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November 23, 2005

Sailing to Escudo de Veraguas

So, Rick's friend Ed has a 43-ft Catamaran called Quixotic and last week he invited us to sail with him to Isla Escudo de Veraguas. We jumped at the opportunity since Escudo is known to be gorgeous but infrequently visited by tourists. Plans were made tentatively because it was unclear when Ed would be able to make some necessary engine repairs. The night before the tentative departure date we met Ed in Almirante just as his engine repairs were being completed by a local mechanic - or rather, by Ed who was working under the mechanic's direction down in the cramped, hot engine hatch. The mechanic sat comfortably up on the deck complaining about his bad back and how underpaid he was, every so often giving directions to Ed. 

Getting to Almirante in the first place had been interesting, with six people, lots of luggage, decent-sized swells, and minimal gas. We had brought 2 of the teachers into town to do errands, and by the time we had picked them up and fought the waves across the bay to Almitante we arrived with less than 400ml of gas remaining. Upon seeing the size of our panga and the weather conditions, the teachers had decided to bring along their lifejackets, which was  a source of amusement for the rest of us. There were only four of us returning because we left the Wwoofers in town so we hitched a ride back to Tierra Oscura on Quixotic and introduced the teachers to the luxury of yachting  =P

Anyhow, we were up early the next morning to pack everything we needed to take. And yes, the amount of luggage that we managed to bring along was incredible. Unbelievable. Ridiculous, even. But we did manage to make use of almost everything except for Rick's dive gear. Besides that, we packed: a 2-person ocean kayak, 2 playboats, 4 paddles, lifejackets, helmets, spray skirts, laptop computer, giant spotlight, boxes of food, a large thermos of coconut juice, tupperware containers of coconut cream, etc etc etc. Plus, there were one hundred other things going on at the same time while we were packing. Between the farm workers coming and going and helping and needing to ask questions about what was supposed to happen while we were gone, and Ed running around trying to get internet and cellphone access and trying to book flights between Panama City and Bocas, it was a minor miracle that we were able to leave by about 9am. And it was yet another minor miracle that Rick's head didn't explode.

Once we were finally underway everyone started to relax. The four of us included Ed, Rick, myself, and Marcella. Once we were outside of the mangrove islands and clear of the shallow water we put up sail and turned off the engine. The wind and waves were both coming from directly behind us and were quite powerful and we were able to surf the catamaran as we headed out towards open ocean. Now THAT was a cool feeling! Ed started to teach us the ropes on board the boat so that we could help him while under sail power.

Once we got into open ocean and headed towards Escudo large waves started to hit us broadside. We were pitching and rolling all the way to the island, and it turns out that Rick gets seasick. Violently seasick. But we made it to the island with only having lost one of the slats of teak that make up the rear deck, which got punched out by a strong wave. Rick later managed to gouge out two long, deep holes in his foot when he slid onto and across the nails that had originally held the board down. Fortunately Ed carries good first aid supplies, but it made it difficult for Rick trying to keep his foot dry while being in a paddling and snorkelling wonderland.

The main island of Escudo is surrounded by islets that protect it from the breaking surf, creating a calm-watered paradise of lush virgin rainforest and hidden sandy beaches. Outside, the surf crashes against the islets creating stunning rock formations and some perfect surfing waves. As soon as we had anchored Quixotic in a semi-protected bay, Rick and I jumped in the ocean kayak and took a quick tour along our end of the island. The strong swells were fun to paddle in as we snuck in and around some small islets - rushing surges that threatened to slap us up against cliffs. Fortunately we'd already practiced rolling the double ocean kayak so we were comfortable paddling together and able to enjoy it without letting it freak us out. The small hidden beaches are spectacular - we paddled up a narrow channel to get to one, where we beached and walked around for a bit (barefoot through the jungle - yikes!).

After the ocean kayaking, we decided that there was still enough daylight to do a little surf kayaking. So we tied up the ocean kayak to the back of Quixotic, got into the whitewater boats, and seal launched ourselves off of Quixotic's front trampoline. It was a 10min paddle or so out to the surf, where we caught a few waves. The wave speed was too fast for the hull speed of our short boats though, so it was difficult to stay on the waves. Marcella was kicking herself in the butt for not having brought her surfboard (it was being repaired in Bocas). She's writing a travel column for a Mexican surf magazine, so surfing is obvioulsy pretty important to her.

The next day we all decided to circumnavigate the island, trading back and forth between the dinghy and the ocean kayak. As we were getting the boats ready we spotted a military-looking ship heading our way. Ed got concerned because although he had paid for and organized all of his permits, he hadn't yet received them in the mail. So he and Marcella took off in the dinghy, leaving us alone on Quixotic. We took our time putting around getting ready to leave, sure that they were watching us with binoculars. We paddled slowly after the dinghy, and didn't have any troubles.

