Sunday, March 18, 2012

An Unwelcome House Guest

As I was starting to cook up some dinner one night, a bat let himself into my house. I let him fly around for a bit hoping he would find his way out before I went after him with the broom. He really did seem frantic to escape, but couldn't seem to figure out that the door was another foot lower than the spot where he was flying into the wall. Running out of options that didn't involve killing the lil' terror and then having to deal with a dead bat, I headed over to the neighbors' house for some reinforcements. And reinforcements I got.

Not knowing the word for bat I told them I needed help to get a little animal out of my house. "It's like a little black bird, well, more like a mouse with wings that only flies at night." I know that I had just confused them because when they got to my house and got a sight of my uninvited house guest they all echoed, "Ohhh murcielago" to each other. Which made me even more thankful that they unquestioningly took up arms of flashlights and flooded out of the house. Literally flooded - everyone was coming to see this. It's not everyday the gringa stops by the house after dark. Must be something good...

Five men and 4-year-old Dayana headed in to take on the beast. I waited outside on the bench with 3-year-old Janin. Flashlights were sweeping and laughter was rolling inside my house and then it got serious; they shut the door. After a few minutes they opened the door and flowed out like clowns out of a car. Asking if they had gotten it, fearing they smashed it and left bat guts on the floor, I was in formed that the bat would live to see another day. He was still very much alive, contained by two pieces of bellota, the dried grass used to weave sombreros. He was pretty tiny, probably 3-4 inches long. I have no idea how in the world they managed to catch that squirrely lil' bat with a couple pieces of dried grass. What I do know is that I asked the right guys for help. They've done this before.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Visitors from the Great White North

In the summer of 2009, Lauren and I (Mark) did a research/education program in Bolivia with Bri. We formed a deep bond with her over shared Frac cookies, and promised to visit her in the Peace Corps wherever she might end up. Thanks to Lauren’s communication and planning abilities, we kept our promise and had the privilege of being Bri’s first guests in Panama. In this guest blog entry, we share our impressions of Bri’s lifestyle in el campo (the countryside) of Panama.

Bri took advantage of her diplomatic credentials to meet us at the gate, which was pretty sweet. When was the last time someone met you at the gate? On top of that, she was carrying a very suspicious plastic pipe; she certainly would have been tackled by at least three Homeland Security officers in any US airport. The plastic pipe was a water level that another volunteer asked her to pick up in the city. It was our constant companion for a few days. We have some good memories with it, like the time when someone knocked it over in the middle of the night in the hostel dorm and it woke everyone up.

After a day and two nights staying at a backpacker hostel in Panama City, we set off for Bri’s site. We rode two hours west on a Toyota Coaster bus on the Interamerican highway. The bus was full, and Bri and I shared the 1.5 seats next to the driver. Being about 12 inches from the windshield, we got a close-up view of the action. Fortunately the driver was moderately restrained, but there were a few exciting moments.

In Penonome, the capital of Cocle province, we dropped off the water level at the regional Peace Corps leader’s house. We stopped by a corner store to buy some chicken and veggies to make the favorite local dish, arroz con pollo (chicken with rice). Being a good Wisconsinite, Bri always drinks a small carton of milk before heading up the hill to her house in Limon. There is no electricity in el campo, so she has to keep here lactose tolerance up by chugging some milk whenever the opportunity arises.

We rode a chiva (minibus) for about 45 minutes up into the hills north of Penonome toward Limon. The chiva dropped us off at the corner where our route diverged from the paved road. The road to Limon was too rough for cars because it’s a mud pit during the rainy season. Lauren and Bri took a break to put some fresh bandaids on their blisters before hitching up the packs for the one-hour hike up to Limon. Fortunately for me, my Tevas were not giving me blisters.

Bri demonstrated how she used the fenceposts to get around a particularly large mud pit during the rainy season. Fortunately for us, it was the dry season and there was not a trace of mud. However, it was easy to see the deep imprints of horse hooves in the now hard clay.

As we came into the community of Limon, at the top of the ridge, we stopped in at the house of a family that had been one of Bri’s home-stay host families. Bri had just finished three months of home stays; a different family each month. We chatted for a while around their thatch-roofed open-air country kitchen out back. Bri chopped some firewood for them with a machete for old-time’s sake. Maribel stoked the fire and served us hot coffee with lots of sugar in pretty cups and saucers.

