Hello my dearest friends and readers –
I moved my blog to the more grown-up url of jessicarudder.wordpress.com. I have finally overcome that silly preference for privacy and internet anonymity. Internet- come find me!
Unfortunately, this means that you have to sign up again to receive email updates — sorry about that! It took me months to figure out how to transfer everything so just humor me and re-subscribe!
Muchachos [moo-chah-cho] are teenagers.
I’m often surprised by how teenagers in the Comarca act similar to teenagers in the states: exaggerated hair and clothing styles, an obsession with music and pop culture, and a constant preoccupation with the opposite sex. If I run into a teenager I know at the high school, they usually put on a ‘too cool for school’ attitude that reminds me of myself when I was younger and snobbier. But, if I see them at home then they are all love and smiles. It makes me feel like a dorky aunt trumping around the high school where I don’t belong.
This, needless to say, is part of the reason that I don’t work much in the high school. I was once a hormone-driven, evil teenager and now I have a healthy fear of them. I give respect to volunteers who work with teenagers as their primary project. But, it does often come at the cost of working with the wider community, which was my priority.
Despite my resistance to trailblazing in the hormone jungle of the High School in Chichica, I have managed to spend time with the species in their natural habitat at home and can therefore analyze them with a curious, yet objective eye.
Photos: My favorite muchachos ready for a parade. Left: Lucho (short for Louis) poses in his band uniform. Right: Albania (in front) poses with a gaggle of girls before the parade… I think they are baton-twirlers.
Most muchachos don’t have jobs but are nonetheless the apple of their parents’ economic eye. To incentivize attendance beyond primary school, the government offers a “Universal Scholarship” of $20.00/month to all students (well, most students – some slip through the bureaucratic cracks), who achieve a certain grade point average. This direct payment is intended to cover transport, school uniforms, and supplies.
While it seems to do a good job keeping kids in school, it is dubious whether it is enough to cover all costs incurred in the process of going to school. One the one side, teachers and administrators use it as an excuse to demand students to have very specific supplies (ex. colored pencils and poster board) and make photocopies of homework. On the other side, parents need to use the additional funds to pay for transport and cover additional food costs to keep up nutrition. In elementary school, students get a calorie-packed cornmeal snack during the day to decrease hunger. High school students do not.
Chichica high school serves a wide area. Many students have to walk up to 1.5 hours and then hop on a truck transport to arrive at school on time, which is usually $0.25 each way, or $0.50 per day. At the end of the week, it adds up to $2.50, totally $10 by the end of the month (provided that they go to school every day). That is half of the monthly allotment. It is easy to see how students in this situation may struggle more than their counterparts who were lucky enough to be born within a reasonable distance of secondary education. Those who live close enough to walk or choose to walk save that $0.50, which they can use on consuming throughout the day (such as on crackers or ice cream). For many reasons, the farther you live from the road, the more you have to fight to get by.
As usual, no blog update is complete these days without mention of how everything around here is changing. Recently, the government gave every high school student in the country one of those cheap $200.00 laptops (produced in Spain ….) and then hooked up the high school to free internet. Within hours most muchachos had created a facebook page (I have a looming list of friend requests to prove it) and figured out how to download music illegally. Aw, the power of information. I’m sure that those laptops are being put to pedagogical use behind the walls of the high school, but I haven’t ventured to find out.
My initial inclination was to sigh and comment that this whole situation smells like government paternalism. In many ways it does. But, if we analyze it differently, it really isn’t so bad. The goal of the government in this area has been to maximize education in the face of some serious obstacles – namely rough mountain terrain with little road access and no electricity. Arguably, building roads and schools is a long-term investment that does little for the current generation. Instead, the government focused on patch-work solutions that give this generation the chance to be more competitive against their city-dwelling, electricity-consuming counterparts. Given that many students here will graduate from high school and move to the city to find work during their twenties, these programs might actually make a big difference in the medium-term.
Places with even tougher access than Chichica (which is pretty mild compared to other volunteer sites) are seeing students in their communities with laptops and internet as well. The furthest I’ve heard is a place on the other side of the Comarca with requires a 1 hour boat ride on the ocean, a 3 hour boat ride up-river, and a 20 minute walk. No cell service, no running water, no electricity, but there’s internet!
