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?