Thursday, August 9, 2012

Initial thoughts from India

It's been a week since I left Iowa for India, and life here has been treating me pretty well. Initially we were in Bangalore, and we've since moved out to an area a little more secluded. There's monkeys, birds, and overall things are pretty peaceful. We've been going through some informal training on Indian culture, and the projects we'll be working on. I'm inspired by the people I'll be working with, their stories are all incredible, and I'm honored to be in this adventure with all of them. 

The other night we arranged a Skype call with Jed, the fellow that was working on the project, I've been assigned to. The facility where we're staying doesn't have WiFi, so I had to plug my computer into their system. The internet wouldn't work, so we tried another computer, still nothing... So I asked for technical support, (not hard to find in India, actually she was right next to me). She couldn't get it working either, so she suggested I used one of their other computers, the problem being it had no camera, microphone or speakers. So I fetched a camera and microphone, she handed me some headphones, and we patched things together for it to work. I finally called Jed to find only to find out the headphones didn't work, we disconnected and tried another pair, and when we finally got connected and I apologized of the difficulties, he said, "Welcome to India."

When I initially told people I was going to India, friends that had been raved about what an fascinating place it was. I've not even been here a week and it's already exceeded my expectations. In my short time here I've been on sensory overload, with all the sights, sounds, and smells that make up the beautiful country of India and I can't wait to get started on the work I'll be doing.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Next Adventure

I first started this blog to chronicle my life and journey serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Panama. In November of 2011, I wrote the epic conclusion of my Peace Corps story as we finished our aqueduct and latrine project in the village I call Maje. This provided faithful followers some much needed closure. However, as Hollywood has taught us, every good story has to have a sequel...

In a few days I'll be leaving to India to work for 10 months. This time, I'll be working with Design Impact, a non-profit organization that partners professional designers with community organizations to design and implement life-improving solutions. That's a general overview of their mission paraphrased from their website.

Design Impact

Specifically I will be working in Pune with ARTI (Appropriate Rural Technology Institute) on a project redesigning the "Sarai Cooking System," a small charcoal burning stove. Fellow Jed Farlow has been doing extensive research and testing and has laid the groundwork to develop an innovative product. I'll be taking over where he's leaving off as a design/engineering consultant for the next phase of the project, building prototypes, picking a final direction for production and possibly following through and developing a marketing/distribution strategy to dramatically improve sales. For those of you who want more information about the process, Jed's final report can be found here.

I'm very grateful for the opportunity to work on a product that has so much potential to improve the lives of those who use it, not to mention the great food I'll be eating, and rich culture I'll be experiencing. Needless to say I'm looking forward to my time in India, and will try to keep up with my blog as much as I can. The transition from jungle-to crowded Indian city will be interesting to say the least, so I look forward to sharing the journey with my faithful blog followers.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Like so many of my posts, I will begin with an apology for not writing sooner, but since the last post I´ve been busy rotating between nonstop work and debilitating skin infections and haven´t found the time to keep my faithful followers updated.

Short versions, we finished the aqueduct, distributed household water filters, and trained community members to maintain and operate a gravity fed water system. With the dry season at hand, community members now have hope that they won´t pass another day without water. In addition, we were able to build 9 composting latrines, and teach community members a safe and effective way of waste disposal.

As you can imagine, there´s a lot more to the story than that.

As published earlier, we first had to install a 10,000 Liter tank on the top of a hill overlooking the community.

The next task was to build hundred meter bridge crossing the river to bring the water to the community. This is a fairly simple design, basically a steel cable with a 2" PVC pipe connected to it stretched across the river... however with limited resources as far as excavation equipment and power tools, we were left to work with a combination of good ole fashioned know-how and elbow grease.
We then distributed household water filters for all that participated in the project, through this project, we were able to provide safe drinking water for an entire community, improving the quality of life, and diminishing the water borne illness that affect community members.

In addition, we held a seminar to teach community members new techniques to safe composting latrines. Those who participated, were given materials to construct their own latrine. In total we constructed 9 composting latrines. Previously, I´d helped other volunteers build similar latrines in other communities, and materials costs were $400 per latrine. By working with locals to develop new building techniques, we were able to get the material cost down to $130 per latrine, making this project truly sustainable long term, as many community members who didn´t participate in the project have approached me later about how much cement is required with the intention of building a composting latrine, but with their own resources.

