Work stuff…and stuff

I haven’t really talked that much (or at all) about the work aspect of life down here. Two reasons for this, one it is not as sexy and entertaining as diarrhea and observational humor is, and two, I haven’t done a whole lot. That’s all changed since January (funny, once my house was finally finished we started talking about PC stuff. I’m sure I wasn’t being passive aggressive or indirect…) Once the ball started to get rolling it kept snowballing. My once seeming empty plate is now crammed full of honest-to-goodness work.

It all started with the Water Committee Seminars being organized by PC. My community is one of seven who received brand-spanking new aqueducts designed to bring filtered and treated water 24/7. In early January I volunteered to take part in the very first seminar at another volunteer’s site. Mainly, I wanted to practice my Spanish before the seminar in my community. It went alright. We got our message across although we probably could had been more organized and prepared going into the event. I vowed to be super prepared for my seminar. The plan was to have my community and a very small neighboring community with the same project attending the seminar. 16-20 people were expected.

A week before the seminar I go to the neighboring community to formally invite their Water Committee to the seminar. Keep in mind that I have been talking with the other community leader about this for the past month and a half, but Panamanian custom dictates a formal invitation. I arrive and am immediately met by the community leader who was bien borracho. He spouts off about this and that (about 3″ from my face and most of which was drunken Emberá). After about 10 minutes of this he tells me he’s not coming and he won’t allow anyone from his community to go to the seminar. OK fine, I thought. It’ll just be my community, we’ll keep it simple. I had been advising my community about the seminar for about a month and a half as well. They seemed indifferent at best. The day before the seminar I went house to house and personally invited everyone to participate. Free food and more gringos in site was my selling point. It was met with a , “Yeah, sure we’ll be there (wink)”. “Dammit, you’re not supposed to wink at the person you’re lying to!”, I thought to myself. I feared the worst. I thought at most we would have five participants.

The next day I was frantically running around trying to make sure that all the last minute things were in place. Things didn’t start well when the volunteers that were helping me we running late. No problem, I told everyone 9am which in Panama means 10:30am. To my surprise people started gathering at 9am. “What’s going on?”, I asked genuinely confused. They told me they were waiting for the seminar to begin. For once Pamanians were waiting on the gringos. I wished I wouldn’t have stressed myself out so much planning and worrying about the seminar to appreciate the irony. The gringos finally arrived at we started the seminar. Two and a half days later we handed out 28 certificates to community members. I was blown away by the attendance and participation from my community alone. It was awesome! By far the best experience I’ve had in site to date. Everyone was so nice afterwards thanking us for giving the seminar and talking about all the new things they learned about. I was so proud of everybody.

Facilitating their asses off

Facilitating their asses off

Another nice finish to that story is that the aqueduct has been finished and we now have treated water todos los dias. I’m like Tim Robbins in Shawshank Redemption (when he finally escapes from prison and is standing in the rain) for every water-related activity I do. Nevermind that the plumas are only 4ft. tall. Washing dishes, washing clothes, bathing, filling my drinking water cubos, you bet your ass that I’m soaking myself with my hands towards the heavens.

The other thing we’ve got going on in site is a latrine project. Currently, 40% of the homes do not have a latrine of any kind. The river and/or the monte are used for that. The goal of this project is to create 15 pit latrines and, hopefully, 2 composting latrines. PC projects funds are split between the community and PC. The community usually contributes 50% or so of the cost in manual labor and locally available materials because they usually cannot afford “straight cash, homie”. One thing I did not know about the PC side of the funding is that basically the volunteer asks their friends, families, acquaintances, and random strangers for donations. Something I wasn’t too particularly happy about, but it is what it is. So I wanted to throw this out there right now so maybe, possibly, hopefully you might think about donating a buck or two towards this project. All donations are tax deductible  if that sort of thing floats your boat. When I finally submit our proposal and everything gets checked off there will be a website I will link to where you can donate. Donations are filtered through the PC and I will not get access to the money until all the funds of my proposal are raised. So again, just a heads up that I will be looking for some handouts from all two of my faithful readers here in the near future. Remember, Jesus is watching!

I’ll end with some photos of a Health Seminar I participated in a few weeks back. Actual visual evidence of me being a productive member of society. Ciao

Eat your heart out Trebek!

Eat your heart out Trebek!

The sign in the back says "Playona does not eat poop"

Everyone is clearly very excited. Also, EastSide ’til I die!!!!

