Tuesday, April 3, 2012

365 Days Later...

I've officially survived my community for 365 days. Holy (insert expletive here)! I should say something to the effect of how it's gone by so quickly or how it feels like another year will be an eternity but I can't say either. Mostly because I cant even grasp the concept of time here in Panama. Life just continues on and on. There are no seasons or changes in daylight to let my body know another spring is coming or another winter has passed. Living in a tropical country so close to the equator is comparable to living in the twilight zone or in that terrible movie Groundhog's Day. Every day is the same. Some a little rainier than others but other than that...lo mismo. We like to say here that the days go by slow but the months go by fast. I struggle through each day only to be in shock each time another month goes by in my calendar. My daily thought process tends to go: How did another month just go by? Didn't I just get back from visiting my family for Christmas? How the hell is it already April? Oh god, I still have another year...

To sum up life in my community over the last year isn't easy. Former volunteers have shared that it's easier the second year. I don't think it ever gets easier, you just get used to it as much as you can. You learn to expect the disappointments and feel motivated by the smallest of victories. I try not to focus on how many good days and bad days I have these days. It's more just about making it through the day with my sanity intact. Some days I'm working from sun up to sun down while others are so empty that I feel like I just might die from boredom before I get to the end of it. The majority fall in the middle but none come and go without a challenge. Whether its work related or just trying to live daily in the jungle.

One challenge that's been particularly frustrating is the lack of water during the dry season. Since my water source is a tube stuck in a spring further up on the mountain, when that spring dries up, so does my water. Last year, I had a reserve tank but during the battle with my previous landlord, I had to leave it behind when I moved in to my new house. Now I'm struggling to wash clothes and plates, shower and have enough clean drinking water on a daily basis. The hardest part is not knowing when it will come or for how long. For a few days it would come in the early hours of the morning. One morning, I woke up at 3:30am to wash my clothes by hand only to discover that it was no longer coming at that time. But while I'm sitting here complaining about how challenging it is to live like this, it's only a few months a year. I can't imagine what it's like for other PCVs and Panamanians who spend the entire year continually waiting for water to come or relying on a river to bathe and wash their clothing. It's a reality check to discover that every time I turn on the faucet, water won't always be coming out like it does in the States. Hopefully I'll take the conservation habits I've developed here out of necessity back to the States with me. I actually prefer bucket showers anyways.

While their are many physical challenges, one or the more frustrating parts of being a Peace Corps Volunteer is the lack of self expression and personal opinions. As a representative of the U.S. government, I need to be neutral in my religious and political opinions and other personal thoughts. I understand this expectation at its fundamental level. I don't want to alienate anyone who I could potentially work with in my community. But recently, we were reminded not to take sides regarding an issue that I felt was important to discuss with my community members.

The indigenous community of the Ngabe Bugle people blocked the only highway in Panama for several days creating disruptions throughout the country over a contract the government made with foreign firms to mine and build hydroelectric dams within the comarca of the indigenous group. Similar to a reservation in the States, the Ngabes have more autonomous control over the land in the comarca than the government does. The Ngabes took the streets to protect their land and subsequently three people were killed in the violence.

In Panama, there is some racism against the indigenous population. But for this issue, many Panamanians came out in solidarity with the Ngabes. Instead of adding my support (or disapproval), I was reminded by the Peace Corps that I should remain neutral on the issue due to the fact that we work closely with the government. This included in my community and other public domains that I deem personal such as my Facebook or this blog. Damaging our relationship with the government could affect the work that we do here. As much as I understand the need for neutrality, it adds to the frustration I feel here not being able to live my life the way I would in the States. Its stifling not being allowed to voice your opinions. Especially when you live in a community where all your friends are technically coworkers since being a part of the community is technically your job.

Even though an agreement has been reached between the government and the Ngabes, many Ngabes are not happy with the negotiations their leader accepted and there could potentially be more problems in the future. However, I, as a Peace Corps volunteer will continue to remain neutral.

To end my one year update, I'll finish with something a bit more positive and answer what you all have been dying to know. What am I actually doing? Besides chilling in a hammock and eating rice? Luckily, I have a few things going on in and out of my site. I don't want this part to sound like a resume but I do want to let you all know what I'm actually doing or trying to do... Actually I might just use this as my resume.

English Teacher Seminar. In January, two fellow PCVs and I developed and ran a weeklong seminar for English teachers. We had over 40 participants. Even though it was challenging to say the least, it was a great opportunity to work with motivated teachers who care about their jobs.

Adult EFL classes. The whole reason I got myself into this "situation" was because I loved teaching ESL to adults. Right now I'm working with a group of about 12 young adults twice a week tackling English and all it's conundrums.

After school tutoring. On any given day, I have at least one student stopping by my house for English homework help. Sometimes it's an annoying part of being a professional volunteer but I'd rather them not fail out of English.

At my primary school Co teacher with my English teacher. These days we are doing more planning together outside the classroom instead of actual co teaching but hopefully the principal will finish our new "English classroom" and I can get back in the class.

