Peace Corps

Michigan Tech University's Master's International Program in Forestry

About the People

Casey Rosengarden

Biology major, University of Iowa

Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama

Casey at Fall Camp.

Winter fun in Houghton - the polar jump in to the Portage Canal.

27 May 2005.

We have classes in a little rural town named Santa Rita and on Fridays we travel to a city named La Chorrera to have classes all together. in la chorrera i can send mail and email and buy things that i might need for the coming week. so...please send me emails and letters since i can check it every friday. i found out that once i get to my site i will only be able to email about once every two to three send me mail while i can still reply promptly!!!

Let´s see...what else is new....there are geckos all over the wall in my house and i totally love it. i asked someone and they are geckos for sure. the little girl that lives with me is a total brat and hits me and wipes her dirty hands all over my clean clothes...etc!
my Spanish is coming along...but i still have quite a ways to go. things here are extremely cheap...unless you are in Panama city. a bus from my town to the city of la chorrera costs me 40 cents, a banana costs about 2 cents, a beer costs about 40 cents, a pop costs about 35 cents!

our technical classes have been great. lots of machete work, we built two types of compost piles, started a vegetable garden, learned about allelopathy, and started to learn the native tree and plant species in the area. my backyard has peppers, chiles, mangoes, plantains, yucca, tomatoes...and some other stuff that i am not sure of the name right now. The landscape is beautiful and the town we live in is used to having gringos in people are very nice and receptive to us. There are lots of children that like to talk with us and laugh at how horrible our spanish is...but in the end it is helping us get better.

The Compost Pile.

The finished compost pile.

11 July 2005

It's been a long time since I have undated everyone on what has been going on in Panama....and there has been quite a bit.

The last time I wrote I was headed to the San Blas Islands in Kuna Yala for two weeks to do some training and see what the islands and our sites were going to be like. We stayed on the Island of Tupile with host families which the regional leaders from out there set up. The whole experience is difficult to describe as it was a completely different world.

We were dropped off on the mainland and had to take a canoe ride over the island. We were greeted by numerous curious children staring and scattered adults probably wondering what we were doing there. The regional leaders then directed us to the police type station where we had to sign in as registered guests of the island.

I was then off to meet my family and attempt to speak both Spanish and Kuna!!! My family consisted of numerous people and I am still not quite sure who exactly lived there and who just came to visit. I did know that the oldest man on the island lived in my house with his wife and daughter...but believe me...there were way more people in and out of the house than just these three. My host mom set up my hammock with me and I was off for some cultural training with the regional leader and my Kuna language teacher.

One of the most interesting moments while on the island was attending the Cogresso de General. The Congresso is the form of government on each of the San Blas Islands. There is a Saila, similar to a representative, who heads the nightly meetings up. I honestly felt like I was watching the national geographic channel while sitting through this congresso meeting. Here is what took place....

The building is one extremely large room made out of bamboo. In the center of the room are two hammocks, and surrounding the hammocks are rows of benches for the community members to sit on. The Saila and his interpreter sit in the hammocks and sing about the history of the islands and topics important to them. Once the Saila is finished singing the interpreter gets up and tells the community members exactly what he had said in Kuna...this is because the Saila sings in very old traditional language that the normal island dwellers do not understand unless they study it. Once the interpretation is done it is time to talk business and discuss issues or problems or anything of the sort. There were a few things discussed the night we were there, but I didn't understand most of it since it was all in Kuna. Then.....I and the other three volunteers with me had to introduce ourselves in Kuna in front of the entire Congresso. I was extremely nervous, but everything went well and the Kuna treated us very kindly.

In the next few days we made a trip to the monte in the dugout canoes and visited some farms. The first one we visited was a private farm...and it was amazing. The guy who owned it was very intelligent and was practicing many of the techniques we learned about in studying forestry in school. He had a complete agroforestry system going and it was working quite well. The second farm we visited was a group farm that the majority of the community men worked on together in order to reap the benefits together. We worked on building some A frames and did a few contour lines to get some practice.

The rest of the time we spent with family members, learning culture in classes, and practicing the Kuna language in formal classes as well as walking the streets and talking with community members.

The island was extremely small as it took only about five or six minutes to walk from one end to the next. The Kuna people were extremely friendly and very interested in us...for the most part. The people on the islands seem to be extremely hungry as they only eat about once a day. They wake up and eat a piece of bread, and then some fish and banana soup and that is it for the day!

on the day before we were to leave for the next island we were going to we received a surprise visit from the country director. I really hadn't thought much about it until he said he needed to talk with us all....and then I thought to myself, ¨what the heck is the country directory doing in Kuna Yala unannounced when it takes a plane ride and canoe ride to get here¨. Well, I soon found out. He started talking to us and told us the following...

there was a major drug bust on the island of Acutuptu, which is where Tasha or I were going to be placed. There was some incident in which quite a bit of cocaine was being hidden in the monte in Kuna Yala. The cocaine was being picked up by some Colombians but was found. The Colombians were speeding away in a boat while some people in an airplane above were shooting down at the boat. Due to this incident and other increased drug activity along the Kuna Yala area Peace Corps did not feel is was safe to send any new volunteers to the area....and so he told us we were not going to be doing our service in Kuna Yala. The country director then handed us each a letter from our APCD which explained the situation and the logistics on what was to happen now!!!!

So, I am now going to Bocas Del Toro...and have actually just found out my exact site today!!!! I will be living in Junco de San Juan in the province of Bocas del Toro, which is near Costa Rica. Here is the description I received about my site...

