On July 5, 2007 I was invited to serve with the Peace Corps in Panama as a Community Economic Development volunteer. I left my home in Portland, Oregon, on August 12 and I will be in Panama for 27 months- returning home in October, 2009. Crazy, right?

09 September 2009

It goes by fast...

Life is funny. Four months ago I was lamenting how slowly time passes and now, with only 35 days left of my 26 months of Peace Corps service, I am dying for a pause button. These last two months have gone rapidly and I'm running out of time to do all of the things that I need and want to do.

Thankfully the transition out of my community is going very smoothly. Next week I am moving back in with my host family, which is not common for Volunteers to do but for me it makes perfect sense. I have a lot of running around still left to do so every minute that I am in Atalaya I want to spend with them. They have been, since the very first day I got here, my rock. It will be very difficult to leave them in October and I want to enjoy every moment that we have left. They ask me a lot if I'll come back to visit and I really hope that I will, but it is so hard to know what the future holds.

The immediate future, however, is pretty clear. On October 14 I am flying back to Oregon. I am beyond excited. I told that to a Volunteer who had completed her service a few years before me and she said, "What? You didn't enjoy your experience?", which kind of frustrated me. I loved my experience. I am so glad that I joined the Peace Corps and I don't regret any single step of it- not the missteps I made along the way, or any other part of it. But I am definitely ready to be home again, after 2 very long years. I will carry this experience with me for the rest of my life- it has changed me (hopefully for the better) but Mom, Dad, I miss you! And I want to come home. :)

Until then, I'm just wrapping things up. This week I'm in Panama City doing my "Close of Service Medical Exams". The Peace Corps takes pretty good care of us, which is nice. We were required to have a clean bill of health coming into the Peace Corps and the same is required for when we leave. Yesterday I saw my gynecologist, today I saw the dentist, and tomorrow I get a general physical. Every day I provide a fecal sample to the lab (so not fun) so they can make sure I'm not harboring any parasites, etc, and I'm having a TB test. Also, 72 hours before I leave I'll get tested for HIV, just in case. All these things are mandatory, which I'm glad about. I appreciate that they take such pains to make sure that we are healthy and happy, whether we're here or somewhere else.

Then, after tomorrow, I'm taking a little vacation before heading back home. I'm excited to get back to Atalaya for awhile. I've been running around a lot lately and it will be nice to relax for a little bit with my host family. I still can't really believe it's almost over. This has been my entire world for the last 2 years and I may never be back again. How strange...

In preparation for my impending departure I've been going a little crazy with photos of flowers. I don't ever want to forget all of the gorgeous flowers they have here. So, forgive me for all the ones I'm about to post, along with my usual array of pictures.

Recently I went to the Veraguas coast with some friends for a quick trip. The beach is about an hour from my house but I go very rarely. There never seems to be enough time. It was great to swing by and enjoy the palm trees and the ocean breeze.
Dennis was a good sport and let me put a flower in his hair. Isn't he cute? Yeah, we're adorable.
My PCBFF (Peace Corps BFF. I'm a dork.) came to visit my site last week with her youth coop. My youth coop is very organized, run completely by the kids, so her group wanted to come see what that looked like (the parents are very controlling with her coop). CoCo with a coop member and a giant pig (above). Below- chickens. So many chickens.

Some of the members of my cooperative (in khaki) and CoCo's cooperative (in pink).

This flower is naturally orange, blue, and red. It's so weird looking...
Purple is my favorite color so naturally these are one of my favorite flowers here.
A couple of weeks ago Dennis' ex-stepdad came to visit. He was in Costa Rica to have dental surgery (much cheaper there than in the states, even if you throw in the expenses) and he popped down to Panama to see Dennis. We went on a beautiful hike and he spoiled us with a hotel room and great meals. Thanks, John!
The hike itself was a little brutal. It took us about an hour and a half of walking pretty much straight up. But the lookout point was gorgeous. It was worth it.
This is the infamous Murci, my pet bat, and his girlfriend, Murcette. They live in the corner of my shower (which I've posted below so you can appreciate just how close to my head that actually is). They're just fruit bats but having to clean bat poop out of your shower before you use it is annoying- especially with no water pressure.

