Friday, July 19, 2013

I Eat like a Panamanian... kind of

One of my favorite ways to get to know a culture is through its food, and so far Panama has been no exception.  Though there do seem to be a few regional twists, there are definitely some common threads throughout the country, one of which being rice.  Never in my life have I consumed a food item as often or in such high quantities as I have rice in the past month…

Rice is usually served with a meat, and don’t be surprised if it also comes with a side of locally grown plantains.  At my house we have plantains one of two ways: As patacones, which are salty, fried rounds that taste kind of like fried potatoes, or as maduros, which is when the ripened plantains are fried with sugar to make a very sweet banana type of dish. 

99% of the time my meal is 100% beige. 

The households in my community eat almost no vegetables other than typical starchy roots such as ñame, ñampe, otoe, and potatoes.  Though I eat a ton of fruit, it’s all stuff I find on the ground thanks to the bountiful tropical fruit trees.  So far I’ve feasted on passion fruits, sour sops, mangos, mimones, bananas, coconuts, oranges, and at least two unknown varieties.  That part is pretty awesome. 

The locals do seem to take advantage of the fruits enough to use their juices to make chichas and duros.  Chicha is a sweetened juice drink make with juice, water, sugar, and potentially other added flavors.  Chicha also seems to be very commonly shared with neighbors or visitors, so I’ve been having a lot of it!  Pineapple, passion fruit, orange, and agua de maiz (make this “corn water” by using the water left over after boiling corn, and adding milk, sugar, and vanilla) have all been fairly common.  Duros are frozen little bags of chicha that make popsicles!  Obviously I love these…

Since I feel like I’ve been eating way less healthy than I did in the United States, I fully expected to gain a few pounds, especially with all of our meals freshly fried prepared for us.  Oddly enough, just the opposite has happened, and thankfully it’s not even because I’ve been sick (knock on wood!)  I guess those long, hot days in the fields are to thank for that. 

It took me weeks of convincing (And sneaking food to the dog) to get my rice down to this manageable portion.

Though I have to admit that it’s nice to come home to a fully prepared meal, I am really looking forward to cooking for myself and experimenting with all of the local foods.  Because I’ll be spending the first 3 months in my site with another host family, though, it looks like I’ll have plenty of time to collect recipes.  If you have any favorites that don’t require refrigerated ingredients, be sure to send them my way! 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Honeymoon Phase (Is Over)

Life is full of sad and/or difficult moments, and that’s part of what makes it life.  To portray only the happy things is to show only a portion of what’s actually there, and because I want this blog to be as complete of a picture as possible about what life is like for me as a volunteer in Panama, I want to share the sad parts too. 

The first few weeks in country were pretty much 100% happiness and excitement for me.  With all of the great things that were happening, it was like there wasn’t even room for any negative emotions.  Obviously that couldn’t last forever though, and the other day everything that was bothering me finally piled up.  On top of multiple other things going on at home and in Panama, my dog died unexpectedly, my brand new camera broke, termites joined the motley crew currently living in my room and ate my brand new book, AND I accidentally told my host mother that I was completely okay with having stomach for dinner (which she promptly delivered on). 

In 24 hours I went from being the happiest I have been in a long time to crying while walking myself to class; talk about a complete 360.  Ironically, the same day that everything dropped on me like a bag of bricks, our afternoon training session was focused on dealing with stressors and emotional setbacks.  The session was actually really helpful, and it reminded me that while it’s okay to be upset sometimes, it’s how you deal with it and move forward that really matters. 

The only slightly discouraging thing I learned was that we’re still considered to be in the “Honeymoon Phase,” and that I’m likely going to feel much more lonely and discouraged in a few weeks when I become the only English-speaking person in my remote Panamanian village.   When you’re depressed, there’s certainly nothing like being told that it’s going to get worse…

That being said, the challenges, emotional and otherwise, are what make Peace Corps such a difficult and yet incredibly rewarding job.  One of my main reasons for moving to Panama was to really push myself: physically, emotionally, and professionally.  I have no doubt that this experience will do all of those things, and that I will COS and return to the States two years from now as a stronger and better person. 

Thank you all for your love and support.  And to my mom: Yes, I am still 100% positive that I want to be here, termites and all :) 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Chocolate Grows on Trees and I got to Work with Them.

As part of our Pre-Service Training Program, each future volunteer is matched with a current volunteer in their sector and spends a week getting to know what life is like as a volunteer.  

