Monday, March 28, 2016

The Ojo

"No hay agua," the old man insisted. He stood facing Sean wearing the ubiquitous rubber boots, threadbare dark pants, torn T shirt with corporate logos, and baseball cap given by the latest political candidate.

"No hay agua," he repeated. There isn't any water.

If he was right, the project was in jeopardy. The project is Sean's Peace Corps assignment to help the Ngabere (pronounced NO-bay) community of Cerro Pita, in the Panamanian province of Chiriqui, get an aqueduct that would supply 170 residents with clean water. It was an ambitious undertaking, given the terrain, the lack of money, materials, and lack of water in the dry season, and, more importantly, the ongoing drought.

Sean assured the man that he was going up the ojo, or spring, in question to measure the flow. Sean is lanky and sun-toasted. He has thinned down from the slender, muscled body he had as a college student in San Diego. His hair is still light, but losing some of the baby whiteness he kept into his twenties. His language mixes Spanish with Ngabere, and doing so seems to calm the old man, who is a full foot shorter than Sean. His machete is at his side and his eyes are black. His skin is dusty but as dark as burnt umber. His hands are the thick hands of a man who has worked with his back for his entire life.

He promises to come by and talk later before giving all of us a "ha TWAY dah" or see you later. We continue out walk up the road, toward the ojo that Sean hopes will feed the aqueduct. Our progress is slowed by "pasearing," or sitting and chatting with the gente, the people. It is Sean's job to build community and trust. He has to be highly visible to the many families that line the road running through the community of Cerro Pita. Peace Corps work organizes and connects communities with projects as much as it tries to do the actual construction. Sean is supposed to leave the community stronger and more empowered, not just to finish an aqueduct.

Cerro Pita, like much of Central America, is the third year of a catastrophic drought. The "sequia" has dried up many of the ojos and made the slash and burn subsistence farming of Cerro Pita more difficult, less productive. Hunger is common in the hard times.

The Ngabere live in the highlands of the comarca because they were forced off the more fertile land near the coast by banana plantation owners. The politics have been hard on the Ngabere, their history having much in common with indigenous people world-wide. They live and die by the weather and constant labor. Water. Food. Shelter. The three horses of survival consume the hours. 

Water is an issue. Always. Families have to haul water for drinking and cleaning. There is water running in the deep quebradas, or canyons, but the work required to haul water up steep trails means that much of the day is spent getting water. That water is often contaminated. Sickness is common. Children die of water-borne diseases.

In order for an ojo, a spring, or seep, a clean source that comes directly from the mountain, to work for the aqueduct, it has to be high enough to serve a gravity-fed system. There is no electricity for pumps, or mechanical expertise to maintain such a system.

Gravity is the only way. The project ojo is high enough to feed a system, but altitude means less watershed to feed the groundwater that percolates to the spring. The sequia may be compromising the flow of the ojo. We are hiking up to see it and to take measurements to see if the project is still viable given the drought, the season, and the needs of the people.

We climb up the road, a dirt twin track, rutted by the rains that will come in a few months, if we are lucky. Trails lead from the road to the bamboo, thatch , and galvanized roofing of family homes. It's late in the day. Families are cooking over wood fires. Their pots are set on stones and long branches are fed into the fire as they burn down.

Sean leads us off the road and up a steep trail that will take us to the freshly cut "monte" that will follow the pipes of the aqueduct. It will run along a steep contour and down into thickly wooded canyons. We pass avocado, mango, cacao, orange, grapefruit, papaya, and myriad other hardwoods. The sylvan density of the canyon blocks what little light remains of the setting sun.

We come to the first of many barbed wire crossings and Sean holds up the strand so I can step though. He say to himself and partly to me "We're going to have to watch ourselves. This is snake time, snake habitat. The gente probably think we're nuts going into the quebrada this time of day."

I hold the wire for Sean and Megan. I notice Sean's woven shoulder bag and ask him about it. "It's a chakara," he says. "Nobay men use them for hauling everything from coconuts to babies. It's the same word they have for ball sack. They make it from pita, a plant like an agave, the namesake of the community."

"I think I want a scrotum too," I say.

Megan shakes her head, long suffering mother of male banter, before jumping in with "Sean, you know Papa can't get bitten by a snake. He can't get antivenin." I had been bitten by a rattlesnake years ago, and because of the likelihood of allergic reaction, I could not receive antivenin in the event of another bite.

Sean forges ahead up the canyon, a little hurried because of the setting sun, the amount of trail, and the need to keep moving. We are no longer pasearing; we are pushing hard up the steep, leaf strewn slopes of the canyon.

