Monday, November 23, 2015

Party on the East Side

One of the aspects I love most about Panama is the incredible diversity you can find in such a small geographic area, and since Panama is a pretty safe and stable country, we have over 200 volunteers scattered through many of the different cities, towns, villages, and indigenous reserves.  

When volunteers move to and integrate into these host communities, we develop a sense of local pride and belonging- a feeling that we´re usually all too eager to share with anyone who will take the time to get to know the people and places we´ve come to love and identify with.  

So it´s probably no surprise that my favorite part of my job as Regional Leader has been to visit volunteers in their communities and get to know a little more about their local culture and customs- which can truly vary even amongst communities less than an hour´s walk away from each other!  

While I usually make one-on-one visits for work, I also really look forward to bigger events and festivities.  Peace Corps (Panama) volunteers are a really amazing group of smart, fun, and kind people that I love spending time with, so I was especially excited to participate in one of the biggest events we´ve ever hosted in my region- the Anniversary of the founding of the Emberá-Wounaan reservation in Panama.  

To clarify- Peace Corps didn´t host the event.  The locals have a lot of pride in their culture (as they should!) and celebrate this important milestone in a large indigenous community located a three hour boat ride down the Pacific coast and up the Sambu river.  One of my friends, Nico, lives there and has a talent for organization and event planning, so he invited PCVs from all over the country to come and celebrate with the village.  

Around thirty volunteers made the long trek out here to hang out in Sambu and I think it´s pretty safe to say a great time was had by all.  There was tons of festival food (jungle meat on a stick anyone? How about some home-made alcoholic corn beverage?), cultural presentations (historic music and dances by them, and a historic dance/wobble mix up by us), contests (breath holding contest, tug-of-war, barefoot running, and a drinking contest), and plenty of time to spend with friends both new and old.  The locals even took us under their wing and painted intricate designs on all of us with jagua- a paint similar to henna thats made from local fruits and lasts 1-2 weeks.  

Even though I spent most of my Peace Corps service with a completely different indigenous group (the Ngäbe) across the country in Bocas del Toro, I´ve come to look on Darien with a similar fondness and affinity.  I´m so thankful for the opportunity to share my new province with so many of my friends and fellow volunteers, and I´m especially glad that we were able to contribute to the sense of local pride and identity,  A friend of mine recently ran into an indigenous woman in Panama city who hadn´t been able to make it home for the celebrations.  Even all the way in the city she had heard about all of the volunteers who had come out to show their support, and told my friend that it made her and many fellow Emberá especially proud of their heritage.  How awesome is that?

Friday, October 2, 2015


Welcoming our new volunteers after their Swear In Ceremony

Three months ago I said goodbye to my sweet little community in Bocas del Toro and moved across the country to start my new job as the Regional Coordinator for Darien and Panama Este. 

My days have been filled with site visits, meetings with communities and development agencies, adjusting to life outside the campo, and so, so many smoothies. While I'm still getting used to the loud noises of "city life" (there's a busy road right in front of my house) and miss my friends and nearly endless supply of fresh chocolate, life in the Darien has gotten off to a good start. 

As an update to this blog about accepting my new position a few months back, here's what I'm up to nowadays:

Visiting volunteers-  Volunteer support is a big part of my new role as Regional Leader, so I make a point to visit volunteers in their sites and listen to whats going on- the good, the bad, and the ugly (Peace Corps volunteers can have some of  the grossest issues imaginable.)  I also like to meet a few community members while I'm there, since seeing their love and respect for their volunteer is one of the sweetest things to brighten up my day. 

Hosting volunteers- Since I live in the regional hub, many volunteers stay at my house on the way into or out of their sites.  It can  be really challenging and stressful to serve as a volunteer in remote access sites, so I love to surprise visitors with homemade dinners or a package of cookies to go.  Massy has taken to his role as house dog quite well and also likes to encourage volunteers with ample snuggles and excited tail waggles. 

He seems to be adapting quite nicely.