I'm in love with this toucan. I hate that he's caged up but I love that I get to see him. His beak is so beautiful. I know you can barely see them, but his feet are blue, too!

Some of the low lying mountainous regions of Panama are perfect for orchids so there are a lot of orchid farms. I really enjoyed strolling through one recently and snapping a million pictures. I hope you've enjoyed them!

10 July 2009

A Day in the Life of my Host Sister

My host sister, Yaneth, was born in a rural town high up in the mountains of the province of Veraguas, Panama. Her community was small and impoverished, without electricity or potable water. She lived in a simple, two-room cinderblock home with a cement floor and a tin roof that she shared with her parents and siblings. Although devoid of modern conveniences, the community itself was picturesque and tranquil. Members of neighboring communities walk for hours to visit the beautiful local church during its annual celebration of the patron saint each November.

When Yaneth was around 10 years old she was selected by a nun at the church to participate in an exchange program with a wealthier community 5 hours away. And so it was, with twelve other promising girls, that Yaneth came to live in Atalaya, with my host mom, Gudelia. Gudelia raised Yaneth as her own, providing her with an education she would not have been able to receive otherwise, asking nothing in return. In her home town Yaneth’s education would likely not have surpassed the sixth grade, but with Gudelia’s help she was able to graduate high school and then continue on to college.

Yaneth is now a middle school teacher and I recently had the immense pleasure of spending a workday with her, to see what it is to be a teacher in Panama.

The Panamanian education system is quite different from that of the United States. After high school, aspiring teachers spend one year at University before becoming eligible to teach. Earning approximately $300 per month, it is a respectable profession. Once you become a teacher you are given a job wherever there is an opening, with preferential treatment given according to level of experience. Yaneth, for example, was first placed in the Darién, Panama’s eastern most province and arguably least desirable. The struggles she faced while living in the Darién were numerous but it was an important step in the placement hierarchy.

After a number of years out east, Yaneth was offered a position much closer to her family. Finally able to return to Atalaya, her husband, Ariel, found work in a neighboring community, and they sent their children to the same, highly regarded schools that Yaneth had once attended. But the new position, I soon discovered, was not perfect.

My day in the life of Yaneth started with my alarm blaring at 4 AM, a solid two hours before sunrise. I am not a morning person and I rarely open my eyes before 9 but, after hitting the snooze button a few times, I climbed out of my mosquito net at 4:15, showered (cold water), dressed, ate a quick breakfast, and headed out the door. I met Yaneth at the corner where we were to wait for the bus. Surprisingly, Yaneth pulled up in a car driven by the newspaper delivery boy. She had convinced him to give us a ride to Santiago, thus saving us each the 50 cent bus fare.

Once in Santiago we met up with a group of women, also teachers, standing on the side of the Interamericana (Panama’s main highway). Every morning the women meet on this particular stretch to see if they can hitch a ride to their various turnoffs. From 5:30AM to 6:20AM they wave their hands at waist height (the Panamanian version of throwing out your thumb) to every car, truck, or semi that passes.

Our group was not the only one patiently waiting on the kindness of strangers and I became discouraged as other women crawled into the backs of pickups, vans, and big rigs while we stood, waiving our hands to no avail. The last bus that our group could catch in order to still make it to work on time would pass us at 6:20AM and we were desperately hoping to catch a ride before then, thus saving us $2.10 each.

At 6:15AM an old semi-truck hauling Balboa Beer pulled over for us. We were 6 strong at that point and worried we wouldn’t all fit but we climbed into the cab and made ourselves comfortable, with four of us sitting on the bed behind the driver, and 2 sharing the passenger seat in front. And then began the longest leg of our trip. For nearly an hour we rode in the old, dilapidated cab with minimal shocks, bouncing up and down, thankful for the free ride.
(The view from the back of the semi truck)

(Yaneth and I, getting cozy in the truck's cab)

Two of our travel companions disembarked along the way and it was 7:10 when the remaining four of us climbed down from the cab of the semi, shouting our thanks to the driver.
(Yaneth practically fell out of the high passenger side door but luckily one of the other teachers caught her)

