Central America | Panama – How to get six pieces of zinc up the third worst road in Panama
The last day of school arrived for Panama, December 14th. This consisted of making huge pots of tipico food, rice and potato/beet salad. Hundreds of students and their families were fed. No speeches or performances this time, we just ate and then the teachers started packing their things up for their last trip down the road until next year. (School start again March 7th).
Barbara, my boss, the director of Rural Health and Nutrition, was going to visit me the next day, the 15th. Greg, the director of Environmental Health was coming too. I was a little suspicious, why was he coming? Anyway, I thought I would take advantage of the two trucks going and coming to try to transport the zinc to my site, for the roof of the house I would build. So I brought my backpack and waited with the teachers at the school for the chiva. We were told one had gone all the way to Hacha today, and we were waiting for it to come down. But as time passed, we started to get nervous, maybe if it was full, it wouldn’t come to the school. So Ines and Lourdes and I, and a few others, walked to the fork in the road, where one branch goes to the school, the other heads uphill to the more distant towns of Cerro Flores, Raton, and Hacha. We were nervous because if was full, not everyone could bajar. Some or all of us would have to stay another night, and if I had to stay, it meant I couldn’t go get my zinc. The teachers were also clearly ready to go to their homes. At last, we heard the engine of the chiva. Then it appeared, empty! We all cheered, and quickly, it was packed. The teachers were now officially on summer break, and we sang the whole three hours down.
That night, in San Felix, I checked out zinc prices, and they were more expensive than I expected for the size I wanted, four foot by twelve- 20 dollars a sheet! I couldn’t get ten, like I originally wanted. I went over to Laura Squire’s house, who is the new regional leader for the Comarca Ngabe Bugle. She was so nice, and we put masking tape all over her floor, in possible sizes for my house- 10 feet by 20, 10 by 15, etc.
The next day, after purchasing only six pieces of zinc, I met Barbara and Greg at 11 am. We tied the zinc to my roof. I was awfully wary of the little rope tying it to the roof, it was like string. They had no idea how bad the road was! Sure enough, we were hardly to Molehung when the zinc flew off the roof! This drew quite an audience. So then we were faced with the challenge of how to get it in the car. The obvious solution would be to have it stick out the back of the Land Rover. But the road is so steep in so many places, I knew it would slide out. So we ended up rolling it into a cylinder, and sliding it in the back diagnolly, and out a side window. We slid it so far in the back door could close, and now it couldn’t fall out the back on the up hills! We waved goodbye to the crowd of Ngabe women and children who had gathered to watch.
An hour later, Greg, who has a reputation for driving anywhere, commented on how impressed he was with how bad the road was. He said it was in the top five worst roads he had seen in Panama. I asked if volunteers lived up those other roads. He thought awhile, and could only think of two volunteers with a worse road- a girl in the Darien, and a guy in Veraguas. Of over 140 Peace Corps volunteers in Panama, I have the third worst road. I’m so proud.
My community meeting was supposed to begin at two, and we got there just in time, with no time for lunch. I had my meeting planned, where they would help me explain again what Peace Corps is, and then the four goals of Rural Health and Nutrition: hygiene, nutrition, reproductive health, and self esteem/life planning. Barbara and Greg asked to talk to me in private for a minute. Thats when they told me, due to budget cuts, the Rural Health and Nutrition program had been cut. We were being integrated into Environmental Health. What? You’re telling me this 30 seconds before walking into a meeting?! On one hand, everyone had seen this coming a mile away. Budget cuts had been harsh this year, and it was hard to justify a program with only three volunteers. (There had been more, but some people decided Peace Corps was not for them, and went home) On the other hand, I had not been in the Environmental Health training, and immediately started trying to revise my meeting in my head, and was horrified to imagine myself walking into the meeting and announcing I was here to make aquaducts and latrines, the goals of Environmental Health that I knew nothing about. But then they assured me that my work wouldn’t change, and reminded me of the third goal of EH, health education. I could focus on that.
The meeting went really well. About twenty people showed up, and participated a lot. We talked about sustainable development and community participation, and all four goals. And it was decided we would meet again in a few weeks to vote on which of the four goals was most important for the community. From there, we would pick a solution. For example, many thought malnutrition was a big problem, and thought about having a garden. The meeting ended on a positive note, it seemed everyone was excited.
I hung out at Balbina’s later that week. They were making a nakwa on a hand-crank sewing machine. Then they insisted I try. Despite my protesting, I found myself in front of the sewing machine, trying to sew the delicate little dientes on a dress. ‘It’s terrible!’ I cried repeatedly. Oh, you must be used to an electric sewing machine, it’s okay, they reassured me. You’re probably just nervous because we’re watching you. No, I tried to explain, I’ve really never used a sewing machine before. This was a foreign concept. When I finally got up, they laughed hysterically, and agreed my work was terrible. It was pretty funny.
Finally, December 19th arrived, when I would bajar. I was going to meet my family in David on the 20th! We would go to a beach on Punta Burica, then to Los Quetzales, near Cerro Punta. Since my backpack was heavier than usual, I didn’t want to walk all the way to Oma. That’s where I usually walk to, where chivas come regularly. It usually takes me a little over three hours to walk there. I was already bored waiting for a chiva by 10am, and the chivas didn’t usually arrive until the afternoon. So I was so happy when Dafne, a teacher, came thru town in a pick-up truck driven by her father. They were coming to get her stuff from the room she stayed in. The front of the truck was full, so I hopped in back, with a Ngabe family who were also taking advantage of the ride. It was crowded in the back with Dafne’s stuff and the family, and I had to stand. There were roll bars to hang on to, but the multi-hour ride, most of it very steep downhill, was traumatizing. But I was in San Felix by 1pm. I hopped out of the back of the truck, called goodbye to Dafne, and asked if she would be back in March. Hopefully! she called back. Merry Christmas, we yelled. I was in David before three, and very excited to meet my family the next day. My Christmas vacation had begun!