Central America | Panama – A day in the life of Hato Chami
After a short day at Las Lajas, I was content to spend the night in San Felix, at Laura’s (the regional leader) house. We ate at Mireya’s restaraunt, also known as the Coca Cola restaraunt for the abundance of coke propaganda, that serves the best typical Panamanian food I have ever eaten in all of Panama- the patacones (slices of banana pounded flat, and fried not just once, but actually fried twice, with ketchup, they are like french fries) and pollo guisado are better than delicious!
Mireya’s is located right next to MINSA Comarcal, and so lots of health staff eat there. Because of this, I ran into Eugenio, the Sanambiental tecnico, and my counterpart for my latrine project! He is from Chami, so, as part of our greeting, we asked when the other would subir (which means ascend, or rise, or climb, but around here we all know it means when to return to Chami, because its the highest significant village in the surrounding mountains). He said he was going up that afternoon, in the ambulance! I begged a ride, and luckily, they said I could. Thankfully, because I had my big suitcase still, that I brought from that states, with a good supply of favorite foods.
So we were supposed to go up at 3pm, but of course, didnt leave until past 6pm. (Panamanian time) They driver was asking around if the river was muddy. How muddy the river is at Guabo is a sign of how hard it is rainy in the mountains above. Its getting into the height of the rainy season, and the road was bien fea!! We left San Felix in a terrible aguacerro (pouring rain storm) and as soon as we past Guabo and got off the paved road, we sunk a couple feet into the mud. For the next few hours, the ambulance was like the little engine that could, struggling up soft mud hills, getting stuck in ruts. Several times, we had to get out and walk uphill in the rain, to get some of the weight out of the truck. Hours later, we arrived in Chami! And they dropped me off in the cold rain, at almost 11pm. I was home! I wasted no time drying off and warming up and going to sleep on my foam pad under my mosquito net, and while it was good to be back, thoughts of how recently I had been in my soft comfortable bed in the United States tried to come into my head.
Furthermore, those terrible wild horses woke me up at night, grazing in my yard. They make so much noise! I had to get out of bed and chase them away or I wouldnt be able to sleep. Some nights I have to get up numerous times, because they keep coming back.
The next day Greg, my nieghbor, coming back from downhill, stopped by and cheerfully asked, ‘is it good to be back?’ ‘I have a dirt floor, how good do you think it is to be back!’ I wanted to answer. But instead I said it was good to go around saying hi to my friends in Chami, which is true.
It had been great to show up at Balbina’s and Augustina’s and Delmira’s and the Santos’. They were so happy, and kept saying ‘you actually came back!’ and that they had been worried about me. Everyone heard about hurricane Katrina on the radio, and the terrible floods in the southern US, and were worried I was there. One thing that struck me after coming back from the US, is just how different their facial features are. I hadnt noticed before, probably because I had been in Chami for a year and was used to it, but now I see again the contrast, just how indigenous their faces look.
Miriam, the 7 year old Santos niece, informed me that while I was gone, someone stole one of their chickens. ‘like that one,’ she said, pointing at a chicken walking by. ‘But black, not spotted like that one.’ The Montezumas invited me in to sit on a cow hide, old and hard as a board. They sent a kid up a tree to pick oranges for me. As he tossed them down, Viodelda scolded him, ‘toss better ones down, your tossing down yellow ones!’ I went home with so many oranges I had to carry them in my shirt. I had fresh squeezed orange juice for days.
That is one thing I cant complain about here. Chami is high enough that vegetables grow good here, and I can buy them in the tiendas. Many volunteers who live at lower elevations cant. I can go to the store and get a pound of tomatoes, a pound of cucumbers, maybe green peppers, lettuce, or cabbage, all organic, for under a dollar. And for another ten cents, a bundle of cilantro as big as my fist, wrapped in a palm leaf and tied with a string, and smelling like heaven.
I went by the school, where teachers had clothes hanging in the morning sun to dry. (it would start raining hard in the afternoon. Usually, the stronger the morning sun, the hard the afternoon rain). To the director, I pitched my ideas of World Aids Day activities on December 1st, and an exchange between Native Americans at my college, Fort Lewis College, and the school here. He liked the ideas.
While I was gone, those damn chickens had knocked down the fence I made around my garden out of old coffee and sugar sacks. I was in a hurry trying to sew it back up in several places before I had to get to the health center for a charla. A random young mother came by in a pretty nagwa, and a baby girl in a pretty matching nagwa. She saw me and decided to come over and aske for money. She had walked all the way from Cerro Tula (two hours) to take her daughter to the health center. This happens to me all the time, so, like I usually do, I offered her a chair outside and a glass of juice (actually from generic koolaid mix I can get at the stores). This is what Ngabes do for each other. She drank it and sat and watched as I tried to sew up the fence, and we chatted, and her daughter crawled around my yard. When she finished the glass, I filled it again. Albercio walked by and greeted me as he always does, ‘O Medili!’ and came over to help. He was much faster at fixing the fence than me, and the woman started helping too. ‘Yes, Medili, we help each other. A person is never alone, thats what I say. A person is never alone.’ The fence fixed, they said goodbye and left. The woman came running back a couple seconds later, and laughing and apoligizing because her baby daughter had carried away my spool of thread on accident. She returned the spool and was gone again.
