Russell Slatton - Peace Corps Panama.

Agroforestry Extentionist.

Undergraduate at CSU Chico. Major in Geography and Environmental Geography and a minor in Environmental Studies, Certificate in Geographic Information System Technology.

Russ 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 .

Russ at Fall Camp.

Early June 2002.

Well now I have a little time to tell what has been going on so far here in Panama. Well we arrived here in Panama on May 12th after we left the Luxurias area of Miami, we arrived at about 7pm here at the airport and were met by a group of people at the airport who we would soon know well. The air as we got outside with our bags was immediately hot and sticky as it has been for the past month, people talked all around me in a language that I had heard many times before, but had never really listened to. Now, it was for real, we were really here and the fun was to begin. We were whisked away in the typical white SUV that the peace corps people had, and were asked a variety of questions. Apparently the mail does not work so well here so they had not received very much information. We talked about various subjects on the thirty minute ride and soon saw the very large city of panama. Apparently approximately 30% of the Population lives there. We were on our way to the Hotel California to sleep the night. There was a guard outside with a shotgun and people assisted us. The next morning we ate the normal food of arroz con pollo, chicken and rice. The staple foods here are Yuca, Rice, potatoes, beans, noodles, and cafe. There are other things but that sums up what we eat, people with more money eat chicken and beef sometimes. For the first week we stayed at an agricultural resource center which looked like a resort. Each small room had a bathroom and 2 bunk beds, kate and I stayed in one room. The air was hot, and sticky but the fun has begun. Everyday we wake up at 6 Am and have various activities. That week we had shots, language assessment classes, cultural exercises, and met the staff. Kate and I know where we are going to actually work on August 6th already. The staff had picked one for us so we knew the first day. As the nights went on we ate food and had the famous Dynamica, which is to an activity to get the brain and body going. We picked the brains of various volunteers who were there to assist us. The bugs soon discovered us and the feasting began. One day the Permaculture People, which is in the program that Kate and I are in went on a trip to the Cocle region where we talked with a volunteer who was working with three different groups of people, one was a new group for agriculture run by a woman, another was fully funded project by the Government which was supposed to be an example farm structure, unfortunately, it looks like the local residents were not really involved, but waiting for money. The third site was a family that was organized and put together well. They had contours, a springbox and had a large variety of trees and plants. We frequented a small cantina in the night to drink some beers, and talk about the day. After the first week here we moved to our assigned host families. We live in the town of Caimito, which is 45 minutes west of La Chorrea on the Pan-American highway. Everything is east west here, because it's an east west country.

22 July 2002 - It's All About Chickens.

I have discovered that here, it is all about chickens. We eat chickens, we feed chickens, we hear chickens, and we watch chickens. We see chickens lay eggs, we see them poop, we even see chickens having sex. I live in the land of chickens. The other day as kate and I, with chickens in hand, as we're walking to our house to sell our family these chickens, I thought to myself, this is good. I am carrying a chicken through a small town and people aren't even really batting an eye, except for the fact that we're gringos. It's quite exemplary really, to imagine a world of chickens. We were having a cookout with a multiple of foods ( 2lbs name creamed, 3 eggs mixed, and salt makes a killer pancake), and the house that we were at (Daniella's house, had chickens tied up everywhere. These were not your everyday average chickens, these were killing, fighting, clucking machines, ready at any moment to be freed to their duty and win their master some dough in the ring. I have not witnessed this event, but I have seen the small stadiums that they have built for these small chickens.

I think when I last really wrote was on our return visit from our site visit in week 7, since then has been week 8, 9, 10, of training. Week 8 was a week of projects, we were to give presentations on the different Panamanian aspects of life. I of course devised a way to sing a song in Spanish, our subject was Idiosyncrasies of Panama. First we did hand signals and stances of Panamanians, for example one way is to hold your hand up and to the sides which means, que pasa, or whats up´, another one which I will not describe, means the size of your man part. The song I wrote was about machismo and the fine activities that follow along with it, such as drinking, fighting, cheating on your wife, and basically thinking your the king of your world (Yo soy el rey del mundo). The title goes like this.