Taking advantage of a new economic opportunity, many small stores and families with solar panels have put up signs that read “Laptop charging – $1.00.” Just another expense that families will have to take into account in their already meager budgets.
I’ve written many-a-blogs dedicated to the theme of food and farming here in the Comarca. But, food and eating is the foundation of the culture and central to every-day thinking that it is worth meditating on in several times. Sharing meals with a family is the quickest way that I can prove that I’m not just some chump foreigner. I’ve recently been learning and reading a lot more about the impact of local diets on overall health, whether in the context of the ‘Go Local’ movement in the US or as means to understand the way diets impact chronic diseases.
The most in-depth, yet straight-forward book I’ve read on this matter is a book called “The Jungle Effect” which examines people and their diets in certain parts of the world that have low instances of modern diseases. The author focuses on how diabetes, heart disease, depression, bowel trouble, and prostate and breast cancers are impacted by diet. In summary, she found that diets rich in whole foods (i.e. straight from the earth, unprocessed), omega-3 fats, slow-release whole grains, and high-nutrient, low-calorie spices, vegetables, and leafy greens, can ward off modern diseases.
Photo: A little bit of old and new: Freshly killed turkey, rice, guandu beans, potato and carrot salad (with mayonase), and a corn juice on the side.
I took particular interest in the chapter about the Tarahumara Indians of Copper Canyon, in Northern Mexico because their diet was quite similar to traditional foods found in the Comarca. Copper Canyon was highlighted as an area with a notably low incidence of diabetes thanks to a diet that emphasizes the ‘three sisters’ staples: squash, beans, and corn. All are ingredients that Comarqueños also grow. Likewise, many ladies in my community manage to make a wide variety of dishes with other healthy ingredients: garlic, cilantro, onion, pumpkin, etc.
One key difference here is that many meals include simple white rice. As far as I can tell the rest of Central America thrives on a diet that integrates a lot more corn. In Panama, by contrast, rice is essential. I’ve heard Panamanians of all stripes assert, “I would just not be full if I didn’t eat rice every day.” It seems that the adoption of white rice by Ngäbes reflects a national preference for having rice with every meal, rather than a specific tradition related to the Ngäbe people. Besides, I would conjecture that rice grown locally and unprocessed has a lot more nutrients than more commercial varieties grown on industrial farms. Insofar that Ngäbes are eating from their own back yard, they are probably better off.
Photo: Ngabe ladies about to dive into a plate of rice and beans with a side of – you guessed it – more beans! That serving size is totally normal.
Despite this, many of locally-grown, Comarca foods are rich super foods just like many found in Northern Mexico – taro, local varieties of corn, pumpkin, squash, and beans. According to the “The Jungle Effect,” all of these elements should mix together to create a diet that is nutritionally sound and meet the specific needs of people living in this area.
This is all very curious to me because if Ngäbes have all the food they need in their back yard, why is it that we associate them with such poor health?
There are several factors that threaten the richness of the Ngäbe indigenous diet, and in turn the nutritious value of meals, and overall health. 1. The increased consumption of packaged food. 2. The decline of eating locally-obtained leafy greens and wild vegetable plants. 3. A growing population that puts pressure on the land and increases slash-and-burn, decreases soil capacity and food output, and impoverishes the overall diet. Overall, the tides of food production are turning (or may have already turned) and not everyone is able to keep up with the food demands within their families.
Historically, Ngäbes have suffered from ‘poor’ diseases like malnutrition and water-borne illness. But, as their diet continues to change and modern/western culture creeps further into the mountains, this could mean that Ngäbes will be soon jumping from one health crisis to another. As traditional foods are traded in for their processed, ugly step-cousins (either as a result of low farming output, increased ability to consume purchased goods, or changes in tastes and preferences) Ngäbes will likely see an increase of all the modern, chronic diseases that they have thus far averted: diabetes, heart disease, obesity, etc.
The most that I can do is eat traditional meals with the families and tell them how delicious I find it and how special it is that they can grow so much healthy food in their back yard. As we revel in the deliciousness, I can try to bring to light some of the nutritional value they may not have been aware of – such as the beta-carotene in pumpkin is really good for eyesight and that papaya is good for digestion.
Photo: Left: Tia Emelia in the middle and the whole family. They just killed a rooster (which, hilariously actually resembles a rubber chicken). Right: On a different day, enjoying fresh sancocho (chicken soup) with rice and beans.
