Thursday, August 23, 2012

What a ride!

Currently I´m laying down in a hospital in David due to an infected foot that swelled to unnatural proportions originating from an unsightly purple and red big toe. How it happened?  I really can´t tell you.  Somewhere between hiking around the jungle, crossing dozens of rivers, and making my way through the dirty streets of Panama City and David, all in my trusty chacos (which aren´t so trusty anymore seeing as they are about to tear in two) I got a small cut and bacterial infection.  So I´ve been hospitalized overnight and am finally granted some time to actually write a blog post. 

My Peace Corps service is coming to an end.  Even though I still don´t quite believe it myself, I will be flying into Portland International Airport on October 12th of this year.  Crazy!  That gives me 6.5 weeks until I leave my site and 7.5 weeks until I leave the country.  Having just come from my close of service (COS) conference, it is actually beginning to sink in.  At the conference I had to say goodbye to some fellow volunteers who arrived with me here two years ago, and whom I certainly will never see again in Panama.  Getting to this stage of my service has brought on a whole new phase of reflection.  I came to Peace Corps pretty much solely with the idea of serving a community in need.  Never in my fantasizing of what Peace Corps might be like had I considered that I would make some lifelong friends.  Nor did I realize what an important role my fellow volunteers would play in my emotional and mental stability.  They have gotten me through some of the hardest times and although many people around the world can relate to the experience of Peace Corps or any service of this style for that matter, these friends have seen me go through triumphs and challenges like no other.  It has been an incredible experience to get to know a group of people from all across the United States risking everything that is comfortable in hopes of making a difference in a country that none of us chose, but all have come to love (and sometimes hate).  Panama is a beautiful country and I will most definitely never live in such a tropical paradise right on the beach ever again.  But it´s not over yet…

I´m excited to get back to my site where the lovely Maggie Melcher (my follow-up volunteer) has bravely taken on coordinating the work crew over the last week and a half.  If everything is on schedule we will now have completed one 900 gallon tank and the 2000 gallon tank, and be about half way finished with the second 900 gallon tank.  Leaving only the second half of tank 3 and all of tank 4, plus one spring source capture which a group of volunteers are coming to help me build on the 3rd of September.  I´m still hopeful that we can finish all concrete work before I depart, leaving only tube connections and burial for Ms. Melcher.  Given how hard the community has been working to knock out these tanks I think this is very possible.  I have to say, we´re doing great things in Playa Balsa, I´m consistently left with a sense of pride towards the efforts of the community and how far they have come throughout this process.  That is not to say that I do not have my days where I get grumpy and feel the stress of managing this project, but as always, stepping away for a few days rejuvenates me and brings out the greatest admiration for my community. 

What has not sunk in is just how much I am going to miss my community.  Although I always knew it was a temporary home, it was a home nonetheless.  I´ve become extremely close to these people and love them for all their magnificence and flaws.  Plus, the natural beauty is truly my favorite place on earth.  Luckily, with loss comes renewal.  I´m already getting excited about sleeping under a comforter on a cold night and cuddling up to a fireplace with a glass of whiskey, with my family all around me in the living room.  I´m so very ready to spend time with all the people I love and have missed, from old friends to my one year old niece.  Reuniting with Helen Jones, my beautiful fiance remains unfathomable, and yet something which I have been waiting the last two years to come true.  What a ride.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

In Motion

Greetings from Playa Balsa!

Things are moving along quite nicely here.  The first hurdle was transportation.  Getting a dug-out canoe large enough to move the amount of materials we needed required some searching.  Originally I was walking 4 hours round trip to coordinate transport with a boat owner in Kusapin, which proved trying given that the ocean´s mood can change in what appears an instant.  After many failed attempts to get materials due to weather, I ended up making a handshake contract with another boat owner that was only an hour and a half round-trip walk away, which proved much simpler to coordinate.  We proceeded to gather 700 five gallon bucket sized bags of gravel from a nearby beach, transporting between 130 to 150 bags each trip depending on the weather.  There were certainly some rough moments.   Most notably being when we tried to unload 150 bags on a section of beach that ended up filling our 40 foot dugout canoe with water as waves continued to crash upon us.  I found myself swimming around inside the boat trying to find bags of gravel to heave over the side to the transporters.  Eventually we had the boat emptied of gravel but full of water.  With 10 men inside the boat each with a five gallon buckets we emptied out the water and pushed the boat past the crashing waves and into safety, with only minor damage to the boat and much excitement.

Outside of gravel we made trips to Chirique Grande in search of cement.  That trip in particular took 8 hours at sea, due to the 15 horse power engine we were forced to use.  Then near the end of the trip we were top sided by a sneaker wave that nearly flipped the boat, but luckily lost no cement or passengers.  During another trip we got 150 thirty foot long sections of rebar and enough tube to start the tanks and source captures.  That leaves us still with some trips to get cement once we´ve used up the 50 bags we already bought and a trip to get the 400 twenty foot sections of tube we will need to pipe the water into homes. 

