Tim Burke Reporting from Panama

The Comarca
November 6, 2009, 9:39 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

This past week I got a chance to go see a completely different section of Panama.  I was asked to do a feasibility study for a micro-hydropower plant serving a very rural community in one Panama’s many indigenous reservations.  It seemed like a fun and potentially useful project, inline with my ulterior motive of evangelizing small scale hydropower here in Panama, so I agreed.

After 9 hours on a bus, and 1 hour packed into the back of a converted 4×4 loaded with many more people than seats, we arrived … at our trailhead.  From here we’d be on our own hiking up the remaining 6 hours into the mountains to reach our destination.  Our guide, and only community contact, who initially requested our presence here, was, classically, not able to accompany us.  So we started off on our trek around 9:30.  This being the rainiest month of the year, it rained a lot.  So, by the time we got to the community, we were both soaked to the bone and I experienced something that I didn’t ever expect to experience in tropical Panama.  I was cold.  Not just mildly chilled, or pleasantly refreshed, but freezing cold.  It may be due to the fact that it was still raining, or that we were at 4,000 feet elevation and there was a biting wind, but the end result was undesirable. 

Fortunately, although our contact couldn’t come with us, he assured us that we could stay with his family.  So, we sauntered up to their house, hoping for a hot cup of high altitude coffee and some warmth, only to find the house padlocked and in disrepair.  If I hadn’t been so cold, I would have perhaps laughed at how classic this situation is:

  • Visionary Leader invites Peace Core Volunteers to do project in town
  • Details are arranged and dates firmed up
  • PCVs show up at said community at the appointed time usually at moderate to great difficulty
  • Visionary leader was called away by other commitments and could not be there
  • Rest of community turns out not to share Visionary Leader’s vision and wonders how/why two random gringos showed up looking for food and shelter.
  • (…)
  • Project gets done anyway?

In this case, project did get done anyway.  We stayed with Visionary Leader’s parents, who turned out to live another 30 minutes away down a very steep hill.  However the general trend of me being very cold did not improve substantially.  In fact I basically wore a woolen blanket that the family gave be to sleep with the first night, the entire time I was there like a shawl.

However, apart from the cold, it was a spectacularly beautiful region, high up in the mountains surrounded by even higher mountains with beautiful rivers running through it.

We finished our feasibility study to be turned in to the leaders of the Comarca to see if they want to fund a pilot micro-hydro project in the town.  Turns out it would be feasible.  My preliminary materials budget put a price tag of 11,000 to provide 20 houses with 24/7 electricity.  The plant would be about 2.5 kW. 

Finally, the best part about doing a study and not having to actually oversee construction is that I get to write things like, “The authors recommend significant and continued community participation and local ownership to ensure long-term project sustainability,” without having to be the poor soul in charge of actually trying to achieve that.  Sentences like that are always a lot easier to write than to actually do.  It’s like writing “The authors recommend crossing this dangerous crevasse filled glacier during a snowstorm without fallowing in the crevasses.”  The weird thing is though, that while people would laugh at the difficulty of the latter, no one laughs at the former.

A sketchy bridge that even the locals suggested we don’t use.

Surveying the river that was the object of our feasibility study.

Me, on our morning hike out, in front of some hills just popping out of the low-hanging clouds.


Life in Tropical Paradise
October 2, 2009, 9:09 am
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So, turns out there is quite a difference in the topography of Panama depending on where you are.  Whereas my section of the country is hilly and forested, there are other parts which fall more into the ‘tropical paradise’ category, which their attendant white sand beaches, palm trees, clear blue waters, and $1 lobsters.  I got a chance to visit back in July to help survey a new water system that a friend was planning, so here are the pictures.

The wonderful Caribbean beach.

Those that got assigned to Tropical Paradise.

The port town of Kusapin seen from above as we came in at sunset.

