Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Panama from Dad's Perspective

Imagine your daughter, a girl you love, cherish and have always tried to protect, moving to a Third World country (Abby’s note: Panama is not a third world country.  We’re considered “developing”), living in a community of local indigenous, with no electricity or running water (We usually have running water… it was just out during his visit), for 26 months.  Many Peace Corps parents have experienced this very phenomenon since 1962 when John F. Kennedy first created what has become a shining example of young Americans volunteering in the most difficult of circumstances.

Abigail “Abby” Lauren Bryant graduated from Saint Vincent College, Latrobe, Pennsylvania in May of 2013 with a degree in Business Administration.  A year prior to that, in May of 2012, she had decided to apply for a position with the Peace Corps, and after various levels of scrutiny, was accepted in February of 2013.  I was not surprised that she was accepted as she has always been very driven, setting goals and achieving them. 

As with many fathers, I always did my best to keep her safe.  We lived in very safe area, and I maintained contact with personnel at both her high school and college.  While trying not to be bothersome, I was known on a first-name basis.  Dave, the Vice President of Admissions at Saint Vincent, was my main contact and the individual who helped me to know that Abby was safe in college.

When you become a Peace Corps parent, it is very difficult because you truly fear for your child’s safety.  I could not pick up a telephone and check with a “Dave” to see how Abby was doing.  Because of the very poor cellular service where Abby was/is assigned, I also found that I could not call her whenever I felt the need or desire.  She would call if and when she had service.

I am grateful for the opportunities to visit Abby and her community and I would strongly encourage every Peace Corps parent to do the same.  Shortly after she left in June of 2013, we made arrangements for me to visit her for Christmas and New Year.

Abby lives in **** (for security reasons, I prefer not to share the name of my town online), Bocas del Toro, Panama.  Her village (“her people” as she so often refers to them) is populated by approximately 250 Ngäbe indigenous people.  It was during that first visit that I became comfortable with the fact that Abby was “safe.” In a conversation with Juan Castillo, the patriarch of a large family (10 children and untold grandchildren), translated by Abby, told me not to worry because when I was not with her, he was her “Father.”  I knew I could trust him and it certainly helped with some of my concerns.

There is a true sense of community in ****.  One of the most important things to do during both of my visits to her community was to pasear, that is, “To spend time with your neighbors.”  It is also part of the tradition to give the visitor something to eat or drink.  I enjoyed some truly interesting, local drinks of coffee, hot chocolate, and fresh coconut water that I drank straight from the coconut at the house of Pedro and Chevela.

Speaking of homes, as a visiting Peace Corps parent, I have felt very welcome into homes of people who speak a different language than me.  With Abby interpreting, I got to know many in her community, and I believed Abraham Castillo when he told me I was part of their community.  I had the opportunity to show my gratitude this most recent visit when I purchased a whole pig that was cooked over an open fire and served as part of the 2015 New Year celebration.  In addition to my many pictures with “Abby’s people”, some of my most prized possessions are the chakaras given to me Ramon and Avilia Tera and Juan Castillo’s family.  And last year, I was given the opportunity to purchase a hand-made hammock from Juan’s wife.  After I learned how many hours went into making the chakaras and the hammock, I can truly say that these gifts will be displayed in my own home with much pride.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, Abby has further developed her strong sense of character, has demonstrated an uncanny ability to do so much with so little, and has learned important lessons that will serve her the rest of her life.  I also know from talking with her that her fellow Peace Corps volunteers will be friends for life.

Is it hard to be a Peace Corps parent?  You bet it is.  However, the joy of seeing your child accomplish so much in a very trying atmosphere and the opportunity to share in her community is but one of the many trade-offs a parent gets when your precious daughter leaves for a place that seems, at times, unknown.

To my dad- Thanks for putting up with all the hiking, lack of amenities, and "extras" that come along with campo life!  I'm sure your visit will be the talk of the town for years to come... literally :)

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