20 April 2010

A year in review...To my iguana farm supporters

As many of you already know, the iguana farm didn't get off the ground for a variety of reasons. The primary factor being a general lack of interest by community members. I spent the first two months talking with the local farmers and distributing a really great booklet I found about iguana farming to try and stimulate interest. Previous projects involving the community as a whole had all flopped due to the difficulties of getting the villagers to work together and the general mistrust they all have of one another. Taking this into consideration, my plan was to work with one family who was seriously interested and at the same time attempt to start a farm on the nature reserve where I lived.

Every time I thought I had a farmer who believed in the project he would say to me something like, "Why don't we try fish farming instead?" (The village had already tried Tilapia farming but had given it up after a few months because of disagreements over property.) Eventually I decided to cut my losses short because I could see that the project would fall apart when I left, if not sooner, and the time and money invested would go to waste. By a stroke of luck, a thoughtful mama iguana decided to lay her eggs in our compost pile. With the help of my friends Yoel and Sabine we built an in-ground incubator for the eggs and buried them in the sand. Unfortunately mother nature was not on our side, and the 'summer' months of March-May were miserably 'cold' and rainy and only 3 iguanitas hatched in June with only 1 surviving for a few months. We named him Toni, RIP. All in all, it was a good lesson in community development project planning; even if it's a great project idea, it won't go anywhere if no one's interested. It's more important to work with the community from the start to identify projects they're committed to.

I became very involved with the village school (grades 1-6) and tried to invent new ways of bringing information to the students and community. With the money I raised (thanks to your donations!) we bought a generator so I could show movies and presentations in the village. Weekly movie nights consisted of short documentaries on the biodiversity of Panama followed by crowd pleasers such as Scooby Doo! We also sponsored a workshop with the Panamanian Agricultural Development Ministry about organic fertilizers and soil health and put the generator to good use. Just before I left, the rest of my plan came together and we bought and installed a solar panel on the school's roof and set up a laptop inside.

My hope is that the students (and teacher) will get comfortable enough with the basics of turning on/off the computer, using a mouse, understanding how a computer works, and word processing software, that if they have the chance to continue their studies outside of the village they won't be totally lost (and behind their city counterparts).

Since school is only offered until grade 6 in the village, most of the children finish their education at age 12. If their families have the resources, they can send them to live with relatives in a city where there are public middle/high schools, but most can't afford to. This year I hope to establish a scholarship fund for students from the four communities along the Mamoni River to continue their education. It's a very small way of giving back to these communities that I called home in 2009 and the people who were so gracious to me and my family. More information to come later...Stay tuned!

One final story...As I was walking through the jungle to my hut during my last week in Panama, I ran into a villager I was friendly with on the trail. He was walking back from panning for gold in the streams and had something moving strangely in his sack. I asked him about it and he brought forth a huge pregnant female iguana he had just caught along the river and was going to sell in the village so he would have some money to buy rice. I immediately offered to buy it from him (for $10, I over paid on purpose), and a few minutes later was walking home with my backpack, a machete, and an iguana under one arm. It was one of those moments where I thought to myself, "Is this really my life?".
When I arrived home I put her down in the cage I had made a year prior for the iguanas I hoped to have and untied her toe nails that were keeping her from scratching the bejeezus out of me. She laid there lazily for a few moments, and the minute I walked away I heard a huge crash and she was gone. She managed to jump a 3 ft high sheet of slick zinc and disappeared, to hopefully lay her eggs in the reserve.