After passing through a channel with some interesting signage we spotted some men snorkeling looking for lobsters. They had bottles of bleach that they were using as poison to make their jobs easier. Lovely. Shortly after that we passed a large protected bay where there were a few small houses, made in the typical thatched-roof up-on-stilts style that the indigenous people here build. This was the island village, made up of 4 or 5 families. There was no school, and some of the children didn't speak Spanish. On the opposite tip of the island there is another small community of men from the mainland who are there to dive for lobsters - they paddle their cayucos over from the mainland and dive to a depth of up to 80ft. Pretty impressive.

Eventually we caught up to Ed and Marcella between some small islands where they had stopped to snorkel - and were finally able to drink some water. We then traded vessels, with them paddling and us motoring. When they got into the kayak, Marcella shrieked over its tipsyness and was talking about how she didn't like paddling and Ed would have to do all the work. So we were quite surprised when we couldn't find them shortly thereafter! We spent quite a bit of time going back and forth between the islands, making sure that they hadn't flipped somewhere.

Once we even had to pull the dinghy under a fallen tree. Eventually we continued around the rest of the island where we met them back at Quixotic - they had beelined it around the inner coastline and through some waves (which we were sure they would not attempt in the kayak without sprayskirts), then hired a guy with a motorboat to tow the kayak through a little rough section back to the sailboat. So we had a bit of a stressful time worrying about them and making sure that the motor didn't touch the coral (I spent a lot of time depth probing with a wooden paddle). But now we know that place like the backs of our hands!

Later that night we took the dinghy back to the little village to buy some nice fresh fish for dinner, and on the way we were stopped by the military-ish boat. It turned out to be the Panamanian Coast Guard, and they were very friendly and chatted with us for a while. We bought three large red snappers, a lobster, and a bunch of smaller fish from Don Pancho, owner of the "Fish Man" boat which is often seen in Almirante. It turns out that he makes a regular run between Escudo and Almirante. He sold us the fish for $0.80 a pound.  In Almirante it sells for $1.25/lb. Strangely enough, he also had a bunch of closed-cell foam - perfect for outfitting kayaks and hard to find in Latin America. He uses is for keeping the fish cold, but had extra so he sold us a large block of it for $2. On the way back we managed to get the propeller caught in an unseen fishnet and spent a while floating and shredding the skin of our hands trying to tear it off (where's the machete when you need it??) until the owner came out to help us. He was very nice about it - probably because it was an illegal net. But we gave him some gas for his troubles anyway, because we shredded his net. 

The next day we had to head back to reality. The winds were very light, so we had to motor most of the way, stopping briefly at Isla Tigres for a quick snorkel break. Shortly thereafter a school of dolphins visited us for a while, racing alongside and in our wake.

Back home again, unpacking was easier than packing as we simply piled all the cargo into the boats, tied them together, and ferried it all over to the dock.

Posted by rick at 01:50 PM | Comments (0)

Paddling the Changuinola River

There are a number of rivers in the province of Bocas del Toro, but access to them is very difficult. The lower stretches are used for travel by motorized canoe, but the upper parts are very isolated. In November 2005, we set out to explore one of them, the Changuinola river.

Looking at the map, the most reasonable access point for a first trip seemed to be via the Rio Robalo. The map showed a community called Norteno about 2km up the Rio Robalo from the road bridge, and from this community it was 15 or so km to the Changuinola headwaters. Part of these 15km follow along the Cano Sucio river, which gives hope for the existence of a trail at least part of the way.

We took Izmael and Choni with us; the idea was to leave the boat at Izmael's grandmother's place and then walk to the road (10 minutes which turned out to be 30) and take a bus or taxi to the Rio Robalo bridge about an hour towards David. After 10 minutes on calm ocean water, we went up the creek through pretty mangrove to his grandmother's house.  From there, we hiked up to the road in about half an hour, giving us a chance to get a feel for the weight of the boats.

We waited along the road and chatted with a few indigenous people who were taking cacao beans to Almirante to sell them. But soon a taxi came by, so we stopped it and had the guy take us to Rio Robalo.  He was English speaking, and it was as usual very entertaining to listen to his accent. At one point I asked him something about "the little bus" which he did not understand even after I repeated it twice -- until I translated it to "de liki bos". I love their accent...

He had a 4WD truck, but was apparently not used to dirt roads, so given the "bad"condition of the road from the Rio Robalo bridge to Norteno he  eventually refused to go further. Very strange; the road really wasn't all that bad. Oh well, it just meant 15 additional minutes of hiking with boats.

