Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Five Things I Couldn’t Live Without in the Peace Corps

A good, big backpack.
As you may have guessed by this and some of my other posts, I didn’t own any outdoor equipment before my move to Panama.  I figured that my giant, 70 Liter NorthFace backpack would be used once to move to my site and once to move home, but that was before I had to hike 2 weeks worth of groceries into site or carry a week’s worth of stuff throughout the country.  I use this bag almost every time I leave my site, and can’t imagine having to use one that didn’t have plenty of space or good support.  

My Chacos.
Though I grew up in the countryside of East Tennessee, I never would’ve considered myself an outdoorsy type of person before joining the Peace Corps.  I couldn’t remember the last time I had gone camping and almost all of the outdoor activities I did participate in focused more on the outfit and photos than anything else.   Needless to say, Chacos had never claimed a spot in my closet.  But oh, how times have changed.  My trusty outdoor sandals are the only shoes that can put up with anything I throw at them.  From gravel to grass, flooded rivers to muddy slopes, it only took a month without them (my hand-me-down pair finally gave in last December) to realize that no other Panamanian shoe can fill my city and village needs.

I picked out my sweet pup two days after he was born and we’ve been inseparable ever since.  Whether we spend the day hanging out in my house or are on the run from dawn to dusk, this dog can put a smile on my face no matter how rough the day may be.  I get a lot of questions about what it’s like to keep a pet as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and I can’t repeat it enough- the benefits outweigh any and every cost.  Especially when you’re lucky enough to end up with one as great as this little guy. 


My iPad.

I had no idea how much free time I’d need to fill while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  Obviously, I like to be productive as much as I can, but I still found myself overwhelmed by endless, empty rainy afternoons, unlit evenings, and hours upon hours in busses and waiting for busses.  The iPad my dad got me last Christmas has made me so, so much happier.  I’ve powered through tons of books- no headlamp required, filled hours of public transport with podcasts and document editing, and checked my social media accounts at the drop off any wifi zone’s hat.  Though I haven’t had experience with other tablets, I love the durability and versatility of my iPad, and the battery life isn’t too bad either.  Just make sure you stock it with a strong, waterproof case to guard it from any children or flash rainstorms. 

You’d be hard pressed to find a Peace Corps Panama volunteer who doesn’t own at least one hammock, and I’d be quick to claim that there’s good reason behind that.  Our hammocks are the perfect place to sit back and relax with a book, take an afternoon siesta, chat with a community member, or daydream about all the foods we’re missing.  Parachute hammocks do double duty since they’re the perfect accompaniment to any site visit in which bedding could be questionable.  A comfortable night’s sleep that can roll up into the size of my Nalgene?  I’ll take two, thanks. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

That time I snuck out of the hospital to get a chocolate shake...

I always associated Pneumonia with cold weather and a weakened immune system, so you can imagine my surprise when I, proud owner of an immune system of steel and resident of the ever-tropical Panama, came down with that very ailment this past weekend.

My dad had been mentioning my pesky cough for the past three weeks or so, but until last week that was the only sign I had that something bad was in store.  Sure enough, after a week of work-related travel, I got so sick that all I did was hole up in a hotel and sleep for two days straight.  When my prescribed antibiotics weren’t alleviating any of my symptoms, the Peace Corps medical team decided I needed to be hospitalized. 

Before this past weekend, the only times I had been in a hospital were to visit other people, so naturally I wasn’t excited to change that.  Add to that my fear of needles (it’s pretty ridiculous, guys) and the prescribed IVs and I was not a happy camper.  It all ended in a warm bed though, so my Pneumonia-ridden self couldn’t complain too much. 

That was last Monday.  By Tuesday I was ready to break out for a chocolate shake, and subsequently did.  Wednesday held the same, only this time with a veggie-burger to accompany my sweet escape.  By Wednesday I was also smart enough to know the hospital food was not to be counted on, so that day’s escapade included a little trip to the supermarket, IV bag in hand. 

After what felt like much too long, the doctors let me out on Thursday... with the condition that I be placed on a medical hold in Panama City for 15 days in order to be really, really sure that I'm 100% better and won't re-infect my lungs when I get back to site.   

So what is a budget constricted Peace Corps volunteer to do in one of the most developed cities in Central America for over two weeks?  In addition to hopefully being productive (internet! electricity!) I'm hoping to scope out all of the free and cheap activities the city has to over and experiment with all the food I can't get in site.  Of course, I'll be blogging all along the way.  At least I'll leave this experience, hopefully, as a semi-expert on Panama City.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Kids and Money: Increasing a Village’s Financial Literacy

A few months back I was looking for resources on children’s financial literacy online (gotta start 'em young!) and stumbled upon a really great workbook from the Cleveland Fed- available in English here and Spanish here.  Available for free- printed or mailed, in English or Spanish- this workbook is awesome.  It’s a great general overview of money management for late elementary school aged children and covers money and finance in three parts: earn, spend, and save. 

