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.