The Rio Clean Up, or la Limpieza del Rio, last Sunday was by far the most rewarding experience of the summer. It started with Lillian and most of the Community Outreach interns organizing to plan out the essentials. Lea and I had already finished a huge sign announcing the date and time of the Clean Up, and we posted smaller signs around town as well. Even though San Miguel is a very small town, I learned a lot about promoting events and the time and effort it takes not only to create information but to spread it by word of mouth. Heather, who is a master planner, came up with ideas for games, a raffle with prizes, food ideas, t-shirt designs, and a playlist.
We optimistically bought food in Veinte Cuatro for around 40 people, and took a taxi back in the rain, with a driver who tried to hit every chicken in the road. We came home to an apocalypse- all of the chickens had gotten out of the pen and had been sitting or sleeping on the table, ensuring it was completely covered in poop. As I rounded up the chickens, who are faster than they look, Lea braved the porch and scrubbed the table, chairs, and floor and sprayed everything with the hose. The balloons and signs we hung up made the outside area very festive, and hanging the Panamanian flag from the balcony gave it just the touch it needed.
Sunday morning we donned our Rio t-shirts and ate a good breakfast at the fonda in preparation for the work ahead. We divided jobs so that Lea and Lilly were making food (Lilly’s fresh pico de gallo) and Julie and I were in charge of the kids. We met at the concha at 9am, and gave away 5 t-shirts to the first kids there, and they were extra excited when we pulled out a bag of candy.
Many Panamanians throw out trash onto the street as a part of daily life, and the Rio Pacora that is next to our house is no exception. It is not that the majority of people are not concerned with the state of the environment, but the few weho aren’t can ruin it for everyone. Before we started collecting trash, every Sunday out of towners would come to San Miguel and leave mounds of trash in their wake- beer bottles, food boxes, wrappers, and other random things they decided just to dump. Although thier “Sunday Funday” is a tradition they are most likely going to continue, hopefully they will begin to realize the effect their waste has not only on the surrounding environment, but the lives of those of us living next to the river, who use it as the main source of water to sustain our health.
I went with a group of interns with our cook Noris to dig up yucca on her farmland above her house, and it gave me another chance to see more closely where their water sources are. On the trail next to the river a little ways past Noris’ “casita,” we saw the PVC piping that travels through the river to separate houses along her side of the stream. The source is close to the gate she enters to go to her farm, and other farmers and families live close by. Even though the beginning spring is not in a very concentrated area of town, it nonetheless is polluted by trash, animal waste, and fertilizers. Noris is well aware of the contamination issues associated with her water. She showed us the large cement tank that used to be the main source for some people in town, but now sits idly in the river, covered with moss and other plants.
Even more recently at Adult Class, an older woman who comes to class regularly asked if she could have our empty Gatorade bottles and use them for water collection, as the Agua Cero had caused her family not to have water for 8 days. Agua Ceros, the huge tropical storms that occur regularly throughout the Panamanian winter, make aspects of life harder aside from the fact that they are a great source of natural irrigation for agriculture. The river becomes thick with mud that has eroded, roads become impossible to drive, and water becomes undrinkable.
As many of us found out the hard way, our water from our kitchen sink needs to be boiled before we can drink it. The water pressure is likely to go out at least once a week, but at least we are fortunate enough to have the means to buy gallons of filtered water for everyday consumption. Yes, this poses the problem of more trash accumulation and waste from plastic that the city doesn’t recycle, but the largest just that we have been regularly using can be refilled and reused as many times as possible. We are also fortunate to have Emily on our team, who studied water filtration systems as part of her Master’s program, and has started a water collection system for the school librarian, Miriam.
The Rio Clean Up was the perfect opportunity to see how the kids viewed their natural surroundings. Whether they were just excited for lunch, candy, and prizes or actually wanted to beautify their personal areas, they worked hard all morning filling bags of trash, taking breaks in between to jump in the river. After we nearly ran out of bags and gloves and were sufficiently sweaty, we met back at the house to eat. Everyone (the kids, the two men that helped and ourselves) were very impressed by the breakfast burritos and juice, and went crazy for the prizes we gave out to the children for # of bags collected and participation.
SInce the day wasn’t getting any cooler, we went with the kids to the river and swam for at least an hour. They loves their prizes, which included a giant water gun and frisbee sponges. Launching themselves off of rocks and pretending to be sharks, the day wasn’t complete until we coerced everyone into a group photo. I really hope they got as much, if not more out of it that we did, but either way the Rio Clean Up is something they will remember and hopefully continue in the future, creating a sustainable tradition that can be immensely fun.