Tech guru. I solve (or rather attempt to) any computer problems in our computer lab. This mostly ends in failure. I think I might need a computer class myself...

Unofficial and unpaid school secretary. People here are mad jealous of my typing skills. Unfortunately, this means that they constantly ask me to type up documents for them. Don't worry, I've started teaching typing classes so that I comply with the Peace Corps goal of sustainability.

Tech teacher for the fourth and sixth grade. Last week I started teaching technology class to two groups. So far it's turning out to be a lot of fun since I get to be the main teacher.

Outside projects
Special Olympics volunteer. I'll be helping out with the table tennis event for the Central American Special Olympics in April along with other fun days planned for about 500 athletes.

 Facilitator at a youth leadership camp. The protests I mentioned earlier caused us to cancel our weeklong camp for teens in February but hopefully it will get rescheduled for June!

I'll be sure you update you all with another rant and rave session as soon as I get around to it...which looking back on my blogging track record will not be anytime soon.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


I think it's safe to say I've gotten caught up in my Panamanian life. So much so that its been months since my last blog post. (Its been since May...really?) Or maybe it's just laziness...but that's also a typical part of Panamanian life.  I've thought about writing a blog every few weeks but I always get stuck on what to write... My days start and end and nothing epic ever happens that makes me think, "I better hurry up and share that with the online world." But thats life anywhere right? Yet for some reason I started this damn blog... So here is a quick glimpse into my Panamanian life. The good, the bad, the ugly and the downright annoying.

Daily challenges: Life here is often full of daily challenges that I never quite expected. Who knew living on your own in a foreign country could be so difficult. Especially after all those months of pampering by my Panamanian mothers. Lets start with clothes. Hand washing jeans is miserable...after attempting to do it once, I decided to sweet talk my way into getting my neighbors to let me use their washing machine every once in a while. It works like a charm, as long as there is actually water and electricity, I'd say about a 50/50 chance. And if it happens to be rainy season when you get home and hang out your clothes to dry, it'll be about a good two weeks or so before there are dry enough to wear. If i don't get around to washing frequently, everything molds. Im not kidding. And theres no getting it out. The janitors at my school told me to use a lot of bleach and to just keep scrubbing. They offered to do it for me and I declined. But thirty minutes and raw hands later... That freaking mold was still sitting pretty all over my clothes... Note to self, next time say yes when the janitors offer to clean something for you.

Apparently, mowing your yard is not as easy as sitting on the couch watching TV, while your Dad does all the work. First you have to search for someone with a weed wacker. Then once that man tells you he is going to charge you $7 to do it, you go out and try to machete the grass yourself. Now that you have blisters all over your palms since the most your pretty little hands do is write in chalk all day, you complain to the janitors at your school. They tell you a man will do it for $4 with a machete but that the grass should be super long. So you let the grass grow. Meanwhile and quite unexpectedly, the kids at your school hold a secret fundraiser to pay the man $7 to mow your lawn since apparently not mowing your lawn is dangerous...something about snakes. Yeah, you would feel like crap too...

I know you're reading this thinking, okay where is the good. You all know I'm a bit of a pessimist. But heres something. A few days ago I was craving something fried. All I had in my house was rice and pasta which wouldn't do. So I went out to my backyard, machete in hand, in search of some yucca. Now, the first time I did this, my neighbor was able to sense my struggle within about thirty seconds and came to my rescue by digging up the yucca for me. This time I was feeling like i could conquer the beast myself so I went out past the latrine where no one could see me. The hard part about digging up yucca is you don't know what you're going to get till you pull out the root. Luckily you can just stick it back in the ground if it's too small. My kind of plant. Now if it's actually a big root, it can turn in to quite a struggle. I'll admit, I'm still learning the proper digging technique as I've only had two lessons. But after stabbing the ground viciously and repeatedly for a few minutes (worked out some of my anger issues), somewhat careful to avoid the yucca, and then pulling the tree and the root as hard as I could, I finally got the damn thing out and it was a good size too.   I triumphantly went back to my kitchen, muddy yucca in hand, and promptly failed at frying yucca. Don't ask. And yes I boiled it first.

Sleeping is another challenge in Panama that my unfortunate parents will attest to. The first noise upon awaking is a symphony of roosters singing across the mountain valley... Not as pleasant as it sounds. First one starts, then another off in the distance, followed by another one right outside my window and on they go for hours and hours. In fact, roosters in Panama never stop crowing. They go all day and all night. Come on guys, whatever happened to only crowing when the sun comes up? All those movies lied to us... The rainy season means colds for the roosters too and hearing their voices crack and gurgle has been some what entertaining if only for the fact that its not as loud. Dogs are the next big pain in the... There is over twenty living in the three houses around me and when one goes off about something they all go off. If I've made it to morning, it only means that my lovely neighbor will now start blasting tipico music at 6am. I thought I had suffered through the worst until a a group of ducks appeared a few weeks ago adding to the cacophony. But as I'm writing this I'm pretty sure I just heard one of the dogs kill one of the ducks. And now there is a very strange noise outside my house at night, my best guess is that's what a dying duck sounds like. To be honest, not very pleasant but thank god there will be one less noise in the morning.

