Saturday, May 12, 2007

Only pics today

Well, I lied, here is a short anecdote from yesterday. We went to the grocery store, and ended up with cocktails! Yup, free samples of good aged rum, mixed into strong drinks by the lady giving out free samples in the booze section. Funny standing in the checkout line, drinks in hand, already feeling buzzed. Ah, Panama!

Friday, May 11, 2007

Today text, tomorrow, pictures!

"Eatin' pig head and roastin' coffee"
This afternoon is marked by the first real aguacero, or long, heavy rainstorm, in quite a while. I keep looking out to see how our road is doing, since a lot of water gets funneled down it. By the end of the last rainy season, trucks couldn't pass by below us, and it is only a matter of time before that comes again. The best part is the role our neighbors play in the roads destruction. The grader and tractor came through about a month ago, leveling out the road and deepening the ditches on both sides. Ideally, the water will flow down these, leaving the middle of the road uneroded and driveable. But- the people don't like having ditches that they have to jump across or even take a long step across in front of their houses. So they fill them in with dirt and rock. This either diverts the water into a new trench down the middle of the road, or blows out the fill, or both. Our neighbor across the street is one of Chitra's most thoughtful and creative guys, but he did this same thing. And he also does a quality job with every type of work (unlike most locals), so his fill is staying put, and the water is digging a ditch down the middle of the road. Brilliant. Still, I went over there to visit a few times this afternoon, since he was roasting 150 lbs. of coffee in 50 lbs. batches to bring and sell in grocery stores in Panama. It was kinda fun, and his wife gave me rice with pig head, which was actually quite tasty; though I couldn't bring myself to eat the pieces with hair still on them. Just another day at the office.
"Hey, at least it isn't crack!"
I have to admit to an addiction, and it's all our regional leaders' fault. Battlestar Galactica. I haven't had a tv in years, and I haven't gotten sucked into any shows in at least that long, but they had to go and loan us the first two seasons on DVD. We close the door, pull the drapes, and watch an episode or two most every night. I suppose that we'd have gotten into any show that they would give us, since the nights are pretty slow up here. The funniest part is that it is basically a telenovela, the spanish-language soap operas that are so popular here, except with more shooting and a little less bad acting.
"Cat thieves"
Our cat has been stolen. Well, at least it has disappeared. Its been about a week now, and I don't have much hope for him to come wandering back. Neighbors assure us that it isn't uncommon for cats to just be grabbed by people who have problems with rats or mice, or who want to sell them to those that do. Since a new post that I put in for our fence also got stolen, I'm inclined to believe them. Apparently anything that isn't nailed down is fair game, and as soon as you bring up this topic, people here really get rolling with tales of theft and burglary. People break into houses, or steal produce from fields that aren't right next to houses. A collective farm nearby failed due to people just going and helping themselves to the crops at night. It makes me sad, frustrated, and pissed. We are here, giving our sweat and time and effort, but that isn't enough, they have to steal our friggin' cat.
"Ok, gringo, let me tell you how it is....."
I may have mentioned it before, but a funny thing that keeps coming up is the assurance that, "oh, Spanish is much easier to learn than English". Many, many people have said this to us. The implication seems to be that even though we are idiots who don't know how to plant beans, we are learning Spanish, therefore it must be easier than English. Additionally, even though the kids here have English classes every year of their education, the most they can seem to remember is "Good Morning!", said with great enthusiasm during all times of the day, especially evening. Actually, I need to give some people more credit than that- there was the drunk guy who wanted me to speak English then replied, "Yes! My friend!", to whatever I said, even when I started saying nasty things about him. I try to tell these folks that any second language is harder than the first, regardless of what it is, but they rarely seem swayed.
"Prestame su foco"
Another thing that keeps coming up is flashlight envy. More than anything else, people want flashlights or headlamps like ours. When we were still living with our host family, the dad would tell Karinne to go get hers to let him use it, even when he had his own flashlight in his hands. The flashlights they can get here are $1.25, and not even worth that. They break quickly, give poor light, and suck up batteries. But everyone has one. So even this morning, a neighbor who saw me walking up the road last night asked me to bring one back the next time I go back to the U.S. I always say sure, but I'm not going back till I'm done here, which they don't seem to believe. I think the cost of a good flashlight would shock them, but in reality, it can be more economical. I bought a Petzl headlamp in 1996, and used it for 10 years before passing it on to our host family here in Chitra. It cost $30, but if you divide that by 10, it comes to $3/year. Now, those crappy flashlights may last 3 months; so you end up spending $5/year. But nobody here really thinks that way. Spending more for quality really isn't an option when you barely ever have more than a few dollars on hand.
"Hay que limpiar"
Today was a planned clean-up of the fairgrounds. The place was a disaster after the fair last month- broken beer bottles, tons of trash, etc. Since everyone here just throws their garbage on the ground, the whole town is trashy anyway, but this well exceeded that background level of mess. So we went down, but nobody else from the producers' association showed up. I was not surprised. Locals will spend hours cutting grass that is 3-inches high down to half an inch, which is called cleaning, but then not see the irony to eat some cookies and throw the wrapper on the freshly "cleaned" ground. We resisted the urge to just jump in and clean up the garbage ourselves; that isn't what we are here for. Even if one 5-year-old kid had shown up to help, we would've jumped in gung-ho, but if no local can make the effort, we won't either.
