Saturday, July 26, 2014

A New Friend

While browsing one of the many artisan booths and the local fair last week I came across an adorably precious handmade doll.  The soft doll was wearing a traditional Ngäbe nakwa, was carrying a miniature chakara, had carefully handbeaded jewelry, and was even sporting a head full of hair made of a hand-dyed local plant fiber called pita.  So much work went into this beautiful little creation that I was all too willing to shell out the requested $10 to make her mine. 

Over a friendly chat with the artisans, I learned that they’re from a local town about an hour and a half from mine and would love to have me visit and help on the business side of things.  They said everything I wanted to hear, and when I returned to pick up the doll, we posed for a selfie before they told me to check the doll’s bag.  Inside the bag, carefully folded, was a hand drawn Panamanian “registration” so that the doll could board the plane to travel internationally and live with me in the United States. 

Basically, these ladies and I are gonna be BFFs. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Nakwa of my Very Own

I’m no Project Runway hopeful, but I’ll never forget learning the craft of sewing from both of my grandmothers or getting my first sewing machine for Christmas as a little girl; The feeling I get from wearing something I’ve created always keeps me coming back for more.  That’s why I knew the local artisans and I would get along just fine and that the question of making a local dress for myself wasn’t if but, “What colors?”

The conservative nakwas are traditionally made in bright colors and designs to symbolize the vibrant environment in which the Ngäbe people live. The dientes- the teeth- are the triangles that stand for mountains and the rayas- the stripes- are for the rivers.  You really can’t get too bright with these dresses, and it seems like every color goes together. 

Though the nakwa is still worn in other regions of the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé, it’s mainly used for traditional exhibitions here in Bocas del Toro.  Even armed with the knowledge that my dress would be more of a wall decoration than a useful piece of attire, I eagerly appeared early one Saturday morning to a group of artisans I had never met.  After a quick introduction- they had no idea who I was or why I was there- I asked the women if they would teach me to sew my own nakwa.  Sensing their slight hesitation, I pulled out the fabric that I had already bought and gave my best “Please help the poor gringa” smile that I could possibly muster. 

Something must have worked because soon I found myself hiking the 2 + hour round trip each Saturday to work with my new friends.  Multiple times I was sure that I was just finishing up, and multiple times, just like my Mamaw, my mentors just smiled and told me to redo the mess I had made while rushing. 

Thanks to a few missed workdays, I didn’t finish my nakwa in time to wear it for a trip to the actual Comarca.  Eager to show off my new creation (and to be done with it once and for all,) I enlisted help from an experienced local seamstress who happily took the temporary place of my mentors back in Bocas. 

As it turns out, I’m not the only volunteer with an affinity for sewing, and my friend Katie and I both wore our own handmade creations the same day!  Though I have a much greater appreciation for nakwas than I did before, I do admit that I’m excited to infuse some creativity into this beautiful tradition.  I’ve seen simpler, much more flattering dresses in keeping with the principle design, and I’m all too excited to work on product development with my ladies.  The creator and marketer in me is going a little crazy and I hope to have an update to share with you soon!

Monday, July 21, 2014

If a County Fair Were Held in Panama...

Animals were brought for exhibition, prized produce was proudly displayed, fried food was sold at high prices, and awards were given for a cornucopia of reasons.  It wasn’t a county fair, but it was close enough. 

For two days this past week, people from all over our corregimiento poured into Valle de Risco, our town hub, for the annual artisanal and ecological fair.  Preparations have been in progress for the past few weeks, and many of the surrounding villages decorated small pavilions that were then filled with anything the locals decided was worth exhibiting.  What made the cut?  Tons of produce, locally grown and roasted chocolate packaged in banana leaves, a monkey, various baby trees, a pair of geese, a baby pool filled with wild crabs and fish raised in local in-ground tanks, various animals I don’t even know the words for in English, native crafts, and a sloth dressed in a custom nakwa. 

Being the only gringa in attendance made me quite the popular attendee- I was the only one not born into this culture and therefore the only one who actually still has a lot to learn about the local way of life.  All too happy to oblige, I spent nearly the entire two days hanging out with both people and communities I’m already familiar with as well as making friends and connections with people from areas I haven’t visited yet. 

Of course, what’s a fair without food?  In addition to the tried and true favorite of chicken and rice served with overly sugared coffee, I feasted on corn empanadas, sugar cane juice, a fruit that’s called an apple but is definitely not an apple, and a delicious delicacy of mashed yucca (potato type root vegetable) wrapped around beef and fried.  No doubt, these people would love funnel cakes.  

Speaking of fair-food sweets, one of the best parts of my weekend was watching one of my baking & business ladies put what we’ve been learning to use.  She woke up before sunrise to bake over two hundred cinnamon rolls and pieces of coconut cake and sold out both days.  Success (and coconut cake) is sweet.  

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Volunteer Visit

Since you can only learn so much about Peace Corps in a classroom, trainees are sent to visit volunteers in the campo pretty early on so that they can get a taste of what life is really like.  For many, this may be their first time living in such basic conditions in such close proximity to extreme poverty, so it can be a little overwhelming.  Thankfully, that's what us volunteers are there for- to provide a nice little gateway!  