01 February 2010

The Prior-Grosch expedition in Panama

The New Year began with quite a bang as the Prior-Grosch gang arrived in Panama. I whisked my parents and Zoe up to Cocobolo on New Year's Eve and we celebrated by meeting people in La Zahina and going to bed early. We packed into six days everything possible so they got the real flavor of campo life. Between visiting the village and neighbors we hiked to a water fall and into the forest to see some 'big trees'. I almost pushed them over the edge when we hiked to the village of San Jose for lunch, 10 mi there and 10 mi back. But they all made it back in one piece and can now laugh about it. I think Zoe enjoyed hammock time the most, Bob the big trees, and Steph meeting all of the villagers and getting a sense of where I've lived for the past year.
After leaving Cocobolo, we spent a few days in the city sight seeing and then my friend Sabine joined up with us to go to Bocas del Toro (islands in the Caribbean). We spent my birthday weekend at the beach, visiting the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute where I had done research in 2007 and snorkeling on the reefs. Zoe got in some good beach time and we met up with the family I lived with on the island. We came back to Panama City for another day of sightseeing and a final farewell dinner before they had to fly back to the barren tundra.
After the family left I busied myself in the city for 2 weeks making final preparations for the Marvelwood School group who is visiting now. I went out shopping for TONS of food and organized our sightseeing and transport around the country. I spent two days at the Smithsonian in Panama City for a conference on Reforesting with Native Species. There was some interesting material presented but all in all I was a bit disappointed with the simplicity of people's presentations (ex: Trees are really important....duh!). Last week I went up to Cocobolo to take up the food and make sure all the buildings are ready for high school kids. On Saturday the group arrived, 14 high school kids with 3 chaperones. On Sunday we went to Gamboa in search of monkeys and visited the Canal locks in the afternoon. Today we visited an Embera tribe, arriving up river in dug out canoes. We spent the day learning about their culture, going on a hike with the village medicine man, and enjoying a lunch of fried fish and plantains. Tomorrow (Tuesday) we head up to Cocobolo for a week of bird banding, stream macroinvertebrates research, and insect trapping. Photos are starting to go up: http://picasaweb.google.com/ariadne.panama/MarvelwoodVisit

When they leave on Feb 10, I have a few days to prepare myself for Carnival which starts the 13th. I got convinced into going to Las Tablas (party central) again for the four days of mayhem. Afterwards I'll go up to Cocobolo for a few days to install solar panels on the village school and set up their laptop. Saying good bye is going to be a challenge in La Zahina and then I'll have a day or two in the city to organize my life before flying home.

30 December 2009

Feliz Navidad y Prospero Año Nuevo

I spent Christmas with Sabine and Yoel's family across the river eating arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) for three days straight and visited people in the village. On Christmas Eve we all opened party crackers in typical Prior-Grosch style and the favorite prize was definitely a pirate's eye patch. Everyone took turns wearing the eye patch which looked great with the red and green paper crowns.

Christmas isn't a big holiday in rural panama, consisting of a day off, arroz con pollo, and peanuts, apples, and grapes if you can afford it. The day after Christmas I visited San Jose and one of the kids asked me 'Who is Santa Claus?' The Santa Claus frenzy hasn't made it to rural Panama yet but it's definitely taken root in the city. I couldn't help laughing seeing all the snowflake, penguin, and santa decorations around the city in 90 degree heat.

I'm in Panama City now and will be picking up my family at the airport tonight! Tomorrow we'll head straight up to the jungle to celebrate New Years. It sounds like people make a much bigger deal of celebrating New Years than Christmas; two pigs are going to be slaughtered, fireworks, and a stuffed doll (resembling a politician) will be burned in celebration in the village.

Happy 2010 to all!

16 December 2009

Mid December Crazzzzzyyyy-ness

I visited the US of A for 3 weeks in November and true to my style of visits, saw everyone and everything. I managed a trip down to NC to visit college friends, a weekend in NY with my grandparents, a few days in Haverhill with high school buddies, and time with family for Thanksgiving and my dad's birthday.

It was a great visit although I was in much need of rest by the time I got back to Panama.

All in all, it sounds like I planned my trip perfectly since while I was away it poured everyday and the Mamoni River crested multiple times per day making it impossible to go anywhere. The day I arrived back, 'summer' seemed to start immediately bringing with it a blazing sun and strong breeze. We've had gorgeously sunny days since, although very hot, but the summer breeze does make a difference. I arrived back in time to celebrate Mother's Day in Panama which falls on Dec 8th. When I left the city, I first went up to the village of San Jose where the church put on a big dinner for the mothers and gave them all gifts at their Saturday night worship.