I'll be back soon, I promise.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Quirky Panamanians Round Dos

So I heard that some of you enjoyed the first round of Quirky Panamanians. I decided to spoil you all again with another round. Enjoy!

I know I have mentioned the public transportation system here in Panama several times before but it deserves to be mentioned yet again. This is an ode to the chiva, technically known as a busito but I’ll continue to be the ignorant foreigner and call it a chiva since that word is more fun. This is particularly an ode to the chivas already well past capacity yet nonetheless stop to pick up another passenger, in this case, me. When that little death trap stops and a door in desperate need of some WD40 slides open, you might be thinking, “There’s no room for me, I’ll wait for the next one.” Don’t you fret, there is always room for you. You just have to know how to find it. This process of discovery might require a bit of work ranging anywhere from shoving people into the glass windows, slamming your butt into an unsuspecting face, or straddling someone’s lap as you cross over to find an inch of room on the other side of that person who is unwilling to slide over that one freaking inch.  This might sound potentially illegal as you are most likely violating minors or the elderly but trust me, as long as you get on that chiva, no foul. If you happen to be tall, you most likely can avoid all this by simply bending at the waist and leaning over a row full of gawking Panamanians. Note: it is not wise to do this while wearing a very loose shirt, especially when you find yourself in a chiva full of high school students...good luck holding on and holding it up. Sounds like fun, right?

My second chiva story of the day involves a particularly memorable experience I just so happened to survive last week. This perilous journey began like any other. I arrived at my hidden bus stop in Chorrera, to find the bus completely full except for one last seat. (Note: you will never find this bus stop unless you know where it is. Not really sure who came up with the ingenious system of placing chiva pick-ups at random throughout the city without any sort of sign but I digress). As I was the last one to arrive and there was no pato (usually a young man who is in charge of collecting money and opening the door for passengers), I was deemed honorary pato for the journey, a true honor indeed. Unfortunately for me, this chiva happened to be the crappiest of the fleet. Every time we stopped to let a passenger fight their way to the door in order to escape, I had to slug the door open with all my strength (granted it’s a bit diminished this days considering I haven’t seen a gym since December). And I had to heave even harder to close the damn door, all with not a word of thanks from the passengers! On top of all this unappreciated effort, I had to simultaneously maintain all of my groceries on my lap lest they go spilling to the ground outside the door.
 My new employment was made increasingly difficult by the lazy Panamanians who refuse to get off at the same time. When you drop one off, and the next one needs to get off five feet later, they wait till you close the door and the chiva starts creeping forward to yell “Stop.” My passive aggressive stares went unnoticed apparently as we did this over and over again. This specific chiva, the crappiest of the fleet, was well past its retirement. I say this due to the fact that the door did not close all the way. In fact, there was a gaping hole of at least two inches between the entire door frame and the door. Now let’s imagine that I am the pato, in a packed chiva, that just so happens to have a faulty door. Now imagine my fear of that door flying open while we are speeding up winding mountain roads at 60 miles an hour, swinging hard to the right, swinging hard to left, now back to the right. Terror doesn’t begin to describe my fear of being flung to my death at any moment while the driver continued to pick up speed as we took the hardest of turns. By the end of the journey, my knuckles were sore from gripping on to what free space I could find to hold on to. However, I did have a nice new view on the journey back home as I watched the road beneath us through the wide open space. Always look for the look for the positive, right?

Thus ends my ode to the much loved chiva. There’s sure to be more.

Back in the good ole days of Spanish class, we learned the meaning of the word “ahora.” If you look in the dictionary, this word means “now.” Apparently, Panamanians somewhere along the way decided to change the meaning. Not only did they change it, but they changed it to mean the exact opposite of now. Here, “ahora” means “later.” Something they failed to inform the rest of the world, including, most importantly, me. You can’t begin to understand the amount of confusion this simple change of significance caused me during my first few weeks at site. And since I’m such a considerate person, I’ll spare you the embarrassment and puzzlement and give you a free lesson on time in Panama.
                Ahora = (Dictionary definition: now) means later.
                Mas Ahora = (Dictionary definition: more now) means even more later.
                Ahorita = (Dictionary definition: there is none…) means now.
                Ya Ahorita =(Dictionary definition: already now) means it’s happening right at this very moment.
                Ya = (Dictionary definition: already) means you missed it…not the word you really want to hear.
You would think mas ahora, or more now, would mean right now, but no. I found out the hard way, by waiting a few hours, that mas ahora means, well, in a few hours. It still takes me a few clicks to get this whole Panamanian concept of time down but I’m sure I’ll get there eventually. A few more mistakes and I’ll learn my lesson.

