April and Kevin in Kuna Yala, the northeast coast of Panamá

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Island Report

We are back in Santiago, en route back to our training community for another week. We´ll be late getting back to our host family tonight, but we definately wanted to post some information about our island, the people we met, how our week went, and what we think it portends for the upcoming two years.

Last week, we had a day at a conference center with our giuas (guides) to our new community, during which we got to know them, went over their expectations, and ours, and made plans for the week in-site, with the Peace Corps Training Team supervision. (We also took a walk to the ¨nearby¨ beach near Decameron Resort, which turned out to be about an hour each way; but a lot of opportunities to talk between Trainees and Guias.) Kevin´s guide is named Efrain, and he is a pescador (fisherman) and cattleman; April´s guide is Maria Luisa and she is a pescadora and owns a tienda (small store) that was actually the smallest we´ve seen here in Panamá (about 6ft of shelf space in her kitchen/living room area). The photo is of Efrain and Maria Luisa. Much thanks to them for a great week, they clearly worked hard to be ready for us and to support us!!

On Wednesday, we loaded up our stuff (including a fully packed, very heavy, suitcase of the notebooks and such the Peace Corps has given us since we´ve arrived; one of our biggest recommendations thus far: pack one fewer suitcases than you can carry and bring a spare for the extra stuff you´ll get) and got on a bus with our guias for Santiago.

From there, we caught a bus to the district capital, where one guia gave us a tour of the agencies we´ll work with (environment and agriculture, one of whom had a map where we realized the island is actually about 6 miles across, twice what we´d thought), post office, and other important places, while the other headed to the port town. We caught up with him after a great seafood lunch looking out onto a muddy river and his boat of about 20-25 feet.

It was after 1pm when we loaded into the boat under a bright sun and headed down the river. The horsepower on the motors aren´t big (15-25 generally, all under 45) and we putted along, slowly passing mangroves, some other islands, and generally trying to take it all in. Finally, Efrain pointed to long stretch of land (we were never out of site of land) and said it was our island. However, we couldn´t see the entire thing because of the fog/rain that was rolling up from the east.

We went past some of the main points / collections of houses of the island, going three-quarters of the way round to see things and drop off Maria Luisa, and finally made it to Efrain´s house around 4:30, thoroughly drenched after running through waves of probably 3-4 feet. (We of course were wearing our Peace Corp-mandated lifevests, so don´t worry mom´s. :) Efrain´s house view is above.

View of the Isla above.

Once safely on dry land (Kevin took a Dramamine every day, and was fine), we met Efrain´s wife, and brother and father, who live in the house very next door. There were three or four other houses down in their collection of casas. Over the next few days, we found out just out ¨close¨any neighbors are on the island.

Day two, several of us from Efrain´s collection of houses went back to Maria´s (probably 20-30 minutes by boat), picked up Maria and a few others from her collection, and went across the bay to a small town in Soná, where VivaMar and another environmental group was having a meeting with local pescadores about restrictions and regulations around Isla Coiba (a protected nature preserve several hours away by boat; any tour book on Panama will have more). It was a lot of Spanish and not being sure what we were doing or where we were going, but eventually we returned everyone (dry, this time) and talked into the darkness after dinner on Efrain´s porch.

Another isla view...it is too big for one photo.

Oh, that reminds me. There is running water on most of the island, thanks to a pretty good "aquaduct" system, but no electricity. However, nearly every casa has been supplied with a solar panel and (car-sized) batteries through an arrangement with the government. So some houses watch an hour or so of TV in the evening, or, as in Efrain´s, we had a florescent light in each room to make it easier to cook, get ready for bed, or get up. Que bueno!

Friday, we left the boats behind and started hiking across to Maria´s, by way of some of the other residents´ houses. It took about two hours to get to her house, and that wasn´t even our final destination. We cut inland and although the highest point on our island is supposed to be 112 meters (about 350ft), it sure felt like we went up and down that 112 meters several times. We finally reached the school to find that the teachers (two of them, who live on the island during the week and head home on the weekends) had left the previous day. So, our school meeting was cut a bit short. But we met the president of the Padres de Familia (the PTA), who is also the correigadora, or appointed local government representative, and got to see the chicken project and school garden (or rather, where the space is for a school garden, once the weeds and debris are cleared again).

View on the boat.

After that, we headed up to see a fuente de agua, or water source for the community. It wasn´t as far as we´d feared, considering it was now noon and we´d been hiking since 7, and it was enlightening for both us and them, since it was running a bit slow. Reforestation above the fuentes de agua is likely one of Kevin´s projects.

We then hiked back to the school and off to another house, where it turned out we were to eat lunch finally. When we went to leave lunch, the tide had risen, and we were unable to walk along the beach paths. So the husband of the woman who provided lunch gave us a lift in his boat the 10-15 minutes up the island to the next house. This proved interested for Efrain´s dog who doesn´t like boats but had hiked all day with us, but we eventually got him in the boat.