Teaching kids what you do if poop doesn't got IN the latrine. You run!

Teaching kids what you do if poop doesn’t got IN the latrine. You run!

**Thanks to Ben and Andrew for the pictures**


White man drinks chicha.

There are very few times in one’s life where drinking to excess is considered a socially acceptable act. 21st birthdays, my family Christmas parties, most Tuesdays….these are those special, rare occasions where its OK to tip back one too many and be no worse for the wear. The Kuna Yala hike was my first such experience in Panama.

It all started when 28 of us volunteers headed out on the two-day, 30 mile hike that began in Panama Este, crossed the Continental Divide, and ended on the Caribbean side of the country, in the San Blas region. The hike was pretty uneventful,  just filled with lots of sweating, blisters, and chaffing, but we all made it to the island without a serious incident.

Now for a little back history: We were heading to the island of Ustupu to celebrate the Kuna Independence Day. In 1925, the Kuna people had a revolution to basically kick out the Panamanian government and form their own autonomous Comarca. I was told that this was the first successful victory of an indigenous group over a “developed” government in North America. The Kuna people are very proud of this and celebrate by reenacting the victory over the Panamanian government every year on February 25th. The Kuna people are also a very private group of people, not necessarily closing off their islands to outsiders, but more like keeping their customs and traditions a closely guarded secret. For the past four years PC volunteers have been going out to the island to celebrate with the Kuna people. I was told it was the one thing I absolutely must do while I’m down here.

So back to the story…we arrived without incident and were greeted with an abnormal amount of hospitality, more than a group of 28 white people usually receive when arriving to an indigenous island. Every building on the island is decorated with the Kuna flag. I should mention that the Kuna flag is a swastika. It is in the opposite direction of the Nazi swastika, but you are still taken aback when you see it decorated literally all over the island.

Kuna Flag

Kuna Flag

We talked with the people about whether or not they realized the symbolism with their flag and the Nazis and they told us that they realized this and that they had the flag before the Nazis so they shouldn’t be forced to change. Also, blaring over the shitty megaphone speakers set up around the island was this creepy kids music. I have no idea why or for what purpose this music was playing, but it made for a very eerie vibe. It seriously did feel like we were in a time warp back to some Nazi Germany concentration camp.

The reenactment was a two-day event that started on the evening of the 24th and finished in the morning on the 25th. It was all in the native Kuna language so I didn’t understand a whole lot about what was happening but you could tell that the big, bad Panamanians were oppressing the Kuna to the point where the Kuna started to fight back. The morning of the 25th finished with the Kuna winning the fight…and then the real party began.

Winning the fight against the Panamanians

Winning the fight against the Panamanians

The entire pueblo moved over to the Casa de Chicha. Chicha in Panama is some sort of fermented alcoholic drink. In Ustupu, it’s fermented sugar cane juice with fermented cocoa beans. Not the tastiest drink, but it gets the job done. In the Casa de Chicha the men and women are separated into different sides of the casa. On the womens side the women gather around giant vats of chicha and drink, dance, gritar, and play harmonicas. On the men’s side, you have to form a line of six men. Directly in front of you are six other men that are offering you the tazas of chicha. You have to dance and gritar to the satisfaction of your counterpart in order to receive your drink. It was crazy, it was fun, it was surreal. Also, the drinking starts sometime around 9:30am. By 11am we were all toast. I managed to drink enough tazas to get embarrassingly drunk in front of the locals and other volunteers. I lost my camera, PC ID, other personal items, along with some of my dignity. Totally worth it.

'nuff said

’nuff said

Movin’ out (Chris’ song)

Cristóbal is finally a homeowner!

Let me start with a disclaimer: I truly love and appreciate my host family and all the things they did for me while I was living in their home. Now having said that, it’s impossible for me to clearly articulate to you exactly how much more awesome having my own space has made my life.

1 bedroom, 0 bathroom palace

1 bedroom, 0 bathroom palace

We finally finished the house a little over a month ago, three months behind schedule and $200 over budget. A truly Panamanian project indeed. Before I had moved out of my host family’s house my host mom had expressed concerns about my ability to cook for myself. I did not calm her worries by becoming violently ill the first time I tried cooking beef. After my blowouts became casual conversation amongst my community members, my host mom told me that I could and should eat any meal I wanted I their house. They also told me that I would never have to buy any rice or plantains for the rest of my service, que bueno! Poco a poco my cooking has improved and the blowouts have ceased, I’m happy to report.