A romantic boat ride in an unstable dug out canoe being pushed by a bamboo pole across the Changuinola River, with rainforest covered mountains as a backdrop, followed by a fifteen minute walk through cacao fields which takes me into Junco, a town with a mixture of three different cultures. The town is populated by 400 people in around 25 houses from Latino, Ngobe, and Nasso cultures. The Ngobe and Nasso are indigenous groups of Panama. The town is enthusiastic and energetic, not even a minor earthquake could damper their excitement while in a meeting with Peace Corps...I guess this actually did happen! They are well organized with several groups ranging from sports to farming that are formed. Their main cash crop is Cacao, which they claim is organically certified with the cacao coop of Bocas de Toro. Houses are mostly at ground level with a mix of block and wooden houses. Spanish in the main language of the community, although some Ngobe and Nasso are spoken. There is no electricity and there are some aqueduct problems, although the community can get its water from a nearby spring it should still be filtered. (You have to love how flowery they make it sound!!!!)

I will be the first volunteer to be in this site and the projects Peace Corps has identified as possible are:

  • improving cacao fields and harvest..especially in terms of organic farming
  • farmers are interested in exploring and exploiting niche markets for their cacao products in coordination with the cacao coop
  • Peace Corps believes there is ample opportunity for a master's project in coordination with agencies as well as the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute's cacao project
  • there is also a possibility of working with other volunteers in the area to establish solid contacts with hotels and restaurants on Bocas Island in order to purchase ag. products from Bocas communities

some secondary projects are:

  • fixing the aqueduct
  • composting latrines
  • working with other volunteers to do collaborative projects.

I also found out that I will be getting a cell phone from Peace Corps since the closest phone to me is thirty minutes away. So...that's good news on the communication front.

Anyway, that has been what has been going on and happening here in Panama since the last time I have written. There have been quite a few ups and downs considering the whole Kuna Yala thing, but I am still happy and smiling. Next week I will meet my counterpart and travel with him to my site to visit for five days, find housing, meet people, and all that good stuff that goes along with starting a new life in a new and strange place.

Casey with her host mom.

24 July 2005

Here are some excerpts from my site visit in Junco de San Juan in Bocas del Toro, Panama:

My counterpart came to meet me in Sedeso and was fashionably late due to traveling distance. I was extremely anxious waiting for him all day long because I knew I was going to have to communicate in Spanish, and was curious to find out what he or she was all about. When he finally arrived I was quite astonished by his age...he looked no older than 18 or so. I asked him his age and he turned out to be 22. At first I didn't know what to think about this, but after some time I came to look at it as a positive thing. I believe this because his age group, in general, is extremely capable of making changes and may be more open to trying out new techniques, etc.

Anyway, I traveled 13 hours on bus, one short 5 minute canoe ride across the Changuinola River, and about a 15 minute hike into the forest to find myself in the center of Junco de San Juan. Upon my arrival about 25 to 30 people were waiting for me and wanted me to talk. I took a deep breath and started rambling in Spanish about what I was doing there and thanked them for the invitation, etc. I am a first time volunteer in this site and so the people really had no idea what I was doing there. I am sure they didn't understand half of what I said, so my counterpart got up and spoke as well....but he mostly went over some logistical stuff about what was going to happen during the week. After this we asked if there were any questions and a Ngobe man stood up and declared that I needed to receive a Ngobe name because that is part of the their culture. So, my new Ngobe name in my site is, Vechi Hugugonbo, which apparently means Casey of Junco de San Juan! After this I went to the house where I was to be staying and went to bed pretty quickly.

Learning to use a machete.

The next few days were full of traveling from house to house meeting people and giving a short speech on what Peace Corps is, and what type of work I would be doing. It was extremely exhausting as my Spanish isn't the best, but it went well.

I was surprised to find that there are three different nationalities living in the village. There is a mixture of Latino, Ngobe, and Nasso (an indigenous tribe out of Costa Rica). From first appearance they do seem to get along and work together, but I was only there for about five days and so I take it all with a grain of salt.

The houses in the site are all made of wood, but some are at ground level and others are on stilts. I will be living in a house on stilts once I am finished staying with host families for my first three months. There is apparently a farmer who only works part time on his farm in the village because he started working for the Chiquita Banana Company, which is based in Changuinola. So, the community said that they were going to talk to him and see if I could have the house for two years. They didn't seem to think it was going to be a problem, and told me that they don't expect or want me to pay any money because I am supposed to be part of the community. Even during my stay with families for the first three months they said it would be strange to receive money, and could cause some jealousy amongst other members of the community. The jealousy is an interesting point!!! The community wanted me to move from house to house for the first three months of my service to live in various people's houses for one week at a time. Sounds like a nightmare, right? I nipped that in the bud and told them I would prefer to stay in three houses for one month each, or at the least be in a house for two weeks at a time. I think it would be really difficult to get organized and feel like that is where I will be living for two years if I am constantly shuffling all my stuff around and moving from house to house. Anyway, they seemed to understand me not wanting to live in 12 different houses in a matter of three months. So, I know which house I will be staying in for the first month. During this time I hope to start getting my house ready so I can start moving stuff in there and have a place to actually do some book work.

Another interesting aspect of my site is the proximity to the city of Changuinola and the distinct line between poverty and wealth. Once you cross the river over into my site the scenery turns rural with horses in place of cars, trees in place of cement houses, and mud in place of streets. It is a really bizarre change considering the two places are within a 30 minute distance of each other. I haven't quite figured out if the people in my site are hoping to someday move to the city, or if they are content where they. I plan to do a community analysis within my first few months there to figure this type of thing out (and a million other things!).

We held two community meetings, which I thought were just to reiterate some points about Peace Corps and technicalities of living and such, but I was horribly wrong. At these meetings the "secretary" of the town pulled out his book of town notes and started making lists of the types of projects they would like done in the community. This was followed by people starting to sign up for projects they thought they wanted to work on. I was honestly overwhelmed and really wanted to scream and tell them to slow down...but I went with the flow taking it all with a grain of salt. I tried to explain that I will be visiting each house when I return to talk more with families and figure out logistics of what the community wants and needs...but they still continued to sign there names in this book clarifying they wanted to work on this or that type of project.

