Thursday, March 12, 2015

Why You Should Definitely Get a Pet When You Join the Peace Corps

Being an animal lover and lifetime pet owner, it took me a grand total of 2 hours between first arriving in my Peace Corps site and selecting what would become my most inseparable friend for the next two years. 

Sure, there are a handful of arguments against adopting a pet while serving in the Peace Corps, but in my opinion, all of those pale against the many positives that will come along with your new best friend(s). 

Before I go any further, let me just put to rest the argument that volunteers don’t make enough money to cover a pet. Both my dog and “my” cat are well fed, vaccinated, and plenty spoiled, but I’m still almost positive that I spend more money a month on ducles than on pet expenses.  If not, it’s close. 
Side note- I’m working on a post about money and expenses as a PCV, so look for that soon!

Just in case you haven’t been following my blog or haven’t seen the hundreds of pictures that are likely on my Facebook, we’ll start from the beginning of my Peace Corps pets story:  My host family’s dog, Gringa (“gringa” is also slang for “white girl,” but dog Gringa was named for her green eyes well before human gringa showed up), had a litter of puppies just two days before I arrived in town.  Kids being kids, my new host brothers couldn’t wait to show the newborns to me, and me being me, I couldn’t wait to pick one out for myself.  So I did.  Long story short, Massy and I became fast friends and I’ve been convinced of the many pet-provided benefits ever since. 

Benefit #1: Pets give a good end to a bad day.

No matter how positive you are, how hard you work, or how much you smile in the face of challenges, you WILL have days as a Peace Corps volunteer when you return to your house at night and do everything you can not to cry or dwell on all of the awful, sad, and potentially gross things that happened to you.  Though, thankfully, those days will be the minority, having a warm, cuddly friend willing to listen to your complaints without saying anything but “I love you.  Let’s have a snack.” with those sweet eyes of his (or hers) will give a better ending to any day- good or bad.

Benefit #2: It will never again be this easy to adopt and care for a pet.

No pet adoption agencies, no fees, and no expensive veterinary certifications (though you should still get shots done.  Here they're $2-4 per injection).  Plus, since you will likely live in very simple housing with little to no expensive possessions, there's almost no chance of your new dog or cat ruining something! 

Benefit #3: You never have to go anywhere alone!

Since my community is quite spread out, I spend several hours each week hiking through the monte to visit families or work on farms.  I used to get a little worried about getting lost, and even now I still get a little bored and/or lonely when I’ve been walking awhile.  Other days, I’m stuck in my house all day long waiting out one of our familiar Bocas rainstorms.  Either way, there’s the common theme of being alone and lonely.  Thanks to Massy, though, I never have to deal with that!  My sweet little jungle dog follows me wherever I go- if that means spending all day in our hut, he’ll be snuggled at my feet (as he is at this moment) and if that means going on a 9 hour hiking trip, than he’ll be leading the charge. 

Benefit #4: The people will love your new friend.

True story:  One day, early on in my service, Massy and I were hiking in the neighboring area.  We came across a family I hadn’t met yet and they asked me, “¿Cómo se llama?”  When I responded with my name, they replied, “No, not you.  That pretty dog.”  This has repeated itself many times, in many forms.  Everyone within a 3 hour walking radius of my town knows Massy’s name even though I’m not completely sure the same could be said for mine.  Despite the fact that many dogs here are underfed and neglected and NO dogs here receive the type of affection I give Massy, the people are enamored with him and frequently treat him quite differently than their own dogs.  In fact, many families are often quite excited to tell me that they’ve been sharing their people food with Massy and I can’t even begin to count the number of times people have begged for him when I finish my service. 
Though I like to think that Massy is special, it doesn’t seem like this phenomenon is unique to us.  If you check out the Peace Corps Pets photo album on Facebook, many owners mention the locals’ unique fascination with volunteers’ furry friends.

Benefit #5: Your house will be well guarded.

Though Massy knows and loves everyone in town, that doesn’t stop him from loudly alerting me to any and every approaching visitor.  Whether it’s a machete-welding man or a shy four-year-old girl, Massy is my little alarm system.  Funny enough- though Massy has never once bitten anyone or showed any type of human aggression, this simple act of barking at visitors has convinced the people that anyone who tried to break into my house or harm me would first have to face the wrath of my sweet little jungle dog.  They’re probably right. 

Benefit #6: Your pet can bring a little bit of Peace Corps home to the United States.