Last year I spent my trainee visit with Carly in what would eventually become my province of Bocas del Toro, and this year I was excited to host my very own trainees- Whitney and Megan!  

Like me, both Whitney and Megan have much deeper backgrounds in business than in agricultural production, so they too will be serving in a site more focused on agribusiness.  Though we packed the week full of activities, I made sure to warn them that life as a volunteer isn't usually that busy :)

During our first day, we spent the morning visiting my neighbors Juan and Lucia, who let us help take the fibers out of pita, a plant grown for just that.  Once she dries the long fibers, Lucia will then color them and wind them into thick strings which will be used to make the traditional chacara bags.  

After that, we hiked up to my host family's house, where I showed them the reality of life here- no water, electricity, or bathrooms.  Since that's always a little tougher to see (especially when you know that you're getting ready to be living in just such a place), we kept things light and then went to bake a cake with the grandma of one of my favorite families.  

To continue on with the baking trend, we used our sugar high to lead one of my baking and business classes, where we made coconut cake.  The huge slices afterwards almost made up for skipping lunch... almost.  

On Day 2 we focused on preparing and giving Part 1 of my Agribusiness Charla Series: Personal Finances.  Even though the rain gave us a small turnout, it was great to have help from not only Megan and Whitney, but also my neighboring volunteer Travis and his trainee, Nick.  I don't think my people have ever seen so many foreigners all together at once!  

The next morning we heated up our newly toasted cacao and made some delicious chocolates with some of the random stuff on hand.  If you can think of a delicious combination of chocolate, PB, coconut, carmel, coffee, sea salt, honey, and/or maple syrup, chances are we made it.  Best morning ever.  

We spent that afternoon hiking through cacao farms to get to our larger neighboring town where the girls purchased artisan goods from the group I've been working with the last few months.  

To send them off, we spent a rainy Saturday morning baking birthday cakes for a birthday party which, sadly, they had to miss in order to catch their bus back to Panama City. 

All in all, it was a great week filled with awesome food and good company.  I'll be looking forward to visiting Megan and Whitney in their future sites, wherever they may be, though of course I'll be crossing my fingers for Bocas :)

Thursday, July 10, 2014

On the Agenda

Exactly a year ago, I visited Carly’s site to see what it’s really like to be a volunteer, and this week two trainees are going to be visiting me in my site.  It’s crazy that it’s already been a year, but I’m at a point where I’m finally pretty satisfied with my service and excited about the work I have done, am doing, and will do. 

Since I’ve been making mini agendas for Megan and Whitney, my two visitors, I thought I’d share my upcoming plans on here too.  I can’t believe that we’re getting ready to start the one year countdown!

This week

Visit my host family and buy coconuts.
Teach a one-on-one baking basics class to an older woman.
Women’s Baking and Business Class- Coconut Cake. 

Visit the store-owner to talk about his business practices.
Personal Finance Seminar.

Either baking bread with the women’s group or making a farm inventory.
Hike to a cacao farm.
Hike the tourism group’s trails and see their pavilions.

English Class with University students.
Artisan group meeting in neighboring town.
Travel to Almirante to drop off visitors. 

The Rest of July
My friend Alex, a Darien volunteer, will visit!
Part 2 of my Agribusiness Charla Series- “Your Farm as Your Business”
Prep for Part 3 of the series, which will be the first week in August.
Travel to Panama to train the new volunteers on Agribusiness.
One-Year Medical Appointments in Panama City.
MST, Mid-Service Training, in Panama City.

Zoe might visit to help out with…
Part 3 of my Agribusiness Charla Series- “Basic Finance for Kids”
Potential site visits to help with Agribusiness Trainings.
Group 75 Swear In in Panama City
One Year Celebration and trip to Kuna-Yala!

Eco-Stove planning and training.
My community member and I will visit Zoe’s site to lead a training on cacao grafting.
Baking and Business Class with Megan’s site on the coast
Bocas del Toro Regional Meeting
Getting my Advanced Scuba Diver Certification!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

On the Water

One of the biggest perks of having tons of friends working all over Panama is getting to visit them.  I don’t know why it took me so long to get started, but this past weekend I visited another volunteer, Zoe, in her site on the coast of Bocas del Toro.  In this case, beautiful would be an understatement.  Since everyone lives on the water and there aren’t any roads in or out of her town, your only mode of transport is a motorboat into the town and then hollowed out canoes between the homes.  

Another volunteer, Jess, who lives in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé, and I wanted to visit together to celebrate Zoe’s 25th birthday.  Besides the obligatory cake (a delicious peanut butter apple) and singing amongst ourselves, we also got to participate in an artisan group meeting, a women’s pig project work-day, and a women’s baking and business class (they’re spreading!).   We did have one free afternoon though, and took full advantage of it to canoe out to a coral reef to do a little snorkeling.

A special birthday lunch: rice, dachin (a root vegetable) and snails

It was a gorgeous, satisfying, fun, and much needed weekend with some awesome volunteers.  Needless to say, I’m looking forward to making more visits in the future!