The weather is a temperamental foe here in Panama. The most ominous clouds may be approaching your mountain valley from all sides yet it doesn’t rain a single drop. At other moments it can be completely sunny without a cloud in sight and you’re just strolling down your dirt road, unsuspecting, when a monsoon sneaks up on you and drenches you along with all your papers and notebooks. Blasted tropical weather.  Well Panamanians have adapted better than I have and love to predict the weather. They proudly announce not only if it will rain but exactly at what time it will start raining. They also proclaim the duration and intensity of the imminent storm. At first, I was in awe of their superior knowledge. Who needs the weatherman when you have your very own family of Panamanians to forecast the weather for you. Except I quickly discovered a problem, their accuracy leaves a little something to be desired. First of all, Panama is a tropical country. If it’s rainy season, and it’s not already raining, it probably will start soon. But during the non-rainy seasons, which I found are pretty much a myth, Panamanians are no better at predicting the weather than this newbie who likes to join in on the fun of predicting with convincingly deceptive accuracy just to have something to say.  You should try it too.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Quirky Panamanians

Quirky Panamanians – I wrote the following post with the goal of giving you all back home a little insight into the daily life of the average Panamanian. We all know that Americans have their quirks too and I’m certainly always making a fool of myself here. (Just give me a piece of tough beef and a spoon, the Panamanian utensil of choice no matter what is served, and you’ll be laughing in no time). But here are the quirks I’ve discovered so far, with hopefully more to come.  

Stating the Obvious
Panamanians love to state the obvious when greeting each other. Often, instead of saying, “How are you?” when they see you, they simple state the obvious in the form of a question. For example: Let’s say you’re walking along a street and you meet a Panamanian. He will mostly like greet you with, “Walking?” If you happen to be sweating due to the intense heat while walking, he will greet you with, “Sweating?” If you happen to be walking up a hill, he will great you with, “Subiendo (going up)?” Or if down a hill, “Bajando (going down)?” If you are just arriving somewhere, he will great you with, “Arriving?” You get the picture. The best part of adapting to this cultural norm is I no longer have to think of what to say to someone on the street when I see them. No more remembering what kind of job they have or what their daughter’s name is, all I have to do is state the obvious and we both continue on our way.  

First comes the electricity poles then comes the flat screen TV and sound system?
Panama is an odd country when it comes to its level of development. A friend and I were chatting the other day about how this country missed a few key steps in the development process. There are American style suburbs being built near Chorrera yet the water is always going out because they never built the proper infrastructure to support it. You drive by a house with three televisions and a latrine outside because there is no sewage system. The postal system is an overwhelmed disaster because roads don’t have names thus nobody actually has an address. If someone does have an “address,” it is often, “across from the cantina.” The kids here don’t even know how to write a letter, how could they when they never receive any. I was writing a letter to my mother the other day, and my host sister sat there and asked question after question about what I was writing on the envelope, how it would get to her etc. Yet she knows how to use Microsoft Office. The main public transportation system throughout the country is composed of old American school buses painted tacky colors and neon lights that race along the main roads which are barely big enough for more than car. Or they are pick up trucks with the bed converted into seating for passengers. In parts of my community, there is still no electricity. Yet, families have already bought their televisions in anticipation (albeit they are from the 1980s). Panama remained rather undeveloped for so long that now it is racing to catch up by expanding and bringing modern technology to all parts of the country even when those areas aren’t quite ready for it. It’s an odd sight to see a man dressed in typical clothing, riding his horse, which is also loaded with the rice he just harvested, sharing a road with a Toyota SUV. Or to see a wood house with a palm tree roof next to a house with a satellite dish and a massive metal fence surrounding it. Some serious work is needed to fill the gap.

Panamanian Names
I’m having the hardest time remembering all the names of the people I meet in my community. I thought it was just me or the fact that I’ve met so many new people in the last few weeks but then I came to a realization. Remember back to Spanish class when we had worksheets with names like Maria, Jose and Juan? Well those are nothing close to Panamanian names. Here are a few examples for your enjoyment: Gumercindo, Euribiades, Yarineth, Gricel, Vianka, Dianey, Benson, Deyka, Amadiz, Naidelyn, Mayuri, Yoideth, Yuliser, Geidy, Rubiela, Zulymary, Diodimir, Daneris, Mileyka, Melexis and Zehidi. No, I did not just hit keys at random. Those are the style of names here. Along with a few kids named Elvis or Carlos. Every time I take attendance, the kids spend the whole time laughing at me as I struggle to get something out that even remotely sounds like it’s supposed to. But then I get to laugh when I tell them my last name and they just give me blank stares.  If I ever end up having a kid, I’m naming it Panamanian style.

Many Panamanian men remind me of college frat boys despite the fact they are grown and have families. Wait, I take that back. They are so much worse than college frat boys. Sundays here in this country are a free day to get completely obliterated. The men drink till they can no longer stand on two feet or remember where they are or what their name is. (Granted, I couldn’t find my way home through the jungle or remember my Panamanian name even if I was completely sober.)  There is such a bad stigma towards drinking here, particularly towards women who drink, because Panamanians do not know how to control their alcoholic intake. It’s embarrassing to watch the men make fools of themselves in front of their families. And it’s a bit awkward to wake up to the sounds of the dad next door puking all over the front yard.  I’ve been lucky in that none of the men in my host families have acted in this way but I feel so bad for the women and children who deal with husbands and fathers like that because it is such a prevalent problem here. It’s an unhealthy part of life in the country that continues the cycle of poverty I see my students having to live with every day. Some days I wish I could start an AA group here as a secondary project and teach the Panamanians that you can have a drink or two and not turn yourself into a useless and potentially dangerous idiot roaming the streets and wasting your family’s money. It’s time to get your act together men; I’m tired of your drunken debauchery!