Developing relationships with development agencies and NGOs- Peace Corps volunteers come into their communities with little to no money for projects, with the goal of obtaining locally sustainable projects and funding.  Oftentimes we work as the link between our rural communities and Panamanian and/or international development agencies.  When campaigning for your cause, it always helps to have an in with the people that make decisions about what communities receive projects, so another big part of my job is building relationships between Peace Corps and these gatekeepers and decision-makers.  I've had to completely re-learn how to network, since many of the things that would be a definite "No" in the United States are very common here.  For example, it is very common to text about business , use personal email addresses and phone numbers, and to start a meeting without asking all about the other person's family, children, birthday party that happened last week would be considered rude.  My personal secret weapon to Panamanian agency relations?  Bringing a home baked cake.  It works every time.

Planning regional events- In addition to quarterly meetings for all regional volunteers and office representatives, I also plan agency visits and fun volunteer activities.  Peace Corps Panama volunteers generally get together after each regional meeting to do something fun and spend time together.  Regions like Bocas del Toro and Cocle (and essentially every province except for Darien) have beautiful beaches, but out here on the East side we have to be slightly more creative.  So, every few months we host a big goat roast.  It's a fun day filled with cooking, friends, and so much food, and it  was my job to plan it.  I kept waiting on something to ruin it (there's no way I could get lucky enough for it to turn out well the first time...) but other than our goat arriving 3 hours later and 30 pounds heavier than promised, it was a great day. 

 The Darien + Este volunteers
Goat Roast Time!

Scouting for future Peace Corps communities- One of my favorite parts of this job has been to see all of the work that goes into preparing a community before the volunteer even arrives in country.  In Panama, communities must formally request a volunteer and then host town meetings to present the future host family and community guide to Peace Corps representatives.  Seeing their anticipation and calming their worries has been one of the sweetest and most eye-opening experiences thus far.

"What if they don't like our food?" 
"You're sure it's okay we can't give them electricity?" 
"Can the blue-eyed ones see in the dark like cats?"
"Are they going to get married and have babies and live here forever?"

Oftentimes I feel like volunteers (myself included) can get so wrapped up in their own experiences that we forget that our new neighbors and community members have also worked and sacrificed so that we can be part of their families and homes. As I help to prepare communities to receive volunteers, I appreciate so much more my own community.  I may have a new house across the country, but my sweet village will always be my Panamanian home.   

Hiking into a new Peace Corps community

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Saying Goodbye

“All good things must come to an end, but I wouldn’t have wanted it to end any other way or with any other people.”

Just about a month ago I left my site for the last time, and man, it was rough.  I had been so busy thinking about and planning for my upcoming cross-country move that I had spent very little time dwelling on my looming departure or preparing for a going away party.  Having heard numerous disappointing accounts of despedidas (going away parties) going wrong, I had very little expectations for anything my gente might put together. 

And honestly, I was okay with that. 

So I was moved to tears (nearing sobs, if we´re being honest) when various community members organized not one, but two events to show me how much my two years had meant to them.  My actual despedida was an official party organized by one of the teachers in our little school.  Like me, she´s not from the village and her family lives about 12 hours away, so she understood more than most what I was going through when I went through feelings of loneliness and isolation. 

Each family in the community contributed $5 (almost a whole day´s wages) in order to provide a community lunch and gifts for me.  They decorated our community pavilion and then, one by one, they stood up and shared with me their favorite memories and their thanks for how much Peace Corps has done for the community and how much they would miss me.  Many of the families even made me extra gifts like hand-crocheted bags, jewelry, and hair accessories.  When it was finally my turn to speak, I blinked back tears and tried to focus on the speech that I had been practicing for the last week. 

Despite my best intentions, I only made it through a few sentences.  Later on in the day I mentioned to someone how frustrated I was that I hadn´t been able to share all of the thoughts, feelings, and memories that I had wanted to.  In response, she told me, “I understand.  But Geli, what you couldn´t say with your mouth, you said with your eyes.”

The despedida finished after lunch, and after a community photo shoot I spent the afternoon visiting as many families as I could, knowing this would be my last chance to say goodbye. 

After dinner with some neighbors, I planned to have my final meeting to make coffee on our new eco-stove and answer any last questions the community members may have had abou the project.  I expected there to be a handful of people who would spend 20 or 30 minutes with me but was surprised by a second despedida!

More than 40 people- men, women, children, and teenagers- showed up with Johnny cakes (my favorite local coconut bread) and a cake that one of my Baking & Business students had made for me.  After making coffee and enjoying the food, a teenager who I had sent to one of Peace Corps´ youth camps suggested that anyone who had not been able to attend the earlier despedida take the opportunity to share memories and thanks.  “But first,” he said, “everyone should turn off their flashlights so that everyone can cry and nobody will feel bad about it.”