Yo tengo machismo
Yo soy un hombre
Yo tengo machismo
Yo soy el mejor

As you can see a fine time was to be had by all. One group had us make tortillas from scratch from fresh corn, these are thick masked corn tortillas fries in oil with over 300 calories per tortilla. By the way tipico rules here. Tipico is the combination of Guitar (loud), singing (loud), accordion (x loud), with the same song done over and over again. In fact we had the great pleasure to see Sammy y Sandra, a brother and sister combo that are great! Sandra dances in a small out fit and dances like a cheerleader, but people love it. I love it here though really, I think that I'm actually used to the roosters in the morning, its like my brain has manifested small earplugs that are retracted when I wake up. Our family and us have made some real connections, now that we can somewhat communicate, its great. I finally understand them at 6:30 in the morning Iadalberto (dad), yells rous, katy, adonde vamos hoy (where are you going, we reply, and then he replies, es 6:30 en la manana, OK. We hope to stay in contact with them, they have tremendously helped us in more ways than they know. In week nine we started a community assessment, with two groups. One for Valdesa, and one for Caimito (that's us), so our part of the project was collect data on the tiendas (small homes that sell goods) and the jardins (outside bars). It was a great deal of fun as we had one beer at each hardeen (2), and a small ice cream at the tiendas (4). We have learned that the town we live in is what you would call a small suburb of La Chorrea with a 45 minute chiva ride, oh lets talk about the chivas here, after week 10 which was going and talking to different institutions about marketing and agricultural products, people sell worms and worm dirt here ( California worms of course), we also talked about seed collection, canning foods, selling trees. On friday we went to a place that had a very diverse finca (farm), where a volunteer had not been places, but had visited repeatedly to talk about planning and different systems. The town is called Abajo Bonito, and is 1 1/2 hours above caimito, the road is really bad and we used 4X4 to get out the place, the land is fairly rocky but is located in the cloud forest region, or at least that's what it looked like, after a fantastic lecture by some fellow peace corps volunteers, we went to the site. The farm is on a steep slope area with lots of rocks, but this particular guy has really taken the initiative to try new techniques, they use contour lines, leguminous plants and trees, herbs, use coffee planting techniques, but it was the enthusiasm that was great, and the scenery was great. We have some digital pictures, since we just bought a digital camera, but we have to download them somewhere first. Anyways it was truly beautiful and exciting, unfortunately as we were coming to a small stream to cross, one of our fellow permaculturists slid a little and placed his hand on a palm tree that has large one inch spines all over the trunk, needless to say it looked painful.

16 August 2002

Hello all and welcome to the life that we live, when we last left russ and Kate had just become true volunteers, with all the pomp and fanfare that you would want to send you on your way. So now then ok, on Saturday the 3rd of August we headed out for a couple days to the shores of the pacific ocean, a place called santa clara, a place that for 5-8$ per night you can stay in a Cabana on the beach and drink beer while the sunset happens to the west. But first we had to get our 70lbs of things to where we wanted to go. The bus system here is amazing, our friend Abdiel at the Hostel in Panama City was very kind and packed all of our bags into a van and went to the huge bus station called The Terminal, Kate and I took a cab for the 1.50 (or so we thought, we had a small dispute with the cab driver about the price, and he wouldnt take pennies or let us count back the change and then threatened to call the cops, in which case we decided it wasnt worth the 25 cents extra to fight about it). So then we looked for the infamous incomienda, which is a place at the station where you pay money and they send your stuff to a bus station hoe fully near your site, we didn't want to carry our 70 lbs of stuff each to the beach for three days. The first place led us astray in the bus station and said you had to where the tickets were bought, we asked them then and they said that the only station was in David, for us near there. We grumbled and went to tell everyone else, but when we got back and after I accidentally broke a guys truck mirror (it was barely on there anyways), lo and behold there was a Giant sign where we had bee all along that said encomiendas and with all these city names that they delivered to. As it seems in Panama many times if you ask they tell something, but rarely the right thing. So our journey took us to Santa Clara where we had a fine time lounging and laughing. That all ended as the nervous anticipation built up between us. On the last morning we encountered a man who apparently was the worst waiter ever and didn't understand any apparent language, but oh well so it goes. The best memory I have now of Santa Clara is the small sand crabs that would come out at night and I would chase them around in the sun, idiocy, lunacy, but just plain fun, a new sport it could be.

So we left that day and packed our bags and sat at the bus station waiting for our busses to take us away. I wont drome on but Ill highlight some events.

1.Successfully convinced the bus guy of the correct price

2. We successfully bargained our house down in price from a 100 per month to 80, its a 3 bedroom, kitchen, dining room, living room , large balcony, huge yard (now with contours), car port , indoor plumbing, and all concrete and dirt.

3. Talked spanish and visited people in the community.

4. Worked in a Granja for three days with the promotores and talked about agriculture

5. Helped explain compost

6. Worked on our house (contours and a house plan)

7. Eat with a family

8. Sleep in a bed with pillows

9. I sang at a school dance with over two hundred people staring, it was like the 50s school dance scene in the Gymnasium.

10. Teaching some more compost stuff on Sat.

We have been in Tole for a little over a week now and it feels like we have talked to a million people and done lots, but even some times its really strange, like living in a fog that you can some times hear through and understand, and other times not. Spanish is amazing and frustrating and of course Kate is better than I at it, but we sputter along and I think even make sense most of the time now.

13 September 2002

Poop, Stingers, and Fungus all in the Flash of a Blade.

So we have survived the first 35 days here on our own in Tole. A nice town it is with a mostly Latino population and a slight percentage of the indigenous Ngabe peoples. The title that I have aforementioned is in homage to our beginnings here in Tole. It is not by far the smallest, most disgusting, unreachable site that we know of, in fact its quite large with a large mix of different types of people, some with power and others not with power. However the site along with its largeness of course comes with its quirks and difficulties. However as always, with those quirks and difficulties there are those small triumphs which let you know why you are here, and of course to make you feel better.

Kate and Russ.