The next task was then to move said materials to the construction site, which when carrying 94 pound bags of cement long distances, is no small feat.  I´m continually amazed by the men´s ability to move heavy loads with no short-term negative consequences.  After making two 25 minute trips carrying a bag of cement I felt as if my body would never fully function again and thus have learned my lesson that I cannot move the same amount of weight as the local men. 

Currently we have two of the three source captures completed and have poured the floor and first section of the walls on one of four tanks.  Given that I have approximately three months left in site, my new goal is complete the last source capture and three of the four tanks before leaving.  I´m happy to announce that Playa Balsa has received a very capable and energetic Peace Corps Volunteer as my replacement with the local name of “Osi”.  Over the next three months the community and I will be training her to take over the project and I feel confident that the project will be in good hands.

The community continues to work hard and prove to me that they were ready to take on such a large project.  Recently my friend Tolichi from a nearby site visited to help me with the first three days of tank construction, furthering my appreciation towards the community as he spoke of just how impressed he was of the community´s efforts.  

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Project Funded

Dear donors and readers of Playa Balsa´s potable water project,

I want to start by expressing to you all how much my community and I appreciate your donation and support to this project.   

Due to our political affiliation with the Comarca Ngabe-Bugle, yet our geographical connection to the Bocas del Toro province, our region is often forgotten when it comes to development.  On top of that, being a community of just 200 residents and a pretty new community, if development does reach our region, it still will not reach PlayaBalsa.  When the community found out that the project had been funded they called a community-wide meeting and spent an hour taking turns giving speeches about just how happy and accomplished they felt.  They were extremely generous with their words in regards to the donors of this project and my work with them.  In return I reminded them of how hard they have worked to get this project started and congratulated them for reaching this stage.  As many of them then went on to say, in many ways we have just begun. 

About three weeks ago Playa Balsa and I got full access to the funds for the project and have spent the last three weeks setting the ground work.  We have been arranging transportation of materials, measuring and designing our source captures, and uncovering a spring source which had been covered by a landslide that we will use as another source.  (The project in reality is four separate gravity-fed water systems due to the geography and water flow of the sources).  I have also been giving classes on how to calculate volume and make conversions from cubic feet to five gallon buckets, which has been a lot of fun as older men have really seemed to enjoy learning this skill.

On a personal note, I feel so grateful to be entering into the next stage of my Peace Corps service.  I have never been this busy in my entire service and I´ve honestly never been more content.  Getting this project funded has also been a great success in terms of my reputation and Peace Corps reputation in the community.  My promotion of Peace Corps´ sustainable development process is showing true results in the eyes of the community and making all the prior meeting around needs assessment, what is potable water, and survey data applicable.  I remain extremely dedicated to the community being the driving force behind the project and am trying my best to go at the community´s pace (even when it feels painfully slow).  I continue to stress while I care about seeing the project completed, it means nothing to me if I don´t see the community truly managing the project alongside me, if not more than me, because that is what will decide the long term success of the system.

Thank you again for your incredible generosity and I will continue to send out updates about our progress. 

Attached is a photo of the first work day at the spring source we recently cleaned up.

Monday, December 5, 2011

My Peace Corps Grant is Online!

Hello Friends, Family, and Interested Blog Readers,

As many of you know I have been living here in Panama for over a year now working in a small rural village of 200 residents on the Caribbean ocean as a Water Sanitation Peace Corps Volunteer. Playa Balsa is home to white sandy beaches and gorgeous turquoise waters, but lacks potable water and sanitation facilities. Over the last 9 months I have worked along side community leaders to design a gravity-fed water system that will bring potable water to 25 homes, a church, a small store, and the community building. With high rates of water borne and fecal-oral illnesses this aqueduct will be a great improvement to the community´s health. At the same time we will build the community´s first latrine as a pilot project to hopefully promote better understanding of the importance of latrines and sway those residents who are skeptical of the switch from utilizing the creek as their sanitation facility. It is clear that some residents already desire a home latrine, so this pilot latrine will help the follow-up volunteer work with the community to address just how many should be built and demonstrate the maintenance of the composting design.

To make this project possible we need funds to do so, $10,035.50 to be exact. In case some of you are wishing to make a holiday donation for a family member or yourself I have recently had my project posted on the Peace Corps website where you can make a tax deductible donation. If you simply can´t afford to in these tough economic times but know someone who might be able, please help me forward this email along. If you know of any organizations that would be worth contacting regarding funding this project, I would greatly appreciate that information as well. I´m extremely proud of all the hard work my community has done to understand water borne illnesses and design a water system to prevent them and appreciate every penny that helps put their dreams into action.
I hope all is well in your lives and appreciate you taking the time to read this email. 


Friday, November 18, 2011


America! You great country. I´m coming home to you to visit.

