Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 in Review

Whew, what a year!  Between college graduation, joining the Peace Corps and moving to a new country, 2013 has been packed with challenges, blessings, and most of all, change.  Though it's quite cliche, I couldn't help but post a photo recap of 2013; it was a great year! 
I rung in the New Year in January with a trip to Missouri to celebrate with Natalie, Lisa, and Jess, three wonderful friends I made while studying abroad in 2011.  I'm so blessed to have friends like them, and am anxiously awaiting their trip to Panama.  * Hear that, guys?* 

In February, I made my most momentous decision thus far- I accepted an invitation to join the Peace Corps in Panama!  

With the coming of March I got an awful sunburn and an incredible 6 days when my dad gifted me an early graduation present- a Spring break trip to Mexico!  A relaxing week of fun and sunshine was just what my stressed-out, pre-graduation self needed, and the opportunity to practice my Spanish made me more excited than ever for my upcoming move to Panama. 

April was filled with exams and a final push at school- quite a feat with 20 credits, a part-time job and an internship!  However, I did get a nice surprise when I found out that the McKenna School faculty had selected me for the 2013 ACBSP Leadership award.  

After four years of hard work, packed extra-curricular calendars, and unforgettable memories with friends, in May I graduated from Saint Vincent College with a Major in Marketing and Minors in Spanish and International Business.  How did four years go by so fast?! 

Over a year after initially submitting my application, in June I packed my bags, said goodbye to family and friends, and moved to Panama to begin Agri-business training in the Peace Corps.

In July I stuffed my brain full of information on Panamanian agriculture and spent more than four hours studying Spanish each day as part of our rigorous training program.  I also got to spend a week visiting a current volunteer in Bocas del Toro, where I completely fell in love with what would turn out to be my future home province.  Unfortunately, July is also when the honeymoon phase ended and I came face to face with some of the many challenges I would spend my next two years living with.  Mom and Dad, thanks for talking me through everything… even if it did send your phone bill through the roof.  

August was another month of excitement as I swore in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer (and gave a speech at the embassy while I was at it!)  That also meant that I finally got to head to my new home and begin work in a small village in Bocas del Toro, Panama.  Oh, and I adopted a puppy.  He's pretty much the cutest thing ever. 

September was tough.  Though it likely never seemed that way on my Facebook account, I had a really hard time integrating and those few weeks without friends, confidants, or even anyone who could speak my language were rough.  It probably would have also been easier if I hadn't been dropping weight and dealing with side effects from not receiving decent nutrition.  Thankfully, those moments are all in the past!  

In October the unsanitary water around my house at the time led to a nasty bacterial infection on my arms, leg, and hip.  After reporting to my boss about what our regional leader referred to as "the grossest thing" she had seen in her entire three years, I got permission to move into my own house over a month early!  The move did wonders for my morale and it wasn't long at all before my neighbors happily pointed out that I was gaining some of my weight back.  Thanks? 

Though it will always be hard for me to celebrate the holidays away from my family, in November I got to spend several days enjoying Thanksgiving with volunteers from all over Panama.  As part of the newest group in country, it was great to meet more of the 250 volunteers here, and the Thanksgiving feast we prepared was every bit as delicious as Tennessee meals.  If only I could've gotten my hands on some leftovers…  Work wise November was another big month for me since my boss flew in from Panama City to attend my Community Analysis presentation.  

And finally, here we are closing out the year in December.  It's been a busy month and I was able to host two different programs during the first two weeks of the month- a cocoa grafting seminar and a children's Christmas Party.  Despite constantly playing Christmas music in my house, the warm, sunny days made it hard to feel like Christmas was coming.  It did come though, and even better, it brought my dad in with it!  We spent a few days in Boquete enjoying the cooler weather and even cooking a nice Christmas dinner.  After that, I'll be giving him a much better introduction to my village, and then it's off to the island in the first of 2014.  

I hope all of you had a happy, successful 2013 and carry that with you into the New Year.  As always, thank you for your prayer and support!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Christmas in Panama

A Winter Wonderland, decked out with Christmas decorations?  I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas (And am definitely, definitely not getting one) is more like it.  It's certainly different to spend December in a hot, tropical climate, and even with Christmas carols on loop in my house, it just never felt the same.  