That´s the cut and dry version of the last few months, as you can imagine, it´s been an incredible learning experience. When I initially was talking about joining Peace Corps, I talked with former volunteers, and everyone said it was a life changing experience. At the time I didn´t really know what that meant, and after 3 years I still don´t, but I know it´s true. I feel like I´m the same person, I´m still me... but the opportunities I have, my priorities, my dreams aren´t what they were 3 years ago.

Another cliche I often heard from former volunteers is that they got so much more than they could possibly give, which just doesn´t make sense on paper. In my case, I gave three years of my life I lived in poverty, and was able to get funding for an aqueduct and latrines to drastically improve the health and well being of this community, I was free labor for anyone building a house, I taught english in the school, taught woodworking methods to help people earn more income, I was constant entertainment and I still feel like I came up short. I still feel like I owe something to these people. I arrived in this small village were I had no family, didn´t know anyone, and complete strangers who had no obligations to help me, gave me food, friendship, and and place I can truly call my home. I can´t count the number of times someone went out of their way to feed me, even when they didn´t know where their next meal was coming from. Daily, people took time out of their day to visit me, to make sure I wasn´t lonely, not to mention all the ¨gifts¨given to me, with no expectations of something in return. I leave feeling like I got out so much more than I could possibly give, and the funny thing is, the community members felt the same... not all of them, but several people acknowledged this in my going away party. The strange part is, the people who gave me the most, are the one´s who felt like they got the most out of my time there. The lumber workers, who donated weeks their time to build my house, and helped me any time I needed a hand, women who called me over every time it was time to eat, the friends who gave me gifts, necklaces, bracelets, animal remains, were the people most emotional at my going away party, and were most expressive of how much they felt like I´d given them. Those that enjoyed all the benefits of my time there, and never sacrificed anything to have me in the community still think of me as a glorified tourist. This makes me think that there must be something to this all. The act of giving, or sacrificing for something, makes you appreciate of value that thing so much more.

That´s one of many lessons I take with me as I leave, that if I really want to get something out of my relationships, my work, my faith, my life, I need to give. Because in life, as in Peace Corps, the more you give, the more you get.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Project Update

First of all, I'd like to thank all the dedicated "Mahem" readers who chipped in to help fund the water and sanitation project in Maje. The project is well under way, with the new 10,000 liter water tank installed and pumping out water.

The tank was installed, and the community was able to have water for the last part of the dry season. Now the rains have come, and our work schedule is when the rain allows, which hasn't been a lot this week, so I'm taking advantage to regroup and pick up some supplies in the city before heading back for the next phase of the project.

An auditor came from headquarters in Washington to visit Panama, and came out to visit me. He took this picture of me. He said he might feature my project in his annual report to congress. So, to those of you who donated, I can't thank you enough for your support.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


I'm writing to you all from a wonderful climate controlled home, current outdoor temperature is 10 degrees farenheit, and there are about 6 inches of snow on the ground... As you've probably guessed by now, I'm not in Maje anymore, I'm back in the good ole US of A, but only for the next week or so. Monday I'm heading back to Panama for another action packed year in Maje.

That's right I'm into my 3rd year as a volunteer, which means I've extended as a volunteer. So many may be wondering what exactly I'm doing here that's important enough to stay for, but not important enough to post a blog update for the last year. As you may have guessed, there are many things that are a part of my experience, yet haven't made it into my blog. For example, you probably didn't know I taught English in the school this year, or that I crafted a functional pair of water skis out of raw lumber and a pair of hiking boots, or that I kept a pet "boa" in my house for a week until I was alerted that it was actually a venomous viper. I'm not going to elaborate on these stories today, I'm going to update you all on the water and sanitation work I'll be working on in the coming year.

Community Aqueduct- Before I even arrived in Maje, the government had helped build an aqueduct for the community. However, the aqueduct dries up in the dry season leaving the community without water again. Last year we pooled resources to expand the aqueduct to include a water source that provides water year round. Community members all worked together to construct the intake structure and bury nearly one kilometer of PVC pipes. However, the larger components of the aqueduct system were out of reach for the communities budget. My goal for the next year is to have the aqueduct providing safe drinking water year round for the entire community.

