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 :)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Bocas Day on the Island

Sometimes, you just need a break, and when you're a Peace Corps volunteer away from your family, friends, and culture, there is no better break than taking off to an island with a big group of fellow PCVs who may or may not constitute nearly 100% of the gringo population in rural Panama.  

After a successful community meeting, about 20 volunteers in my region spent the weekend on Isla Colón, celebrating the newbies making it through their first 3 months and the also saying farewell to an incredible volunteer who has been this year's regional leader.  Since Saturday also happened to be Founder's Day, the island was packed with marching bands, parades, street vendors, and Panameñans partying well into the night.  

The marching bands traveled from all over the province to march in style in their bright uniforms, which are very different from those of US based bands.  The girls were all in short skirts or dresses with heels or heeled boots (how do they march in those?!) and many wore fun hats or hair accessories and wrapped decorations such as feather boas around their musical instruments.  The peach costumes below were some of my favorites; if only the rainy day didn't make the photos so dreary!

I'm so thankful that I have the opportunity to serve in such a fun and beautiful country.  Weekends like this go a long way in refreshing me; but when you're surrounded by so many awesome people who know exactly what you're going through, how could it not?

To cap off the night, we took a short boat ride to a bar on the neighboring island where we were able to play on swings that swung right into the Caribbean Sea.  It was such a fun night, and one that I hope will be repeated many times in the upcoming 2 years!  

Next week I'll be heading to the mountains of Chiriquí for our annual Volunteer Thanksgiving, and in a short month my dad arrives for a glorious visit from home.  Though I'm trying really hard to soak up every moment and not wish my time away, I have to admit that I'm quite excited from December to get here :)

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Fried Plantain Oatmeal

Since I’m desperately looking for ways to use my gifted plantains before they go bad, I figured I’d kill two birds with one stone and make fried plantain oatmeal.  Ripe, fried plantains are a Panamanian favorite, and they’re especially delicious when sprinkled with a little cinnamon sugar.  This recipe is another super easy way to spice up a basic oatmeal breakfast!

Cinnamon Oatmeal
Ripe Plantain

Fry ripe plantain slices in a hot skillet.  When golden brown, sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.  Place a layer of fried plantains in a bowl, top with cinnamon oatmeal, and then another layer of cinnamon sugar plantains.  

Obviously, this is also great with peanut butter.  Then again, what isn’t?

Another note, less than a week into my oatmeal challenge I faltered.  Since I learned how to make baked oatmeal empanadas, I just haven’t been able to go back to plain ole’ oatmeal, no matter how spiced up and delicious it may be.  I’ll sharpen up my measurements so I can share the recipe on here; after that, you’ll understand. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Panama in November

I love the feeling a full calendar gives me, and thanks to a month full of Panamanian holidays, I already love November.  We started out the month with the Panamanian equivalent of Decoration Day, in which everyone cleans and decorates the gravesites of loved ones.  The next day, November 3, is to celebrate Independence from Columbia, and even if it falls on a weekend like it did this year, all of the kids celebrate at school. 

Though we didn’t have parades or huge block parties like some larger towns, we celebrated Independence Day with a Ceremony at the school followed by some awesome chicken and rice.  Since it was free and they put me at the front of the line (this is a big deal when you know there isn’t enough chicken to go around), I jumped in to do the dishes.  Over 70 plates, forks, cups, and two very pruney hands later, I think it’s safe to say I made a pretty good impression.  What I’ll do for free food…

There are some more patriotic holidays in November, as well as Mother’s day in early December, which is a huge deal down here.  Also on my agenda: A community wide meeting with my boss from Panama City, a trip to the mountains for a Thanksgiving getaway, and preparations for my dad’s trip in December!     

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Campo Cooking

I’ve always loved playing around in the kitchen, especially if the end product was something sweet.  Considering the lack of modern appliances and electricity, I figured my days of whipping up a nice meal of unprocessed foods were to be on a long-term hiatus during my two years in Panama.  Thankfully, I’ve proved myself wrong and have found cooking to be one of the best and most relaxing ways to start and wind down my days. 

