This Mud House

June 1, 2011 by

The title of this blog post is in honor of fellow Peace Corps Panama Volunteer Bob Villa (1969-71). In our part of Panama, there are primarily two different types of buildings: those made out of cinder blocks (bloque) with corrugated steel roofs and those made out of quincha (literal translation is thatch), which is a combination of mud and straw.  Quincha is the traditional building material in the Azuero though in recent years the majority of new houses have been made out of cinder block or cement.  However, quincha houses are much cooler than the houses made of cinderblock and the buildings can last for several decades. In April, Kate and I, along with several members of our community, visited a nearby village and participated in a quincha junta (work day) with over a hundred other people. Since building with quincha is very labor intensive and the material dries quickly, several workers are needed in a short period of time in order to make the building successful. Here’s roughly how the process works:

The frame of the house is constructed out of wood and bamboo.

This video shows how the mud is mixed with water by foot to get the right consistency.

Straw is added to make the mix stronger and more durable.

The straw is mixed into the mud.

The quincha mixture is cut into manageable pieces by foot.

Pieces of the quincha are placed on the wood frame.

The quincha is smoothed out by hand.

No junta is complete without excessive Seco (Panamanian rum) and gritaring (Panamanian barking).

Repeat until finished.

Click here to see the entire photo album. So that’s the process. We had a really great time. I think I can check “participate in an Amish-like barn raising” off of my bucket list.


Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby!

May 19, 2011 by

Don’t miss the two photo album links at the end of this post!

In the last blog post, Bracken wrote about some of the challenges facing women and girls in developing countries. In this regard, Panama is mostly doing well – females have many more opportunities here that they do in many parts of the world. In our community, many women have jobs outside of the home and nearly all finish the required school attendance through 9th grade (with many continuing on through 12th grade). This certainly isn’t consistent throughout Panama however, and teen pregnancy is a significant problem in many parts of the country (as it is throughout Latin America). Another serious problem (not unrelated, of course) is a major deficiency in sex education and factual information about reproductive health issues. I recently read an online article citing Panama as the lowest ranked country in Central America (!) when it comes to sexual education. Although gender inequality and women’s health issues are not a primary focus of our work in our community, we have been involved in a few activities to help improve access to information about sexual health for teenagers.

In February, I fulfilled a long-term (albeit misguided) dream of being a camp counselor. However, instead of a summer camp with hiking, swimming and horse-back riding, I was a counselor and facilitator at Peace Corps Panama’s GAD (Gender and Development) Camp. GAD Camp is an annual event organized and run entirely by Peace Corps Volunteers in Panama and it takes place during Panama’s school summer vacation (this year it was in February). We had 63 kids from all over Panama travel to the center of the country to participate in 4 days of games, activities, and learning. It was an incredible amount of work and I barely got any sleep the whole time, since I stayed in the dorms chaperoning 14 teenage girls. But it was an amazing experience and even I learned some new things!

During camp, the focus was on having fun, but the kids had long days with lessons and serious discussions mixed in with the games and silliness. Another Volunteer, Jannick, and I led a group of 11 through the week by facilitating various activities and discussions with them. One of the highlights of camp for me was Huevitos Bebitos (“Egg Babies”) which entailed each kid receiving an egg to take care of for 24 hours. Obviously for 13-18 year olds who are easily distracted, the game did not end well for many bebitos. Many unattended babies were “stolen” by the dwindies, who are fairies that snatch children according to legends in some parts of Panama. In our group of 11, only 4 made it through the 24 hours with their bebitos in tact – all of them guys! I was so proud of the guys for taking such good care of the eggs. And I know they all learned a thing or two about how time-consuming taking care of a kid can be!

GAD camp started with a focus on values, goals, and setting objectives for yourself and your life. We covered resume writing and heard from an inspiring indigenous man who grew up in poverty and now travels all over the world for his job. We then transitioned into talking about obstacles that can keep you from reaching your goals, including teenage pregnancy, STDs, and HIV/AIDS. The kids learned about the science behind sex – the part of our brain that demands it (the amgydala), and how our bodies change during puberty. They also learned about all of the reasons that it is better to wait until you are old enough and with a faithful partner to have sex. (Cheating and infidelity are HUGE problems in Panama– there is a very prevalent machismo culture.) Then we discussed STDs, and how HIV turns into AIDS and destroys a healthy body. We wrapped up the week with an afternoon of “Olympic Games” with my blue team coming in third place.

Some other highlights of GAD Camp included an activity where the girls and boys divided into separate groups and listed every word (especially slang words) they could think of for penis, vagina, and sex. The purpose was to get them to move past their pena (embarrassment) and realize they are just words. We told them that after this activity, they can only use the proper, anatomically correct words for body parts and no slang that can be offensive. It was much easier to talk to them seriously about sexual health after they get all the silliness out through this activity. At first the girls were really shy, and no one would say anything. But after a few minutes, one louder, more outgoing girl got us started and we had a long list in three languages (Spanish, English, and the indigenous language Ngöbery) before we ran out of time. I was shocked at how quickly some of the really shy girls jumped in to contribute (and by how much they knew)! I definitely picked up some new Spanish vocabulary through this activity!

Another highlight was dividing the girls and boys up again and giving them the opportunity to brainstorm some questions for the other group. I was impressed with how thoughtful and seriously they took this activity. Right away, the girls wanted to press the guys on why they thinking cheating and infidelity is acceptable. It is such a prevalent part of the culture here (catcalls and whistles on the street are the norm), but the girls would have none of it, and demanded an answer (which the boys didn’t really have…). But the activity really got all of the kids to open up and start talking honestly and openly with each other. We emphasized the importance of good communication, honesty, and trust in a healthy relationship and I definitely think this activity demonstrated that for them.

