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

Sunday, September 2, 2007

The Island – a better description

So what is this tropical paradise that we are living in really like? Please believe me that not every moment is spent sitting in a hammock with a great view...but those moments do happen occasionally. :)
The island is big… and hilly. We have hills reaching ~100m in height, and some parts of them are very steep. You can see the mainland and other islands all around the island. This makes for some great views and interesting weather watching. The water in the gulf is most often a pretty greenish gray color, not clear, but not murky either. After a hard rain the water will turn brown for a day or so until the sediment settles out again. We have been told that the water gets clearer in the summer season (Jan-April) when there is much less rain to cause the sediment.

Almost all of the people who live on the island live on the coast…within 100-150m of the water. There are about 77 households spread over 18+ miles of coastline (which makes visiting an all day proposition). Many houses can not see the nearest neighbor’s house. Most of the land is still owned by Panamanians….which is not true for all of the land nearby. Only one house that we know of is owned by a foreigner. There are lots of trees along the perimeter of the island around the houses.

The center of the island is mostly farm and pastures, and fairly deforested. There are tracts of forest still, but they tend to be in areas where the land is not suitable for farming or the land is not actively being farmed. In their farms, people grow yucca, rice, maize, banana, plantain, coconuts, and limited pineapple, and ñame. These crops are grown for use on the island, not for selling as they may or may not be able to raise enough food for their family.

The island pastures are used for horses and cattle. The horses are used for working the cows and transportation around the island. The cattle represent a major income source for the families who raise them…one cow can be sold for $200-$400+. Even though the cattle are raised for meat, there is very little consumption of beef on the island, it is to valuable as a product to sell to be eaten at home. (Below is a baby calf that my host family had to help with eating. When I took a good look at him I realized that he seems to be mostly or all blind...thus he was having trouble finding his mothers teats...and them being swollen huge with milk because he wasn´t able to dring regularly wasn´t helping matters at all.)

In addition to farming, fishing is a major source of food and income on the island. Many people fish for fish, shark, shrimp, lobster, and various types of shellfish. Some seafood is more commonly sold than eaten as it brings a higher price. Fried is the most common method of preparation for seafood, but it is also used in soups and smoked.

There are no cars or bicycles on the island, all of the paths are footpaths/trails. The paths can get quite muddy or feo (ugly- see photo above for post walking muddy feet). Going from place to place is like hiking, although not all trails are hilly. The beach is also used as a road, before you imagine us just strolling along the sand, many parts of the beach are quite rocky. In fact, we intend to take pictures and post about the different beach surfaces because it is quite interesting geology. The beach is a good route (sometimes longer, but always flat) unless it is high tide. You have to think about the tides when planning which way to go each day. High tide can completely cover the beach. Other types of transportation common around the island include horses and boats.

Electricity is only available on the island through solar power. Most houses (but not ours) have a 100W solar panel that was provided thought a NGO/government program. This is enough to charge a battery that can run several florescent lights or a small TV for several hours. It is not enough to power electric appliances such as refrigerators or blenders. So most houses have lights at night unless their battery has gone bad over time and they can not afford the $120 to replace it. We calculate that over the life of the battery light costs $2 a month.

Most houses have water running to them from an aqueduct system. There are 5 major aqueducts on the island…each serving a different community. The water is not filtered or chlorinated. There are some problems with water supply in the summer months when there is dramatically less rain. Some households have to haul water from the closest flowing creek during the summer.

Other notable island sites include:
· A small Catholic chapel that is visited by a priest (once in Feb and once in August so far this year).
· A primary school with grades 1-6 that serves almost 30 students. Two teachers live at the school Mon-Friday and go home for the weekend.
· A Puesto de Salud or health clinic that is staffed by a nurse. She is in the clinic 3 days a week and does home visits 2 days a week. A doctor comes to the clinic every couple of months. More serious or pressing health issues have to be taken off island.
Hope that helps to round out your imgained view of where we are living.

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