As I fly from Panama City to Miami I can´t help but think about the ideals for which America stands for. The other day one of my host dads (Julian Record) asked me if I thought the United States believes in Jesus Christ less than Panama does . But what he was really asking was, why is the United States always at war? He told me that he knows that the United States is always trying to do good in the world. And so we started to debate what a justified war is. I ultimately asked him, do you think it is up to the United States to throw every dictator out of power like we did in Iraq. He wasn´t sure but he thought yes. The greatest message I took away from this conversation, and so many like it that I´ve had: The United States´ image as the most free, equal, and democratic country in the world has even reached one of the most isolated parts of Panama. I was sad to tell Julian that I think much of the motive of war comes from defense contractors desire to make money. And that I think he is much less critical of the United States than I am. I remember when I was writing my application for the Peace Corps, I had to walk a fine line between not offending the government agency I wanted to work for, while at the same time articulate how much I want to be a part of the good international work the United States does. I feel so grateful to truly feel like I am a part of that work today. And I honestly think I fulfill Peace Corps desire to send out ambassadors of American ideals. I question some of our country´s actions, but only because I think they sometimes stray from our ideals. The difference between the United States´ intervention in Libya vs. Iraq is a great comparison. Libya: U.S. intervention supported by U.N. and Arab League of Nations with clear limitations outlined on for far our support would go. Iraq: none of the above.

We´re far from perfect, but the ideals for which we strive for truly are.

Ngobes with English last names

The peninsula where I live is full of English and Scottish last names: Beker, Williams, Record, Archibald, Trotman, to name a few. So why is that? I´ve got a few theories I´ve put together from conversation and nonfiction.

What most of my community points out is that during World War I many American soldiers got don´t fully believe it). These soldiers got together with Ngobe women, left the children and last name behind, and went on their way. My host dad, Julian Record, had a grandfather named Charlie Smith who had that exact thing happen. He was a white, blue eyed Ngobe who spoke only Ngabere. Julian´s mother who is still alive supposedly has blue eyes but I have yet to meet her.

My constructed theory is this. Many British and Scottish slave owners had slaves working in Haiti on cotton plantations. But when taxes were increased they abandoned Haiti and came to Bocas with their slaves. As the United Fruit company developed (probably beginning with many smaller companies) they originally came to the Peninsula Valiente, told the locals to plant bananas and they´d be back to buy them before they moved production to Changinola. Ngobes originally used their birthplace as their last name. I´m Sili Cruomu, Sili from Cruomoi (which means balsa). The banana owners asked the Ngobes their last name, didn´t understand, and so through these English/Scottish names on them, and history was wrote.

The third influence is the church. We´ve got Methodist, Church of the Apostles, Jehovah’s Witness, and a number of evangelical sects. I think this could have influenced their last names as well.

The Finca

I spent the entire day in the finca today. It was a wonderful day filled of sucking on cacao seeds (if you´ve never tried them you must, they are so sweet and delicious). We planted some seeds in my friend´s finca (tomatoes, basil, bell pepper, carrots, lettuce, and squash), none of which they grow here so we´re trying it out, to try and increase their vegetable intake. We also harvested some ñame, green bananas, and I carried a log to their home for the fagon (firewood stove). We came back to their home to talk about comarca politics and why the United States is always at war. All while eating boiled ñame with coconut soup and freshly killed duck. A truly fantastic day if you ask me.

It was one of those days where I question whether I really hope for much to change out here. It is such a beautiful, simple, and relaxed way of life. Every time that I go to the finca, sure it is partly hard work, but there is also a lot of time simply spent talking, laughing, and eating. There are many people who have left Playa Balsa to work in the city, especially for the United Fruit company, only to come back. They say it´s just so beautiful! There is always vegetables in the finca and fish in the sea, the only problem is clothes. That seems to be the only reason that people leave these days, to get enough money to buy new clothes, and then they´re back. I think that is especially true now that Red de Opportunidades (the welfare program sponsored by the World Bank) gives the women $100 every two months. That money covers sugar, salt, cooking oil, a little rice, and of course the occasional candy.

Sometimes I do have these epiphanies about the poverty here as I´m sitting in someone´s home. A baby might have just pooped on the floor and it is simply cleaned with a little wet rag and never soap. There are kids running around everywhere carrying machetes and other sharp objects, while the parents give a quick snap that I´m going to hit them if they don´t shut up. And parts of the house seem ready to fall at any moment. And other times, as mentioned above, I get the opposite epiphany, and think to myself, this life really is quite romantic. I think it is recognizing that duality that I have taken away most from being here: the natural beauty, the poor hygiene, the relaxed pace, and likewise, the lack of motivation. It might be the longest vacation I have ever endured, but at the same time, it has been truly eye opening to see another way of living and given me ample time for reflection. I remember before I left everybody would simply say, “It changed my life.” I would hear that and wonder to myself ´but how?´ I don´t know if I´m that much closer to answering that question. Perhaps that is supposed to be the great Peace Corps secret. But in all honesty, the Peace Corps is just the vehicle. Anybody who has ever put themselves into an entirely foreign and uncomfortable situation such as this I believe could relate. You learn about yourself, especially how to find happiness when all your lifelines are cut. You learn about another culture and the way they organize their lives, make decisions, and generally perceive the world. You learn how to try to instill motivation and inspire people to think about the future of their community. And perhaps most of all, you learn that life is a process and that any specific goals you might have started with necessitate adaptation.