Cabbage Overload

img_2762When my husband and I lived in Panama, we made the trek to the provincial capital, Penonomé, every week or two. The trip involved half an hour of walking to the closest bus stop, then a bumpy forty-five minute ride down the mountain in the back of a pick-up truck. It wasn’t something to do daily.

In town, we would pick up our mail, phone home, and do some shopping. In our village, we could buy rice, beans, and a few other necessities in small quantities from the little tiendas, but we could only get vegetables from town (we were nowhere close to self-sufficient in vegetables there).

With no refrigeration, and tropical heat, fresh vegetables didn’t last long. We ate well for a few days after a shopping run, but by the end of the week, we were usually down to plain rice.

The most long-lasting vegetable we had was cabbage. A cabbage might last an entire week before it was too wilted or rotted to eat. So every trip to town, we bought a cabbage, and for at least two meals a week, we ate cabbage and rice.

At that rate, in our two years of Peace Corps service, we ate about a hundred cabbages. By the time we left, we couldn’t bear to even look at a cabbage. It was several years before we considered eating one again.

Today, we enjoy about a dozen cabbages a year, most in the form of sauerkraut or coleslaw. The idea of cooking up a pot of cabbage and rice is still repulsive, but with cabbage being a year-round crop here, it’s good to be able to make use of it.

A Little Too Much Indoor/Outdoor Flow?

Fine in the paddock, not welcome indoors.

Fine in the paddock, not welcome indoors.

I always assumed, growing up, that window screens and screen doors were there to keep insects out of the house. It never occurred to me that other wildlife would want to get in, too.

Two nights ago, we woke at 2 am to the sound of the rocking chair on the porch thumping back and forth and claws raking the bedroom window. At first, I cursed the cat—who often sits on the rocking chair meowing in the middle of the night—and rolled over. But the raking claws didn’t stop. The cat never claws at the window. I opened my eyes, then had to get up for a closer look, because I couldn’t believe what I saw. An Australian possum was sitting on the back of the rocking chair, leaning out to scratch the window.

What the heck? Was it trying to get in?

It got me thinking about all the non-insect wildlife we’ve had in the house over the years.

In Panama, there were numerous mice, rats, scorpions, whipscorpions, windscorpions, and tailless whipscorpions…naturally. But there also were a few geckoes, and a skink who spent weeks living with us. We started leaving out water for him on the table, and named him Smaug.

There were the bats. Mostly they were small ones, but occasionally we’d get a massive one, with the wingspan of a pterodactyl. They’d swoop in between the top of the wall and the roof, wheel around the house, then swoop out again.

There were regular chicken incursions, even after we evicted the one brooding a clutch of eggs there when we moved in, and there was a cat who came inside and had kittens on our bookshelf.

The largest visitor was probably the dog, who came into the house chasing a rat, then regularly trotted in after that to see if we had more rats for her.

Here in New Zealand, we’ve had mice and rats, including one bold rat who sauntered into the kitchen through the front door while I was washing dishes one day. Sparrows and the odd starling are regular visitors in the summer—they come in, poo a few times, and leave. Chickens and feral cats are occasionally pop in for a visit, too.

For one magical season, we had a piwakawaka, who would flit into the house every day. He would zip around inside, eating flies, then land on a bird mobile hanging from the kids’ bedroom, bobbing up and down like just another wooden bird.

I can only imagine what mayhem that possum would have caused if it had gotten in last night. Earthquakes would probably seem tame to the havoc of a possum indoors. You can bet I’ll be making sure the windows are all closed tonight—I think I’d like to keep that one outdoors.


Random Acts of Kindness

2016-10-17-08-54-55I noticed this article in the news today, and thought it was worth sharing as an antidote to all the hate that’s on the news.

In it, the author writes about several instances in which the kindness of strangers renewed her faith in humanity. Most the experiences she relates happened while she was travelling, and the kindness she was shown often required sacrifice and bravery.

I had a similar experience in Panama one day while waiting for the bus in Panama City. My husband and I were staying in a seedy part of town—Peace Corps volunteers have little money, so we stayed in the cheap hotels when we had to go to the city. We were headed from the hotel to the Peace Corps office, and waiting for the bus on a busy street.