Even though GAD Camp is fairly simple and basic, the whole experience can be really remarkable and transformational for a lot of kids. In many families in Panama, children never talk to their parents about sexual health and receive little or no information at school. The Ministry of Education in Panama does not have a standard curriculum for schools here, so any sex education that kids receive is hit or miss, and entirely up to the individual teachers. In a country where approximately 90% of the population is Catholic, sex education (including information for girls about protecting yourself from unwanted pregnancy or STDs by using condoms) is often religiously based. To explain the sexual health topics during the camp, we had the help of a Panamanian woman who volunteers with the Panamanian Red Cross. She did a great job of relating to the kids and I was shocked at how quickly they got over their pena and opened up to the topics and the idea of practicing putting on and removing a condom. Teenagers are really curious about sex and if they don’t get information from their parents or at school, they will get it from TV or their friends, which most likely won’t provide them the information they need to make healthy decisions.

The other remarkable part about GAD Camp is the opportunity it gives kids to meet new friends from around the country. Many of the kids have never left their province and this is their first time away from home without a family member. Because of this there was a fair amount of drama and yes, many new “romances” by the end of the week. It was truly amazing to see friendships forming between Latinos and indigenous kids and equally heart-breaking to see them say goodbye to each other at the end of camp. Very few have access to email and most won’t be able to stay in touch, but it was clear that the experience had changed their worldview and opened up their mind about the rest of their country. I hope that they remember what they learned and the experiences they had, and when they are confronted by life-changing decisions and peer pressures, they remember what they learned and make good decisions.

Inspired by my experiences at GAD Camp, I came back to our community wanting to share the experience with the kids at our regional school. With the help and excellent facilitation skills of one of the GAD Camp Organizers (thanks Ben!) we planned a 6 hour seminar for all of the 9th graders at our school. We did the seminar last week and covered the same basic topics, including some highlights from camp like “The Baby Game” where I played the novia to an embarrassed boy from the class. Unfortunately, we had an unplanned pregnancy and he learned the hard way that taking care of a baby and staying in school is really, really difficult. His grades eventually slipped and he lost his scholarship, meaning that he had to get a difficult, low-paying manual labor job working in the fields to support me and the baby. The game is silly, but leaves a long lasting impression with the kids – they don’t forget it. During our seminar, we were also joined by some of the staff from the local health center who gave a presentation on teen pregnancy and passed out information about STDs. Although the kids were very rowdy the whole day, the seminar was a big success and I’m really glad we did it in our school. Nationwide, our province of Los Santos has one of the lowest rates of teen pregnancy in the country, but I still believe the information and activities we did with the students is really important and very valuable at this impressionable age. I think they will remember this seminar for a long time to come. Last week, after our school’s seminar, we traveled to our friend, and fellow Volunteer, Jannick’s community. Jannick was my co-facilitator at GAD Camp and it was great to visit him in his community and do the seminar in his school too. So I guess if you ever need to talk to a group of adolescentes about sex in Spanish, I’m your gal! Now I just have to find a way to explain that on my resume…

Link to pictures from GAD Camp in February.

Link to pictures from Elige Tu Vida (Choose Your Life) Youth Seminar in May.

Saying Thanks to the Moms & Women in our Lives

May 11, 2011 by

Happy (Belated) Mother’s Day! In Panama, Mother’s Day is celebrated on December 8, but we were still thinking of our moms this past Sunday. Mother’s Day is a big deal down here; everyone has the day off and many people take more time off and travel from Panama City to visit their extended families in the interior. Ideally, I would like to think that people travel home to celebrate their mothers and the important impact that they have had on their lives. Unfortunately, the big day is often celebrated with excessive drinking and mom preparing a large meal for everyone returning home. I remember our first Mother’s Day in Panama when we still lived in our first community because I was struck by two observations. The first was that the primary emphasis of the holiday did not seem to be on Mom but instead on excessive drinking (primarily, if not exclusively, by the men). Not unlike many celebrations in Panama, the women were cooking and cleaning while the men were sitting and drinking. The second observation occurred during a Catholic Mass we attended that evening. During the sermon, the priest was speaking about the importance of treating our mothers with the dignity and respect that they deserve. In this sermon, he also touched on the dangers of domestic violence and the importance of ensuring women have access to education. The contrast between both of these memories from my first Panamanian Mother’s Day starkly highlighted the large gap between the aspirations and actualities of not only Mother’s Day but also the greater realities of the role of women in development and society.

Quite simply, women have drawn the short end of the stick and this is especially evident in the developing world. Globally, women are poorer, at greater risk to contract preventable diseases, more politically and culturally disenfranchised, more at risk of physical, sexual, and emotional violence, and less likely to be educated. Many of the responsibilities that women have are undervalued or simply ignored because they go uncompensated, including food preparation, water collection, and raising children (among many others). In a 2005 study, the World Economic Forum concluded that women perform approximately 66% of the world’s work, produce half of the world’s food, yet only earn 10% of the income and own 1% of all private property! These trends are just as prevalent in Latin America as they are in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and the rest of the world.

While women are often undervalued, their involvement in community development cannot be overstated. Several studies have shown that directing development funds to women has a multiplier effect that can greatly improve the lives of the impoverished. Globally, women share more of their economic gains with their families and their communities. The World Bank has found that women invest 90% of their income into their households, as opposed to 30% to 40% among men. Women have also been found to be much more credit worthy with micro-lending institutions around the world. The world’s first microcredit organization, Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank, provides 98% of its loans to women because women are more likely to repay their loans and prove to be the “best poverty fighters.”

Sexual violence and discrimination is all too prevalent among the world’s population of women. (A very unfortunate and extremely violent example of this is articulated in this article about the Democratic Republic of the Congo by Vagina Monologues founder Eve Ensler). Reproductive health problems, including maternal death and disability, unintended pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases remain the leading cause of death among women of childbearing age throughout the world. Recently, the World Health Organization conducted a 10 country study on women’s health and domestic violence. This study found that approximately 30% of women surveyed said their first sexual experience was not consensual and that 10% of women reported physical abuse during pregnancy. The United Nations also estimates that at least 200 million women want access to family planning, but are unable to do so due to either a lack of access or support from their husbands or communities. Fortunately, these inequities facing women can also be alleviated by increased access to freedom and opportunity. For example, Noble Prize winning economist Amartya Sen has found that the strongest correlation between reducing infant mortality and fertility is increasing literacy rates. In other words, populations of women with higher rates of education are more economically empowered and have better health prospects overall. Higher levels of income and education also tend to result in less violence against women.

