« July 2005 | Main | September 2005 »

August 23, 2005

Geckos in the house

We share our house with a lot of creatures: Crabs, Fruit bats, and, most notably, geckos. Locally called largatillos ("Little Crocodiles" - how appropriate), they are actually good companions. They are relatively clean, and eat bugs (and, fruit -- not necessarily a good thing).

They are not very shy about mating, which is always entertaining.


Posted by rick at 12:44 PM | Comments (0)

August 22, 2005

Buliding a Cayuco and pushing it to da sea

After out first attempt to obtain a large cayuco failed, we heard from Ricardo that there was a half-finished cayuco about to start rotting away in the jungle near Loma Estrella. I hate waste of resources, so this sounded quite intriguing. As it turned out, someone from Colon had ordered this boat from a guy named Alexis, who promptly cut down the tree and started work. When he ran out of gas for the chainsaw, he couldn't find the buyer -- who never came back. Ever since, the log had been in the jungle... Another example of inefficiencies as a result of people's cash flow situation in Bocas. If he had had enough money for gas and food while working on the boat, he could have just finished it and sold it.

The "boat" was 43 feet long and about 5 feet wide -- a pretty good size for a dugout canoe!

So we decided to have Alexis and his brother finish the work. This is a very interesting proces that has evolved over time... Nowadays, the log is hollowed out by making cross cuts into the wood with a chainsaw every 4 inches or so, and then chipping away the wood inbetween the cuts with an axe. After the rough shape is there, a special tool (Soacha) is used to hack away more wood and to shape the interior. All work is done wherever the tree fell -- it is, of course, impossible to move the log. Rough estimate: 1.5m diameter, 2.25*3.14/4 = 2, 2*12m = 24 m3. Even if you cut it in half, with a specific gravity of .7, you end up with about 8 tons. No way -- given that the tree is far from any road or vehicle accessible terrain.

So -- when the boat is almost finished, but still in relative rough shape, people get together and push it to the sea. For this boat, we needed about 40 people, and it took a whole day.  Traditionally, this is done in a Junta -- the boat builders invite all their friends and neighbors to help, and provide food and booze in return. A very nice tradition -- born out of necessity, since they could never afford to actually pay that many people for their help. Previously, many more types of projects were done this way. Building a new house, even clearing some land for planting, was done in groups like this. Naturally, towards the end of the day, people tend to be a bit less coordinated... Fortunately, Alexis, who cleared the path for the boat with the chainsaw, had enough common sense not to get wasted...

The crux of the operation was a little cliff the boat had to be eased down. Man Hing wrapped a rope around a tree, to hold the boat back, and someone had the very bright idea to cut a balsa tree part way, so that the branches were holding up the trunk a few feet off the ground. As the boat fell, the balsa tree cushioned the fall, and the boat hit the ground unharmed.
The last section of the trip was much easier -- along the road. However, it was not encessaily safer. To warn traffic going by, someone cut yet another tree (more on that later...)  and put branches on the road. (This is a latin american -- and maybe global tradition. If you see green fresh branches on the road, SLOW DOWN).

To get the boat to the farm, Man Hing nailed some 2x4s to it, put an engine on it, and drive it home, very slowly.

Since it was still in a very rough shape, it was very slow and sluggish, and didn't track well... no big deal of course. A few weeks later, Man Hing and Emiliano finished the refining work, and added 10" of wood on the sides and the bow. The boat turned out beautiful and useful, with a capacity of at least 4 tons, or a small village.

Throughout the process, I spent a lot of time thinking about whether building this boat was a responsible thing to do. What was the impact on the environment?

It always hurts me to see a tree cut down. Granted, this one was down already, but maybe another one will be cut down for the next boat, since this one is no longer available. The tree in question was a Ceibo (sandbox) tree, probably 100 years old. Ceibo is very common and somewhat invasive -- we have thousands growing on the abandoned cow pasture we are reforesting. About 500 of these we will protect and make part of the reforestation effort. So in the long run, I do not feel to guilty about the tree we cut down. Short term -- well, a tree was cut that was habitat for lots of animals.  That's a bit painful. A tree was cut that was a beautiful reminder of the value of old growth forest... also not good.  An example was set that it's ok to use these trees for boats... Hm. That one, I think does not apply. If anything, we made people realize that a piece of useful wood rotting away is a wasted resource, and that it is better to "approvechar" it.  (The argument that the decomposition is an important part of the forest life cycle is not applicable here, I think, because we only took maybe  5% of the tree -- the remainder is now rotting away... and in the rainforest, there is so much biomass throughput that this is no big deal).

A trail of minor destruction was left where we pushed the boat, and a couple of balsa trees were cut -- no big deal in the tropics. A balsa tree reaches a foot in diameter in less than 3 years, and balsa trees are one of the first things that grow when you turn over soil, so there is no need to even plant them. I am sure that 6 weeks after the operation, all other traces were already overgrown.

So what were the positive effects of this project? I think it is important to help preserve what is left of the local way of life. This has always involved exploiting natural resources; and in turn, any respect people currently have for these resources results from the fact that they are exploitable. Or put another way -- if you can't eat or sell it or make a house or a boat from it, it's worthless. Also, there is very little sense of community left -- now, after over a year, people still talk about the day we pushed that boat to the water. It was one of the few events that united neighbors and family.

So, overall, I think this was a good thing.