The Rio Robalo was very pretty, and soon we got to Norteno and the confluence with the Rio Cano Sucio. We followed a trail along the Rio Cano Sucio (to the right after the bridge over the Rio Robalo). About an hour and many stream crossings later, we reached Filo Verde. From there, it was another hour to Loma de Agua, a community of about 100, with a new school built from cement under construction. Six hundred bags of cement, plus bricks and other building materials, had been brought in on horseback and carried by hand to build the new school.

Here, we managed to hire a horse to help us carry the heavier bags on to La Pista (another 2 hours). In La Pista, two very nice young men named Benjamin and Simon offered us a house to stay in and themselves as guides for the next day. Good news: There is a trail all the way to the river! They said it would take 4 hours to get to Corte Culebra (they called this part of the Changuinola river the Rio Culebra). There are two trails to get to the river, one of which was a bit longer and met up with the river further down, where it was not as wild. Of course we ended up choosing the shorter, wilder alternative - a good decision, as it turned out.

Choni and Izmael went and got some firewood so we could cook something, but then the decision was made to accept Simon's invitation to cook in his kitchen. As I found out when I was done setting up the hammock, nets, thermarest, etc, "using" Simon's kitchen apparently meant Simon telling one of his two wives to cook on a fire under their house, with a good 20 people total watching her... It made me a bit uncomfortable, feeling like the reason that she had to do all this work even though I never asked her or Simon for it; I would have preferred simply doing our own cooking or chipping in some ingredients and eating whatever the family was eating that day.

So we provided rice, traded some more rice for some squash and some breadnut, and since there was no salt we gave the cook our salt container for the trip which contained enough for about 50 meals or so. I had a hunch that this was a mistake, and indeed, the container came back empty. Fortunately, there was a little tienda that sold me 10 cents worth of salt to refill the container. A little later, Izmael asked if we wanted some coffee, mentioning that they could not use their locally grown coffee. Izmael then asked if we had a little bit of sugar, we did, and because I am soo slow to catch on, I gave him the whole bag -- one pound. A weird sense of deja vu came to me when the coffee turned out very sweet. Sure enough, a little while later I found myself giving Izmael money to buy another pound of sugar... An interesting aspect of local culture; things are used when available, not when needed. Makes a little bit of sense in an environment where nothing lasts because of the humidity and heat. But is that enough reason for salty rice and overly sweet coffee? A matter of taste, I guess.

The house we stayed in was a classical traditional hut; the posts were made of wood split with an axe, the floor and low walls from Jira (a palm that can be split and flattened out -- a bit like bamboo but much more durable), and the roof from Penca palm fronds. The whole structure was built with a machete and, in lieu of harder-to-obtain vines,  the ubiquitous red and white twine the banana company uses to tie their banana plants up so they don't fall over in the wind. No chainsaw, no nails, no hammer, no wooden boards. No wire, no hinges, no screws, no cement. They might have needed a shovel to dig holes for the posts (which were split with a machete or maybe an axe. Ok, so machete, axe, shovel, and twine. Very impressive; it was nice to see that that here people have preserved their traditional construction methods.

The next day, we left the unnecessary gear with Choni and Izmael, which they took back with them for us the same morning. We continued on with minimal gear that fit into the small whitewater kayaks.

Simon and Benjamin dragged the boats most of the way, laughing out loud a couple of times on the downhill sections when one of them was knocked over by a boat sliding down the hill behind him. We paddlers carried the gear, partly simply by wearing it (PFDs and, in my case, helmet, which added safety anyway) The uphill sections were very exhausting and all four of us took turns with the boats. It was quite a mudfest, and my soaked hiking boots doubled in weight; the trail is apparently used to move cattle.
This, by the way, was one of the most surprising things about the trip. I had expected that 2 hours or so from the road, there would be no more agriculture of any sort and was hoping for virgin rainforest. Instead, there was a cattle farm at the end of the trail, along the Changuinola river. Along the way, however, the trail crossed through virgin forest for about 3 hours. Very pretty.

The plant with the interesting root system behind the tree with the flowers in the picture on the left is Jira; the same plant the floor and walls were made of in the house we were staying in the night before.

The trail was clearly heavily used, and it appears that it had been there for a long time. Apart from the muck, it was actually a very good trail. It supposedly goes all the way to Boquete, 2 more days of walking.

Seeing this gave me an idea... most of these trails are ancient and have been used for generations. However, they are not mapped anywhere, and even the names of the communities do not appear on the military topo maps we were using. 

So, wouldn't it be fun to explore this trail system with a GPS and add the trails to the maps? Where else can you find hundreds of km of maintained jungle trails connecting small communities? (Ok, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, maybe Costa Rica, certainly Colombia). Still, pretty cool...

On the other hand, the entire area is part of the Comarca Ngobe Bugle, sort of an indian reservation; people are very weary of strangers and it would probably hard to convince them that you are walking around with a GPS to map trails and not to steal their land and sell it... And, more realistically, they might object to having this information publicly accessible.

