Monthly Archives: December 2011

Feliz Navidad


Girlesa [in heavily accented English]: This is your first Christmas in Panama?
Colleen [nodding]: Yes
Girlesa: I´m so, so sorry.
It´s hard to get into the Christmas spirit here in the humid tropics, but we did our best. In the city, the long-time American presence has left cultural impositions such as Santa Claus, and even the inflatable snow man is not unheard of, but we decided to test our fare as far away as possible.

The road to Yaviza was paved 3 years ago with much excitement and fanfare. Today, many sections are destroyed. We gave a ride to a hitchhiker who turned out to be a school director. He said he had words with the contractors. ¨If you want to know how to build a road, go look at what the Americans did. They built a highway over the water and it works just fine. Go look at it. You can´t even build one on land!¨

Accepting an invitation to the end of the road, Yaviza, for a conference and dinner for indigenous church leaders, we navigated the recently paved and recently destroyed interamerican highway… yet another victory for incompetence and corruption. In addition, Yaviza has a new $17 million water system… and although there was reliable water previously, now there is not. But it was totally worth it for the harmonica hoe-down show-down that erupted during the evening worship service.

On Christmas Eve, we invited our closest neighbors over for dinner, to see a slide-show and movie of Jesus´ birth, and to read scripture and sing together. We also couldn´t help ourselves and bought a bunch of junk at our local Chinese owned store for Chinese Christmas. It took a while for folks to warm up and get the idea, but before it was over, farmers were stealing flashlights, and the pastor stole a box of Cornflakes, pronounced ¨con-flay¨ here. Lots of good laughs. We also took advantage of a bank of sand that the flooding river deposited and introduced the game of ¨horseshoes.¨

under our house during Chinese Christmas.

Christmas Day was lonely. We missed family a lot and could do little to distract ourselves. We ate leftover rice and chicken and lots of oranges. Kalea got a plastic kitchen with plastic food that some friends in the city gave to us. She really enjoy it, but right now she seems more into the plastic farm animals that Colleen stole from the pastor that allowed him to steal the Cornflakes. I gave Colleen some candle holders that I made with wood and paint can lids, and Colleen gave me massage coupons and candy. I´m glad we could share a Christmas with our neighbors, but I sure hope we can be at home with family next year.
Happy New Year,




Filed under Miscellaneous

Into the Red Zone, Part II

The boat captain called 2 days after he was supposed to pick us up. We told him we´d discuss things and call him back. He asked us to hurry because he was dangling in the top of a mountain apple tree, the only place he could get a cell signal. I was anxious to go somewhere because Colleen and Kalea had made the wise decision to stay home in Catrigandí, and I was stuck in Yaviza at the end of the Pan-American highway on the frontier with Colombia… I wanted to get to work or get home. We got clearance from the police, found a different boat, and decided to go ahead with the trip upriver. This would be the second trip of the disaster relief project prompted by last year´s flood and the goal was to inspect water systems in 4 communities and devise a community water/sanitation plan. Ten minutes after leaving the port in Yaviza, in the late morning, it started to rain. Passengers bailed water from the giant canoe as we plodded on, joking about hot coffee and sweetbread. Four hours later when we arrived at the community, Vista Alegre, it was still raining. I pride myself on being adaptable and easy going, but I must admit that I was at my comfort limits as I searched for dry clothing in my wet bag, thanking God that Colleen and Kalea had decided to stay at home. I felt like the rat I had seen the day before, stranded on a rock in the river, shivering, uncertain, with nowhere to go. I crawled into a hammock and sulked until dark, angry with myself for having been ill-prepared. The rains began to let up, and I shooed a dog out of the cleanest corner of the smoky hut to lay down my mat and sleep. While it was still dark, Pastor Ricardo and I were awakened by voices and commotion under the house. Wow these folks get an early start, I thought, but something didn´t seem right, it was 3:30 in the morning. Ricardo´s first language is Woumeo, so I asked him what they were saying. ¨The waters are rising.” We descended from our dry cozy house to see a straggling of people carrying bags of cement. Wandering a dozen yards in the direction from which they came, we found the slowly encroaching ¨shore¨, a chocolaty filth of debris laden water where there was none the day before. My soon-to-be-friend Pedro had erected a lounge chair in the dim light at the water´s edge, reluctantly moving his chair as necessary to accommodate the rising water.