And, we got a wonderful puppy (Tita) out of it :-) Alexis' family had a litter of puppies they did not want, so we bought one. A few days later, the mother of the puppies was hit by a truck and all the remaining puppies dies shortly thereafter. But that's another story.

Posted by rick at 10:19 PM | Comments (1)

August 03, 2005

Getting around -- by Boat

There are no roads and few trails on the island -- so the only way to get to the project is by water.

From Bocas town (where the airport is located), the route goes through a small maze of channels between small mangrove islands and through dolphin bay.

With a fast boat, it takes about 20 minutes.

For groceris and other supplies, we usually go to Almirante, which is a little bit closer.

The local mode of transportation is the hand-made dug out canoe, which is paddled with a wooden "Canalete". Kids learn to paddle soon after they learn to walk. Locals can recognize each others from a distance from the way they paddle long before they can recognize the boat or the person.

Building dugout canoes and pangas from logs is a local tradition, which we support by using mostly wooden boats. They require more maintenance than modern fiberglass boats, which helps keep the workers busy.
Larger dugout canoes are used to haul heavy loads such as lumber, horses, cement, and occasionally an entire small village. They are much slower, but relaxing to ride. Perfect for a quick nap.

Our largest boat is a 42 ft dugout that was made in the jungle from a single Ceibo tree and required about 50 people to push to the ocean. It has a capacity of about 3 tons. It was already partially built, but abandoned, when we had it made.

In the picture, the boat is towing a paddle canoe to help a local family along the way.

For moving people quickly, the boat of choice is the panga. It has flatter hull than a dugout canoe, and is designed to plane. It cuts through waves quite efficiently, but the driver gets very wet if going fast through high waves which can make it difficult to see.

In nice weather the breeze is nice and highly appreciated even by the dogs.
Smaller pangas, lovingly called pangitas, go up to 30 knots with a mere 15hp engine, but require some skill and nerve to drive. They are the most efficient way to town if all you need is glue for the PVC pipe that just broke.

Once a year, there is a boat race in Bocas with these pangitas. Cornelius usually wins, though looking at the picture I think Emiliano will have a chance next time.

The pangita is also the preferred boat for a quick visit to the neighbors or the local tienda (store).
Gringos, of course, typically prefer more modern boats, and I have to admit it's nice to be able to write emails on the way to town.



Posted by rick at 07:18 PM | Comments (0)

August 02, 2005

School in Tierra Oscura

The elementary school in Tierra Oscura is located about 7 miles from Almirante, and 8 miles from Bocas. Access by land is only possible on foot, and it is a long hike to the road. There is no regularly schedule transport, and little boat traffic, so the community is more isolated than one would think.

Most of the students paddle to school with their siblings and neighbor's kids, but some walk through the jungle and some are dropped off by their parents.

The contrast between the poor condition of the school facilities and the beauty and richness of the natural surroundings reflects the community's situation, struggling with very basic living conditions in a place so rich in natural resources.

Currently, there are three teachers for about 90 students. The teachers share a house that was build in 2002 by the parents, mostly from local resources; the largest cost factor was the roofing material which was provided by local gringos.

The previous house had been very poor shape; the picture on the right shows a bedroom that was shared by two teachers.

The new house has a rainwater collection system and a basic kitchen. The teachers use 12V car batteries and kerosene lamps for lighting.
In 2004, there were five teachers sharing the small 4 bedroom house, which did not make it easier for them to deal with the psychological challenges of their difficult job in such an isolated place.

We built a second, smaller cabin to improve this situation.

In 2005, this cabin is not needed for the teachers and has been used as a small library.

Since access to the school is mostly by water, the dock is an important part of the infrastructure. In 2005, what little was left of the dock became so dangerous that we decided to rebuild part of it. The new part will hopefully last about 15-20 years.

The middle part of the dock consists of rocks that are partially submerged at high tide. Our attempts to fix this part as well failed because the parents were unable to agree on how to repair it... Some actually preferred the loose rocks over a wooden dock that would last only a short period of time -- quote: "The loose rocks have worked for the last 30 years, and they will still be there 30 years from now. A wooden dock would fall apart". This is a good example that supporting a place like that is not just a matter of financial support, and requires patience.


The traditional way of dealing with human waste is to build a latrine above the water. The shack over the water in the picture above was used until 2004 by the students and the teachers on a daily basis. Combined with the dangerous condition of the dock, risks of infections were very high. Kids tied up their boats just a few yards away, and frequently slip and fall on the loose rocks, into the contaminated water.

We have now built two composting toilets for the school, and in 2005, the latrine on the water was finally dismantled.

However, it seems to be very difficult to explain to the teachers and students how to use the composting toilets; if any peace corps volunteers read this, maybe they can get a couple of those wonderful bilingual instruction posters for us?

The most recent project is the remodeling of one of the classrooms. With support from the gringo community in Bocas, we will rebuild the floor and the roof. This classroom will then also be used for the student's meals provided by the school. 

If you are interested in supporting the school, please email us. Most of all, we are looking for volunteers to teach at the school and contribute time and energy to work with the community with health education and improving community spirit in a way that respects the traditions and lifestyle of the locals. Please do not contact us with offers that are tied to a religious agenda that goes beyond teaching respect for nature and conservation of natural resources. Donations are also appreciated, and we will see personally that they will be put to good use.

Posted by rick at 01:03 PM | Comments (0)