Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Fear, Nerves, and Heading to Site

It's finally August 25, and today's the day.  Today is the day that I'm going to move to my site and begin my two year term as a volunteer in Bocas del Toro, Panama.  I'm anxious, excited, nervous, scared, and incredibly happy all at the same time.  

But what about the whole fear thing?  Since I began the process of becoming a volunteer nearly 16 months ago, this is the first time I've felt that emotion.  In fact, when I first arrived in Panama my biggest fear was not having enough work to do...

I don't know what flipped the switch, but on the scale of indifferent to terrified, I'm getting closer and closer to the latter.  There's a sudden feeling of being overwhelmed by all of the challenges- trivial and large- that I'm getting ready to face.  While I know that these feelings are normal and that every volunteer deals with them, it's still hard. 

Like I explained to someone the other day, it's like finding yourself completely exhausted and sore at the beginning of a marathon workout.  You know you're going to push through and be very glad you did, but all of the sudden it just hits you how much it's going to hurt.  

I appreciate your thoughts and prayers throughout the next two years (and especially the next two months) and look forward to sharing all of the fun, exciting, and sweet moments that are pulling me through the rough spots.  

And now (literally, right now) to Bocas!  

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Officially a Volunteer

After a long two months of training (and an even longer 13 months of application processing!) I was officially sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer on August 22, 2013.  

I made it! 

The ceremony was held at the Ambassador's house in Panama City, and in addition to the snazzy hors d'oeuvres (I ate so much... so much) we also had an impressive guest list: The Ambassador, the Director of Peace Corps Panama, the Vice Minister of Health, and the Minister of Agriculture.  

As if I wasn't already dealing with the full range of emotions in the days leading up to our swear in ceremony, I volunteered to speak on behalf of the agricultural program during the ceremony... in Spanish.  

Thanks to countless presentations at the McKenna School and years of 4-H Public Speaking, I wasn't too nervous about my speech.  However, I definitely underestimated the added challenge of presenting in a foreign language.  Those little butterflies that normally don't affect my presentations scrambled a few words, which was a little disappointing for the perfectionist in me.  Regardless, I'm really glad I had the guts to speak that day.  If you're curious about what I said, you can check out the english version by clicking through below the photo.  

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Thanks to a mom who loves to share my adventures, I just found out that there's an article about my Panamanian adventures in my hometown newspaper.  The link follows below, but contrary to what is stated, I will not actually be giving a speech to the President (A slightly large misunderstanding between my mom and I...)

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Visiting My New Home

After two months of torturous waiting while in Panama, I finally found out that I’ll be spending the next two years working in a small indigenous community in Bocas del Toro,  and I couldn’t be more excited.  My community members grow cocoa, coffee, and bananas and my primary responsibilities will be to help them improve their products, identify buyers, establish contracts, and teach basic business and financial management skills.  

I’ll also be working to support a women’s artisan group, improve community gardens, potentially start a small agro-tourism project, and facilitate English/ngäbere language classes (English for them and  ngäbere for me!)

This past week I actually got to visit my community, and it could not have been a more exciting or humbling experience.  During an introductory meeting, each person in attendance stood up one by one, introduced him or herself, and then told me how thankful he or she was that I had come to live and work with them.  They told me that since I had made the sacrifice of leaving my family and culture, they wanted to be a new family for me, and that they promised to protect me and help me throughout the next two years.  Hearing such encouraging sentiments almost made me cry- it was like I had gained a huge family of aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins in less than half an hour. 

 Cocoa trees

 Viveros (Tree nurseries) for local plants

Not everyone in my community was able to make it to the meeting though, so one of my neighbors offered to take me “pasearing” in order to start trying to get to know more people.  To pasear means to walk around, let yourself in to a neighbor’s home or porch, and have a little chat with them.  Whereas Americans might consider this type of behavior inconsiderate, it’s seen as rude if you don’t pasear here in Panama.  Each family I visited offered me some type of food or drink, and by the morning’s end my belly was filled to the brim with locally grown coffee, hot chocolate, bananas, rice, and other delicious snacks. 

A fish tank project sponsored by MIDA, the national agricultural development agency

While the entire week was filled with fun moments and good conversation, my favorite memory was a prayer I overheard while in bed one night.  One of the community members who had graciously offered me a room for the week was saying his evening prayers, in which he thanked God for bringing me to them and asked that He keep me safe and happy over the next two years and beyond.  I don’t think I can put into words how that simple prayer made me feel because it is I who is truly blessed and humbled by this experience. 

I’ll be permanently moving to my site in two weeks, and I can’t wait to get to work and to share with you what the next two years hold!  

Saturday, August 3, 2013

And the region I´m going to is...

