Tuesday, September 20, 2016

I am Geli: How the Peace Corps Changed Me

When I first moved to my little town in Panama, the community came together to pick a Ngöbe name for me.  After some debate, a name was finally chosen and I became "Geli Quigavo" for the two years I lived in the village.  Although it took a little getting used to, before long I was easily introducing myself by my new name and even began to identify as "Geli" just as much as I had ever identified by my given name, "Abby."

When I left my site for the very last time,  I almost cried when one of my best friends, Virginia, said to me, "Now you won't be Geli anymore, will you?"  At the time, all I could think about was how much I was losing by leaving this way of life and these people who I had come to view as family. 
I was so excited to finally be going home and starting the next chapter of my life, but I was brokenhearted at the thought of everything-and everyone- that I was leaving behind... including Geli. 

However, the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that while she's partially right in that I will no longer hear that name called out to me, I will always be Geli Quigavo.

Geli is strong, both mentally and physically.  She's not afraid of hard work, and is not above any type of manual labor (though if we're honest, she's probably always going to be happier in the kitchen).  
She knows the value of community, and devotes time to building hers up.  

Geli knows that strangers are just friends you haven't met yet, and that relationships are built on asking people about their lives and genuinely caring what they have to say.  She understands the value in putting herself out there in order to start those relationships, and that a few minutes of awkwardness is well worth the friendships that can come from introducing yourself and starting a conversation.  

Geli loves to travel, but she knows that every town is someone's home, and has learned that just getting to know people and spending time with them (especially when cooking/food is involved) is just as good, if not better, than visiting any tourist attraction.

Geli thinks about the future and makes plans, but she knows that life happens.  When last minute changes pop up, whether it be a roadblock stopping your bus or being asked to lead a workshop starting right now, she'll make it work.  She knows that little things are just that- little things, and if you can't change them, they're no use stressing about.  

I became Geli when I lived in my rural Panamanian village, but I'm not leaving her there.  As Geli, I became a stronger, kinder, and better person.  I learned important lessons that will stay with me for the rest of my life, and now whenever a new friend asks my name and my story, I will tell them about Geli and the people that have built her into me.  

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A Post-Peace Corps Career

Life as a Peace Corps volunteer can be weird for many reasons, but one of the principal ones for me was knowing that everything had an expiration date.  Ever since the beginning of my service I knew the exact day I would be, all at once, unemployed and internationally relocated away from my friends and community.  When you first move to site, that day feels like a million years away, but, poco a poco, that day marches closer and closer until all of the sudden you’re only a few weeks away from COS (Close of Service.)

Though my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer made me a much more relaxed person overall (Once you spend three years waiting on meetings and public transportation that almost never start on time, there’s really no way not to be more relaxed…), deep down I still feel a sense of satisfaction and relief from having a plan, especially when it comes to my career.  

The great news is, Peace Corps can be great for your career and you actually can plan your next steps and even find your future job while still in your country of service.  

I served as a PCV in Panama from June 2013- August 2016 and signed my dream job offer in May of 2016 (to start in September of that year).  Here’s how I did it:

