Sunday, February 1, 2009

Ring of Fire

We ate our rooster Mateito for Reina's birthday, and he tasted great. It was our first experience eating an animal that we raised, but it was easy because Reina killed and cleaned him. We knew he had to go because he was getting really fat and slow. Reina made a Panamanian classic, rice and pollo guisado, which is chicken stewed in a sauce made from tomato paste, onions, peppers, garlic, and culantro. We had a nice little birthday party, even though Reina and Arturo ate after everyone else. Families almost never eat together here.

In health news, Matt's knife wound healed up nicely, gracias a Dios.

He's glad not to be among the hundreds of men with very sharp machetes harvesting the sugarcane that grows all around our town. It's smokey, dangerous work. They burn the cane to get rid of the useless leaves and drive out the snakes. Huge fires snap, crackle, and pop and billow towering plumes of black smoke. Because it hasn't rained in six weeks or so, the leaves burn right up, so the fires don't last too long. Still, the summer winds blow a steady stream of ash into all the houses here. Our floor gets covered with these long strands of charred leaves that crumble on contact with the broom. Air quality is not at its best right now.

They say burning the cane reduces the yield by a few percent, but it's worth it for the farmers because the fields grow so densely you can't work in them until they're thinned out. It makes a dirty job even dirtier, however, because the guys who have to stack and haul the burnt cane get covered in sticky grime. Many workers cover their heads and necks with shirts to keep that stuff off their skin as they carry huge loads on their shoulders.

Not all the cane gets cut by hand. The processing plant (ingenio) La Victoria has some very large tractors with big jaws cutting cane day and night. But they can't be used on uneven fields, and none of the other landowners have these machines. And even when using tractors to cut and load cane into trucks, you still need a lot of workers to run the operation and prepare the fields for next year's crop. They burn any leftover leaves, and guys with shovels fix up the ditches that drain the fields. The cane starts growing back right away, but miles of pipe has to be laid down to water the fields before the rainy season returns in several months. Tending to the pumps on our murky river and connecting all the pipes is a big job.

In the ingenio meanwhile, hundreds of people are running machines and loading trucks and taking care of business. Arturo is working six days a week operating a forklift. He works there every year from January till the end of the harvest (zafra) in March. Then, like many men here, he finds another job. In previous years he stayed with relatives and worked construction in Panama City for a while. Those jobs pay around $400 a month for new workers, which is good money. Last year, though, Arturo was hired by a European company that's surveying land way out in the countryside to provide people with titles to their property. His job was to drive their cool Nissan 4x4's into the monte and help set stuff up. The company made a video of Arturo and the crew crossing rivers, motoring up muddy hillsides, and towing other trucks out of the muck with a winch. Unfortunately, all that fun only lasted a few months, so the family's been living on whatever they saved up for a while now. That means lots of rice and soup with yucca and beans from the backyard and not much store-bought stuff.

But now Arturo's back at La Victoria, driving the forklift from 3 to 11 p.m. The plant processes sugarcane 24/7 because it costs a lot of money to shut the machines down and start 'em back up again. The plant is in the middle of nowhere (though you can see the smokestack for miles), so everyone is brought to work in old school buses. Tio Cornelio, one of Abuela's sons, and Tio Abel, one of Arturo's brothers, are two of the drivers. They get to park the yellow buses in front of their houses. Sometimes if there's a special event in Santiago, like the Virgin Mary procession in November, the sugar company lets one of the uncles drive everyone to the city for 50 cents instead of the $1.15 we usually have to pay for one of the daily mini-bus trips.

Some of the jobs inside the ingenio are year-round positions, but most of the farm work is temporary. There are not enough people around here who want to cut and pick up cane in the blistering heat, so a large percentage of the farm workers are indigenous people from the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé. They come here with their families and live in abandoned houses or makeshift camps in the small wooded areas on the edge of town. A dozen people are camped out right now across the street from our house. They live in a little pavilion with a zinc roof and a tarp for a wall. The women cook on open fires and watch the kids all day, although we have seen at least a few kids as young as 10 heading back from the fields covered in black grime.

Obviously many of these farm families have hard lives. Cane cutters make $10 a day or less, and many of them spend a chunk of that money on liquor each Sunday. But we see many women accompany their husbands to town on these days off, which may reduce the drinking. The women wait outside the store where the men drink booze in a dingy side room with a pool table. The kids will be waiting outside too, wearing their shorts and rubber boots and drinking orange drink from little boxes. When the dads are done, they walk home with their families. Fortunately we see most of these families carrying back a week's worth of rice, sardines, and fake Spam.

The liquor of choice for people who want to get blind drunk is called seco, a clear firewater made from sugarcane in a neighboring region (the cane from our town is made into sugar that's bagged and sold in supermarkets or made into candy). Seco tastes nasty and makes you feel nastier the next day, but it's quite popular because it's dirt cheap. Some people mix it with milk or juice and drink it on ice, but most of it gets consumed straight up. A liter bottle is just a few bucks, and they sell them everywhere, including corner stores and barrooms. The main brand of seco is owned by a man who up until last week was running for president of Panama. He is now running for vice president on the ticket led by Panama's supermarket king.