Recently, I had what I consider to be the “BEST FOOD DAY EVER” in site. In the morning, I went over to one of my favorite family’s houses and the abuela (grandma) put me to work to make fresh bollo, which is essentially fresh, boiled corn in wrapped in a banana leaf (read more about it here). Then I was called over to another house where I was promptly served a fresh killed duck that was marinated in a tomato sauce with onion and garlic served atop a heap of rice and beans. That was the BEST MEAL EVER. Then, just to top it off (though I could barely squeeze more in my stomach) my Tía served me fresh sancocho, which is chicken soup made with a freshly killed chicken. I sure would hate to see the day where any of these traditional recipes would be lost.
I’ve commented before that living in this area feels like living on the brink of tradition and modernization. Unfortunately, it looks like the transition to modern foods may have a negative impact on long-term health in ways that are not fully understand. Food customs are just another sphere that will be affected by the development transition as Ngäbes and other rural Panamanians messily select which traditions to keep and as others inevitably fade away.
I just love waxing eloquent about indigenous people… Here is the latest article by me on PolicyMic.com on the issue:
A women’s cooperative that I work with grew corn to sell for profit. Here, Maria airs out the corn remove particles. People use corn for chicken feed and to make drinks and food. There is never enough corn to satisfy local demand, so these women will easily sell all the corn in the local community for $0.35/pound, bringing in $140.00 of revenue.
Tio Poncho, as everyone calls him, has been making ‘raspadurras’ for decades. After grinding sugar cane and reducing the sugar juice for 5 hours over a fire, he is pouring the reduction into molds, called ‘raspadurras,’ or ‘panela.’ Tio Poncho and two of his sons labor from 7 a.m. until about 3 p.m. to make 25 bars to sell for $0.40 each, a total of $10.00 a day.
Raul is experimenting for the first time to grow rice in a tank. Here, he is transplanting small rice stalks to the tank that he will gradually fill with water. Rice tanks have an advantage over planting in a field because you don’t have to slash and burn and it takes much less space. But it is more water-intensive, requiring a year-round water source (a stream, a well, or a river). In an area of farm-driven deforestation, limiting land-use is an important new technology. However, learning a new technique is always tricky and takes time to learn.
Venera shows off her small, beaded bracelets. It take about 4 hours to make one bracelet and they sell for $2 dollars each. The trickiest part for an artisan group is finding a secure market. It is especially difficult because many artisans tend to offer similar products, which causes the price to drop, despite the hours, days, and weeks, it may take to make one item.
The producers group in Chichica takes turns working on each other’s land in order to maximize the amount they can plant in one day (and help the day go by faster with a little camaraderie.) Here, they are doing their best to plant kidney beans and black beans on this steep incline. Kidney beans fetch the highest price in the local market ($0.80 – $1.00/pound), so this farmer is hoping to grow enough to satisfy his family’s needs and to sell what is left.
This is a campo grocery co-op! The women’s group decided to open a dried-goods store to sell the basics – rice, oil, matches, sugar, coffee, and of course cookies, cheetos, and candy. They will divide the revenue between all of the members. It can be tricky to manage, but a store is one of the easiest ways for a group of women to make money. I encourage them to think of it as their community bank, since it disperses credit, loans for emergencies, and pays them dividends.
If they’ve made it this long, most people my age in the Peace Corps (23 months and counting) typically just hold their horses and wait until the end of service (creeping up on me in October) to go home for the first time. I, however, decided that it was important to go home in late June for the following reasons: 1. it is summer in America. 2. Rodeo days in Prescott. 3. I probably will not got home after service and head to South America instead. With this in mind, I knew that I couldn’t go another year without seeing my friends and family and so went about finding a way to visit, if only for five days in Seattle and another five in Prescott, Arizona, and even a night in Houston because of a layover.
And I loved every minute of it. The food (pho, cheese and salmon), the micro-brews, the couches, moving sidewalks in the airport, public transport, and bookstores. I can go on, cute shoes, the enormous dogs, the veggie section at the grocery store, the cold, then the hot, riding my bike (urban and mountain!) and just about every moment in between spent with the people I care about.
Photos: Right: Classic America. Left: Food.