A pleasant feature of Limon is that a stiff breeze (la brisa fuerte) blows nearly continuously during the dry season, which they call summer even though it’s technically winter from a celestial point of view. The breeze was refreshing after the sweaty hike up the hill, and the sound of it swishing through the trees was soothing.

We asked for advice on how to prepare arroz con pollo. It was the general consensus that it was far too late to start cooking arroz con pollo. It was about 6:30. Even so, she gave us some tips on the procedure and gave use some fresh achiote from a tree out back to color the rice. People live by the sun in el campo, and dinner is served more like 4 pm. We headed out for the last half mile or so to Bri’s house, and arrived just as it was getting dark.

My first impression upon entering Bri’s house was that perhaps Maribel was right that it was too late to start cooking arroz con pollo. Bri’s house was a single room, about 10x12 feet, concrete floor, block walls, corrugated metal roof. There were two windows made of concrete blocks with holes in them to make a lattice pattern. There was a bed with mosquito net, a bookshelf, a clothes storage corner, and a tiny table that was covered in stuff. I wasn’t sure how cooking was going to work because there didn’t appear to be any place to put anything. In addition, it was pitch dark and the breeze was blowing through the windows and kept blowing out the two candles that Bri was using for light.

Immediately, a few small projects came to mind that would make life much easier in the house. Luckily, Bri has been collecting garbage behind her door until she figures out a real solid waste plan for herself. The current solid waste plan in her community is to chuck it downhill from wherever you are, but she has no downhill slope from which to chuck – also she is a responsible environmental engineer and wants to find a better way. I made a wind shield and reflector for a candle from a tomato juice can. This small project helped only a little to keep the candle from blowing out.

Bri had to make a phone call, and went outside to get better reception. She entrusted Lauren and me to get the arroz con pollo going. I got more comfortable once I got my bearings and my eyes adjusted to the darkness. The procedure was to saute the guisa (a bundle of onion, celery, tomato, and some herbs like cilantro and parsley) with the chicken, add water, then use the broth to cook the rice while we shred the chicken, and finally add it all to the cooked rice. The achiote was sauteed in oil and the red oil was added to the rice. It ended up being quite delicious; the guisa gave a nice herbal flavor to the whole dish. Bri complained that it was “dripping” with oil, but she ate it anyway and I think she liked it.

After dinner, we all crawled into Bri’s bed under the mosquito net. I decided not to wear my earplugs because I wanted to hear all the night noises. The wind blew through the trees and lifted the corrugated metal roof panels making clattering banging noises. The roof of the latrine had a loose panel which banged loudly from time to time. There was a horse tied up outside the house that snorted and whinnied periodically. This same horse had startled me earlier when I was heading for the latrine in the dark and heard a large animal snorting right next to me. And of course, roosters don’t limit their crowing to dawn, as they do in cartoons, but are up all night doing what roosters do.

In the morning we warmed up the leftover dinner and had some coffee on the porch.

After the morning had progressed reasonably along, people began moving about the community. Bri’s house was centrally-located near the chapel, health clinic, and little shop, so people passed by on the main footpath regularly. It was part of Bri’s job at this stage to build relationships with people, so socializing was part of the agenda. I enjoyed the relaxed social scene in el campo. Whenever someone walked by carrying some boards, bananas, or whatever, Bri would say “buenas” and follow up with questions about where they were going, what they were doing, etc. Apparently she did not invent this, but this was standard practice when you see someone walking past. This was a pleasant contrast to our neighborhood back home. A man named Dario stopped by and asked if we liked pipa, the large green coconuts with lots of water in them. He said he would bring some by later.

Having not quite settled into the campo groove yet, I was itchy to start a project. Lauren is quick to think of projects for me, and remembered a “skylight” made of soda bottles she had seen in a development newsletter sometime earlier. Bri had actually read about the same technology and had an article laying around about it. The light is made by inserting a plastic bottle full of water into a corrugated metal roof, and sealing around with roof sealant. Since Bri could use some light in the house, I decided to give this a try.

After a while, we decided to “pasear,” or go visiting, to the health clinic two doors down. One of Bri’s homestay moms, Anabel the sister of Maribel whom we visited earlier, works at the government-sponsored health clinic. Since there were no patients at the moment, we sat down for a good chat. We peppered her with questions, and she good naturedly gave us the lowdown on local health issues. Fortunately, it seemed that people were reasonably healthy and there wasn’t any malaria, dengue, leishmaniasis or anything too grave to report. She invited us to stop by her house later to pasear and have some coffee.

