photo journal

Lighting for Literacy, Colonet, Baja California 2017

Posted on Updated on

“The greatest Christian virtue is doing, the least is talking”             John Wesley

I HAVE SELDOM BEEN so rewarded for being a Methodist as on my fourth trip to Colonet, Baja California to help build the 39th and 40th small houses there; and to interpret for a Lighting For Literacy (LFL) project, where middle school science teachers and students lighted up the lives and nights of eight families in Ejido Punta Colonet. The students had been enrolled in STEM programs (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), inspired by their science teachers, to put together solar panel powered lighting systems and to actually go to install them.

About 1.5 billion people (20 percent of the world’s population) must resort to some sort of carbon based fuel for night lighting; it is unhealthy, contributes to the CO2 burden, and is a significant fire hazard around flimsy remote structures. Otherwise they have no light after the sun sets. The cats at Los Gatos Methodist Church and Rotary International (RI) know LFL well, having witnessed it’s lightening fast 60 day gestation and assisted its birth.  The very first LFL solar lighting system installation was actually in Colonet, Baja California in 2013. It was developed one afternoon at a fast food restaurant by two members of the Methodist Church; one was Doug McNeal, also a Rotarian, who promoted support by the local Rotary. Already, affiliated programs reach more than eight continents, introducing STEM and LFL to more than 1,200 middle school teachers and their students who are at an age where inner places and lives can be lighted up in the process of lighting up remote places. Kevin Kinsella, who was also at Colonet this April, is an inspired and enlightening science teacher with LFL.

I felt enlightened, as well. The photographs below reveal the depth of our experience more clearly than words. They also speak of the nature and the power of Family; in this case, families who keep animals in, and desert varmints like coyotes out by fashioning close-spaced fences from brittle, dead stalks of cactus plants, wire and woven plastic waste; who carve out a place in the desert to  imagine a house – a home – into existence, though often largely made of trash. That’s something only families like those pictured below, can do.

As to my own family, I would have never gone to Colonet without following my daughter, Amy, who coordinated the complex project involving two countries, more than 40 people, and the finances involved; or John my son in law; and my son, Fred, a builder who hauled his tools and powerplant 3,600 miles round trip; and Tom, another builder from the South Bay who brought tools and material to the sites; or Ivan a local builder; or Antonio, a local pastor; or the many other volunteers and donors, the glue that held it all together.

After each solar lighting installation, instructions are given. The switch is turned on by one of the children. The student who put together the unit signs it and makes the final point by giving each child a set of age appropriate Spanish books. We take a  group photograph. Adios is then the only perfect single word speech.

These live links  tell about LFL better than I:

LGRI Rotary

LFL

 LFL Ivory Coast

 

The photographs  below and speak more clearly than words, and may encourage the reader to consider the possibility of LFL:

Doug McNeil

 Kevin Kinsella

First job of every morning  putting together two  units  for two houses. I couldn’t see how it was done, but these people did. A cell phone charger  pug is included.

The plastic bag holds mounting brackets and connectors. Note  all the wires, and the name of the student on the lid.

The rechargeable battery goes in the box too. Simple, no? Yeah, Right!

Jessica

Tom in a moment of silent, serious concentration. He is a monk in the skin of a grizzly.

Below is a wash-house. Behind is a fenced garden and unseen in the distance is a small mountain range where 10000 ft high peaks pull water from moist sea air in winter, providing water for this productive sun drenched agricultural region.

A fence perfectly representing the environment. The stakes are dried up spikes of cactus plants. They are strung along barb wire wrapped in salvaged black plastic bags.

Below are dried roots of the same cactus- Maguey- dug up from the sullen and reticent gravelly soil at considerable effort, to serve for cooking.

Alejandro cleaning the spines from Prickly Pear cactus leaves for very common vegetable dish, nopales,   He gave us a one week old dried rattlesnake which he advised us to let dry more, then grind up, and use with any food…like re fried beans and ground rattlesnake.  Cascabel con frijoles refritos.