These are the projects they identified and signed up for:

  • chicken project with women
  • organic farming with cacao farmers
  • organic farming with platano farmers
  • organic huertos (or veggie gardens)
  • an Ngobe artisan group
  • Fish tank with group of young men

Here are some other projects I identified as a possibility:

  • sanitation of cacao disease
  • fixing the aqueduct
  • dental hygiene and health in general
  • composting latrines
  • others...can't think of them right now

So, the water situation is an interesting story. While I was at my site I was dying of thirst because the community members wouldn't let me drink from the river. They told me the water is dirty because that is where people would bathe, clean clothes, and sometimes use it as a bathroom too. I tried to explain to them that I have tablets and a filter to use to clean the water, but they insisted. They told me that if I got sick the Peace Corps would not send them a volunteer and so they didn't want me to drink the water because they wanted a volunteer in the community. So...we ended up having to hike up this mountain about 30-40 minutes to a clean water source to find some water to drink. To say the least, it was a very difficult week in terms of water, and I have decided that when I go back I am going to be firm in telling them that I can use the river water and that it will be fine. I will also explain to them that if I get sick it doesn't mean Peace Corps will pull me out and never send me back again!!!

The town does have an aqueduct, but it is non-functional. There is no water pressure and so the storage tank has been dry for months. There was a group of men that went out while I was in the town to move some tubing in hopes that they can figure out the right place to increase the water pressure. It was apparently supposed to start working the day after I I am crossing my fingers in hope that it works when I arrive so I don't have to struggle to find water everyday! I guess I can get used to anything in time!

I ran into a couple creepy critters while at my site visit, but the worst, by far, were the two scorpions in my bedroom. I assume with time they won't freak me out too much, but the thought of them stinging me isn't a pleasant one. They were quite bit, and refused to die when my host dad started going at them with a machete. All I could hear was there stinging tails hitting the machete and making an awful sound. To say the least I sleep quite wrapped up in my mosquitero that night. I also ran across the largest spider I have seen in my life...but he quickly ran away and his somewhere in the crevices of my bedroom!!! And...during the hike around the aqueduct I came across two snakes. One was non-venomous, and the other apparently was. I didn't really get a good look at the venomous one because my counterpart told me to quickly start walking in the other direction! I have been told there are quite a few sloths around the area, but I have yet to see one!!!

As of now I am staying in Ciudad de Saber where we first came when we arrived in Panama. We did a ribbon cutting ceremony yesterday for the opening of the new office location (here in Ciudad de Saber). We officially swear in as volunteers this Thursday!!! I can't wait, but I am extremely nervous as well! We all get the weekend to hang out with one another, have a good time, and then it is off to our sites!!!!

Things are about the get much more interesting.....

A Panamanian bug.

Making a rice tank using "animal traction".

The semillero.

17 August 2005

Hello again!

Well, I have been in (for the most part) in my site for about two weeks now and things have definitely been interesting. Attempting to get my stuff across the Changuinola River in the dugout canoe was difficult in itself...but somehow I managed. I thought that would be the worst part, but it was followed by a 20 minute hike through calf-deep mud to actually walk into my site. Luckily, some people on horses and some other guys from the community helped to carry my stuff with me. I think my arms are looking bulkier than they ever have in my life....from carrying my stuff to 20 different places...and it's still not over.

My community decided it would be best for me to live with three different families for the first three months to prevent jealousy among community members (we are required to live with host families for the first three months at site...and then we can move into our own houses). So, my first homestay family is comprised of a very old man, approximately 80 years old, his daughter and husband, who are about 60 years old, their son, who is about 35 years old, and his son, who is two years old. Very confusing....but there are four generations living in the one female gringa...ME!!!

The house is on stilts and made of wood. The 35 year old man moved out of his bedroom to let me have the poor guy sleeps on the couch. This definitely makes me feel a bit awkward, but they requested to have me live theirs for one reason or another. The family is Latino and they speak Spanish extremely fast. They often do remember to talk a little bit slower for me, but when they forget it feels like my brain is a pile of mush and I stare at them blankly waiting for my brain to catch up to everything they just said to me.

The first week I had a really hard time trying to figure out what in the heck to do with myself. It was the most bizarre feeling to wake up in this strange house with people speaking another language, and try to figure out what I was going to do for the day! I will say that first week was the most difficult time I ever had getting out of bed to face the day...but I did it.

I spent some time walking around the aqueduct and trying to figure out what is wrong with it. One day I went to the school and asked the women cooking for the children if I could help them cook. This turned out to be a wonderful decision because I got to chat with the teachers of the school, the children were able to spend some time around me, and random people would stop by throughout the day to stop and talk. The rest of the time I continued visiting houses that I was unable to get to the week while I was on my site visit.

After the first week at site I spent about four days at a friend's site doing some cacao training. The training was spectacular, and I am very excited to start working with some farmers to get the cacao project going. A member of the cacao cooperative in our area is waiting to hear if he has been approved funding for this major cacao project we are supposed to get off the ground (we being the volunteers in the Bocas del Toro area). We are getting trained on the techniques to rid the plantations of the plague that is affecting them right now, and then to graft and bring the plantations back to life utilizing agroforestry techniques and organic methods. As of now I am supposed to be working in my community to find one or two people who seem motivated and are willing to give up a parcel of the cacao plantation to "experiment" with. I am then supposed to work very closely with this/these people to utilize the techniques and provide an example plot for the community to view. After this the idea is to spread the word and have visits to each person's example plot to rid the entire area of the plague and bring the cacao production back into action in the area.

It's a huge project with a vision that will take lots of time, but it seems like a fantastic idea and I really hope to get people excited and enthusiastic about it!