We got back to the lentil soup cooking at Bri’s house. Lauren and I were trying to get some legumes into Bri’s diet; a woman can’t live on rice alone, or even rice with bananas for that matter. Some children had stopped by. Bri’s house had some books, toys, coloring equipment, etc., from the previous volunteer, so the kids liked to drop in to get a book or toy and sit on the porch.

As promised, Dario showed up with his son Edgar and a bookbag bursting with four big green coconuts. Bri asked Dario to open them with his machete. This struck me as sensible, because an inexperienced gringo could easily lose a finger in that operation. We poured the coconut water into some glasses and shared our lentil soup. The lentils were a bit hard, I guess we should have soaked them first, but everyone ate it up nonetheless. Kids didn’t complain about food there.

At this point, Dario pulled out a yuca root and gave it to Bri. Bri asked how to cook it, so Dario began building a fire so that he could demonstrate how to roast a yuca root. This meant that we were settling in for a nice long chat because it was going to take some time to soften up. So we played some cards with Edgar and the girl, and Dario practiced his english on Lauren. After an hour or two, Dario deemed that the yuca root was soft enough, so we peeled it and ate it with some salt on top, kind of like a baked potato but more fibrous.

Dario and Edgar left, and we had a little alone time. Lauren decided to take a shower. Bri has a blue polytarp hung on some sticks behind the house for that purpose. There is a bucket for water, and a bowl to scoop it, and a concrete slab so your feet don’t get muddy. Sometimes the tarp gets caught by the breeze and falls off the sticks, which is another project that needs attention. I avoided issues with the shower by not taking a shower.

Meanwhile, Bri and I occupied the hammocks and chatted a bit. Bri insisted that she did not like sweets, as she finished off a package of cookies.

As we promised earlier, we had to go pasear at Anabel’s house. Along the way, I saw the school up on the hill, and I wanted to go see it.

School was not in session, so it had not been visited in a while. The latrines looked to be at least two notches nicer than the one behind Bri’s house. Back by the country kitchen where school lunches were prepared, there were a few chili pepper bushes growing with a lot of ripe peppers on them. We picked a few for dinner. As we were picking, Lauren pointed out that there was a green snake coiled up in the pepper bush a few inches from our fingers. We asked around later and found out it was not poisonous.

Anabel’s house had the nicest looking mud walls I have seen. They were not cracking or crumbling at all, except in a few places where the dog had scratched them. Her house was very tidy and well kept. The warm breeze blew through the open doors and windows. Chickens, roosters, and dogs wandered freely in and out.

There were happy meal boxes (Cajita Feliz) hanging from the ceiling. She said that a happy meal is her reward to her son for good behavior.

Anabel served us sweet coffee on fine china cups and saucers. Bri pointed out that it said “Made in occupied Japan” on the bottoms of the china cups; an interesting detail that she had observed during her homestay. Anabel was concerned about her chick that had been abandoned by it’s mother. Although there seemed to be an endless supply of chickens and roosters wandering freely about Limon, each one had an owner. They were all counted and tracked, and Maribelle only had a few of her own. Bri noticed that a large coconut tree had just been cut down outside the house. Maribelle said that she had it cut because she didn’t want a coconut falling on the head of her young boy. I guess that doesn’t happen only on Gilligan’s Island.

Having accomplished a good deal of socializing, we headed back home to Bri’s house. Bri found a large forked stick along the way that would really improve the shower setup.

The time for socializing had passed, so we had a little alone time before dark. Bri took us on a short hike to a rocky bluff that looks out over the surrounding hills and valleys. The local children call it the “Rock of Fear” because they dare each other to crawl out to the edge. We saw a small flock of parrots flying, chattering as they went by.

I could go on to talk about how we hiked the aquaduct the next day, and then went on to visit Erica, another volunteer living in a Ngobe indigenous community further West, but I won’t. I wanted to describe one day in detail because that was one of the real pleasures of this visit, to get to sample a day in the life of Bri’s Peace Corps experience. I’m sure that this day was not representative of all days, and I know it was not representative of other volunteers’ experiences. But it was one day that we got to experience, and it was a good day, so that’s pretty cool.