December 24, 2009

December 24, 2009

So – Christmas in Panama……

From what we hear, Christmas Eve here is bigger than Christmas Day. On Christmas Eve, beginning at about 8:00 pm, people “pasear”. Pasearing is something all Peace Corps volunteers should be good at – it can be defined as strolling through your community, creating opportunities to know the residents better and to increase their comfort levels with the Peace Corps volunteer. This is one of the major ways a volunteer creates “confianza” within his community. Creating a strong personal relationship among the people the volunteer works with is the major way the volunteer learns how to be most useful and successful in his work.

In our community, and probably in most communities volunteers work in, if you pasear near mealtime, you will always be offered something to eat. Unless you can come up with a good excuse, you should accept it, even if you know the people offering it don’t have enough food to feed their own family. Many PC volunteers, particularly young men, almost never prepare their own food, even in the poorest communities. Of course, they must be willing to live on whatever the locals eat – in this case, large servings of plain white rice. Many people we work with are less poor, so there is usually a pot of chicken soup on the stove as well. I usually get a small bowl of chicken soup and add some rice to it. Their chicken soup is delicious, and usually has carrots, yucca, potatoes or other tubers in it.

On Christmas Eve, people prepare lots of good food for passersby. I am offering Apple Brown Betty and really terrific cheese straws Neal and Susan taught me to make a few years ago. We will probably hang out and divide these goodies among two of the families whose homes we’ve been invited to, as they will receive more visitors than we would, as we are still new to the community. The hard part will be staying awake until midnight, the most festive part of the evening.

Christmas and New Year’s Eves are one of the few times people who are not considered drunkards can actually drink alcohol openly. Don’t know if that will help us to stay awake… No one has cars here, so the likelihood of being run over is pretty minimal.

I really want to tell you about three inspirational meetings we went to last week. The first was the annual party of the environmental organizations near our community. They decided to get together because they’ve not seen each other very much this year and felt they needed to catch up on what each group is doing. We met in the high mountains for a day of accordian music, rice and beans, and fried pork skins. A representative of each group said a few words, but mostly everybody just hung around, ate and chatted.

This group is very concerned about the recent concession granted to canalize and dam up a couple of the rivers in our province in order to generate electricity. If you saw these rivers, you’d laugh. We’d call them streams – I can’t imagine how their water will be sufficient to generate the electricity to power a light bulb. The folks here are very concerned because according to the concession, up to 90% of the water flow can be directed through pipes to the turbines. Environmental studies indicate that local impact will be minimal. However, all the studies are company-funded. And by the way, concessions to build the 14 dams have been given to 14 different companies..

The second meeting was an organizational meeting of environmental groups in our province, specifically called to initiate a program whereby they will all work together politically, with a common agenda, to combat the invasive anti-environmental activities being supported by the national government. The latest and most alarming to this area is a concession request by a gold mining company to put an open pit mine on 36000 acres in the middle of the International Amistad Park. This park is located on the continental divide and is part of the Biological Corridor linking North and South America. It is supported by European and US environmental organizations, and has tremendous environmental significance. The government has already granted a major concession to a copper mining company on the nearby Ngobe-Bugle reservation, a semi-autonomous province populated by a very poor tribe who earn their living by subsistence farming and depend on the local rivers for their water. How much sulfuric acid does it take to leech copper (or gold) from a pulverized mountain? And where do you put it afterwards?

What is inspirational about these groups is their level of environmental awareness and their work to combat environmentally destructive practices. Many sponsor organic farming practices, reforestation, environmental cleanup, bird sanctuaries, student environmental groups, community trash collection, recycling projects and other such activities. Many have been following closely the Copenhagen talks. The believe that the government grants concessions for land development, mining, public works and other projects on the basis of which international company offers the most money.

Peace Corps volunteers cannot participate in any political activism, so we will remain in the background. On the other hand, we are supposed to develop leadership, organizational, computing and presentation skills, business plans, etc. How groups choose to use this training is up to them.

The third meeting was actually a training program for coffee growers, sponsored by the local governmental agency that supports them. Among others, we listened to a session on the European Best Farming Practices Act, which the growers will eventually have to conform to if they wish to export their coffee; a session on how to combat the “broca”, an insect that drills into the coffee bean to lay its eggs, and a session on why and how to implement record-keeping systems (part of the Farming Best Practices requirements.) What was interesting about the day was the emphasis on organic farming practices.

Moving on, let me say that christmas decorations are much in evidence here – the same Currier and Ives ones we see in the States. The relevance of snow and reindeer in this climate escapes me! Commercialization of Christmas is rampant – many, many commercials on TV, lots of store floor space devoted to cheap decorations and even cheaper plastic toys. But the frantic rush to buy stuff is absent out here in the campo, where there are no stores.
I must go bake some apples. Cooking will be a pain, as the water is not running this morning!

Lastly, Gary and I wish you all a very happy holiday season and a very Happy New Year.

Cheers, Peg

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