BootsnAll Travel Network

Mountain Journey: Part Three: I Meet The Community

This is the third entry in a series.

I woke up this morning very early and went out to watch the sunrise. Sitting alone in a hammock, looking at the beautiful sky, the mountains green with banana trees, and the absolutely breathtaking view..was a peaceful and contempletive way to start the day.

As I have mentioned previously in other entries, private time or silence are rarities in my experience of Ngobe culture. This may be in part because large groups of extended family live in close proximity; but, being here has me thinking that perhaps another reason for the noise-primarily the radios blasting all the time-is that, just like anyone in the world, they want to be informed. Fifty years ago, radios were a luxury few could afford, but now, the radio is the one way many of these more isolated Ngobe can be in touch with the world.

Additionally, few Ngobe read who live in the mountains-and some don´t even speak Spanish. One thing I have noticed in my travels about people living in cultures where reading is either not important or is a skill few have is that there is constant noise-usually in the form of a radio-going on all the time. It´s how people feel connected.

Today I started my day with a half gourd of avena mush and some boiled coffee. While I ate, one of Catalina´s sisters came out and sat opposite to me, staring at me the entire time I ate. She never smiles-she is only thiry but has lost all of her front teeth-but I could tell she was pleased I liked the breakfast she had made for me.

Today was going to be a big day-I had alot of walking to do, because I was going to invite as much of the community as possible to a community meeting tonight at the finca. This is alot easier said than done. Everyone who was to be invited had to be visited by me in person, pleasantries exchanged, hands shaken, opinions heard..and then I had to hike to the next hamlet.

Catalina´s brother, who I have since given the nickname ¨ayudante¨(helper) was going to by my guide and translator for the entire day. We hoped to visit at least 100 hamlets, and hike back to the finca in time for a meeting that same evening.

I had run out of bottled water-no worries, I thought. Since my bout with giardia in the past month, I had efficiently retrained Catalina and her two nieces on how to boil water. Ellie was given the awesome task of boiling all of my water for the next two days while I was at the finca.

In part, this was because I had the idea of eventually getting a volunteer program started in this community, and I wanted to see how the family dealt with a volunteers needs. Food, although bland, had been-so far, anyway, well cooked and safe to eat. Water was another story.

The water had to be cooked over what was basically a campfire, in an iron pot. As Ellie cooked the water, we all realized there were going to be some problems. One, the pot was out in the open, so whenever a breeze came-and it was quite windy-debris flew into the pot. Secondly, the family had only 4 cooking pots, and all were well-used. The cooking pot used to boil my water was the least burnt of the 4, and was usually used for cooking beans. Unfortunately, since it was impossible to use a truly ¨clean¨cooking pot, this meant my water had bits of burned things in it, as well as..tasted like beans.

It was the only water we had, so I packed up my bean-water, and off we went in search of neighbors to invite to the meeting. The walk was difficult, involving many small paths that were only used by a few people, so it was slow going.

Everytime we suddenly came upon a hamlet, people were a bit in shock at seeing a tall white woman in their midst. I was the first outsider to ever visit most of these people, and certainly I was the first woman. I got many compliments on my strength-there is an impression of women from the USA as being fat and poor walkers-and several proposals of marriage.

The conditions many people were living in were-there are exact words-but, terrible. The poverty was really, really shocking. I stopped noticing dogs that were so hungry and starving that they barely moved, stopped noticing the conditions of the horses that were so thin it seemed impossible they could go on-and started noticing the conditions of the people.

Many people had little or no food. Not everyone had a big family that they shared land with or were able to work cooperatively with. In fact, many people told me that they worked entirely alone, sometimes just with their wife and small toddler age children helping them. Food for many was limited to a diet of taro root and bananas, and sometimes just bananas. Most people had a few chickens, and a few people had pigs tied to a tree.

Water quality was terrible. Panama had promised pipes to every home from the aquaduct, but many homes did not have the promised pipes. People either walked back and forth to a neighbors pipe for water, or, more often, drank dirty, contaminated water. I stopped complaining about my bean-water, because at least it was boiled, even if it tasted of beans!

Children´s health and conditions for children were really terrible in some homes. Children were often malnourished, with bloated stomaches and obvious signs of parasites-including skin conditions, loss of hair and so on. Many children had no teeth or had badly rotting teeth-people did not clean their teeth here. Children seemed depressed, hungry, and anxious.

Adults also seemed tired, fearful, depressed, and hopeless. Panama has promised much to these people but delivered little. There are groups of people within the communities in the mountains trying to organize, trying to form cooperatives and so on, but not many.

We invited as many people as we could to a meeting that night. I was clear that I wanted as many women to come as possible-knowing from past experiences, that unless invited, they will often stay behind and only men will come to a meeting. I walked home silent, pondering the many problems this community is facing, and with a somewhat heavy heart.

We got back at about 4 pm-once again, having walked for more than 1o hours. I decided to rest in my room and take a look at my ankle. When I finally took a look at it, it seemed to have improved-it was a little swollen, but no pain.

