Chiricano Kristen´s Adventure Safari

Friday, January 19, 2007

Adventures in Food

These little tidbits have nothing to do with cooking per se, but with food in general.

My old host sister Cheni, 7, is very curious and always asking me about the food that is in my house. Here is a short list of food that she has asked me about, having either never seen before, or not known their names. Peanut butter, almonds, dried cranberries, jelly beans, chocolate covered raisins, granola.

This occurred to a gringo who is the owner of an eco-lodge in my site. One afternoon after work he offers a worker of about 15 years a can of soda. The kid looks at it, not knowing what to do with it. He knew what its contents were, as the words Coca-Cola were written on the side, but not how to open the can. You see, soda bottles are much more common in the campo, and so the kid had never seen a can before.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Flying Solo

After nearly 7 months and living with 6 host families the moment has finally arrived...I moved into a house of my very own! It´s by no means a palace, but I do have electricity and running water. It´s got 2 bedrooms, one for me and one for guests/private yoga studio. It´s furnished with a couch and a stove. The location is ideal, a stone´s throw from my first host family, sitting at the top of a hill with views of the valley, the river and, of course, Volcan Baru. My favorite thing to do is drink my morning coffee on the porch and read my Newsweek or other book I might have lying around.

There´s plenty of things that I still plan on buying. A new door, refrigerator and hammock, plus a couple tables. But that´s it. This is the Peace Corps after all. I don´t wanna go completely ye-ye. I feel spoiled enough already as it is. That´s why I´m not buying a TV. If I wanna watch my favorite novela, Tierra de pasiones, I can to the neighbors.

Sunday, October 22, 2006


Today is the day of ´the vote, where panamanians vote ´si´ or ´no´in regards to expanding the canal. Propaganda has been in full force for months now and it´s finally (thank goodness) coming to an end. Essentially, what the panamanian government wants to do is create another canal. One will be for ships going from the Pacific to the Caribbean, the other to go from the Caribbean to the Pacific. There will be an additional lane for ridiculously large vessels.
Money is of course a huge issue. How will a country like Panama pay for such a monumental undertaking? Who´s going to do the labor? Surely Panama lacks the proper workforce for this type of construction. Who will benefit from all this? Panama is one of the worst countries in the world in terms of income distribution and corruption among government officials. There is no wonder there are a surprising number of people who are anti-expansion.
Nevertheless, I´m confident the referendum will pass.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

A love song

This is an ode to coffee, a personal vice of mine. I have the pleasure of working with coffee producers in my day-day work. Here is a little information about coffee as well as its history in Panama.

Coffee is produced from the seeds of a small red (sometimes yellow) fruit that grows on plants halfway in size between shrub and tree. The process that turns these seeds into beverage is a long and complex process, perhaps the most complex process associated with any major beverage.

It is also a very labor intensive process involving a vast intercontinental collaboration that starts with the coffee grower, moves from there to the picker, then to the mill workers who meticulously remove the fruit and dry the beans, then to those who clean and grade the beans, to those who roast them, to those consumers and baristas who finally grind the beans and prepare the beverage. Every act along the way can be performed either with passion and precision or with careless shoddiness. It is the cumulative quality of all of these creative contributions that together make the difference between a lackluster cup and a fine and distinctive one.

By the time coffee is consumed, it has been subject to at least seven momentous processes carried out by seven potentially unrelated parties resident in anywhere from two to four parts of the world. Unlike fine wines, which are often bottled by the same people who grow the grapes and produce the wine, coffee is not bottled and is not just purchased, opened, and enjoyed by the consumer.

The process of bringing coffee from the crop to the cup is kicked off by someone who grows and picks the coffee fruit. A second party (usually) buys the fruit and removes the soft, fruity parts from the seeds, then dries the seeds (now called beans), two steps together known as processing and both crucial to the ultimate quality and character of the coffee.

The processor usually sells the dried beans to a third party, the exporter. The exporter may blend beans from different processing mills before bagging and shipping them.

