Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Massy Update: We Got a Cat

Hey guys, it's me again- your favorite campo dog!  There's big news out here in Panama... The Cat is here.  I've gotta admit though, for a cat she's not that bad.  She's still pretty little, but she likes to let me play with her and usually will even let me chew on her head a little bit before getting too fussy.  

Unlike me, she doesn't have a cool name yet, and since we're gonna be brother and sister, I think we should work on that.  Anybody have a good (but not too good) suggestion?  

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Let's Get Down to Business *

As most of you know, I studied business in college and was really excited to work in business education and development here in Panama.  As most of you also know, now that I'm in Panama I almost never work with business-related stuff.  Well friends, all that is starting to change!

In addition to the women's baking and business classes that I've been holding, several great opportunities have recently surfaced which have given me awesome platforms on which I'm able to work with my nerdy passion of business education.  This past week I helped lead a regional Agri-Business Seminar where we taught about 25 rural farmers about group organization, personal finance, basic marketing principles, and basic legal principles.  

It was a really interesting and educational experience for all us- facilitators included!  Though I never would have considered giving a training on simple marketing themes a challenge, I was definitely thrown a curveball when I realized that not only were many of them lacking in basic education, but some people as advanced as store owners- store owners!- had never even used a calculator.  

The four-day seminar was held in my friend Brennan's site, which is about an hour and a half away from mine.  Sadly, Brennan developed an awful skin infection and wasn't able to be there during the seminar, but he was such a trooper and had everything organized and prepared for us.  Participants were housed with host families during their stay and though host family interactions have become almost second nature for us as volunteers, this was the first time many of the participants had ever spent the night in a place without their families. The way that they warmed up to each other and enjoyed sharing both companionship and knowledge was great to see

Now that I've done the sessions with the help of a few other great volunteers, I'm excited to bring them back to my community, since their truly is such a great need for this kind of information and training.  I can't even tell you how many times people have asked me how I know how to make my money last until the end of the month.  There's a saying here that goes something like, "When there's food, eat it." Though I don't want to lead you to believe that people in my area are starving, as they most certainly are not, there is a tendency to immediately use up any extra resources they have in an unplanned way.  For example, when I would buy TONS of groceries for my host family, they would cook nearly everything I bought the first night and leave us with a huge feast that was never finished and then following days with nothing but the boiled green bananas that they harvest for free.  Same goes with money- when it's there, they spend it on things they don't necessarily need because that's what they've always done.  

I'm so grateful to have had such a great opportunity, and none of it would have happened without Lila, an incredible volunteer who is finishing up her term as Peace Corps Panama's Agri-Business Coordinator (and will be working towards her MBA at an Ivy League this fall!) I definitely learned a lot and am especially excited to share another bit of related news....  

I've been selected to serve as one of this coming year's National Agri-Business Coordinators!  

Though we're still working through what exactly that means for me, I know that I'll be co-coordinating with another great volunteer located much closer to Panama City, and that we'll be in charge of training the incoming volunteers in Agribusiness themes this June, establishing and maintaining relationships with Panamanian agencies, helping other volunteers with business trainings in their sites, and potentially leading bigger seminars like this one.  

It looks like I have a lot of work throughout the next few months and as odd as it may sound, to have a packed work schedule is exactly what I wanted!  

*P.S.  If while reading the title of this post in your head you also automatically sang "...to defeat the huns" then we're on the same wavelength.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Volunteer’s Easter

I’m a sucker for holidays, and what’s not to love?  You have a great reason to celebrate with friends and family and there’s usually good food involved.  Things can get pretty lonely out in the campo, so needless to say we volunteers can take holidays quite seriously.  I usually celebrate double- once with my community and a second time with other volunteers who have a bit better understanding of the holiday and culture behind it. 

Though Holy Week, Semana Santa, is observed here in Panama, Easter doesn’t seem to be a very big deal- especially not in the commercialized way Americans tend to treat most holidays.  While I am definitely a fan of keeping true to the true reason for celebration, I can’t help but have a soft spot for Easter egg hunts and candy.  It’s my sweet tooth and I really don’t think it can be helped.  

Part One of my Easter, the community part, was celebrated on Good Friday with a delicious lunch and Easter Egg hunt for some of the local kids.  I even made some Easter egg coloring pages that they went to town on.  

