Tuesday, June 26, 2007


Well, not much new to really report. Karinne is wrapping up a fieldtrip to volcanoes in Costa Rica today. I am up in Boquete helping a bit with coffee training for the new group, getting info and making connections for the coffee guys in our site, and doing a bit of work on my own coffee research project.
It is cold here, and sprinking rain, very strange, and welcome actually. I went all day yesterday without sweating, which is an incredible accomplishment. I also got as whacked out on coffee as I have anytime recently, and it was fun, but not really worth it. Though I was drinking the local Geisha, likely the stuff that got second in the best of Panama competition, and also the coffee that got third, and Los Lajones... I just could not stop untill I had trouble focusing my eyes.
We are off to Bocas del Toro tomorrow, to have a brief vacation and visit a couple other volunteers. I look forward to it.
I actually almost didnt make it out here on time, since the driver sunday, who last time was two hours late, showed up 25 minutes early, and I was, hmmmm, indisposed. Fortunately he remembered I had told him I was going, and paused in front of the house, otherwise he would have just flown by, leaving me behind. Ah, yeah.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Funny faces! Oh, the humanity.....

I need to do a fair bit of school related computer stuff, but darn, it is hard to be motivated. Most of it involves background stuff- previous research, info regarding Panama´s agriculture, etc. Some is great, I can just find a webpage and download it for later reading. Other things are a struggle, at best. Especially since every internet cafe here seems to have uncomfortable chairs.

Fear of puppies, tigers, and gringos

8AM in the morning, and already Santiago is sweltering. We got in yesterday after an average truck ride that somehow included both mud flying everywhere and my nose getting clogged with dust. I never really feel like I´ve recovered from the ride until we go to Cheesecake Plus, a gringa-owned oasis. Imagine that great little bakery-cafe that you love, then plop it in an ugly strip mall in this ugly city, and the contrast is almost overwhelming.
Karinne has headed to a conference in Costa Rica, so I´m heading back up to our town alone tomorrow. I will spend the next week replying to the question, "y Karina?". I think that I will come up with crazy replies, regarding UFOs and spies, since that´ll make almost as much sense as a geology conference.
Ok, I wrote a bunch of stuff during rainy afternoons in our site, so that´ll follow. PIctures may have to wait, since I need to get out of this stuffy little internet cafe.
¨Run, Forest, run!"
There is a marathon is Panama City in August, and I want to run it. I’ve never done any sort of running race before, and the last bike race I did was five years ago. Here in the mountains of Veraguas, there is precious little flat ground for running, and the nearest pavement is two hours away by truck. Plus, the rainy season has started. So my average run is characterized by slippery mud, steep hills, laughing locals, lots of elevation gain, and buckets of sweat. I have to slow down to a walk to navigate the treacherous hills, and pause frequently to scrape the mud off the soles of my shoes with a stick. Such fun! Actually, I am enjoying it- I’m getting in better shape, providing free entertainment for our neighbors, and sleeping better. Since we still aren’t doing much agricultural work (beyond talking with farmers about things we can do with them, and them saying “sure, I’ll let you know”, which means the same as “the check is in the mail”), it gives me something to do.
We organized a meeting this past week, and it was more successful than I could’ve hoped. About 20 local coffee farmers showed up, we talked, but more importantly, we got them talking to each other, which is something that does not happen nearly enough here. It was somewhat stressful, since there were many parts that could’ve gone wrong, but it all clicked, and I’m quite pleased. We talked about simple ways they can improve the quality of their coffee during the coming harvest, and also about how we are looking for a better price for said quality coffee. People here are not satisfied with the price they receive for their coffee, and it truly is low. But they don’t want to improve their quality until there is a better price for quality coffee, which there will never be until they improve their quality, and so on and so on. So we are trying to get just a few to break out of that cycle with a small part of their harvest this year, produce a few hundred pounds of good stuff, and sell it for more. Sounds simple, we’ll see how it goes.
It’s raining hard now, but not dumping. We are hoping for a lull, since we had plans to go “pasear”ing. This is Spanish for basically visiting with people at their houses, and it’s a common diversion here. We have found ourselves dreading it somewhat, for reasons too complicated to talk about here. On face value, it seems like a mellow activity, just going and chatting, and it can be. But it can also be loaded with lopsided rules. For example, if we’ve gone to the regional capital (as we do every three or so weeks), we MUST visit our host family within a day of returning. They always ask when we got back, and the same day is best, yesterday is ok, but the day before, oooh, we’ve been BAD. After this, the mood of the visit is definitely tenser, and it is obvious that we are in dutch. This mood is amplified if we haven’t been visiting at least twice a week. Of course, this is the same family that has visited us here at our house four times over the last seven months, but that isn’t relevant- these rules apply only to us.
Another funny aspect is when we look for someone to talk about work and they aren’t home. We may stop by and not find them, but talk to their family or neighbor. Maybe later that day, maybe another day, we’ll stop by again, and sometimes still not find them. In my mind, some sort of social protocol may be triggered at that point, and they may actually come to our house to see what we want. That is not the case. For example, I wanted to harvest some coffee with our Peace Corps-deemed “counterpart”, so I went by his house. And kept going by his house, early in the morning, in the evening; five times I visited over a week before he walked the five minutes to our house to see what I wanted. That visit marked one of the maybe half-dozen times he’s come to visit us in the ten months we’ve lived here.
I’ll mention the primary reason for my frustration with visiting: we end up talking about doing work with people, and they often say, “yeah, sounds good, I’ll let you know when.” Then we don’t hear from them. Sometimes they just don’t really want to do it, which I can accept, other times they just go and do it themselves without letting us know, which I find frustrating. I am here to work, and I’m straightforward and honest, so this whole thing, repeated many times, really rubs me wrong. We’ve talked to our counterpart about this, and he says, “oh, the people of Loma Llana, they don’t want to work with Peace Corps, nor do the people of Media Luna, nor…..”, and lists most local neighborhoods and communities. Interestingly, we’ve asked to work with him a bunch, which in the 10+ months we’ve been here has resulted in about six work days. Maybe I just need to scale back my expectations and accept that we talk about work much more than we actually do work.
Some of our most memorable interactions with locals are also the most unexpected. K and I were walking down the road the other day, and we ran into a guy from a local community that briefly had another Peace Corps volunteer, who left after three months. First, he asked us if we were interested in a gold mine. I understood the words, but it was such an unexpected question that I had to ask him to repeat it. Well, he really meant gold mine. So we told him, no, we’re here to work with people on agricultural stuff. “Oh, so you want to buy land”. No, really, we don’t, we just want to help people with agriculture. Finally, he seemed to hear us. Then he chatted briefly about the terrible state of the road to his town, but rapidly went into how we really, really needed to repent. Like, now. Well, Jesus may have been on our side at that moment, since we arrived at the turn-off for his town, and we continued on down the road, having just another day in Chitra.