So, after the cacao training I went back to my site for two days. During this time I worked on a garden project with a group of jovenes who started one before I even arrived, and helped them build a compost pile.

Because I am a first time volunteer there is no house available for me to live in, so the community and I are going to be building a house. My counterpart and I walked around to a few places to find a spot for my house. I think I may have found one, but this coming Saturday night we are going to go and sit there to see how much noise we can hear from the discoteca across the river. You see....even though I live in the jungle there is a city right across the river with a disco place that blares music on Saturday and Sunday nights. I am trying to find a place for my house that is a bit further into the jungle to prevent the ridiculous noise pollution (at the house I am staying in right now you can hear it loud and clear on those two nights of the week...and it isn't pleasant). Sometimes it makes me laugh that I can hear all these animals and sounds of the forest in the beautiful jungle area where there is no electricity....and then there is blaring music at night!!! Go figure!

Anyway, my house will be made of wood and will be stilted as prevent major problems during the bad rainy season (it's the rainy season year round in Bocas del Toro. My community asked me to draw a picture of the type of house that I want, and I am in search of a beautiful place to put it!

I have been in Changuinola for the past few days meeting agencies and talking about natural disasters, but am headed back today. I am feeling good about heading back there to get involved in more things and get to know people better. I can't believe I will be moving into a new house with a whole new family in less than two weeks!

When will my world stop turning upside down???

I am guessing once my have a permanent place to keep my stuff, get comfortable, and STOP living out of bags. But for now I am happy, healthy, and still surviving!!!

23 September 2005

Where do I begin??? Well, as some of you already know I am in the process of moving out of my site and moving into a new site. There are various reasons for the move, but the one that went down in the books was security. It all had to do with the discoteca that was right across the river from my site!

After days of hiking around with my regional leader going to meetings at various other sites...I have finally made a decision and will be moving into my new site next Wednesday. Not a whole lot is really changing due to the site move. I will still be working on the cacao project, I will still be living in Bocas del Toro, and my address will stay the same!!!

I will be a first time volunteer in the community of Valle de Agua. The site is only an hour hike from two other volunteers, one of them being Tasha. Who would have thought we would end up that ridiculously close to each other in the Peace Corps??!! I wish I could tell you more about the community, but at this point in time I don´t really know all that much about it. It is a Ngabe site (an indigenous group), there are quite a few people with cacao farms ranging from 2-7 hectares each, there is a school for the younger children with 4! teachers, the school has a garden, and the men in the community get together every Wednesday to do clean-up type stuff. Oh, the most exciting part is that the community has an aquaduct. I guess I shouldn´t assume I won´t be bathing in a river anymore, but at least there is a glimpse of hope in that direction...hehe :-)

I am finding it very difficult to write and explain everything that has happened since it was decided that I was going to be moving. I have been on one wild ride of emotions ranging from total devastation to excitement and hope! I will be extremely excited to get somewhere and start feeling somewhat settled again, but I really don´t know if this "settled" feeling I am looking for is ever going to happen :-)

The meeting in San Juan to let the community know I would be leaving was on of the most difficult days I have had here in Panama. To say the least some people were happy, some were crying, and some were just flat out pissed off! I think I felt every one of those emotions during the meeting as well!

So, as it goes...onto the next Valle de Agua. Hopefully next time I write I will have all of this wonderful information to share about the wonders of Valle de Agua. As for now...I am sleeping at different friends sites, my belongings are in the Peace Corps car, and I am trying to keep my head high and move on!!!!

From an email on 26 October 2005.

A short update, because there is nothing much to report. Since I last wrote I spent about a week in the site that I moved to, Valle de Agua, only to find out that the mamatata religion exists there...and in a very prominent and established manner. I had started to visit people's houses only to get a door slammed in my face or blank stares as if I wasn't human. I was beginning to wonder what in the &%·$ was going on until one kind man decided to inform me. He came down from the hill where the majority of the community members lived to tell me that they are part of the Mamatata and they have a law in their religion that they are not allowed to work with foreigners or work in any type of development because they are supposed to live just like their ancestors did. Basically, they have the law to prevent outsiders from coming in and infiltrating their culture and ways of living. Can one really blame them? This brings about the whole issue of development...doesn't it!

So, I wasn't too keen on staying in a place where 3/4´s of the community wasn't allowed to work with me due to a law in their I had a meeting and it was decided that I would be moving again. Shocking, huh...not really...things happen and you move on!

To make the story short and sweet I have been traveling around to people's sites for about the past month while my APCD is finding me a site that "will/should" work. Just this past week it has been narrowed down to two sites within the indigenous Ngobe-Bugle Comarca region within the province of Chiriqui. He, my APCD, and some others will be checking out the sites and making a final decision around next Wednesday or so.

From what I have heard both sites sound great...but I really don't know too much about them right now except for the location, some basic information about agriculture, and that it is indigenous.

Just yesterday I was told that I only have to put in about another month or so of living with a host family in my new site and then I can move out on my own! I was under the impression I was going to have start the three months of living with families over again..that would sure have tested my sanity and happiness. Good things are on the way!

Although my email sounds quite sarcastic I am doing just fine. Traveling around Panama for a month isn't the worst thing that's ever happened to anyone. I have met wonderful people, seen some beautiful places, and experienced the culture as it changes from province to province. I am most definitely ready to get into a site and do some work, but I wanted them to do in the right way...which sometimes takes some time...

Casey on the move.

Some photos from October and November.

The view from the Peace Corps office, a ship in the Panama Canal.

Is Peace Corps fun?

Why Casey needs to dread her hair.

22 November 2005 - Some recent photos.

A view from Casey's site.

Another view.

15 December 2005

Excerpts from Casey's quarterly report.

