Tuesday, December 30, 2014


When writing a recap of 2013, I remember thinking that my 2014 was going to be much less eventful. After all, how much can happen when you're living in a rural village of less than 300 people? Though I have loved living a more laid-back life, I'm happy to report that 2014 has been filled with productive work, fun travel, great friends, new experiences, and things that are certainly much funnier now that they're over and done with.  So what happened this year?

In January my dad wrapped up his Panama visit with a NYE party in my site and a trip to Bocas Island.  Then I celebrated another milestone: turning 23 while facilitating a youth leadership camp! For some reason I've always loved working on my birthday and I have to say, camp was a pretty fun assignment for that week.  

With February came In-Service Training (IST) which was a great opportunity to reconnect with other volunteers and see a new part of Panama.  To top it off, the other Bocas volunteers and I received a whole week's worth of chocolate training.  Tough job, right? 

I spent most of March in my site, working with my gente and recovering from the double serving of parasites I dealt with the month before.  Only in Peace Corps would you respond to "I have parasites," with, "Oh, good!"

April was a busy month- I improved my Ngäbere skills at indigenous language week in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé, my town started our baking and business group, Travis, Christina, and I celebrated Easter with quite the feast, and Massy and I adopted a cat.

I especially looked forward to May because that meant I got to go on vacation to the United States! Eleven months is a long time to be away from home, and I admit that I may have slightly teared up when the border control agent welcomed me home to the United States of America.

June marked a full year in Panama for Group 73.  Though I spent most of the month in-site, I also got to head to Panama City to meet group 75 and help out with their first week of training.  Especially given the timing, it was really neat to see the new group going through exactly the same things that I did one year before! 

July was a month of visits and visitors!  I finally got to visit Zoe's site on the coast and was able to start a baking and business group while I was there.  It was neat to see my projects spread to other areas, and as always, it was wonderful to spend time with my friends in their sites.  Shortly after returning to my own site, I welcomed Whitney and Megan, two trainees from the new group. I got to show them the ropes of life as a volunteer and am happy to report that they're both alive and well- Whitney ended up in Bocas like me, and Megan is in a coffee site in Colón.  To top off an already great month, my bien metida Darien friend, Alex, also made the long journey up to Bocas.  We spent the week visiting cool places in my site and eating so. much. chocolate.  

In August I celebrated one year of being in sites by spending most of the month with my sweet gente. They make coming home that much better!  

Massy always makes leaving difficult, and in September I finally relented and decided to take him along when I gave a basic finance seminar at Colleen's site on the coast.  He loved it and it turned out to be good travel practice for our upcoming move.  Another neat thing that happened this month was being invited to bring one of my local artisan's to Panama City to exhibit our goods during the Central/South America Country Director's Conference.  Many "higher ups" of Peace Corps were present, and I even got to meet the incredibly sweet Director herself, Carrie Hessler-Radlet!

October... October was good at first. Elena and I were invited to give a week-long agribusiness seminar to micro-finance grant recipients from the Department of Agriculture in Santiago, Veraguas. We had a great week with great participants, and by the end some of them were even asking how they could get their own Peace Corps volunteer!  Unfortunately, I got sick towards the end of the week and got slammed by a Pneumonia, a skin infection, parasites (round 3), AND a double ear infection all within a month.  That's a new record for me.  

After finally recovering from all the issues from late October/early November, I was able to attend two great Thanksgiving celebrations.  I love spending time with volunteers because the further we get in our service, the more connected we are- professionally and emotionally.  Volunteers have become some of my closest friends and confidants, and I am so thankful to have such a great group of them in my life!  

In December I packed my bags (or rather, left them packed) and headed over to explore the Darien. I had been wanting to see that side of the country for quite a while, so I was really excited to have the opportunity to spend the week both working on projects and hanging out with the awesome volunteers that live there.  And who knew the people there feed you so much?!  In 2015 I'll be heading out to Darien again, this time for a little bit longer, and I'm looking forward to getting to know more people and places (and also to eat some more delicious food...)