As I may have mentioned, the rainy season has definitely arrived. Most afternoons are characterized by hours of downpouring rain. Often it is too loud on our tin roof to even talk, so we sit and read, or sleep, or just stare out at the rain. Our carrots in the garden are swelling and cracking with all the moisture, and fungi are attacking many other plants. The rivers are often ripping as well; our favorite swimming hole had an intimidating current leading towards a wicked rapid last time we visited. Most of the trails have turned to mud, meaning adventurous walking and always getting dirty. The flip side is that the hills are green and lush, and there hasn’t been a sign of slash & burn agriculture for over a month.
We are tired a lot here. This past week, I’ve been absolutely crashing out after lunch most days, often napping for an hour or more in the hammock. The other day I slept right through the kid from the middle school coming around selling cheese, even though the transaction took place about ten feet from my head. Nights are rife with intense dreams that result from the potent anti-malarial medication we have to take every week. I’ve even woken up a few times recently with no clue as to where I actually am; it takes a couple minutes to figure it out. What adventure!
Speaking Spanish is still often exhausting, so when we even just chat with people for a couple hours, I’m toast. I guess related to this is the amount I sweat, especially when running and working. I get back from an hour or hour and a half run and my shoes are soaked. It is gross, but also kind of funny, especially watching locals react to the soaked gringo running up the muddy hill.
The small hydro-electric plant that provides power for less than a hundred houses in the central part of our district went down for about a week, and it was such a change. Our fridge didn’t work, our house was dark, and there wasn’t the usual background pulse of music from the neighbors. Each time this happens, I’m surprised at what a difference electric power makes- dark, rainy afternoons seem worse, night falls far too early, and even the simple lack of music is kind of depressing. We hadn’t been aware of this problem, so we brought up perishables from town the last time we returned, and had to eat most of them rapidly. So now even though we have power, we are eating a lot of beans and rice instead of the more gringo-oriented foods we like for variety. It’s ok, since we are heading back down the hill later this week, but it gets boring and unappetizing quickly. I find myself craving greasy meat, bacon, fried chicken, even sausage.
The rains also means that all vegetation is growing like it got a steroid injection. This means frequent “limpiar”ing, which translates literally to “cleaning”, but generally refers to cutting down any and all unwanted vegetation (which is really anything that isn’t food or ornamental) with a machete. I now appreciate the power and ease of a lawn mower and weed whacker; even a small “lawn” is a sweaty, blister-inducing hassle. I definitely ascribe to a more live & let live approach, and prefer more vegetation to less, but some of it has to go, especially right in front of the house. Some get tired of constant cutting, and spray their lawns with herbicide. Just seeing this makes me sad and overwhelmed. I mean, how are we going to successfully get people doing organic, sustainable agriculture when in their minds some weeds near their house, which don’t threaten their crops or livelihood at all, warrant a dose of a nasty chemical that is probably illegal in the U.S.? And really, is herbicide really more evil than the squadrons of weed whackers and lawn mowers that are employed daily in the U.S.? Who knows?

