Wednesday, May 7, 2008
Gardening and More
We moved into this house on June 15, 2005 and from that moment on (if truth be told, a few months before), I started working in the garden. Never mind that we didn't have electricity (and wouldn't for 6 more weeks), that was immaterial as far as I was concerned. After all, who gardens in the dark?
To talk about this, first I have to amend some of my posts. It's hard, really, to live with one of the Technically Correct Police Force. Give me a Politically Correct Policía any day-- much easier to bear, I assure you. I've been saying that we live in "this valley", in order to distinguish it in the eyes of people who may not live here from Boquete. Boquete is in a valley; we on the other hand live on a savannah or type of plain. Valleys presume mountains and mountain views of which we have none. Of course that begs the question of what those things are that stick up to the north that I was used to calling mountains in another life, and our plain has an interesting angle of inclination but who am I to argue with the Technically Correct Police?
That out of the way--and aren't all our lives so much better for knowing this?--an ex-geologist Canadian friend of ours has called this area an alluvial plain, and alluvial means water. The combination of lots of hard rainfall and sugar cane production, which is a heavy feeder of just about all soil nutrients, in a volcanic area has left us with practically no soil on a hard, rocky surface. Trying to garden under these conditions is not the easiest thing I've ever done, and I've lived primarily in areas that were either heavy clay soils or sandy soils with clay 2-3 feet under the surface.
There is a wild abundance of palms here--I plan one of these days to do one or more posts about them. The very first plants I bought, by sheer accident, were multiple palms, about 2 ft tall. I planted those in April or May, 2005 along our entrada. The fairly recent picture above shows some of them. By sheer luck, I had chosen tough plants that grow relatively easily and rapidly. A couple of them are now over 6 feet tall, and you can see the multiple trunks thickening out.
That was the end of the easy stuff. The rest of the planting, except in certain areas, was agonizingly hard work--digging holes, removing rocks, filling with other dirt and gallanasa. It took us two hours one day to dig exactly one hole for a bougainvillea plant to try to assure drainage, since they do NOT like wet feet.
Which brings up a major point--working in the tropics.
I'm used to hard work. I'm also 71 and under any circumstances, simply can't work as hard as I used to when a mere youngster of 60. At that time, I was working and gardening at around 49 degrees N latitude, and there is a monumental difference between that and 9 degrees N. latitude. The heat in the tropics makes it so much harder. I whine a lot about how little time I have but actually it isn't time I lack--it's energy to do anything with the time after I'm through outside.
I get up about 4:30 every morning, take care of the animals, then do various things until dawn, which nowadays is just before 6. The dogs and I walk around the property where I take note of what needs to be done, what's doing well, what isn't--and enjoy the cool air, the songs of the awakening birds, and the breathtaking beauty of what's around me. While keeping an eye on Fred who usually is looking longingly at the bull next door who, Fred is certain, is just dying to play with him.
From that time on, with a half hour out for breakfast, I'm outside working, and it's usually hard physical labor. This is not puttering around the rose garden with a pair of pruners territory. I remove rocks, fill in gullies with small rocks and stones, repair stone fences, plant, fertilize, weed eat, paint, maintain about a mile of water lines, and more.
By 11, I'm exhausted. Sometimes I'm so tired I have to rest before I have enough energy to take a shower. I've also learned to drink water, an activity I used to scorn as being for lesser mortals. A minor bout with heat exhaustion cured me of that attitude fast. So afternoons are for reading or other light work inside the house, and a nap. There is a reason for the siesta. The dogs certainly understand that!
A real problem with living here is weight gain. Almost every gringo I know regardless of nationality struggles with weight gain; a few lucky souls are genetically gaunt, which I resent. I'm 15 lbs heavier than I was when I moved here 4 years ago and am slowly, grimly losing weight. It isn't easy because your BMR (basal metabolism rate) drops as you move from temperate to tropical conditions. You don't burn as many calories in order to maintain an internal temperature in a tropical zone as you do in a temperate climate. Most of us also can't work anywhere near so hard as we did back in Minnesota, New York, Washington or wherever, given the heat, although that probably varies depending on altitude. Here we're at about 1800-2000 ft and it is significantly hotter than in Boquete ( around 4200 ft and higher) and Volcán, which I think is about 5000 ft. David, at sea level, is truly uncomfortable for me and for quite a few Panamanians, who complain about the heat there.
Since this is a poor country and resource driven, you don't see that many overweight Panamanians, especially not here in the campo. Our part-time gardener/handyman/general savior is a 68 year old man, Darío, who is tall, thin, with the muscles of a man who has been doing manual labor for his entire life. HE can work all day in the sun--he paces himself brilliantly, and I've learned from watching him. He gets an amazing amount of work done, and burns up those calories.
In the US, obesity is so common as to merit no comment anymore. But in 4 years we've seen exactly one obese person here, in David, working at a classically sedentary job, in a computer tech store. Occasionally you see an overweight adolescent, always male, and it's so unusual that it takes you by surprise. Prosperity has come to David (although I think it's about to disappear) and people have more money for food. Which here is high in starch and much of it is fried. We eat in a combination of Panamanian/American eclectic fashion, slowly going over more and more to Panamanian food as we learn how to prepare it. It doesn't help with weight control. One of the hidden costs of living here!
Yet I look at 3 years' worth of if not back-breaking, certainly backache-producing labor and I am well content. Darío is filling holes and leveling certain areas, and more and more of the maintenance can be done by lawnmower instead of weed eater, a true blessing. Our fruit trees and bananas are starting to produce and the bougainvillea, gingers and other decorative plants are a joy to my heart. Life is good.