  • My program was extremely relevant to my desired career path- I studied Marketing and International Business in college and worked as an Agribusiness volunteer in Panama from 2013-2015.  My main focus was teaching basic business and financial management practices to cocoa farmers (I always joked that the only way I’d like working in agriculture was if it involved chocolate!), though as is typical in Peace Corps, I worked on a variety of projects including youth development camps, women’s empowerment seminars, and teaching techniques to improve the quality of cocoa.  You will never in your life have as much freedom to design your workday as you will in the Peace Corps, and I encourage you to take advantage of it.  It’s easy to sit around and add 100 books to your reading list, but that’s not going to help your people or your career. 
  • I extended for a third year- I chose to extend my service a third year and work as the Regional Leader of the Darien province from 2015-2016.  There were so many benefits to extending and I highly encourage it, but the main reasons I extended were added leadership and coordination responsibilities, the ability to travel more, and the chance to move to an area with amenities (internet!) while still living in Panama.  
  • I made a plan- Marketing is such a broad field that I knew I needed a niche in which I could both be happy and best market my Peace Corps experience.  Once I thought about it, it was simple- I love business, I love food, and I worked with cocoa farmers… food marketing!  Food marketing is still a broad field though, and my goal here was to narrow down to the perfect spot for me, so I kept going.  Keeping my personal preferences and experience as a PCV in mind, I knew that I would be a great all-around team player for a small company or startup in which I could have a big impact, that I valued working for a “good” company with a strong mission, and that I would love to work for a company that practices international direct trade (buying straight from the producers and cutting out middlemen), specifically in the chocolate industry.  So there we had it- a small chocolate shop that buys at least part of their beans direct from the source.  That’s about as niche’d as you can get, but with my experience I really felt like it was worth it to pursue potential jobs in that field.  
  • I used free time in year 3 to network- Having internet at my house was really what made all of this possible.  I spent hours upon hours researching chocolate makers that bought beans directly from the source (which is actually much rarer than you would expect as almost all chocolate shops instead skip a few steps and buy coverture- essentially pre-made chocolate chips- which they then melt down and mix with various ingredients to make fancier chocolates.) I narrowed my already small list down to locations I’d be willing to live and ended up with about 5 places I was seriously interested in working and checked to see if they were hiring- only one was.  Though I obviously wanted a job, more than anything I wanted to talk to people- some places may not be hiring, but may have great advice and contact info for a different place I didn’t even know about.  Keeping that in mind, I used LinkedIn to find 5 or 6 people who I felt like would be great contacts.  I reached out to them with a short but personalized message and got a response from all but one! Though most of them didn’t have a job opening, reaching out via LinkedIn proved to be extremely useful.  In addition to just making more connections, I had the opportunity to talk with multiple business owners and Skype with the sourcing manager for a very well-known bean-to-bar chocolate maker to learn more about the industry.  Best of all- it turned out that two of the business owners offered me a job (though only one had an opening posted online). 
  • I turned down the job that wasn’t right for me- This one was really hard.  As a Peace Corps volunteer, no work sounds like too much work and any salary sounds like a million dollars.  So when I received my first job offer, I was ecstatic.  It was right in my niche of direct-trade, bean-to-bar chocolate makers, and I felt like it was wrong to turn down something that sounded so much like what I wanted.  However, as much as I hate to admit this, I really had to analyze my cost-of-living and work-life balance.  When I did that, I realized that the job actually wasn’t the right fit for me.  Though I eventually turned it down, talking with the company was still a great experience and I hope to meet them at an industry event down the road.  
  • I used technology to my full benefit- Sure, it is much harder to find a job when you’re abroad than when you’re already state-side, but it is totally doable with today’s technologies.  I used LinkedIn to contact employers and potential mentors, I interviewed via Skype and Facetime, and I signed my contract on an Adobe pdf. 
  • I acknowledged my challenges-  Though technology was essential for my job search, it also gave me so many headaches.  There was the time that my background noise was so loud (thank you, road construction outside my house) that the person I was skyping with asked me to mute myself when not talking, or the time I tried to avoid that background noise by shutting myself in a room with no fans and ended up very obviously sweating through my nice “skyping blouse,” and there was, of course, the moment when my wifi mysteriously went out TWO MINUTES before a scheduled interview.  You can plan all you want, but as we say, Panama happens.  From the very beginning, I was honest with my contacts about where I was and the potential technological problems I had no way of fixing.  It may have felt like I was failing miserably, but you know what- they understood.  
Getting my post-Peace Corps job while still living abroad was hard, but it was so worth it.  I was able to finish my last few months of service without the stress of the unknown and was able to negotiate for a later start date so that I could spend time with my family and friends before moving to my new town.  Though the job search will be different for everyone depending on your background and desired career path, I hope my experience can help give some insight and ease your worries.  If you're a PCV or potential PCV and would like to talk more about job searching post-Peace Corps, send me an email at abbyexplores@gmail.com.  I love Peace Corps, I'm really excited about my new job, and I'm more than happy to talk about them!  

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Next Up: Atlanta

After three years with Peace Corps Panama, I'm finally back in the United States and excited for what's next... Moving to Atlanta!

While I was hoping to stay in the Southeast, where I moved post-Peace Corps depended completely on where I could find a great job.  I wanted to work in a pretty niche industry (marketing and business development for a direct trade, bean-to-bar chocolate maker), and I'm so, so happy to have found exactly that here in Atlanta.  

Starting in mid-September, I'll be the Marketing and Sales Coordinator for Xocolatl, a local bean-to-bar chocolate maker.  For the first few weeks I'll be getting to know all about their chocolates and chocolate making process by working in the first retail location in the Krog Street Market.  After that, I'm happy to put my marketing experience to use to help grow the business through restaurant and retail partnerships.  

I really like working with the many different aspects of marketing and business development and enjoy being able to be productive with a variety of projects, so I'm especially looking forward to working in a small business environment.  To be able to have all of that AND within the exact niche market I was looking for means that I'm pretty much over-the-moon about this new job.  

Thanks to Facebook, I also found a pretty sweet house-sitting gig from now-the end of November.  So, in exchange for taking care of two sweet little cats, I have free rent for my first three months of Atlanta living.  

Those rent-free months will certainly come in handy as I have yet another big change- I bought a car! I had been debating on trading in my pre-Peace Corps car, but had yet to come to a decision when it was made for me- My car was totaled in a wreck a few weeks before I came home.  Though thankfully everyone is ok, the car was definitely not and I embarked on a uber-thorough internet search of safe, great-value cars.  The day after I arrived home from Panama my dad and I test drove the Subaru Forester and I fell in love.  