I fell under the spell of this woman. She was a migrant farm worker from Chiapas, not speaking any Spanish; met  and married. Their 15 year old son  son works for a builder and did much of the construction;  15 years is adult at times. (During WWII my dad worked at a copper mine in Chihuahua. When I was 10 my he took me to El Paso and put me on a troop train with $5. I got to  Northern CA  with some help from the soldiers. Like children in Colonet, we were old when young then.  From this distance that doesn’t seem a bad thing)

I can’t  pronounce or recall  her name but will never forget her.  In this photo Antonio, the pastor of the Christian church in Colonet is helping her dig a footing for a table in her wash house.

Another home when the light was turned on in this dark  windowless room. It is only the equivalent of a 60 watt incandescent bulb, but What a difference! I like this photo also for the high heeled shoes over the door. There were 3 pairs but i didn’t want to be too intrusive; however they appear in the last photo.

Little silent things like those shoes have much to tell if we listen.


After the lights are installed, instructions for their use given and   the switch thrown turned by one of the children LFL makes the final point by giving each child a set of  age appropriate books; we take a last  group photograph; and  Adios is the perfect one word speech.

A Return to Panamà and Pànama after Fifty Two Years:

Posted on Updated on

 

Panamà…  as we pronounce it would be Pànama… is a metaphoric  inversion expressed by  the different accents.  I first went there as an  intern in 1954-55,  not yet age 22, interested- vaguely- in tropical medicine but more concretely in adventure. Among my 8  colleagues,  half  were preparing for missionary work,  one for public health, one for psychiatry.   Before 1903, Panama was an  isolated part of Colombia, an oligarchy run by four or five families.  It was inaccessible  by land across the Darien.  The  current sometimes road, actually highway 5,  or the Pan American Highway,  is still  often  impassable.

A canal had long been considered to facilitate travel between the Atlantic and Pacific, which required a long sea voyage around Cape Horn or difficult overland  Balboa took across the isthmus of Panama.  A French venture acquired permission to build the canal under the direction of  Ferdinand deLesseps  ( Suez Canal,  desert, flat,  no locks). He wanted to cut a similar sea level swatch across Panama. 40,000 French (and French colonials)  died there due to that  miscalculation,  graft, malaria, yellow fever, poor nutrition and dysentery; it was abandoned.  But in 1903  the US  felt it could big crazy things. Teddy Roosevelt tried to arrange a canal treaty with Colombia and failed. But because of the isolation of the isthmus from Colombia the locals felt like colonists, and resented their voiceless circumstances and  distant and neglectful rulers, like the rebellious British Colonies  in North America.  They  found common cause with Teddy Roosevelt who wanted a canal, and revolted, assisted by U S  gunboat diplomacy.

 

The US Canal Zone  was about 10 miles across and some 50 miles long. Panama is Water, and water is the Power that could  operate the locks of a  canal.  A dam was required to store that water, and also control the swampland created by the ever flooding Chagas River; and thereby  to control mosquito borne diseases.  Incredibly the huge project was completed by 1914!  The original locks still operate unaltered, today.

 Overall, The US Army Corps of Engineers and Black Caribbean laborers really did the heavy lifting: John F. Wallace conceived the engineering of the canal but became a victim of the terrain, disease, and the political bureaucracy; he survived there for less than one year. John Stevens, a famous civil engineer,  took seriously the yellow fever/malaria problem. The largest earthen dam ever built controlled the Chagas River, and drained the swamps; which controlled the mosquitoes, malaria and Yellow Fever, and provided the gravity flow water power to operate the canal locks. Col. George Washington Goethels was finally  given unrestrained authority, and was able to complete the job over the next 7 years. William C Gorgas, a U S Army physician who understood the relation of malaria to mosquitoes, convinced the Army to drain the swamps, making it possible from a medical standpoint to build the canal. A second canal was started  but abandoned because of WWII;  now it has been completed, arguably  by China, who also had studied the  sea level alternative as across Nicaragua but abandoned it.

