it is pink, as I think I've mentioned, and has unparalleled luxury for a site as remote as ours: three bedrooms, an indoor bathroom with a toilet, glass windows (a couple), and a yard big enough for a good garden. It also has a sad, straggly coffee plant in the backyard, as well as maybe 25 banana trees, which is good. It turns out that Bob Vila, the former "This Old House" home repair guru, was in the Peace Corps, and maybe he picked up some of his skills in a situation like this. I think the guy who agreed to rent it to us and his brother, who agreed to fix it up, might have underestimated the work and expense involved in making it habitable. But every time I go to clean or rip out rotted wood or decaying furniture, I'm more able to see the potential it has to be a nice house, and I look forward to it. Oh, this picture is of the current tenant of the house, a big ole tarantula. Fun stuff.
Wow, getting late here, after 9pm. Of course, by some standards, that is really late. Sites without electricity, of which there are quite a few, often have a bedtime around 7 or 8 pm. And the fact that it is Saturday night has zero relevance for pretty much everyone around here. All it means is that for many of the men, they can get going on their drunk tomorrow morning, be stumbling around by 10 am, and passed out somewhere by about 2 pm. Ah, what a life.
The road to our site is getting worse daily, making us really dread our upcoming trips out of here. The more experienced truck drivers just keep a snorkel attached to the air intake so the big river crossing that marks the edge of Chitra doesn't swamp the engine. This last time it was a close call: our driver didn't put one on, and water was up in the engine compartment and coming in under the doors. Another highlight of the last trip up was the driver seeing a snake in the road and stopping, yelling, "Hey Reuben, there's a snake!". Reuben is the local representative of the Ministry for Agricultural Development. So of course, Reuben jumps out of the back of the truck, grabs a rock the size of his head, and runs off chasing the snake into the bushes, trying to kill it. Now, I don't know, it might've been poisonous, but they kill every snake they see here, and always nod sagely and assuredly when asked if it was poisonous. I guess getting touchy-feely with snake mortality around here is a bad idea, since many dogs are killed by snakes, and people are often bit as well. And word has it that the only Peace Corps volunteer in recent groups to get bit by a snake was actually trying to grab it to prevent his neighbors from killing it.

"The school is 33 years old, lets get drunk!"
The school here may have turned 33 years old (all records were apparently burned by a corrupt and disgruntled official, so no one seems to be sure) the other day, which was an occasion for an interminably long beauty pageant for 12-14 year olds and more importantly, for people to have an excuse to get good and drunk on a weekday. The cantina was hopping, with many, many guys there "gritar-ing". Now, one of these days I'll have to discuss this further, but its basically guys yelping loudly, sometimes like dogs, sometimes in a practiced call & response pattern, and at least in our community, seems to be mostly associated with drinking and drunks. Often annoying, sometimes melodic, always loud.

"Radical Change of Subject"
Several books have had great influence on how I think about development in countries like Panama. They are "Dark Star Safari" by Paul Theroux, and "Living Poor" by ???? Both are non-fiction and both writers were in the Peace Corps. Many events here mirror those chronicled in "Living Poor": binge drinking with an edge of desperation, the difficulty of actually working to get food when you haven't had anything to eat, and the binge eating of volunteers when they go to a bigger town with restaurants. Time and again ??? faces frustrations with just not being able to understand motivations, actions, culture; we face that all the time as well. We read it before we came here, and I think it was a very valuable preparation for being here.
On the flip side, Theroux is viewing his Peace Corps experience in Africa from a different perspective, as he's visiting and traveling decades later. It is actually one of my favorite books of the past few years, full of insight that goes beyond that of most travel literature. Theroux has some serious doubts about how we (both in the Peace Corps and do-gooder western aid organizations in general) have gone about this thing called development. He taught in schools in East Africa, I forget which country, and when he returns, he finds his school an abandoned shell, and naturally feels extremely frustrated that even with decades of "help" from him and countless others, they haven't been able to get it together and run their country themselves. He also visits a fellow teacher and friend who is now a higher official in the government. He asks Theroux why he doesn't have his children come to Africa and teach as he did. In reply, Theroux points out that the official's own children have mostly left the country seeking better lives overseas, and why should his children come and work there when the country's own ambitious young people need to seek success elsewhere? This point is extremely applicable here: there is a huge age gap, with many of the younger (17 to 35 years old) generation having left and moved to either Panama City or the U.S.A. to seek jobs. It isn't that there isn't a way to make a living here in the campo, but it is very much a subsistence-based system, with very little cashflow. So why are we here? Why should we be spending our time and effort when there are plenty of intelligent, motivated, competent Panamanians who could likely do our job better, since they can actually speak Spanish well? If the next generation isn't going to consist of farmers, but of city-dwellers and emigrants, what long-term benefit can our efforts have? And if the majority of the younger people who do stick around only stay because they can't hack it in the city, where will we find new leaders and innovators in the community? These are tough questions, and I just don't know. Of course, there is always the selfish motivation of self improvement and personal growth, but really Karinne and I are at a different spot in our lives than many other volunteers. Many are younger, and semi-fresh out of college, and trying to figure out what to do with their lives and who they really are. In these cases, I think Peace Corps is great. For us, well, we aren't rushing to any conclusions, and I really doubt we would leave early, but still, it is a subject we talk about often.