In two years, I had never once seen anyone in the village cry, so seeing such strong emotions prompted by my departure meant more to me than I could even begin to describe in a blog post. 

Not having access to electricity, people generally go to bed quite early in my town, but on that night my neighbors and I stayed up together until almost 1 am, after a while not really saying much but also not wanting to end the night, and thus, my two years in the village.  Almost painfully, I finally made it back to my house where I finished packing up my things and tucked myself into my hammock one last time. 

As my favorite taxi driver picked Massy and I up at 6 am the next morning, I said final goodbyes to one of my favorite families who had gotten up extra early to see me off.  They prayed for me and I promised that I would call as soon as I arrived safe in my new house, knowing that it would be a long time before it becomes a home like the one I was now leaving behind.   

Even Rolando, my sweet taxi driver, shared in the goodbyes.  “The town may have other Peace Corps volunteers,” he said, “but there will always be only one Geli.” 

"We will miss you a lot.  We will remember you forever.  Thank you for everything you have given us, and may God bless you forever."

Monday, June 29, 2015

If You Were to Visit My Village

If you were to visit my village, I’d tell you to bring a camera, your clothes, and a good pair of boots, but to please, please not get carried away with all of the newest gadgets and accessories a good outdoors store will make you feel like you need.  Life here is simple, and no, you won’t get malaria, yellow fever, or rabies from visiting me in the jungle.  Bocas is quite rainy and muddy though, so I’ll make no promises about mild cases of bug bites or jungle rash.

If you were to visit my village, I’d spend the week before you arrived planning out the meals we would eat so that we could buy groceries in the neighboring town where I would come to pick you up.  We would pay $1 to ride the local chiva for about 20 minutes, and then the choice would be yours- $12 for a private truck to take us all the way to my town, or a 40 minute hike down a gravel road, stopping to enjoy the beautiful mountain views a long the way.  The amount of stuff you’ve brought will probably make the decision for us. 

If you were to visit my village, you’d probably be struck by how sparse the town center is (6 houses, 1 2-room school, and a tiny store managed out of one of the homes) and wonder where all the people are.  Within a few hours though, my neighbors would hear that you’re here and would start arriving at my house to introduce themselves and offer to be our guide for a trip around the area.  Would we like to see the waterfalls?  Do you feel like working on the chocolate farm for a day?  Could we possibly come eat dinner with them the next evening? 

If you were to visit my village, you would likely love to spend the day reading in a hammock, but at some point (if it’s not raining), I’ll force you to go visit my neighbors with me.  Having lived here for a while, I know that if we don’t visit them, they’ll feel insulted.  So you and your boots and me and my bare feet will walk down the path to visit.  Because you’re a visitor, they’ll probably make us hot chocolate and a plate of food, and even if you speak Spanish, they’ll talk through me as if you don’t.  Don’t take it personally; they did it to me too.  After a few minutes, the conversation will come to a lull, and you’ll probably feel like it’s time to leave.  That’s just because you’re new though, and I’ll insist that we must stay for at least another half hour and sit through the silence by making faces at children and doing our best not to feel awkward (because this is how my villagers do it.) If we leave too soon, that would also be an insult. 

The time you spend in my village, whether 2 days or a week, will be normal for those of us who live here, but full of wonder and excitement if this is your first visit (especially applicable to non-Peace Corps Volunteers).  Yes, I always have fresh chocolate and bananas at my house, yes we do have to bathe in the creek if the water goes out, and no, the stars aren’t always that bright- sometimes it gets a little cloudy. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Welcome to Peace Corps Panama!

A few months ago, the Peace Corps Panama office asked me to write an introductory letter to be given to incoming volunteers, and since reading the letters in my own Welcome Book was one of the first impressions I had of Peace Corps Panama, I was excited to share (briefly!) some of the things I've learned.  

Ñan törö!

Hello and welcome to Peace Corps Panama! We are all very excited for you to begin this incredible, challenging, fulfilling, and fun adventure.

My name is Abby Bryant, and I am a Group 73 Sustainable Agriculture Systems (SAS) Volunteer in a rural indigenous village in Bocas del Toro.  Though I am part of the agriculture program, I arrived to Panama with very little technical knowledge. I was concerned that my business background would not be sufficient, but the SAS program has been incredibly supportive in providing me with the tools and training I needed to succeed as a volunteer. 