While we all celebrate Mother’s Day with phone calls, cards, and flowers, we should also take this opportunity to honor our mothers and the other important women in our lives by being aware of these larger issues that affect women around the world. There are several things each of us can do whether it’s supporting your local women’s crisis center, an organization that supports women’s education in the developing world, or countless other community or youth development activities. Being aware and acting are critical to improving the situation for women around the world. There is important work that still needs to be done!

Happy (belated) Mother’s Day to all the moms and grandmothers in our life! We love you very much and appreciate everything you have done for us and our families. And a special congratulations to Shanna and Bryan, the proud parents of twins Daniel and Maelle!

Sharing Easter Traditions

April 26, 2011 by

Happy Easter everyone! Hope you had a relaxing holiday weekend. We wanted to share the Pascua (Easter) traditions that are common here in Panama and a special activity we planned for the kids in our community.

The Easter Egg Hunt is welcomed to Panama!

Easter celebrations and traditions here are quite different than in the U.S. In the states, I didn’t realize it, but I guess I relied a bit on marketing to let me know when holidays were coming up. Commercials or seasonal displays at the grocery store are always up so early in the U.S. that it’s impossible to miss them. Here, there is virtually no marketing or commercialization of holidays, so they have a tendency to sneak up on me. The lack of commercialization probably sounds like a blessing, but holidays here can be difficult being so far away from friends and family. And I like eating Valentine’s Day/Easter/Christmas themed candy! Anyway, in rural Panama where we live, holidays are minimally celebrated since people don’t have a lot of extra money to buy holiday presents for their kids or other unessential things.

One thing that people in rural Panama do for holidays is to make a special kind of food, although it’s not much and it’s not very fancy. For Easter, many of the women make chicheme, a drink with milk, corn and rice seasoned with cinnamon (it’s pretty good if you don’t mind drinking chunky liquids!). This is a special occasion drink that is only made a few times a year and then shared with close friends/family members. Otherwise, Easter (at least in the less developed parts of Panama) has little to do with cute bunnies, baby chicks or Easter egg hunts. It is a large drinking and partying holiday here. People will drive or take the bus several hours from Panama City to go to the “interior” (the other provinces of Panama outside of the City) to be with their families. Many people go to large parties called Matanzas where they relax in the shade and drink and eat all day. At a matanza, a cow or pig is killed in the morning and then cooked and eaten all in one day with several hundred people. Another popular Easter activity is going out drinking at a baile (local dance) or to a discoteca (dance club). Lots of people also go to the beach since it is getting close to the end of the dry season now. Bracken saw a political cartoon last year that depicted Jesus on his way to church for Easter, while a crowd of people passed him going the other way to the beach with coolers full of beer.

Although the vast majority of Panamanians are Catholic (around 90% or so), we found that Easter Sunday is not a big church event. We went to the Pascua misa (Easter mass) but were surprised by the low turnout. The tiny church was only about half full! There was a baseball game that many of the men in the community were playing in at the same time, so it seemed that they all went to the game instead of to church. Although the Easter mass wasn’t a big event, there were several nights of mass leading up to Easter beginning on the Thursday before. These were focused on praying at each station of the cross and had better attendance than the Easter mass.

A few weeks before Easter, I had the idea of organizing an Easter egg hunt for the community. I had picked up an egg dying kit in the U.S. in March on a whim, and realized this would be a great chance to share the culture of the U.S. with our Panamanian friends, which can sometimes be hard to do. We started by checking with a few of the more devout Catholic in town to see what they thought of the idea. We didn’t want to offend anyone, and huevos (eggs) are often involved in the punch line of dirty jokes here, so we cleared it with the “experts” first.

After getting approval that no Catholics would be harmed in the implementation of the egg hunt, we began collecting eggs, eggs and more eggs. As anyone who has talked to us on the phone knows, chickens (and their associated annoying noises) are plentiful here. However, we were looking for hundreds of eggs. We bought 8 dozen at the nearest grocery store and managed to safely transport them back on the bus. Then we asked the school chicken project to set aside as many eggs as possible for us to buy. As anything out of the ordinary does, our request for 150 eggs caused quite a commotion. No one understood why the weird gringos were buying so many eggs, and they talked about it a lot. We tried to explain the idea of an Easter egg hunt to them, and I can only imagine how weird it sounded. We ended up buying 120 eggs from the school for $10. We also recruited our host mom to save all of her white eggs for us for about two weeks and then bought them from her (about 2 dozen more, 10 cents each). We ended up with a total of 250 eggs.

The process of dying the eggs posed a different challenge here in Panama. Nearly all of the eggs were brown because that is about all that is available here. It is hard to find white eggs, so the only ones we had were those that our host mom saved for us and we used those exclusively in the yellow dye. But, with skills that would make Martha Stewart proud, Bracken and I spent 2 days (about 12 hours total) hard-boiling and then dying the brown eggs into brilliant shades of blue, teal, purple, pink, orange, green, darker brown and yellow. They actually turned out really well, and I had a great time until extreme exhaustion hit about 10 hours into the process. I drew designs on many with crayon before dying the eggs, and even though the eggs were brown it worked quite well and we ended up with many beautiful eggs – 230 in fact (we lost about 20 in the process)!