A fourth party imports the coffee into the consuming country, though in most cases he spares it any further manipulation, confining himself to passing judgment on it and selling it to a roaster.
At this point the coffee is subjected to perhaps the single most influential act of all: roasting. The roaster also may blend beans from a variety of crops and regions. The retailer performs a simple but very significant service: handling the coffee sensibly and selling it before it gets stale.
Finally, the consumer buys the coffee, grinds it (usually), and finally produces an actual beverage. But we're not even finished here. The consumer, before enjoying this meticulously grown, processed, roasted, blended, and brewed coffee, may add any number of dairy products, sweeteners, or flavorings, all with differing effects on the final beverage.

Coffee in dollar terms is the second most traded product in the world after petroleum.

Coffee in Panama is no joke. Some (if not most) of the best coffee in the world is grown right in my backyard. Here are some exerpts of news articles if you don´t believe me:

¨Panama's coffees from the Boquete area consistently outscore the rest of the world in international coffee cupping competitions because of the excellent origin characteristics. In the 2003 Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) Boston cupping competition, five Panama coffees from the Boquete region scored in the top ten out of 119 coffees from 15 countries. ¨

¨Panama's number one coffee, "Esmeralda Special" from Hacienda La Esmeralda, set an online coffee auction record when it sold for $21 dollars a pound on June 29th. Esmeralda Special placed first in the "Best of Panama" cupping competition in April with a score of 95.6 out of 100... Commercial-grade coffee is currently trading in commodity markets for around 73 cents a pound.¨

Month 3

This month I will be with my 6th, and final, Panamanian host family EVER. It´s a real shame because I got the whole thing down to a science.

This particular family is actually in another town - an up-and-down hill 30 minutes away. The house is actually split in 2, divided by a street. The main house has 2 bedrooms, a living area, and kitchen, plus an additional caseta for the fogon (wood- burning stove complete with firewood). The house across the way is where I stay. It´s simply a barn loft that´s open below but has 4 bedrooms above. The latrine situation is the same as before - the shower is inside, next to the latrine.

It´s like living in an ecolodge. I can look out the windows and see the mountains above me with the billowing clouds slowly passing by or look below at the orchard of coffee and oranges. I can pick an orange and then walk over to one of the creeks to eat it (there are 2). The weather here is perfect for sleeping. I need 2 blankets in fact. There is a great amount of nocturnal life too. I often wake up to the sound of scratching or screeching outside. The abundance of orchids and flowers is too much to take in. The aroma of coffee is everywhere. I often read in bed with the windows open and take in the view of the flora and fauna, the sounds of the birds and creek, and the smells of the pine house and coffee.

Coffee is big business here. It is sold to Cafe Ruiz in Boquete, a major destination for quality coffee. There is an organization here, Fuente de Vida, comprising the coffee producers in the city. They are very progressive, very involved in organics. They have specific goals and work very hard towards achieving them. They are a pleasure to work with.

Friday, September 29, 2006

¨The toughest job you´ll ever love...¨

If my first month was filled with wide-eyed naivete, my second, I must say, was filled with learning the hard truth of the reality of PC life. And the hard truth is this: PC life is a hard, day-to-day fight.

I was so completely in the dark about the divisions and bitter squabbles that plague my communithy until (very) recently - groups that have split because of differences in opinions, organizations that make promises but don`t deliver, religious favoritism, feuds that run deep, reputations being ruined by unsubstantiated rumors - all of which occurred before my arrival. This is simply the legacy I have been handed.

Unfortunately, I must report, that learning this avalanche of information before I arrived would not have helped or prepared me in any real way. There are no preparations for this. Throughout my trials, the 3-part PC goals remain forever steadfast: Learn about their culture, expose them to mine, and help the community in a tangible manner. In other words, facilitation and exposure.

My main goal is to act as a window: to expose the people, ALL people, I meet to my way of life, my thinking, my attitude. I leave it up to them to be a part of what I am offering them, be it a chance to ask questions about the U.S., learn a little English, or participate in a group function that I´ve helped organize. I am here not to change culture, but to open their eyes to the POSSIBILITY of culture change. Changing someone´s attitude takes a serious amount of time. Changing someone´s culture is a near lifelong process.

Shortly after my arrival in Panama, my fellow trainees and I watched a short slide show, complete with audio. It was about an old woman, who, when on her daily bus ride, threw seeds out the window. Many on the bus thought she was crazy, for much of the seeds landed in the road or the ditch, without hope of ever growing into a beautiful wildflower. She continued this practice well ´til the day she died. Shortly after her departure, the rains came, and on their way to and from work, the passengers enjoyed a trip through a luscious meadow.

