February 10, 2003 - Michigan Tech: Russell Slatton - Peace Corps Panama

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Russell Slatton - Peace Corps Panama

Russell Slatton - Peace Corps Panama

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 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.


Panama Information:

Information on the web.

* The CIA Factbook on Panama.
* The Lonely Planet Guide to Panama.

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

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Page created 28 June 2002.

Updated: 2 January 2003.

Page created and maintained by Blair Orr.

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