In addition to serving as a National Coordinator for Agribusiness, I keep myself busy with a variety of projects in my community.  Depending on the day, I may be facilitating a business training, working on a cacao farm, teaching a women’s group how to bake, or hanging out in my house with a bunch of kids and my dog.  One of my favorite parts of being a Peace Corps volunteer is the freedom and flexibility we have in directing our work.  Though this unique responsibility may at times seem a little daunting, try to take a breath and savor the moment instead of focusing on having just the right experience or always knowing the answers.  

Before joining the Peace Corps, I thought I would feel most accomplished after a successful seminar or business development training. However, that was before a neighboring family started referring to me as Tia so that I would feel a part of their family; It was before kids fought over who would be first to show me their new, improved grades, and it was most certainly before my community members, one-by-one, arrived at my little hut to welcome me and tell me that they had prayed for my safe arrival. 

I cannot tell you what your site will be like, what you’ll do each day, or even what type of relationship you will have with your future community members.  What I can tell you is this: every challenge and hardship will be worth it and your experience will be unique to you. 

Congratulations and we look forward to seeing you soon!

-Abby Bryant
Quebrada Pita, Bocas del Toro

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Peace Corps and "Putting Your Life on Hold"

Though I’ve pretty much heard the full range of comments- negative to positive- about joining the Peace corps, a particular one has stuck with me: “It’s so nice that young people like you are willing to put your life on hold for 2 years to join the Peace Corps.”  Every time I’ve heard it, it’s been from well-meaning friends and acquaintances, but since actually experiencing what Peace Corps is, my automatic reaction to these people is to tell them that they’re wrong. 

As I’ve previously written, two years is a long time no matter where you are or what you’re doing.  So when you take into consideration the distance from the known (friends, family, American culture, etc.) as well as the stereotypical Peace Corps conditions of hardship and cultural displacement, I can see how many people would arrive at the conclusion that two years spent as a Peace Corps volunteer is two years of life put on hold. 

However, to those people I ask, what is life to you?  If life is accumulating wealth, living in close proximity to almost any amenity or material good you may desire, or having a corporate-climbing job, then yes, volunteers put their lives on hold. 

It’s only when you’re to look outside the box of a typical American life that you can understand why that statement is wrong.  If to you, life is having a fulfilling career, constantly learning, living around people who love you, and having the opportunity to truly experience a culture different then your own, then Peace Corps service would simply be two more years of living a fun and fulfilling life. 

Of course, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t days where I crave comforts of home and the “life” I left behind.  I miss dressing up for work, running errands in my own car, eating nice food, and not being the most educated person in my town.  Sometimes I love teaching simple business charlas, but sometimes it’s hard not to think about my friends back home working on fancy (to me) advertising campaigns or getting that next promotion. So on hard days in Panama, I too fall into the trap of thinking only of what I’ve left behind, and forgetting all that I’ve gained. 

However, as my two-year commitment was coming to a close and I began to seriously consider my next steps, both personally and professionally, the incredible time I’ve spent as a Peace Corps volunteer really came to light.  These two years, though at times long, hard, and uncomfortable, have been two of the best and most formative years of my life.  I've had all of the sterotypical Peace Corps experiences such as traveling, teaching kids English, and enjoying bastante hammock time, but I've also been able to experience first hand that Peace Corps is so much more than that.  I've added some seriously awesome points to my résumé and had some of the coolest experiences I could have imagined (hiking through the Darién rainforest with an indigenous guide?  It was pretty fun).  On top of all of that, I've made incredible connections, lifelong friendships, and precious memories.  

So, that’s the main reason I’ve decided to stay a third year- because for me Peace Corps hasn’t been “putting my life on hold,” but instead living life to the fullest.  

Thursday, June 11, 2015

2 Years in the Peace Corps

Two years.  24 months. 104 weeks. 730 days... And that's not counting the 2-3 months on on-site training. 

The potentially daunting time commitment is what puts many people off of Peace Corps service, so it makes sense that one of the most common questions I’m asked is, “What is two years in the Peace Corps really like?”

Since this week marks two years in Panama for me, I figured that it's finally a good time to put it into words.

