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While the neighbouring countries around Panama are quite well known for their colorful indigenous populations, we have never heard of any in Panama. So it was more than a pleasant surprise when we first came across the diminutive Guna Yala women selling their handicrafts in the old city quarter of Casco Viejo. Despite their short stature (Wikipedia says they are the smallest people in the world after the Batwa Pygmies in Africa) they cut an impressive figure with their bright clothing of hand made molas and geometric beaded leg coverings.
As it often is around the world the women are the keepers of the culture and language. No wonder our home language is called mother tongue, not father tongue. It is very much so with Guna Yala women that have kept their clothing and traditions alive. What is more unusual is that the women have a significant place in the society because the inheritance goes through the matrilineal line. When we visited a tiny island with a restaurant and a few tourist bungalows we were told it belonged to the grandmother of the clan. Our translator claimed that Guna value girls more than boys and when we visited the preschool on their main island we were surprised that 3/4 of the class were girls and only 1/4 boys. Yet all the Guna women we met had pretty much equal number of sons and daughters. While the old men had the official title of the Guna Yala Congress representative, they were mostly spending their time “thinking” in the hammocks in their community house, while the women were out there organizing the community, running schools, checking on sick neighbors and clinic’s medical supplies and organizing a Cultural week and dance competition for the schoolkids. We met a young woman law student Nailini who organized an indigenous festival in Panama City and she was the only one of the whole comittee who could speak English. She had a posse of other young women helping with the finances and logistics while the guys were relegated to moving furniture and taking photos. She said it was difficult to maintain the Guna identity in the city and keep the traditions and especially the language alive. It was sad to see that most of the school kids on the islands could not speak their ancestor’s tongue. Even the simple Nue gambi? (How are you?) that we learned from the elders got no response.
The 50,000 Guna Yala are rather unique because they have autonomy within the country. There is no federal police allowed on their lands and islands and no businesses or hotels can be owned by non natives. They won these concessions after their Dule Revolution in 1925 when they staged an armed uprising against the Panamanian government who tried to “civilize” them by prohibiting amongst other the women’s dress and gold nose rings. The nose ring was a part of the puberty ritual in which the girls also had their long black hair cut and covered with a red scarf. The older women still wear their hair short and covered but the young girls like their hair long and definitely consider gold only for earings or necklaces. The Guna people live on the land by the sea in Panama and Colombia and on 365 islands formerly known as Saint Blas. All of them are small and only 50 are inhabited. There is no potable water, bad sanitation and no garbage removal. The overcrowding contributes to poor health and the one clinic we visited was in a very poor condition with dedicated staff fighting mainland beaurocracy, lack of equipment and medication as well as salt air corrosion that quickly destroys the little equipment they have. The schools and library are besotted by the effects of humidity that penetrates the books. The students we talked to might be slow to pick up languages but as everywhere around the world the teens are quick to pick up cell phones.
There are other smaller Indian groups like Ngobe-Bugle and Embera, but that is a story for another day.
Thankful that the rains mostly held off during the two weeks of construction, but worried about the thunder, lightening, and torrential rain that greeted our morning drive to the construction site for the celebration, we wondered if anyone else would show up in this downpour, and just as important, how we were going to open the bridge in such inclement weather. The day before we had purchased a cow to feed the community, so when we arrived at the new bridge site, we found that our local core volunteers had already constructed an improvised tarp shelter under which the women were busy chopping up meat and vegetables, stoking the wood fires, and stirring enormous black cooking pots. We quickly put the school kids to work blowing up balloons for decoration which excited the smaller children so much that everyone’s spirits lifted.
Words of gratitude and friendship were shared from both sides. We realized that our lives had been enriched, not only from having built a sturdy, safe bridge, but from working side-by-side to do it, and getting to know each other from two very different parts of the Americas. In the true spirit of community and cooperation, (and happily with no politicians present) no one wanted to take on the very important act of cutting the very unofficial looking ribbon which had been fashioned from balloon string. One of the construction workers finally suggested, “Let the two little brothers cut it. We did this for the kids, anyway!”