Triumph 1

Our organic slash permaculture project slash public relations project i going well I think. Kate and I as some of you may know love to garden. unfortunately in our past life of Houghton MI, as Eskimos we were not benefited with the opportunity of using our green thumbs, for alas they were always frozen. But now we are blessed with at least 5 hours of rain a day. In our neighborhood "Portugal" we are known as muy fuerte tabajadores (very hard workers), as we are always sweating and grunting in our strangled spanish. The yard slash finca is sloped, in which we have made contour lines, for those of you who don't know , its those wavy brown lines on maps that are the height of the land above sea level. We used a device called an A frame, which is essentially 2 long poles of equal length with a cross bar forming an A, and then with a line in the middle, it acts as a level of sorts since the 2 sides are even, so the line falls in the middle when they are on even ground. Very interesting I'm sure but quite useful when that's all you have. Using the ultimate tool, the machete, we hacked down branches to use as stakes for the lines, don't worry the branches grow back, and the stakes start to grow and provide nitrogen in the soil. The second part of our area project is to obtain materials for good soil. Ironically everyone here goes to the river to collect that black gold (suelo negro), rich in nutrients, form, organic matter, and unfortunately their former soil from their grassless, bare clay soil yards. So we are in the process of making and helping our soil better. The plan with all this work in the yard is to grab people as they gawk and ask what were doing and garble at them and with them about what were doing and who we are, its a good way to gain a little credibility and know your neighbors, the other day a little old guy up the hill gave us Lemon grass which is really good for soil erosion and a really good tea. So in order to create our soil we need supplies ---- soil, dry leaves, green leaves from trees with bean pods, sawdust, eggshells, fruit husks, and the main guy poop, I would use the other word but I am trying to remain somewhat respectful. So yes we need poop and lots of it, but you don't go buy that stuff, here, in fact any of it. You go and get. Entones Kate and I take a borrowed wheel barrel, shovel, and slap on our sandals, then go out to the roads, the fields, and the pastures and collect the stuff. There is a lot of horse poop and cow poop here, its a cow town. People stare at us in this activity the most heavily, so we always tell them its for our compost and abono (fertilizer), they always know its for abono, and exclaim that we will have a great garden with the stuff, but we rarely see people collecting it here, I think they all have horses. We obtain the other things from our yard and neighbors, the sawdust is produced by four wood workers here that make doors and other items, they would just burn the sawdust otherwise. We have also constructed a fence for the garden from 35 ft pi

Triumph 2

I have a small fungus Its in my toe It rains every day and makes it grow So I cut it off with my knife you know put some cream on it and don't you know its leaving, its dying, goodbye.

Triumph 3

I am the greatest scorpion killer ever, with a flash of my blade I have killed the mighty beast with, smitten by the hand of a mountain. I saved my fair princess, and now everything is ok. ( They were smaller than my pinkie finger, maybe an inch)

Triumph 4

Its actually 2, I read a 350 page book in one day, and cut out the tops of thirty aluminum cans with my swiss army knife (thanks Blair) to use as planters.

So what are we actually doing?

Well in one month its hard to know, we've been to the beach, read books, worked in a Farm, in the school, at our house. we usually wake up and make coffee and plan our day, and perhaps do what we planned. Visiting people usually takes 2 hours, we get lots of peace corps guests here. The other day some of the engineers came to look at the rice tanks and fish tank at the Granja and we talked about plants for erosion, what to feed goats, and how to make tomato plant cuttings. We are diligently preparing for the dry season with our yard, which starts in 3 months, it might completely flop, but I hope not. We had our 6 month anniversary here and made ourselves spaghetti with bugs removed and garlic with onion and a cold 6 pack of atlas beer. So thanks for the letters and keep writing.

1 October 2002

Well things sure change quickly, we are moving now, to a place called Quebrada Tula in Bocas del Toro in the NW part of Panama, The city we live in is not for us anymore. The centro missional that had the Granja who which asked peacecorps to be there has said that they don't want peace corps any longer, so we are moving into another town very far but with another volunteer which we know. We have been there and really like the place, its a 5 hour wood boat ride through part of the Caribbean and up a river and then a hike through mud higher than our boots and across a river, grueling but fun and there. Its very quiet as are the people, we are still going to be working with the Ngabe, so we have been running around the country getting are things together and figuring out exactly what is happening (things that are due are coming in the next couple of days Blair), so things are changing but for the better, in the next email Ill update on activities in the community. Its a small community with mostly banana plantations and a very wet environment, all the houses are on stilts, no electricity. Were excited and actually much happier with the turn of events, we wanted to go there in the first place and now we have our wish.