I guess June may mark the real end of two local agricultural work groups- the producers’ association and the collective farm. The collective farm had been on the decline since before we got here; in fact, it had likely dropped below the minimum membership over a year ago. We worked with our counterpart a few days at the farm, since he was one of the main guys involved in organizing it, but each time it seemed to be something weird or dumb, like pulling up rice that hadn’t been watered properly, and therefore hadn’t produced any grain, so we didn’t pursue working there. Dozens if not hundreds of these collective farms have been established over the past decade, and we have yet to hear of one that has survived beyond the initial period when the NGO supporting it keeps bringing fertilizer, chickens, pigs, equipment, etc. Some of the tales we hear are almost comic- the technicians bring chickens and pigs and instructions on how to breed them and sell the extras for a profit. When the technicians leave, the farmers eat the chickens and pigs. Later, when the technicians return, they are shocked to hear about this, and scold the farmers. Then they give them more chickens and pigs, which the farmers then eat. Duh!
We had been trying to be more involved in the producers’ association, since it was started while we were here, and we felt like it had potential. Well, actually, that isn’t right, it had been started several years ago, and failed, so they restarted it. It hasn’t been officially declared dead by the people in charge, but I see the signs- there hasn’t been a meeting in two months, none are planned, the president was trying to resign, and while the vice-president means well, he has no real leadership or organizational skills. They never pulled off any of their planned projects, mostly because they were poorly motivated and never really planned out, and they were whatever popped into the president’s head, rather than anything the membership came up with and was supportive of. We tried to get the president to go to a Peace Corps training on how to come up with and organize projects, but he bailed at the last minute, and said vice-president came instead. He didn’t really get anything out of it, spending most of the time spacing out, and was mostly anxious to be allowed to leave, so much so that he bailed on the last part of it.
I’m bummed that this went this way, but the bright side is that I won’t have to sit through any more of their meetings. These things were awful- held at a pavilion with no chairs, so everyone sits either on the stage part or around the outside edge. They generally would start 1.5 to 2.5 hours late, and sometimes go on for up to 4 hours. The sheer number of digressions and interruptions was amazing, and many times the meeting would essentially stop and people would chat about whatever in small groups. Every time someone new showed up, they’d greet everyone loudly, and then have to go around and shake everyone’s hand and chat a bit; you can imagine how this derailed the process. The secretary prides herself on having a big voice and an acid tongue; she would lash out at anyone she could make fun of, and they’d often turn red and just shut up, and likely not be seen at the next meeting. The meetings never really ended, they just sort of fell apart, with people leaving in disgust at having wasted a Saturday morning and not having decided anything or planned anything, beyond maybe when the next meeting would be. We would often return home feeling shell-shocked at the length and uselessness of each meeting.
K got “marked” by a hyper little male dog I refer to as “Lipstick” for obvious reasons. She was just standing in the store, chatting with the owner, and the little rascal trotted up, peed on her leg, and looked surprised to be chased out with thrown rocks. That was today’s weird event. Yesterday’s was having a drunk guy decide to sleep on our porch, then having to get him and his shoes out to the road, so he could continue to stumble back home. I hope he made it, it looked like he had fallen numerous times already, not hard to do when black-out drunk in the dark and mud.