Thank you to all of my family, friends, and sweet blog supporters!  You guys make the tough days bearable and the great days even greater.  I couldn't have done it without you and am looking forward to 2015 and all the new people, places, and experiences that the new year will bring!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Darien Part 5: We did some work too

Charlie and I teach about how you can use your cook fire as an oven

Charlie's community was awesome- over 40 people came to our Baking & Business class!

"So now we wait?" ... "Yes, but it's worth it."

Since my trip to the Darien was work-based, we made sure to plan some charlas in local communities.  After talking to the two agriculture volunteers, we decided to do an Introduction to Cacao/Baking and Business hybrid for Charlie's community and a Personal Finance session for the women in Sam's.  

Since both were sessions that I've taught multiple times, I was able to relax a little bit more and get to know the communities.  Since I generally work with groups of people that tend to be a little more shy and reserved, it was awesome to introduce topics to the outgoing Emberá.  As it turns out, they have cacao trees, but almost nobody knows how to care for them or process the beans into chocolate.  

And then this perfect Peace Corps moment happened:
Older gentleman: "There's this fungus that grows on my cacao and burns it.  Does anyone else have that problem?"
Me: "Actually, it's a fungus called Monilia and it's all over Central America."
Older gentleman: "Well I want to be better, so what can I do to control it?"
Me: "You can cut the damaged cacao pods off the trees because they're permanently damaged and can spread the disease to other pods."
Older gentleman: "Hm.  Well if they can spread, shouldn't I also bury them?"

Though it may not seem like that big of a deal, I can't put into words how frustrated I've gotten trying to get cacao farmers in my area to adopt simple techniques in the past year.  It's a fight just to convince them how beneficial cutting damaged pods off their trees can be- so to have a farmer come up with the idea of then burying them (which is ideal!!) was super encouraging.  

Panamanians love skits.  They think we're hilarious no matter what we do, so when Sam came out in a women's paruma skirt and I came out in a men's loincloth, they just about lost it.  

Cash flow practice

One of the ice-breakers we played was telephone... though I'm not sure they quite understood how to play since we ended up with the phrase (in Emberá) "What do we say now?"

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Darien Part 4: And Then They Painted Me

One of the aspects of my Darien visit that I was most looking forward to was getting to experience an indigenous culture so different than the one I live in.  I had heard tons of great things about the Embera and Wounaan people from other volunteers: that they're friendly, open people, the women still don parumas everyday, they feed you a lot of food, and that you can (especially on special occasions) get painted with jagua- a dark blue dye made from a small fruit.  Similar to henna, these faux tattoos last 1-2 weeks before fading away on their own.  Said to have both medicinal and bug repellant properties, jagua was originally used as a type of camouflage to aid with jungle hunts.  Today this tradition is used mostly on special occasions and holidays and can be quite intricate and beautiful.  

Since I didn't know if I'd have the chance to return to the Comarca Emberá-Wounaan, I was determined to get painted during my short visit.  Though I'm sure the guys were tired of my daily inquisitions of the who/when/how/how much of jagua, it finally paid off and I talked a sweet Emberá woman into painting me on my last day. 

The local women's group making tortillas for a fundraiser

Jagua paint

The jagua is painted on with small sticks, cloths, and/or fingers.  While at first the design doesn't appear to be very dark, it deepens into a deep navy overnight.  Since I don't have any tattoos- and especially not full sleeves or leg pieces, I wasn't used to the range of reactions I've gotten since getting painted.  I've seen everything from disgust to looks of being intimidated to outright impressed. While sometimes it's been a little trying to be so obviously judged on a superficial element in which the observer usually doesn't even understand, it's been both eyeopening and quite entertaining.  As your mom always told you, "Don't judge a book by it's cover."  :)

My sweet little Bocas neighbors modeling some of the handwoven masks I bought in the Darien.

If you want to learn more about the Emberá or see cool photos of life in the Darien, you should check out Nick's blog here.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Darien Part 3: The Hike to La Chunga

There's a trail in there... somewhere.