This second house turned out to be one of our future host family houses. (During the first three months in site, we live with a host family to get to know the community, etc. We will actually spend time with three different families, in different parts of the island, one month each.) We weren´t quite prepared for the discussion when we realized this, but April came through brilliantly with her Spanish and we figured out we need sheets, but other than that, everything should be taken care of. (We´ll update on that during the first month, as we later found out that not all beds fit April and I. :) That month will actually be with the PdF president / corregidora, which should be a very informative opportunity.

When we left there, the tide was still up and so her husband gave us another ride (again, succes getting the dog in the boat), this time to Maria Louisa´s sister´s, next door, so to speak, to Maria Louisa´s. We enjoyed a breeze and a view and eventually decided to hike home (the direct route, a bit shorter) from there, having eaten and refreshed since our earlier hiking.

A mangrove crab.

Saturday, Maria Louisa hiked to Efrain´s house and then we returned to the boat to cover the one quarter of the coast we hadn´t yet seen. Immediately when we get in the boat, it started to rain, and we headed for the first port (well, other boat) we saw, waded through mud to our calves, and took shelter under a shed roof. Then it turned out we weren´t actually just sheltering there, but walked up the hill to meet the representante, who is the elected representative for the district. We drank some warm cinnamon creama and talked for a while until the sun finally came out (and the chitras and picas, the little bugs that drove the both of us nuts) and then eventually the four of us (Efrain, Maria Louisa, and us) were served an 11:00 lunch; the representante and his wife did not join us, just served us. After lunch, we went to the boat and continued around the island.

We stopped in another small community to see a second potential host family, but the lady of the house had to run into Santiago and the man of the house wasn´t interested in talking about it, so we wandered down to see some other folks on that stretch of beach (there were actually 5-10 houses there, in close proximity), before getting back in the boat.

We went about five minutes before pulling in to see the "house" the community has offered us to live in for free for our two years. We´ll post more on that later, but it definately had some great features and some drawbacks. (As a side note, the community is so excited to work with Peace Corps, they are offering us the house for free, as well as the first three months in the host families for free, which considering the cost of food for a family here, is pretty impressive. Of course, if we just eat rice and fish or chicken all the time, it may not be that expensive here. :)

A bay crab.

Continuing on, we passed the dock to the main town and the school, then back to Maria Louisa´s sister´s, where we ate another lunch around 2 and realized that they, along with Maria Louisa, are to be our third host family house. Finally (or at least mostly) understanding everything after three days, we headed home by boat.

Sunday dawned bright and hot (or maybe it just felt that way since we slept in until past 6, nearly 7). We probably shouldn´t have given everything else a chance to get moving. April got up, shook her pants, put them on, then picked up her shirt to shake it, and dropped it with a yelp. Upon further inspection, assisted by Efrain, we discovered an inch-plus long scorpion in her shirt tails. We think it just gave a warning sting, but it was a moment of fright, and we think the first scorpion sting in Peace Corps Panamá Group 59. She survived fine, with no side effects.

Kevin walked up to see Efrain´s (and his father´s and brothers´) cows, in a pasture that included a beautiful view including water on both the north and south sides of the island. The rest of the morning included some paperwork for Peace Corps with our guias, a quick horseback ride for April, and lunch. Then, because Efrain had to run errands all day Monday, we boated back to Maria Louisa´s for the night and so we could see the Passing of the Virgin this morning (more below).

A boat in the floatila for the Virgin.

Unfortunately, the afternoons seem to be storm time, and we were soaked from salt water by the time we unloaded from the boat and ran up the hill to Maria Louisa´s, getting soaked by rain in the process. (We´ll have to get a water proof camera at some point, because the rain on the waves was just amazing out in the little boat.) Luckily, we´d left those Peace Corps books at Efrain´s. The rain finally abated about 8 or so, in time for bed, after some of the best fried chicken we´ve had (eating food from Maria Louisa´s may be a pretty good thing :) and some time with a two month old cat.

This morning, we headed out around 8:30 or 9:00 when the flotilla of boats carrying decorated versions of the Virgin Mary circled the island. It is a district holiday, and we fell into the midst of about 7 boats, with singers and general fun, all the way round to the dock, where the Virgins processed to the small church. We went up and were introduced to the two teachers, and then finally headed out for the two hour ride to our port town.

An example of the statuary that was a part of the flotila.

After climbing the hill to catch the bus (the one road into town was closed for the celebration), we rode into Santiago and now need some (very late) lunch and to catch a bus back to our training town, where we´ll obviously arrive much later than we´d anticipated. We hope you enjoy the recap and the images April has inserted. Hopefully more in a week, before we enter our site for that first three months.


dcropper said...

Wow! Very interesting and informative. Loved all of the stories and pictures. Glad to hear you are surviving spider and bug bites. It is wonderful that you are able to participate in the holiday traditions.
Love, Dad C.

m said...

hello and lots of love and luck from michelle!!!