13 March 2009
After Carnival we went back up to the country side to our reserve (Cocobolo) and spent a day recovering. Summer (aka the dry season) in Panama, is supposed to be from January till April. In the city it’s definitely summer; 90 degrees, hot and sunny every day….however where we are up in the mountains the storm systems keep coming from the Caribbean and dumping rain on us. It’s literally been raining for 5-7 days straight followed by 2 dry days and then more rain. It’s been pretty cold (relatively), we bundle up at night, and all of the paths are pure mud. The worst part is definitely the mold problem…everything we own is growing mold; books, clothes, cash, and passport.
I’ve been spending a lot of time with my farmers in the village, going to their plots, drawing maps with GPS coordinates, weeding, starting seed beds etc. We’re slowing trying to transition our farmers away from chemicals and promote organic alternatives for pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. So far we’ve had a good reception although progress definitely takes a long time in Panama. We had a few visitors from the US with us for a couple days. Jeni from California came for a week and taught us about compost tea, mulching and other organic techniques. She’s asked me to champion a school garden in the community with the kids and she brought letters from kids in CA who are also doing a school garden. We’re hoping to get a pen pal project of sorts going where the kids write letters back and forth. We also have Erik from Washington State visiting for 6 weeks or so to complete a social impact study for our project with the ultimate goal being to evaluate the market potential for the carbon found in the Cocobolo Nature Reserve. It’s a complicated process since it’s still very new and hasn’t been done yet for a private reserve like Cocobolo but sounds like it could be a great way to find a new source of funding for projects that protect the rainforest.
This past Wednesday we took 5 of our farmers on a tour to an organic farm on the other side of the canal so they could see a rural farmer like themselves who has been really successful with organic agriculture. I think they were definitely impressed because the farm’s soil was so dry it was hard as a rock but everything was growing beautifully. We talked with the farmer for a while and then got a tour of his farm checking out his different organic fertilizers and soil conservation methods. One of the more impressive aspects of his farm was his use of trees interspersed with crops and using plants with strong odors as barriers to pests. I think it was a successful field trip in the sense that the farmers saw how well this man had done in an area with very poor soil and they heard first hand from one of their own how to make it work.
I’m headed back to Cocobolo tomorrow for another 2 weeks or so. I’m going to start teaching English to adults in La Zahina 2 afternoons a week and Sabine and Roslyn are going to teach the kids 2 afternoons a week. I’ve also figured out where I’m going to set up the iguana farm(s), so we’re going to start doing some seriously planning and material buying as soon as possible. New pictures from March and from the field trip with the farmers are online so check them out (link is on the right). I’d love to hear news from all of you so drop me a note sometime!
It’s hard to put into words the ridiculousness that is Carnival. I scored a great deal though for myself and Roslyn, one of the volunteers I’m working with. My host sister from study abroad and her friends rented a house in Las Tablas...aka party central. We were able to get a ride there with three die hard carnivalers and learned all of the appropriate songs on the long drive there. Las Tablas is famous for the on going battle between Calle Arriba (‘Up Street’) and Calle Abajo (‘Down Street’). The normally tranquil town is turned into a heated contest between the two streets to see who can sing louder, play louder music, and who has the best floats and queens. The prepare for the four days of carnival all year long in secret and try to out do each other with more elaborate floats and more beautiful queens. Each street has it’s own songbook that makes fun of the other street and their queen and since we were traveling with people who live and die Calle Abajo we learned all the songs along the way. The queens are chosen at birth and prepare all their lives to be the queen when they’re eighteen.
We stayed outside of the main town in a little village called El Sesteadero and squeezed somewhere around 25 people into one tiny house. People slept in the living room, on the porch, and more often not at all. We spent the days in the ‘culecos’ which consist of crazy street parties with music and fire hoses and the nights watching the parades or out dancing. It was an exhausting 4 days but totally worth it. One of my friends from study abroad who is working in Panama as well came for a day and got to experience carnival in Las Tablas.
The last night of carnival everyone came out in their best traditional clothes, including the famous pollera dresses. These dresses are intricately woven and have a single large pom pom on the front and back. Most polleras are in the thousands of dollars and are highly prized family possessions. We jumped into the procession of polleras and drums in El Sesteadero and paraded around the village watching fireworks. Las Tablas ended carnival with the queens dressed in polleras and a firework battle between the two streets that lasted until 6 am or so when we got up to go back to the city. Definitely check out my pictures online of carnival…the floats are incredible!!