Since I stay with the pastor and his wife when I'm there, I got to help with the shopping and marvel as the men in the village cooked a meal for the women (something that never ever happens.) I spent a few days there relaxing and visiting with people who I hadn't seen in over a month. I went exploring a bit as well and saw where the Mamoni and the San Jose rivers meet, carving out an intricate path in the bed rock. It's a great swimming spot although a bit tricky with the current and some of the drop offs.

On Mother's Day I hiked up to La Zahina with a cohort from San Jose who were going to visit their mother. I carried a baby, while others carried potatoes (for Panamanian potato salad), gifts, luggage, live chickens, etc. It was quite the procession.
We all gathered in Lydia's house in La Zahina and it was the first time in a long time she had so many of her children under the same roof (8 out of her 10 children).

That afternoon I hiked the rest of the way back to Cocobolo and was greeted by a pack of howler monkeys in the trees (the four black blobs in the tree).
My dog Muñeca was waiting for me as well as Patrick from Texas. That week for movie night in La Zahina I showed a short documentary about development in the country and unsustainable tourism, followed by Scooby Doo. It was a big hit. The students watched Planet Earth during the day and we continued working on English pronunciation. The school year is about to end so I'm trying to figure out a new schedule for classes since school doesn't go back into session until March. On the farm in Cocobolo, we're having issues with a fungus of some sort that is bleaching the leaves of all our lettuces, mustard greens, etc. All of the crops looks like they took a hit during the three weeks of heavy rain but hopefully the new weather will improve the turnouts.

This past weekend I went across the river to the neighbors' house for a birthday party. Parking for the party:

Sabine and I spent most of the morning in the kitchen helping with the potato salad, drinks, rice and making sure all the guests were served. They had killed a pig so there were lots of chicharrones (fried pork fat) to be had.

The kids enjoyed the piñata and everyone ate a lot of cake. It was really impressive to see how the two cakes had survived the journey up from the city, only a few chunks of frosting missing.

The last couple days I've been working hard on the farm; taking care of the horse/chickens/dog, harvesting coffee beans, transplanting leafy greens, watering and pruning trees.

I'm in the city now, finishing up some final planning details for my family's visit at the end of the month. I'm going to take them up to Cocobolo for six days or so, a couple days in the city and for my birthday weekend we're going to fly out to the islands in the Caribbean (Bocas del Toro) where I stayed during my study abroad program to study mangroves. It should be quite the visit!

I'm also in the process of planning for the Marvelwood School group that visited us this past January and will arrive again at the end of January 2010 (only two week after my family leaves). This year we have a group of 14 high schoolers and 3 chaperones coming. I'm in charge of the logistics planning and food buying which is no small task. They'll be in Panama for 12 days, leaving just before Carnival starts. Then after Carnival, I only have one week before I fly home. I can already see that my last months here are going to fly by.

07 November 2009

September and October in a nutshell

Well I guess I've been neglecting the blog recently so I'm going to attempt to update it to the present...
(If you click on any of the photos, you can see them full size)

September flew by in the blink of an eye. We had gloriously sunny weather most of the month which coincided perfectly with the soccer games between the village of La Zahina where I teach and the village of San Jose (a 1.5 hour walk across the river valley). The teams played a series of 7 intensely competitive games with La Zahina winning the series 4-3. I attribute their win partially to the goalie gloves and stopwatch I brought from the US in August. As the godmother of the La Zahina team I went to all the games I could and traveled with the team (walking) when they played in San Jose. It was a great way to meet other people in the area and get to know a new community.

The other big highlight of September was my best friend Meg Munroe from Haverhill came and visited for a week. I picked her up in the airport and immediately started showing her the sights of the city. Since we had very limited time we really had to pack it in everyday. Luckily the fates were on our side and everything went our way in terms of the weather and transport. In Panama City the first day we visited the canal and watched ships go through the locks and then strolled around the old part of town, Casco Viejo, and ate scrumptious ice cream and Mexican food.