We were wary, and prepared for pickpockets and the like, but we both froze when a huge man stalked over to me. A good 30 cm taller than me, he came right into my personal space and hung over me. Didn’t say a word, but glared at me with bloodshot eyes, his whole body screaming murder.

I blinked at him for a moment, waiting for him to say something, threaten me, whatever. When it was clear he wasn’t going to, I smiled and said good morning to him. This elicited a grudging good morning back, but didn’t soften his stance.

On the busy street, the confrontation didn’t go unnoticed. A pair of policemen began to saunter toward us. The situation was about to get ugly.

That’s when the little old lady selling lottery tickets on the sidewalk took matters into her own hands. Though she was easily another 15 cm shorter than me, she picked up her umbrella and began whacking the threatening man with it, scolding him for giving Panama a bad name.

She couldn’t possibly have been actually hurting him, but he withered under her attack, shrinking away and looking ashamed of himself, and finally slinking off.

The bus came, and we quickly hopped on. Life on the busy street returned to normal.

I’ve blogged before about other experiences I’ve had giving and receiving kindness from strangers. Whether the gesture is little or big, random acts of kindness make everyone feel good.

We could use a little more of it, by the sound of the news these days. Go ahead. Practice a little random kindness today.

Peace Corps

2016-10-15-20-10-59Fifty-six years ago today, John F. Kennedy introduced a new public service challenge to the American people. That challenge would become known as the Peace Corps. While it is considered a foreign aid programme, Peace Corps’ value (and, in fact, it’s stated goal) is far more than the aid it provides to people in developing countries.

Peace Corps is about connecting people and cultures, one volunteer at a time. It is about cultural exchange, friendship, and understanding. It is about breaking down the ideas of ‘us’ and ‘them’. It is about promoting peace and understanding.

We need the Peace Corps as much today as we did fifty-six years ago. Perhaps more.

Twenty-four years ago, my husband and I, newly married, took up Kennedy’s challenge, becoming Peace Corps Volunteers in the Republic of Panama.

Those two years of service remain a defining time of our lives.

We left our homes and families in order to serve—to give of ourselves. In the end, we received far more than we could ever have given.

Nothing about Peace Corps service was easy. There were cultural misunderstandings, dangerous situations, language barriers, frustration, boredom, discomfort, failure, homesickness, and loneliness. But there were also laughter, friendship, curiosity, wonder, success, music, and dancing.

We watched our actions empower young farmers to become leaders, and they in turn empowered us. Together, we made a difference in our little corner of the world. Together, we learned that the colour of our skin, the language of our birth, our education, and the luxuries we either have or have not don’t matter. We are all alike inside, and it is the qualities of our hearts that matter.

If we give ourselves to the world, the world will give back and make us better. I entered Peace Corps as an American citizen, I left as a citizen of the world.

All Hail the Bucket

2016-10-14-10-44-19-hdrsmWhere would civilisation be without the 20-litre (5-gallon) bucket? We own seven of them, and it’s common for all of them to be in use simultaneously.

I can’t look at a 20-litre bucket without seeing a…

  • Washing machine—In Panama, we washed our clothes in a 20-litre bucket.
  • laundry-smShower—The bucket was also our shower in Panama. We would fill it with water and haul it out to our “shower” enclosure. Half a coconut shell made a scoop for pouring out the water for washing.
  • Brewery—Panamanians brewed and served the local corn alcohol in 20-litre buckets, and my husband brews beer in one.
  • Punch bowl—We used a bucket as a large punch bowl for parties in Panama.
  • Diaper pail—With tight-fitting lids, 20-litre buckets make great diaper pails for cloth nappies. They were an essential part of our baby gear when our kids were that age.
  • Watering can—Several of our current buckets have holes drilled in the bottom, and we use them to provide drip irrigation for the fruit trees.
  • Wheelbarrow—We use buckets to haul everything from rocks to weeds in spaces where the wheelbarrow can’t go.
  • Measuring cup—The 20-litre bucket is a handy unit of measure when mixing concrete.
  • Rubbish bin—A 20-litre bucket is the perfect size for a rubbish bin in the shop or shed, and it’s tough enough to handle the rough treatment a shop bin gets.
  • Grain bin—Tough plastic and a tight lid keep mice and rats out of the grain.
  • Stool—I regularly turn our buckets upside down to use as stools for reaching items on high shelves in the shed. I suppose you could also sit on them, if you were inclined to rest.