"Only if it's a pit viper," I say to Megan. "Panama has all kinds of poisonous snakes, mainly Fer de Lances and coral snakes."

That does not calm her much.

We forge ahead. I am more concerned about the difficulty of the walk than I am about snakes, and watch Sean's long strides up the hill. His days as a surfer and rock climber have prepared him well for this work. It is demanding -- physically, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. I am proud of him beyond what I can say in words. His feet are caked with weeks of dust, but I can see the fine angelic shine of the curly hair on his toes. He is pure gold as he hauls ass up the incline.

The trail traverses a loose, incredibly steep landslide. A slip here would send a walker careening down a hundred fee into the rocky canyon below. I take it slow and use my walking stick as a third leg when I wobble.

We leave the quebrada to cut over a ridge. The wind has whipped up and is screaming by at about forty miles an hour.

"Va a pegar duro," Sean says. It's going to pound hard tonight. He is right. His little wood house will shake on its foundation later in the evening. But right now, it's just beginning. A moon rises over the ridge. It's almost full, a platinum disk that I hope will light our way home.

Sean was pushing hard now. We had to make it the ojo before dark, for many reasons, and, of course, we were behind schedule a bit. That is the way here: it's necessary to "demorrar" to take time, to delay even, to take the time necessary to chat, gossip, kibitz, enjoy a moment or two or three.

But there is also work, also an impending darkness, a job to get done. We are now Anglos, working in a linear trajectory toward a goal.

In the rush to make it before dark, I cut my arm on barbed wire. Sean says I should clean it up before we get to the stream of the ojo, because there may be gente there bathing, and we doesn't want to alarm them with the sight of a bleeding Gringo. He says they are superstitious, and that they might think some demon is coming out of the woods.

I clean up. Good thing too, because we surprise a mother, her two children, and their horse when we emerge from the wall of trees into the open stream bed. They stare. I greet them in my primitive Ngabere, "Ng TOR eh." They return the greeting, still stunned. Sean told me later that I might be the largest person they had ever seen. And I was wearing a red Arizona shirt, which made me even more of an apparition.

After a few more barbed wire crossings, we reach the ojo. It is hidden in the undergrowth of plants with leaves the size of tennis racquets. The water is clear, but unimpressive, in a pool no bigger than a kitchen sink.

Sean drains the pool using the ubiquitous half gourd bowl that the gente leave at all of ojos for those who come to fill their water bottles and buckets. He scoops out the water so he can measure the flow as the water refills the pool.

When it is empty, he fills his stainless steel water bottle with the gourd while I time the process. He tells me to stop when he has a gallon. One and half gallons per minute, just enough to give a green light to the project.

"This is less than the flow to one kitchen sink in the US," Sean says. "But this has to supply over a hundred people. No extra for washing. Just drinking water. But it's worth it. People are dying."

We climb up a second ojo, and Sean looks at the undergrowth with a sigh of reluctance. I grab the gourd and kneel down to empty it out after swinging my stick to check for snakes. A black squirrel chirps in alarm and scrambles into the brush. I do my best at kneeling over to empty the pool, but tire before I can finish. Sean spells me and soon I start my stopwatch. Another gallon per minute.

"Between these two, I think we have enough. But I don't know what will happen if the drought continues. These could go dry. We're pretty high up and there isn't much catchment. It's the best we've got though."

The wind is moaning in the trees that bend with the force. It's time to climb out of the quebrada and get back to the road before it gets fully dark.

My legs barely carry me up the steep grade, with steps cut into the path for walkers carrying heavy loads of water or children.

The view from the ridge is a million bucks and the wind slaps my hat in a challenge to knock it off. I tighten the headband and lean into the wind, glad for the moment and a stout walking stick. It will be dark by the time we get back, but the moon is up. We will have to pass though deep shadows and cross roots that look like snakes in the dim light, but we will make it I hope.

The winds will pound tonight, all night. That is the way here during the dry season. They have to blow so that the rains can come. They will come. They have to.


  1. So glad to read this, Erec! Proud of you as Sean's dad, and of him, too, of course. I look forward to reading more of this story.

  2. Holy cow, what an experience...and Sean looks sooo much like you!!!

  3. Erec, your family adventures never end.

  4. More more more! Love the way you describe this adventure

  5. Very nice, Erec! I feel your pride in your boy. And your gratitude.

  6. A year of service.... (slow motion heroism) Thanks for the glimpse into Sean's adventure. He is an easy kid to be proud of.

  7. Thanks, Erec. Nice to have a glimpse of reality. And nice to live a bit higher on el hog. Old Sean, him somebody!