The ladies outdid themselves with the food. Perhaps the extra seasoning of raindrops helped, or maybe it was the fresh air mixed with the smoke of the fires that made us hungrier. We were as usual soaking wet, but for the first time in two weeks it was not from rivulets of our own sweat. The many horses “parked” behind the shelter seemed to relish the cooler air too, so when the rain stopped for a bit, some of us got a chance to exhibite our riding skills atop well worn Western saddles steering with homemade bridles of rope.
After lunch everyone walked down to the river’s old crossing to watch men with machetes chop down the old tree trunk bridge. We felt relieved knowing that the kids would no longer face the hazard of injury there.
It was hard to say goodbye, especially to the kids, who gave us long hugs. Part of our group returned to our old camp ground at the school and as a goodbye gift fitted the broken school entrance gate and shower door with new hardware. It will be a nice surprise for everyone when school opens on Monday.
“So different and so new, was like any other, until I kissed you”, sang the Drifters. I guess if you are a bridge person, every new bridge is a little bit like falling in love all over, and if you’re building that bridge by hand, the kiss happens when the two sides meet in the middle. Our Los Cañones Magic Moment occurred on Tuesday at 4:37 pm, after a whole day of courting (and teasing each other while securing the planks) from the two teams working on each side. It was an extremely hot and muggy day, and breathing air felt something like breathing in molasses. Even the resident herd of cows was restless and kept intruding from their hill onto the project site, mindless of several dogs who tried to chase them away. In the afternoon, a passing cloud shed a few drops of rain, cooling things down a tad. Fresh ice brought to the site and mixed in with warm water and lemonade powder gave extra energy to the guys and gals swinging above the river laying out and attaching the heavy planks.
When the last plank was cut to measure and fitted in the gap, it was clear in everybody’s mind that the bridge will indeed be finished on time. After a little bit of celebratory hooting and pats on the back plans for Friday opening with a community celebration were initiated. We hope to make it special for everyone involved. We heard children are excused from school to join their parents for the celebration.
The suspenders were hung and pulled across river. The concrete on the left bank was finished. The foundation on the right bank was raised. The handrail anchor post has been installed. The scaffolding was taken down. After the protective wire mesh is installed, it will be time for finishing touches and clean up. We are into the home stretch now.
The community of Los Canones is surrounded by the Ciri River. This area receives some of highest precipitation in Panama, where storms sweep in from both north and south and end up lingering over the cordillera instead of passing on. Rivers grow substantially larger between September and December, but so far we have been lucky that it has mostly rained at night.
The community’s humble homesteads are scattered among the hills and valleys, tucked away behind dense foliage. It is fascinating to see the posts they use for fencing sprouting green leaves and branches. There are about 1200 people living in the area and we are not quite sure what they live on, as we can only see a few cattle, some chickens and an occasional corn field. Compared to bustling, modern, well-to-do Panama City, the countryside is sleepy, quiet (except for the roosters and dogs) and economically depressed. Like so many other places around the world, city wealth does not trickle out to the countryside.
Just beyond the site are big trees, birds, butterflies and colorful flowers. One can encounter a lot of surprises on a short jaunt to the pit latrine!
Hard work is made easier in beautiful surroundings with these good people who help and welcome us with big smiles and warm handshakes every day!
It can be hard to decide what to do on your one day off! You can enjoy your comfortable bed in the air-conditioned hotel room back in Panama City or maybe do some exploring. Seven of us decided to head out for some beach time with the hope of diving and snorkeling on the Caribbean side of the country. Although Sunday morning dawned dark and rainy, we were up early anyway, so we decided to press on to the historic town of Portobelo, just 62 miles from Panama City. We recieved step-by-step driving instructions from the diving company which were accompanied by helpful photos of the turn offs – i.e., turn left at Rey supermarket or turn right by the blue house with pink tile – that house had strangely received a fresh coat of yellow paint before we got there. Stil, we managed to get lost a few times, which frequently happens to us in Panama. By the time we reached our destination it had stopped raining, but visibility was pretty low because the swollen rivers had brought down tons of mud into the bay. So we gave up on snorkeling and diving.