my egg dying workstation

easter eggs before and after

Kate numbering the eggs for the raffle

The day of the egg hunt was SCORCHING HOT (as every day in April has been) but we had quite a few volunteers to help us hide the eggs in the town park. I wrote a number on each egg before we hid them, and we used the numbers to raffle off kids prizes at the end of the hunt. At the scheduled start time of 4 pm, there were only 11 kids, but by 4:15 we were mobbed by over 50 kids ready to grab eggs! Because there were so many kids, Bracken had a great idea – we turned the hunt into a scavenger hunt. Splitting the kids into two groups, we had 4 kids from each group run into the park looking for a specific design on the eggs. For example, there were eggs with hearts, stars, crosses, flowers, suns, rainbows and Los Santos logos (for provincial pride). The kids had to find 4 eggs with the specified design and be the first team to return with all 4. This worked pretty well and definitely made the activity last longer than the 5 minutes it would have taken for those kids to find all the eggs. After a few rounds of that, it was a free-for-all search, and total chaos ensued. We had a lot of egg casualties from people running and stepping on eggs, dropping eggs, etc. Everyone was allowed to collect 4 eggs each, and then we raffled off some prizes using the numbers.

some of the 230 easter eggs we hid in our town’s central park

kids playing in the central park while others search for the eggs

Bracken joins the egg hunt

Overall, it was a really fun day and I had a lot of fun dying and decorating the eggs too. It was nice to share something familiar to celebrate Easter and we definitely think the community will remember this crazy event for many years to come! Now we are headed to Coiba Island in the Pacific Ocean for a snorkeling and scuba diving trip to celebrate our 4 year Wedding Anniversary (April 23) and my 28th Birthday (April 28). We’ve been planning this trip for 6 months and it should be incredible, so we’ll be sure to update the blog after we get back.

this little girl was so disappointed that she didn’t win a raffle prize, but I think she still had fun

two of the more avid searchers – one of them was still finding eggs in the park the next day!

the raffle winners with their eggs and prizes

We Survived Carnival 2011 and All We Got Was This Crappy Blog Post!

April 6, 2011 by

Hello everyone! Kate and I have been busy this month wrapping up our UNDP grant and also managed to fit in a brief trip up to the East Coast to see my family. Carnival has long since come and gone (Gracias a Dios!) and life has returned to normal. For those of you who did not catch our 2010 Carnival Blog post, check it out here.

So this is carnival in a nutshell:  our provincial capital of Las Tablas has the largest carnival celebration in Panama and quite possibly one of the largest in Latin America outside of Brazil. Las Tablas, population 10,000, transforms into a 24/7 party for over 100,000 people for just under a week. I don’t think you can truly appreciate these numbers unless you have been to Las Tablas during and outside of Carnival. During the day, everyone parties in the streets and at night, everyone goes into makeshift discotheques to continue the party into the wee hours of the morning only to start the party all over again the next day. Buildings and stores shut down and are replaced by makeshift restaurants and street vendors to feed and keep the masses inebriated. Coors even prints up specialized Coors Light Carnival cans to help the Panamanians celebrate. It’s truly bizarre and walking through town in the days afterward feels like you are entering the movie set for some sort of post-apocalyptic blockbuster. Kate put together a great album because pictures do carnival much more justice than words.

This was our second carnival and I feel that we approached the situation more like the locals and less like tourists. This year, we elected to stay in our community so we could take advantage of such amenities as running water, a private latrine, and our own bed. This allowed us to commute into to see our friends and catch the best parts of the celebration but also to experience Carnival with our community. The highlight for both of us was the time that we spent in our community. Each year, our sleepy little town of less than 200, builds a make -shift bar and spends the night singing and enjoying each others company. The men get together and drink, the women get together and gossip, and the kids just run around.  Years from now when I am reminiscing about Carnival, I think my first thoughts will inevitably drift towards these memories in the community and the connections that we both have made over the last year and a half. I guess Carnival is what you make of it and I’m glad we were able to share that time with our friends and neighbors.

That’s all for now. I know that we have been neglected the blog but we have some pretty good posts planned for the next few weeks. Here’s the link to the photo album again in case you missed it.

A trip to Kuna Yala

March 12, 2011 by

In mid-February, Bracken and I were able to fulfill a long-term goal of visiting Kuna Yala, a very remote and beautiful part of Panama. We had originally planned a December trip between Christmas and New Year’s, but had to cancel this due to extreme flooding in early December that washed out the only road to the area. Three months later, the road is still out, but we were able to go last month with a group of fellow Volunteers by flying from Panama City. Click here to go to the photo album.

First, some background about Kuna Yala (also called the San Blas Islands): It is a comarca (or indigenous reservation) independent of Panama. They have their own language, government, laws, culture, and dress and are a very closed and independent society. They do not allow non-Kunas to own property or businesses within the reservation, which can make traveling there very difficult and rugged and means that the tourist infrastructure is intentionally very limited. After spending a few days in the area, I came to the conclusion that the Kuna are deeply suspicious and wary of outsiders and barely tolerate tourists in their reservation. They restrict the number of visitors and access to the islands as much as possible and charge a $2/person entry fee to every island. They also do not allow photography of Kuna women. To take a picture, you must ask permission and pay at least $1 per subject. (More about this below.) Of the 350+ tropical Caribbean islands, only about 40 are inhabited and access to the others is extremely limited. Almost every island we saw was travel catalogue/postcard gorgeous and many of the islands are surrounded by coral reefs, making it a snorkeling dream. The islands are very remote and are only accessible by boat. The area is sparsely populated and can be dangerous because drugs and other goods are often illegally transported through the islands on their way to or from Colombia. Anyway, all this is to say that the islands are remote and the uninhabited ones are stunningly beautiful.

Highlights of the trip:

The flight from Panama City was only about 30 minutes, but it was in the SMALLEST plane I have ever seen, only about 15 seats. Our group of 8 took up half the plane, but the ride provided incredible aerial views and was very smooth. No nervous moments, but I was disappointed by the lack of beverage service. 😉 Bracken was instructed that our 5 liters of drinking water should be CARRY ON items (no 3 ounces or less rule here!), and no one really checked our tickets at any point on the trip. For the return flight, a random old woman wandered up to us and asked us to point at our name on a list. When we did, she moved on to the next person, apparently finished with the check-in and security process.

