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Sunday, March 24 2019 @ 03:31 AM UTC

Hanford woman savors life in Panama village

Expat TalesBy Seth Nidever for the Hartford Sentinel - There's a tarantula in the sink, there's a sea of mud outside, and a scorpion is hiding somewhere in the house. It's a tiny village in Panama during the rainy season, and it's a world away from Kings County for Laura Gregory, now almost finished with a two-year stint in the Peace Corps that has taken her far from the comforts of Hanford. Many Americans enjoy U.S. economic advantages without ever seeing life in the Third World. Their international experience might extend as far as a fishing trip in Baja California or a tour of western Europe, but no farther. Gregory wanted more, so she decided to abandon the air conditioning, the carpets, the salaries, the cars, the warm water, and go to a place without electricity, without indoor toilets, without a washing machine. (more)

"It really is quite different from Hanford, shall we say," Gregory said in an interview from Panama City on a secure phone connection, several travel hours away from her village of Las Quebradas.

How different is it?

Well, try a subsistence economy for starters. People eat home-grown rice in Las Quebradas. A lot of rice, as in "rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner," Gregory said.

They live in the mountains with numerous streams, so water isn't an issue. Neither is the soil -- it's fertile.

The problem is labor and technology. Preparing rice plots is a backbreaking task accomplished with hand tools and hired day laborers.

The village produces enough to feed itself, but no more. Parents have a lot of children. The older ones earn money in the cities and send it home. The younger ones work the rice farms.

Forget television. Forget electricity even. People go to each other's houses, talk, listen to battery-powered radios, and go to bed early.

Along comes Gregory, a University of California, Santa Barbara graduate with a degree -- note this -- in political science.

It was intimidating. She didn't know much about farming. With generations of experience behind them, the 150 people in Las Quebradas did.

So how to help them, as she put it, "get over the hump" and move from a subsistence economy to one that produces a surplus?

She organized meetings of farmers to discuss best practices. She talked to Panamanian officials on their behalf. She even started up weekly cooking classes for women.

But most importantly, she got them an oversized roto-tiller.

Turns out that a $5,000 gas-powered contraption an American might buy to till his backyard garden was a gigantic step forward for Las Quebradas.

They never could have afforded it on their own, Gregory said.

In an hour, the machine can do the work of 10 men in four days in the rice paddies, Gregory said.

She wrote a Peace Corps partnership grant that in one month raised enough private donations to pay for it.

"If someone can come up to me and tell me they want to do something ... that's one thing that we, as Americans, that we have. There are basic business practices that are kind of bred into us. I look on myself as a resource for them," Gregory said.

Some of the money came from Hanford's First United Methodist Church and family members, said Jim Gregory, Laura's father and an agronomist at Verdegaal Brothers in Hanford.

It's like father-like daughter when it comes to the Peace Corps.

Jim Gregory did a stint in Samoa in 1970-1972, implementing a government grant to get fishing gear and outboard motors to native fishermen.

"I think my daughter kind of listened to stories I had to tell," Jim said.

Fresh out of UCSB in 2004, Laura set her sights on the kind of job that requires a "minimum five years of experience overseas," in her words.

Positions like director of a nonprofit government agency working in international development.

The Peace Corps seemed like the perfect way to get that experience, so she applied after honing her organizational skills as a volunteer for Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and a youth program director in Orange County.

"It's an absolutely amazing opportunity," she said.

Those who know her said they could see it coming.

"She didn't strike me as one of those 'need my hair dryer and my curler everyday' people," said Fabiola Gonzalez, a district director for Costa who remembered Gregory's time as a volunteer on the congressman's successful 2004 run.

If she had been one of those types, she never would have made it in Las Quebradas.

The village is a one-hour, 1,000-foot climb from a bus stop on the nearest road. In the rainy season, the trail turns into a quagmire.

The only car in the village is a stationary jalopy whose rear axle has been rigged to run the village's rice mill.

Then there are the bugs -- "ferocious," to use Gregory's word.

There are times -- say, when she's slogging up a dusty hill, sweltering in the blazing sun and the high humidity -- that Gregory yearns for home.

"Hanford is not a bad place to be, either. I sure do miss Superior Dairy," she said.

But when kids run by and call her "Tia," when people who barely have enough to feed themselves invite her inside their homes and offer her the first plate of food, Gregory doesn't yearn for the U.S.

"They inspire me, and they impress me," she said.

And when she sees the fruit of her work -- the extra money and extra crops produced by the roto-tiller, not to mention other projects she's working on now -- she's reminded of why she's there.

There may be a time for the 26-year-old to start a family in the U.S., buy a house, get a car, start a retirement plan, but it hasn't arrived yet.

"I just want to wake up in the morning and be happy about what I'm doing," Gregory said.

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