Noah Daniels - Peace Corps Panama.
Geology major. Bucknell University. Masters of Geology. U. of Colorado.
Noah is both a Peace Corps Volunteer and a graduate student in the Loret Miller Ruppe Peace Corps Masters International Program at Michigan Tech. Find out more about this program at http://peacecorps.mtu.edu/.
Noah's blog: http://2yrcoffeebreak.blogspot.com/.
1 June 2006
I've got to catch a bus into the mtns in a few minutes. Training is going well, my Spanish is improving daily, thank god, though Panamanians speak rapidly and tend to drop letters off the end of words, so gracias becomes gracia, etc. But I'm having a great time, the stuff they're teaching us is interesting, the host family we're living with is nice, and good lord its hot. But we're heading to visit another couple peace corps people to see the area where we may be stationed which is somewhere in the mtns of Veraguas, maybe near the town of Santa Fe. It looks likely we'll be working with coffee agriculture, too, so I'm excited about that. And beyond the generally bland food (lots of rice and chicken unspiced) and weird rashes, we haven't had any problems whatsoever; they didn't even charge me extra to bring my bike on the plane.
25 June 2006 (a recent email)
Things are going very well here in Panama. We found out about our assignment about a week and a half ago, we will be high in the mtns of Veraguas doing coffee and other things. They are interested in shifting to organic production, so we are jazzed. Plus the usual lorena stoves, etc.
We are heading to a week of coffee training in Boquete tomorrow, looking forward to it. The guy coordinating it was until recently the volunteer at our site, so we get to pump him for info. Assignment is in Pueblo Nuevo, pop. 250, alt. 1300m, 3 to 8 hour ride in the back of a pick up to the nearest city, with said pickup leaving at 3am every day. The site has been called one of the most beautiful in Panama by knowledgeable folks. Our trainer, Jesus, is extremely knowledgeable and a big proponent of organic methods, as well as giving us a good base knowledge with access to further info when we need it. I like using a machete a whole lot. My Spanish is coming along, and I feel better about it every day. Oh, and thanks for all the prep and info you gave us, we feel much better and more realistic about many things thanks to it.\
17 July 2006
We just got back into Santiago, the regional capital of Veraguas, from our soon to be site. It is a 4 plus hour chiva ride, sometimes hellacious by reputation, and this mornings ride out gives some real credibility to that reputation. It looks certain I will be working with coffee, among other things. We are follow ups to another couple, one of whom is now the PCP coffee coordinator. I will be starting out working with several folks he worked with to get some working knowledge, but I would also like to branch out to other people early.
And more subjectively, it looks really good. Beautiful area, lots of hiking, they are doing good agriculture and anxious to learn and apply more, and the previous volunteers broke a lot of ice in the community. The family we will stay with initially is very cool, and our Spanish is coming along well, too. In fact, one of the most common comments is that our Spanish is much better than the other volunteers was when they arrived.
14 August 2006
Things are going well, been at our site a couple weeks. Hiked over twenty miles the other night to the next closest decent sized town the west, it was a beautiful orientation to the area under a full moon. Weird how many people are up and working or heading out into the field at 2 or 4 am. We have been very busy so far, with everything from harvesting beans and rice to going to meetings that start 3 hrs late and still manage to last 3 hours. We are already arranging for a house to move into later, since it needs some repairs to be habitable. It's pink! I already have some ideas for potential thesis research, in particular maybe a comparative test of the effects of different harvest and processing techniques on coffee quality. This is important for the locals, since the more ambitious ones are getting together to form an association to try to tap into the specialty coffee market, and we have good contacts with coffee professionals who can cup & test coffee samples objectively. I'm going to start trying to flesh this out as the harvest gets underway in the next month or so. Either way, even if it doesn't end up being my research, it is something I'm curious about. My Spanish is coming along, and the previous presence of quality volunteers at our site is making things easier for us. Our host family is great, very patient, fun, and hard working, and though sometimes we still feel less than rosy, it is good to be here.
22 September 2006 - Excerpts from September Quarterly Report.
We have been at our site just
over a month. It is an area named after a small, evil biting
insect that is loathed by PCVs but seems to go unnoticed by locals.
Hopefully this doesn´t develop into a strained metaphor
for our time here. Overall, our time so far in Chitra feels like
it is flying by, but some individual days can feel interminable.
Learning patience will be a valuable lesson from this assignment.