I am currently living in Hato Horcòn, Chiriqui, La Comarca Ngobe Bugle. The province is Chiriqui, but the indigenous Comarca is within the boundaries. The Comarca is owned by the indigenous tribes of both the Ngobe and Bugle, with the majority being Ngobe. The Comarca is shared by three different provinces (Bocas del Toro, Chiriqui, and Veraguas) within Panama, and is located West of Panama City.

Hato Horcòn is located in the foothills of the mountains near the main city of San Felix. In order to get to the site one would need to take a charter bus from Panama City to San Felix, another taxi to a smaller "chiva" station, then a chiva up the mountain for about an hour, and finally about an hour to an hour and a half hike into the mountains.

The community is composed of approximately 75-100 people who are almost all one family, the Guerrera family (I will have a more accurate number once my community analysis is completed). There is one church, Evangelical, and a casa communal to hold meetings in. At some point in time an organization came through and built wooden houses for the families in the community, so the majority of people are living in similar looking houses. The houses are made of wood boards, they are stilted off the ground about 1 meter, and are just one large open space inside. Most families also have a cooking area made of bamboo poles cut in half and nailed together with a penca, or thatch, roof. People sleep on the ground in the wooden houses, or on "beds" built out of bamboo poles.

There is an aqueduct in the community, but it goes dry from about December until April or May (currently we have no running water). Each house has a pluma, or faucet, located a short distance from the house. When the water is running people use this area to wash clothes, themselves, dishes, etc. . When the water is not running everyone uses the quebrada, or stream, running through the community (the community is located in the hills, and the water source is naturally downhill making it a difficult task to carry the water). I have been told that as we move deeper into the dry season people migrate down towards the stream and build shelters to have easier access to water. Once the aqueduct water is running again they move back to their houses in the community. The children are usually the ones carrying the water from the stream to the houses for family use. There is also no electricity within the community.

Hato Horcòn is 100% indigenous, and the inhabitants are extremely proud of this. They like to mention the fact that even the teachers in the school are Ngobe! The indigenous Ngobe language is spoken by everyone, including the children, but Spanish is also spoken. In general, Spanish only seems to be spoken when they are holding meetings, working in the fields, or working with other people. During down time Spanish may be spoken only about 10% of the time. They are extremely proud of their heritage and would prefer to continue speaking in Ngobe to prevent the loss of the language in younger generations.

The community has one school for grades 1-6 with two classrooms. Grades 1, 2, and 6 are taught together and 3, 4, and are taught together by another teacher. I originally thought it was strange that grades 1, 2, and were taught together, but after asking I was told it was so that the 6th graders could help out the younger children.

Labor division and gender roles are at times clearly defined, and then other times they are vague. In general, the women stay in the house during the day caring for the young, washing clothes, cooking, and sometimes attending to a nearby "tienda" or store while the men are away. Although this time has not officially arrived yet I have been told that during planting and harvesting season there are specific jobs that the women do in the farm. The men are usually out of the house for the first part of the day, and sometimes the majority of the day. They are sometimes working in the fields, looking for "leña", working outside of the community, or out at meetings in various areas. The children have the most difficult role to define because it can change from day to day. Some children spend the morning and afternoon in school, others are in the farm harvesting food to cook for the day, others are out looking for leña, and some spend time in the farm with their fathers learning and helping. From what I have seen the children play an extremely important role in the routine of daily life. They are always being told to one thing or another (caring for siblings, looking for firewood, starting the fire for food, cooking the food, cutting the firewood, harvesting food, washing clothes, etc.).

My job remains to work with sustainable agriculture and to develop promoters who can lead the community and surrounding communities in organic methods while encouraging conservation. Additionally, I am following up the project that was previously done with the agricultural group in the community. Follow up is helping hammer down techniques they are not completely comfortable with, introducing them to organic methods the previous organization did not introduce, and experimenting. Being the first volunteer in the community I also believe a large part of my job is to educate people about Peace Corps, explain why I am there, and spend some time figuring out the community with a community analysis to aid the next volunteer.

Farms are all located on hillsides at an elevation (unsure of exact elevation at this point). The areas are carefully marked and organized for various crops, and a level A is used to plant with the natural curves of the hillside. From what I have observed thus far the following products are planted on the farms:

Yucca, ñame, otoe, maize, hot peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, rice and fish (tilapia and some other type of fish) in tanks, snails in tanks, and they are experimenting with a small amount of celery and possibly other products too. All rice and fish tanks are connected to water sources with PCV tubing. I have noticed avocado, orange, pifa, papaya, and coconut trees, but haven't seen any established areas on farms where they are mass producing them. I was told just last year the group did a reforestation project with fruit trees, but I still don't know where and what type of trees were used in this project. There are also wood producing trees scattered throughout the farms.

Slash and burning is no longer used in the community due to the education from the previous project. My counterpart told me they did some reforestation with wood trees in areas where they previously slash and burned to help regenerate the area.

The group of farmers uses compost tea from cow manure, bokachi, and utilizes ashes in seedbeds to prevent bug attacks. Some crop residues are left on the group as a form of organic return and mulching, and others are fed to the fish and snails in the tanks and a goat that resides on the farm. There are no livestock animals residing on the farm except for the goat. One group member has told me he owns farms in some other area, but I have yet to see or talk to him about it. I have seen two families that own a pigs, but the pigs live by the houses and nowhere near the farms (probably to prevent it from destroying all the crops).

February 2006

Casey's house.

The view from Casey's porch.

3 March 2006

Well, as things would have it I am stuck in David (closest city to me) with amoebas and a bacterial infection in my what better time to do a little update since I really haven´t written since getting into my new site.

The new site has been going well, but is filled with its share of challenges. Remember I am a first time volunteer and I am living the indigenous the people aren´t exactly opening their arms and houses to me with warm welcomes. Basically they are kind of afraid and shy...a little of both! So the whole assimilation process is quite slow, but everyday little breakthroughs are made!