Panamanians love everything sweet, everything salty, and everything fried. (For a combination of all three at the same time, try alholdras, yuuum).  Unfortunately, their waist lines and teeth are suffering from their less than healthy habits. At school, the kids are always full of smiles. They lean their heads all the way back, grinning as wide as they can, so that the super tall teacher (aka me) can get the best view possible of their smiling faces.  Yet, every time they open up those mouths, all I see are black, cavity filled teeth. Well, that is if they still have teeth left to show off. No wonder considering every moment they aren’t in class, those mouths are filled with candy of some kind. The kids aren’t the only ones suffering from the recent inundation of sweets. About every other adult in the community seems to be missing their front two teeth. It’s so common that I often find myself shocked to see someone with a full set. Panamanians are so addicted to candy that they eat anything that even slightly resembles it. Take, for example, Halls cough drops. In the stores in town, kids and adults buy individual wrapped Halls and pop them like they are just a regular piece of hard candy. The Halls come in every flavor and the ground is littered with their wrappers. I’ll admit the sweet and minty combination is delicious but that can’t be good right? Who knows, the Panamanians seem to possess an array of random tips on life. Including the fact that on Good Friday, if you climb a tree, you will turn into a monkey, or if you take a dip in the river, you will turn into a fish.  I’ll take their word for it. 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

First three weeks in site!

You might be thinking that I’ve gotten lazy again. Unfortunately, you are right when it comes to this blog. I wish someone would invent telepathic posts. As soon as I arrived in my community, I began working. I spend Monday through Friday from 7:30am till 1:10pm at the school. In the afternoon, I trek back to my host family’s house on the other side of the valley. The school luckily has internet but as of right now, the house I’m living in doesn’t have any electricity. Hopefully, as I settle in a bit more, I’ll post a bit more as well. For now, enjoy my first blog from my site, Las Minas, a wonderful hidden gem up in the mountains of Panama Oeste.

First Host Family
Okay, so technically my first host family lives is in a town called Nazarena. It’s about a thirty minute walk from the school, up and down a few major hills slash mountains. The students who live here attend my school and the parents work in the fields on the mountain or in the next town over, El Cacao. I’m not sure if you can find Nazarena on a map. Everyone in the town is related…somehow. (I don’t think I’ll ever be able to figure out all the relations for sure). My host mother is an amazing woman, who, in reality should be more of a host sister considering she is only three years older than me. Yet, she is a mother of three including a thirteen year old, a nine year old and a two year old. I’ll let you do the math. She has her own tienda at the house that she spends all day, every day, attending to  and the customers. She’s so proud of her store and despite only having a sixth grade education (I’ll let you figure out why she dropped out so early), she values the education of her children and is always pushing them to study harder. I can tell when she is working with them how much she would have liked to stay in school. We often have conversations relating to problems in Panama, such as the lack of a trash collection system and the problems with the technical schools (many students cheat to pass and subsequently never gain the skills to actually perform the job they’ve just earned a degree for). I spend most of my afternoons chatting with her about life. She also works hard as my translator. When visitors come to the house and she can tell I’m having a hard time understanding them, she always translates it into something I can reply to. I don’t think I would’ve survived the first week without her.

Her husband is an equally genuine character. He wakes up every day at 4:30am to start working on the finca. Some days that means harvesting the organic limes, other days it means improving the finca by building roads, tending the animals or making sure the other workers are doing what they are supposed to be doing.  He’s so proud of the organic limes he grows here. His house is one of the larger and better built houses on this side of town and he has dreams to expand it even more. When we were chatting this morning, he mentioned how hard it was to find good employees who didn’t drink too much. Apparently, the boss doesn’t like it and it does tend to be a big problem here. My host Dad hasn’t had a drink since he started the job twelve years ago. He decided he wanted to be the best role model possible for his children and he certainly is. Every morning he either has a tractor idling or a horse saddled to take me to school. We’ve spent many afternoons visiting the families who live nearby on this side of town. He has even showed an interest in learning English since the Finca is often visited by foreigners and will eventually become a tourist destination. (If you’re interested in visiting, which I highly recommend since it’s absolutely gorgeous, I’ll let you know when the clay houses for guests are finished! Look at my picture on facebook.)