The trail went mostly southwest, which meant we were putting in much higher than we planned to. Good, more whitewater that way.

Before reaching the Changuinola/Culebra river proper, we came to a creek that we decided had enough water for us to paddle.

Simon and Benjamin had wanted to try out the boats, but just as we arrived at the creek it started to rain, so they changed their mind since they were already cold. Also, all of us where equally exhausted after the long trip, and they had to hike back while we had a few hours of whitewater ahead of us,

The creek, probably Quebrada Romero, was a fun little creeking experience to warm us up. We had to walk around part of one rapid because of a nasty decapitating rock overhang. 

It was obvious from the river that this was a rapid that needed to be scouted though, so not too much danger here.

The Changuinola river turned out to be beautiful, with clear water and fun class III rapids and countless waterfalls coming in on the sides. The first 2 hours of the run we were in a canyon with no sign of civilization, after this, the valley opened up and there was a cattle farm on the hillsides and some signs of people living there (mostly, Pifa palms which have been used for food since ancient times in this area).

The rapids were mostly straightforward and boat-scoutable, and there were surprisingly few trees in the river. This can, of course, change rapidly; we were just lucky. For the first day the rapids were quite consistent and there wasn't much flatwater between them at all - fun!


The toughest rapid on the river  definitely required scouting, and even though it was only class IV we decided to walk part of it, because of the remoteness of the place and the consequences of injuries. We put in below a drop that could  in the have possibly flipped us and put us into a bad spot lower in the rapid. The lower part was fine, we ran a sneaky line down river right.

Our first camp was on a little island. It's usually a bad idea to camp on an island, but the spot was very high and we thought it would be extremely unlikely for the river to flood so rapidly that we would get stuck. Our options for camping were pretty limited -- all we had was the tarp and hammock, so we needed a spot with trees to tie things to but preferred not to be directly in the jungle with all its bugs. 

Getting water was a bit of a problem; the river had become muddy with runoff from the cattle farms (did I mention I hate them?), so we had to find a clear side creek to get water from and treated it with bleach (fortunately we had noticed at home that my iodine tablets were spoilt -- the lid was corroded).

Because of limited space in the boats all we had to sleep in was one hammock to share, which worked surprisingly well once we had found a comfortable position (heads by feet worked best), and until we heard a scary sound and found ourselves falling fortunately only about 2 inches onto the rocks. The branch I tied to had broken... 

The second day brought us mostly class II rapids in an open valley, with good current. We found some very conveniently accessible good water, and passed the community of Guayacan (just a few huts). Shortly before reaching Guayacan was when we started to see a few people on the side of the river. For the rest of the trip we would spot a person every so often, usually fishing. Every once in a while we'd stop to ask somebody for information about the river. 

In this kind of situation, the way you ask things is very important... If someone is sitting in a cayuco, we might ask him if he had gone down the river, how long, and what place he got to; not much sense in asking somebody on foot about the distances on the river, or asking someone how long it takes to get to a place they have never been to.

Then we'd ask very specific or comparative questions, such as "Is the current stronger further down"? "Do people paddle this section in cayucos"? "Are there sections where they have to get out and push the boats?"  etc, etc, etc. By asking several different people we could usually get a good rough estimate of how long it would take us to get from one town to another (none of the towns or anything were on our map).

After about 3 hours and right after a fun class III rapid, we came to a beautiful tall waterfall (photo on the far left - notice the boat in the river for size comparison), quickly followed by confluence with the Rio Culubre. The Culubre looked steeper than the Changuinola, and the water was muddier. According to a local guy who has a farm at the confluence, it is always muddy like that.

At this point it became more difficult to find a camp spot. As much as interaction with the locals is an interesting part of a trip like this, it gets old to be watched the entire time, even when setting off into the bush with a clrearly visible roll of TP... So the list of requirements for a campsite now included that the place can not be too easily accessible. 

We were getting low on food, so we decided to prepare some bananas and bread nut that we had found along the way during the day. The bananas were still green, so we baked them in the fire and they tasted like potatoes.

The next day finding water became a priority. We soon found this lovely little creek, and once again there was no need to get out of the boat to fill the Nalgene.

After 2.5 hours on the third day, we reached Corriente Grande, the largest comunity so far. Lots of kids were playing in the water and happily posed for pictures.

We wanted to take out it El Nance/Risco, but managed to paddle right past the town without seeing it. So we ended up having to paddle all the way to El Silencio, another 3 hours or so. In El Silencio, I called Man Hing so that he could meet us in Almirante at 5pm, then bought some food and water in a little supermarket right by the river. We were trying to get a taxi from there to Almirante, but very few taxis went by and when we found out it was only 20 more minutes by river to the road bridge to Almirante, we decided to paddle further in spite of the rain and cold. On the river we chatted with a few guys who had built little rafts from balsa wood and some young guys from Changuinola who were floating down the river in inner tubes.