For my volunteer visit, I got to go to a small indigenous village in Bocas del Toro, Panama.  The volunteer I was matched with works in improving cacao production and management among farmers in her town, but she also works with tons of other projects in education and agri-business. 

Elementary school boys using machetes to clear space for a school garden

Getting to her site was a little rough.  From Panama City we took a 7 hour bus ride to Davíd, where Peace Corps had a hotel room for us (Air conditioning!  Internet!  Running water!).  After a relaxing night there, we had another 3.5 hour bus ride before meeting the volunteer for a 40 minute super strenuous hike uphill to the village.   

The view from my volunteer's house

The people there are Ngobe-Bugle, an indiginous group that speaks both Spanish and their traditional language- Ngäbere.  It was really cool to hear them go back and forth in between the languages, and I'd love to learn Ngäbere if I were to get placed in an indigenous site!  

While I was there we worked on building a school garden and also helped a local cacao farmer take inventory of the trees in his finca.  Basic concepts like inventory and record keeping aren't always utilized among low-income farmers in Panama, so teaching them to implement these important tasks can make a huge difference.  For example, the farmer we worked with estimated that he had 600 cacao trees, but after counting them we realized that he only had about 350.  Without a proper inventory count, any budgeting and planning he does would be completely off.  

The local elementary school

Cacao Trees

Cacao pods and the fresh chocolate that her neighbors brought us 

Our advisor will be meeting with us over the next few weeks to process our visits and understand what we like and don't like so that she can place us in sites that we can be productive and happy in.  I'm really excited to see where I'll be spending the next two years, and after this visit I'll definitely be crossing my fingers for Bocas!  

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Panama City Adventure

Last weekend we had a scavenger hunt assignment in downtown Panama City so that we could orient ourselves to the nation's capital.  After completing a few random tasks such as finding the hospital, Peace Corps approved hotel, and an awesome ice cream parlor, we had free time in the city. 

Panama is definitely a business city, and it was a little hard to figure out where to go at first.  After some time deliberating, my group decided to split a taxi ride to Casco Viejo- the historic downtown.  

While Casco Viejo was Panama's main city in years past, after the canal was built in the late 1800s/early 1900s, Panama City moved to it's current location.  After that, Casco Viejo became pretty run down and lost its charm, but there is currently a renovation project aimed at restoring the area and bringing back its historic beauty.  

Casco Viejo is definitely a tourist place now, but there are still run down buildings and areas scattered about.  

Overall, Panama City was a fun day trip, especially since we got to enjoy some first world pleasures like air conditioning and ice in our drinks!  

Monday, July 1, 2013

Peace Corps Panama Pre-Service Training


Before I and the rest of Group 73 can be sworn in as Peace Corps Volunteers, we have to go through a pretty intense 9 week training program referred to as PST (Pre-Service Training).  Though there’s no way we can learn everything we need to know for the next two years, PST is filled with language classes, technical training, field trips, and other random training sessions to provide us with a pretty solid foundation.   

Mas o menos, Saturdays and Sundays are for field trips and free time while Monday-Friday are full of trainings and classes.  Usually class days go something like this:

3:30 am: Roosters start crowing
6:30 am: Get tired of listening to the roosters and finally get up
7:30 am: Breakfast 
8 am-12 pm: Spanish Class
12 pm- 1 pm: Lunch with our host families
1pm- 5 pm: Technical Training (Tropical agriculture, project planning, agri-business)
5:30ish: Dinner with host families
6 pm-7 pm: Hang out with other PCTs and local kids
7 pm: Bucket shower in the last few minutes before it gets dark
8 pm-9 pm: Homework, reading, games on my iPod
9ish: Bedtime.  Yes, seriously.  


We were given a calendar overview of training a few days ago, and it looks like there are some pretty cool things coming up. 

Next week (Week 2) I’ll be spending four days shadowing a volunteer who works on a cacao plantation in a gorgeous region called Bocas del Toro, which I doubt I could be anymore excited about. Chocolate is pretty much my favorite thing ever. 

Then during week 4 we’ll be traveling back to Bocas del Toro as a group for Tech Week, during which we’ll get to practice all of the agriculture techniques we’ve been learning.  We’ll also get specialized training in the production, management, and business of specific Panamanian staple crops like coffee, cacao, and plantains. 

Finally, after hearing our site placements (where we will be working for the next two years!) in Week 6, we’ll each spend week 7 in our future village getting to know our future co-workers, host families, and community members. 

Then we’ll have another week of training in our current village, a week to wrap up everything in Panama City, and it will be time to be sworn in as official Peace Corps Volunteers!