The story´s simple, clear message is this : I am like the old woman who spreads her seeds, some destined to sprout, others to wither and die.

And I will be long gone to see the seeds bloom.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Panamanian Work Ethic

Well, where do I begin, other than to say it doesn´t exist. Meetings are consisently late, if they happen at all. People often ask, "real time or panamanian time." A large problem I run into in my work is issues with blame and responsibility. No groups support each other. For example, I paid a visit to my community to discuss a 3-month plan. In my first 3 months, i am to meet all the groups, get to know the people and culture and live with 3 families. The plan for the first month was to work with the youth group Panama Verde and organize a multi-group (8) garbage cleanup. All groups were present and agreed to this. The end of the month came and we sent out letters to each group on a Thursday about the Sunday cleanup. No other groups helped. It was later said that they didn´t help because they weren´t given enough notice. Two weekends ago, I had an all-day junta, 2 meetings, and a fundraiser (a very full weekend) all cancel.

The educational system here is at fault too for several reasons. One, the school day is only a few hours long, if there is school at all. Teachers are assigned to their schools and are oftentimes not dedicated to their jobs. Sometimes they just don´t show up. Two, parents and older siblings often do the homework of the children. Three, education here isn´t seen as an essential thing, a door to success in life. Anyone can get a job without an education. Four, they don´t sit and read books or use the internet or know how it feels to write a 10-page research paper. The people here are intelligent, don´t get me wrong. The lack the sophistication and organization in their ideas and thoughts that a formal education would provide.

When church rivalries are thrown into the mix, it gets even dicier. My town has 2 churches, evangelical and catholic. The representante is catholic, and very religious. He heavily favors the catholic organizations and practically ignores all others.

The government organizations are no better, offering help and not delivering. This is not uncommon unfortunately.

Norma, the former volunteer, had problems of this sort, only worse I imagine. She only worked with the 2 youth groups because of problems like these. If I can work with 4 of the 8 in the course of my 2 years, I will be pleased.

My town has expressed the desire to be more punctual and organized. They all want meetings to start on time (although the same people that complain are also the same people that contribute to the problem).

What angers me more than anything, is saying that they want to meet and then just not showing up. Often, I have to say no to one thing because I´ve already made another commitment, only for the first thing to cancel. Then I´m left with nothing. This has happened more times than I can count. Time is something I take seriously, and if someone is wasting my time, I take it as an insult and very disrespectful. I meet my PC friends every 2 weeks for a few days of stories and relaxing. I am always back when I need to be, and that always means leaving early for a meeting.

If I teach them one thing it´s reliability.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Adventures in Cooking

Part of the PC experience is to share the American culture and what better way than to cook for my host family. I wanted to cook spaghetti and garlic bread with my favorite dessert - chocolate chip cookies to top it all off. Sounds simple enough right? Little did I know how difficult this would be.

I went to the ye-ye (yuppie) supermarket where all the extranjeros in David go. Most stores in the campo have only rice and sardines. This one has it all, except for brown sugar for the cookies and garlic powder for the garlic bread! Another part of the PC experience is learning how to improvise to I baked a cake and nixed on the bread idea.

Gabi, my host mother, was curious and enthusiastic about the whole thing. (She has 2 small children so she was probably thrilled she didn´t have to cook for once). She watched me cook. I put the spiral noodles in boiling water, which she had never seen before. In a sauce pan, I emptied the jar of spaghetti sauce which seemed foreign to her as well; she examined it for quite a while. I then cut up tomato, onion, and pepper to put in the sauce, explaining that I forgot to get mushrooms too. She told me that she has never eaten them before. I also got some parmesan cheese to sprinkle on top. She told me that she had seen this product in a store before but never knew what it was. In no time, the food was done. I gave Gabi a spoonful to try. Success! She liked it!

Now came the cake. Gabi luckily had a pan for it, but no measuring cups! I had to make an educated guess with the amounts of oil and water with what I thought was a tea cup. 20 minutes later I was pulling the cake out of the oven. The kids were excited because they rarely, if ever, eat chocolate. Gabi was particularly excited about the frosting on top.