Composting Latrines- Due to the high water table in the area, traditional outhouses fill up with water in the rainy season creating a hazard for the entire community. For this reason very few in the community have a latrine. We've built four model composting latrines in different parts of the community, that contain waste above ground while the composting process destroys all pathogens. Those who have this type of latrine see the benefits and have recommended them for friends and neighbors. There is a lot of interest in the community for this type of latrine, but it uses materials such as corrugated steel and cement. My goal is to build composting latrines for everyone interested in the next year.

You may notice that these goals will not be possible to accomplish in the next year without outside assistance. For this, I've worked with the community to apply for a grant that relies on donors to provide funding for community projects. This is where you all come in...

I am looking for 30 donors who can donate $100 each for materials to build composting latrines. Community members are then responsible for all the lumber and transport to build the latrines.

In addition I need two generous donors that can donate $1000 to purchase the water storage tanks necessary to complete the aqueduct system. The community is responsible for the water transport and installation of these tanks.

If you're able to help out with a donation of any size, you can do so by;
2.Enter the amount you're willing to donate.
3.Follow the instructions on screen

Or if you'd rather mail in a donation, you can use the following form, then send it to the address at the bottom of the page.

Remember that all donations are 100% tax deductible, and all contributions go directly to the community. I'll be donating my experience and skills to make sure the project benefits the entire community in a sustainable way. I sincerely hope you think and pray if you can be a blessing to my friends and family in Maje.

Floods of 2010

On Mother's Day (celebrated December 8th in Panama) Maje experienced the worst flooding in the history of the community. Every five years or so, the water level rises to a level that comes close to some of the lower built house and makes for a much shorter walk to the boat. In this instance the water reached this level and it just kept raining...

and raining...

and raining...

The water level is controlled by a hydroelectric dam on the other side of the lake. From what I can tell, the operators of the dam delayed in opening the flood gates too long, and by the time they realized the level the lake was at, opening the gates would have flooded the communities below the dam, so they waited more, and it kept raining...

and raining...

and raining...

The rain reached the critical level on the dam, and the dam operators (pardon my French) were forced to open the flood gates and everything downstream was immediately covered with 20 ft. of water, including the Panamerican Highway, the only road that services the eastern half of Panama. The Eastern provinces were faced with a food shortage, thousands of acres of rice were lost, and in total 10 lives were lost. I was evacuated and a portion of my daring escape can be viewed at . Note the large body of water we are crossing is the Interamerican Highway.

Talking to friends in Maje, the water has receded, things are returning to normal, thankfully the only loss of lives that occurred there were of chickens and cows, though many people are inconvenienced by loss of other property, the last I heard was that everyone was safe, although the aftereffects of the flooding such as illnesses, loss of crops, and sanitation are yet to be determined.

In talking to family in the States, they were surprised that there was no news coverage on any of the flooding in Panama. The most widely accepted theory is that the news outlets were forced to drop the story to give adequate coverage to Prince Williams' proposal.

To make up for this lack of coverage here are some photos, including my house, before and after the flooding