Now some Peace Corps news: in two weeks we're taking two jovenes from our town, siblings Arturito and Glenny, to a week-long seminar in Chiriquí province on health, self-esteem, HIV/AIDS, and making the right decisions in life. Over 40 kids will be there, with a dozen volunteers leading educational sessions and games during the day and sports and other activities at night. We hope the participants will learn a lot and go back to their communities and be leaders among their friends. It's also a great opportunity for them to get out of their home regions, meet new people, and see a bit more of this very beautiful country. Arturito and Glenny have never been west of Santiago, so this will be an exciting trip. The seminar is run by the Peace Corps Panama Gender and Development group, which Lisa helps run as vice president.

Lisa also attended a recent two-day seminar in the mountains, where she taught small-scale coffee and vegetable growers about business. She returns to that village for two more of these sessions this month, and she's planning a similar venture for our own town with both business and agriculture volunteers. The seminars are important because almost all of the business done in Panama involves agriculture, and most of the people who work the land have not been to high school.

Matt was also busy in January editing and producing La Vaina, the Peace Corps Panama magazine. He and his friend Lee worked for several days in the PC office near the canal, which is great because of the view and the very powerful air conditioning system. The magazine can be read at the website of the organization Peace Corps Panama Friends.

Thanks for visiting our blog! And thanks again for the Christmas cards! We were especially pleased to read Gramma's lovely letter. We send our love to her and all our friends and family. Peace!

Mateo, Adam, and Lisa hang out in the front yard. Adam is about 9 months old, and he loves to eat watermelon, which is now in season.

Farmhands collect cut cane in the field right by our house. They have to haul it up ladders to get it into the truck.

These workers are standing atop the truck, making sure it all fits.

This is one of the ladders they use to load the cane. Everyone here uses homemade ladders.

This guy is making boards from huge mango trees cut down across from our house. They were awesome trees, but the homeowner didn't like all the leaves messing up his patio. The photo at the very top of this post shows another mango tree up the street as a bunch of cows walk by.

These kids are squeezing honeycombs they found in the woods. They said the nest was made by Africanized honeybees. They gave us a bottle of the honey and it was great!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Holiday Informe

First some sad news: Our pollito Lisita died the evening we made that last post on this blog, the one with us posing with the Christmas wreath and the birds. A chicken illness of some sort went around town recently, even killing all the hens at the school finca, so Lisita must have had that. Matt and Boli buried her in the backyard. The other chicken, Mateito, weighs about 8 pounds, according to our neighbor Abuela. Everyone says we should eat him soon because his meat will get tough as he ages. We don't know what we'll do with him yet.

Abuela (grandmother), by the way, is called Abuela by people of all ages all around the neighborhood. Her many sons, who are cousins of Reina's husband next door, are called Tio (uncle) by all the kids. The daughters or the wives of the sons are Tia (aunt). Matt sometimes gets their names confused, so he calls them Tio or Tia just like the kids do. In fact, if you don't know someone's name here, you can always address them as what they are. Kids call other kids niño (boy) or niña (girl), you can call any stranger joven (young person), and there's always señor and señora. Amigo(a) or hermano(a) work well, too. And say you see a cute little kid whose name escapes you, you can just call him papi. Little girls are mami. All teachers are maestra(o). Someone in the street the other day called Lisa licenciada, the title they use in Panama for people who have a bachelor's degree. But getting back to Abuela's family, Matt should really get their names down because they have great nicknames. A few examples: Cornelio is Corne (cor-nay), his twin Guillermo is Guille (gi-yay), brother Marcial is Marci (like Mount Marcy), Cecilia is Chila (chee-la)!

Abuela has 8 or 9 children and bastante (lots) grandchildren, and most of the families live on the same 2 streets. Everyone's always hanging out together. On Christmas Eve, Lisa made sugar cookies with a big group of grownups and kids. She showed them how to roll the dough, cut out Christmas tree shapes, and bake and decorate the cookies. Baking is not very common here, and most ovens get used for storage. The family we lived with during training kept bread in their oven, but more recently we've seen people go out and catch these little fish, put 'em in a pot full of water, and leave 'em in the oven overnight as if it were a refrigerator. They fry 'em up the next day for breakfast and lunch. Yum!

Anyway, Abuela's family is very good to us, and we ate lots of food with them during the holidays. We also celebrated Christmas and New Year's with Reina and her gang, of course. Awesome arroz con pollo! And we stopped in to pasaer at the home of our old host mom Lucila. As you may recall, they live across the street from the little market that doubles as a sketchy cantina most weekends. Lucila's husband Virgilio, or Giño (heen-yo), hates all the noise, so he was visiting family out of town. But we celebrated during both holiday weeks with Lucila, her daughter Any's family, and her son Alejandro. We all sat out on the porch chatting, eating grilled pork and bollos (steamed corn things), and watching all the merriment in the streets. For Christmas Eve we were joined by former Peace Corps Volunteers Mike and Cara, who served in Morocco. They were in Panama for a vacation, so they looked up volunteers to see what life is like in the countryside. It was great to visit with them and hear all about service in Africa.