Have you ever moved to a foreign country to accept a job that you didn’t even know the details or location of?  That’s essentially what I did by moving to Panama, and for a Type A career planner like myself, making that commitment without knowing exactly where I would be living or what I would be doing was really tough.
Though the waiting process was hard, I finally understand why it had to happen that way.  Our boss was able to match us with our future sites not only based on resumes and skill sets, but also based on 5 full weeks of training observation, our experience visiting volunteers, and a series of interviews.  She’s known for being excellent at the matching process, so I put my trust in her and just told her to send me where I would fit best (and also that I would kind of maybe REALLY like to work with cocoa.)
Yesterday was the big day, and I was nervous.  I really tried not to get to excited about a particular region, because I could have been sent anywhere in Panama, but I think everyone knew I wanted to be in Bocas del Toro.  After my volunteer visit, how could I not?
In addition to the 48 trainees, also present at the site announcement were regional leaders, training staff, and the Panama Country Director.  It was really awesome to see how excited everyone was for us, and I will admit that I may have gotten slightly emotional after they played a video about Peace Corps’ impact on both communities and volunteers. 
When they put up a giant map of Panama with stars where each future community would be we all cheered.  That was the first time we had gotten to see the potential sites!  Then, one by one, our director pulled names of communities out of a cup.  She would describe the site a little and talk about the potential work before finally announcing what volunteer would be going there. 
There were 48 sites, and mine was announced 46th.  Some sites I really wanted, and to be honest there were some I was kind of hoping wouldn’t be for me.  By the time they finally did read off my site, I was dying.  Apparently we’re a good match because while she read the description, everyone started looking at me.  Then again, by that point there was a 1/3 chance it was mine by default. 
That being said, I’m incredibly happy and excited to share that I will be working with the management and sale of chocolate, coffee, plantains, and artisan goods in a small community in the rainforests of Bocas del Toro, Panama!  The community is also interested in starting a small eco-tourism group, which is right up my alley. 
Though I’ll be visiting the community for 5 days next week, I don’t know too much more at this point.  There has been one other volunteer who worked with tree nurseries and improving their organic farming techniques, and apparently he left behind a pretty sweet house that I’m going to get to rent for the awesome price of $25/month. 
I can’t wait to share pictures and stories from my community next week, and yes, the wait was totally worth it. 

And Then We Retreated to the Beach

After an exhausting but successful tech week, the majority of our group decided to take advantage of our first free night and head to the beach.  Based on the recommendations of other volunteers, we chose Las Lajas, a small beach town on the Pacific Coast in the Province of Chiriqi. 

Since we had some issues getting in touch with the hostels/cabins ahead of time, we decided to head straight to the beach and walk until we found a clean, cheap room.  After a week in the Comarca, pretty much anything would have been a step up in living conditions, so we weren’t too concerned.  

After a few minutes of walking along the water we ran into some local boys who referred us to a string of cabins a few minutes farther down the beach.  Sure enough, a gringa woman was relaxing in a hammock outside a small blue cottage, so I decided to ask her (in Spanish) if there were vacancies.   When she responded by asking if I could speak in English, I figured we had hit the jackpot as hardly anyone speaks English outside of Panama City…   However we soon learned that the woman identified herself as being a “child of the world with no one home,” preferred to go by her spiritual name, was disgusted in the fact that we ate non-organic foods and drank beer, and generally looked down on us in every possible way.   On our last morning, she even accused us of running around naked all night!  Seeing as though we were in bed (fully clothed) by 10 pm, I’m still not sure where she got that idea. 

Other than our interesting neighbor, the cabins turned out to be a great find at $10/person.  And they even had running water!  Though there were some cheap local restaurants that served a typical Panamanian meal for $4, there was also an American hotel and restaurant that offered free wifi and delicious American food.  Blueberry waffles, cheeseburgers, brownie sundaes, oh, the food!

One of my favorite parts of my new job is the ability to travel and explore Panama, and Las Lajas was certainly a great beginning.   Now to make my way through the rest of the country…

Friday, August 2, 2013

Tech Week

In order to really hammer home the technical training we’ve had throughout the first four weeks, our group recently spent a week practicing what we’ve learned (and learning more!) at a Peace Corps site in the Comarca Ngobe-Bugle. 

The Comarca is the indigenous reservation here in Panama, but there are three parts for the three separate groups: Ngobe-Bugle, Kuna Yala, and Embera.  Although the culture completely varies from region to region, Ngobere people are generally known as being conservative and reserved; many places in the Comarca are also very impoverished, as was the town we visited. 

The houses were made with wood or plastic tarp walls, dirt floors, and zinc roofs, though many homes didn’t even have four full walls.  The living situation definitely made the week a trying one; while I had gotten used to not having running water, the muddy floors, un-cushioned, wooden beds, and chickens that slept (and pooped) in my room sometimes pushed me to my limits. 

But just when I would get down and start feeling sorry for myself, the kindness of the local people really overwhelmed me and reminded me why I’m here.  We each lived with host families for the week, and mine went above and beyond to give me everything they could.  They hardly eat ever eat meat, yet they slaughtered chickens so we could have it AND all seven of them slept in one bedroom so that another Peace Corps girl and I could have privacy in the other room.  They even bought hot chocolate to make for me when it rained so that I wouldn’t be cold.  

 Local school kids in their uniforms

A fish tank project
When we weren’t immersing ourselves in the local culture, we were out in the fields learning about Panama’s major crops from Agricultural experts who traveled out to our village to help with our training.  In the five days we were there we worked with rice, corn, yucca, plantains, beans, and also gave our own agricultural seminars to interested locals. 

A few weeks ago I could never have led a charla (short educational session) on agricultural/environmental topics.  Now I’m doing them in Spanish! 

Tech week was exhausting in every possible way.  Between the physical labor and major lack of nutritional food I was constantly tired, and being away from every type of modern comfort or amenity got to me a lot more than I thought it would.  But it was also really, really good.  I got to experience the success of a volunteer’s hard work and I got to see how dedicated Panama’s volunteers are- not only to their communities, but also to each other.  Now that is something that I cannot wait to be a part of. 

*Hugs and a big thank you to my dad this week.  The first day was really rough for me and I called him in tears.  After an encouraging conversation/reminder about all of the reasons I’m here, he left me reassuring voicemails every single morning for the rest of the week so that when I did have signal I always had something positive to listen to.  How great is that?!