The best thing about having a home to my own is being able to try whatever little projects I feel like. A few weeks back I finished an earthen oven and just a few days ago I baked my first loaf of bread.  Now when people pasear to my house instead of asking when I’m going to find a women to cook and clean for me, they ask when I’m going to start selling my bread and then when I’m going to find a women.

el pan

el pan




I wasn’t feeling so great last week so PC sent me to the hospital to figure out what the problem was. I took my number and prepared myself for another unnecessarily long wait at a Panamanian anything. To my surprise my number was called relatively quickly. My information (name, age, location) was gathered and a folder created with my name. I was told to move over to a different section of the hospital and listen for my number. “Aha!”, I thought to myself, “now the real waiting begins.” Again, after only a few minutes my number was called. This time it was for my vitals (height, weight, blood pressure, heart rate). I was told to move over to a different section of the hospital and listen for my name this time. Here it was, I was finally in front of the doctor’s door, now the serious waiting begins. Before I could even get settled into my Panamanian waiting slouch the doctor had called my name. Is this really happening? Have I entered some mysterious alternate universe where Panama has figured out efficiency and human management? Are my symptoms so strong that I’ve become delusional enough to think this is happening quickly? Where can I get the “I (pizza slice) pizza” t-shirt that lady has on? These are all things that passed through my mind as the doctor was calling my name.

After getting the standard pleasantries out of the way, like the monthly salary of my doctor ($1205 in case you were wondering) and if $15 was too much for the jeans my doctor was wearing (Texas-American brand jeans in case you were wondering) he poked, prodded, and preguntared his way to the diagnosis of an infection in my throat, or possibly malaria. The blood test would tell us everything. I went next door and immediately had my blood drawn. I was told it would be “up to an hour” for the results. Yes, finally! Here it is, the ol’ “come back in an hour trick”. For those unfamiliar with Panama, come back in an hour really means 5 hours from now. No stranger to waiting for things in Panama I had brought a book and began the “process” that is waiting for things to happen.  Having just gotten properly settled in, my concentration was broken by a helicopter landing near the hospital and an entourage of white people getting out. It turns out that this day was the day for the Ambassador of the US was to tour this particular hospital. When he finally came up to me I introduced myself and we exchanged “normal” pleasantries. He then joking asked if I was in for malaria which I did not laugh at. The “white flood” as my host dad described them had left just as quickly as they came. By the time they were gone, less than 45 minutes, my blood test results were finished. Just as the doctor had suspected, an infection in my thyroid, nothing more. I was ordered to go to the pharmacy to pick up my meds. They gave me my prescriptions and said I was free to leave. I slowly made my way to the exit, not sure who I should pay for the examination and the meds. I must have looked confused or lost to the doctor because he personally escorted me to the exit door, thanked me for my time, and sent me on my way. To this day I’m still not sure what the hell happened in that hospital. I was checked in, examined, had blood drawn and tested, and given prescriptions in a little over two hours.

Later that day I was describing the miracle that happened at the hospital with some other community members as we waited at the port for three hours for the guy that “would be there in a half an hour”. And all was right in Panama again.

¿Say what?

Oh, hey there. I know it’s been a little while since I last wrote, and you really have to believe me when I tell you that I have wanted to and certainly did mean to write, but, you know, I just didn’t. And for that I’m sorry. Our first three months in site have come and gone. Let’s do a little recap action on what’s been going on in my life.

There are fun days, boring days, fast days, slow days. I’ve gone out day after day harvesting rice and I’ve spent full days lying in a hammock. I have had many people show up to my English classes and I’ve had nobody show up.  Some days my Spanish seems like it is finally progressing to point where I can have real conversations with people and some days it seems like I cannot communicate even the simplest sentences. I’ve had days and weeks where I feel like I could stay in site forever and I’ve had other times where the only thing that will make me feel better is getting out of site, even for just a few hours. This experience for me has been a case of extremes so far. The good is really good and the bad is really bad. The only constant is randomness. There is no routine to my days, tasks, or situations. For someone that was such an even-keeled person before coming down here, this has been a big adjustment.