The following day we checked out Summit Botanical Garden, where I had never been befor, which is actually a zoo and houses lots of the local celebrities including a jaguar, tapirs, monkeys, and all sorts of birds.

From there we headed into the heart of town to Plaza Cinco de Mayo where we were treated to a children's 'Tipico' dance practice. We had a delicious dinner of fried fish on the Causeway (which was constructed using rubble dredged from the canal) which serves as the entrance to the canal. Afterward, we went to see Aventura live in concert! Aventura is a Bachata band from the Dominican Republic that was popular with our Dominican friends in high school.

The following day we took a bus out of the city and met up with one of my neighbors and his friend to get a ride up to Cocobolo. It was an awesome ride up through the mountains on terrible dirt trails scoured out by the rain. I got to drive the car out of one of the big holes while the guys pushed, fun!

Once up in Cocobolo Meg got to meet my friend Sabine and everyone in the village. We went on a hike to a waterfall, planted trees with the farmers on open pasture land, spent an afternoon herding cattle with my farmer friend Alejandro, and enjoyed a full day of rain and river flooding. The day before her flight back to the US we hiked 2.5 hours down the river valley with our backpacks to get the bush taxi out to the main road and then a bus to Panama City. It was a whirlwind trip that really worked out perfectly.

October was pretty quiet, just the usual routine of working on the farm and teaching classes. I spent a few weekends in San Jose with a family there and celebrated the village pastor's birthday. I've started showing movies once a week in La Zahina so I now arrive on Thursdays in the village rain or shine with my computer, extension cords, and gasoline to power a small generator we bought for this purpose. I've been showing a combination of environmentally themed videos and movies from the cinema. In honor of Halloween I baked a chocolate cake, brownies, and muffins for 50+ people and the entire village watched The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. These movies are definitely CREA's best attended events.

A new volunteer also arrived in October, Patrick, a truck driver from Texas. He's a total sweetheart and is the perfect match for CREA. He enjoys manual labor and solitude. It works out really well for me because I now have someone on the reserve to take care of my puppy! We ended the month of November with a workshop in cooperation with MIDA, the Panamanian agricultural ministry, on sustainable agriculture and how to make organic fertilizer. The workshop was well attended by all the local farmers and we learned some very valuable tips for transplanting plantains.

30 August 2009

Whirlwind Northeast Tour

On August 16th I flew to Newark, NJ from Panama City with Anarelys, a fifteen year old girl from the village where I work. She receives a scholarship from a group at the Marvelwood School to continue with her schooling. Laurie Doss, the Science Dept Chair at The Marvelwood School, has been bringing a group of 10 students to visit Panama for the last three years. They arrive usually end of January and spend a week at our field station. These students help to raise money for three scholarships for girls in the village and also helped to pay for our trip.

Although her first plane trip didn't seem to phase Anarelys, I discovered upon arrival that her true fear was of escalators! We spent an uncomfortable hour in immigration where she was questioned over and over by different people about the purpose of her trip while I was trapped in Baggage Claim on the other side of the glass wall. As we tried to pass through customs we were stopped again and sent back to immigration and the agricultural inspection where we spent another hour being questioned individually and having everything completely searched. Luckily when we were finally let out Laurie and 3 other familiar students' faces were waiting for a us with a photo of a Royal flycatcher to catch our attention.

The rest of the trip was go go go! We spent the first day at the school in rural Kent, CT mist-netting and banding birds and eating lots of blueberries from bushes that were donated by Henry Kissinger. That evening there was a welcome dinner at one of the student's homes. The next day we went to the new Science Center in Hartford, CT that just opened in July. It was really great with many of the exhibits related to hot topics (climate change, energy, water, etc).

