Sunday, April 11, 2010

Final Months in Barrigon

I am slowly wrapping up my work in Barrigon. The Healthy Homes Initiative has progressed with only minor set-backs. We’re still plucking away at the whole trash management conundrum. It’s hard to ask folks to sacrifice so much time and energy to change a behavior that they haven’t been convinced is that bad (aka burning all their trash). While I had lofty ambitions of building neighborhood landfills and instituting some sort of recycling program, I’ve satisfied myself with just giving them all the information I can about the dangers of improper trash management. We’ve looked at what toxins are released during incineration, what the alternatives are to burning (and the drawbacks to each), and we’ve visited some municipal landfills in the region. We’re also exploring recycling options. But in the end it comes down to how community members prioritize the use of their time and resources; for now trash management doesn’t seem to be a priority. It is my hope (and consolation) that my “education campaign” about trash management will spur future action when the community feels ready.

Trash aside, home gardens continue to spring up where I least expect them and the first harvest of the twenty original gardens has been bountiful. If I did anything right here, it was promoting these little home gardens. Through the Healthy Homes Initiative I’ve also had the opportunity and privilege to watch two community innovators “spread their wings” (for lack of less corny phrasing) and develop their leadership skills. One is a young man (age 15) from a less-than-supportive family that has become my partner-in-crime for all gardening and stove building schemes. One day when I was praising his tenacity and ambition, an NGO partner who helps with my project said, “that, or he’s secretly in love with you.” Whatever the motivation, I am thoroughly impressed by and proud of his quiet determination to excel.

On another front, the four tourism groups have made great strides towards attracting tourists and offering quality service. One group has a website (, all four have beautiful brochures, we’re working on a full business plan for the hostel/guest house (with help from the Peace Corps business sector), and for the first time I am seeing a relatively steady flow of tourists (and income) to the area. Next week we’ll finish painting a gigantic tourism map that will be posted down on the Pan-American Highway. And the development that is most dear to my heart is a simple one: the four groups are communicating with each other. This is a stark contrast from 2008 (when I arrived, envy and misunderstandings had created an environment of distrust among the groups); I couldn’t be happier. The result of their communication is “tourist sharing”: the tour guides from El Cope are promoting tours to the organic farm. The waterfall/hiking attraction people are recommending the El Cope guides for visitors who want to check out the National Park. The hostel folks are talking up the waterfall/hiking project to their guests. Someday you might see Barrigon in National Geographic Travel…

How could two years have gone by?

Although it’s difficult and sad to be leaving my work here, I am ready to make a change. My adventure in grassroots development has left me with more questions than answers. I’ve fallen far short of my colossal expectations of what I could accomplish in two years. And of course I’ve learned far more than I’ve taught (ha, understatement of the century). I’m okay with both of these things; I recognize the value of this experience for personal growth. And I am happy to acknowledge the modest successes we’ve had here in Barrigon. But for the last year I’ve had the nagging feeling that there is a better way. To be an agent of change, I guess I mean. Don’t ask me what it is… but if you happen to know the secret recipe, I’m all ears.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Holiday Fun

Merry Christmas! All is well in my littl green valley. I've had a full house of friends and a full schedule with the end of the school year activities, a first communion celebration, a nutrition seminar (part of my Healthy Homes project), and all the Christmas activities at the Catholic church. Not to mention that yesterday I spent the day covered in chicken poop but managed to distribute 30 gunny sacks of the stuff to my town gardeners! Today I am running around Penonome trying to get gingerbread cookie ingredients to make with the neighborhood kids on Christmas--except that I forgot my wallet at home! Go, Kayla, go. As always, friends new and old have come to my rescue with a few dollars here, a few there in order to get the powered sugar and pay for my bus fare back up the hill.
It has been pure joy to host Emily Naftalin and Ben Lee in my house these last days. Every day I wake up and think how lucky I am to have such caring, interesting, and fun friends in my life. They left yesterday morning to hike around "the mountain" behind Barrigon and will come out for Christmas--just in time to pick up Micaela at the airport!
I'm posting some pictures of all the festivities around here:

What is a visit to Barrigon without a trip to Senor Julian's farm? Planting beans "a chuso" while Senor Julian prepares our snack:

We harvested cacao like a bunch of gringo leaf-cutter ants, leaving nothing yellow on the trees that we climbed, pulled on, and generally stipped of all their fruit. The result: SO MUCH CHOCOLATE!