Friday, December 11, 2009

Trip to Nurra

We emerged out of the jungle on horseback and decended to the small Kuna village along the river. The Kuna are an indigenous group in Eastern Panama steeped in tradition. This community is especially cut off from the outside world. We'd traveled nearly five hours on horseback from the nearest volunteer's house. As we approached the community we could see a soccer game in progress, but were immediately cut of by the Kuna welcome commitee, which consists of 5 grumpy looking men asking, "What are you doing here." A fair question.
Orlando is a successful cacao farmer from the Bocas Del Toro region, he was invited to come share his knowledge to with the community as they begin a reforestation project using cacao. Domingo, who bears a striking resemblence to Jackie Chan, is a Kuna naturalist, born in the San Blas region and well educated, he is our interpreter. The three Americans that tagged along didn't have nearly as concrete reasons for being there. Mateo is the closest Peace Corps Volunteer to the community, and was asked by the UN to assist with some of the paperwork for the project down the road. Alan had come to help survey for an aqueduct project in another town, and I was there to learn about reforestation with cacao, to see if it's a method that can be used in Maje, where I live. You'll notice that 2/3 of the Americans are named Alan, which became a little confusing for everyone involved.
Though we'd called ahead and told the only guy in town that speaks spanish we were coming, they still seemed a little suprised by our presence. The chief said that after the party that night, we'd have a meeting, and get everything sorted out.
That was all appartently accurately translated, because sure enough, there was a party that night. They had an awards ceremony for the soccer tournament, skits complete with acrobatic stunts, and karaoke, all of which was in tule, the Kuna language. Midway through the karaoke, we got word that the meeting wouldn't be until the following morning. So I decided to call it a night and went and laid down in my hammock.
The next morning I was awoken by three gorgeous young women standing in the doorway. They were talking amoungst themselves and giggling. "Como te llama?" we asked... giggles. Finally Mateo found his paper with phrases in tule "Beikeni ginika" They finally responded with their names. They weren't being flirty, or difficult, they just didn't understand a word of Spanish. Here we are, three single Americans, in an exotic place, with now way to communicate with the local women. Mateo asked "Bei igi birga?", or "how old are you," They said 16... it's probably best that we weren't able to communicate.
That morning, we had the first meeting to decide what exactly we were going to be doing there. The meeting house was basically a larger version of the regular houses, with palm thatch roof, strips of palm bark as walls, and hammocks hanging everywhere. There were benches to sit on along the sides of the hut, In the center hung several hammocks with benches towards the foot and head of the hammocks. This was the "throne" of the chiefs. The chiefs laid in the hammocks, and asked questions, and rested his eyes while we explained our mission there and how we would go about working. We sat on the bench at the foot of the hammocks, and other community leaders sat on the bench at the head. The benches along the walls were filled with other spectators. As we exited the meeting to go out to the fields. Far off in the distance, I heard beating drums. The music was captivating, though primitive. The melody was simple but, catchy, even familiar. It was as if this song spoke to the most primal part of my soul, identified with what makes me human, and called for me to dance. Little by little I began to hear the words... "I got a feeling, that tonight's gonna be a good night." The Black Eyed Peas, had followed us to the middle of nowhere.
I tried to avoid the house we were staying in as much as possible. The owner was a nice enough guy, but he was a chief, and wasn't around much, and when he left his wife yelled at me in tule, and there was rarely anyone to interpret, so she'd repeat, getting louder, until it was like a chant, getting closer and closer to me, sometime shaking hammocks, or slapping her thighs, it was terrifying. I felt like an evil gypsy was putting a curse on me. We brought all our food, but needed a place to cook it. So they let us use their fire. We cooked mostly pasta, because it was easy, whenever possible I shared what I could with our hosts, but we didn't bring enough to feed the 13 neighbor children who were also part of the family, and our food was gross to them. One time as I was boiling pasta, the mother in law of the chief started chanting at me, slapping her hips, then she started slapping my hips, and finally I was able to pick out some words of what she was saying. Chanting "Mani, Mani, Mani". The tule word for money. She was slapping my hips saying that I have money, I'm an american, I should give it to her. Mateo told her "Mani Sate" or we don't have money, and she backed off. This continued to be the trend whenever we were in the house. At one point, Alan was cooking and asked for a rag to pick up the pot. The women started yelling something at him, and the teenage son finally translated, "they want you to buy the rag." I let him borrow my towel, and spent as much time as possible outside the house.
Part of our time outside the house was visiting fields, part was interviewing community elders, to find out which trees are native to the area, and which were brought from other areas. It was custom to pay a few bucks for the interview, which seemed odd to me, because it was for a community project directly benefitting them, but it was the most effective way to get information. When we tried interviewing the oldest woman in town she wanted $10, and she would give us her entire life story, which I'm sure was very interesting, but wasn't the information we wanted. Then her son came in, he did know quite a bit about where the native trees were, and how to get there, but then he wanted to show us his dolls. We went into another hut, and there were tons of dolls carved out of balsa wood. We asked about them. He's a medicine man, and uses the dolls in healing rituals. Orlando pointed out that some of the dolls were as tall as me, and I pointed out that they white too, and that makes me very nervous.
Next to the the dolls were several airplanes and helicopters also carved from balsa, though given the setting, much more puzzling. So we asked what are the airplanes for. He said when someone's sick he uses the airplanes to hover above them collecting the bad spirits.
All in all the trip to Nurra was an interesting look at a starkly different culture. Though I never felt comfortable in the house we stayed, there were glimmers of hospitality. They were very generous with the corn drink they made. The first time they offered it to us. they gave us one glass for the three of us. So Mateo took a sip, and passed around Alan sipped and passed it to me. When it was my turn the women started yelling again, and Alan tells me they want me to chug it. Out of fear, I chug the glass at once, and they went to get more, and give it back to Mateo to chug the whole glass. It actually went down smooth, and so whenever they offered us corn drink we'd all chug the whole glass at once, because that was apparently how you are supposed to do it. When they'd yelled at us earlier, they were just trying to say, "We just have one glass, so go a head and drink it up so we can serve your friends." All the yelling just added to the confusion and made it a more stressful situation. Us not feeling comfortable in the house, wasn't because they were bad people, or we were bad people; more than anything, a failure to communicate.
So said Domingo our Kuna translator who looks like Jackie Chan. He said that the Kuna are a very misunderstood people. They have been used and mistreated by the Spanish explorers, and then the panamanian government, that they have put their guard up more than any other ethnic group. They've also organized themselves much more than any other ethnic group. For us Peace Corps volunteers, it's so different from anything else we've experienced in Panama. Everywhere else I've gone in Panama, they people treat foriegners like royalty, but the Kuna are very suspicious of foreigners. Jackie Chan continued to tell a story about a tourism student, who had recently graduated. He asked her what region of Panama she wanted to work in. She said she doesn't care, as long as she doesn't have to deal with the Kuna. He asked why she said that. She replied, "They're unfriendly, and plus, they make their corn drink by chewing up dried corn in their mouth and spitting it into a big pot."
So misunderstood or not, I will not be going back anytime soon.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