On Christmas Day, Mike and Cara headed west to the popular mountain town Boquete, near the Costa Rican border. Now that summer's here and it's hotter than ever, we were sort of jealous, so a week later we went up there for the night. It's gorgeous! We took a chiva, a little van, way up into the mountains north of town and hiked around for a while in the clouds. It felt great to have a sweatshirt on! And it was really cool to see all the rows of coffee bushes and big spreads of beans out drying. Further up the ridge, almost to the border with Bocas del Toro province, there are farms with beautiful raised beds of black earth growing some of the most robust vegetables we've ever seen. We got to hang out for a while with a celery farmer and a Ngäbe-Buglé family during our hike, and then another farmer drove us back down the mountain and through the mist to Boquete in his ancient Toyota 4x4 diesel pickup. That outing was after we'd already walked around most of the town, had coffee and a strawberry milkshake at a coffee finca, and gone to Mass in English at the church. There are many norteamericano retirees in the area, but only 5 of them were at Mass, so they were delighted to see us and they had us introduce ourselves at the end. It was actually kind of nice. We also saw damage from the bad flooding Boquete experienced during Thanksgiving. A lot of the hotels along the the river that runs through town are fixing their properties, and there are earthmovers in the riverbed working to deepen the channel. The streets are in good shape, but a bridge remains broken in several pieces in the river. It was good to finally see this popular destination. We had a totally tranquillo time, stayed in a nice hostel, ate delicious burgers and fries, and encountered only 1 annoying person (some folks complain about all the gringos).

Here in the Central Provinces, meanwhile, it feels good to be in a new year and a new season. It is hotter right now than it was before Christmas, but it really cools down at night, and you can sleep comfortably. We rarely put our fan on, and most nights we even use a light blanket. It was getting very dank, moldy, and muddy with the torrential thunderstorms we were having every afternoon during the latter part of 2008. We don't miss the rain, but our garden certainly does. The blistering heat, which came on us all of a sudden, dried everything right out. Now we're scrambling to get water on the plants in the morning and evening. It's a pain because to avoid hauling water with a bucket you've got to get Boli and Arturito to rig a few hoses to their backyard sink. There's barely any water pressure, and the prcoess can take forever, but it's far better than hauling water. Hopefully everything will hang in there and the kids will stay into gardening.

In other news, Matt had to get stitches (only 3) the other day because he was sharpening a big kitchen knife without paying attention and cut his wrist open. He lucked out bigtime because it was on the side of the wrist, away from the veins, so he wasn't bleeding bad at all. It was just a really deep cut, and he could see down to his bone. Ouch! He was also fortunate to get a cab and then a bus to get him to the hospital in about 40 minutes. Once there, he lucked out again and got to see the doctor everyone agrees is the best doctor in our province. Having the wound washed and stitched up, even with the anesthetic, was nauseating. Lisa had to wait outside the room! And Matt thought he was going to pass out. But he felt OK after a few minutes and went straight to McDonald's for a fried chicken sandwich.

Thanks to everyone for the cards and emails! Happy and Prospero Año Nuevo!

This shot was taken from the Toyota pickup as we headed down the mountain. The sun was starting to burn off the mist.

These coffee beans are growing out in the woods. When the beans get picked, the red fruit is removed so the pit can dry out and later be roasted.

This celery is really good looking! Everyone in Panama cooks with celery, especially when making soups.

Here's Matt down in Boquete. The strength of the sun and the temperature during the day were perfect! But it's probably not as comfy when it's raining all the time.

This is the river that caused all the flood damage. You can see how high up it gets and how close some buildings are to the water.

Speaking of water, this is where kids in our town go swimming. It's a tiny pond out in the cane fields that's fed by a big drainage ditch. The water is usually pretty murky. Matt has been swimming there twice, but only during the summer when the water was clear.

Three generations (l-r): Any del Carmen, Any, and Lucila, our former host mom. This shot was taken during Christmas Eve festivities.

Here's Abuela! That's one of her grandsons on the right, but we don't really know him because he lives in Panama City. Abuela lives in a little block house behind a huge block house that Marcial is building when he's not working as a cop for 8 days at a time. The project will take years to complete.

Here's a typical barbershop scene from our community. Arturo has clippers, so guys just drop in whenver. This shot was taken during the confirmation party for Arturito and Glenny.

This is Diego, a relative of Reina's family who lives across town.

Here's Reina, Arturito, and Glenny before the confirmation Mass in Santiago. Matt was what we call Arturito's sponsor, but here they use the term godfather. Either way, Matt is very honored.

This dance party we held during the last-day-of-school fiesta last month. Kids from each grade actually dance together, even kindergartners. The music was very loud, but we stuck around for arroz con puerco and cake.

Anibal broke his arm when he fell off his horse. He always goes out to work with his grandfather on horseback.