21 October 2002

News flash we live in yet another new town which is really close to the other town. We are moving to small pueblo of chalite, which is in bocas del toro off the Guariviara river. Things have been settling down now that we know where we are going. For the past two weeks we have been settling down and now we are moving into our town. Its a small town of about 300 people at the most with a small school and a small community farm, the people are quite now, and seem interested. The area really reminds me of when I was younger and adventuring through the woods alone with my little knife, only now were grownups right. Sometimes its so easy to be here, especially where our new site is. You make the rules, you eat and do what you need to do. We have done a tremendous amount of walking, about 14 hours in the last two weeks, through mud and creeks, and rivers. Its funny because a stroll too your neighboring town is two hours of sweat and excitement. We wear these plastic boots here that if you wear them without socks you get blisters, which I have, many times we have to get out and push the boat, we killed a spider in the latrine the other night that was as big as my hand, we eat bananas and yuca and rice, as if it were normal now. I have to say that allowing your self to be ok with yourself here, even though language and cultural differences are huge, its slow, but you wait, and you read, and you talk to people, you write, you learn. We went crawdad hunting the other day and made some bamboo stuff (not good stuff, but stuff), kate went coffee harvesting, we cut bananas and Cacao from the trees. Its almost three months into our service, and were new in our community, but its exciting, we get to learn Ngabe, a fun but hard language. There is promise to hopefully do something that people can keep in their hearts and minds at least and maybe some more food and organization, there's now two of us, when they asked for one, so there's twice as much info and experience. I have to say the strangest part of it all is coming into the city of David and Panama. Its harsh in those places, cold, not like the other place. Such a disparity here, just like in the states, but oh som much more visible here, people starving, while other people are driving brand new cars. I think the next 6 months here are going to be some the best and hardest of our lives.

2 January 2003

I am still described as an agro-forestry extension agent. In the town of Chalite it is a mostly indigenous community of the group Ngabe-Bugle. I have been assigned to work with the community as an extension agent and specifically to the granja project. The granja (small farm) project is a governmental program that finds communities that have formed a group and gives supports to the community farm over the period of 10 years. The organization is called Patronato de Nutricion which is a sub agency of the MIDA, which is the USDA of Panama. First I will explain what I know so far how the program works.

Patronato de Nutricion is a government agency that has been set up by the government of Panama. The program is not a sustainable farm program however; it is first and foremost a food program that uses a farm system to grow food within the community. The agency finds communities that have shown interest and have organized a group to ask for help. Many times the agency is asked by someone who knows someone. For example I was told that our program was recommended because the boss of the town is known to have a lot of agricultural knowledge. Once the community has been identified they are to plan a plan of action over the ten year period. They then draw up a contract of what the people say they are going to do. I think that first they must obtain the land, and then a budget is drawn up for the granja of that area. Then for the first year they are given an incentive to work as a group by giving them crema (a kind of fortified cereal) for the families that work in the granja. In the town of Chalite they have 15 families, of which I have the names.

The goal of the project is to give the group an opportunity to build a sustainable farm that will feed them, with support such as tools, equipment, extension, seeds, and they may ask for supplies to support the approved projects. The granja in Chalite currently has several projects. Chickens for eggs (ponedoras), chickens for meat, pig project, duck ponds, fish ponds, rice tanks, bananas, and the usual plants of Yuca (cassava), and dacheen (type of Tarot root). They are trying to use the pig's excrement to feed the fish, which the water goes to the duck pond, and then the duck pond is drained, into the rice tanks when it is time. But the system doesn't really work that way, as there is minimal extension work after that.

My work there has so far been to work there 2 days a week with the group. Activities have varied from weeding large areas of the granja with machetes, to planting new rice in the rice tanks, harvesting the rice, and maintenance of the pig. Most of the extension work is getting to know the people that work on the farm. Right now it is usually women and children, because in the bylaws of the Patronato contract only a family member has to be present working and on time. I have worked with the president and the secretary of the granja cooperative extensively about how to organize, and plan for the future. We have discussed many projects that they want to do, and my job right now is to work with them to get most of the materials within the community to the resources that they need. For example we wrote a letter with the granja president... It was the first time he had written a letter, especially since there is a particular way in which you must write the letter. You start of with salutations and explain who you are and then at the end ask for what you want. He was very nervous, but it worked. We are working on getting mapping done for the granja to identify resources that they have. This is part of the farm planning idea, which is part of our program.

We have been working with green manures for the first time and identifying leguminous trees, and trying to explain the process. We have planted "Macuna" which is a green manure cover crop. We had a short session on the uses as a cover crop, green manure, and soil conservation. We are also trying to work with canavalia, which is like the macuna plant but less viny. It seems to grow well in the wet soils and climate. I am trying to introduce "balo" Glyrcidia spp.. They use the stakes as live fencing and as fodder for cattle, but I am trying to push the use within the granja, they are interested because they can feed the pigs and use the leaves for an organic repellent.

Another part of granja is to work with the Patronato workers that come every month to deliver the supplies for the granja, and the food, that they receive.


I have started a mini library of agriculture materials in our house. I inherited a lot of material from two volunteers before us in Tole. Most of the material is in Spanish as I mentioned in my last report. I lend out papers and books right now and write their name done. The idea is to build up interest and I can make free copies and give them to an area at the school or the casa communal (community meeting center), that way people in the community would have access. It's not very sustainable, but some people I have talked to really want to educate their children, so I figure if a few people use it, it'll be good. I'm trying to contact "SABER" which is an organization that donates books and school supplies. I have also contacted my high school reunion to donate note books and pens. Again not sustainable, but right now where we are there is a small school with three teachers, with 89 students.

Hiking Out of Town.