Even though I may not have experienced the typical Christmas setting, my dad more than made up for it with a visit to Panama.  Though we'll be spending most of his visit in my site, we decided to take a few days break and return to modern conveniences with a short trip to Boquete, Chiriqui. 

Before leaving though, we had a little Christmas party for the kids in my village.  The turnout was amazing- nearly 70 people! Though maybe I should have known since I was offering free food and gift bags…

With cool weather, hot showers, and bountiful coffee, Boquete was a welcome break for us.  Though we briefly talked about going to a nice restaurant for Christmas dinner, we I quickly realized there was no way I could ignore the beautiful kitchen appliances at our disposition.  Thus, a home-made Christmas dinner was born.  

My dad was surprised that I brought my little tree along, though I'm not sure why.

It's amazing how much more tranquil I am about travel when I know I'll be living in the country for at least another year and a half.  Whereas Pre-Peace Corps me would have planned a full schedule of activities, restaurant visits, and photo ops, Dad and I took a calmer route and settled for a coffee tour and time to simply relax.  It was a great way to spend the holiday, and we were even able to attend Christmas mass, a tradition I'm glad I didn't have to miss out on.  

Friday, December 27, 2013

Dad's in Panama!

Before I even left the States my dad started talking about a Christmas visit to Panama, and spending hours discussing our trip over the phone was  one of the main boosts that got me through those first few months. Finally, exactly six months since I left home, my dad arrived in Panama!

We had heard that flying in through Costa Rica and then taking the 6 hour bus to Bocas del Toro would be a better and cheaper option than flying into Panama City and taking the 10 hour overnight bus.  While the flight itself was cheaper, I think it's safe to say he'll be spending the extra $150-$200 to fly directly into Bocas in the future.  When you consider a multiple nights in a hotel due to late flights, early busses, and over seven hours waiting in line to pay a $7 tourist tax, the Costa Rican entry added several hundred dollars to his trip and took away 3 nights and 4 days he could have been here.  

Regardless, he finally arrived, safe and sound, and after picking him up in town we headed straight to my village.  Even though I didn't need anyone to convince me what a cool place I live in, seeing Panama, and especially my day-to-day life, through my dad's eyes has given me a whole new appreciation for all of the things and people that make up my new village and home country.  

In the first few days we mainly relaxed and enjoyed each other's company, but we also visited a few of my neighbors, one of whom sold my dad this intricate hand-made hammock for only $20.  He was pretty excited.  

After spending a few days adjusting to village life (and realizing that when I say not to use to much shower water, I mean it), my dad and I left my little house and empty water tank and headed to the mountains of Boquete for Christmas.  To be honest, I'm not sure who was more excited about a few days of hot showers and internet, but my money's on myself.  What can I say? Sometimes you just need to feel clean and check Facebook in bed.  

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Time for a Facelift!

A blog facelift that is.  Please excuse the frequently changing and or slightly off design for the next little while as I try to navigate design and Panamanian internet!  

P.S. I'm looking to update the color scheme and header, potentially with some of the options below.  Thoughts?

Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Time for Thanks

Develop an attitude of gratitude, and give thanks for everything that happens to you, knowing that every step forward is a step toward achieving something bigger and better than your current situation.
- Brian Tracy

I’ve always been aware that I was blessed to have what I did: a healthy family, wonderful friends, and material possessions.  However, until this year I never would have thought to give thanks for the simpler things in life- a bed, access to an education, medical care, ease of communication, and even to have been born in a nation where many of these things are simply a given.

In the past six months my “normal” has shifted.  In my town there is no electricity, no internet, no health care center, and no high school.  There is no variety in available foods, and there are many times the only things people have to eat are the bananas they grow on their farm.  I can’t call my parents whenever I want, I don’t have a bathroom, and I have no bed.    

While it’s certainly tough to wake up to this new normal everyday, it has also given me a much broader perspective, of which I am so thankful for. 

This year I’m still thankful for my family, friends, and the support they are constantly giving me.  But I’m also thankful for all of those little things- a few moments of signal to call home, an air mattress so that I don’t have to sleep on the floor, and community members who invite me into their house and don’t hesitate to share what little they have.  