Pedro and I hold ¨borojoa¨ branches, the much revered and little understood fruit that costs 1/10 of a man´s daily wage. Pedro taught me the secret to getting all female plants when planting anew. We´ll see if I can put it to practice.

Pedro Mémbora left Panama at 17 years old with his 4 siblings, father, and pregnant mother for the jungles of Colombia at his father´s behest. His mother gave birth, and 15 days later Pedro´s father left with another woman to return to Panama, leaving Pedro to raise his siblings. This he did and did well… two earning college degrees to work as professionals in Colombia, an unfathomable achievement for the impoverished indigenous in the jungle peripheries of that country. Five years ago, the FARC (Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia) showed up in Pedro´s home and gave them three choices: 1) grow coca 2) leave 3) or die… so they left their home in Colombia for Panama. Pedro now resides in Vista Alegre, about 4 hours in dugout canoe up the Tuira River from Yaviza. Ironically, his father and mother live there, too… separately. Pedro has been instrumental in organizing other refugees, utilizing materials from failed government projects to build bathrooms for himself and his neighbors. He is an inspiration and a reminder of who we are here to serve… whoever we can. As for the water system in that community, we were able to inspect it as the flood waters resided, and hopefully we can provide a solution by the dry season. Although I deeply regret the devastation that the flood caused the community (it destroyed much of the plaintain crop amongst other things), it was helpful to see what we are dealing with when it comes to disposing of human waste. It was also helpful to a team of USAID workers who happened to be visiting at the same time. They were there to train the community in flood preparedness and evaluate the community in this regard. Of course, they got a first-hand experience because they had to be evacuated by the community from the flooded public school where they were staying. Here are a few videos of what we saw. I think that is a pit latrine behind where the mother and daughter are wading. I imagine a wave of sickness will follow this latest flood.

Be Well,







Filed under Miscellaneous

What was that?

What Was That!? A hodge podge of short stories by Colleen


the woolly billed toe tickler (I made that up)

It´s Panamá. There are so many species of birds and bugs alone that are new to us here.  Often we can´t identify any of them to anything we have seen in the states.

We recently enjoyed the company of Jamie, Allen and Kristen Bunch from Indiana. The girls were awesome company to me as Alan and Allen went off to the jungle.  Kalea really enjoyed their time too. She would bring them story books and cozy up with them in the hammock… One day, Jamie and Kristen did some work in the garden.  I remember something along the lines of Jamie calmly saying… “Uhh, Colleen….there´s a giant spider in the garden…maybe a tarantula?” … I go down from the house to see what she´s talking about…We decided it was definitely a tarantula. It was big, black, and fuzzy.  In my opinion, pretty.  I´ve never had any prejudices towards spiders before…I always assume they are eating something much more creepy, of which, I prefer not to see…We tried to launch it over the fence with a shovel into the neighbors yard…(ha! Ha! No one lives there)…Minutes later , Jamie says, “Here´s another one”… Yet a few more minutes later… “Is this a crab!?”… I reply, “Oh yes, we have those too!” (River crab…oddly, I´ve never seen them in the river…only under my house!)


woolly opossum... no really.

One evening as I went to the back porch to brush my teeth I noticed something crawling on the back railing….actually it was a long tail that first caught my eye, wrapping around the banister…could this be the moment I´ve been truly waiting for…to see a cute spider monkey up close and personal?… No…it´s a…well…what is it? At that point in time, my thought of monkey quickly vanishes as the critter looks at me as if to say… “Oops! You´re not supposed to be here!” …and of course, I immediately return that thought… Somewhat casually, I say, “Alan, there is some weird animal crawling into the house, HURRY!”… We scurry for the broom and Alan manages to send the critter over the side railing and into the dark night with a loud “SPLAT!”… We learned the next morning from a neighbor that our critter is  what they call a fox…really like a cross between a possum and a ferret. It was a good size, roughly 2 feet long. We also later learned that they can usually put up a good fight and have claws!


Today as I am writing this, I was on the front porch and went to shut our new front door (Thank you Mr. Allen Bunch!), and I was startled to see something as big as the palm of my hand staring at me…It looked like a crawfish….what on earth? My heart was racing…When Alan returned from work he discovered it to be a species of grasshopper….a giant!

Needless to say, for Christmas, I am asking for screens!

What is that hideous thing!!? Oh. That´s dad.


Filed under Miscellaneous