As we are always looking for adventure, Kate and I decided to walk out of our site. As we are located 2 hours up a river and then 2 more across the ocean we decided to see of we could walk out. We have heard before that you can walk out in about 6-8 hours, because there is a new road that was cut through the mountains, but not yet paved. So on Friday we asked a friend of ours in the community about how to get to the new road, oh its easy he said, you just go across the river, follow it up go right and your there at the beginning of the road. Well we left at 7:30 am in the morning and didn't find the road till 12:30 p. We crossed the river and followed it up a little till we hit a spot where we had to go farther inland, so we were trying to follow the trails, which of course we sufficiently got lost. In fact we even came back to the same place that we started. So the second time we used our compass and cut a line west, towards what we thought was the way to the road.

So after 4 hours of following little trails, losing the trail in cacao groves, wandering through banana plantations, and just getting plain lost, panic was trying to take hold. It was raining, it was cloudy, we were in the middle of the forest, and we couldn't see and had lost total sense of where we were. So after finally getting in the middle of the forest with no path we decided to turn back. But oh we were lost, we thought to ourselves, we could eat bananas of dacheen, but we didn't want that, were we going to find our way out.

Kate had already fell of a wet log once, the ground was slippery, and it was muddy. Then we heard a sound an (ohhhh), it's a call that we use called a saloma, we called back ohooohaa. They answered back, it was the first person we had heard or seen in 4 hours. We found them I said "Ma da Blite espanol" do you speak Spanish. They said yes, we asked where the road was, the big road, not the trails. He said we just follow the road that way. It's assumed here you know where things are, so they just point. So we followed the trail, until we hit a large trail we had been on before, we said which way to ourselves and decided that the best way would be to go the opposite way, so we went and went. It felt so many times like it was the same lost trail. Then we came to a large log, 6 feet above the water, its raining, and its slick. I cross and wait for Kate, she inches across, and ohhhhh splash, she's in the water, gone under, I dash across the log with my stick, she yelling, I tell her to grab the stick that I have, she grabs it, I almost go in, she gets it again and I pull her to the side and help her up. She almost lost her glasses, we don't know where we are, and we're scared. Then as we hit a T in the trail I see a large blue thing. That can only mean one thing, it's a school, and all the roofs are blue here when it's a school.

We discover that the town is Centro Daira 2, we have never been here but we want to know where the road is, they tall us to follow the trail straight, we say straight, they say straight. We follow and come to a river, where to go, we see people behind us, they are nice and we tell them what we're doing, he points us the way all the way to the trail but we're still unsure about it, but we have hope, we cant go back now, we're around people. We have figured out that directions here are implied, not told. So we go and we go on the trail, where are we? The skies begin to clear, we can see, we run upon a man, where is Canada, the place where the road begins, oh circita, close he says. Sure we say to ourselves, but amazingly we come to the town in 3 minutes. Instantly we're met by a man who invites us to his house, he wants us to visit, we're tired and hungry, and we have at least 5 hours more we think. He feeds us Pifa and gives us a tart banana drink. We traded him seeds, its sunny and we can now see the road, he leads us to the road now we have made it, now its easy walking from here. I could tell you the rest of the story that we had actually 7 hours more and walked in the dark, and the road had caved in, and we were severely harassed by dogs, but Ill leave you with this picture, because at this moment, life was perfect and just.


26 February 2003

So life goes on in Chalite. I played some baseball the other day and hit some home runs and all the kids laughed, nothing like playing in a swamp. We have been continuing our work. Kate teaches English still and I don't. we still work at the sustainable farm, mostly machete work, but we have planted some green manures and other beans. I built a babu table and cut myself pretty bad one day, but it healed in a week and a half. Then I got bitten by a spider more than half the size of my hand, but it wasn't poisonous. Most days are calm and hot, and we always hope for rain to cool the weather down. We built a worm bin and have a small bambu planting box that we put our finished compost in to plant. I plan on building a small nursery as an example soon, since I have every seed that I have come across. So we keep busy if we want and if we don't, I lay in the hammock and read a book.

Reading is actually always an exercise in patience and the willingness to talk a lot to others of our community. I read in the rancho behind our house in the hammock which is located right near the small bridge that everyone uses to enter the center part of the community, so people always pass by. I like it though, for 6th grade educations I have had some fantastic conversations. From politics to why are people racist.

I continue to assist Kate with the SPA grant proposal which might not be anymore, were going to have to use another program called GLOBE, which finds big donations across the world. Its been a fun process with all the meetings in the community. Lots of laughing and bad math.

So I often find myself asking why do I do this, and then I go on a walk and its silent, or we have a good meeting, or I get off my tush and build something, or read a great book, or just sit and think, or have a successful brief conversation in Ngabe. Or for that matter a good conversation in Spanish. Plus its always green where were at, and I can always take a 2 hour walk to our nearest neighbor, through the Banana fields and cow fields and mountains and rivers. And then I think I'm here because I want to be, and that's reason enough, because I like the struggle of trying to understand.

We have composting latrines in our site, and the people don't use them because they would rather use the river. People are constantly saying that they need to use these to save their environment. Well they were built 10 years ago by an agency that came in and said that you need these with no instructions, so now they are used as storage areas. Another fine example of not asking or educating and just giving.

[Editor's note: Somethings never change. The following is from Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle by Moritz Thomsen, published in 1969.