One Year Update

So... I've been in Maje almost a year, and it's been several months since my last blog update. Sounds like it's time for an update. Many of you are probably curious as to what I'm doing for work, and it really depends on the day.

My main project right now is building latrines. This may seem like something pretty basic idea, and it is, but it's complicated by the fact that if one simply "digs a hole" the hole floods with water during the rainy season and makes it much less pleasant to swim in the river. So as an alternative to having a really stinky lawn, a lot of the people just head to the jungle to do their business. Having a sanitary "facility" to fulfill ones necessities would be high on the priority list when building a house. However, people get accustomed to doing things a certain way, and won't change unless someone show's them a more attractive alternative. Enter Peace Corps volunteer.

I've been promoting a composting latrine. The Peace Corps model here in Panama is basically 2 cement boxes side by side above ground. This makes it a much larger latrine, the basic hole in the ground. The user uses one box for a year, and then the other box for the next year, adding sawdust, rice husks, or ash everytime they make unkaka. As one side is used the other is composting. If done properly, by the time it's time to use the first side again, the contents are completely processed, parasites have been killed and you can shovel out the "fertlizer" to feed your crops. In explaining this to the people of my community, this is where I lost them. You want me to "take out the unkaka". Thinking about it, this is a very reasonable reaction. So I built myself one to prove to the community, and myself that this isn't gross. I changed the design however. I built a wooden "box", On top of this box I have my a platform with a "seat". When this box fills up, I will simply build another box. The platform and walls disassemble to be moved to the new location, and the box is covered for compost magic to happen. When it's ready, a tree is planted in the box and the latrine is converted to planter filled with rich organic fertilzer.

This model
-requires less material "mine was built completely with used lumber, costing me a total of $8 for the nails and toilet seat."
-allows fertilizer to be used in a safe manner providing nutrients for a fruit producing tree.
-will not contaminate the local water
-minimizes handeling of unkaka
-complements the seminomadic lifestyle of the embera
-is designed as a cradle to cradle system

I know pictures would be helpful in a post like this, and I'll see what I can do, for the next time I post, but with updates on other projects I'm working on.

Chao pescao!