Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The North

“Everybody knows this is nowhere”
As I mentioned, the vacation to Alaska was wonderful. Lots of seafood, fun fishing, incredible scenery, hoppy beer, and of course, plenty of good coffee. We circumnavigated Admiralty Island in southeast Alaska over about a week, with stops for hot springs, salmon fishing, crab pot setting, and just plain enjoying the great scenery. The weather was good to great most of the time, only a little rain, and it felt chilly but not uncomfortable for us. I particularly liked running up there, I wasn’t bathing in my own sweat within 15 minutes like I tend to down here in Panama. Though I guess the downside is the potential for an encounter with a brown bear, but whatever. We ate so very well: King salmon and black cod sashimi, king crab melts, and seafood stew were highlights. And beer! As I’ve mentioned, Panamanian beer just makes me sad, so having good brews put a smile on my face. Another thing that was surprising was the near-constant presence of wildlife. Humpback whales were often within sight; seals, sea lions, brown bear, bald eagles, and jumping salmon were common.
Maybe the nicest thing was just being away- away from the bugs, away from cultural and social challenges around every corner, away from the routine. My only real responsibilities were keeping an eye on the downriggers when we were fishing and making coffee.
Upon our return, the Panama International Marathon loomed. We left Seattle Friday night, and arrived after two moderate flights and a layover on Saturday afternoon, very tired and not used to the heat and humidity. Still, got decent rest before the alarm went off at 4 AM Sunday. I actually enjoyed the marathon; it was nice to have a challenge, and the feeling of accomplishment. The latter has been lacking over the past year, and the former, well, we’ve had plenty, and of kinds we would not have had without joining the Peace Corps, so they have been valuable. I finished in 4:03, and the hard-won lessons of pacing myself from mountain bike racing helped me out a lot. A beautiful moment occurred shortly after the start. The course brought us through Panama Viejo, a series of ruins hundreds of years old. A decaying tower lined up with a huge condo tower under construction in the distance as the sun came up, and nothing could’ve better illustrated the changes this country, particularly the capital, is undergoing.
Now we are back, and it is raining torrents. Oh, I forgot to mention that we had to hike out when we left for our vacation. Six hours, numerous creek crossings, and a fair bit of disorientation led us to a town where we were able to hitch a ride with the fish truck down to Santiago. Since the normal truck left early, it was either that or wait another day, and we made the right choice. Coming back took almost six hours in the truck, including a little while repairing the leaf springs with a block of wood.
It has not been a good week for technology here. Our cell phone, which got enough of a signal to check messages from a hill five minutes away, now no longer works at all. It was on the analog system that they’ve finally shut down. Now, we have a new cell phone, smaller and sleeker, but it doesn’t even get a nip of signal from way high up in the hills, where we used to get a full signal. It’ll only work when we are out of site. This would be less of a hassle if the closest, second closest, and third closest public phones weren’t all broken, as well. We need to call our boss in a couple days, and it looks likely that we’ll have to hike 2 hours one-way to find a phone that may work. And finally, our refrigerator is broken, likely due to surges in the power that resulted from somebody doing some welding. So no more cold drinks, nor any perishables that’ll last more than a couple days. Yeah, I know that most PC volunteers don’t have refrigeration, but it is a nice thing to have, and those that don’t can’t tell me that they haven’t craved ice in their Tang after a long, sweaty work day. So now we are more isolated, and with a more limited diet. Hooray.
I went running today for the first time since the marathon last week, and my legs were still a bit sore. That amazes me, though I guess it shouldn’t. I think I would be interested in doing another marathon, but maybe trail running next time. I wonder if there will be one in Costa Rica, maybe early next year?
¨Clearly, everyone here IS taking crazy pills¨
Before we left on our vacation, we heard that the World Bank may be giving $30,000 to the local farmers’ association for whatever projects they wanted to do. We thought of this as possibly a good opportunity for them to work on a medium-sized project together, and for us to help them stay accountable and focused. Well, that isn’t looking likely. It sounds like they are getting the money, but rather than work together, which is a real difficulty for locals, they plan on having all their members come up with individual projects, then doling out the funds to each of them. Any of the traditional things I associate with a project, such as budgets, accountability, planning, and evaluation will be basically impossible. Lots of equipment that could be shared will be bought by multiple individuals so that they don’t have to even interact. Resentment will be created by perceived or real unfairness as to how the money is spread out. So it is more like a hand-out than project funding, which is sad; these folks could really benefit and learn from having to plan and run a project, since they’ve never done that on even a limited scale before.
While our boss was here, we set up a meeting with the president of the producers’ association to talk about this World Bank project. And not too surprisingly, he blew it off; which is something of an accomplishment, since it was at his house. It is becoming increasingly clear that they don’t want our help with anything, which is a bummer, since we have real skills in areas they need help, like planning and organizing and delegating.
On a related note, these same farmers are being pushed to join in a project to build big greenhouses and grow tomatoes during the wet season. I don’t like this for a bunch of reasons, but a big one is that tomatoes are relatively delicate, our road is a disaster, and nobody wants to buy bruised, smashed tomatoes. So I hope to track down the people who are running this and grill them over why they think it is a good fit for Chitra. Same thing with whoever is pushing organic certification for the coffee. It sounds great, I mean, who can disagree with organic coffee? Well, I can. First off, a lot of the coffee here doesn’t have the quality to sell in the specialty market, so the organic label is irrelevant (for getting a better price) if you have crappy coffee. Second, it is prohibitively expensive for individual farmers, and as mentioned above, the dysfunctional association is not capable of pulling it off either. Finally, it takes a bunch of paperwork and record keeping, and a significant percentage of these guys can’t even read, much less jump into basic accounting.
These things reinforce the importance of carefully considering local desires and conditions before coming up with projects, and I’m pleased that the Peace Corps is aware of this and emphasizes it. It may mean that the projects we end up pursuing aren’t as grand or exciting sounding, but they have a better chance of working, which is all that matters. Still, these other projects are distracting and may divert people’s attention from our more modest and simpler projects, since they seem to forget about all the big fancy projects that have come and failed over the past 30 years, despite the decaying buildings and useless infrastructure related to them that litter the landscape.
“Le aviso”
Which, in english, means, “I’ll let you know”. I think I’ve mentioned this phrase before, but it seems to be the phrase we hear most often, especially from some people, so I’m going to talk about it some more. For example, the father of the family we lived with for three months when we arrived here is a huge, huge fan of it. We have not done any work with him since December of last year. We talk to him at least weekly, and almost always the conversation veers (thanks to our steering) towards work. He mentions something he wants to do, we say we want to help him and when would work for him? And of course, “I’ll let you know”.
So this week we almost fell over in shock. He actually set a day, Thursday, for us to help him plant a rice paddy. This is hard, messy work , but we were very enthusiastic. But come Wednesday afternoon, it got called off. He sent a guy who often works for him over to tell us not to bother to show up, that, yup, he would let us know. At least he warned us, its much more common to just let us or other helpers show up, then tell them plans have changed. Ok, sounds good, dude, we’ll be ready, as always. I don’t find it very demoralizing any more, just sort of sad; he’s a nice guy, but not good at planning or organization, and we have a lot to offer in those categories. But he, like many people here, can’t seem to swallow his pride enough to admit that he doesn’t know everything, and that he might learn something from working with us (as we are so keenly aware that we can learn a lot from the locals).
Anyway, on to sunnier topics. I got stung on the hand by something I didn’t even see today, and eight hours later, it still hurts quite a bit. The guy we were working with told me that if it was a caterpillar, which is likely, you can reduce the pain by finding the guilty insect and smooshing it on the bite. His farm is just riddled with insects; we spent most of the morning swatting away spider webs as we pruned his coffee, and we often get chomped on by chiggers there as well. These critters seem to target us gringos, which is a good source of entertainment for the locals- us jumping around and scratching while they are unfazed and unmolested. I just tell them that everyone knows that we are delicious.