Our island had about 12 cabins and we stayed in one without electricity but with an “extra big bed” (by Panamanian standards) because the guy on the island took a look at Bracken and told us we needed it. The island also had several hammocks, a basketball hoop, and volleyball net. They provided all meals, seafood and rice. As a non-fish eater, I made it through, but was served brown wilted lettuce with kraft cheese singles on top for dinner one night. (But as an added bonus, the bugs on the lettuce provided extra protein.) Unfortunately, Bracken said the fish wasn’t even very good. I’ve never been so happy to see a plate of bland rice and beans!

We had two excursions during our trip – the first to snorkel near Isla de Perros (Dog Island). We also snorkeled all around the island where we stayed, spending nearly every possible minute in the water. These reefs provided the best snorkeling we’ve seen in Panama yet, and we saw cuttle fish for the first time!! There was a group of three that hung out in a particular spot on the reef, and we returned many times to visit them. This is a major accomplishment in my life as a diver/snorkeler, along the lines of seeing a sea horse in Australia and sea turtles in Mexico.

We also snorkeled in an old ship wreck off of Isla de Perros. The snorkeling throughout the islands was incredible, and there was a reef wall right off of our island that was home to a large diversity of fish. At one point, we snorkeled over to a nearby deserted island, swimming over a section of reef with extreme depth changes. It went from a shallow reef of a few feet all the way down to 75 or 100 feet deep with fair visibility. A few times I was so tempted to dive down for a better look I had to remind myself that I didn’t have a dive tank on my back! It was pretty unforgettable to be able to snorkel from sunrise to sunset in such a beautiful and tranquil place.

The second excursion to the Kuna island of Rio Sidra was an interesting but rather uncomfortable one. Reflecting upon our visit, I realized that having lived in Panama for over a year and a half now, it is very difficult for me to travel somewhere without viewing the larger context of the situation and its people. For example, it can be hard to just travel as a tourist, because my experiences living here have highlighted many of the problems that exist in the country, especially for the rural poor and indigenous groups. Although Panama is incredibly beautiful in a variety of ways and is home to a diversity of habitat types, my knowledge about the deeper context of problems can make it hard to accept the beauty at face value without also thinking about the issues that threaten Panama’s environment and its less fortunate populations.

Anyway, this context definitely influenced my visit to the San Blas islands and Rio Sidra in particular. The island is small but extremely crowded and “developed” (more or less). There are over 1000 people living on the small island, and it seemed clear to me that the island is not able to support a population this size and growing. There is trash everywhere and the outhouses are over the ocean. Drinking water availability was a mystery to me and it was difficult to ask our guide any questions (he insisted on speaking in short phrases of broken English even after we told him we preferred Spanish). On the island, kids ran up asking for money, and women ran away when they saw us coming. As I mentioned, visitors are not permitted to take photos except in the main street, and subjects are $1 or more each, granted the person will give permission (some people we asked did not). More than the fee, the awkwardness and tension our arrival on the island brought were enough to deter me. We were essentially led around to different government buildings where we were told to pay the $2/person entry fee at each place and then escorted back to the dock. The most overwhelming aspect of the experience to me was how many children were everywhere, and how young the population was. There was absolutely no privacy. The simple homes are made of wood, palm or zinc similar to others throughout Panama, but I can imagine that during a rough storm on the ocean, these do not afford much protection. I have been in some poor areas of the country (and lived in one for a few months) but the poverty and overcrowding was different than anything I have experienced before. In other areas, people are able to farm the land for food (to some degree, depending on soil quality and water availability). While some Kunas have farms on the mainland, fish is really the only close option. When we asked our guide about the traditional Kuna clothing and beaded jewelry, he changed the subject. I think the reason this experience was so strange for me was because we didn’t ask to visit the community – it was a scheduled part of the inclusive trip price. And then when we arrived, it seemed uncomfortable and I felt very unwelcome. This was a bit of a disappointment because I had really been looking forward to seeing a Kuna village, interacting with the people and learning about their culture. Also, the contrast between the “tourist island” where we stayed and Rio Sidra was an extreme one that left me concerned about the future of Kuna people as they face problems of environmental degradation, sea level rise, and overcrowding.

Tourism in developing areas and different cultures can be a complicated topic and this experience certainly gave me a new perspective on the idea of tourism as a means of social and economic development. Tourism dollars can drive economic stimulus, especially in a place as uniquely beautiful as the San Blas Islands, but it feels as though the Kuna people have not accepted the idea of tourism and are not comfortable with its realities. It also seemed as though the money we were paying was not directly benefitting the community in any obvious way. Although this is not a shock anywhere in Panama, it did make me wonder what the experience would be like if the idea of tourism on the islands was reformulated to meet their level of comfort in interacting with outsiders. And if there was a more equitable distribution of tourism dollars throughout the reservation.

Overall, we had a wonderful trip and a lot of fun with our friends. We had an amazing time, and thanks to our parents for the Christmas money that helped us pay for it! Click here to go to the photo album.

Cows, trees, and solar panels…oh my!

February 24, 2011 by

Kate explaining the details of our silvopastoril project to our cattle producers group.

So it’s been a while (ok almost a month) since my last post. For those of you who have been wondering what we’ve been up to for the last several weeks. The following passage should give you a pretty good idea:

Los sistemas silvopastoriles según su distribución especial se pueden clasificar en sistemáticos y no sistemáticos. Los primeros tienen un arreglo espacial uniforme en el terreno, generalmente plantados por el hombre; mientras los del segundo grupo presentan una distribución heterogénea y en general proceden de la regeneración natural.

I pulled this passage at random from one of the technical manuals that has been living on our kitchen table as we have been working on our grant proposal for funding from the United Nations Development Program. The above passage talks about different types of silvopastoril systems and how they are classified based on how trees are distributed throughout the system. Wait…those last two sentences probably didn’t make any sense so we should probably start from the beginning…

(Queue Wayne and Garth from “Wayne’s World” doing their finger wiggling “doodoodoodooodooodoo” time traveling effect. I know it’s a dated reference but that’s what came to mind.)