As I mentioned in my last post, boat travel can be a huge hassle for people in the Darien.  Since gasoline to power the boats is expensive and the general population doesn’t travel very frequently, boats generally leave only a few times per week for their normal destinations.  Since we wanted to go from Taimati to Puerto Indio on Tuesday- a route that’s neither normal nor on Taimati’s Saturday boat day, we had to find an alternate option.

With the help of volunteers who had done the same trip in the past, we planned to hike from Taimati to Cemaco to La Chunga, where we would then spend the night and take one of their cheaper, almost daily boats to Puerto Indio.  It sounded simple enough in theory, but when you realize that the “trail” is an incredibly muddy, non-marked path through solid jungle and we were unable to notify the people in La Chunga that we would be arriving and needing food and a place to stay, things get a little more complicated. 

Even though Austin and I were the only ones planning on making the whole trip to Puerto Indio, Matt came along to learn the trail, and the three of us decided it was for the best to hire a local guide.  Out in the jungles of the Darien, you really don’t want to be getting lost. 

Having known the hike was inevitable, I tried to pack as light as I could, but was still pretty weighed down with bastante clothes, seminar supplies, food, and camping/sleeping stuff.  The guys were super sweet in offering to carry my (way too large) pack for me, but my pride got the best of me and I was determined to carry my own stuff…. An hour into the hike with mud seeping into my nearly knee high boots and a rainstorm clearly approaching, I finally relented.  And oh!  How much more fun jungle hikes are when you don’t have a huge pack!

Despite being free of my extra weight, I still managed to fall multiple times.  At one point, the hill was so slick with mud that I fell into a push-up position and was attempting to literally claw my way up.  As any good Peace Corps volunteer, we were still able to laugh at our soaking wet, sweaty, mud covered selves and take a moment to ponder how cool what we were doing actually was- We got to hike through the jungles of the Darien gap with the help of an indigenous Wounan guide.  Pretty awesome, right? 

When we finally arrived in La Chunga nearly three hours later, we began the task of searching for a place to stay and people to feed us.  Since one of our friends had been the volunteer in that village, we were able to make quick connections and before long had house keys on hand and dinner scheduled with a local family. 

Before we could settle in for the night, we of course had to have the obligatory river swim/bathing time with local kids, which is always a blast.  Bathing fully clothed is another one of those uniquely Peace Corps skills that I’m thankful to have acquired during my first few months in site J

Eager to fit in with the locals, I quickly changed into the Paruma I bought in Panama City.  Parumas are beautifully patterned wrap skirts that are unique to the indigenous people of the Darien.  New designs come out every month and many of the women have quite the collection of parumas.  Being the newbie I was, I just couldn’t figure out why mine didn’t seem to wrap like theirs- instead of laying flat, it awkwardly opened when I sat down.  Since I don’t have any pena (shyness) about talking to strangers anymore, I asked a few women for their help and was quickly informed of my mistake- the cheaper paruma that I thought I was getting a deal on was, in fact, cheaper because it was cut for a little girl, not for an adult.  Ever the saleswoman, my new friend Miriam easily convinced me to buy a new, better fitting paruma from her stock. 

Now that I was better dressed, we headed to dinner with the neighbors.  Beforehand we had bought groceries to both cover the cost of our meals and to say thank you for their generosity.  They must have been happy with our gifts, because they eagerly showed us to a table set with food and candles- it was so cute! 

One of my favorite aspects of Peace Corps is the opportunity it has given me to get to know new people from other cultures.  Especially in a second (or third!) language, it’s not always easy to walk up to a complete stranger and strike up a conversation, but with patience, a smile, and an attitude of compassion and cultural curiosity, it’s amazing the people you can meet and stories you can hear.  