Oh, the host kids. The two older ones were a bit shy at first but the toddler attacked me from the get go. They all awkwardly watched me unpack everything I brought with me, including the mom. Sometimes they make me feel a bit like a freak show but I love them all. They are so excited to have their very own English teacher living in the house and they take full advantage of it. We have English class together almost every night. If not a full class or homework help, we at least read the bilingual book my mother gave me as a Christmas gift before I left called; I Know the River Loves Me. I’m absolutely sick of the book by now but they can’t seem to get enough of it. (Please send more bilingual children’s books if you have a few lying around, there seems to be a major lack of books in this country and I can’t seem to find many here). The kids feel a need to protect me. They always escort me no matter where I go which was a little annoying at first but now I am used to it. They make the most of what they have here. Even though they don’t have a television, or many toys, they are never lacking something to do. They are always off playing with the animals, swimming in the river, helping their dad with his work or taking me on little adventures. It can be a bit difficult to live with a toddler at times. It seems he always wakes up crying no matter what time of the day or night or early in the freaking morning. His favorite words are “Look at me” and “Food.” I swear he eats more than I do and he’s only two.

One last note on Nazarena: There are two mountain peaks in the community called Cerro Viejo and Cerro Trinidad (and I fully plan on climbing them both, hopefully the first this Sunday). As I was pasearing yesterday to the houses furthest out in the community, I found the exact spot where I will build my home if I happen to marry a local and live here forever. We arrived at the house as the sun was beginning to set and I stood there in awe of the view. I had a perfect view of both of the peaks and the amazing valleys between them. I fell even more in love with my community at that moment. Now I just need to make friends with the owner of the land and see if he will sell me a small piece.   

I arrived to the second day of school on a horse. I have since experienced several forms of transportation in order to get to school including a tractor and the back of a pick-up truck. The school is a ways from my house, up and down several large hills and across two rivers. Last week, rainy season decided to come a bit early and had swept away the stone/tree bridge across one of the rivers thus leaving me the only option of forging the river. Which I have had to continue doing since even though the rain has stopped.   

Life and work with the school has been going slowly but surely. The first two weeks I spent mostly observing the English teacher, taking extensive notes in my little Save the Planet notebook (I’m trying to start a trend since I’m so sick of seeing Hannah Montana and Barney notebooks). My teacher is very open to feedback and input. She has only put me on the spot a few times, several of which I tossed right back to her. This week I finally started to teach a bit instead of just pronouncing vocabulary or correcting grammar. I taught numbers one through ten to first graders, physical appearance adjectives to third graders, and pronouns to fourth graders. Next week I have a TPRS inspired lesson on family planned for the second graders. (Fingers crossed I can actually pull it off!)

Speaking of which, the second graders at my school leave me feeling depressed every day. Apparently, they had a bad teacher for first grade and half of them can barely read or write. There are a few very smart girls in the class who pick up English so quickly and finish the assignments before some of the other students have finished writing their names. All of the kids are constantly running around and screaming out. To make matters worse, their current teacher doubles as the director of the school. Unfortunately, this means he has two jobs to complete at the same time. He works hard with the kids but they need a teacher who doesn’t have so many other responsibilities. I hate to think that they will continue to get further and further behind. It also makes teaching English a bit more difficult when I have such huge differences between the students. If anyone has any suggestions on how to balance the different competences or how to help the students pick up reading and writing faster, please let me know.

But overall, I absolutely love my school. I’m finally starting to feel like I am accepted and respected by everyone and it’s only been three weeks. There’s such a laid back atmosphere that drives me crazy some days and other days is exactly the kind of work environment I need. Of course there have been moments when it’s been challenging here. Being so far away from family and friends is hard no matter how much you love your new home. There are some days when I really just want to have a heart to heart in English but since my site doesn’t have cell phone coverage and I have limited time on the internet, it’s been a bit tough to accomplish that. Last weekend, my parents finally figured out Skype and we were able to have a long chat. If anyone else has Skype, send me a note and we can set up a Skype date to chat the next time I can steal the computer room to myself for a few hours.

I miss you all back home a lot and I can’t wait till you all start to visit! My community is always asking about my family and friends back home and I know they will be as welcoming to you as they are to me. (Prepare to gain at least 10 pounds)

Till the next post, take care!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Day 57 - 59

Thank the freaking Lord. My site is one of the most beautiful places imaginable in Panama. It may be only 45 minutes outside the disgusting hell hole that is Chorrera (which I may be starting to enjoy….bad sign) but it is a completely different world up in the rural mountains of Panama. There are stunning views everywhere you look. The houses are sparse in quantity and spread out in a huge valley. The people here are amazing as well. The locals have a physically hard life working on the farms surrounding the community but I have yet to see one without a smile on their face. There is a lot of poverty in the community and most of the houses are made out of wood with rancho style roofs. Some of the families are on welfare but everyone treats each other with respect and friendship. The kids immediately adopted me into their families and made me feel right at home. I feel so lucky that I was assigned to Trinidad de Las Minas.

