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.