"Volunteer Y leaves behind him an endless string of latrines stretching from here to the far horizon, none of them ever used, if the truth were known, except for storing corn, but proudly exhibited by their owners as glistening symbols of status and the open mind."


So we are living well with our cat mixtli (Dark Cloud), and have made some lifetime friends here, we have also got our hands on a CD burned and will now be able to send pics more often if you want of course.

Oh yeah I wanted to say something about time here. It seems that where we live there is a slowing down of time, now I have heard of this phenomena, and am truly experiencing it. I even walk slower now, its about tomorrow, but it holds keys to surprise. We gave a seminario about composts and green manures two months ago, and we made a compost with the people. So Just as we were leaving for a seminar they say to me at the farm "Chodi Ti du ni bi noayne compost, caundo tu regressas", its a mix of Ngabe and Spanish that says (Chodi, when you get back we are going to make a big compost and Bokachi), its a thrilling feeling I tell you. Oh by the way I have three names here (Russell (Roosell), Pablo (Spanish), Chodi (Ngabe).

March 2003

I continue to work in the Granja with the gente. Things as always seem to move slowly, however it has become easier to accept this fact of life there. In the granja we work on the same things, I am finally attaching my list of activities.

We had harvested the rice in July and now we are cleaning out the tanks. They are using two methods, one is to cut the stalks off, and then pull out the roots, the other is to just pull it out in full. They are not yet using the left over rice plant parts as organic matter, however we have talked about using those types of things more effectively since they have had problems with rive development.

It is now the dry season so we prepared another area for the new seeds of rice. They use a poison to scare off the birds, and to kill them of course. We do a lot of Machete work lately to "clean the granja". This means make everything look nice, but it is understandable since everything grows so fast there. So we weeded around the Taro Root, Platano, and around the rice tanks.

Some of the beans that I planted have done all right. The wild mung bean gave seeds and produced an edible tuber that we talked about, whether they use it or not, who knows, at least they tried. Also the canavalia and the macuna are doing well. Hopefully the macuna will take over the area so that we can turn it into the soil.

One successful aspect is that we have changed the spacing finally to the spacing of 25 cm, which hopefully will reduce weeds and double the harvest. However we really need to work on getting organic compost to use. They use the water from the duck and fish ponds however there is only 2 ducks and not many fish. They did receive three new pigs. They have left the Balo stakes to grow, and I have planted more. I have been told finally that they now want to make a giant compost area in the chicken pen that they aren't using.

We are continuing to work in Pueblo Nuevo also at the Proyecto Ngabe-Bugle house. So we have planted tomatoes, beans, cabbage, and carrots. We have seriously talked about designing a farm to produce seeds for surrounding communities.

"my brave Husband crossing our river (Rio Guadiviara) after an incounter with a yellowback snake, poisonous, though he didn´t get hurt. Notice the trusty machete, this is the one we call the kitchen knife, our others we use to mow the lawn and work in the yard run the length from my mid hip to the ground." (photo caption by Kate)

Late June email.

And how is there, where ever you are in the world. We're doing fairly well here in the sweltering heat of the Caribbean.

As always life seems so uninteresting at moments when your doing it, and then when you take a moment to take a peek from the outside, you go, oh my that really was interesting. Be it where ever you are. Right now I am sitting in a high tech, internet cafe that serves drinks and what not, with air conditioning, and then tomorrow I will be going home, to no electricity and kids without shoes. Such an amazing contrast here.

Work has be quite forthcoming as of late. We are working on family gardens, a school garden, the farm, and various other things. Dealing with government institutions is an exercise in patience and perseverance, as we wait a lot and re-strategize. We're still continuing the community house project and trying to get funding to fix the water system. Though the thing is of course we can't just get money and give these things, because then there is no real community investment, so much of it is working with them to give them the skills to solicit help.

I am all better now, no cuts, no infections, nothing to speak of that is dangerous. It actually scares me sometimes that I work with a sword a lot, but I have become quite good at it, and I mow (chop) our lawn about every two weeks with it. I give thanks to all the seeds that have been sent. We are trying them to see if they work. A lot of them probably wont because they wont be pollinated, which is a big problem here, but I suppose its natures way of saying not here.

Were now starting on the process of building a new rancho ( back house) that will be raised off the ground and will be our open visiting area where I can play guitar for the kids, and we can talk. I really enjoy our talks now. Its a different perspective of simplicity, and complexity. They are definitely not stupid, but I believe sometimes they have been really misled, as we have.

I now have a fishing spear, though I haven't used it yet, its really cool. Its made out of the wood of a palm tree, and then you put surgical tubing on the handle and tie it. Then you stretch it forward in your hand and let fly. What fun, it feels like I'm ten a lot now. Cause I play a lot.

The other day at a friends site they had a fair, which was fun. The team of the town that three of us played on won the baseball tournament (3 teams). But it was so much fun. I have never played fast pitch in my life, but I got a hit. Then we hung out with some people that our friend new and drank chicha fuerte (corn beer). It felt so good to sit and talk in Ngabe and Spanish to these old women at the shop, laughing and having a good time.

Of course things aren't always dandy, but they sure a lot more dandy than not. So then stay well all and have fun. I can't believe its been over a year.

