Central America | Panama – Winds, floods, and an unexpected vacation
Everyone seems to be buzzing lately about the prospect of the road getting fixed. Martin Torrijos took office recently, stopping Mireya Moscosa from serving a second term. Torrijos’s father was a dictator who helped Noriega rise to power and kicked Peace Corps out of Panama in the 1970s. (There was a lot of anti-American sentiment during this time, when the US had control of the Panama Canal and there were military personal everywhere. And the US invaded in 1989, after the murder of a marine, killings hundreds of civilians) Torrijos was popular in the Comarca for building roads and schools. In fact, Ngabe people were mostly nomadic before the introduction of this infrastructure made them settle into communities. (Hence, it is still not common in thier culture to work together as communities. WAY back, before European conquest, they were more coastal dwelling, but became nomadic when forced onto land that can’t support communites for long periods of time) The new Torrijos is expected to help the comarca out again. In fact, riding a chiva uphill the other day, I asked who was in that white truck over there. I usually recognize all the vehicles on the road, but not this one. Government officials, I was told, they are checking out the road. It’s the dry season, so now is the time to do it, before the road get impassable again. However, on another chiva ride downhill, the driver told me, ‘they said they were going to fix the road last year, too, and they didn’t do a thing.’ However, again, Cerro Colorado, the closed mine, is supposed going to talk with the Comarca Congresso, which meets soon, about reopening the mine. Copper prices are going up, I was also told. If the mine was open, the road would surely be fixed. When the mine was open before, the road was maintained, and San Felix was a half hour away, as opposed to the two hours (on a good day) that it takes now. As nice as it would be to have San Felix a half hour away, I’m not sure I like the idea of miners and trucks going through little Chami, and alcohol and violence that is said comes with accessibility to the outside world. O well, it is totally out of my hands. Also, we all hope if the mine is reopened, it will be done in a way that the Ngabe people benefit, and are not exploited. When the mine opened, not a single Ngabe was consulted, even tho it was their land.
My brother returned with me to Chami after New Years. He spent a few days, and we had a great time hiking and just pasearing. We even visited Daniel Santos’s house in Cerro Flores, who has a neat yard, chicken coop, and even a little pond for fish to eat. He sold us a pound of green peppers from his garden for 50 cents.
I had my second community meeting regarding my project, and I thought it was very successful. We talked again about the four options (hygiene, nutrition, reproductive health, and self esteem). For each topic, there was a big peice of paper on the wall. We wrote all the ideas we had with each topic, and drew pictures for those who couldn’t read. Some people translated everything we said into Ngabere, so everyone could understand. Then a cup was placed under each poster, and people voted by putting a bean in the cup of the topic they thought most important. Nutrition won hands down, with 26 votes. Home gardens, and chicken or iguana projects for meat were discussed, and trainings how to do these. Hygiene got second place, with 13 votes, it was especially popular with the families who dont have a latrine and want one. Reproductive health (such as family planning and HIV/AIDS/STD education) and self esteem didnt score so high, but community members said it would be important to teach in the schools. (They also said borachos needed education about reproductive health. Not sure how I’ll go about educating them). We will get together again on Febuary 3rd fill out requests for seeds for gardens. I do however already have some seeds for them, donated by my brother!
I got the best message the other day, my friend Andrea that I met in college found a cheap ticket to Panama! And she would be here in a couple days! She actually flew into San Jose, Costa Rica, like my family, and took the bus to David. I met her at the bus terminal, and took her to Tamburelli’s. We first went to Boquete, where the Festival of Flowers and Coffee was going on. The flowers were beautiful, but it had been raining in the mountains above the Chiriqui province (and in the Bocas del Toro province, on the other side of the cordillera, we later found out) and the river running through Boquete was flash flooding! It was amazing to see how big it got, and fast, and chocolate brown.
We decided to go to Bocas Island, a touristy but gorgeous place, I’d heard. I’d been hearing about it since I had studied abroad in Costa Rica several years ago, and had always wanted to go. Andrea didnt have much time, and the road over the cordillera, from David to Almirante was under construction. (From Almirante, a ferry goes to the Bocas Island archipeligo). So we looked at ticket prices and found the flight was an hour, and only $30! We could even buy tickets online, and we immeadiately did. But then we ran into Peace Corps volunteers who had just come from Bocas. It had been pouring for days, they said, everything was flooded on the mainland, it was horrible, they were going to the beach at Las Lajas. This was not encouraging. We went to the airport the next day anyway. (We later learned the floods on Bocas Mainland during this time were some of the worst ever, 5000 people were evacuated from their homes. No one died, and the islands weren’t affected, however)
The flight was amazing in the little plane! The plane circled on its way out of David, giving us a beautiful view of the Atlantic. Then we climbed over the green cordillera, and even as we were watching the Atlantic disappear behind us, the Pacific appeared! We descended into Changinola, for a quick stop, the took off again. We were in the air the second time for hardly a few minutes, when we landed again on Bocas Island.