Finally, after about 8 hours (15km) of hiking, 15 hours (80km) of paddling and 4 days total, we reached the bridge, exhausted but happy. I'd love to do this trip again, though it might be worth investigating to see if it is possible to put in higher up by starting on the Pacific side, hiking across the continental divide with the boats, and then put in. So much to do, so little time...

River description:

Times and flows are rough estimates on the day of our trip; the parts with whitewater can probably be paddled quite a bit faster if necessary. If you do this, email me, and please remember to respect the locals and always ask for permission to take pictures.

Put In: Take a taxi to Norteno. From the end of the road, walk to the bridge, cross it, and instead of going left into Norteno go right, up the Rio Cano Sucio. Pass Filo Verde and Loma de Agua, arrive in La Pista after about 4 hours.  In La Pista, get a guide, since the trail leaves the creek and is hard to find.

Take out: Bridge Almirante-Changuinola, or, earlier, at El Nance/Risco (supposedly requires a 15 min hike up the hill with the boats to get to the road).

Minute Flow (in cfs) Description
0 100 Put into Quebrada Romero
12 100 Dangerous rapid; tight chute with undercut rock, walk on right
20 800 Confluence with the Changuinola / Culebra River
60 800 Right bend before a tall canyon wall, class III rapid, large beach on the right.
80 800 Class IV rapid, many boulders, walked part of it.
120 900 Canyon opens up, rapids get easier, II
150 800 We camped on river right here, on a little island.
320 800 Fun class II rapid
330 800 Nice waterfall on left
360 1200 Confluence with the Rio Culubre (from left)
540 1200 Camp
690 1300 Community of Corriente Grande
700 1300 Fun II-III rapids
720 1500 First motorized canoes. El Nance/Risco with road access. But still a few good play waves below.
880 2400 El Silencio, confluence with the Rio Teribe
900 2400 Take out bridge along road from Almirante to Changuinola


Posted by rick at 01:44 PM | Comments (0)

November 08, 2005

First Iguana Sighting

Man Hing told me that he saw an Iguana near the nursery the other day. I couldn't quite believe that; I thought there weren't any on this island.

However, a couple days later, on a hike around the property, we saw one... surfing down on a branch that broke off a tree. The dogs found it first, and before we could stop them, they had injured it. Hopefully the bites will heal and this cute little guy will stick around.


Posted by rick at 10:36 PM | Comments (0)

Swimming Lessons for Puppies

When you live on the water, and don't have complete control over your legs, it's a good idea to know how to swim. Unfortunately, the puppies didn't.

So-- time for swimming lessons.

Daddy's (Tasso's) old water wings were still around, so they were reused. Passed down a generation... pretty funny.

They fit quite well... and were very necessary. As it turned out, these guys did not have natural instinct to tread water; when dropped in the water, they simply froze and sank. With the water wings, they had a chance to explore carefully what happens if they move. Except, they didn't. But once I started moving their paws, they somehow figured it out, and kept kicking. Now, 3 lessons later, they can stay above water for quite a while. Good thing, because a few days later, both fell in, but stayed up until we fished them out.

Next lesson: WHERE to swim when you fall in....


Posted by rick at 01:35 PM | Comments (0)

November 07, 2005

Paddling the Cricamola River

A few months ago, Abelardo's father went back home to his house in Nutibi. There is no work in the area at all, so we sent some seedling bags with him so that he could find seedlings in the jungle and start a little nursery. Nutibi is a little village on the Cricamola river, about 5 hours by boat from the closest town or road. The Cricamola river is quite pretty, and we were told there were lots of dangerous "remolinos" and rocks further upriver -- sounded worth exploring by kayak. So the purpose of our trip was twofold -- pick up hopefully 1200 seedlings, and do some whitewater paddling. Also, this was a chance for Abelardo to see his father again... he had not heard from him since the phone in Nutibi does not currently work.
But let me back up... this adventure really started the night before. Some time in the afternoon, I realized I was a bit low on cash to pay for 1200 trees; so between that and a few other things, I decided to make a trip to town with its ATM, grocery stores, and halloween parties. Surely we would be back in time to get some sleep before leaving for Cricamola at 3am... Didn't happen. None of it. After dinner with Ed, we went to the Barco Hundido bar (aka the Wreck Deck, named after the wreck in about 3 feet of water that is illuminated at night). It got rather late. The drive back was a challenge... It was pitch dark, choppy, and all I had to go by was a tiny compass. So I did the usual strategy... get the direction, drive for a while, stop,  look back to see if town is in the right direction, and if so keep heading directly away from town, while also using the wave direction as a guide.  But unfortunately, I did not get it exactly right, and we missed the entrance through the mangrove... it took quite a while to find it. When we finally got back and got done packing, it was 3.30am, but neither Abelardo nor Emiliano or Ricarcito showed up... At 4.30, I decided to go get them, but it turned out that Emiliano was in Buena Esperanza, not at home, which explained why his phone was out of range. By the time I headed back, it had started raining, and I could literally see only one thing: a faint light in what I thought was the rough direction of my house, in an indeterminable distance. I am not counting the countless reflections from raindrops that were all I saw when turning on my flashlight...