I have been concerned for the past day about being able to do the Camino with the ankle problem-but today, I´m no longer worried. It seems to be getting stronger, and I am walking in what are much more difficult conditions. As a matter of fact, walking the trails here has me firmly convinced the Camino will be a walk that I can confidently finish.

The meeting was supposed to start at 5 pm, but Ngobe are notoriously late. Also, many people do not have watches or clocks, so they come when they think it´s time.

We started setting up some benches for the people at about 6 pm, and a few people filtered in. The meeting didn´t really start until 7:30! A very good turnout-and I think part of this was due to me going and inviting them personally-of about 60 people, of which about 1/4 were women with small children and babies in their arms.

The main reason I wanted to have a meeting is I wanted to hear about two different things:(1) what are the things they are concerend about and need help with?, and (2) what are they doing to help themselves in their community?

The meeting lasted about 3 hours-well into the night. Catalina´s brother helped me translate all of my questions into Ngobe, and occassionally helped when I butchered some Spanish word mercilessly. In general, I was understood and I understood what they said to me.

The main things that they were concerned with were:

1. The lack of a bridge across one of the larger rivers. people were walking across a tree trunk, and often falling off to their deaths. Children were not crossing the bridge to go to school until they were 7 or 8 years old-meaning that they were not going to school until that age. Six children had fallen off the tree trunk while crossing in the last year, and died. All were under 8 years old.

2. No clean drinking water. People wanted pipes to lead to their homes.

3. Latrines. People knew that they were getting sick by not using latrines, but did not have the resources to build any.

4. People wanted to learn to read. Most women were illiterate. This is in part, because the Ngobe language is solely oral and has not been written down. Spanish has only been taught in public schools for the last 10 years in mountain areas.

5. People, particularly men, wanted to learn English.

6. People had concerns over healthcare, particularly for women and children.

7. People wanted to start more cooperatives with chicken raising and fish raising as possible ways to create capital.

I decided to end the larger meeting and talk to the women and men separately.

The men´s group told me their greatest problem was getting food on the table and providing the clothes and shoes to go to school. Children need shoes to go to school-even if they are cheap flip flops. Many families have absolutely no income, so buying shoes or fabric for a dress is impossible. Many people only had one set of clothes.

The men often have to leave their families and work afuera-outside-just to get some cash. They have to pay for all their expenses while they are outside, and they get poor treatment, too. Sometimes they get depressed and drink too much. They worry about their wife, their children, alone in the mountains.

They feel isolated. They are often the only person in their small family who understands Spanish-even if they can´t read. Their wives are dependent on them for everything.

The women had other issues. The main topic was around the woman that had died the day before of birth related problems. The resident medicine woman, a woman of much importance, spoke for the entire group of women. She said that many women did not want to go to the hospital-it was very far away, the women had no one to watch their children, and they did not understand Spanish. Many women chose to give birth alone in the mountains, with ono one to help them because they lived in a small house with many other people and birth is considered a very private thing, something no one must watch. Sometimes women are lucky enough to have the help of their mothers or other women in their family.

Many women die about 24 to 36 hours after childbirth, even though they seem healthy right after the birth.

I told her that I had a book with pictures in it-not just words-about childbirth, and it talks how to prevent this problem.(It´s called Where There Is No Doctor, and it´s a medical book for people who live in remote areas without access to medical care.) I asked her if she would be interested in a photocopy of the part of the book on maternity, and she said yes. I also asked her if she would be willing to teach ten women the information, and immediately all the women present asked to be in a class.

This was positive-it´s not a doctor, it´s not a hospital, but by returning here with alot of photocopied booklets of this chapter of the book, I can help educate a handful of women on how to prepare for and prevent problems concerning maternity, I will be doing a good thing. Perhaps even prevent a woman from dying needlessly.

The men and women came back together again, and as a group we decided I would return with Adan, the director of Medo, in three weeks to have another meeting and talk in earnest about how to begin solving some of their other problems.

I went to bed without eating, I was so tired. Everyone in the community stayed on for hours and hours, talking into the night about possibilities, and eating bowls of rice and beans accompanied by hot coffee. I fell asleep to women singing.



6 responses to “Mountain Journey: Part Three: I Meet The Community”

  1. Jim P says:


    that’s all

  2. Crystal says:

    Hi Gigi,

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I work at the Hesperian Foundation, the non-profit organization that publishes “Where There Is No Doctor” which you referenced in your blog. I am so happy to read that you were able to share information from our book about childbirth and maternity with women in the village. The power of sharing information is amazing.
    I wanted to let you know that we have many other titles that might be useful for the conditions of the villages you are working in. We have books on midwifery, women’s health, dental health, water and sanitation, teaching villagers how to be community health workers, and our most recent book on environmental health. Nearly all of these books are available to download for free on our website We also have the Gratis program which sends Hesperian books for free to poor communities that can’t afford them, otherwise. There’s more info about how you can apply to the Gratis program for free books on our website as well. Perhaps you could post a link to our website if you find it useful.
    Thanks again for sharing your experience and working towards improving health conditions in the communities you are visiting. I hope Hesperian can help you with your work.

    Best, Crystal

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  6. The mens times are super tough! 3:05 for 18-34? Yikes! I dont know many men who can run that fast.

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