In 1954 the canal was still operated by the US civil Service.   There was segregation of several  sorts.  First, upper level administrators and U S military had the option to  live on base, with typical military housing and   commissary privileges with access to US goods and food.  Most privileged long term US citizen employees of the Canal Company lived in bungalows.  Second,  short term US citizen employees like MD  interns, lived in curious multi family wooden apartment buildings, each apartment located upstairs from a parking area below.    The apartment buildings were oriented with long sides facing the sea breezes.  They were two story wooden structures with space for parking underneath, and 12 ft high ceilings. There were no internal doors;  the  kitchen, dining and bedroom were in one  line so that that the sea breeze, could flow through open screens placed above 8 ft.  Each apartment had a bathroom off center and a  heat closet to keep clothing dry.  Construction was so light that people learned to speak quietly, even quarrel in harsh whispers. Sexual revelry was often audible, though as invisible as  the morning alarm clock,  flushing of toilets. Notice the 6 ft eves,  a traditional style there. In the city they offer much needed shelter for passersby on sidewalks but shoot waterfalls out onto cars in heavy rain.

When I was there in 1975 the buildings were scheduled to be torn down. But the location was ideal, and all the infrastructure already in place. They were acquired somehow and have been gentrified, rebuilt so nicely that the  old structures can hardly be seen. In the photo above, some of the screened breezeways persist. The open lower floor also is still there, but made into a living area, like a covered outdoor garden or patio.

The third level of segregation was provided to ‘local raters’ whose situation devolved from the building of the canal.   The US Army had recruited English speaking workers among blacks of the Caribbean.   Communication was more practical in English, and the work performance was superior to indigenous workers. ( Only the Spanish had managed to induce los indios  to work through a brutal choice made clear in a statue at a Mission in Baja CA: a priest holds a bible in one hand and a skull in the other. Believe or die. Work now to live, and die for the glory of God and the Catholic Queen. But the Caribbean blacks were different, perhaps in part because, though paid less than US citizens, and they had significant inducements:  Local raters’ were provided decent livable wages,  living quarters, medical care, and allowed to buy US imported  goods at a reduced rate from a local rate commissary.  In the long run, however local raters felt abandoned after September 7, 1977, when  President Jimmy Carter gave the Canal to Panama; a long standing local resentment of blacks with special privilege boiled over. Soon many ex local raters had nether  job, nor any apparent citizenship.    Yet there was, and is, a  Black American Atlantic Coast and black Carribean island archipelago; it may be largely invisible to most of us in the USA, though it consists of many black communities which are the source for much unique American and Brazilian   music, art, dance, custom, and language.  Therefore, the abandoned  black local raters of Panama, did not live in limbo; they have adapted or relocated. It’s instructive to kindle and google the many American Black authors, and the Quaker beginnings of the emancipation movement. The very first American revolution was black: Haiti. * Like most US citizens I  often focus only on the Northern Hemisphere.  We tend to forget that we are  all Americans: one continent, one hemisphere,  with a shared history, indigenous, immigrant past, and present.

We visited Panama City in late 2016. Much has conspired to make it the commercial and banking center of South America, rivaling  Miami. The canal was gradually  and totally transferred to Panama  control by 2000.  Panama has  retained the $US as their currency, which stabilized the economy; despite many problems it became a place where people with means could find refuge from chaos at home, or for various thieves to hide money, including drug money.

The former head of the militarily, Manuel Noriega, a cooperator with the CIA, became de facto dictator and drug lord .The US invasion to depose him in 1989-90 was  complex, while brief was a real war that has left a shambles of Noriega’s base of operations still unpaired.  And the whole episode has became the source of many true lies:  afterward there was an election at the insistence of the US; but the winning candidate was assaulted and Noriega declared the election null and void.   While US invasion was widely supported by the populace, it was  real warfare against a well prepared military,  deadly and destructive. It was hugely condemned, as customary, in Europe and the UN;  The Panamanian military was dissolved.  However, the emergence  of Panama as a commercial and banking center, and a repository for suspect money, continued.


The second canal has been completed, financed largely by the Chinese. Transit fee $100,000,000. A Trump hotel, shaped  like a huge sail, looks like a twin to one in Dubai. A metro was completed last year.

.

 

Upscale barrios and yacht harbors, continued to appear.   Old is being gentrfied, the president lived there near a fast growing tourist area, and expensive restaurants  flourish. As to the currently  strong US dollar, Panama is something of an exception,  comparable to Chile.  Most other countries today are,  by comparison, a bargain. But it is a good place to visit, safe for the average sane foreigner, usually cool at night,  when the ocean breeze is up.   In the 50’s that meant street dancing to Lucho Ascarraga’s wild electric  organ: Cha Cha Chas, with  typical flat foot moves,   keeping the  whole foot including the heel on the floor and moving The Rest… none of that  heel-high stuff.  That, happily, is the same today.