Miscellaneous Vainas
June 10, 2009, 8:32 pm
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Giardia Strikes Again and Herbal Things
So, it turns out that Maje had the last laugh.  I started feeling the return of my old friend/nemesis giardia a few weeks ago.  Unfortunately (in perhaps a peace corps first), I was really busy at the time and couldn’t take a few days in the city to get the real treatment, which is the point really.  I had to make due with a child’s dose of antiparasite medicine and, when that didn’t work, I had to turn to herbal medicine.  Fortunately, people _love_ herbal medicine where I live and I had no shortage of, at times conflicting, recommendations of what to do.  The one I decided to take was to drink lots of guanabana juice, mainly because in addition to it’s apparent antigiardial properties, it is also just delicious.  But, turns out it works!  I’m not sure yet if it really cured me, or just put my reckoning off until another day, but for the moment, I claim success.

Incidentally, guanabana, or soursop in English, is a fruit that we really need to get ahold of in the US.  It’s delicious.  However, I’ve been told recently that when injected in large quantities into lab rats it was shown to cause parkinsons’ like lesions in the brain.

Why people don’t like rehydration salts
People sometimes say that it’s hard to get people to use rehydration salts.  While a cheap and potentially lifesaving treatment for dyhydration caused, usually, by diarhea, it often goes unused.  Some fellow PCVs and I conducted a scientific study recently to determine why.  We took a subject (named Ryan) who was very dehydrated and feeling symptoms of heat exhaustion and encouraged him to drink rehydration salt (mixed with water of course).  The results are shown below and are fairly self explanatory.

Ryan, in this before picture, thinking how bad can this drink really be.

Ryan, in this before picture, thinking how bad can this drink really be.

In this unstaged after photo, we see the unhideable look of disgust, and a subsequent disinterest in drinking more of the brew

In this unstaged after photo, we see the unhideable look of disgust, and a subsequent disinterest in drinking more of the brew

A Campo Birthday
June 10, 2009, 8:17 pm
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Continuing the award winning and highly read ‘A Campo…’ series. I now present you with a campo birthday.

I wasn’t planning on celebrating my birthday. I think that I probably would have just chilled in my hammock and read a good physics book. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of my family, I now have a hefty academic bookshelf in my house. I would hazard a guess that I have the best math and physics library in all of eastern panama. Right now I’m working my way through differential geometry. It’s interesting reading the math perspective on the introduction of covariant and contravariant vectors. The physics intro took, I think, 2 minutes. A covariant vector transforms this way, a contravariant one transforms the other way, switching between them costs you a minus sign. Done. The real, modern, math way takes 4 chapters to just be able to define the spaces in which they both live (which, interestingly, are different space dual to each other, unless I just read it wrong).

Anyways, I digress. The point is that completely randomly my community decided to hold a fundraiser softball tournament on May 16th to help collect money to improve our road. This, of course, happened to coincide with my birthday, so I aprovechared it and assumed everyone coming to the fundraiser was really coming to wish me a happy birthday. I even got a pin]ada.

As everyone knows, the real way to make money is not on food but on alcohol. So, in addition to selling fried bread, various fried meats, and chicken soup, we bought 100 cases of beer. One might think that it would be more profitable to buy hard liquor and charge a higher margin, but as the organizer pointed out, that works too well. If you buy hard liquor and sell it, the people will become so drunk that they will start fighting with each other. And bar fights when both parties have machetes are undesirable.

So, we had, for safety reasons, to limit ourselves to beer. The results are pictured below.

Drunk dude freestyle singing my praises.  It was even more impressive because he'd never met me before and had to ask someone to point me out at the end of the song so he could shake my hand.

Drunk dude freestyle singing my praises. It was even more impressive because he'd never met me before and had to ask someone to point me out at the end of the song so he could shake my hand.

My friend restraining exuberant drunk dude so that people could actually sing me happy birthday.

My friend restraining exuberant drunk dude so that people could actually sing me happy birthday.

The results of the pinata.  Turns out it's culturally appropriate for grown men to dive headlong for candy with the five year olds.