23 June 2003

It's a short story because life seems fairly normal most of the time. But, I will never ever forget the time when we were working in the School Garden and we're working away and all of a sudden 15 small children, barefoot and with machetes in hand take off after two rats. They are swinging them wildly, and falling on each other, and all we can do is stare in horror and hope no one cuts themselves. I look at the teacher, and she looks horrified. I say that our parents would have heart attacks if they saw that. She says hers to, and we all laugh.

Life is not different here because of things, but because of the things we do to live. Our cat Mixtli is too well fed. One day Kate walked into our room and a rat was happily munching away on the dog food that we get for the cat. Kate screams, and gets the cat and throws it at the rat. The cat, hits it a couple times and then walks off. So I get my machete and take chase. A life it is.

4 October 2003

So life continues here in Bocas del Toro at a rapid pace (hah), but it continues. Actually we only have 10 months to go and I'm just starting to get used to it here, language, culture, and the tranquilo living. But as always it's a ride. Speaking of rides we came into a bit of trouble right when we got back and while we were in the Bay on the way to our site in the wooden boat with 15 hp motor and the food for the school, the motor decides to break off the back of the boat into the ocean, the man panics and yells Ayudame (Help me), luckily the motor is dangling about 5 feet under the water by a rope that I and the other man in the boat pull to the side and lift into the boat. That gets your heart pumping. We rowed for about three hours and vivaciously a man on the beach that we reached knew exactly what to do and fixed everything for a one lb packet of sugar and a cigarette. So we made it home right before dark. Then we got to carry really heavy bags of food to the! e school.

As for the community, everyone has this flu thing, and two more cases of Malaria, thank goodness we take our medicine. But another child did die, it's so hard to hear and see that, 2 in three months now, I hope no more, life is pretty settled down other than that. I feel comfortable talking with people and have tried to just let happen what will happen.

As for work I have been working twice a week in the farm in our community trying to implement and give information on better techniques. Kate and I did a small area of contour lines planted with green manures and trees. Our school garden is being restarted after it was accidentally sprayed by roundup. Our experimental plots with green manures (those who don't know green manure, its a plant that gives Nitrogen to the soil) have produced three types of plants that the people I think are generally interested in, also we have started having a class for the Ngabe language on Thursdays. Kate's project proposal was approved which was a great gob of paper work so now we wait for funds to be contributed (hint hint). Our worm bins is about to produce another 50 lbs of black gold and our garden is producing hot peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, and just maybe watermelon. In our raised bed we have been harvesting lettuce now for the last three weeks along with cucumbers, I love my gar! den.

You know when we were back people would ask well what do you do? And there are so many ways to answer that question.

1. We have 7 main projects

Casa comunal
Sustainable Farm Work
English Class
School Garden
Household Gardens (not many)
Experimental Beds
Give technical and community workshops

2. We try to find what the community wants to do and help them do it for themselves.

3. We live there, eat there, play there, cry there, love there, learn there.

What I guess I wanted to say was that we're not here to teach them how to be better human beings, were not here to really teach but to give willingly and share ourselves without cost and try to inspire hope that they can create their lives in the way that they want to.

13 October 2003 (excerpts from the quarterly report)

- cleaned area for café

We cleaned out a new area for the cafe plants that we are going to plant. The farm will be buying the trees from a farmer here in town that built a small nursery for the cafe. As we were chopping down the acre area, we did try to keep the woody species that were usable, for shade and for wood.

- everyone's sick

There has actually been an outbreak of 20 cases of malaria and everyone has had a bad fever, so work has been slow here.

- School Garden: successes and failures (beans and corn, organic repellent)

We have continued to work with the school garden project. We haven't had much cooperation with the Padres de la familia (Parent Group), but the kids have gained some interest. We ended up with 6 (1m X 5m) raised beds, an area with corn, beans, and yucca (Cassava), where we tried intercropping. The corn didn't grow so hot but the black eyed peas with the bug problems did really well and had good growth.

We tried an organic repellent but no success, used garlic, and hot peppers. I think that there is so much rain that we need a really good pegador (sticks to the plant), they say to use soap but we want to use some of the Aloe Vera that we have. The canavalia (green manure) has done fairly well around the area also. The rainy months are coming and we plan on planting canavalia over the beds as a cover and in January when there is less rain cutting the canavalia and incorporating it into the soil. We're also planning on using the 10 beds that we prepared for the experimental garden, since they have had the green manures growing in them.

- 3 dead children of unknown causes
in the last 4 months 3 have died and no one knows what it is.

Well not that we can speak well in Ngabe, but the other day grandma came in our house, sat down and talked to us. And we actually communicated. We talked about how she had been sick for 4 weeks, and that they sang pretty, and I play guitar pretty. They put a high standard on making music. That was a great feeling and it made me glad to be there.

15 December 2003 - excerpts from the quarterly report.

Over the past three months there have been some big ups and downs with the farm. The chicken coops were fixed, but they're not being fed adequately to produce eggs, and so they are not selling anything. The chickens for meat have all been eaten. The bananas are in bad shape, as they have been affected by worms. The piñas were sprayed, and looked good, but now they are over run with weeds. Most if not all of the dasheen has been harvested and not replanted.