Our boss, the program director for sustainable agriculture, visited us for a day earlier this week. She had a typical adventure getting up here, and apparently an even sportier time getting out. Showing up at the terminal at 3:15AM, she quickly verified (with two women, one of whom arrived at 1AM, the other at 2AM) that the truck hadn’t arrived yet. Waiting with fifteen people soon turned into a group effort to call the drivers and see who was supposed to come. Well, they found out nobody was coming: none of the drivers planned on making the trip, even the one we had talked to and had said to us, very specifically, “yes, I’m leaving Tuesday morning at 4AM”. Still, she was able to catch up with a driver who was bringing cargo at the end of the pavement, and ride up with him; this leg lasted about 7 hours. Her visit went well, and was very useful to us.
Thinking she’d go with the driver who told us he was leaving at 6AM the next day, we set our alarms for 5AM. At 4AM, a neighbor banged on our door, telling us that someone else was going instead, and would be by in 30 minutes. He ended up picking her up at 5AM, and we went back to sleep briefly before heading out to prune coffee.
Later that afternoon, rumors of a wreck sifted back to Chitra. It sounds like the truck she went in rolled, maybe a couple times. Fortunately, we heard nobody was hurt. Since the phones are still broken, we have no way of getting in touch with her to find out what happened until we head out in 5 days. The trip in and out of this town is the only thing I unambiguously hate about this place. We’d heard that they were going to send some trainees our way in a couple weeks for the “volunteer visit”, but I wonder if they’ll cancel that based on our boss’s adventures.
So, we are now down in Santiago, and yup, truck did roll, twice. Big hassle, don´t know how everyone got away unscathed. We had our own adventure coming out- longest trip yet, 11 hours between leaving our house and arriving in Santiago (a trip of 50 road miles). Left our house in a downpour at 4am, waited 3 hours. The 4am truck was 3.5 hours late, but the 6am truck was only 1 hour late, so we went with the ¨second¨ truck. Got to the river, and it was too high to cross. Three trucks sat on the far side, and when we arrived one of the drivers waded in to see if it was shallow enough. Nope, up to his neck, and with a strong enough current that he could hardly stand. Waited and waited, finally barrelled across, then waited some more, since they were fixing one of the other trucks, and throwing parts and tools back and forth across the river. Took off finally, got maybe 5 miles down the paved road, and a rear axle bearing blew out, so we were stuck waiting again. Gave up and walked for an hour, then got a short ride to the nearest town, where we finally had some food, and found another truck to take us to Santiago. It was no fun. Next blog I´ll include the pics of the trucks crossing, up to their hoods in water.