The results of the pinata. Turns out it's culturally appropriate for grown men to dive headlong for candy with the five year olds.

The Majé March
May 10, 2009, 12:50 pm
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For the past few months, some other volunteers and I had been talking about hiking to the pacific ocean.  Panama being really small, it seemed that this shouldn´t be too hard.  We heard from various sources that there was an indigenous Wounan village called Majé that was situated on a navigable river near the ocean.  So we decided to hike there. 

We investigated the path as best we could, by asking people in our communities about it.  Estimates varied wildly.  People seemed to think that it would take from between 8 to infinity hours.  The infinity vote was a high outlier provided by a kid who was confident that we would be eaten by tigers and hence never make it.  We discarded that one as improbable since I was bringing a sharpened machete.

The most reliable people said that it would take between 1 t o 2 days.  We would be hiking mostly through forest and pasture land and then jungle once we got closer to Majé.  Boats left Majé daily, we were told, so it shouldn´t be a problem to get back.

Probably the greatest lesson learned from this trip is that you can´t trust estimates of time or distance given by campesinos.  They tend to be either wild over or underestimates and rarely coincide with reality.   Also, interestingly, people seem to have stock answers that they use when they really have no idea but know that it´s long.  They respond that it is either 8 or 15.  There are no units.  For example, note the following real questions and responses:

Q: How long does cheese last with refrigeration?
A: 8 days

Q: How long will it take to hike to Majé?
A: 8 hours

Q: How often should I fertilize my garden?
A: Every 15 days

Q: Can you loan me money for 15 days?
A: We´re at 4 months and counting and the guy still hasnt paid me back…

So basically, if someone responds with a time that includes the number 8 or 15, regardless of the units, you should probably disregard it.

Oh hindsight…

So the hike to Majé should have been about 8 hours.  Five of us left at 5am from my house and started hiking.  Somehow it was already hot.  By sunrise we were already drenched in sweat.  We hiked until about 2pm on an old bulldozer cut, before the trail suddenly disappeared.  We found the trail again though and it lead us into some primary rainforest.  Our GPS told us that we were roughly going in the right direction.  We hiked down this trail for another 2.5 hours until we reached about sea level and saw a broad river.  We got very excited thinking that we were close.  We continued hiking along a fairly well marked trail for another hour.  It was now about 5:30 and sunset was coming in an hour. 

We had planned for the possibility of spending the night in the monte and carried hammocks, rope, tarps and food for everyone.  We had each been issued one can of pork and beans, one can of tuna, and two 15 cent packages of sandwich cookies for dinner. 

However, we came upon a slash-and-burned field, indicating settlement nearby, so we continued.  We were motoring at this point.  Around midday we had hiked pretty slowly because it was very hot and the sun just beat down on us, but here we were booking it. 

However, the trail started branching and there was some dissention in the ranks about whether we should stop and make camp now or not.  But, as a sign from the heavens, I happened to see a footprint in the mud.  This was our first indication in a number of hours that someone else used this trail recently.  And it was definitely indigenous because they are probably the only ones who go barefoot in the rainforest. 

I was wearing rubber boots which by this point had a good half inch of sweat slopping around in them with each step and had rubbed a number of blisters on my feet.  So, our stride had basically turned into a kind of waddle, trying to minimize foot pain and extensive thigh chafage.

However, the footprint gave us hope.  And we clung desperately to that hope.  At every stream crossing and path branch we went nose to the ground like tracking dogs looking for where the footprint went.  And it did not lead us astray.  About 10 minutes before sunset we arrived in Majé as if we were emerging from our desert exodus into the promised land.

Now, I dwell on the difficulty of the hike to give a sense of how we must have looked upon arrival.  We we probably quite smelly, all of our clothes were soaked in sweat and had been that was for 13 hours by this point, we were waddling ducklike and quite dehydrated.