So I headed to the light, was relieved that it was the house and I did not have to spend 3 hours in the dark in the rain in my bathing suit, and passed out in bed. No point in going in this weather anyway.

We finally left at 7.30 am, in the rain. It sucked. There had not been time to set the boat (42 ft dugout canoe) up properly, so EVERYTHING was damp and muddy. 300 empty sandy flour sacks, 20 plastic plant boxes, shovels, machetes, sandy wet rope, boards with nails sticking out, the bottom of the boat was wet and mudy and slippery, etc. Yuck. And I was picturing gliding through the night and waking up in a hammock to a beautiful sunrise over the water. Didn't happen. (I went back and forth between laughing and whining. Peeple of the wurl, relax! I had just read "Fierce invalids home from hot climates", and have to say I agree with End Of Time that laughing is the best thing to do).

Eventually we set up the hammock under a tarp and got a few hours of sleep, followed by a breakfast of sandwiches with roast beef and guacamole, and a brunch of ceviche we had brought along. At 11.00, we reached the mouth of the river; the level was quite high, about a foot below the famous phone booth on river left.

A few minutes up, we saw a woman sitting in a boat, and a pile of thatch leaves next to the boat. I have been trying to get seeds for this type of thatch for a while; they are the best roofing material around, and have been almost eliminated from the area. People ended up cutting down the palms to get to the tall leaves; a clearly unsustainable practice.

So we decided to stop, and asked if they would be able to get seeds or seedlings for us. I managed to amuse the local audience by seal launching my whitewater boat off the dugout to get to shore, and Alfonso, the woman's husband, and I walked back through the jungle to see if there were seeds. They were "Cerquita", at least for him, who managed to dance on the submerged roots like a mountain goat on steep hillsides. I fell a few times, but managed to not pick up any leeches... Eventually we found some seedlings and seeds, an agreed that he would round up some people and obtain as much as he could until tomorrow afternoon.

Back at the boat, it turned out that the woman's name was Anayansi, which prompted Emiliano to say that that was his sister-in-law's name. Strangely enough, these two Anayansis turned out to be sisters... clearly evidenced by the fact that this Anayansi knew that her sister was married to this "big moreno guy" who refused to pick up her father in Almirante the week before. (Which is another story... The other Anayansi had not seen her father in 10 years, and he was going to come visit, but showed up unannounced and there was no space for him in the small boat. Not understanding the dangers of the ocean, he was upset that Anayansi's husband had to leave him behind...). Emiliano gave them a small barracuda we had caught on the way to the river.

In a  little while I will head over to the caretaker house and show Anayansi the picture of her sister; she has not seen her in 10 years at least, so I am curious if she will recognize her.

But back to the adventure... We made it to the first town, Bisira, without problems, and continued on to Nutibi. After getting stuck in shallow water in one of the rapids, we decided to follow the experienced water bus driver. Our boat was slower than the water bus, and in one rapid we were literally inching our way forward. Emiliano has gotten amazingly good at driving in rivers. In one rapid, he used the hole behind a tree stump to gather momentum and then push through the fast current beside it. Impressive. We were right upstream from a nasty tree strainer; had the engine cut out unexpectedly, we would have lost the boat and had to swim for our lives. But none of this happened, and we made it to Nutibi just fine.

Here, it turned out that Anselmo (Abelardo's father, the one with the seedlings) had moved out of town to his farm, which was a 1.5 hour walk away. Instead of sending one person, our three worker friends decided to go all three, without even letting us know... So I spend half an hour asking around for them, and learned about the location of Anselmo's new home. Eventually, the three guys came back, exhausted, and reported there were only 400 seedlings to be picked up, and many of them not planted in bags.

So we decided to hike to Canquintu, about one hour upstream the same day, with the kayaks, spend the night there, and then hike further the next day, and paddle down to Bisira. The guys, meanwhile, were supposed to load the plants into the boat, drive to Bisira, and then load the boat with rocks for ballast (we can always use rocks at the farm).