Here is one example:

Late one night one of my neighbors came over to my house and asked me to come outside. This is extremely strange because almost nobody (with the exception of children) visit my house because they are afraid and shy. Anyway, my neighbor comes over and I go outside and there he is holding gifts of food straight from his farm for me. Now I know this doesn´t sound like much, but these people are subsistence farmers living off their land and feeding their numerous family members with the food from their farms. He gave me this enormous bowl of already shelled guandu (a type of bean) and two huge pieces of otoe!!! I was so shocked that there was someone at my house and almost teary eyed because they were offering me gifts of food....the only thing they really would have to offer me!!!

So although getting gifts of food from someone´s farm doesn´t sound like much of a part of assimilation it was a huge step and meant alot to me!

Work has been going really well. Although there are few people that are ready to share with me as a person or a friend there are many people who want to work with me! Sometimes I am really excited because of all the work, and them sometimes I am really sad because it seems like they don´t really want to be my friend they just want to talk to me about work. It´s okay though....because if that is what causes us to be able to communicate at this point in time hopefully in the future it will lead into a friendship of talking about other things too.

I recently lost my closest neighbor and a friend to administration problems with the PC officials, so I have been trying to work through getting things back on track. My neighbor and I were writing a grant together for a project, but now the whole thing has been shifted over to my shoulders since she is no longer here. The project is still going to be fine, but the deadline for the grant came and passed and I was unable to get it all done by my boss and I are looking for other sources of funding. Due to my closest neighbor leaving, I am kind of working as a volunteer for both, what was her community, and my community. I like that I have the ability to leave one to go to the other when i feel like it and the sites are about an hour hike from eachother up and down mountains. So, I like to stop and read books and write letters and not rush back´s sort of a God-send if you ask me - I love hiking and I love having time where I am alone and not on display.

Oh, that just made me think of another ridiculous story, so here it goes....

One night before I was leaving my site I was "training" these two brothers (about 7 and 9 years old) on how to feed and take care of my cat while I was gone. The two of them would not stop asking, or basically demanding me to take pictures of them and give them candy....etc, etc., So, I tried as calmly as I could to explain to them that if they keep telling me to take pictures of them I am never going to f·"$"·$"·ing do it again (I mean seriously, they ask me approximately 250 times in one day and it all starts over again the next day). So, they sort of slowed down on asking for the photos and started asking me where this candy was that JC had given them when he was here visiting. I told them that we ate alot of it and left it at that. So, they continued on about this candy that JC had brought and why wouldn´t I give it to them. I tried to ignore it for the most part until they said to me, "How come you burn candy in your garbage, but we can´t eat it?" I was absolutely baffled and interested in this comment. So, I told them that I don´t burn candy in my garbage that it´s mostly just paper and stuff. They said NO! that there mom said that I was burning candy in the garbage. So, I sat there racking my brain as to why this mother would have thought I was burning candy when I remembered something. One day I was cleaning out my medical kit from Peace Corps and found these really old cough drops that had melted from the burning inferno that I am currently living in, and so I threw them in my garbage pile!!! The darn cough drops must be what the mom saw and she must have said something to the kids or shown it to them to ask them if they had seen anything in my house that looked like this since she hasn´t really ever been inside. So, I am now know as the strange gringa that would burn candy in her garbage before giving it to some kids :-( It was quite a night!

I knew my life was strange when I was on the phone with JC freaking out about some kids thinking that I would rather burn candy (selfishly) before I would give it to them. What a strange, strange reality my life is right now...but I love it.

6 April 2006

Excerpts from the quarterly report.

On The Farm

Since the last report, the group of farmers that I have been working with and I wrote a letter of solicitud to the agricultural government agency, MIDA, requesting a variety of seeds (most being vegetables, rice and beans). I decided to hand the letter in in-person at the office to advance our chances of actually receiving the seeds. I fortunately was greeted by one the employees who wanted to make a site visit to my site and help get a program called "Familias Unidas" off the ground. So, we set up a date for him to come and visit and tour the farms and discuss with the community the idea of "Familias Unidas".

The MIDA employee did show up on the day we had scheduled and brought with him the majority of the seeds that we had requested. We received cucumber, tomato, green been (2 types), green peppers, squash, hot peppers, 5 lbs of rice and 5 lbs of frijoles de bejuco (a red type bean that grows as a vine). The MIDA employee then toured the farms, took numerous pictures ( probably to use for his own benefit), and then made promises to people to bring fish seeds for fish tanks and sacks of cement to aid some water deposit boxes that are running the water from the source to the tanks.

Each individual farmer had to sign a sheet about receiving the seeds and at the same time were told they needed to work/invite me to help and plant some of the seeds…this is where the problem lies! I have recently walked around the farms and noticed starting seed beds and recently planted rice tanks, but the farmers are still not inviting me to go out with them. We have had numerous discussions about the need for me to go out and work with them, but there is still the issue of me being a female and them not really wanting me in the farms.

I have gone out a few times and worked on clearing the monte, but in terms of helping plant seeds or start semilleros I am not sure what more I can do. We have just recently had another talk about communication and working together, but as always, they say they understand and most likely nothing is going to change. I guess I will have to wait and see. So, in short my working out in the farms is very limited at this point. I have helped them solicit for seeds (which I may now regret) and they are using the seeds to experiment with the named varieties in their farms, I am just being excluded from taking part in the experimentation/planting process.

The Baseball Team

I have written a grant soliciting funds for baseball equipment to start a baseball team in Hato Horcòn from the Baseball for Tomorrow Fund. The grand was handed in some time in February and I am expecting to hear back in April.

13 June 2006

View of the Comarca.

Elieser fishing.

Planting the rice tank.

Slash and Burn Agriculture.

7 July 2006

Excerpts from the quarterly report.


