Central America | Panama – Arrival in Chami
September 14, 2004
Finally on my way! After months of waiting around the United States for my Peace Corps assignment, three months of training in semi-urban Panama, an official swearing in ceremony in Panama City, and a week of indulging myself on the fabulous food of Panama City, I was finally on my way!
Or I would be, if the chiva ever left. This terminology threw me when I first arrived in Panama. Used to traveling around Mexico, where chiva means goat, I learned it is one of the most common forms of transportation in this country. A chiva is a pick-up truck with benches in the back to sit on. I was now sitting around the piquera, the bus stop, or more appropriately, the chiva stop of San Felix, a medium sized town sqeezed between the Inter American Highway and the Comarca Ngabe-Bugle. The Comarca is a newly formed autonomous region in western Panama, for and of the indigenous tribes of Ngabe and Bugle people. It is often compared to an indigenous reservation of the United States, and sits on land that used to be parts of the provinces of Veraguas, Chiriqui, and Bocas del Toro. A region with cultural traditions of dance, songs, artesanary, subsistence farming and medicinal plants, also known for its abject poverty and frighteningly high malnutrition and birth rates. The people have often told me they are neglected by the Panamanian government. This is very possible, as the majority of wealth in Panama is in the hands of about 80 connected families. The Ngabe-Bugle have finally gotten their own region recognized, but are still lacking attention for adequate infrastructure, such as roads, electricity, running water and sewers. This was where I would be spending the next two years of my life.
After completing my classes in a Masters of Public Health, I came into the Peace Corps and got Chami as my assignment. At the request of a new hospital there, I would be working in the Peace Corps Panama Rural Health and Nutrition Sector. I would be working with the staff on outreach education in nutrition, hygiene, reproductive health, and self esteem. The hospital was built and donated by international organizations and gives almost free medical care to Chami and the surrounding communities.
Chami, population 370, is the hub of many smaller communities in the area, from Guaca, a 10 minute walk south, to Escopeta, Raton and Hacha, each several hours walk away. And walk they do. Almost no one in the Comarca owns a car, and most don’t live on a road anyway. A well off person may have a horse. Chami is close to the top of the cordillera, the skinny mountain ridge that separates the Pacific coast from the Caribbean.
I had said goodbye to Maureen this morning, a fellow volunteer. She hopped into her chiva and was off to Hato Pilon. That was several hours ago. And I’d been sitting at the piquera ever since. Early evening I was starting to get worried, and wondering what I would do, when the Chami ambulance drove by! It was the ambulance from the hospital! They saw me sitting there and recongnized me, and waved me over. I hopped in the back, and was on my way!
The ambulance is actally a four wheel drive land rover, so it can take these roads. I had already visited Chami once, during training, and the first time I took this road up, I thought I was going to cry, and I always considered myself thick skinned. The trecherous road recently even made the national newspaper for its condition. A paved road crosses the Rio San Felix and passes through the little town of Quebrado Guabo, and then the pavement ends. The mud road steeply rises up into the Comarca, the highlands of Panama, where the indigenous people were pushed as Europeans arrived centuries ago.
Bumpy at best, the soft red mud road is scary for running along a ridge with sheer drop offs on each side. It’s the rainy season in Panama, and these mud roads have been saturated for months. The tire ruts were deep enough to swallow a horse and we were often tilted to one side so far I didn’t see how we stayed upright. Many times we also got bogged down in a mud pit, had to jump out and wade through the knee high mud, and strategize how to get unstuck. But the worst part was the hills. So many times we approached one so steep I thought, ‘we can’t drive up that! That’s a wall, not a road!’ But here we go. Usually, to make it up the steep, soft mud hills, that could go on farther than you could see, the vehicle has to charge. So by half way up, the vehicle was usually out of control, driver doing anything to make it up, just speeding, pedal to the floor, mud flying, black smoke engulfing us, vehicle slipping and sliding everywhere, in and out of ruts, precariously close to a sheer cliff on one or both sides. Sometimes we made it up first try. But mostly we would have to back downhill and get some momentum with a running start, and try again. The time when the driver lost control and we did a 180 next to a cliff’s edge, and were now pointing back downhill, that was when I decided not to leave Chami often.
Up, up, up we climbed until clouds surrounded us and turned into thick fog. At long last we entered Boca del Monte, meaning we were close! A few more hills to go, and then we were driving under the old flapping red banner over the road that signaled we were in Chami! I wanted to kiss the ground.
The ambulance dropped me off at Felicita’s, my new host family’s house, calling to me to come to the hospital after dinner, and were off. I was home. I climbed up the dirt path to her house with my huge back pack. Quickly, I was surrounded by a crowd of people- Felicita, her sisters, a few men, and a horde of children. The women all wear nakwas, the traditional colorful dress of the Ngabe Bugle. They took my pack and showed me my bed, made out of boards. I was offered food, rice, beans, and chayote. From what I’d heard, this was a very good meal for the Comarca. I was touched they gave me such good food, and ate it all. They talked to me in Spanish, a second language to them, as it is to me. They chatted with each other in Ngabere.
Houses in the Comarca are usually either made of branches placed loosely for walls with a palm roof, or made of pieces of zinc. Felicita’s fell into the latter category, with a dirt floor and zinc door. After dinner, Felicita walked me over to the hospital, and to my surprise, they had dinner for me, too! I protested that I already ate, but they insisted.
‘We’re Panamanian!’ they laughed.
‘We eat all the time!’
Most of the hospital staff is Latino. The Ngabes that do work there go to their own nearby homes at night, but the Latinos live in the hospital. Their food was a contrast to my first meal: chicken, rice and lentils, fried plantain, potato salad, and a cabbage and carrot salad. And potable water, brought from the nearest city. I ate as much as I could, and was stuffed.
The staff all talked to me at once in rapid Spanish I had trouble following. They wanted to know all about me, what I thought of Chami and Panama, what the states were like. How did I feel here, they asked. Just overwhelmed was all I could say. Happy and overwhelmed. There was a doctor, a few nurses and nurses aids, and a receptionist. Most were from David, or another close urban area. Some liked it here, working in the Comarca, some didn’t. The hospital has a generator for electricity a couple hours a day, but we weren’t using it now, we ate by candlelight.
I eventually thanked everyone and walked back to Felicita’s, a stone’s throw from the hospital. Another unique aspect about Chami is the climate- it’s cold. Who would have thought I’d be going to Panama, to a cold climate? I set up my mosquito net, and crawled under my blanket, shivering, and slept soundly all night.