I’ve begun to develop true friendships in my community. I’ve started a garden (which just started to sprout some of its seedlings last week) and compost pile, two things which always sounded nice in my head but I never actually acted upon. I’ve gotten other people interested in gardening.  I’m reading more…like a lot more. Really it’s the only way to pass the time when the sun goes down at 6pm and there is no electricity. I get up with the sun without the need for an alarm clock. While my Spanish might not be progressing the way that I would have liked, my Emberá is coming along slowly but surely and it has easily been the best integration tool for me. I can make jokes and offend people on purpose in Emberá (to me this is a good thing).  And we’ve cleaned up the basketball court and I have been working on getting a team together. On the other end, it’s impossible to get along with everybody in site. Human nature won’t allow it. Some just don’t understand or care that I’m here while others are just looking for money or handouts. There is always the risk of severe illness. I’ve already had a serious bout of dehydration. I’ve experienced a true “blowout” and now know how that guy in Denali Park felt. Not to mention the other rashes and fungi that come with bathing in the same river some people poop in (we also get our drinking water from this river). I have ridiculous food cravings. Sometimes they involve weird or very specific things, other times they involve fast food or things I never used to eat before, always they involve chocolate. My peanut butter stash is the one thing that I refuse to share, no exceptions.  I miss family, friends and the seasons other than summer (I’m sorry but rainy doesn’t qualify as a true season in my book). And, of course, there are the bugs…always with the bugs.

Hopefully, that gives you guys a little better idea of what it is like down here for me, or at least, how my sanity is holding up. My mentality is still very positive. I really do enjoy my days down here despite all the ups and down I face.

My required three months with a host family has passed and now I’m ready to move into my own house. The only thing missing is the actual house. We’ve finally begun the construction, but only have the foundation at this point. While I really do love the host families I’ve stayed with, I am more than ready to have a space of my own…and so are the cats. Speaking of the cats and stressful/odd situations I can find myself in down here, Boots (aka Kiltro aka Mia aka the gray cat) had a hernia. She needed surgery to fix it. Set me back $20. The following day as I was preparing to take my frightened, confused, and sore cat back home ( two, hour-long chiva rides and a one hour boat ride), protesters decided to shut down the entrance to the community where the vet lives by lighting tires on fire and not allowing cars or buses to pass (other parts of the Pan-American highway had already been shut down as well as part of a national protest against a law the government had passed and since repealed). Our normally three hour trip took five hours and I had to carry my cat past two different sets of flaming roadblocks. The cat is having a few complications with the surgery but in the long run I think she will be alright. Michi is doing well. They are both growing like weeds.

So that has been my life in a nutshell these past few months. I’ll try not to make it so long between our chats and next time I might even throw in a picture or two. Hasta pronto.

Mommy, where do kittens come from?

I am a father…to a beautiful baby kitten. Two weeks ago some boys had called me over to show me their new “toy” they had just found. I’m always hesitant when this happens for two reasons 1) It’s usually a dead rodent or giant disgusting bug 2) They’re touching it, which means they can throw it at or near me. This hasn’t happened to me yet, but I have seen them throw it at the girls. Anyways, despite my hesitance, I walked over and saw this:

My Michi

The following conversation ensued:

Me: “Who’s cat?”

Boy: “I don’t know.”

Me: “Where did it come from?”

Boy: “I don’t know.”

Me: “Does anyone want it?”

Boy: “I don’t know.”

Me: “Can I have it?”

Boy: (Thinks for 10 seconds) “OK”

Me: “Thanks”

Cats seemed like the perfect pet to have down here. They require little maintenance and they keep all the pests under control. I had noticed that they weren’t many cats around, or any for that matter, but never thought to ask why. As I was searching for a box to take my new fuzz bucket home I was told that the Emberá do not like cats because they steal food. Thankfully, my host mom was kind enough to let me keep this cat in their house with my host dad reassuring me that “it will die in a few days anyway.” Thanks dad.

For a few days I thought he was right, she wasn’t eating or pooping and my sister had told me that cats should not be separated from their mom until at least eight weeks. I have no idea how old this cat is but she is small enough to fit in the palm of my hand. I thought she was doomed. For this reason I didn’t give her a name. Around the house we referred to her as Michi (Mee-chee), meaning “cat” in Emberá. On the third day she finally started to drink milk and by the fourth day she had pooped and peed (in her make shift litter box even). When my host dad found out that she pooped, he assured me that “it will probably live now.”

straight loungin´

She started eating and pooping regularly and, despite not wanting to become too attached because she will probably still die of some horrible jungle disease, I have fallen in love with my Michi. We play all our favorite cat games like “Bite the hand that feeds you”, “Finger under blanket”, and every cat’s favorite “Plastic bag”. I thought about changing her name, but everyone knows her as Michi.