The majority of work that has been done on the farms since the last quarter is related to fish and rice tanks. Working along with the official from MIDA I arranged for the group that I work with to receive fish seeds for tanks that were completely up and running and ready to be stocked. Approximately 7 farmers received a stock of fish seeds based on the dimensions of the fish tanks they own. The intent was to get a breeding tank up and running so the farmers no longer need to depend upon MIDA to supply them with seeds each time they run out of stock. Since I was gone for so long not much has been done to assure the breeding tank was stocked and cared for. To be honest, the last thing I heard was that they didn't even put the seeds that were meant for the breeding tank in the tank (oh the frustrations…they knew that one of the seed bags was intended for the breeding tank, but I wasn't there to make sure that is where they went).

I have been on the farms since being back for various tours, etc and have noticed that most of the farmers have planted tomatoes, cucumbers, and green peppers. I really didn't play much of a role in getting the vegetables started, but the plants are looking good.

Fish Tanks

The fish tank project is still in the works. The last day to dig the holes for the tanks was supposed to be the end of May. Unfortunately I was not there so all the dates for the project are in the process of being reworked. Some people have been working on the holes and others have actually finished them, but I haven't been back long enough to visit each participant. Since the project dates are being extended the group that I worked with asked if more people could be involved in the project (and from some communities quite far away). I told them that I would not feel right about saying no, but they would need to play a big role in the communication between the new participants and myself. I feel that if people want to be involved it is fine because they all have responsibilities to execute at various points in the project, and if they do not do what they are supposed to do they will not receive what they need in order to get a fish/rice tank up and running. As for now I have a meeting with the group I work with on July5th.


The reforestation project is currently in process. The trees were delivered last week (June 24th) and the farmers and I are working to get the land prepped in order to plant. Currently we are working on cutting all weeds, etc and leaving any wood/shade shade trees standing in the areas to be reforested. The biggest problem we have encountered is the invasive species paja blanca. I asked the farmers if they knew about paja blanca because I remember during training learning how it is invasive and basically working its way throughout Panama. One farmer told me that they now know it is a bad grass species, but in the past when his father worked the land he wanted to plant grass species…. And that is one of the species he apparently planted. While I was in the hospital the farmers made a big batch of compost to use when planting the trees. The compost is a type of bokachi utilizing dried cow manure, soil, fermented sugar cane, ashes, and dry material (such as rice husks). All the materials are mixed together and allowed to sit for approximately a week being churned once a day.

The plants are currently under a plastic covering and being watered and occasionally sprayed with organic repellents. At the meeting on July 5th we will discuss and create a schedule for the actual planting of the trees. I am hoping to have everything in the ground by the end of July.

Composting Latrines

My neighbor volunteer and I have built the composting latrine for my house (an example for the community). The latrine is made out of cedar wood and has a showed attached to it. I will eventually be giving a presentation about the latrine to interested community members. I do not plan on starting any project with latrines during my service. I have constructed an example for the community to see and learn from and then the next volunteer can take the next step if the farmers to think they would like to construct more.

September 2006. Excerpts from Casey's quarterly report.


Since the last report we have come into the rainy season which means a whole different set of work being done on the farms.  Throughout the past few months rice was planted on hillside and is currently being harvested, they are clearing land to plant corn and some has already been planted, and as always they are harvesting and replanting the rice tanks.  We have been extremely occupied with the fish and rice tank seminar, so I have not been individually working on the farms with people, except to go out and help plant or harvest whatever is currently in season.

Fish and Rice Tanks

The majority of my work this quarter has been based on my big rice and fish tank project.  Since the last report I have held numerous meetings with the agricultural group that I work with in my site.  We decided that the first seminar (phase 2 of the project) was going to be held in the community (Hato Horcòn) on September 25 and 26th of 2006.  Once the dates were finalized I made out invitations and delivered them to the 17 potential participants from 5 surrounding communities.  A few last minute people who were interested in the project were visited my myself and one of the members of the agricultural group to explain the project, view the water source, view the land, and measure the tubing needs and dimensions of the tanks (phase 1 of the project).  I probably put in about 20 hours of hiking to personally deliver each invitation to assure each participant was well informed of the dates of the seminar and to clarify that in order to be in the project they were required to participate in both days.  I also invited some fellow Peace Corps volunteers who had been inquiring about how to do fish and rice tank projects, a boss from the Peace Corps office and a counterpart from the agricultural agency of Panama, MIDA.  The seminar was funded through a small grant of $60 from our volunteer advisory committee (they provide 4 $60 grants per quarter).  The grant helped pay for the copying of manuals, project description and the agenda, scratch paper, pens, large presentation paper, markers, and all the food to provide lunch on both seminar days.

Two photos of fish and rice tank work.

The seminar was held on September 25 and 26th in Hato Horcòn with 9 out of 17 potential participants showing up (their attendance was required to move onto the next phase of the project, so at this point I officially have 9 participants).  The first day consisted of education/capacitation on the theory and how to choose the land and begin the process of construction.  Two members of the agricultural group that I work with in the community were chosen to do the actual presentation (this was their first experience teaching people in a formal manner).  After the presentations the new participants were taken on a tour of the farms in the community to view the “finished product” of a rice and fish tank.  They were also taken to the water source to help aid in the understanding of connecting water to the tanks and the control of water during the dry versus the rainy season.  The agency counterpart (MIDA) scheduled to come and participate in an hour talk about the tanks cancelled on my at the last minute, so the boss from the Peace Corps office who came stood in and talked about rice and fish tanks in place of him.  The second day consisted of the construction of an actual rice and fish tank to allow the participants practice in the construction before they had to do it in their own farms. The construction was successful and the participants were actively involved asking questions and taking turns doing the back-breaking labor involved in digging a tank.

Each of the 9 participants has 2 months (October and November) to dig their tanks.  Starting in December I will be visiting each participant to see that the tanks have been dug.  If the tank is dug they will move onto the next phase of the project which is another seminar in January.  The second seminar will involve the education on how to connect the tubes, introduce the fish, plant and harvest the rice, how to prepare compost and construct a level A. 

