In February I headed to Cocle, a province in central Panama, for our in-service training. During the first week everyone from Group 73 was reunited as we went to sessions related to grant writing, youth development, gender and cultural issues, and dealing with domestic violence. The SAS program also had some time together to cover ag-related topics and take a few field trips to visit agencies and a pretty dang cool organic farm. Though the days were long and packed full of activities and information, it was great to see volunteers who are normally so far from me, and the information couldn't have come at a better time; I'm feeling much more inspired for my work in site!
Getting ready to drink some locally grown and processed cane-sugar juice
Cane sugar "honey" and the farmer who made it
Since we all work in such diverse projects, we split up for the second week of training so that we focus more on the topics that matter most to us. Lucky for me, that meant spending a week learning all about cocoa, complete with cooking experiments and a "Create your own chocolate bar" activity. Have I mentioned that I love the perks of my job?
home-made chocolate chips
Carly, the volunteer I visited during Pre-Service Training last year, is actually the National Cocoa Coordinator and hosted the majority of Cocoa Week in her site in Bocas del Toro. Since there were only 6 volunteers in training and 2 volunteer trainers, week 2 was also that much more intimate and laid back, which was a welcome break. Though I was anxious about staying with host families again, I got paired with a super nice family who remembered me from my last visit. Not only did they cook me awesome food and provide good company, but they even sent me home with a bag of homegrown veggies, chocolate, and coffee!
In the mornings we focused on the various agricultural aspects of cocoa- everything from grafting and pruning to harvesting and a-sexual propagation, and in the afternoons we spent more time on the processing side of things. Obviously this mandated cooking projects and plenty of taste testing. The best part is, that kind of stuff isn't just for fun. This coming week I'll be using one of my new chocolate recipes to teach women in my site how to bake (and sell) birthday cakes!
Visiting COCABO, the local Cocoa co-operative, and learning about bean quality
Apparently the week was going a little too well for me though, because 2 or 3 days in I got sick with parasite-type symptoms and had to go to the doctor to get it checked out. Though I certainly never want to be sick, there's some sort of an odd satisfaction you get from getting a diagnosis of something other than "Maybe you just ate something bad." At least that's certainly how I felt when I got to add a new notch to my internal parasite belt, this time with a pretty nasty Protozoa. Thankfully, a few days worth of pills and I'm all recovered... For now.
Overall, Cocoa Week was a big (and welcome) catch-up to many of the knowledge and skills I was lacking, and I'm looking forward to putting what I learned to use in my site. I now have a small but dedicated group of farmers that I'll be focusing a little more time and energy on, and we're planning to do farm inventories and an introduction to record keeping in the coming months. Seeing as though this will be completely new information and ideas to everyone, it sure looks like I have my work cut out for me!