Last Wednesday I had come home from a community meeting and as I was feeding Michi I noticed an extra pair of eyes staring at me. I shined my flashlight and saw this:

Michi #2

The following conversation ensued:

Me: “Who’s cat?”

Girl: “Yours”

Me: “Where did it come from?”

Girl: “I don’t know”

Me: “Who brought it over here?”

Girl: “I don’t know”

Me: “Thanks”

Learning how to play ´Plastic Bag´

After further investigation I found out that my host sister had brought over a new cat the kids had found because “you love cats so much”. In just under two months I have already become the crazy cat lady of my community. The new cat started eating and pooping right away so I’ve named her Kiltro after the movie we watched the night I got her. [Sidenote: Kiltro is a combination of Kill and Nitro. Kiltro can punch so hard that not only will he punch into your stomach, he can also, literally, punch your soul. Kiltro, the perfect name for a cat and a terrible idea for a movie.]

So now I have just doubled my chances of getting “Jungle Cat Scratch Fever” and I am singlehandedly using up the towns condensed milk supply, but I don’t care, I love my michis.

All together….¨awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww¨

I would later find out that the mother cat has been living in the roof of my other host family’s house and the kittens fell out from there after this conversation ensued:

Me: “Mom, where did these kittens come from?”

Host mom: “The roof (points with her lips to the other house)”

Me: “Thanks”

Earning Respect

It’s easy to get comfortable with someone new when they are always around, every day, 24/7. In a site as small as mine, there are only so many places you can really go. By simply existing in my site, my peeps have managed to become more and more comfortable with me being in their community. Trying to earn the respect of my peeps is a different story. Respect is not something that can be accomplished by simply existing, it needs to be earned.

Last week I was hand-gifted the opportunity to earn the respect of my fellow male counterparts. There are really only three ways to earn the respect of the average man 1) Carry heavy stuff/ work hard 2) Talk about women and/or sex 3) Talk about women and/or sex while carrying heavy stuff. I was able to accomplish all three because last week the material for our aqueduct tank arrived. This included 46 250lb pieces of steel and 3 325lb pieces of steel that needed carried from the river bank up to the top of the loma (hill) where the tank would be located. I shouldn’t have to tell you how much this sucked but I will…it sucked a lot. And it wasn’t just the weight we had to deal with. There are two types of weather patterns at my site, scorching hot and downpour rain. The first two days were scorching hot, to the point where you are sweating so much that your skin starts to wrinkle as if you have been sitting in a swimming pool too long. You try to drink as much water to stave of exhaustion and dehydration but as quickly as the water goes in it get’s sweated out, somehow twice as fast it seems. You pray for some relief…and that relief comes in the form of downpour rain. Oh sweet Jesus it’s raining! Hallelujah, right? Wrong. Now our once sure-footed trail has turned into a slick, death path of mud with 250lbs of steel precariously propped up on the shoulders of four dudes. Not only are you worried about your footing, but now you’re thinking about the footing of the entire group because if one guy goes down we all go down. Despite all this, we had managed to get everything up to the top of the loma in three days. It was quite the feat and I was really impressed with the attitudes of most of the guys. Nobody wanted to carry any of this stuff up the hill, it simply had to be done.

Let’s go back to the list of earning the respect of the average man 1) Carry heavy stuff/ work hard…check. 2) Talk about women and/ or sex…check. We carried stuff in three groups of four, meaning while two groups were carrying stuff one group was resting. While resting I was able to learn some of the “más importante” phrases about women in the Emberá language. 3) Talk about women and/ or sex while carrying heavy stuff…half-check. I tried my best to use my newly acquired vocabulary, but the fact that I was carrying heavy stuff severely limited my ability to speak anything other than grunts and gasps for breath. Plus the fact that making someone laugh, which is what they would do every time I would say a new word or phrase I had just learned, while carrying heavy stuff isn’t the safest of ideas, but I’ll still give myself a half-check on that one. So that’s two and one-half checks out of three. Enough to get me into the “good ol’ boys club” in my community. Now I know all the nicknames they use for each other and I am armed with words and phrases that will make them bust out laughing on the spot. The integration continues…