Our entrance into town quickly attracted a crowd of women and young children.  Fortunately, to the Wounan, unlike in the US, being white with blue eyes is exotic.  The 12-15 year old girls were swooning.  The began talking excitedly amongst themselves about how beautiful we and our blue eyes were.  However, the spoke in spanish and within earshot so we all understood what they were saying.

One thing about Panama, which is awesome, and something people in the US could learn a lot from, is good hospitality.  We showed up in this village, smelly and haggard, not knowing anyone, and literally within 5 minutes we were taken to the chief´s house where we could spend the night.  Arrangements were made for our bedding and a bath and his wife immediately started making us dinner until we said that we had brought our own foot.  After becoming slightly cleaner and more presentable, we sat down to talk and basically the entire neighborhood came over to chat about our hike, where we were from and, most importantly, how soon we would come back to visit.  And they were serious.  We have an open invitation back anytime, can stay in the chief´s house and if we let them, they would definitely feed us, all free, because that´s just what you do with visitors.

We had been planning on spending a day in Majé but it turns out that instead of a boat leaving once a day, it left once a week…  However randomly there was one leaving at 2am the next morning (i.e. in 6 hours). Since the river was still low, it had to leave at high tide to make it to the ocean.   So, we went to sleep and managed to wake up and get on the boat.  The boat was a very shallow draft 12 person launch with a 25 hp motor, no running lights, or really any lights, and one backup paddle si hay caso.  Turns out the trip from Majé back to Chepo, our destination is 7 hours long, including 4 hours on open ocean.  We spent most of it huddled in the hull under vinyl tarps trying to sleep. 

It was a lot of fun though, and is one of those things that I feel will becoe more and more fun in my memory the more time passes.  According to the  GPS, the distance between my house and Majé is 15 miles as the crow flies and we  definitely weren´t crows.

I highly recommend the trip to anyone interested.  Majé´s a great place and definitely worth it.  Also, the Wounan traditionally hunted with poisoned darts, and there´s a guy there who´s going to teach me how to make them.

I´ll post pictures later.

The Disgruntled Physicist
April 28, 2009, 7:12 pm
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This story, which happened to me two weeks ago, ranks among the strangest and most amazing of my entire life.  It can also serve as a cautionary tale for the children against a career in physics…

It began like this.  I was in Panama City.  It was a dark and cloudy night.  There was no moon.  A friend and I got a ride back to the East side of Panama in a friend of a friend´s truck.  The car was going to Palma Bella, but I needed to get off near Chepo, so around 10pm, the car dropped me off at a poorly lit gas station outside of Chepo.  I was going to stay the night at a friend´s house outside of Chepo, so I settled in to wait for him to arrive and take me to his house. 

Now a word about Chepo is in order.  Chepo is not what one would call a bustling metropolis.  It boasts a couple grocery and hardware stores and some internet cafes.  In fact the use I usually had for Chepo was as a bus stop at which to relieve myself on the 4 hour bus ride to my house.  So that´s Chepo.  This story is set outside Chepo, in a suburb if you will.  It´s not a happening place … but I digress. 

My friend found me and we started walking to his house.  After getting off the main road we came upon a concrete basketball court with benches poorly lit by a few overhead street lamps.  We saw a man sitting alone on one of these benches, staring into space with his left leg slightly shaking.  As we approached, the man turned and began speaking to us in German accented English and Spanish.

Let me pause to describe this man.  He could best be described as slightly unkempt.  He had greying wispy hair, a grey curly beard and glasses.  He was wearing a short sleaved collared shirt, jeans, and according to my friend, who notices such things, expensive shoes.

At the start, we thought that this was your run of the mill crazy-person-who-hangs-out-in-parks-at-night.  However, randomly he just threw in “and if they had listened to me they would know why quarks group in threes,” referring perhaps to quarks binding in triplets to form baryons (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quark). 