Yesterday I was not hungry all day. This is beyond noteworthy, since it is the very first day I can say that about during our time in Chitra. I didn't need to snack, I didn't wait grumpily for a meal; instead, we had two breakfasts, one at home, another with the guy who we were building soil conservation barriers with, and then after working hard for about 4 hours, we had a big lunch. Then an equally large dinner showed up earlier than usual, and I was stuffed. I realize this may not seem like a big deal, but the hunger I've felt here has definitely been a significant part of my experience. Working hard without a break for food for six or eight hours is not uncommon, and it just doesn't agree with my racing metabolism. I've been saved by canned protein powder from the medical office, I can mix up a satisfying if boring and somewhat disgusting drink that has saved my attitude out in the campo many times. Also, by peanut butter, which I eat straight out of the jar. Its the nasty stuff with lots of hydrogenated vegetable oils, but my standards have been relaxed. I don't even want to talk about the ground sardine remains that are another staple of our host family, which they unaccountably call tuna. I had one of those great communication failures when I tried to explain that sardines aren't tuna, but I guess you had to be there to enjoy my defeat.

"The long road to renovations"
Well, the biggest job of our home repairs, the new roof, is pretty much done. I didn't think it was going to happen. The guy we're renting from told me we would get going on ripping the roof off and replacing the beams at 7 AM friday. So silly me, I was there at 7 AM. He showed up 3 hours later. Still, once we got going, it mostly went smoothly, if you discount our landlord getting knocked clean off the porch by an electrical shock, and also getting stung by a bunch of wasps, not to mention the sheer amount of concrete we removed from the structure with hammers. Other highlights included discovering a big tarantula den under some extra roofing stored in the attached shed; it was apparent from the number of shed skins that it had been living there peacefully for quite some time. We may knock down that part of the structure, since all the beams are rotting and being eaten by termites, and it is pretty much disgusting and scary. Oh, and there is a latrine in the back of the house that is in the mid-stages of collapsing into its own hole, which will be a fun thing to deal with in the near future.

"The near-death of Boxsy"
The puppy that has been part of the family here since just before our arrival almost died the other night. He licked or bit a toad that was very poisonous, and had severe seizures for over an hour. It was one of the worst things I've ever seen, and at several points I thought that death would be a welcome relief for him considering the pain and terror in his eyes. This happened in the evening, and even after the seizures ended, he was so weak that I would not have been surprised if he had simply stopped breathing and died that night. But by morning, he was able to move a little, and after some milk and protein powder (courtesy of the Peace Corps), he recovered quickly, and was back to his rambunctious self by evening. It was very hard to watch powerlessly and realize there was really nothing we could do to help him. The only redeeming parts of the whole event were now knowing what the symptoms are like (so we can distinguish it from snakebite) and the Grandma ripping out a very juicy, shockingly loud fart as she was squatted down praying loudly over the dog.