I was so exciting to finally be there! And it was sunny and bright! Bocas town is so small we walked to the one main street, and after several stops, found the cheapest hotel, Las Brisas, rooms were $12 a night we could split. (Hospedeja Heike is supposed to be only $5 per person per night, but it was full the whole time we were there.) It was a fabulous trip. We did a boat tour one day, for $15, that went to a bay with dolphins in it (or so we were promised, the dolphins were too busy that day to surface) to Coral Cay for snorkeling, then to Red Frog Beach for swimming and sumbathing. The whole day was sunny and warm. The next day was sunny, too, so we went to Isla Bastimientos by boat (used like taxis there). This island, altho a 10 minute boat ride from the Latino and toursity Bocas Island, was a different world. the whole population was of African descent, and spoke a Creole language we didn’t understand. We had been used to communicating in Spanish in Panama, but here, it the people knew English better it seemed. From Bastimientos town, it is usually a 20 minute hike to Playa Primera, also known as First Beach, or Wizard Beach. But the recent rains had turned the trail into deep mud, and it took us more like and hour. But it was worth it to arrive, even covered in mud. When we returned at the end of the day to Bastimientos town, we ate at Roots, a restaraunt on stilts over the water, with food so good we could hardly believe it! And plates were only three dollars! We took a boat taxi the ten mintues back to Bocas Island (which is actually called Isla Colon) and this time, were really freaked out by how big the waves were. We were happy to get to shore.
The first night we spent there, we looked everywhere for a cheap place to eat. Good food is everywhere, but usually at prices more expensive than even the states. We asked where the locals ate, and were directed to El Lorito, a dirty looking cafeteria. ‘This place looks ghetto’ was Andrea’s first impression, but it was so cheap (breakfasts for 30 cents, big dinners for $2) we learned to love it, and look forward to going to El Lorito!
The night life on the Island was fun. There were only a couple desent places to go, but they were fun. At one, there was a small Rastafarian looking man, smaller than me, who danced around with a huge flaming wand. He danced on a dock in front of the ocean, under the clear starry sky. It was and awesome sight. ‘That looks like fun’ I remarked to Andrea. But then, and he came around with his tip jar, she told him ‘Kristen wants to try!’ No amount of protesting could keep me from being dragged onto the dock, where I then had to do my best to imitate him, with the wand (it was hot with all the fire swirling around you!) I did a horrible job, and it was embarrassing but fun, and everyone clapped when I finally was allowed to flee to my seat. We also went to a bar/discoteca called Barco Hundido. Tables sit on docks over the water, which has a real sunken ship under the water. It is lit up with lights at night, a very cool sight! Eventually, I had to get back to Chami. I was meeting Trisha, and we were giving a HIV charla. But it was Saturday, and the planes didnt fly on weekends! Hmmm, I guess I should have looked into this beforehand. We had to take a ferry to Almirante to catch a bus to David. On the ferry ride back to Almirante, on the mainland, we saw dolphins! Then it was a winding four hour ride to David, over the cordillera. The floods had caused landslides a couple days ago, but were cleaned up by now. Well, there was always one lane of the road open at least.
We met Trisha in San Felix the next day. She was coming to Chami with me for two nights, Andrea for only one. After the regular sitting-around-for-a-few-hours, we were off to Chami in the chiva. But, just past Sardinas, the most horrible banging noises I’d ever heard came from under the chiva. So we all got out, and people crawled under the truck. Now, I dont know much about vehicles anyway, certainly not in Spanish. But I could understand that something under the truck was at ‘two different levels’ and the driver concluded he couldn’t go any farther. We were hours below Chami, hours above San Felix! I was horrified this happened when I had guests, but Andrea and Trisha were such good sports, and we started hiking uphill. We also hiked with a woman from my village. It got dark, and we hiked for a while under the stars. It was a beautiful night! We arrived around 8, I think.
So, unfortunately, it was a short visit for Andrea. But we got up early the next morning, and I took Andrea to my best friends’ houses, Balbina’s, Augustina’s, and Albercio’s. We also did my favorite hike up towards Cerro Flores, where you can see most of Chami, and all the way to the ocean in the distance. Then Trisha and I went to give the HIV charla in the health center and Andrea caught the chiva going downhill at 11 am. (She later emailed that her chiva stopped for a while on the way down, to help with another chiva that got a flat tire).
The HIV charla went okay, mostly thanks to a Ngabe girl who was able to translate the information from Spanish to Ngabere. That is something I need to work on in the future. That night, the summer winds were in full force. Trisha and I could hardly sleep from the racket, and fear the house would collapse. The next morning we saw a peice of zinc had blown off my host family’s house. Little trees had also blown down. You’d never believe the strength of the wind here. A force being pushed from the Atlantic and pulled by the Pacific, our little houses are no match.
That morning, Trisha and I waited for hours, but the first chiva didnt go down until 1pm. Trisha was grumpy because her chivas are frequent and on a schedule. We were in David by evening. The next morning was a Comarca regional meeting. A woman who did her PhD thesis on Organizational Behaviour among the Ngabe spoke, as did people from the office in Panama City. This enlightened a lot of the PC staff as to how unprepared we are to work in the Comarca, such a different culture, and that training for volunteers going to indigenous communites needs to be improved. I also found out I will be a camp counselor for the Chiriqui Youth Conference the end of Febuary, I had volunteered for this. I will be out of Chami for a while, because tomorrow, I have the Chriqui regional meeting, then a few days of In Service Training. That will be fun, because my training group will be all together for the first time since we swore in in September. My house building keeps getting pushed back and pushed back. It is nice being around David, and having hot water and electricity, but its getting expensive. And I’m missing Chami.