Grinding up toasted cocao seeds and making chocolate patties of many varieties:

Good slackline action shots:

First communion:

A hike up to the Tuli falls:
Our own little pre-communion communion:

Ben plays god, trapping bugs in spiderwebs to watch the fight:
The gringo train on the way to my nutrition seminar. I wish I always had so much help!!Nutrition 101:Meanwhile, Emily and the gang prepare a delicious healthy snack: Everyone enjoys the curried squash, egg salad, green salad, banana goo, starfruit juice and fruit salad:

Last day of school party:Oh my god there's a baby on the line!
Do you see what is happening here? Kids are diving for candy and she's still swinging in the dark

Love to all!


Monday, November 16, 2009

The Barrigon Bridge Collapses

So for all of you who've come to visit Barrigon, remember that bridge that makes so much noise as you roll into town? The old, clanky metal one? It finally collapsed on Friday afternoon. No one was injuried (Gracias a Dios). A big road crew dump truck full of dirt toppled the bridge. The four men riding in the cab were all okay, but definitely shaken up. I've attached some pictures.

Things are going to be a bit different for us now, as we won't have any public transportation until the level of the river goes down enough to make a safe crossing for trucks. For the moment the discussion about rebuilding the bridge has focused on a small pedestrian bridge (three cables!). It sounds like I'll be long gone before Barrigon's buses will be back on route.

The most affected folks have been the orange producers and transporters. There are many pick-ups full of oranges rotting outside of peoples homes right now. Just as oranges come into season...
And the secondary school students, who to cross the river to get to school in El Cope (the neighboring town). They stayed home today, as the river was too high to cross on foot. And it was pouring rain.

You might be wondering how I got out. Well, I found a muddy path that takes me to a different town. So I walked!
Other than the biggest Barrigon news since my arrival (ha ha), everything is well.
Love to all, Kayla

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Update: Good hard rain. Good neighbors. A hard time. A new project.

Right now we’re in the rainy season. I live on a creek and it floods all the time. Our little footbridge is tied to a big mango tree so it doesn’t float away when the creek rises. It just bobs there in the water until the water level goes down. Then the men go down with big poles and sticks to haul it back into place among the boulders.

I have the best neighbors in the world. They are my parents and my best friends. When I leave, they take care of my cat and my garden. When I am home, there is a constant flow of food, kids, and animals between my house and theirs. I spend most evenings in their kitchen sipping coffee, listening to the radio, and “echando cuentos” (telling stories). We usually don’t talk about anything of importance. The man likes to tell me about past rainy seasons and how the wind is so strong in the summer that it will take roofs off houses. The wife feeds me and talks to me about food and flowers. She grows flowers all over her yard and mine. I have confided in them twice during some rough patches in my service here and both times they have comforted me and kept my grief private. A small miracle in this community.

One of the times I confided in them was when, this last June, my closest friend in town (a young woman who lives up the hill) spread the rumor that I was having a relationship with a married friend of mine. Well, not only was his wife (who is also a good friend) furious but a lot of people in town thought that I was a home-wrecker. I was devastated. I was embarrassed that people thought horrible things about me, but mostly hurt that my closest friend and confidant would betray me like that. Sometimes in the Peace Corps we talk about people in our sites as “community members” instead of friends. Its like we hold people at an arm’s length because if they knew the “real” us they might judge us harshly (maybe because in some ways we are more liberal and liberated than our Panamanian peers). Well, I am guilty of maintaining this distance with lots of people here in town. But not with this girl, my friend. We were tight. I felt comfortable enough with her to let her in, you know? I really trusted her.
So when this happened I felt very alone. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it because I didn’t want to add fuel to the fire or propagate more rumors. That is why I thank God every day for my neighbors. One night I sat in their kitchen and told them how I’d been hiding in my house, avoiding the hailstorm. They comforted me by telling me that everyone in town has been the victim of malicious rumors, that it was just part of community life. Most importantly, they trusted that what I said was true. They trust my integrity.

But don’t get me wrong, there are many, many wonderful people here. When I feel lonely, all I have to do is wander up some trail and I’ll inevitably get invited to coffee, oranges, or conversation on someone’s front porch. If anything, the generosity and attention of my community is overwhelming. I feel like there aren’t enough days in the week to visit all those who invite me to their homes.

As far as work goes, I’ve started a new project that I am very excited about. We’re calling it the Healthy Homes Initiative. The 20 or so families that are participating will be working on four home projects to promote health in their family and for the environment: vegetable gardening, home trash management (composting and small, family landfills), grey water filtrations systems, and fuel-efficient wood-burning stoves. Now that I have been here for over a year I feel like I finally understand what makes so many projects fail (group dynamics, hand-outs, etc) and what types of projects could be successful. So I’ve designed this project to utilize and emphasize community strengths and minimize the situations that tend to hinder progress. We’re just starting, and everyone is optimistic about the progress.

I think often of my trip to the States. Thank you to everyone who made such an effort to see me while I was home. It feels so good to reconnect to that life and realize that it...exists.

Love to you all!