Tuesday, October 29, 2013

My First Medical Issue- And it was Gross

At one point during my lengthy interview with a Peace Corps Recruiter, he asked me what my biggest concern would be, should I be offered a position.  I quickly responded with, "Oh, that's easy.  I really, really hate being sick." He simply laughed and said, "Unfortunately, you will definitely be sick, but at least we have a great medical staff!" 

Since then, I've continued to learn about the ailments that plague Peace Corps Panama volunteers.  Other than the "normal" digestive tract issues, my province of Bocas del Toro is also known for other jungle ailments such as a variety of parasites and bacterial and fungal infections.  Sounds great, right? 

To add insult to injury, my site was specifically known for being medically tough because our water isn't sanitary.  The previous volunteer was sick so often that the very first thing my boss said about my town was, "This is a really neat little town... but you have to promise me you will be very, very, very careful with the water."  

After two months with nearly no incidents whatsoever, I thought my iron stomach and I were in the clear... but I obviously spoke too soon.  When I noticed that a bunch of my bug bites started to get infected I called our medical unit and got some anti-biotics to clear them up.  Two days later, most were gone, but the few that remained acted like Mount Vesuvius and swelled, turned black, and started bleeding all within a few hours.  

Obviously, this warranted a trip to the doctor, but thanks to Peace Corps careful regulations the closest approved doctor was in David, the regional capital over 4 hours from my site.  As luck would have it, I didn't start the trip until after dinner (as I didn't realize I'd be going so far) and all of the remaining busses to David were full.  After a tearful ordeal of being left behind (Their fault, not mine...) some sweet Spanish tourists took pity on me and washed my gruesome arm with some antibiotic perfumed soap before splitting the 3 hour taxi ride to David with me.  

Slightly after midnight I finally got to see the Doctor, who gave me antibiotics and some pretty strict directions to stay away from the local water sources.  

And now, a week and a half later, I'm (almost) good as new AND am moved into my house with my boss's blessing.  Thank you, silver linings.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Things that Make Me Smile

A few days ago I was having a rough day and started to write a blog post about the challenges of Panama and how easy we have it as Americans.  As I was writing, though, I felt like I was leaving out huge, important chunks of information- the things that where going well and that were making me smile and keeping me in Panama.  The more I thought about those things, the more I realized that I was writing on the wrong topic.  Sure, there's going to be rough days and challenges, but the parts that deserve your thoughts are the good ones.  So, here's to all of those awesome moments, big and small, that are making me one happy BocatoreƱa (person from Bocas del Toro).
  • My house.  I still have another few weeks with my host family, but my landlord is awesome and lets me use the house during my downtime during the day and a few random nights a month when I need to be in town.  I'm really, really lucky and have a huge (by Peace Corps standards) house that I can't wait to "decorate" and move into.  I even have 3 floors!
  • My shower. After almost two months of bathing in the creek, fully clothed, with a multitude of children, I have just started taking advantage of the shower at my house.  Sure, the water's cold. But it's private, and I feel like a clean queen afterwards.  
  • Cooking.  After a rough first few weeks of eating almost nothing but boiled green bananas, I was down- both physically and emotionally.  Unfortunately, the poverty in my region means that this is normal for a lot of families at certain times during the year, but I realized that as much as I wanted to blend in, my body couldn't handle a diet that strict.  I now cook for myself at my house, and vegetables have never tasted so delicious.  I love experimenting with recipes, so if you have any, preferably that don't require expensive or refrigerated ingredients, send them my way!
  • Romero Grocery Store.  Less than an hour and a half from my house is a grocery store that might as well be Little America.  They even play Justin Timberlake.  I cannot tell you how much I look forward to grocery shopping now.  Salads? Good cheese? Brownie batter? Normal snack food?! Count. me. in. 
  • Work!  What was at first my biggest stressor is starting to show more and more promise.  I pretty much begged my boss to give me a site that wanted eco-tourism, and she did!  So far my main project has been to work on an eco-tourism project which has promising potential for long term development.  I'm also starting to get more requests for trainings in personal finance, and the local store owner wants me to help him completely revamp his record keeping and product management practices.  AND a local women's group is training me how to craft local bags in exchange for my help in marketing them to tourists on the Island. I'm definitely nerding out here...
  • Emerging friendships.  The first few weeks I felt like I constantly had to be in my 100% best behavior 100% of the time I was around anyone.  As time is going by, the barriers are starting to come down, and I love the feeling of comfort and trust I'm developing with my neighbors.
  • Brownies.  No explanation necessary. 
  • My site.  Between the mountains, ocean views, wildlife galore, fields to play in, trails to hike, and a sky full of stars, my little village is packed with natural beauty that I am so blessed to live in everyday.
  • Supportive friends and family.  I have received countless facebook messages, phone calls, letters, packages, and prayers from home, and let me tell you, every single one makes such a huge difference.  Your sweet words of encouragement brighten even the toughest of days and I'm a lucky girl to have so many awesome people cheering me on!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Lessons Learned: Month One

During my first month in my village I’ve learned quite a lot; some are serious lessons while others are a little more amusing, but all have turned out to be quite useful.
  • When speaking Spanish, “fake it ‘till you make it.”  When speaking the local indigenous language, give your sweetest southern smile and cross your fingers they understand your Spanish. 
  • Locals will make fun of you for practically everything you do, so you might as well join them and make fun of yourself.  Or else you might cry.
  • Accept the fact that you’re going to need help… a lot. 
  • Don’t be frustrated when the kids want to go to the creek to bathe with you.  They know where the snakes are. 
  • “And your mom?”  usually follows “How are you?”  *To my parents: Just so you know, every single person in my village now knows your ages, occupations, family trees, and that you for some crazy reason only have two kids (6+ is average here.)
  • Math is not a local strong point.  I’m looking at you, local who told me 2+4=9, and then 4, and then 7, and finally 6.  Looks like my basic finance charlas are going to be put to good use after all…
  • All sloths are cute, but not all are cuddly.  Also, my hair matches the fur of the mean species of sloth; Cue jokes from the locals.
  • It will never rain when you want to stay inside and read a book.  Instead, it will rain when you really, really want to hike to the one hill on which you have cell reception.
  • Air mattresses stop being any type of comfortable after about 3 weeks.  However, they still beat the wooden floor alternative. 
  • You absolutely cannot laugh during English class.  Even when the local rendition of “pig” ends up sounding like the f word. 
  • There will be some days in which nobody will leave the comforts of their hammocks.  Other days, they will work you into the ground.  So far I have yet to find a pattern to this work schedule. 
  • Getting used to having down time is a lot harder than I thought.  Thank goodness for the volunteer book library!
  • And lastly, but certainly not least, just when you least expect it, the locals will surprise you with little gestures of friendship and welcome.  Some days may be long and hard, but they sure do a good job of making you feel appreciated! 
  • Just kidding, one more.  Get used to dreams of food, especially of brownies and chick-fil-a.  Contrary to common belief, these cravings do not seem to go away with time.