The teachers then proceeded to roll up their pantsuits and change from their nice work shoes into their walking shoes. I hadn’t known we would be hiking to the school but thankfully I was wearing tennis shoes instead of my nice “I’m going to be a professional today” shoes that give me blisters. And then we started walking.
(Hiking to the school)

Along the way we ran into some kids and the teachers unloaded their bags onto the boys, who dutifully carried them to the school. We hiked along a road, up hills, and through fields, eventually crossing the border into another province, the Comarca Ngäbe Bugle. After 45 minutes and a few slips (but no falls, thank Frank), we arrived at La Escuela de las Huacas. Set on the side of a little hill, the small 6-room building supports about 150 kids. After being introduced to the principal and a few other teachers, Yaneth and I found our way to her room, where her group of kids patiently waited.

(Las Huacas Middle School)

Yaneth’s classroom is big but very rundown. The desks are old but functioning and the tin roof has a leak near the front of the room, where a puddle of dirty water lies stagnate on the cement floor. When we entered the kids were sweeping away the debris that had come through the glassless, screen less windows during the night. The room itself seems dark, despite the sunlight, mostly because the cement floor, the desks, and the chairs are black, brown, or dark gray.

Yaneth, however, is a ray of sunshine and her good humor is contagious. She jokes with the kids and gets them laughing and smiling, which is no small feat for the notoriously reserved indigenous children of the Comarca. After small talk and introductions, Yaneth turned the 26 students, ages 11 to 13, over to me, for English class. I rarely teach English in Panama but the kids and I had fun, of a sort, learning the various greetings, working on pronunciations, etc. Yaneth and I continuously pointed out that Spanish is my second language and I make many mistakes when speaking, encouraging the kids to feel more comfortable when they mess up. Each child then stood up and told me the basics in English: “My name is _____. I am (age). I live in (community name).” It was fun, and cute.

(Teaching English)

(Listening to the kids tell me their names, ages, and home towns in English)

Eventually, after a break for government provided snacks, we played a quick game and then I taught them a craft that I loved when I was their age. My mom recently sent me a huge package of plastic lacing (aka gimp, aka lanyard string) and key rings. They each got two colors of the lacing and I taught them how to weave it to make simple key chains. I had a great time showing them how to do it and many of them picked it up very quickly.
(Learning to make key chains)

(The new computer lab at the school. The kids don't have books, but they have 10 computers for the 150 of them to share...)
Shortly after that, our school day was over. It is surprising how little schooling goes into each day. We began at 8 AM with a 10 minute break around 9 AM for snack cookies provided by the school, then a 15 minute break at 10 AM for cream of wheat, also provided by the school, and another 15 minute break at 11 AM for recess. Class gets out at 12:30 so, all told, we taught for less than 4 hours, which seems alarmingly short to me for a 6th grade class.
(Group Photo)

(My new head scarf being tied on)
At the end of class the kids presented me with a traditional indigenous headscarf and a beaded bracelet, which was a complete surprise and very sweet. Then we began the hike out to the road, which was only about ten minutes. Yaneth and I waited there with other teachers for at least thirty minutes, hoping to catch a ride down to the Interamericana. Honestly, since it would have been a thirty minute walk downhill to get there we might have been better off just walking but by that point we were both exhausted and willing to wait.
(Hiking back out to the main road)
Eventually a dump truck stopped for Yaneth and I, and we rode to the bottom of the hill. Once there, we again waited. Yaneth tried, with no success, to snag us another free ride along the Interamericana but eventually we gave in and caught a bus to Santiago. It was a long bus ride during which we both fell asleep. Once we got to Santiago we jumped straight onto an Atalaya bus and headed home. I walked through my door at just after 4 PM, ridiculously thrilled to be home after a very long day.

I’ve always known that Yaneth was a teacher who worked somewhere outside our community but I never had any idea how far she travels everyday. That day we were traveling by car, bus, big rig, or hiking for over 6 hours (including time spent standing around waiting for a bus or ride). Six hours of traveling for less than 5 hours of work every single day. I also had no idea that Yaneth hitchhiked so much, but it makes sense. Yaneth pays $5.20 roundtrip everyday, for a job that pays her about $15 daily. Though time consuming and possibly dangerous, it is understandable why Yaneth and her colleagues choose to hitchhike.