We spent the night at Cedeno's house in Canquintu. His wife cooked dinner for us, and we realized where Anayansi learned to cook her signature dish, "chicken surprise" after we were served this for the 5th time in a row. Anyway -- Cedeno had a little church under his house, which is where we piled up our whitewater gear for the night. The next day, we started hiking. There are trails on both sides of the river, but Cedeno recommended the one on river right. The trail was clean, but muddy and somewhat challnenging, at least with kayaks on our backs. It was good to have Cedeno along to help us carry the gear.
After about half an hour, we came to a fork; the left leads to Rio Cana (3 hours to the river, than one day paddling); we took the right, which followed the river. After about an hour, we came to the rock that Cedeno had described to us the night before... he said it was shaped like a woman lying down. We had not thought much of it, but it turned out to be very interesting. It actually contained some parallel, curved lines that someone had carved. Cedeno said it had always been there, and nobody knows where it came from. I asked if anyone had ever investigated it (for example, someone from the university in Panama) but he said no -- few people know it's there. He also mentioned that they frequently find pieces of pottery and figurines in the area.

About two hours later, we reached a cattle farm on river left, and decided to not go any further. Supposedly, the trail continues for 3 days; reaching Piedra Roja in 2 days and finally connecting to a road in Chirriqui. At our put in, the rapids were only class II; we would have to go much further up to get to interesting whitewater. It seems like the way to do this would be to drive to Chirriqui and then hike down from there.

The paddle was uneventful; for a while we joined a couple of kids in a dugout canoe who were taking firewood to Canquintu. We traded paddles and found out that whitewater paddles don't work well in dugouts and that single bladed dugout paddles are even worse for short playboats. Good way to practice the J-stroke...

We stopped in Canquintu; it's definitely the nicest town in the province, which is amazing given that it is so far from the road system. Manicured lawns, trash cans, etc/ Incredible. We bought some local chocolate (25 cents per 1/4 lb ball) and sealed a deal with Cedeno for him to get some more seedlings for us. We continued on to Nutibi, where we stopped briefly to grab a handful of grapefruit and an interesting new fruit that we had just learned about, called "Petate" in spanish in "Odob'a" in Guaymi. It looks like Cacao, but fatter, the texture is similar, but it tastes like Papaya and smells like Durian. Yuck. Still, good to have...

In Bisira, we met up with the guys in the boat, who had had a very scary moment driving down from Nutibi... The current grabbed them when the motor cut out and they hit a tree trunk, doing some temporary damage to Abe's back and some permanent but easily repaired damage to the boat.

The guys had been unable to get permission to pick up rocks since the Cacique was not there; so we continued with an almost empty boat, to the meeting point for thatch seeds and seedlings. We got 3 sacks of seeds and about 50 more seedlings; enough for hopefully about 1000 palms.
Cold, hungry, exhausted, and tired, we arrived back home at around 10pm.

The puppies were fine -- always a relief. They seemed to have inherited their bizarre sleeping poses from their father.

Anayansi did not recognize her sister in the picture... and seemed completely indifferent to us having run into her. She did confirm that she has a sister with the same name who lives around there, though.

Posted by rick at 10:05 AM | Comments (0)

Surgeries on the Picnic Table

After Tita's second litter of puppies, it was definitely time to get her fixed. Since she has never left the farm since she was 6 weeks old and has never had a collar on her, I didn't think it would be a good idea to try to put her into a taxi and take her to Changuinola. The better choice seemed to be to bring a vet out to the farm, particularly since two more female dogs belonging to neighbors were in need of the same operation, and I wanted to get Tasso fixed as well.

So today, it actually happened. (Previous attempts to bring a vet out here had failed, but that's another story) I picked up Dr. Miguel Quintero in Almirante, and on the way back to the farm we picked up Sushi and her daughter Stella, who both were to be sterilized as well. Sushi's owner had kindly volunteered her as the guinea pig; which was really sweet and not as cruel as it sounds. Sushi is by far the oldest, and ended up being adopted out of necessaity on her part rather then by choice of her owner. Besides, she has a huge goiter that makes everyone doubt she will live much longer.

First order of business was to find a way to weigh the patients to be able to calculate the correct drug dosages. The only scale on the farm is about 100 years old, rusty, but still works; an antique piece I bought from the Price family. An airline blanket served as a makeshift dog hammock. Very cute.

Miguel preferred to work on the picnic table outside rather than in the kitchen as we had planned. So we lined to picnic table with plastic courtesy of Continental airlines, Sushi was sedated, cut open, and the fun began. Miguel stuck his hand into her and pulled out one of her organs. Nope, that wasn't it. Back in it goes, and eventually Miguel found what he was looking for. Some clamping, stitching, cutting, and plenty of spurting of blood later, we are all done, and back into her blue kennel she goes. One down, 2 to go.

Her daughter turned out to be a lot less bloody, and after that it was time for lunch.

As it turns out, Miguel studied in Brazil, and is a really interesting and nice guy. He was recently fired from his 22 year lasting job with the ministerio de desarollo agropecuario because he did not support the winning party in the elections last year.