Okay, so months ago we started asking the cattle ranchers group in our community what some of their problems are and what ideas they had to fix them. We decided to work with this group for two reasons: 1) they are organized and have been doing a joint cattle purchase program for nearly ten years and 2) cattle ranching IS the economy in our community so if we wanted to do any sector related work (we are Community Economic Development volunteers after all) we thought it made a lot of sense to work with them. We did this problem identification based approach as part of our community analysis (refer back to our community analysis posts for a recap) in order to have the community define work projects that they were interested in participating in, instead of us doing something that would have little benefit for the community and not be very sustainable after we left.

So after many conversations and activities, we, as a group, determined that dry season milk production was both a major problem and something we could feasibly strive to improve. Panama essentially has two seasons. The rainy season or “winter” lasts about 7 to 8 months in our region and typically has frequent and regular rains throughout. The dry season or “summer” on the other hand is quite dry and has very little rain. As you can guess, the major difference in rainfall is not very good for the pastures that our ranchers use to feed their cattle and, hence, milk production and cattle body mass drops. As a result, family incomes decease significantly during this time of year.

There are also several negative environmental impacts that result from the ranching methods of our cattle producers. This is an example of a typical cattle pasture in our community during the dry season:

As you can see, it contains little more than dead grass. When compared to soils in the United States and other temperate climates, the soils here in Panama are very poor. Before Panamanians began ranching in this area generations ago, this hillside was likely part of a tropical rainforest and was able to store and recycle nutrients with extensive networks of trees and other foliage. Without this ecosystem, the area not only loses the nutrients but also loses most of its soil. Today, this hillside has virtually nothing keeping what little nutrients and fertile soil remains. I’m sure you have heard about the negative environmental impacts that cattle ranching has in tropical areas so I’m not going to dwell on this suffice to say that it is not a very sustainable practice.

So, now we have poor soils, long periods of time without rain, few trees, and ranchers who are dependent on keeping their cattle alive as a means to sustaining themselves. What if I told you that there was a way to not only to improve dry season milk production, but also to mitigate some of the negative environmental impacts at the same time. Well, you are in luck because there is and that method is called silvopastoril. Silvopastoril literally means literally “tree grazing” and is essentially a method of combining drought resistant  and shade tolerant pasture grasses with nitrogen fixing shrubs and a variety of trees.

Silvopastoril has several benefits for both the environment and for cattle. The system provides cattle with shade which reduces activity and sweating and in turn helps cattle keep body mass. The trees and shrubs also provide the cattle with a more diverse and nutritious diet that lasts longer during the dry season. Environmentally, the system minimizes erosion, helps improve soil quality by retaining vital nutrients and also increases biodiversity of plant and animal species (turns out tropical birds love silvopastoril systems because they like eating seeds and fruits from the trees). So instead of having an arid and denuded field you end up with something like this:

This is a picture of a silvopastoril system that was planted in 2009 by a group in a nearby town. Though it may not look like much now, it will eventually grow into a system that is good for everyone involved. Our producers also determined that they could better utilize this system if they could better control the degree of access that their cattle had to pastures. In order to do this, the producers determined that breaking their pastures up into smaller segments would allow them to better control both the quantity and speed at which their cattle grazed on the silvopastoril system. Building and maintaining traditional fences is time consuming and expensive and is a major barrier to demarcating pastures into smaller segments. In the long run, electric fences are much cheaper to use and maintain since they require fewer posts (traditional fences have to be strong enough to physically keep cattle out while once a cow learns a fence is electric they learn to stay away from it despite how skimpy it might appear). Since our producers do not have electricity out in their fields, we determined that the best way to power electric fences would be by using solar panels.

Now that we had a project idea fully developed, Kate and I had to figure out how we could connect an appropriate technology (a combined silvopastoril, electric fence system) with those who could benefit from it the most (our cattle ranchers). The major downside to our project is its costs; drought tolerant grasses and solar panels are not cheap. Fortunately for us however, the vast majority of the project costs are up front and once they are paid the system is quite inexpensive to maintain. Kate and I felt strongly that if we could find a way to pay most of the upfront costs and train our producers on how to implement and maintain these systems, we would be able to create a sustainable program that would benefit both our producers and the environment.

Luckily, the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) has an established Small Donations Program fund in Panama. This fund provides groups with “small” (by UN standards) grants of up to $25,000 for implementing projects that help with environmental conservation. We have been working on obtaining funding from the UNDP for the past six months. In order to get funded, the UNDP requires each group to complete a two step application process where each step is composed of writing several pages about your project and completing budgets, timelines, and logic models. The grant process here is essentially what you would expect when soliciting funds in the U.S. Since, this application needs to be completed in Spanish and we are working primarily with people who did not go to school beyond the sixth grade, we’ve had our work cut out for us.

In order to write the grant proposal, our producers group created a commission composed of three members (plus us) to put together the proposal for the group. As a commission, we have been meeting weeklyfor the last six months. In addition to these meetings, we have also organized trips see other silvopastoril systems, researched prices of seeds, solar panels, and other materials, coordinated with the Ministries of Agriculture and the Environment to request materials and trainings, and spent hours writing the grant.

We both feel that this project has been a good mesh of our skills with the hands-on experience and insight that the members of our commission have. Kate and I bring project management experience to the table and have helped our community counterparts organize their ideas with timelines and budgets. Thankfully, our producers are bringing the vast majority of the ideas to the table; for the most part, they know how to implement this project but have not had the financial means to be able to do it. What we are doing is helping them get access to the funding so they can do something to improve their own lives.

Personally, this project has been the most rewarding work for me in Panama because we have been participating in the process from beginning and we are helping our counterparts bring their own idea to life. Because of this, I know that this project will be in use long after we leave.

So that is the project in a nutshell. I have left out a lot of the minutia (which there is a lot of). We will be submitting the final proposal to the UNDP by the end of March and are hoping to receive the funding by June. We will be much better about keeping you all up to date on how the project is going now that I have spelled out what exactly we are doing.