I was extremely content with the outcome of the first seminar and hope that all 9 participants stay as involved and excited as they were!


Since the last report the trees for the reforestation project had been delivered and we were scheduled to have a meeting to do an agenda for the cleaning and planting.  The cleaning of the area (using a machete to cut down all weeds, etc) took approximately 10 days, 5 days for each participant.  We then constructed a level A and did a triangle marcation to determine the placement of the 400 trees.  Each tree was planted 3 meters apart in a triangular manner utilizing the level A to follow the curvature of the hillside.  Once the area was marked with stakes the area was ready for planting.  The planting only took about 2 days and organic compost was placed in each hole followed by the tree.  There were various numbers of each tree species being utilized, but were generally planted down rows.  For example, if you followed a row going from the top of the mountain to the bottom you would find the majority of the same species, but if you went horizontally across the mountain there were various species.  The volunteer who headed the project came to visit in mid-September to view the parcels.  One of the parcels is looking beautiful and the trees are successfully growing in their new environment, the other parcel is growing but is not looking as good.  The second farmer did not pack the dirt down tightly and did not clear the area of underbrush and weeds well.  A maintenance seminar will be held in February for the volunteers involved in the project. 

Composting Latrine

The composting latrine is almost finished, but has taken quite some time due to the difficulty of hiking zinc in for the roof.  I am still planning a small presentation for the community once the latrine is built and functional. 

Worm composting boxes

7 worm boxes were constructed by the agricultural group in the community and I during the last quarter.  I also gave a 2 hour presentation on how to set up the bed, what to feed the worms and general maintenance and harvesting information.  Slowly the 7 farmers are starting to set their boxes up.  We have been provided California red worms by Nutre Hogar, an NGO.  I have also set up a composting worm box at my house that is fully functioning and can be viewed by the community members as an example.

Life in the village.

January 2007 - Excerpts from the quarterly report.

Fish and Rice Tanks

Since the last report the participants involved in the rice and fish tank project had two months (October and November) to complete the digging phase of constructing a fish/rice tank.  During the two month period, I worked on writing the grant to fund the second seminar and all the materials for the tanks (tubing, cement), printed out the invitations for the second seminar and held a meeting with agricultural groups in my community to start some basic planning for the second seminar. 

I applied for a PCPP grant (Peace Corps Partnership Proposal) in which the proposal gets posted on the web and people can donate to the project.  Before I wrote the grant, I found the donors so that I could be sure the project would be fully funded and would move along smoothly, The grant is currently being reviewed by Peace Corps Washington and I expect to see it on the web by next week (around the 1st week of January).  The meeting with the agricultural group took place in early October.  We reviewed the evaluations the participants had filled out at the end of the first seminar.  The main issue in the majority of the evaluation was time.  Most people thought 2 days was not sufficient, and numerous people wanted more organic agriculture involved in the seminar.  So, the group and I decided the second seminar will be 4 days long (from January 22-January 25).  The participants who live in other communities will be matched with a host family in Hato Horcón so we can start on time everyday and so they don’t have to hike numerous hours for 4 days straight.  The second seminar will involve connecting the tubing to the water source, building a water deposit box, using a level-A to level out the tank as well as hillside farming, compost and natural repellents, sexing the fish, planting the rice, and gen4eral maintenance of the tanks.  I am working on getting each of the members of the agricultural group to teach one part of the seminar as well as agency folks, some Peace Corps office people and myself.  As of December I have visited each participant to verify their tanks have been dug and to deliver the invitations informing them of the second seminar dates.


Since the last report the trees from the reforestation project have been for the most part, left alone to grow.  This last quarter was the rainy season, so we cleared around the trees to get rid of weeds and underbrush and left them alone during the rain.  A seminar has been scheduled for the end of February for all the volunteers involved in the project.   We will be learning how to do the maintenance and will receive tools for the farmers involved.  The volunteer heading the project does not have enough funding for us to bring the farmers, so we will be returning to our sites equipped with the knowledge and tools to teach our respective farmers.

Casey's Parents Visit Panama

Casey with her father.

Casey's parents at her site.

March 2007 - Excerpts from the quarterly report.

Fish and Rice Tank Project

 Since the last report, in December 2006, the second seminar was held with all the participants, the materials were distributed to only those participants who successfully completed the previous phases, and the new tanks have been connected to their water source.  I am currently still in the process of visiting each participant to verify the tubes have correctly been installed and the water boxes have been constructed with the provided cement.  I have arranged for all the fish to be delivered to the new participants on April 16th.  The delivery of the fish seeds marks the conclusion of the project, but I will most likely do one more visit to see the completed product and answer and questions that may arise.

English Classes

I gave two English classes because people wouldn’t stop bothering me about it.  During the second class, the participation went down to two people, so the classes have been discontinued.

Hiking Volcan Baru

Sunrise from Volcan Baru.

June 2007

Fish and Rice Tank Project

The fish and rice tank project was completed in April/May of 2007. Each of the 13 participants were given a bag of live tilapia fish to put in their newly constructed tanks.  Each participant was given a particular count of fish based on the dimensions of their tank(s).  One last visit was also made to each participant to view the finished product and answer any last questions they had.  They were also informed of who to talk to for future problems or concerns once I am gone.

A meeting was also set up with the group of farmers I worked with on the project and an agricultural volunteer who lives close by.  I introduced the two to eachother because the group expressed interest in repeating the project with a new set of participants.  They will not be receiving a new volunteer once I leave, so they are hoping to work with the one who lives closest to the community.  The meeting went well and they are already visiting potential participants and have scheduled a meeting with the group, the volunteer who lives close by and all the new participants who expressed interest in doing the project.

Casey and Everett Sage