While there, many of my friends and family asked if it felt different to be back in the states. Often, besides being surrounded by white people and noticing that everything was comfortable to the touch, it actually felt soooo normal. It was so easy to slip back into America that I didn’t really feel different at all. However, now that I’ve returned it is as if all the comforts of the states are directly and abruptly juxtaposed next to my experience roughing it in rural Panama. While there, I did not permit myself to think too much about the differences, but now I’m back, I feel the twinge of culture shock that I put off in order to maximize fun. I can’t lie, when I woke up the first morning back in site on my wood-planked bed and I wished that I could have a shower with a faucet, that I could use a washing machine, and that my daily routine did not include sloshing around a couple inches of red mud.
But then I went walking around a bit. It is soooo beautiful here. There really is something special about the way these mountains are steep everywhere and shift between full jungle in the valleys and simpler savannah at the peaks. If the beauty of the surroundings didn’t help me re-integrate, visiting some of my favorite families and re-experiencing those classic Peace Corps moments as if I had just arrived certainly did. I was even served something I’d never eaten before – bocho of the cow – which, after I inquired about where that is located, I was informed is the pouch surrounding the heart. GROSS!! But, of course, I housed it without blinking an eye. I’m back, baby!
Photos: Right: Dicey and I in her neighborhood. Left: Mexican food and Lyssa ‘checking us in,’ whatever that means.
And at the end of my first day, one of the small-business owners that I work with came to visit my house. After I mentioned that I had just returned from the states, he launched into the litany of questions that Ngäbes (pronounced No-Bay … remember?) typically ask (how long does it take to get there? How much does it cost? Is it scary to ride on a plane? Do your parents miss you?) he then asked some questions that perfectly demonstrate the distance between America and where we live in Panama.
He asked, “Some people are saying that the internet says that by February or maybe March of 2013 that all Americans are going to have a computer chip implanted inside their hand so that they can be tracked by the government, is that true?” I explained that, no, we are not going to be implanted with a computer chip, which he pronounced ‘cheet’ because letters ‘p’ and ‘t’ are often confused in campo Spanish.
Then he offered up this piece of visionary thinking: “I’ve conceived that pretty soon they will have to build houses in the air. I think that beams are going to get really strong and small to support huge houses.” I can almost promise that he has never seen or heard of the Jetsons. He continued, “There will be so many people that all the land will have to be used to cultivate food and houses will have to be in the air. Does this exist yet?” I responded, “No, not that I know of.” At which, he concluded, “Well, I give it 20-30 years.”
Taking advantage of the moment, I tried to turn his attention inward, asking, “So what do you think the Comarca will be like in 20-30 years?” After a few moments of thinking, he said, “A little more advanced, I think. Hopefully we will have roads.”
While he conceives that houses in America will be built in the air within 20-30 years, he can only imagine or hope that his own region in Panama will have sufficient roads so that people won’t have to hike to get goods in and products and people out. That is the distance between the states and fill-in-the-blank-rural-backwater anywhere in the world. We are not in want of roads.
Photos: Right: Back on the bike in AZ after two years off! Left: Back in the mountains of the Comarca. Still struck by the beauty.
My intention is never to bum you out with stories like this. In fact, I’m more likely to be accused of assigning too much happiness and contentment to a place like the Comarca. After all, people have land, are free to do as they please, and are slowly improving their living standard. But, it is still plagued by untreated illness, insufficient nutrition, and a blight of discrimination against the indigenous by other Panamanians. I just feel fortunate to have found something that I feel passionate about and get excited about conveying it to your willing ears in the form of sometimes humorous, sometimes serious blogposts.
It was the mystery of the missing ñeque, I think, that made me realize the extent of the cultural leap I had taken. Before traveling to the San Blas Islands off Panama’s Caribbean coast, I did not even know that ñeques existed. A rodent indigenous to Central and South America, the animal is the size of a large squirrel, but hunched over and without the bushy tail.
Just that morning, the resident ñeque had been scampering among the dozen or so guests who were eating breakfast at wooden tables along the beach at Isla Diablo, one of more than 350 powdery-sand islets that are a part of the holdings of the native people of the Kuna Yala Comarca. A small Kuna boy scooped the ñeque off the table and carried him to the family hut, admonishing him along the way.