Tita was next. As expected, it was not easy to sedate her... she resisted for a long time, managed to run away and fell in the water, where Robyn fortunately grabbed her right away. She was in no shape to swim... Eventually Miguel decided to anesthesize her completely.

The surgery went smoothly, and this time I was able to stop Miguel from throwing the ovaries and uterus into the normal trash (along with used needles, yuck...), and asked him to throw it in the ocean instead. The red snappers who live under the house really appreciated this delicacy. Maybe it is to them what really fresh sashimi is to us...

All female patients needed to get a little ring around their neck to keep them from biting their stitches off... In Panama, such devices are fabricated from plastic bowls, in this case courtesy of El Maximo in Almirante.

Tita woke up a few hours later, and it took her 2 minutes to take the thing off. Stubborn bitch. Now we tied it better, and hopefully it will stay on.

Next was Tasso. I apologize for the extremely graphic pictures of him getting his balls cut off. Robyn took them. Women seem to have an obsession with the details of castrations. His balls (the white thing floating in the middle in the picture) also made good fish food.

While we were at it, we also pulled out half a dozen petrified parasitic works out of Tasso's back... He had accumulated them while I was gone. Yum.

Overall, it was quite an interesting day. And I made it through it without fainting or puking. I am so proud.



Posted by rick at 08:42 AM | Comments (0)

November 01, 2005

Cooking Appliances made of Mud

Building a Lorena Stove

Zoe Sylvester & Andy McNamara

We spent a week at Ulrich's Native Species Reforestation as part of the WWOOF program (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms - www.wwoof.org), whereby volunteers can exchange their labor for room and board at organic farms around the world.  While here, one of our projects was to build a Lorena stove for the school across the Laguna de Tierra Oscura from Ulrich's farm.  A Lorena stove derives its name from the combination of two Spanish words, lodo (dirt) and arena (sand) which are the two principal components of the stove.  The benefits of the Lorena stove are that it contains the heat of the fire more efficiently, thereby using less firewood for equivalent heat, and directs the smoke out through a chimney and away from the lungs of the cooks.

A Peace Corps volunteer named Annie directed the project wonderfully.  Many Peace Corps volunteers learn this process and she was kind enough to spearhead this project even though it was after her last official day of service.  Additionally, Ismael and Emiliano - two of Ulrich's workers - were instrumental in the mixing process.

We began by building a wood frame to contain the stove while it cured.  Its approximate dimensions were 1.3 x .45 x .3 meters, and the base was a table raised a .3 meters above the ground.  Since the stove would eventually weigh half a metric ton, it was important for the table to be strong.  We then collected dirt and sand in equal quantities.  The dirt should be clay subsoil and as free from rock as possible.  The soil from the mound of a leaf-cutter ant colonly works quite well.  We used 3 large wheelbarrows of each material and added 50 kilos of cement. After mixing the dry materials, we added water until it was somewhere between damp and wet - wet enough to stick together when pounded, but dry enough that when squeezed no water seeped out.  
Next we pounded the material into a wooden box using our hands and scrap pieces of wood.  We pounded vigorously to ensure that no air bubbles were caught in the material.  About 5 cm from the top, we placed scrap pieces of iron in the corners and between the eventual burner locations to reinforce the material.  We completed compacting the material by standing on wooden boards that we temporarily placed on top.  After smoothing the top with a masonry shovel we let the material set for an hour and returned to dig out the holes.  We knew the material was ready when our hands left a small dent, but it was not sticky and could not be punctured.  
We dug out a firebox on the side and two holes measured to the size of the pots they use at the school.  The firebox was 15 cm high and 5 cm above the wooden table.  It connected with the first hole, which was the same depth.  The second hole was more shallow than the first so that a slanted tunnel so that the heat from the first hole would rise to the second pot.  From the second pot we constructed a curved tunnel up the chimney.  All the tunnels were about the size of a fist.  After construction, a metal chimney should be placed in the chimney hole and curved so as to direct smoke out of the kitchen.  The holes for the stove were cut at an angle so that the pots rested down in the holes.  Then we wet our hands and rubbed down the whole thing to give it a smooth and finished look.  After five days the stove was ready to use.  As cracks inevitably appear, rub ash from the fire into them.  The fire should be constructed only in the firebox and under the first pot. 

Since our first Lorena stove, we constructed a second stove for another family close to the school.  We also tried our hands at an earthen oven back on Ulrich's farm which can hopefully be used to bake the local "Johhny Cakes", which are a white roll made from coconut cream and white flour.  The process we followed was Kiko Denzer's and we followed an article in Permaculture magazine to construct it.

We were grateful for the opportunity to learn and experience life on these unique and beautiful islands!

-Zoe & Andy



Posted by rick at 10:15 AM | Comments (0)