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.  

Friday, June 5, 2015

Meet the Gente

I’ve spent almost two years blogging about my experience in Panama, and I realized that I’ve yet to dedicate a blog post to all of the people that have made my experience what it is.  So with this post, I want to introduce you to some of the people that live in my little corner of Panama- my gente. 


Diana is a wife and mother of three beautiful, talented, and smart girls.  Her oldest two have won the award for being at the top of their class each year, and it’s not hard to see who they get their drive from.  Serving as the Treasurer for our town’s agricultural group, Diana is a community leader in a culture that hasn’t historically valued women in that sense.  When she was one of only two women in a group of 25 to attend a Peace Corps workshop on project management and leadership, another volunteer asked what gave her the encouragement to do so.  Her reply has become one of my favorite Peace Corps anecdotes- she attended a Peace Corps youth leadership camp as a teenager! 


Lirisnel, or simply “niña,” as she’s usually addressed, is my most frequent visitor and one of Massy’s best friends.  She loves animals, rough-housing with her 3 brothers, and telling me stories that may or may not be true.  For another dose of cuteness from my favorite neighbor, you can see her short cameo in my house tour video.


My baking buddy, Lucia, is a mom of three and one of the only women to take what we’ve learned in our baking and business classes and put it to use.  She recently told me that she’s started making the 4-hour round-trip commute to the nearest University each weekend so that she can finish her degree.   As if that didn’t make me proud enough, she finished the story by telling me that the money she earns by selling cakes and cookies to her fellow students pays for her transport each weekend!

Walter and Nereyda

One of my favorite couples in site, Walter and Nereyda are my age and are hardworking and determined to give their two sons a better life.  When they heard that the people I was planning on bringing to an agribusiness seminar dropped out last minute, they made plans to go with me the very next day.  Not only did they actually attend and participate, now they’re always asking me about potential projects and business advice.  When Walter’s not around, I love to joke with Nereyda about how much I don’t know about having a family, and though she laughs at my complete lack of childcare/household running knowledge, she likes to give me advice for my future.   She may be young, but that girl knows what she’s talking about!


As my host family's granddaughter, Adelaida was by my side constantly throughout my first few month in site.  Sometimes she wouldn't even go back home to her own house next door in favor of spending the night with me- after she washed my hair while I was trying to bathe in the creek that is. Though it was occasionally a little trying to never have a moment alone, I came to love Adelaida like a little sister and miss her terribly now that she's moved to another village.  She's visited me a few times though, and we're trying to make plans for me to visit her soon too! 


Until a formal ceremony on his second birthday, I didn’t even know that Chuber’s real name is Virgilio.  Definitely more “Chuber” to me, this little guy is about the only other person in site with a sweet tooth to match my own.  Whenever I visit his house his response is always the same: “GELI! Dulce! Tienes dulce?” Which is, “GELI!  Dessert!  Do you have dessert?”


Since Milsa spent my first year helping her daughter care for her new baby about an hour away, I didn’t get to know her until what feels like recently.  When I visit her (not often enough, in her opinion) she loves to show me her newest sewing projects and never hesitates to make sure I have plenty to eat.  So, it’s not hard to see why I consider her one of my in-site grandmas.


My closest neighbor (and father of Lirisnel, Nata, and Einar) doesn’t visit my house very frequently, but I can count on him stopping by within a few hours of any guest arriving.  Because of him, I’ve been able to see my community in a whole new light; He loves our town and sharing it with other people and never hesitates to offer tours to the various points of interest: waterfalls, pretty views, animal searches… Last week he even took me on a camping trip!

Pedro and Chavela (and family)

As my unofficial in-site grandparents, Pedro and Chavela are happy to sit and chat with me as often as I want to visit.  After apologizing for the lack of tasty food, they usually send one of their sons or grandsons out to chop down a fresh coconut for me to drink- one of my favorite snacks!  As Christian leaders in the community, they’ve taken the time to pray for me (after every visit) and occasionally help me with a Spanish Bible study.  This sweet family even volunteered to host the new volunteer during his/her first few months in site- quite lucky if you ask me!


Back when I was a new Peace Corps volunteer, starving for honest friendship and just plain starving in general (I was almost 20 pounds lighter than I am currently… more on that later), Virgina and her sister in law, Veronica, were some of the first people to take me in and really make me feel like I belong here.  Once, when I admitted that I was sad and missing my family, she told all of her children to start referring to me as “Tia,” “Aunt,” and it’s stuck ever since!

Juana and Mauricio

At the very beginning of my service, I was told by a community member that there were a few houses I should not visit because they hold very tightly to their indigenous roots and thus refuse to speak Spanish or engage with outsiders.  Juana and Mauricio were one of those families, and because I trust the person that advised me, I only visited them once until a few weeks ago when their daughter asked me to come and take a family photo for them.  Not expecting much, I expected to take the photo and leave.  Unaware of my prior assumptions, they obviously had to surprise me.  Though my Ngäbere is quite basic, it was better than the few words of Spanish they spoke, so we got by with laughs and tons of hand gestures in which they told me that I should be their granddaughter (from Juana) and that I should be his woman (Mauricio).  The most precious part of the afternoon was watching how they interacted with each other- despite 40+ years of being together, the wife couldn’t get over how good looking her husband was in the photos!


My landlord, Solomon, works on the Chiquita banana plantations about 2 hours away from our community and thus only gets to travel home sporadically.  Even on the few days he has off, he’s still working- painting and improving my house and devising his ever-present idea for bringing tourism into our community.  We’re not there yet, and likely years away from that even being a possibility, but for the time being, I’m happy to savor this place as my home and these people as my friends, neighbors, and family.