I still don’t have an oven, refrigerator, blender, toaster, etc., but I’m starting to learn what works and what doesn’t, and putting my own spin on recipes has been a nice little game so far.  I figured I would share a few of my successful meals on Abby Explores, and you can rest assured that they’ll be pretty cheap (once you have spices and basic staples), and won’t require any crazy cooking technique.  Enjoy!

Here in Bocas you can buy oatmeal in small plastic bags or in a large plastic jars with a bright blue lid.  Though the smaller size is a slightly better buy, I’m in need of a bunch of those plastic jars to store other types of food.  I can thank a rat currently in residence (but not for long, rest assured) for that.  So, at the current moment I’m eating a lot of oatmeal.  To make things interesting, I’m seeing how many days I can cook oatmeal a different way for breakfast.  So far I’m only on day two, and here are the first two delicious oatmeal variations.   

Apple Crisp Oatmeal

Plain uncooked oatmeal
Half an apple, cut into small chunks

A little more uncooked oatmeal
Sliced Almonds
*This would probably be great with a little butter thrown in too!

First make your crispy topping by mixing a sprinkling of oatmeal, flour, and almonds with honey and toasting it in a saucepan over low heat.  When the mixture resembles a nice crumble, set aside and try not to eat it before the oatmeal gets done. 

Next, cook your oatmeal with the apple and as much sugar and spice as you like.  Once it’s to your liking, top with the crumbles and any leftover apple chunks. 

Mocha Oatmeal

Plain uncooked oatmeal
Chocolate chips

Cook your oatmeal in the coffee, and when it’s almost done add a splash of milk, a tad bit of cocoa, and a sprinkling of sugar (more or less depending on how sweet and chocolately you like it).  Garnish with chocolate chips and serve with coffee, obviously. 

Feel free to comment with any oatmeal suggestions!  Next up are double chocolate, s’mores, banana nut, pb&j, and almond joy- gotta use up all that fresh cocoa somewhere J

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Blog Readers, Meet Massy

sometimes I think he looks like a little bat

I've loved dogs for my entire life, so when a litter of puppies was born at my host families home the day before I arrived, the question was never if I would take one, but which one I would take.  I chose one of the boys (so that I wouldn't have to worry about unexpected puppies) and promptly began treating him as my own.  In that sense, he'll be the first pet I've ever had since the literal day he was born.  

I named Massy after my golden retriever, Sammy, and though he's still little, he's already a spoiled little booger.  He can't stand to be left alone; he cries constantly if I'm outside and he's inside, or vice versa.  This has led my neighbors to refer to him as my child, and I really can't argue.  I admit, his attachment is likely my doing.  And where does this little one sleep?  In my bed, under the covers.  I tell myself that it's because I'm cold and want a little heat to keep me warm, but I think we all know there's more to it than that. 

But really, how could you not fall for that face? 

Friday, November 1, 2013

Birthdays in Panama

This past week there were three birthdays in my little village, and considering how much as I love birthdays, it was great.  It seems like the biggest parties are for children under the age of 3, but the local poverty level means that there generally isn't a ton of money left over for birthday celebrations for people of any age.  But, I decided that there's no better excuse for bakin' some cake than a birthday, so this turned out to be quite the tasty week.  

Birthday #1: Virginia turns 34

my mom included sprinkles in my latest care package!

Virginia and her sister-in-law, Veronica, are two of my closest friends in site.  They frequently visit to paint nails or make goodies, and they even told their kids to call me tia, aunt!  They really won me over, though, when they told me I can use their oven any time I want.  Now that is the sign of a true friend.  

Birthday #2: Adelaida turns 11

Adelaida is my host dad's granddaughter, and she's been quite my little helper.  If I take longer than a few seconds to do a task, anything from starting a fire to machete-chopping my yard to washing my hair in the creek, Adelaida will be right there, ready to jump in and help.  She was so excited to have this birthday celebration that she wanted to wear her favorite dress for a photo and has been talking about it ever since! 

Birthday #3: Misael turns 1

While it doesn't seem like birthdays get much recognition in general, very young children are the exception.  It seems a little odd to put so much effort into a party that the guest of honor won't even remember, but it was fun nonetheless.  And an extra dose of Panamanian fun?  Adding flour to the inside of a Piñata.