Here’s a link to some pictures that will hopefully make the project clearer.

Hope all is well for everyone. Until next time.

Odds & Ends #16: 1/25/11

January 25, 2011 by


Well since I haven’t done an Odds & Ends post since October, I guess its time for a new one. Here’s some of the stuff we’ve been up to over the last few months:

  • In December, we attended the graduation ceremony for the 9th graders at our community school. Technically, the 27 students that graduated are done with school since school is only mandatory through the ninth grade in Panama. However, we’ve been told that all of these students will continue on to high school. The ceremony was nice (and thankfully brief) and included fireworks, presents for the six students with the highest grades, and plenty of happy families. The three students with the highest grades also received scholarships to attend high school. After ninth grade, students have to pay to attend school.
  • January has been a somewhat productive month on our primary project (which, ironically, we have not discussed on the blog yet…this will be rectified soon). One of our community groups is soliciting funds from the United Nations Development Program, Small Projects Fund for a improved pastures project. In the last few weeks we have visited another project that was funded in 2009 twice and will be hosting a meeting with the national director in community today. Kate and I are both excited that the project is coming together because we have been working on this project extensively for the last six months. Stay tuned.
  • I am also happy to report that Kate and I will be teaching Junior Achievement in the school next year in addition to helping out with the English classes. Junior Achievement ( is a international non-profit that provides materials to teach students about business skills, entrepreneurship, and financial literacy. Kate and I have been waiting for these materials for almost a year and we finally received the packets two weeks ago. Its a long story, but it turns out that the packets had been sitting in a shipping company’s office in Las Tablas since August but nobody ever told us that they had been shipped, let alone where they were shipped. Once I knew that the packets had been “allegedly” (still wasn’t convinced at that point) shipped, I spent two hours hunting for the company’s office before I found it. Since addresses and labeled street names are not used in Las Tablas no one I asked knew where this office was, let alone if the company even existed. I asked at least 15 people in Las Tablas if they knew where this office was and only two people had even heard of the company although they didn’t even know where it was. Finally, a woman that worked in a furniture store (who I believed took pity on me after seeing me walk in front of her store 12 times) helped me figure out where the place was. Instead of using addresses, people often give directions based on what businesses or landmarks are next to it and we were finally able to get the name of a restaurant and a radio station that the office was next to. This whole excursion was frequently interrupted by me wagging my fist in the air and proclaiming “Damn you Panamaaaaa!!!” Alas, I have come to rely on the fact that Panama giveth and Panama taketh away. Therefore, I am happy to say that we now have the packets.
  • In December, we returned to a nearby national park called Isla Iguana. The Island is beautiful and on this trip we went with our amazing Panama City host family when they came to visit Los Santos. The island and surrounding waters are protected and is a major nesting site for birds. Here are some pictures:

  • In December, we also attended a provincial meeting of the Los Santos Department of Health. The meeting was held to honor the community members that serve as leaders for the health committees that each regional community health center organizes. The health committees are organized to help the health centers teach the elderly about diabetes, heart disease, and other important health items. The meeting was organizing by one of our host sisters and both of our host parents are on our local health committee so we were invited to attend. The meeting consisted of some remarks for our community priest, presentations from each of the 15+ health committees, the presentation of gifts to each of the committee members, and of course breakfast and lunch. The presentations were more like talent shows where each committee told a few jokes (most of which were dirty jokes…its always awkward to learn new slang words from your 74 year old host mom). The highlight for both of us was the little pageant that was held to name the king and queen of the meeting. Each health committee nominated one man and one woman and winners were determined to selecting the flower out of a vase that had a piece of paper that said King or Queen on it. The whole ceremony was quite hilarious because most of the nominees dressed up and the eventual queen played it up by blowing kisses to everyone and doing the traditional beauty pageant wave. Interestingly, they used the exact same pageant format that was used at our community schools anniversary last September (Kate wrote a post on this). I can’t say that the meeting was very informative but I think its primary purpose was to thank the health committee participates for their help. Here’s a picture of the king and queen as well as a picture of the employees of our local health center and members of our health committee:

  • We are often asked how people in the U.S. can help us out with our work in Panama. Although we are not in need of any support at this time, there are several volunteers who are currently asking for financial support through Peace Corps Partnership Grants. Kate and I have a friend named Katherine who lives in an indigenous community in Bocas del Toro where she is hoping build several compositing and pit latrines. The community she lives in is particularly poor and primarily relies on subsistence farming. With this project, Catherine is hoping to drastically improve community sanitation and health by providing families with better access to latrines. Click here to donate or learn more about this or other projects looking for support.
  • Speaking of latrines, I wanted to share the crappy (good pun, eh?) picture I took of the lunar eclipse on Dec 21. We got up at 3 am to watch the eclipse and it was quite beautiful. It turns out that our best and most comfortable view was siting in front of our latrine and leaning against the door.

Anyway, that’s all for now. Until next time….

    A Campo Christmas

    January 2, 2011 by

    A belated Merry Christmas to everyone from our community in Panama!

    The video above is from a Christmas Eve tradition in Panama. For nine nights leading up to Christmas Eve (Dec. 16-24) community members gathered together to go caroling to a different house each night. This video is from the final posada (which literally translates to “inn” but in practice refers to Joseph and Mary looking for room at the inn). The posada celebrations include singing, snacks, and nativity scenes. Each evening at dusk, people gather at the steps of the church and walk together towards the house where we would be celebrating posada for the evening. A group of women from the Catholic committee lead the singing and music was provided by a group of boys who played drums and other various Panamanian percussion instruments (called tamborito). Once we arrived at the evening’s destination, the group sang a reenactment of José and María (Joseph and Mary) looking for room in the inn before Jesus was born. Later, snacks were distributed and everyone returned to the church together. The conclusion to the nine nights of posada was on Christmas Eve at the house of the community mayor, where in addition to the other posada activities, there was a dinner of chicken and rice with potato salad (the staple of Panamanian party fare), a children’s raffle for four bicycles, and the kids also received small presents donated by a community group that raises money for these presents throughout the year. Christmas Eve seemed to be the bigger event in our area, with more parties and celebrating. Christmas Day included a mass in a nearby community, but not many other activities. People in our area don´t really exchange gifts between adults (including family members) because they don´t have much extra money, but most of the kids in our community did seem to have a few new presents or toys and everyone enjoyed the day relaxing with family.