Instead a history lesson was in order. The little rundown town of Portobelo was once one of Spain’s most important and richest ports dating from the mid 16th century. For two hundred years, a third of all the gold and silver plundered from South America passed through Portobelo. No surprise then that there were lots of forts and castillos protecting the bay. Many of them, or rather their stone ruins and rusted canons, can still be found half swallowed by the jungle. Fuerte San Jeronimo and the adjacent Real Aduana (Customs House) are designated Unesco Heritage Sites, though one would not know it but for a weathered, totally illegible information board. But the Customs House has been nicely restored and still exudes a sense of history. It was easy for us to imagine that in the spacious halls with their high beamed ceilings and stone corridors, conquistadores counted their loot while black slaves dragged heaving chests up and down the steps and natives sporting their colorful beads and feathers watched in awe from the inner courtyard.
We didn’t want to disturb the religious services at the Iglesias de San Felipe which is said to contain a famous black Christ statue where the descendants of those black slaves still congrate to pray. So we found a boat owner willing to take us to a little island lined with a slim strand of sand over generously named Playa Blanca. We were smart enough to supply ourselves before departure with liberal amounts of ice and beer from the Chinese grocery store along with grilled sausages and hamburgers purchased from a corner food stand, so we enjoyed a nice little party on the island. The sun cooperated, peeking out from behind the clouds while the ocean breezes cooled us. It was the perfect break before heading back in the evening to the hot construction site.
When I commented on how interesting the volunteers on this project were, I got a perfect response: “Of course, for people to come on this type of mission, they must be pretty special!” Truly, to give up two weeks of your precious vacation time, pay for your plane ticket and food, then work in the hot sun all day and sleep in a hot tent at night, you must be pretty dedicated. So we asked why these particular volunteers decided to come to Panama. Several said they were inspired by others who had volunteered for previous B2P projects and loved the experience. Our youngest participant, 17-year-old Macy joined her father, Pat, because she thought it would be great to be in a new country for a good cause. Naya built a bridge in Rwanda with her father, Mirek, the year before and was excited to do it again. “I like building things like tables and benches, but building a bridge is really, really cool.” Ok, doing it twice is nice, but five times? Brooke is hooked and keeps coming back because she really enjoys the variety of people on the building teams but especially likes working with the local people who are so welcoming and appreciative. Gary half jokingly said he is looking for a second career when he retires from construction management. Is B2P hiring internationally? We are sure good country managers are hard to come by!
Another question we asked our team members: What surprised you most when you got here? Macy says she is surprised by how far everyone has to walk. There are very few cars, so people either have to walk or, if they’re lucky, ride a horse. There are no stores or even snack stands in any of the little communities in this small valley and to get to a decent store, you need to drive for over an hour. Gary says he is surprised and impressed that although they don’t have much, the people here keep their houses very clean. Curtis says he is surprised by how patient the community helpers are. One morning he spent a long time alone with them and kept asking what to call this or that in Spanish which he would then promptly forget and have to ask again. “By the time this project is over I will have brought my level of Spanish up to about the level of a four year old!” Hunter says he is impressed with the amount of improvising and ingenuity that is sometimes required during construction.
Friday and Saturday Progress
-both towers errected
all suspenders are re bent to new specs because of the span between the towers was 6 meters less than previously known
Of course we expected to encounter both natural and man-made challenges on the construction site, but with ingenuity and patience they can be overcome, and our team is rising to the occasion. The oppressive heat and humidity are an all-day battle with little shade in which to hide from the fierce sun. Our clothing is soaked through right at the start of each day and often doesn’t dry out while hanging over night on the clothesline. Everyone is pretty good with reapplying sunscreen, which is quickly sweated away. There is no clean drinking water, so we rely on a regular supply of ten gallon jugs from the grocery store which is an hour away. Potato chips help with salt depletion and eating them under these conditions seems less guilt inducing.