Christina, who’s a water and sanitation volunteer from a small town about 2 hours away, was already planning on spending the weekend at my house so that we could help out with Travis’ (my neighboring volunteer) water committee meeting on Saturday.  Since Easter was also this past weekend, we decided to make the best of an already fun get-together and have a little Easter brunch. 

Makeshift Easter Baskets.  
Even though we were limited by non-perishable ingredients and my little one-burner gas stove, we managed to make whole wheat rolls, deviled eggs, mashed potatoes, salad with lemon vinaigrette dressing, a watermelon filled fruit bowl, frosted cinnamon rolls, coffee AND a sparkling wine/sangria concoction.  It was seriously awesome.  

Though nothing will compare to spending holidays with your family at home, it was great to have an opportunity to share some American culture with my community and to have some more guests (and delicious food!) at my house.  Thanks to Christina and Travis for stopping by!  

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Learning to Speak like a Local

One of the main things I wanted in a job was ample opportunities for training and/or education, and Peace Corps has certainly delivered! Though not all of our trainings are mandatory, I like to attend as many as possible. Not only do you gain relevant experience and skills, but you get paid to spend time with your friends in a new environment. It's really a win-win situation. 

This past week I attended a Ngäbere training. Ngäbere is the native language of the indigenous Ngäbe people, and since my people will still use it, especially among older generations, I was excited to learn more than just the basic greetings I had been using. 

Training was held in another volunteer's site in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé (reservation for the Ngäbe and Buglé people) so that we could really practice what we were learning each day. Though the language is still used in other parts of the country, it's nowhere as widely used as in the reservation. Our host volunteer, Adam, speaks awesome Ngäbere, and arranged for each of us to live with host families in his community. 

My family lived very simply in a zinc house with a mud floor and no amenities.  They cooked their food over a fire each day and farm to support themselves and the 6 of 10 children that are still living at home.  

Each day we had class from 8 am until noon and then participated in a shorter session in the afternoon before ending the day with hiking, river swimming, and hanging out with our new friends and families.  One of the coolest parts was finally getting to finish and wear my nakua (local dress) with the help of my friend Zoe's host mom, Echila.  More on that project in my next post!

To end the week, we performed a local dance and retold the story of the Tortoise and the Hare in Ngäbere, which I'm sure was a comical sight despite our best efforts.  Despite the challenges of living in harsher conditions than we're used to and the potential contraction of yet another internal parasite, it was great week with great people... and keep your eye out for a post on Ngäbere!  Until then, jatuita!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

We Made Our Cake and Ate it Too

It didn't take long for my community members to learn of my ridiculous baking addiction, and soon afterwards they were eagerly inviting me into their homes for baking lessons. At first, I just considered the afternoons a great way to break the ice and get to know my new neighbors, but I soon realized that their curiosity to learn made for a great potential project. 

Eager to get to work on this promising (and delicious) project, I made signs to hang around town and invited previous bakers to more formal lessons. And that's how, slowly but surely, our informal home classes have slowly morphed into a community baking group that spends each session baking, taste testing, and analyzing the costs and potential cost cutters. 

Instead of starting with something they had never even had before, like peanut butter cookies or apple pie, I wanted to focus on things they already spend money on and could therefore save by making it themselves. For my community, there was no question that would be birthday cakes. On birthdays and special occasions, they not only pay for the cake itself ($10-30), but also for transportation to get to a city that sells these cakes. 

Wanting to encourage them to explore their options, we made two cakes- one from scratch and one from a box, and then frosted them with either canned frosting or a homemade concoction. After the baking was done, we had a blast experimenting with food coloring and practicing writing things like "Feliz Cumpleaños" on a plastic plate. 

We baked the cakes using the pot within a pan method and learned that a small hole in the lid will lead to escaping air and a cake that looks a little like a volcano.  Thankfully, it still tasted pretty good. 

They learned that they can save quite a bit of money by making their own cakes, and have even put to practice what we learned by baking while I was out of town! 