Well, I guess the only other thing to report on was making semi-fertilizer with a farmer. I call it semi-fertilizer, since it is missing the critical ingredient of horse or cow manure. He clearly finds having to collect poop for this mix distasteful, so he was trying to get out of it; as we are chopping stuff up and mixing it, we kept telling him he needed manure, to which he responded by going off and collecting various tree leaves. Oh, and he also apparently is afraid of toads, since he sort of freaked out when we uncovered a couple in some organic waste. He said he may be able to get a bag of chicken manure from the school, and we said, for about the tenth time, that he really needs at least five bags of horse or cow manure. This should be easy, since his house is semi-surrounded by cow pasture. We plan on swinging by his house in about a week to see if he got the poop; I think it is about a 25% chance he’ll have it. Still, at least we got it started, which is a big deal, he has been talking to us about making this for at least 3 months.
Other than that, not much work going on, beyond my little farming projects, like planting native trees and coffee in the scrubby, unused plot of land behind our house. I find this very satisfying, even when I’m getting chewed up by bugs and sweating profusely under the hot tropical sun.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Off the road again

Another short entry, once again, without pics. Errands are such a pain, they´ve really sucked up this day. We are back in Santiago, getting ready to head back up the hill tomorrow morning at 3:30 AM. As I said, Alaska was wonderful, but its good to be back, too, which is a relief. Coming back and hating it would be hard to deal with.
I ran the Panama marathon, and it was fun and hard. My legs are still sore two days later. I´d figured I´d finish in about 4 hours, and yup, it was 4:03. I now look forward to not feeling obligated to training for something, but I enjoyed it enough that I may run some other race sometime in the future.
Next time, more pictures, and more ruminations.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Still having problems with where to put the TP

We've been in the States for a bit over a week and a half, and I'm still looking to the side of the toilet for the wastebasket to dispose of my toilet paper. Other than that, it feels good and natural to be back here. We spent a week on Karinne's dad's boat, fishing for salmon and viewing awesome scenery during a trip around southeast Alaska. Now we are in Seattle, and doing a bunch of errands (ie stocking up on Trader Joe's stuff and splurging at REI) before heading back down to Panama, arriving just in time for me to run a marathon. It has been a wonderful visit- tons of great seafood, stunning scenery, good beer, fun fishing, and so on.
I'll try to write up a more complete review, but mostly I want to put on a bunch of pictures, since they'll speak for themselves.