So, there you have it.  I'm home from Peace Corps and in a short few weeks my new Subaru will be taking me to Atlanta to start work at a chocolate shop!  I'm not yet certain about the long-term future of this blog, but since I enjoyed sporadic blogging before Peace Corps, I'll be continuing to write over the coming months.  I may not be able to post about my life in Panama anymore, but you can bet I still love to talk about Peace Corps, travel, chocolate, and my little Panamanian pup, Massy.  

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Closing Service and Coming Home

There were times I thought this day would never come, but after 1,134 days in Panama, I'm finally home! I COS'ed (Close of Service) last Thursday, August 11, and am now officially a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.

Since I had already transitioned out of my community and into a more developed site for my third year extension, I mistakenly underestimated the emotions I would be experiencing during my last week in Panama.

On one hand, I was ecstatic for leaving Panama and moving on- I was going to have a few weeks off for much needed family time, and I'd also be buying a computer and car before moving to an awesome city to start an incredible job.  On the other, I was leaving a country that had become home to me.  I love speaking Spanish everyday, buying cheap street food, traveling for work, and being a part of the amazing work that Peace Corps does in Panama.

Atlanta will be great and my new job will be great, but it won't be anything like Peace Corps.

I'm excited and I'm sad, but I know that this is the right time to see what's next.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Guatape and La Piedra de Peñol

Very few places look exactly as they do in Pinterest photographs, but Guatape (the town) and La Piedra del Peñol (the giant rock) are definitely two of them.  A short hour and a half bus ride from Medellin, this is the perfect day trip.  The 740 step climb is more than worthwhile for the views you'll be rewarded with, and afterwards reward yourself with a bandeja paisa for lunch.  The bandeja paisa is typical for the region and boasts a whopping array of rice, beans, ground meat, fried pork rind, sausage, fried egg, potato salad, avocado, sweet plantain, and an arepa. It may be a lot, but surely you've earned it after those stairs ;)

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Beauty and Food at the Medellin Botanical Garden

I don't think it'll surprise anyone that Peace Corps volunteers can be some of the best budget travelers around, so when looking for activities in Medellin I had three questions in mind: Is it easily accessible, free (or a good value), and, perhaps most importantly, is there good food nearby?  

After a leisurely breakfast with our AirBnB host family, we took the metro right up to the Botanical gardens (easily accessible- check). All areas are free and open to the public everyday (free!), and we were surprised to stumble upon the best meal we would eat from our entire trip (the best food).

The sprawling gardens are planned into multiple different themes ranging from dessert beauty to swampland, an orchid garden, and even a butterfly enclosure.  You can also find a gift-shop, a small cafe, the amazing Situ restaurant, and even tree nurseries and greenhouses offering plants for purchase.  

When we walked by Situ, we were sure it would be out of our price range.  This is the type of restaurant that's incredibly gorgeous on its own, featuring an open floor plan so that patrons can enjoy the beautiful gardens and fountains in the midst of Medellin's perfect Spring weather.  However, thanks to the strength of the American dollar during our visit, we realized that this was exactly the sweet, sit down meal we were looking for.  

Most of the items of the menu were locally sourced, and many of the fruits, vegetables, and herbs even came from right there at the Botanical gardens.  After we spent a fair amount of time trying not to drool over our options (this was not the type of restaurant for that), we finally decided to start out with two appetizers- a plate of homemade cheese, fried and served over a mixed berry compete, and a coconut lobster soup.  Though I tried to convince my friend to get something different than me so that I could try two different things, we both ended up getting their specialty salad- local greens served with mango, serrano ham, feta cheese, green apple, pecans, tomatoes, sesame seeds, and rose petals.  Every dish was just as amazing as it sounds and still only came out to just under $30 USD.  Where else can you get a deal like that?

Friday, May 20, 2016

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena was hot, beautiful, kind, and oh so tasty.  

After spending a long night in the Medellin airport, we finally arrived to the beautiful historic district where we would be staying in Cartagena.  Our noses and rumbling bellies quickly led us to a corner bakery where we were all too pleased to learn that the local people are especially skilled in baking delicious, mouth-watering delicacies.  The only way we were able to choose between the cheesy breads, overstuffed empanadas, sweet croissants, and unidentifiable rolls of beauty was by promising ourselves we would get something new each day (or in our case, multiple times a day...) As we were waiting on the staff to make our freshly squeezed juices, I couldn´t help but ask the man sitting beside us what he had chosen.  Not only did he explain some of the local specialties to us, he even offered to split half of his breakfast with me so that I could try it!  Little did we realize that that man was just the beginning in an incredible show of hospitality (and amazing food) that we would experience in Colombia.  

We spent a decent majority of our time wandering the streets of Cartagena´s historic district, which is filled with boutique shops, restaurants, and artisan vendors.  Despite being an obvious tourist spot, most of the prices were extremely reasonable- another welcome surprise!

Once we felt like we had had our fill of shopping and street food, we ventured over to Convento de la Popa, a Catholic convent on the edge of town dating back to the early 1600´s.  It was the perfect place to watch the sunset over the city and a perfect ending to the first half of our trip.