Needless to say, we're excited for the next class. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

How to Bake Over a Fire (or Stovetop)

Anybody who knows me knows that I have a seemingly insatiable sweet tooth and a love for baking. When faced with both no oven and no locally available sweets, I knew I had to look outside the box to satisfy my cravings. Thanks to our Peace Corps Panama cookbook, I learned how to bake over a stove or open fire. After several months and countless recipes, I have to say I'm surprisingly pleased at how well this little setup works. 

This method is great for both campers and dorm or apartment living that comes without an oven. All you need is a large, lidded pot, a clean and empty tuna can (or similar item), and a baking pan than can fit inside your pot. 

Place the can inside your pot, the baking pan on top of the can, and your lid on top, and "bake" over a low flame until your baked goods are done. Since you really can't control temperature too much, you'll need to be the judge here and do your best with the flame you have. The cooking time may sound a little complicated, but by keeping a frequent eye on things, I've never had an issue. 

Ta-da!  And now you have a lovely cake- no oven required.

Good luck and enjoy your delicious, fresh baked treats!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Peace Corps is Hard

And then you turn off the paved road and start your hike...

 I don't know anyone who would consider Peace Corps easy, but in our efforts to paint a fun, exotic picture for our friends and family back home, I don't think we're as willing to admit how hard it really is. The other day I was talking to a close friend from home, and upon me saying how depressed I was during the first few months, she responded with, "Wow, I never realized that. I guess I just always saw your awesome pictures and assumed you were loving it." 

And it's not her fault for thinking that. Like many volunteers, I focused on the exciting parts of my life and downplayed the challenges that had me calling my parents in tears. I think hearing both sides of the experience is really important- not just for future volunteers, but also for the general public. If you've been following my blog, you've heard a little about the hard parts- like amoebas, skin infections, and getting over the culture shock, but here's the rest of the story. 

Arriving in country is slightly overwhelming but incredibly exciting. Everything is new and different, and Pre-Service Training is packed with activities, trips, and obviously, training. During this time, usually the first two-three months, you're surrounded by fellow trainees who are experiencing all of the same challenges and excitements as you are, as well as support staff who are physically present to help you with every aspect of life in a new country. 

Then, overnight, it all changes. You arrive in your site and are suddenly the only American, the only English speaker, and certainly the only one going through such a drastic life change. Your boss is not present, you have no coworkers so to speak of, all of your fellow trainees/new volunteers are off in their own sites, and you feel completely alone. Instead of waking up to a full schedule of training, work, and play, you have a calendar of absolutely empty days, weeks, and months ahead. You're overwhelmed by all there is to do, but even more so by how little you know how to do. 

You're living with a family you just met, and life with them is completely different than anything you're used to. If you're lucky, you will get new and interesting food each day, and if you're not you might lose 15 pounds and eat nothing but boiled green bananas (I fell under the later category). Your new diet may leave you sick or just "off" and the water may or may not be sanitary. 

You'll either call home crying or not talk to your family for weeks because you know their voices will bring you to tears. Things that you never gave a thought to before- like cooking or washing clothes- suddenly become a challenge, and things that would be hard even under the best circumstances- like the death of a family member or beloved pet, threaten to push you over the edge. 

In the face of all of this, you give your best, since your only other option of crying to yourself alone in your dark, foreign, potentially moldy room only makes you feel worse.  As you have nothing else to do, you spend a lot of time attempting to get to know your new neighbors. Even with a decent language level, you may struggle the first few weeks, and even if you're fluent, you still feel awkward at these constant introductions and attempts to gain trust and friendship. For those first few weeks, you fall asleep at night exhausted, lonely, and ready to be done with the day, and wake up stressed out about still not having friends, not having a full agenda, and having absolutely no idea what you're doing. 

Then, slowly but surely, it starts to get better. You'll have little moments in which you start to bond with your community, you'll host your first event (and maybe even get a great turnout), and your boss may even read your blog and let you know that you're doing pretty okay. Poco a poco, you're no longer stressed at the sight of an open calendar and you'll even learn how to wash clothes on a rock and make delicious food over a fire. You'll gain back the weight you lost over those first few weeks (or vice versa) and your new friends won't hesitate to point it out. But instead of feeling offended, you'll smile and joke with them, and then go to sleep at night without many of those feelings of dread stress. It will take time, and it will never be easy, but you'll grow to appreciate your campo life and the people that make it worthwhile.