On Wednesday we drove to Falmouth to spend a night with the family. My mom had other friends visiting as well so it was a full house. Anarelys got to see the Woods Hole aquarium, the Knob, and the drawbridge in action. Laurie and my dad hit it off and had fun discussing birds and beach species. Thursday midday we said good by and drove back to Kent via a Butterfly Garden in South Deerfield, MA.

We spent the next few days checking out the local waterfalls, American Indian museum, more bird banding and practicing English. We spent Sunday at the Mystic Aquarium and the following day we went bright and early to New York City on the train to see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. We returned to NYC the following day to visit the Bronx Zoo and go to a Yankees game. I was most impressed by the gorilla exhibit and it was definitely weird seeing a giraffe in the middle of NY. The Yankees played the Texas Rangers and ended up loosing 9-10.

The next morning we went back to Newark and had a pretty uneventful trip home. On the plane Anarelys told me she didn't want to leave the US. Hopefully she'll be able to visit again next year and stay for a month or more.

Now I'm in Panama City, working in the CREA office for a couple days before heading back into the field. Sabine's 24th birthday is tomorrow so we'll be celebrating. I'll be coming back to the city September 17th to meet my friend Meg who will be visiting for a week. Can't wait!

26 August 2009

Incommunicado and back in the US

I got back to Panama City Aug 14th, having been away in the field for just over a month! I can't believe how fast it went by! When I got back to Cocobolo in July I got to meet Toni, the one baby iguana who survived! Of the 45 eggs only 3 hatched and only Toni made it past the first few days of life. We've decided that the low hatch rate was probably due to the high amount of rain and unseasonably cool temperatures that this area experienced during what was supposed to be summer here. In fact, the weather in July and August has been beautiful incredibly beautiful. Sometimes 5 days at a time of unbroken sun followed by a day or two of rain. Since we're in the rainy season now, it should be raining here everyday, but it seems as though the weather patterns are all screwed up. Can't say I'm complaining, sun makes life a lot easier here since we don't have to worry about the river flooding as much. Anyways, back to Toni. He's quite the sociable little iguana and is accustomed to us handling him. He hangs out in his cage all day sunning himself, eating leaves, and going for the occasional swim when I bring him a bath. We've come to the conclusion that he's a male, but in reality you can't be sure until they reach about a year old, so we'll see. I figure the name Toni can be gender neutral.

We started our reforestation projects in July, beginning with a family that has a cow pasture that abuts Cocobolo Nature Reserve. We brought about 250 saplings out to them of different native species, and they are being planted in rows near the edge of the reserve where they're allowing the forest to regrow. To get out to their farm with our truck and trees we had to drive through a neighbors cow pasture and all over hill and dale. We followed what some claim to be a trail, but on the way back from planting we veered off course, smashed into a rock, and I smashed the window shield with my forehead. All in all the truck took a much worse beating than I did and my head is all healed.

We've almost completed the construction on a new greenhouse that should help us to cultivate tomatoes and other crops that don't do well with a lot of rain. In July, I spent a day across the river with the neighbors watching them brand and vaccinate their new calves. Apparently this is the time of the year when all the new calves get branded and at the end of August they'll spend a whole weekend doing the rest of the herd. Should be fun!

I've been spending a lot more time in the village school recently working on environmental education projects. We spent an afternoon watching a movie about the earth and then each student planted a sapling in the school yard. At the end of the year we're going to give a prize to the student who has the best looking tree.

Wednesdays I'm teaching an hour on environmental education, mainly showing environmental videos and tying it into the world that the students are familiar with. In addition, I'm now teaching English one day a week as part of their normal school day in addition to my afternoon classes for everyone.

The most exciting news from August is that my co-volunteer/housemate/friend Sabine decided to postpone grad school in Germany and come back to Panama at least until the end of the year. She arrived in Cocobolo on a Tuesday and we talked nonstop until Friday when I had to go to the city. It's great having her back.

I am currently in Connecticut chaperoning a girl from my village in Panama on a 10 day whirlwind trip of the Northeast but flying back to Panama this afternoon. I'll post more on that trip later. New photos are up from July & Aug.