Instead of picking up broken glass, I went and fixed the aqueduct. The aforementioned dump of rain yesterday messed it up, so we had no water from yesterday evening until this morning. One of our neighbors had gotten a head start on me for heading up; he said he'd fixed it, but as we headed back down, pulling apart PVC pipes to vent the air bubbles, there really wasn't much water coming down. He split, I kept going down and checking, and there was no water at all before even the first storage tank. So back up I went, fixed it, getting soaked in the process (great fun trying to push together 2" pipes with good pressure alone), and now we have water. Once again, I think I've mentioned the rush to get things done without a thought about doing a job well; this approach is omnipresent here. It is amusing that I'm becoming quite the aqueduct expert; especially valued is the fact that I'll suck up the $3 for a can of glue occasionally, which no one else in this neighborhood seems to be willing to do. It blows my mind- spending hours sometimes to dig up a busted tube, then replacing it with another busted tube, and not gluing it, but just shoving it together. I counted 32 separate sections of PVC pipe cobbled together to make an elevated crossing over the road just next door; it is maybe 25 feet long.
"I miss the honky-tonks, Dairy Queens, and 7-11's" Talking Heads
This blog entry has seemed to become "vent on cultural differences" central, but this stuff is what makes it hard to get any work done, and also makes me appreciate how effectively and logically we often get work done in the U.S. The flipside is that people here have very relaxed lives; most guys only work 5-6 hours a day (women work longer almost always), people spend a lot of time with their families, chatting, visiting, etc. Nobody is starving, and even people in their 70's and 80's are still spry and healthy. With all this in mind, I'm trying to get better at just throwing my hands up, smiling, and saying "Que va?". Then I go home and work on my own projects, like raising coffee seedlings, or go biking and hiking, to help burn off my extra energy. We go hiking a bunch, and each time we seem to find something unexpected- an isolated waterfall, a stunning view. The sad part is that those beautiful views have been marred in the last month or so by columns of smoke from people doing very destructive slash & burn agriculture, or sometimes even just getting drunk and lighting off dry hillsides for kicks.
"Casi un año"
It is getting close to a year that we have been down here in Panama. I'll have to think hard about whether it has been worth it, especially compared to what else I may be doing, but I think it has been. Things like this are hard to objectively evaluate when you are "aqui en la lucha". Still, it is funny to think about the things we've done and haven't done, things we've had and haven't, and so on. I haven't had a great beer (some decent ones) in that time, but I have had good coffee that I've harvested, processed, roasted, and brewed. I've learned that while Panamanian food is overall pretty crappy, there are some things I like, and we've also been able to hone our improvisational cooking skills. No day is predictable, which suits me just fine. Maybe the biggest thing I didn't expect was the realization that while people are just people, and inherently the same on some level, cultural differences can be amazingly deep and inexplicable and frustrating. As others have said, you really have to live in a different culture as more than a tourist to come to fully appreciate the positive aspects of your own culture.
"The quality conundrum"
We are having a hard time explaining coffee quality to local coffee producers. In the states, we've become aware & educated over the past couple decades that some coffee is worth paying $10.00 a pound for. Really, though, this is only true for a small small portion of the population- most still drink Folger's. Even those who go to coffee shops and shell out $3 for a drink often get flavored syrups dumped in to cover up the taste of coffee.
Here, people drink tons of coffee, but don't like the taste of coffee. So they throw in tons of sugar, often 2-4 heaping tablespoons per small cup. Therefore, trying to explain that coffee can have a variety of tastes is like trying to tell someone who has only ever drank Budweiser that beer can have a wide range of flavors; it is a tough sell at best, and the reality is that nobody here really believes us. So when we say that if they process their coffee better, it'll have a better taste, and then people will pay more money for it, well, they don't really buy it. They'd be happy to get more money, but they are not really believing that coffee can vary that much in quality based on the processing, so on some level they are reluctant to put in the extra care and work. The coffee still looks nice, even if it wasn't dried well and tastes like a cup of wet paper bag, so isn't that good enough for a higher price? We're trying to figure out ways around this problem, any suggestions?
"Best Birthday Ever"
So I entered my 32nd year with a high fever, diarrhea, and pain. Karinne and I had attended the collective birthday party for myself and 3 other volunteers (May 4-7, funny coincidence) and had a really good time- drinking chicha fuerte (fermented corn drink), eating rice & chicken, dancing, and hanging out with some folks we hadn't seen in a while, and met some new people. Especially fun was the fact that it was not gringo-centric, many locals were partying just as hard if not harder, playing drums, dancing, falling drunk down the hill, and so on. This was at Darlene's site, which is maybe twenty-five miles from here as the crow flies, but takes about 8 hours to drive to, since there are no direct roads. Party highlights included the guy with the huge sombrero and rubber boots getting drunk and dancing like a maniac all night, unexpected noises from a tent followed by awkward explanations for said noises, and the ridiculous profusion of digital cameras making the whole thing seem like a press conference. At some point we picked up some bacteria that also liked to party, and it had its own fiesta in both Karinne's and my intestinal tracts. Fortunately it really only kicked in hard once we'd arrived back in the local provincial capital, and we were able to get to a doctor by the second day of suffering. That was very fortunate, since I was running to the bathroom every 20-30 minutes, and any sort of travel would've been a nightmare. Two days later and we are both feeling much better, but still not back to normal. At least at this point 32 can only get better, I hope.