In two years, your friends back home will pass many of life’s milestones: getting engaged, married, and having babies.  Some will get fancy-sounding promotions and begin (or continue) climbing the corporate ladder.  You, on the other hand, will celebrate small successes like actually getting people to come to the event you’ve spent weeks planning, convincing village members that no, you don’t want to get married yet and that’s okay, and will have a different type of milestone: the number of months you can spend parasite free. 

New technologies will be invented (You won’t know how to use them), new movies will be released (You only know them by their foreign titles), and the billboard top 100 will constantly be refreshed by new music (If you’ve had some time in the capital city, you may have heard of about 10 of them). 

You may struggle to stay in contact with all of your American friends and begin to drift apart from some of them.  You will bond with Peace Corps friends over frustrations only they can understand and who pooped their pants first.  Both groups of friends will remain precious and important to you. 

In two years you will never stop learning.  You will learn a new language (or two), a new culture, and how to work in this new, very different environment.  Like a child, you will relearn simple skills like how to take care of yourself without the amenities or products you’re used to.  You might begin washing clothes by hand, group bathing (fully clothed) in the creek, and/or cooking without a microwave.

You’ll make yourself a home in a place that once felt so foreign, and then bring little bits of your old home to your new one.  Your American headlamp will illuminate your locally made table as you try new foods and stay up late reading in English (for entertainment) or your new language (for learning). 

Two years is a good amount of time to explore a new place, but you'll still feel rushed to do all of the things you had in mind when you came to country.  You will become familiar with your local town and surrounding areas, and many people may even recognize you.  Eventually they will make the change from “Mira, gringa!” to chatting with you about Peace Corps and why you wanted to spend two years with them. 

Two years is too long and too short.  Some days I literally count the days until it’s time to leave, while on many others I’m appalled that a full two years has come and gone.  I feel like I’ve just hit the sweet spot in trust built with community members, confidence in the local language and work projects.  

Two years is up?  Finally.  Two years is up?  I think I may extend.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

To the Mountains: Camping with my Gente

It always makes me smile when my neighbors talk about how “developed” our little village is.  “Ah, but Geli, there used to be so many animals.  And so much more monte around! Just look at all the houses there are now.”  We have no electricity, our water comes from a spring-fed aqueduct and frequently goes out, and there are less than 10 houses in the immediate distance.  It’s not exactly what I would consider “developed.”

So, if that’s modern, what do my people consider to be really out there?   I asked the same thing, and in response they told me all about the Cordillera- a wild, beautiful place where they had a house.  There are no roads, and the only way to reach the house is by making a 6-hour hike along the ridgeline or by the river until you reach their plot of land.

Having heard from the previous volunteer that this trip, though difficult, was a great experience, I made plans to go a few months ago and was sadly letdown as I had to spend the entire time in my hammock, sick with another mystery illness.  Of course, that just didn’t sit well with me, so my neighbors and I scheduled a second trip to the mountains during the school vacation this past week. 

Since reaching the trail that runs along the ridge requires spending at least two hours getting to the top of the muddy, slippery hills, the kids and I voted to take the river trail.  Though slightly flatter, the trail ran along slippery rock surfaces and required more than twenty river crossings.  It’s a good thing Massy likes to swim.

Along the way, we stopped to visit several “neighbors.”  Even though they lived very solitary lives away from other families, communities, and businesses, they were quite happy to chat with us and offer us food and drinks.  One family even gave us a huge slab of freshly butchered pork to take with us!

After a long, arduous nine hours, we finally made it to their mountain home, and true to their word, it was one of the most tranquil places I’ve visited.  From the porch you can see the small creek nearby and hear the rushing river a few minutes downhill.  Without people around to hunt, the area is still abounding with wildlife and as we fell asleep at night, we fell asleep to the sounds of still singing birds, screeching monkeys, and nearby croaking frogs.

We spent the following days looking for waterfalls, swimming in the river, and scavenging for local fruits and veggies to enrich the rice, beans, and pork that we brought.  There were fresh bananas, culantro, peppers from an abandoned garden, cinnamon leaves, and calaloo- a small green fern which we chopped up and served in our rice. 

After three days at our mountain retreat, it was time to make our way back, which we completed measurably faster at 6 hours instead of nine.  And just like that, we’re back to work, development, and amenities.  At least, that’s how they see it. 

But mom, I'm sooo tired.  

Back to town?  Apparently.