However there has been new movement with regards to garden planting and the rice. Kate and I started by our selves and took a piece of the farm, made some contours with an A-frame, and planted Canavalia as a seed source (about 200-300 seeds) and area to plant corn. Its growing well and shading out the weeds. Also started a seed area for the Sesbania rostrata. We planted the 500 seeds we got from the experimental garden, and planted them in the granja to produce enough seed for a rice tank and another seed bed.
They also constructed a new area for the rice seed bed that is better protected from birds and animals. We started the beds for the seeds that Patronato brought, it was mostly Kate, I, and Jose who made the 10 beds. We planted green beans, cucumber, and tomato, also built a large raised bamboo seed bed. Just harvested 3 lbs of beans and 5 pounds of cucumber. Not much, but it is the first time that many have eaten either. Also the other day I finally got them to really change their rice planting spacing. I went out there with this map I drew, with a chart of different amounts of plants for different spacing, and expected harvests. I convinced them for the first tank that they were losing almost 700 plants by not using recommended spacing of 25c x 25cm. But then in their typical way they had already set up the stakes to plant, couldn't take the next 5 minutes to re-stake, however luck interceded and the tank had too much water and they had to move to the bigger tank, in which they gained 1200 more plants or, 3 more sacks of rice. The next step is to get them to give the right increments of fertilizer.

Kate and I also gave a short talk on chemical herbicide and insecticide safety.

There has been a lot of sickness as of late and they didn't work for 2 weeks. The main guy Jose also mourned his granddaughter's death for a month.

March 2004

I just wanted to tell you about our x-mas that we spent there in Chalite. It was quite interesting. Since we figured that it was going to be our last one we wanted to do something fun for the community. The first night we spent playing music outside of the cooking house and talking. Eventually the Chicha fuerte came out (corn liquor) and I had a little bit. The funny part was the woman had started cooking some chickens at about 5p and didn't get done till 11p, apparently they had gotten quite inebriated themselves.

The next day on x-mas day we had a huge earthquake at 6.6. I had screamed at the top of my lungs in my drowsy state to stop shaking the house (in English), and then the next day we got the beeper message that we had to call the office immediately so that they would know that we were ok. Of course that means a 2 hour walk to a phone that might not work plus another 2 hour walk back. Ahh a merry Christmas. So we got up and did it. We got back at about 5p and threw our little party. Kate cut up papers so it would be like snow which the kids loved. Kate read a rendition of "How the Grinch Stole Xmas" and "The night before xmas" in Spanish, we also gave out candy. Then I played music and little wrappers were flung everywhere like confetti.

Our ranch was partially fallen down when I got home the other day. Then I tried to get it to fall down, and oh did I, it fell on my head. Luckily I was not hurt, since my head just went through the palm thatch and missed the solid wood. They weren't really concerned for my safety, just that the family would recover the wood that was still viable.

27 July 2004 (Excerpts from quarterly report)

Family Gardens

26 of March 2004 - Activity #4 Managing your Garden
For this activity we mainly walked around to other peoples gardens that they had made and discussed problems and succesess. We used the book that we gave each team to give homework for later and to also look in the reading material to see that the same things that we talked about were also in the book. We discussed weeding, insects, fungus, and drainage, and I was so elated to see that they had done great things on their gardens.
June 14 - 3rd Judging -
Due to miscalculation of time we were not able to give one of the seminars on organic repellants. But since we have another volunteer here, he will be able to do it. We went out with the new volunteer and looked at everyones garden and gave them points. It was a good feeling to see that some of teh contestants were trying and succeeding.

June 21 - This was the final day in which we gave out the prizes. We decided to let everyone choose a prize since there were 7 prizes and seven different teams. It was amazing to see what they picked verus what we had chosen to give.

We Picked
Large Pick
Small Pick
Large Shovel
Small shovel

They Picked
Large Shovel
Small shovel
Large Pick
Small Pick

We talked about their enthusiasm and the importance of reading the material, because then they dont have to wait for help. We also gave a small demonstration of how to take out seeds of cucumber and tomate, and how to dry and store them to use again.

Overall all I can say that with all of the contestants we gave alot of seeds away, but they planted them, also there were alot of raised beds made. The main success that we had was the fact that they would come and ask for our help and ask questions. In this way we were all learning together. I hope now that they can focus on the things that worked. The women seemed to have more interest in these methods and I think they will use them for their beloved culantro (which I dislike greatly).

School Garden

We have used the school garden area to give the seminars for the competion, so some stuff was started. However, we gave the new teachers a Organic Garden book. One of the teachers is very motivated and I believe followed our lead and ened up making over 20 beds, transplanting the tomatoes that we had started and planting cucumber seeds. He was also planting Canavalia around the area. But it was unmanaged. Not all can be blamed, there was as usual alot of rainfall at odd moments.

Panama Information:

Information on the web.

Apples in Central Asia: the project Russ put together for FW5710: Trees in Agricultural Systems.

Back to the Michigan Tech Peace Corps page.

Page created 28 June 2002.

Updated: 27 July 2004.

Page created and maintained by Blair Orr.