Sometimes when Massy and I lay sprawled out on my wooden floor, sweating from the humid Panama heat, I dream about what it will be like to take him running in a dog park in the beautiful, cool East Tennessee fall.  It certainly seems like bliss, especially in that overheated moment.  Before making the decision to adopt a pet as a Peace Corps volunteer, I did my research and was happy to learn that while still present, the costs of bringing my future dog home from Panama would not be too great.  Though I’m not sure exactly what my plan is yet or where I’ll be living, Massy has already got someone (other than me) quite important wrapped around his little paw- my farm owning dad.  So, while my first choice would obviously be to have my little buddy with me wherever I go, I know that he has somewhere to live that’s big and open with plenty of mud.  Taking Massy home will be like taking a little bit of my Peace Corps service home, and I can’t wait to see that little bit of my two worlds together. 

For those of you that have asked: Massy is named after my pre-Peace Corps dog, Sammy, who died just a few weeks after I arrived in Panama (switch the S and the M and Sammy becomes Massy). Like Sammy (Sam), Massy also frequently goes by a shortened version of his name (Mas).

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Friends, Diving, and Whale Sharks

Whether you come to Panama for a month or 3 years, chances are that you’ll have a Panama to-do list.  Seeing ships pass through the famous Panama Canal, swimming in the tropical waters of Bocas del Toro, and sampling the world renowned coffee in Boquete are all popular activities, but with 2 years to spend, my to-do’s have been getting more and more specific.

As someone with a little more time and flexibility, I’ve been able to plan my trips around not only specific destinations, but also around the best times of the year to visit.  From once a year ferias to months long animal migration patterns, I’m happy to use my flexibility to my advantage and see a whole new side of Panama.  If you think you can see all of our little country in a week or two, you’re definitely doing it wrong!

Since neither Knoxville nor Pittsburgh is close to many diving spots, I’ve been dying to go ever since I got to Panama. After nearly 2 years of scoping out locations, prices, and marine migration timing, I finally got my chance.   For the past few months, 12 of my friends and I have been planning a SCUBA trip to dive with whale sharks and tons of other interesting marine life around Isla Coiba off the Pacific coast of Veraguas. 

Fun fact- “Ver aguas” means “To see waters” and Veraguas is the only Panamanian province that touches both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts.

Accessible via the popular surfing destination of Santa Catalina, Isla Coiba is a national park with some of the most beautiful beaches I’ve seen in my entire life.  To prove it, I haven’t edited any of the pictures in this post- it really is that beautiful!  Though at one point the island was home to a penal colony, the only current development on the island is a small ranger’s station and several cabins available for rent by ANAM, the environmental ministry of Panama. 

While Santa Catalina alone is worthy of a visit, we were there strictly for the SCUBA diving.  After a long day of travel, we enjoyed each other’s company and prepared for an early day of diving. 

Since most of our group was comprised of newly certified or beginner SCUBA divers, we were all a little anxious for the dives we’d be doing the next day- especially considering the dive shop’s slogan, “Sharks guaranteed!” Even though we were excited to dive with the giant but harmless whale sharks, the idea of diving with varieties that had pointier teeth was a little discomforting.

Since diving is always better in pairs or smaller groups, we separated into two boats and headed out to Isla Coiba, about an hour’s boat ride away from Santa Catalina, early the next morning.  Though I haven’t actually been diving in the ocean before (I was certified in the quarries of East Tennessee), even I feel pretty confident in saying that the diving in Coiba was incredible.  We swam through schools of hundreds of beautiful tropical fish, watched sting rays jump into the air, came within a few feet of peaceful sleeping sharks (small enough to be okay with me), and even found a seahorse bouncing around some coral! 

Even though my group didn’t actually get to see the whale sharks, we all had a great time and I would still highly recommend the area to both snorkelers and SCUBA divers, regardless of whether you can plan your trip around whale shark season J

Transportation to Santa Catalina 

Ideally, you’ll want to get a bus to Sona, Veraguas.  If you’re coming from Bocas though, you’ll need to take a bus to Santiago and then catch a Sona bus from there.  They leave about once an hour.  After arriving in Sona, walk to the Santa Catalina bus terminal (about 5 minutes down the road) and take the 4x daily two-hour bus to Santa Catalina.  The last bus leaves before 5, so make sure not to miss it!  Over all, the trip costs less than $5 each way. 

Diving around Isla Coiba

The good diving is all situated around Isla Coiba, about an hour’s boat ride away, so if you’re interested in going, you’ll definitely need to go through a diving company.  We went with Coiba Dive Center and were very happy with our trip.  Count on paying ~$150 for a 3 tank dive, all rentals and transportation from Santa Catalina included.