Friday, December 19, 2014

Darien Part 2: Taimati + Cemaco

It didn’t take me very long to experience the beautiful yet frustrating transportation situation that faces many of the Darien volunteers- boats, and unreliable ones at that.  On our first day we knew we needed to take a ~2 hour boat ride to Taimati and were told that the boat, which leaves only once per week, would likely leave around 8 am.  Shortly after 9 am, we set off… only to purposefully beach ourselves about 30 minutes from our destination so that we could wait for high tide to roll in.  A 2 hour mid-trip delay isn’t exactly convenient, but when you spend that delay stuck at a beach exploring mangroves and drinking fresh coconut water with friends, it doesn’t seem too terribly bad. 

Shortly before 2 pm we arrived in Taimati and the massive food onslaught began.  Having spent my first few months in site going hungry most days and losing 15 pounds from not getting fed, getting this type of treatment from host families and locals was great.  Austin even told me that sometimes he gets two lunches a day! 

After exploring the beaches of Taimati and getting to know some of the neighbors, we spent the next day visiting Matt in Cemaco.  Even though the two towns are only a 30 minute walk apart, they’re really different.  Whereas Taimati is a mostly latino town that’s slightly more developed with cement houses, electricity, and parks, Cemaco is a Wounan village that reminded me a lot of what mine might look like if all of the houses were centrally located. 

Before we knew it, it was December 8- Mother’s Day.  Mother’s Day is arguably one of the biggest holidays in Panama and many towns celebrate with communal dinners, dances, and gift giving.  I was a little sad to be missing out on my own site’s Mother’s Day festivities, but most of that sadness went away when Austin’s host sister brought us back a plate of food from the party- fried rice with beef, potato salad, apples, and cake.  And that was on top of the already large lunch and dinner that had already been cooked for us! The locals gave us a good excuse for eating all that food though- we were going to need the energy for our big hike coming up the next day! 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Other Side of the Jungle

Before I moved to Panamá to become a Peace Corps volunteer, I never would have guessed how incredibly diverse such a small country can be.  Panama possesses a wealth of both ecological and cultural aspects that could keep you busy for years just trying to get to know.  I’ve loved being able to take advantage of any opportunity to see the many different sides of Panama during my past year and a half year, and this past week got to experience one of my favorite regions so far- the Darien. 

Darien is the province that borders Columbia and is notorious for being one of the only countries in the world without a (legally) passable land border.  The roads literally just end, and if you want to explore the vast jungle on the eastern side of the country, you’ll have to go by boat, foot, or plane. 

The Darien also contains two Comarcas- Panama’s indigenous reservations.  While they technically are not a part of the Darien, since the Comarca Emberá-Wounan regions 1 and 2 are surrounded on all sides by the province and can be referred to as being “in the Darien.” 

Having spent much of my time in Panamá getting to know the language, history, and culture of the Ngäbe people in the west, I was especially excited to finally meet the notoriously outgoing indigenous people of the east- the Embera and the Wounan.  Though I do love my sweet Ngäbes, I was blown away by the hospitality and friendliness of my new eastern friends. 

From great hosts (both volunteers and locals!) to productive work days and the most food I’ve ever eaten in Panama, the time I spent in the Darien might just make up one of my favorite trips so far.  After all, how could it not be- just look at the week! 

Friday: Bus to Meteti to stay at the Peace Corps Regional Leader’s house
Saturday: Boat out to Taimati, a latino town overlooking a beautiful bay
Sunday: Visit Cemaco, a neighboring Wounan site
Monday: Mother’s Day celebrations in Taimati
Tuesday: Hike to the Embera town of La Chunga
Wednesday: Boat to Rio Indio and hike to Daipuru to give a seminar on chocolate
Thursday: Hike to Bayamon to give a personal finance seminar
Friday: Spend time with a women’s artisan group & get painted in Rio Indio
Saturday: Begin the 29 hour journey back to Bocas with a 3 am boat ride…

So maybe that last day wasn’t so great, but other than that I had great trip that I can’t wait to share!  Tons of thanks to the volunteers out there who helped me all along the way: Austin, Matt, Nick, Charlie, and Sam- you guys are awesome!