Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Dead Wheat Chronicles - Part 1: Water

We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.
~Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia, 1732

I sit in a wide, wooden 30-foot-long canoe fitted with simple benches and a 40 HP Yamaha motor that powers us across the Chiriquí Bay on Panama's Caribbean coast. The boat, packed with bags, people and a lone chicken, hums along hugging the beautiful coastline buried in mangrove swamps with mountains swallowed in clouds in the background. My feet rest in two inches of water pooling along the spine of the boat. I start to wonder what the call to abandon ship sounds like in the local Ngöbe language. I glance around to study the looks on the faces of the other passengers. No one seems worried, so I ignore the water too.

Dark clouds hang ominously overhead, though my clothes and backpack are already soaked from our ride in the back of a truck taxi from the bus stop to the docks in Chiriquí Grande. The rain has since abated, but the moisture in the air keeps my clothes thoroughly soaked. As my feet slosh in their soggy sneakers, I think to myself, "This is going to be a common theme."

Water: The essential element. Without it we perish. With so much water around me (and on me), I cannot quite appreciate the reason for the trip out here in the depths of this region's rainy season. Steve Bliss of Dead Wheat International Foundation invited me to join the four-day affair in the Ngöbe-Buglé comarca (a region of Panama) to experience the challenges they face providing community development assistance in impoverished and often remote regions and, more specifically, help with an aqueduct project for the village of Kuite.

After an hour crossing the bay, the boat veers right and travels up one of the many tributary rivers for another three hours. Finally, we reach the small town of Kuite quaintly nestled next to the Mananti river. We grab our gear, including personal backpacks and a very large duffel bag loaded with tools and PVC plumbing parts for the aqueduct, and begin the 2 hour haul over streams, rivers and large pools of sloppy mud to our campsite.

Arrival in Kuite

Within fifteen minutes of starting, we pause to wipe the sweat
dripping from our faces and catch our breath. Barry, founder of World Next Door and our companion for the trip, exclaims with feigned enthusiasm and an accompanying grin, "At least we only have 95% of the hike left guys!"

"Haha, yep, and at least it's all uphill from here," I reply appearing gleeful.

"And, hey, the mud is only shin-deep," adds Steve amidst a heavy chuckle.

Sarcasm would become another common theme of the trip.

Navigating the endless mud

Fortunately, one of the locals who knows Steve sees us struggling and offers to carry the duffel bag of aqueduct supplies to the campsite for $5. With no deliberation, the chorus of irresilient gringos sings its affirmative reply, "YES!"

Two hours of sludge-and-trudge later, we arrive at our campsite and position our tent at the top of a hill to avoid rainwater build-up, only the ground is already sopping wet. A light rain mocks our efforts to create a water-resistant shelter, though we manage to shield ourselves from direct rainfall. By the time we finish, we are sweaty, soaked from rain and humidity, and covered in mud.

We sit under the rain tarp and chat while enjoying a delicious meal of canned tuna. Barry mentions an idea he has for an article about how much time, energy and money we
spend in the United States (and other developed countries) trying to be comfortable. The people that live here have no mattresses, refrigerators, air-conditioning, or any other modern creature comforts that we consider necessary to our well-being (and take for granted). Their perception of comfort is quite different from ours, and they are likely quite comfortable.

As I sit in my moist clothes on top of a deflated (uninflatable) air mattress inside a tent eating food from a can, the thought hits me that I am more fortunate in terms of nutrition and basic necessities here on this hill than many of the people in the region. I have filtered, potable stream water and high-protein food, which already puts me well above the majority who have no other choice than to drink contaminated river water and eat mainly boiled green bananas, plantains, yuca or other low-nutrition foods. Though I may be unprecedentedly uncomfortable, I should recognize my favorable circumstances and not complain (although the sarcastic remarks continue for the sake of comic relief - morale is important).

In the morning, we assemble a make-shift filter for the intake on the aqueduct with PVC plumbing supplies. The filter prevents only large debris from entering and clogging the line; water at the source is uncontaminated and potable straight from the stream. I, of course, test this by downing a few handfuls, and I am pleased to announce that after two and a half weeks I have yet to keel over dead or suffer any severe gringo gastrointestinal reaction.