Obviously, this piqued my interest.  So I asked him why it was then.  He refused to tell me, accusing me of trying to steal his idea.  But then he changed tracks from advanced physics to advanced math.  He started by asking me which was “larger” a line segment or a point.  Expecting a trick question, I responded that it could perhaps depend on your metric (I guessed at the translation of metric to spanish as métrica, but he understood).  He agreed and began to preface all his statements by saying that we should assume a standard metric.  So, I answered that the line was bigger. 

“Clearly,”  he said, “and an infinite line with respect to a finite segment?” 

“The line, of course,” I said. 

“Good,” he complemented.  Then he began to describe an analogy to the various sizes of infinite numbers (and infinitesimals) using lines.  So there’s a finite line segment, and then an infinite line which is infinitely bigger.  Then there’s a hyperline (his term) bigger than that, and a hyper-hyper line, etc.  There are also points, and a sequence of hypo-points which are smaller. 

At this point, he paused to ask us if we had any money to lend him.  We declined and he called us cheap, but soon got back to physics.

He moved on to describe special relativity using Lorentz transformations between coordinate systems, and introduced an extension to it that he claimed included these new kinds of geometric objects (hyperlines). 

Things were getting kind of weird.  Fortunately, I happened to be carrying a graduate classical mechanics (Goldstein, Classical Mechanics) text that my parents had brought down for me a few weeks before.  So, I pulled it out of my pack and showed it to him.  It was his interest now that was piqued.  He thumbed through the pages looking at some of the equations.  Towards the end of the book he saw someone take the determinant of a Jacobian matrix and began talking about Heisenburg’s matrix mechanics.

At this point, my friend, who thought that this had gone on for long enough, made our goodbyes for us, I gently pried my book from his hand, and we took our leave.  In the morning he was gone and we never saw or heard of him again.  My friend later told me that the man had been sitting on that bench all day long but that he’d never seen him before or since.

Isn’t that kind of weird?

The cautionary tale to the children I guess would be that one must always be careful studying advanced physics or they too may one day snap and end up a disgruntled physicist sitting on a park bench outside of Chepo waiting for someone who understands or cares enough to listen to his rants.

Finally, to you Mr. Disgruntled Physicist whose name I don’t even know, if by chance you use the internet and find this site, know that I hope we meet again and that I’ll bring more books.

P.S. This story is completely true.  This really did happen and it has not been embellished, only related in detail.  However, a friend pointed me to the following link which bears some resemblence:

Still Alive
April 17, 2009, 8:47 am
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To my large and adoring readership
There haven’t been many updates recently because I’ve been living in my site without much access to internet and whenever I left and visited an internet cafe I was always really rushed for time.  But, no longer. 

What am I up to?
Living, washing clothes in rivers, drinking chicha fuerte, cooking a lot of rice and beans.  I’m living in my own house now and it’s awesome.  It has a raised wood floor with the kitchen underneath on ground level.  Unfortunately the raised floor is about 5’10” off the ground, so I can almost stand up in my kitchen but not quite. 

Work wise, we’re starting on doing some aqueduct design work, as well as collaborating with my neighboring volunteer Mike on a biogas digester for a small pig farm and working with the UNDP to investigate the possibly of small scale hydropower.  It’s exciting, busy, and really fun. 

I’m still more or less healthy and we’ve been in high summer for the past couple months, which has been awesome.  But the rains are coming again now, which will mean not leaving my house without knee high rubber boots.


My House! Surrounded by a huge garden with 4 orange trees.  Woot!

My House! Surrounded by a huge garden with 4 orange trees. Woot!

A partial view of my garden

A partial view of my garden

Mike, his horse and his guitar.  The guitar later smacked against a tree and broke.

Mike, his horse and his guitar. The guitar later smacked against a tree and broke.

Swimming in a big waterfall.

Swimming in a big waterfall.

My semillero for planting my garden to be transplanted later once I make some raised beds

My semillero for planting my garden to be transplanted later once I make some raised beds

Me with my poisonous snake killing machete.

Me with my poisonous snake killing machete.

Me, helping build a thatched roof

Me, helping build a thatched roof