I then was a little late for a charla in the Centro de Salud, but it didnt matter. I gave a little speech about home hygiene with some visual aids, and like usual, the people there in the waiting room were very quiet and stared straight ahead. Tuesdays thru Thursdays are busy in the Centro, this is when the staff is there for full days, and mothers bring their babies for vaccinations, peso y talla, breakfast food fortified with vitamins. They can also get treatment for diarrea, and the cold (called refriado, very common in the rainy season)
An unusual thing that happend this day was a was later discussing the World Aids Day activities with Dr. Edwin, and he got really mad and yelled at me, I still dont know why, but was so surprised I yelled back and stormed out. I went to Dr. Yinny, upset, to ask her what I’d done wrong, and she said he was just having a bad day, she and him and also got in a fight that morning. So I feel really silly about it, I never should have yelled back. Because I still have to work with him, and God forbid, I dont want to lose my ambulance riding priveledges!
I was telling people in Chami, too, about the hike I was going on soon. Four other volunteers and I are going to hike from Chami to Kankintu, Rebecca’s site. This means hiking up over the cordillera, the mountains that separate the Pacific from the Carribean, and down into the lowlands. The hike goes directly north, all thru the Comarca Ngabe Bugle, foot trails all the way. We thought we could do it in four days. “Oh no!” everyone exclaimed. “It was take five or six days! Be careful, you’ll need rubber boots, a walking stick. You’ll get swept away, the rivers are rising, be careful you dont get bit by a snake, or get lost, no one will ever find you!” Not encouraging advice. But I really wanted to see these remote villages, and it would almost be hiking ocean to ocean! This was the rainy season on my side, the Chiriqui Pacific side of the Comarca, but it was the dry season on the Bocas (Carribean) side. Most of the hike was on that side, so this was the time to go.
I wanted to get some good food, like granola bars for the trip, and also visit Jennifer, a EHer in group 56, who was on her site visit in Oma, about three hours hike downhill from me, on the same road as me. Like every group during training, this group was visiting their newly assigned sites, where they will be for two years, for a week, then returning to Santa Rita to finish training and swear in. Then they will move to their sites at the end of October. I remember visiting Chami during my site visit. I had no nieghbors, so no one visited me. It had been an anxious yet exciting time.
I woke up before sunrise and got ready in the dark. I left for Oma as the sky was starting to turn navy blue, and as a walked out of Chami, I saw there was already a crowd waiting for a rare chiva. I was surprised until remembered it was cosecha (coffee harvest) season. Ngabes from remote villages everywhere were coming downhill to Chami, to take a chiva to San Felix, then on to Boquete or Costa Rica, where they would be cheap labor for big coffee companies. Some were walking all the way to San Felix, another 7 hours on top of what they had already walked, who couldn’t afford the chiva ride. Sometimes whole families would go, usually a father and mother, and average of seven children, with all of thier belonging stuffed in giant chacaras, woven fiber bags they carry on their backs, with the strap across their foreheads. Sometimes just young single men go, with the intention of bringing back enough money to last the family until the next cosecha. Unfortunately, drinking and fighting are common, and prostitution, and we hear they dont always bring back all the money they could, and instead bring back STDs to their remote villages.
So since there is very little transport this time of the year, I dont wait for a chiva to leave Chami, but hike to Oma. It took three hours and fifteen minutes this time (dammit, why cant I ever do it in three hours flat? Thats my goal before I leave Panama) I found her relatively easily, and gave her a candy bar. She seemed very new there, obviously, but like she was doing a great job, friendly and meeting everyone. Her host dad/counterpart very really energetic, and talkative. I think at one point, he talked to us for over fifteen minutes without stopping for a breath.
Then I caught a chiva to San Felix, and a bus to David for granola bars, pop tarts, and trail mix for the hike. I saw some othe volunteers there, and we even went to see the Dukes of Hazzard.
Later, back in San Felix, we all arrived at Laura Squire’s house- me, Laura, Rebecca, Uriah, Zach, and Emilio our guide. He is a friend of Rebecca’s, from Kankintu. He knows the trails really well on the Bocas side of the Comarca. Uriah lives near Kankintu, and Zach lives in a Ngabe village outside of the Comarca. Emilio is a 25 year old Ngabe health promoter, whose Ngabere name is Cha. We stayed at Laura’s that night, and got up the next morning, to travel to Chami, the start of the cross-isthmus hike!