After spending a day with Yaneth I cannot even begin to express how much I admire her. She has 4 young children, a husband who also works fulltime, and rarely gets to bed before midnight. Yet every morning she is up at 4 AM, ready to travel 3 hours (including a 45 minute hike) each way to work and, not only that, she is energetic, always smiling, and her kids at school love her. I honestly don’t know how she does it.

I’ve toyed with the idea of becoming a teacher many times since I came to Panama. Working with Yaneth’s kids only reminded me of how much I love teaching. If I ever do become a teacher I can only hope to be half the teacher that Yaneth is. She is absolutely amazing and my hat goes off to her. It’s taken me the last two days just to recover from one day in her life.
(Yaneth and I, finally headed home after a very long day)

04 July 2009

Only 27 Months?

I could be wrong but I think the majority of people, upon first hearing about the 27 month commitment, wonder why Peace Corps service is for such a long stretch of time. More than two years? That seems like overkill. Wouldn't one year suffice?

I personally didn't have a problem with the two year commitment in the beginning. One of the many reasons I wanted to join the Peace Corps was to become fluent in Spanish and I knew that I would certainly not be able to do that in less than a year and would probably need quite a bit longer. My brain rocks at many things, but language is not one of them. So I committed myself to two years without thinking too much about it. I mean, who am I to say what the most effective length of time will be when working in grassroots development?

Well, now that I have been here almost 23 months I feel like I know enough to have an opinion and I finally understand why Volunteers are asked to serve for 2 solid years in their communities.

They told us when we first got here that it would go fast. They told us that we should not have high hopes of accomplishing much in our first year, and certainly not in our first three months. They told us to focus on integration, on getting to know our communities, our community leaders, and the language. They told us these things but we were only partially listening. They told us that we would be most effective in our second year, after we had the "lay of the land" and could communicate well. And that it wasn't until near the end of our service that we would really begin to see our efforts come to fruition. But we didn't really hear them.

We figured that was the road of the generic volunteer and we weren't generic. We were ambitious! We knew what our community needed before they did! We were going to jump in head first and start swimming full speed ahead. Those generic volunteers could take their two years to accomplish what we would accomplish in one. No sweat.

Except they were right. We did jump in head first. And we were ambitious and had the best interests of our communities in mind. But there is no amount of passion or determination that can help your community as much as knowing them inside and out. And that doesn't just mean knowing all the little pathways between every house, knowing the names of all your neighbors, and knowing who is related to who, and how. It's about living every day in your community, sharing stories and listening to people talk. It's about being at the big events, like your host mom's sister's neighbor's son's christening and chatting with people about what's going on in their lives. You can spend everyday of your first three months in your community doing those things but it isn't until you've been there a year that you really become a fixture instead of that girl that smiles a lot but doesn't understand what you're saying.

There are always things going on in my community, always things to participate in, and I could be busy every single day if I wanted to be. In my first three months, I was. I've helped with all sorts of different things and had a great time doing it. But it wasn't until just last month, after a year and a half in my community, when a woman came up to me and asked me to help her woman's group become official, that I finally felt like I had become the volunteer I intended to be. I've taught Girl Scouts to make friendship bracelets, I've read kids books out loud, and I've acted as town photographer. I've done beach clean-ups, AIDS presentations, and youth focused leadership seminars. But this was the first time I really felt like I was a Community Economic Development Volunteer and the best part was that it wasn't even my idea.

I may have felt like I knew my community by my 6th month, or even my third. But it took that year and a half for them to really know me. Language barrier aside, it took that long for them to really understand why I was here and how I could help. Even more than that, it took them that long to reach the trust, the confianza, with me to be able to come up to me and ask me for the support they needed instead of me having to guess and hope I was right.

When it rains, however, it pours and my months spent playing with Girl Scouts and reading in my hammock have morphed into a jam packed final four months in my community. But there is no other way I would rather leave in October than as an integrated and valued member of my community. Yes, Peace Corps service needs to be 27 months. Honestly, it could even be a little longer.