I'm also grateful for the opportunity to spend this past week surrounded by 200 other Panamanian Peace Corps volunteers in the beautiful Cerro Punta, Chiriqui.  Our group rented out a mountain lodge (Los Quetzales, which I highly recommend!) cooked a true American Thanksgiving meal, and soaked in each other's company (and the hot water showers...)  

After this refreshing week filled with food, cold weather, and beautiful scenery, I feel refreshed and am looking forward to the next few weeks- my dad arrives in mid December and after that I have several projects lined up to keep me busy until Springtime.  

As always, thank you, thank you, thank you for all of your words of encouragement and support.  You guys make all the hard days so much easier!

Friday, November 29, 2013

Community Analysis: Complete

As I had previously mentioned, I had never put much thought or research into Peace Corps before applying at the last minute- quite atypical behavior for me.  Thankfully though, the more I learned about Peace Corps and its approach to international development- both before I left the US and after I arrived in Panama- the happier I am to be a part of the program.  

In my opinion, one of the main reasons Peace Corps has flourished the way it has is because Volunteers are expected to really get to know and understand their communities before starting projects or applying for any aid.  This not only helps us to create more sustainable projects, but also ensures we are working to improve aspects of the community in which there is not only an evident need but also a widespread desire to improve.  Both of these aspects are crucial in development work.  

As a framework for getting to know our communities, we use the PACA (Participatory Analysis for Community Action) tools.  Essentially, we research a variety of aspects of community life and culture, and then present what we learned in a community wide meeting in which we also facilitate a SWAT (Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis and community action plan.  

Obviously, this is a pretty big undertaking.  To add to the already big occasion, our program director travels all the way from Panama City to personally attend each community meeting and talk to community members about our progress so far.  Needless to say, I was pretty stressed in the days leading up to my meeting.  Would people come?  Would they agree with what I had to say and voice their opinions during the project planning session?  

Since personal interaction is culturally expected in smaller Panamanian communities, I spent several weeks visiting every single family in my community with personal invitations to the meeting.  Thanks to this (and also potentially to food bribery) I had a great turnout of nearly 30 people!  That's almost 30% of my community, and a huge number considering that some people had to hike an hour to arrive in town.  

I was also really happy with how the project planning turned out.  They identified multiple community weaknesses they want to work on including the lack of group organization and financial planning, and poor plantation management.  

All of this considered, it looks like I have my hands full for the next few months.  Now here's hoping that their motivated attitudes will stick!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Chocolate Day

Carly leading the financial loss activity

The first few months of Peace Corps service are mostly spent getting to know your community members and learning what activities have the potential to work and which ones you shouldn't waste your time on.  Although I've loved taking it slow for awhile, I am SO excited to really get to work and start planning activities.  

Counting damaged cocoa pods for a cost analysis activity

Other than my community analysis meeting,  my first actual activity was what I´ve been referring to as "Chocolate Day."  It just so happens that the national Cocoa Coordinator is a neighboring volunteer, and she is awesome.  Of course, this made it that much easier to plan a full day´s worth of activities revolving around chocolate.  Have I mentioned recently that I love my job?

A few of the producers that were present...

And my pup, who is always present.

In the morning, Carly talked with a group of producers about small steps they can take to produce higher yields and improve their cocoa.  Since I´m focusing on the business aspect of things, we also completed a little activity to find out how much money a particular farmer was losing due to a controllable fungus.  The results were astounding- Over $2,000!  

Although Carly had to leave shortly after our producers´ meeting to get back to her site, we continued the day with a baking class where we made brownies over a fogon- essentially a campfire type set-up that the majority of families use to cook with.

Some of the baking class attendees

Using only locally available ingredients, we made some prettttty awesome dulces if I do say so myself.  Shortly after reaching for brownie #3 (or was it 4...) I realized that the attendees were being polite and holding back.  Once I guiltily told them to pack some for their families though, it was like flies to a lightbulb.  Though it was certainly a fun activity for the local women, I´m really trying to organize activities like this to also empower them and encourage them to think about alternatives to simply selling their cocoa beans unprocessed.  After all, what tourist wouldn´t want a delicious, locally produced fudgey brownie?

Watching as these kids discovered the delicious world of brownie batter= Priceless

I would include pictures of our brownies... but they didn´t last that long :)