I could lose a lot of tools and get by easily without them, but I’d be hard-pressed to do without my buckets.

Still Life with Poems

2016-09-19-09-52-35I picked up my phone today, and it automatically opened the camera, which I had used last. This is the picture it framed—a corner of my desk—and it struck me as a curious slice of my life and personality. In the picture are:

  • A flier from the library with a list of fantasy authors they recommend.
  • A couple of half-finished Sudokus—lunchtime brain breaks.
  • A Peace Corps mug—still flying those colours after 21 years. It’s a rare day I don’t think about our time in Panama. That mug is filled with more fliers for books I’d like to read.
  • A mug from the Some Like it Hot Conference—from another past life when I was Secretary of Interpretation Network New Zealand. That mug is stuffed with notes to myself—names and addresses I want to remember, ideas for birthday and Christmas gifts, web sites of interest, the odd poem.
  • A gift from my daughter—a hand-made compass, complete with a book of poetry attached.
  • A rock from our beach—part paper weight, part touchstone, grounding me in this place.
  • A pencil—my favourite writing tool.
  • A folded wad of paper to stabilise my computer stand, which wobbles on uneven legs.
  • A stack of Department of Conservation hut tickets from a trip that I intended to take my ecology students on, but which was cancelled due to weather.
  • A scrap of paper awaiting the day’s to-do list.

There you have it. The messy corner of my brain, where poems vie with the day’s to-do list, and numbers and words mix, and good intentions meet reality, and maybe
today’s to-do list
tomorrow’s poetry.

The Road

Road smI have always liked this photo. There are so many stories here. I’ve actually looked at it regularly as inspiration for blog posts, but can never decide what story to use with it.

This was the road to our house in Panama. Cars could sometimes make it this far, rarely farther. I always considered this slope to be one of the better parts of the road, though it deteriorated rapidly after this point. Down at the bottom, around the curve and hidden from the camera, there was usually a large deep hole in the middle of the road, through which ran a stream.

I walked this slope regularly. It was the way to town, the way to the houses of many of the farmers I worked with. In the dry season, it was nothing to walk up and down it. In the wet season, it became a slippery mess. I can’t tell you how many times I fell on that slope. One time in particular, I remember vividly. I was heading to the city or somewhere else I needed to look respectable. I was wearing a dress, and as I started climbing the slope, I worried I would fall and have to show up at my destination covered in red mud. I was more careful than usual, placing my feet tentatively, keeping to the drier parts of the road.

Naturally, I went down in spectacular fashion. I ended up sitting in the mud and sliding downhill.

But as luck (or, rather, Newton’s laws of physics) would have it, I went down so fast, that the skirt of my dress didn’t come down until after I was seated in the mud. Yes, I essentially slid down the slope with nothing but my underwear on. My legs, bottom, and underwear were caked with red mud, but the dress was miraculously clean. When I stood, the mud was all covered by the skirt.

With no time to go home and change, I carried on, and proceeded through my day, looking perfectly clean, but with mud caked all over the inside of my clothes. I never did get the red stains from that clay out of my underwear.



2016-01-25 20.44.42 smFor the week before our trip to the U.S. I got almost nothing done. I was mentally occupied, with the trip—waiting for it to begin.

When we returned, we were just a week and a half from my husband leaving for a trip, and I got little done that week, either—waiting for him to leave.

While he was gone, I did almost no writing. I was distracted, I was working in odd places at odd times around the extra tasks that fell to me while he was gone. I was waiting for him to return.

Now he’s back, and I feel stuck in the habit of waiting.

I fear I’m stuck in the Waiting Place, as Dr. Seuss so eloquently described it:

“…for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.”

Yep, I’m stuck in the waiting place.

It can be a hard place to get out of, but I learned many years ago that waiting rarely brings what you want.