Our installed filter system

From the intake location, PVC pipes carry water to a holding tank in Kuite. To get there, though, the aqueduct must first cross five to seven kilometers (three to four miles) of rolling hills covered in lush jungle, several streams and a large tract of swampland. Accompanied by two Peace Corps volunteers who are partners of the aqueduct project and live in Kuite, we commence hiking the length of the aqueduct.

Beginning of the aqueduct line as it heads into the jungle

As we walk, my rubber boots sink into thick mud and slip on unstable slopes. In spite of the wise advice I received from my mother about running with knives, I keep my machete handy and hack every vine, weed or any other seed-spawned plant life in sight. The metallic ring from each swipe fosters images of the Spanish conquistadors forging their way through these same jungles centuries ago, though our mission here could not be more different. The conquistadors sought to pillage, impoverish and impose their will upon the inferior barbarians; Dead Wheat seeks to empower communities and provide the basic necessities so people can escape the crushing oppression of poverty. The daydream is entertaining though, and I continue to slice my way through the jungle over the course of the next two hours.

The slippery slopes, thick vegetation, razor grass, and rain seem endless. Much of the aqueduct line remains unconnected, laying over trenches dug by the Kuite villagers where the line will eventually be buried. Walking the line gives me an appreciation for the difficulties of laying so much pipe across this unforgiving terrain.

As dusk descends, we reach the last obstacle between the intake site and the village's holding tank: swamp. "We're going through that?" I ask, trying to mask an incredulous and slightly exhausted tone.

One of the Peace Corps workers braves a first step into the muck and mire only to find his foot buried in a gooey mess with swamp sludge pouring into his knee-high rubber boots. "Hmmmm," is his only response.

"How far to the other side?" asks Steve.

"Wait, I thought you were the guide here," exclaims Barry.

Steve chuckles, and we debate our choices for returning to camp: cross the swamp of unknown size to the main path or backtrack along the aqueduct line and meet the path farther up.

As we hike back up the aqueduct line, the only thing maintaining our morale in our exhausted, water-logged condition is our insatiable penchant for sarcasm: "At least it's still raining." "The razor grass doesn't hurt that bad when it rips into your flesh." "I don't really mind that my toenails are so soggy they feel like they are coming off. They don't exactly serve any purpose." "I bet this mud is really good for your skin, assuming the jungle bacteria doesn't eat your skin." "I can't wait to take a hot shower when we get back to the tent...you brought the shower with you, right Steve?" etc...

Back at the campsite, we wash off in the nearby stream and open another delicious dinner of canned tune. Steve shares some of the difficulties of working in the region posed by the remoteness of the village. For example, transporting all the concrete and PVC piping requires the same four-hour boat ride from Chiriquí Grande to Kuite that we endured. Multiple trips had to be made over time to bring in the supplies. From Kuite, the 100-pound bags of concrete had to be carried individually to the intake site, the same muddy two-hour hike that we endured. On the first concrete pour, a heavy rain began that caused a sudden rise in the volume of water in the stream, which washed away the intake structure before it could set. The pour was rescheduled for the dry season, and more 100-pound bags had to be brought in.

At an overall cost of about $10,000 for materials and transportation, this project is no small feat, and it is an amount that would be practically impossible for communities like Kuite to raise. Most families are subsistence farmers, which means there is nothing left over to sell at a market. There is no money for extra goods, much less an aqueduct project of this scale. For an idea of subsistence farming life amongst the indigenous Ngöbe people, read Barry's article about subsistence farming.

Water is one of the things that we take for granted most in our lives. We forget how essential it is when it flows freely from our faucets, and we forget that many people are not afforded this luxury. The planning and logistics involved with getting potable water to these marginalized communities is mind-boggling. That is why it is refreshing to see organizations like Dead Wheat assisting in this difficult and often expensive process. The result will be tangible and will reduce the occurrence of water-borne diseases that affect many villagers in Kuite, mostly children and the elderly. They certainly understand the worth of water, and their well will soon be full.

Ngöbe children at a school near Kuite

All pictures by Barry Rodriguez from World Next Door. Thanks!!

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