The Director of the school is a ball of energy, constantly laughing and smiling which makes it kind of hard to understand him. He came to pick me up at CEDESAM in Farallon, Cocle and I instantly liked him. It was hard to get him to have a serious conversation as he just kept repeating, “you’re going to love it.” We didn’t get much accomplished in terms of figuring out my role in the school the first days at the conference but he just seemed so happy to have a volunteer that I didn’t push it. I have a feeling this might be a constant theme during my service. The last night at the three day community entry conference was the same day the earthquake hit Japan and Peace Corps evacuated us inland since we were less than a mile from the beach. It was nice to see Penenome, Cocle for a night but I need to return soon and really explore the town. I’m sure I’ll get the chance since it’s the home of my regional leader and we already have one reunion planned for May.

The Director and I set off for Trinidad de Las Minas in the morning. It was an easy journey from Chorrera that takes less than an hour, only two from Panama City (so no one has an excuse not to visit me!). When I arrived to Minas, we stopped at the Director’s house which is the second nicest house in town (the nicest belonging to the woman who was the school director for 27 years). We immediately ventured off to pasear with the neighbors. When we got to the school, we were greeted by some students, teachers and parents. I gave a little speech on who I was and the director helped me to explain my role in their community. After a quick Chicha break, I got a tour of the school from the “janitor” who is an awesome girl the same age as me.

A little bit later, the Director took me to visit one of my host family options. The padre de la casa is the most adorable old man. He must be at least in his 70s yet he still works out in the fields everyday his body lets him. I can’t understand a word he says so I just smile a lot and he smiles back. The ama de la casa is an equally adorable old woman who I can understand completely. Their daughter used to teach at the school but for reasons I couldn’t determine, no longer works at the school. The granddaughter is in fifth grade at the school. Even though the latrine was a bit intimidating and I will be doing bucket showers while I’m there pretty much out in the open since I’m a good two feet taller than the walls, I think I’m going to love living with their little family. There is another stunning view of the valley right there and they are on the main road making it easy to venture off to Chorrera for a quick shopping trip once I’m no longer prohibited from leaving my site.

On Sunday, the Director and I met up early to walk to the finca before the Panamanian sun hit. Our mission was to visit another host family option who I’ve chosen to be my first family. The main reason behind my decision being that I have to walk for 30 minutes and forge two rivers to get to their house which does not have electricity. A feat that will not be possible once the rains start and the river rises. When you all see the pictures you’ll understand why I chose it. It’s so amazingly beautiful out there and so secluded. The finca is owned by a Swiss man who the locals seem to love since he has brought in a lot of employment and is only using organic processes with everything, from houses made of clay to roads paved with a dirt like substance. The host family is amazing as well. The padre and madre have two small children. The daughter is in third grade while the son is just a toddler. They have horses and cows in their front yard and are constructing a pond out back so they can raise fish. I’m pretty sure they are all under five feet tall. Most of the food they hit comes from what they can grow on the land substituted by of course rice (it wouldn’t be a meal in Panama without rice).

The part of the finca where a large part of the community resides (and who are all related) feels like a jungle trek, which in reality it is. The houses are hidden among the trees, disguised with rancho style (palm tree) roofs. I’ve been told to watch out for snakes so I’ll be sure to stick to daytime visits. The families were all very warm and eager to meet me. While walking up to stranger’s houses and taking a seat to chat for 30 minutes wasn’t very natural at first, I feel like I’m already getting better at it. I think I could completely butcher Spanish and they would still enjoy chatting with me. When I was walking back to the main part of town I actually felt a bit scared that something would go wrong during the next two weeks and I would lose this amazing site (knock on cement). Living on the finca will be a bit of a challenge but it will be completely worth it to meet the people who live out there. Unfortunately I have to do it quickly before rainy season comes!

I ended the weekend eager to embark on my new adventure. Even though I instantly felt the fish bowl effect as I am without a doubt the tallest person in the entire community and the only one with glasses, everyone was so friendly and welcoming that I just might be able to fit in. My site is exactly what I had in mind when I joined Peace Corps. Remote with some modern conveniences (okay so running water and a roof are about the only two) but also a school where I can work with the community in a structured environment. Life here is going to be so different from DC. Not much happens on a daily basis and there are no cell phones or televisions for most of the community. In fact there is no cell phone service, bummer. I’ll get along just fine though. I can’t wait to move there to help the community and really become a part of it too.

I’ll post more on my visit to the school on Monday and Tuesday early next week when I get more computer time! Start planning your trips!

I miss you all muchisma!!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Eventually i'll figure out what day it is...

Apologies again for the late post! It seems I have assimilated rather quickly to the Panamanian way of life…aka a bit slow. And apparently a little too well. Yesterday as I was walking up a hill in Meteti (Darien), a Panamanian actually passed me… I didn’t even realize it until a fellow trainee pointed out to me that my Panamanian “shuffle” is officially slower than real Panamanians. But when you’re living in a tropical country, walking slower than you would think physically possible is a necessity to avoid taking a bath in your own sweat by the time you reach your destination. Particularly in the Darien Jungle, but more on that adventure later.