By evening, however, there was no sign of the curious ñeque. And then, the shocking news: As they served our dinner, our Kuna Yala hosts happily announced that ñeque was on the menu that night. At first, my fellow guests and I were skeptical. But one look at the small slabs of jerky-like meat on our plates made us believers. It certainly was not beef or any other familiar meat. And as some of the guests tasted the meat, the consensus quickly formed that the friendly ñeque had indeed become our dinner.
That left a decision for my traveling companions and me – to eat or not to eat. For my friend Jane Rudder and I, the matter required some contemplation. Jessica Rudder (Peace Corps volunteer and our guide and interpreter par excellence) was having none of our dithering, though. “Just eat your bush meat,” she said, as she dug into hers. With apologies, I’m afraid I declined, while Jane took a bite before passing the remainder of her potion on to Jessica. It seems Jessica, as a volunteer in another Panama Comarca, had already consumed a number of exotic meats, and she took it as a matter of pride to add ñeque to her list.
Several days before, I had traveled to Panama with Jane, who was visiting her Jessica, her daughter. We were in search of adventure, and we found it in our visit to Diablo Island. It certainly was not an easy trip. After a two-hour van ride over rough roads and a one hour jaunt in a small boat, we arrived at the island to discover our lodging in a bamboo hut, complete with air mattresses arranged on the sand floor. With no plumbing or electricity, the visit was rustic, to say the least. But the beauty and serenity more than made up for any inconvenience – the startlingly blue water and vivid white sand perfectly complementing the swaying coconut trees.
Add to the stunning scenery plenty of interesting company, and we had the makings of an unforgettable stay. Along with our group of three, the guests included a Swedish couple, an Italian couple, two women from Portugal, and another American. Because we took our meals together, the group had plenty of time for chatting, and talk quickly turned to world events. Switching from Spanish to English and back again, the young backpackers touched on everything from South American politics to Arizona’s tough immigration policies to the state of health care around the world. All of this was interspersed with entertaining topics such as “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and past traveling experiences. (Most of our fellow guests were in the midst of months-long travels through South and Central America).
The adventure did not end with our two-night stay on the island. Halfway through our boat trip back to the mainland, we spotted a man waving frantically to us from a dilapidated-looking boat that brought to mind images of the movie “Captain Ron.” Wearing only a dirty towel and sporting long locks of unwashed hair, the man did not appear to be the best hitchhiking candidate. Our Kuna hosts stopped the boat nonetheless, and soon were engaged in a drawn-out negotiation with the man, resulting in a price for a ride to the mainland. After a half-hour wait while the man battened down his boat, we learned that not only would he be joining us in our small wood dugout boat, but his young German girlfriend and their five-month-old baby as well.
During the remainder of the ride, we learned that the German girl had met her Canadian boyfriend while traveling through Panama the previous year. They soon bought a boat from another young couple and began offering tours through the San Blas Islands. They lived on the small boat throughout her pregnancy, and even had planned a “sea birth” for the baby. Ultimately, the water was too cold in December, and the young mom opted instead for a birth at a health center on a nearby island. Because of the island birth, the baby was considered to be Kuna, and the couple named their son Wabi, the Kuna word for dolphin. During his first five months, baby Wabi had done plenty of diving with his father, the girl said, and was able to hold his breath for long periods.
On the day we passed their boat, the young family was on their way to Panama City for a flight to Germany for a four-month stay with the girl’s family. When they returned, she said they would have to contend with a new Kuna law that prohibited outsiders from conducting tours exclusively in the San Blas Islands. With brightly sunburned faces, we headed out from our San Blas visit for a number of other Panama destinations, including the beautiful and warm-water Las Lajas beach on the Pacific side, the lush rain forest of the mountain region in Boquete, and the fascinating Ngobe-Buglé Comarca, where Jessica lives, and works on business development.
That final stop offered a close-up look at the impact the Peace Corps was having on the native people. As we walked through the village of the Comarca, the warm Ngobe people stopped us repeatedly to greet Jessica and her guests. Time after time, the men and women of the Comarca assured Jane that her daughter was doing good work. The happy camaraderie between Jessica and the Ngobe people spoke for itself.
In fact, all of the Peace Corps volunteers that I met in Panama seemed to have a singular commitment to helping the people there. I listened in on earnest conversations about the need for better latrines and stoves – some of the basic human needs. It made me proud of the young people who go to remote corners of the world to try to improve the quality of life, and in the process, share a bit of themselves.