    On Christmas Day, Kate and I visited many houses in our community to pass out oranges and other small snacks to our neighbors and attempted to cook a nine dollar “Christmas ham”. For us, $9.00 was a big investment because our typical meal costs between $0.50 and $2.00. Turns out the “ham” we purchased was actually a $9.00 “Christmas Spam” cleverly packaged (and labeled) as a ham. We did not discover this until we had cooked our Christmas Spam for almost five hours. Ready for a feast, we took the “ham” out of the oven and realized that it had not cooked so much as it slowly burned (and still wasn´t even very warm). Other than the Christmas spam debacle and a pretty strong cold I got on Christmas Eve, we had a great time in our community this holiday season and were very happy to avoid a repeat of last year´s hospital stay.

    After Christmas, Kate and I went up to Panama City for a quick island vacation on Isla Taboga (12 km from the city). We had a great time on the island where we enjoyed good food, great hiking (we saw several black and green poison dart frogs and one GIANT brown tarantula) and lots of relaxation with a beautiful view of the Pacific Ocean and Panama Canal from our room´s balcony. Even though we only had one night on the island, we really enjoyed our visit and felt extremely relaxed, especially when the crowds of day trippers visiting the beach went back to the city. Isla Taboga was well worth a visit and it was nice to see a new part of Panama.

    After the trip, our Panama City host family very graciously hosted us for a few nights of fun, food and fireworks. We celebrated New Year’s Eve with several other Volunteers and ended up in Casco Viejo (one of the oldest parts of the city) at midnight where we celebrated in the street watching fireworks around the city and lighting some of our own with several children. At one point in the evening I ended up having a (slightly inebriated) conversation with five other guys and we were all from different countries (Brazil, Russia, Ukraine, Morocco, and the United States). All in all it has been quite an eventful and fun few weeks.

    Anyways, Happy New Year! Kate and I cannot believe that it is already 2011. We both remember when we saw our Close of Service date of October 2011, it seemed so far away. It’s crazy to think that at this time next year we will likely be somewhere freezing our butts off and wondering why the houses don´t have hammocks on the porches and the pineapples aren’t as juicy. Last night during dinner, we discussed our highlights from 2010. It has been a year with so many new and different experiences that we both found it very hard to even recall everything we´ve done in the past year, let alone pick a highlight! We finally agreed that getting our cat Tigrita (February 2010) was a definite highlight, along with moving to our new community (technically Dec. 30th, 2009) and completing the first draft of our community´s proposal for United Nations grant (November 2010). It´s hard to imagine what´s in store for 2011, but we are looking forward to many more new experiences! We hope that all of you had a great holiday season, wherever your travels took you. We miss each one of you and are grateful for your support and love!

    Kate put together a great photo album of our holiday activities here. ¡Felíz Navidad y Prospero Año Nuevo 2011!

    Rice Harvests

    December 14, 2010 by

    Even though most of our recent posts have been about parades, holidays and other fun events, we also do a lot of other stuff as well. In addition to our work projects with community groups and the school, we also help out community members with some of their own projects. Now that our work in the school is slowing down for the summer (the Panamanian schools’ summer break is late December to the end of February), we have had more time to participate in these types of activities.

    A common December work activity are rice juntas (sort of an all purpose Spanish noun but in this case it means a work meeting or get together). Rice juntas are days where a bunch of men get together to harvest all of the rice from one farmer’s field and then that farmer (actually the wife and female family members) provides everyone with lunch which 99.5% percent of the time includes…you guessed it, rice. In addition to providing an opportunity for all the men to get together out in the fields, rice juntas are also very efficient. Instead of harvesting your own rice field by yourself (which would take weeks), why not get thirty of your closest friends together to help you out and then go and help your friends when they have their rice juntas? These juntas have provided me a great opportunity to get out and work with many of my community counterparts in their element.

    In the last two weeks, I have participated in three rice juntas and will be going to another junta this Saturday. The farmers that plant rice in our community typically plant about one hectare (roughly 2.5 acres) each year. Though I don’t know how much rice that produces, I do know that it  is not enough rice to make a lot of money off of. Typically, the farmers in our community plant the rice for their families’ own consumption. It would be a big understatement to say that Panamanians like rice because a lot of Panamanians eat rice at least two meals a day. When we lived with our host parents, our host mom would usually cook three or four cups of rice and that would last the four of us for about two meals (maybe three if Kate and I were particularly sick of rice that day). Suffice to say, that at $2.50 for a 5lb bag, the cost of rice quickly adds up so you can see why growing your own can really help out.

    Last week, about 100 people from the region got together to harvest 3 hectares of rice from a school owned field to provide rice for the students who will stay in the school dormitories next year. The event was organized by our schools equivalent of the PTA. Kate and I harvested rice out in the fields with the men while the women and several students, collected the rice bundles and/or brought around water for everyone. A lot of our community members were both surprised and impressed that Kate was out harvesting with the men. I think a few of the women thought she was crazy (including our host mom who told Kate that she should help the women cook lunch instead of harvest) not necessarily because harvesting is man’s work (though in these women’s minds it is) but because they didn’t understand why she would want to spend the day out in the sun covered in insects, grass and sweat. I think Kate is glad that she did it but she started to develop an allergy after a few hours in the fields so I don’t think she will be participating in anymore juntas this year.

    I put together a short photo album that shows you the steps in harvesting rice from a few of the juntas we’ve attended. So next time you sit down to bowl of rice you will have a better idea of what it takes to get there.