Ancon Hill is the highest spot overlooking the Pacific entrance of the canal, with old gun embankments at the top,  set among tropical forest. Several hundred yards down hill is the site of  Gorgas Hospital where I interned in 1954. My oldest daughter was born there, delivered by a descendant of one of the founding families.

My Grandparents, Leon and Anna founded the Methodist church just at the edge of the Canal Zone. It was built and supported by the North American population of the Zone who operated the canal, and large number of military people who guarded it.  But when the canal was given to Panama that U S  population very quickly disappeared. The old church is imposing, but obviously neglected now. There was no pastor, but we spoke with a woman in the parish and she took us inside the elegant but sad  and  tired building.

 

 

We visited the site of the old Gorgas hospital, of French design. It had a stolid central administration building surrounded by a series of white one story buildings  in colonial French style… a series of medical units, white wooden buildings with 11 foot high ceilings where the top four feet were open screens. The units were interconnected by covered walkways among sculptured tropical gardens to allow for air circulation. How well I recall doing a femoral stick on babies or spinal taps, sweating in the humid night air. At least that is the way it all comes to my mind; it is all gone.  One wing of the admin  center where interns stayed and sometimes slept during 36  on and 12 off shifts looks down darkly past the  surrounding neglected  padlocked wire fence strangely dressed in banners left over from some event.  No one was around to ask if we might go in; and yet that seemed a small loss. I didn’t  much want to view the corpse from the inside.


Otherwise, Panama was no corpse, but alive and well.  

 

Even most of the relics of Old Town were full of color and life, on the way to being restored.  thier roof still extended out 4 feet over the sidewalks and balconies to shelter people from the rain.

 

And the restoration was everywhere evident as well, set among the colorful lives of a small rich country whose future seems bright.

 

 

And we pretended to be rich turistas nortamericanos:








 

 

 

*You may want to kindle and google the many black  authors of the Americas,  the John Woolworth and the Quaker beginnings of the emancipation movement, and the first American revolution, which was black: in Haiti. Like many US citizens I  often focus only on the Northern Hemisphere.  But we are Americans: one continent, one hemisphere,  with a shared history, indigenous, immigrant past, and present.

* * There is a  645 pp third edition of a book Americas by Peter Winn. But frankly, it seems to me  simply a compulsive compilation of the ‘news’ we read in the US. Whenever the author treats places and peoples I know very well, the omissions and commissions of errors really rankle me terribly. My bias is this: The record of a people and a time are found in between the lies, and lines; and in fiction, poetry;  in other words in Literature. Usually what we call News or  History is moribund  fiction without flesh or soul.

 

Lighting For Literacy, Colonet, Baja California, 2017

Posted on Updated on


“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.

“The greatest Christian virtue is doing, the least is talking.

“Beware you be not swallowed up in books!

“An ounce of love is worth a pound of knowledge.

                                      John Wesley

I have seldom been so rewarded for being a Methodist as on my fourth trip to Colonet, Baja California, where I was privileged to interpret for Doug McNeil and Kevin Kinsella while they worked on a Lighting For Literacy (LFL)  project guiding middle school students in lighting up the lives of eight families living in  Ejido Punta Colonet. In doing so they also lighted up middle school STEM projects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) in the minds of students who put together the lighting systems and went to Colonet to install them.

The cats at Los Gatos Methodist Church (LGMC) and Rotary International (RI) know (LFL) well, having witnessed it’s lightening fast 60 day gestation and assisted its birth in 2012. Their very first solar lighting installation was actually in Colonet, Baja Ca. Within the next two years LFL projects reached 8- and counting-  continents, and introduced STEM and LFL to 1200 and counting middle school students at that age where inner spaces and lives can be lighted up in the process of lighting up remote places. AT Colonet this April I felt enlightened as well. I would go anywhere with these dudes and these children. 

Without burdening the reader more heavily with words, a browser  will lead to many links, here are a few that can tell about LFL better than I. 

LGRI Rotary

  LFL

 LFL Ivory Coast

The photographs below tell  of the experience more clearly than words, and may lead the reader to consider the possibility of LFL:

 

 

 

 

 

Doug McNeil

 Kevin Kinsella

First job of every morning  putting together two  units  for two houses. I couldn’t see how it was done, but these people did.