Since kids generally seem to be more open to new ideas and are still forming their long-term habits and opinions, I was especially excited introduce this information to the elementary school classes in my site.  My friend Zoe, who my community loves, came to visit and help out with the charla and was a ton of help.  I’ve noticed that community members, kids included, really seem to put more weight on things I teach if I bring in someone from outside the community. 

We spent two hours teaching about 20 4th, 5th, and 6th graders about how they can use their skills to earn a little bit of extra money, why they shouldn’t spend everything they have, and how to be an informed buyer.  I was really proud of how well they did on their exercises, and am excited to help them with their plans to earn money in the future.  One of the older children is even saving money to buy a piglet to raise and sell.  If he grows a nice sized pig into full maturity, he could stand to earn almost $100- a 300% return on investment!

I’m going to be going back for a little follow-up and homework review this coming week.  Hopefully I’ll find book bags full of completed activities and minds eager to learn more about finance!  As always, if you’ve seen any resources that you think we could benefit by, please send me an email at  We’re always excited to try new things!


Thursday, October 23, 2014

What do Peace Corps Agribusiness Volunteers do in Panama?

When I think back to the months leading up to my Peace Corps service, I can still clearly remember how concerned I was about my future work.  I was passionate about business, helping people, Spanish, and travel and had asked my recruiter to find me a placement where I could use all of those skills and hobbies. 

Since only 20% of volunteers are currently serving in Spanish speaking countries and Community Economic Development is one of the smaller programs within Peace Corps (Education, Health, and Environmental programs are all larger) I gave the placement team quite a task.  When they assigned me to serve as a Sustainable Agricultural Systems Extension Agent in Panamá, I called to let them know they had likely mixed me up with another candidate.  Other than living in the country, I had zero experience in agriculture. 

What I didn’t yet know was that Peace Corps Panama’s Sustainable Agricultural Systems, SAS, Program was in the process of increasing the business/entrepreneurial advising work that volunteers take part in in order to work towards the program’s goal of improving agribusiness practices in rural Panama (The other two goals relate to improved staple crops and agroforestry practices.)

Though it may vary year-by-year, recently the Panama placement teams have been selecting about 20 SAS volunteers with more traditional agricultural experience, and 5 or so with a background in business. 

I posted about one of my typical workdays a few months ago, but the work that volunteers do varies tremendously by volunteer and by site throughout the country.  In preparation to train incoming SAS volunteers on what we do in the agribusiness program, I made a video highlighting some of the many agribusiness related projects that volunteers have been working on here in Panama.  While it is certainly not all encompassing, I think it’s a great overview of what Peace Corps Agribusiness Volunteers do in Panamá. 

To summarize what many of us said, here are some of the activities a SAS volunteer in Panama may find him or herself doing:

  • Giving personal and group financial training
  • Training interested group or community members in computer programs like Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and Email
  • Assisting with group organization
  • Training on the function and roles of board and group members
  • Official group establishment support (There’s a long paperwork process to this here in Panama)
  • Advising the producers on how to improve their products
    • Value can be added by improving the production process or by lengthening the production process: 2nd rate cacao -> 1st rate cacao; cacao -> chocolate bars
  • Directing producers on how to manage and/or improve their product line
  • Assisting with logistical challenges (We live in some pretty out-there places!)
  • Connecting producers with potential buyers
  • Teaching producers how to maintain positive and sustainable client relationships

As you may have noticed from my posts, many of us like to work both in and out of our communities.  Interested volunteers can apply for Work Related Leave to travel to other Peace Corps sites to help with casual informative sessions, charlas, in just about any topic relating to agribusiness/money/finance.  For example, I’ve recently been helping several community water groups to organize their resources and financially plan for the implantation and maintenance of their new aqueduct systems.  Though it’s not quite “agri-business,” the SAS volunteers in Panama are some of the only ones who receive relevant training during PST. 

So what about if you’re really into business and especially love working with new communities?  If that’s your case, you could apply to be a National Agribusiness Coordinator for the SAS Program!  Usually formed as an East/West pair, the Peace Corps Agribusiness Coordinators are given additional support and a travel budget in order to spread agribusiness knowledge throughout the country.  Duties include:

  • Train incoming volunteers in relevant agribusiness practices in Panama during their PST (Pre-Service Training) and IST (In-Service Training)
  • Develop positive relationships with related government agencies and NGO’s
  • Support volunteers in their in-site work through site visits, seminar assistance, and additional training
  • Develop new training materials and techniques to be shared through Peace Corps Panama’s Agribusiness Manual
  • Serve as the point person for volunteers and staff for any questions or resources related to agribusiness

If you’re a future volunteer with an interest in business or a SAS volunteer coming to Panama, there are two important takeaways I want you to have.

First, just because you’re not enrolled in a business program does not mean you won’t get to do business related projects during your service.  One of the great things about Peace Corps is that it is what you make it.  If you want to work in business, do it! 

Secondly, if you’re a SAS volunteer, I can almost guarantee you that some business-related project will come up throughout your service, even if you’re intent on working 100% on the more agricultural side of things.  So, don’t zone out during your agribusiness trainings and don’t be afraid to ask one of the agribusiness volunteers for help if you need it; Goodness knows we’ll need yours when it’s time to fertilize the yucca!