Back to the exciting news you’ve all been awaiting…my site placement! My community is called Trinidad de las Minas in Panama Oeste! Don’t bother looking on a map, I doubt you will find it. The next closest town is called El Cacao (fingers crossed the town actually has something to do with its name). My community is in the district of Capira, the district right next to where I am currently living. I was a little disappointed at first to find out that my site was so close to La Chorrera and Panama City but I quickly got over that once I realized that it’s up in the mountains! To continue with the theme of laziness, I typed up the info from the site placement letter I received from PC instead of putting it into my own words:

Community and Site Description:
The community of Trinidad de Las Minas is located about two hours from Panama City. There are about 800 community members spread out in the corregimiento. There is electricity and water available in the community as well as cell phone reception. Transportation is available all year round through a paved road. The nearest health center is in Cacao, about 10 minutes by car. The community members mostly live from farming and the rest work in Arraijan, Capira or Chorrera. A few commute to Panama City everyday for work. There was a Volunteer in the community in the late 90s. During our meeting, that included MEDUCA’s Regional English Supervisor, the participants remembered his work and life in the community.

The Trinidad de las Minas local primary school has 125 students with 8 teachers and only one English Teacher to support the education of local children. There is one maestro and the school director that has been living in the community for many years. The school has a computer center but is not connected to the internet yet. The kids are getting some computer instruction which can be complemented with English. It was evident the participation of the parents in supporting the school activities and their children’s education.

Potential Work Focus:
·         Support the English teacher to incorporate new TEFL skills
·         Co-teach and team teach actively
·         Create opportunities for adults English classes
Secondary Activities:
·         Create and develop environmental education practices
·         Organize youth group to start after school programs

In other papers I received, I learned that the water source is “gravity.” I’m eager to figure that one out. In the community there is a Water Committee, Health Group and a Farmer’s Group.  I plan on making friends with the farmers asap so I can accomplish my lifelong dream of owning a horse. In Panama, the saddle actually costs more than the horse itself which runs anywhere from $50 to $200. Maybe I’ll just ride bareback for a while. My site is pretty close to the site I mentioned in my last post, Chica. It was absolutely amazing up there and I’ve got my fingers crossed that my town is similar.

So there you have it, all the details I have so far. Please keep in mind that the above information may all be completely wrong.  I’ll let you know how accurate it is after I venture there for my site visit!

The reason behind my delayed post was that I was off venturing in the Darien Jungle for my technical week. (Okay so technically I skipped out on the jungle hike other trainees took and instead watched local madres play softball while grilling up some food with friends.) I stayed in a town called Meteti just off the Interamericana. The town is surprisingly large and bustling with all sorts of people including a lot of indigenous families.

The trip had a bit of a rough start. After a short welcome session, Heather and I went off to meet our new host madre for the week. She was a wonderful women but just wasn’t quite ready for guests. Heather and I walked into our bedroom which was also used for rice storage. The bunk bed was covered with stuff and as we started to move it off, we discovered ants, larva and cockroaches everywhere. We were ready to tough it out and went off to the chino to buy bug spray and rope for our mosquito nets but luckily ran into the amazing PCV who hosted us that week and she moved us into other houses.

I ended up moving into the “frat house” which consisted of seven PCTs picked to live under one roof and have their lives taped. Okay I’m kidding but moments did feel a bit like an episode of the Real World. At least it ended up being an entertaining week together. My madre Maria was an amazing cook and my padre Carlos, was, well, words can’t really describe him. He was possibly the cutest, creepy old man I’ve ever met. His flirting was just so adorable, especially when he threatened to tie up a PCT under the table like a dog so she couldn’t leave. He greeted us each morning with either a military salute or a hug and a kiss on the forehead.  One night for dinner we had a Panamanian delicacy, iguana. Even though it is technically illegal to eat it, the locals here do so a couple times a year. Honestly it tasted pretty funky and I think I’ll be saying, “No, thanks,” next time but balls to the wall right?

I spent the week working at a small primary school in Sanson, an insanely small town further up the road towards Colombia. The school only had about 50 students and 3 teachers. In Panama, Carnaval is a huge freaking deal. Apparently so huge that the majority of students don’t even show up to school till after its over which meant that the school of 50 was only a school of about 20 the week we were there.  I still had a really great time learning from one of the teachers and finally getting to see and understand the inner workings of a Panamanian school. My fellow PCTs and I had a few bumps in our English lessons but in the end the kids were amazing and I came away with a better understanding of the impact I can have on my community.

Later this week I will be traveling to my site for the first time! A guide from my community will meet me near Chorrera for two days and then will take me back to my site. I’ll be there for about five days meeting the teachers and potential host families along with whoever else I get the chance to “pasear” with while I’m there. To be honest, I’m a bit nervous to finally see my site. I’m working with only one English teacher and there is a lot riding on this relationship. I’m ready for the challenges that I’ll face in the next two years but it’s intimidating to finally go and see what my life will be like while I’m living in Panama.

One last thing, I received news this week that a woman who inspired me to join Peace Corps passed away this week. We never got the chance to embark on our big idea together but I will never forget her. I will always keep in her mind as a true example of perseverance and dedication to others in this world. I only hope that I can make such a difference in the world like she did during her life. You will be missed.