I see projects just on the verge of being finished, but just
sitting there, such as a demo lorena stove at the agricultural
extension office sitting unused and therefore un-useful because
it lacks a chimney. I have to resist the impulse to just go and
fix it, since that is not my role in the community, or in the
development process (I have issues with many of the concepts of
development, which I won't vent here, though I do mostly agree
with Peace Corps' approach).
I'm making progress on my Spanish skills, though this is the hardest part. I tend to sometimes get lazy and let Karinne do the bulk of the interaction; though my understanding is on a par with hers, the gears in my head turn slower, and I take a while to formulate my limited vocab into a decent interaction. In fact, interacting is the most exhausting thing I do here, even hard work out in the fields pales.
The coffee harvest is gearing up, and I am focusing on this as the best area for work. I think it has the best potential for improvement for limited increases in effort. The coffee has a lot going for it: decent altitude, fair to good soils, decent to excellent varietals. Unfortunately, the care of the plants and the processing of the beans ranges from mediocre to poor. This is largely because the situation is stuck in a negative feedback loop. They don´t get much money for the coffee even if they go to greater lengths to improve it, so why bother? Fortunately, the previous volunteer at the site began to focus on coffee before he left, and he is now the coffee coordinator for Panama PC. He and I are on the same page- get a few interested growers doing a better job with care and processing, and see how the quality turns out. If it is good, as we are pretty sure it should be, he can use his contacts in the main export coffee producing region to get a better price. These growers have been educated on quality coffee issues, and are genuinely interested in doing the extra work, rather than just complaining that they don´t get enough money. If this experiment pays off, ideally we can facilitate them passing along the techniques and contacts more effectively than we could.
This is an area I have only just begun to think about. Some of the local communities have a shared woodlot of Caribbean pine; you can cut and use a tree for $5. There is also a large forest reserve on the road out of our site, about half way to the main city. It shows evidence of burning, whether prescribed or "drunken yahoo" burning I am not sure, but we have a meeting there in October, so I am going to try to find out. It is around a dormant volcano, and there is a possibility that Karinne might work on some research there, too. It's a beautiful area, with a lake, pines, trails, camping, reminds me a bit of some spots in the Cascades.
I have been making some organic fertilizer with our host family, but I can see this as a good area to expand my efforts, especially with other farmers. Our town is pretty cash-poor, so outlaying $20 for a sack of chemical fertilizer, plus transport costs, is a big investment. Our host family mixes some chemical in with the organic, which I think is a great compromise. Once we get our own place, which is pretty soon, we will have a good area for making various types of compost, and I want to experiment to see what can be done with only locally available materials.
These have been for us: we go out and work with different farmers to learn what they are up to, how they do things, and to simply build up some trust and friendship. It is hard work, and is sometimes compounded by the fact that while many locals are familiar with many of the approaches and methods we are pushing, they often don't have the full-picture, or are missing some part of it. This is harder to deal with than if they knew nothing of it, since telling them they are wrong is a delicate and tricky operation in such a machismo society. Plus, these folks are strong and used to doing this work, and we are not, so we are not very efficient workers, but at least we work for free.
This area was the focus of the short-term volunteer at our site (he was there for the last 6 months of his 3rd year extension). The area is very steep, with lots of heavy rain, and a bunch of people do slash & burn type agriculture on the steep parts, often planting in straight rows up and down the hill. Barriers, both live and dead, have gained some hypothetical acceptance, in that most people we talk to think they are a good idea, but the reality of actually putting them in right is a big hurdle. Plus, even those who think barriers are a good idea tend to do them poorly, just eye-balling the contours and wasting a bit of effort. Watching the mud torrents that are released several times a week by heavy rains really reinforces the importance of this aspect of my work.
Cultural Integration (or
at least, understanding)
This is a mixed bag. My Spanish is improving, but there are many aspects of the culture that I am honestly not on board with, ranging from such simple things as sometimes poor diet, to bigger matters, like alcoholism and gender inequity. That being said, I don't take it personally or get too judgmental, mostly I just want to work, and I understand that acceptance that such things are inherent is sufficient. Still, the majority of folks are warm, funny, hard-working, and genuinely interested in things, which is encouraging.
Apologies if this quarterly report isn´t
the best, I think next time I will compose it on our laptop in
Chitra, sipping great coffee, listening to good music, instead
of parked on a hard chair at a slow computer next to the stinky
loud bus station.
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Updated: 22 September 2006.
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