The language barrier is also a way to form closer relationships with the locals. Our masons and community volunteers have picked up a few English words and our team has learned the Spanish for “What do you call this…?” We have also created an onsite Spanish-English dictionary for the most common expressions.
It’s a challenge to keep us in gloves as they get frayed and greasy, especially when handling the steel cable. There is an ever-growing graveyard of old gloves on site, so we can’t help but wonder where do the old gloves go when they die?
The man-made challenges can be more frustrating, especially when there are delays in getting needed materials to the site or when they arrive and are the wrong size. Our biggest challenge to date has been the fact that the suspension cable is too large in diameter. Luckily our team is adept at wielding hand saws and making necessary adjustments to the towers for a good fit. Bryant assured us that he has to deal with the same issues on the construction sites in the US, and Hunter, our resident architect, said this was a great eye opener for him. From now on he won’t be stressing as much over every tiny millimeter when working on drawings in the office.
Wednesday & Thursday Progress Report
– rolled out steel cables with the community volunteers and cut them (4 each) into 300′ lengths
– all rebar on site cut and bent, expecting delivery of the other half soon
– wood deck planks being cut around the countryside; “search parties” go out with a local guide to find the appropriate trees, then cut them down and into planks which are hauled back to the site by truck
– towers carried across the river
– tower braces assembled
– backfill of concrete anchors completed
– as-built survey of bridge reviewed
With much anticipation we piled into our vehicles and drove off to the construction site where we were greeted by the local masons who were putting the finishing touches on the foundations for the bridge. Volunteers who had worked on the Rwanda project in 2014 were astounded by the quality and workmanship in comparison. Naya was lovingly picking up the extra cement bricks and waxing poetically, “Wow, these are some beautiful, sturdy bricks! You can pick them up and they don’t crumble! You can even drop them on the ground and they stay intact!”
In order to cross to the opposite side of the construction site, one can wade through the river or go a little further up stream to cross over the old bridge which has been ingeniously constructed from tree limbs and branches of trees that grow along the river banks.
The locals had already prepared planks for the decking from trees close to the site, deftly wielding their chainsaws. It was easy to transport them with Gary’s pickup truck, though they weigh a ton!
The next day, Tuesday, work started in earnest. Much was accomplished:
1/2 suspenders cut, and 1/4 bent
Half of wood deck cut and on site
Half of boards pre-drilled
Scaffolds erected on both sides of river and guyed off
Steel towers delivered to site
And another big victory was won over the assorted airlines that transported Bryant and his giant cooler containing all the safety equipment. With the help of his wife, who spent her entire morning in the US on the phone with baggage claims people, we traced the errant cooler to Copa Airlines and retrieved it from the Lost and Found at the Panama City airport. By nightfall it had been delivered to the volunteers.
We were pleasantly surprised to find the conditions at our campsite better than anticipated. The villagers offered us open-sided shelters sitting on a small knoll next to the elementary school with cement platforms and roofs to protect our tents from the rain. Afternoon showers are frequent here, but the heat and humidity are such that the tents need only a mesh roof for air circulation and protection from the bugs. On our first night, it was still 98F at 9 pm. No surprise then when Curtis was asked the next morning how he’d slept. His answer: “You must first fall asleep to be able to answer that question.” On the second night, the temperature dropped by more than ten degrees, so let’s hope it stays there. With about 80-100% humidity, it’s sticky indeed, so we are grateful for the on-site shower. It is also very nice to have decent toilets. Breakfast consists of cold cereal and hard boiled eggs; lunch is sandwiches taken to the construction site, but dinner is cooked over a fire by the local women, consisting of rice, lentils and/or beans with meat.
These are emergency toilets. There are actually two flushing toilets at the school and a trough with faucets for washing hands and brushing teeth.