It was in Peace Corps in Panama. My husband and I had been out with our local Corregidor (mayor), Fermín, and were returning to our village by bus. As we waited for the bus, it started to pour. We waited for hours, and when the bus finally came past, it didn’t even stop—it was too full already. The next bus might be hours, or might not come at all, so we decided to just walk, in spite of the rain. Fifteen minutes later, when we were thoroughly soaked, we heard another bus coming up behind us. Fermín smiled and said, “If you don’t walk, the bus won’t come.”

I took that as an important life lesson.

And now, I need to step out into the rain and stop waiting.

Going bananas

bananaOver 100 billion bananas are eaten globally every year, making bananas the fourth most important food crop in the world. Most bananas are consumed locally—only 15% are exported. Almost all the bananas grown for export are a variety known as Cavendish. New Zealand is said to have the highest per-capita consumption of Cavendish bananas in the world, at 18 kg per person per year.

The Cavendish was named for the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire—whose family name was Cavendish. Their head gardener imported a plant from Mauritius in 1830 and grew it in the family’s hothouse. The banana flourished and provided the duke’s guests with fresh bananas to eat. The Cavendish banana grew so well, the duke was able to supply two cases of plants to a missionary in Samoa. Those bananas were the start of the banana industry in Samoa.

Missionaries spread the Cavendish throughout the Pacific, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that the variety became popular commercially.

Until the 1950s, the most important banana for export was the Gros Michel, but in that decade, it was almost wiped out by a fungus known as Panama disease.

The Cavendish—smaller and not as flavourful as the Gros Michel—was immune, so growers switched largely to the Cavendish.

Almost all commercially grown bananas today are Cavendishes—clones of the plant grown by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire.

Panama disease didn’t sit idly, though. By 1992, a strain evolved in Southeast Asia that was able to attack the Cavendish. And since the plants are all genetically identical, they are all susceptible to the new strain of the disease. At least 10,000 hectares of Cavendish bananas have been destroyed, and more will certainly fall as the fungus spreads.

For many of the nations that export bananas, it will be an economic disaster. For those of us who enjoy bananas…who knows?

There will likely be a time in which bananas become more expensive, even hard to find in our grocery stores.

But having lived in Panama, I know there are many banana varieties (about 1000, worldwide). And every single one I’ve eaten is better than the Cavendish. The Cavendish’s main selling point is its ability to survive transport, not its flavour.

In our village in Panama, everyone grew bananas. They came in many sizes, shapes, and colours. Some were more starchy, some were sweeter. Some tasted so much like banana, they seemed almost fake. Others tasted like a fruit salad, with tangy citrus overtones to the banana flavour.

I have to believe that as growers develop a replacement for the Cavendish, they will naturally end up with something more flavourful than the bland Cavendish. If we’re really lucky, they’ll develop more than one variety, providing greater insurance against the future evolution of Panama disease and more variety in our supermarkets. That has to be a good thing in the long run.

Want to know more? Visit the Panama Disease website.

Throwback Thursday: Jujuná

d1scans011 smLiving in Panama was sometimes like living in a never-ending episode of David Attenborough’s Life on Earth.

The invertebrates alone were enough there to keep me intrigued for a lifetime—tarantulas, whip scorpions, solifugids, scorpions, grasshoppers, mantids, butterflies, bioluminescent click beetles…every day was an entomological adventure.

And the snakes! Coral snakes, fer-de-lances, palm vipers, vine snakes, boa constrictors…never a dull moment.

And don’t even get me going on the frogs, birds, and lizards—I could spend a week waxing lyrical about the hummingbirds alone.

In the rainforest, we could see howler monkeys, spider monkeys, cotton-top tamarins, agouti, and jaguarundi, among other mammals. And even in our far-from-pristine village, where all the forested land was managed by the local farmers, we had mammals—sloths, squirrels, rats the size of small dogs, and one of my favourites—the jujuná or night monkey. We didn’t see them often. As their name implies, they’re nocturnal. The only nocturnal monkey, as it turns out. Its secretive habits are probably why it manages to live where other monkeys don’t.

Night monkeys are interesting, not just because of their unusual nighttime habits, but also because they are one of the few primates other than humans who contract malaria, making them important in medical research on the disease.

Night monkeys live in small family groups. The individuals in this photo are probably a mated pair and their young (the little one is on the left—you can just see its back). Though we seldom saw them, it was fun to know they were there.