The plastic bag holds mounting brackets and connectors. Note  all the wires, and the name of the student on the lid.

The rechargeable battery goes in the box too. Simple, no? Yeah, Right!

Jessica

 

Tom in a moment of silent and serious concentration. I believe he is a monk in a grizzly bear skin disguise.

 

A fence perfectly representing the environment. The stakes are dried up spikes of cactus plant shoots. They are placed on  barbed wire, then tied on with rolled up salvaged black plastic bags.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Below are dried roots of the same cactus- Maguey- dug up from the sullen and reticent gravelly soil with considerable effort, to serve for cooking fires.

 

Dogs, dogs, dogs, everywhere.  We saw no house without doggy  gangs of 5 or more. They alert arrival of strangers and fend off coyotes,  if they are lucky; but numbers help.

The little Pichons must take care of their own hygiene.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alejandro cleaning the spines from Prickly Pear cactus  …new growth leaves, or  nopales are used for a very common vegetable dish. He gave us a one week old dried rattlesnake which he advised us to let dry more, then grind up, and use with any food…like re fried beans and ground rattlesnake.  Cascabel con frijoles refritos.

 

 

 

 

I fell under the spell of this admirable woman.  She was a migrant farm worker from Chiapas, not speaking any Spanish; met  and married. Their 15 year old son works for a builder and did much of the block  construction;  15 years is adult at times. (During WWII my dad worked at a copper mine in Chihuahua. When I was 10 he took me to El Paso and put me on a troop train with $5. I got to  Northern CA  with some help from the soldiers. Like children in Colonet, we were older when younger then.  From this distance that doesn’t seem a bad thing.

 

I can’t  pronounce or recall  her name but will never forget her.  In this photo Antonio, the pastor of the Christian church in Colonet is helping her dig a footing for a table in her wash house.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another home when the light was turned on in this dark  windowless room. It is only the equivalent of a 60 watt incandescent bulb, but What a difference! I like this photo also for the high heeled shoes over the door. There were 3 pairs but I didn’t want to be too intrusive with my photos.

Little silent things like those shoes have much to say if we listen.

Another wash-house with a dog in its shade,   and a fenced garden in back overlooking open countrywide. Unseen are 10,000 ft

peaks to the East.  –The Sierra de San Pedro Mártir.  But here the only vegetation remaining is thorny scrub brush and

maguey  cactus; nonetheless it is a beautiful green Spring after heavy Winter rains, and there are stubborn tiny flowers everywhere.

The lights installed, instructions given;  the switch is turned on by one of the children; and LFL makes the final point by giving each child a set of  age appropriate books; we take a last  group photograph. Adios is the perfect word.

Observations about Family

I would have never gone to Colonet without following my children, Amy and John and their Los Gatos family. The April 2017 buildings would not have been successful without my son Fred,  who drove 1800 miles to be here; or 3600 if he gets home; or his Colonet counterpart, Ivan. Or pastor Antonio.  Or, need it even be said, the  VIMers who were the glue that put it together. It strikes me that this  LFL  project post    tells of the nature of family. Families who keep animals in, and  desert varmints and coyotes out with  close spaced brittle dead stalks of cactus plants,  wire and plastic waste;  who carve out  a place in the desert to imagine a  house  into existence– no, a home– largely made of trash. That’s what only families can do, like those pictured  above.

I acknowledge that fat, happy,  flawed, or failing,  all I am is family. My parents and grandparents, and my Methodists;  even my intolerant or rude fellow citizens; and not least,  my children who refuse to let me go through my own rosy second childhood quietly, but take me to places like Colonet, to be nourished or frightened  by the life forces of VIM and LFL.; I blame you all for disturbing my golden years; but especially Amy, Fred and John; if they aren’t a blessing disguised as family, who is?

Here you are,  in the photos below, my babes,  late  on that Sunday afternoon, after a long trip and a long drive, framing the first wall. Like, Wow! What Energy! What discipline! What Organization!  What Execution! But unfortunately  the very next morning I had to go pal around with Doug/ Kevin et al.

So thank you, I suppose, for disturbing my personal quiet, reflective peace!